These are exciting times to make music. Music technology has exploded in recent years, giving rise to an incredible ecosystem of tools and techniques that empower users to create stunningly rich and sophisticated works of sonic art with total freedom, allowing them to realise their musical dreams with utmost detail. Here’s a basic guide to the most popular tools for music production being used by computer based musicians and producers all over the world.
Loops & Samples
Loops and samples are the most basic and straightforward tool for music production, and therefore, the most convenient and suitable for beginners. Anyone can start making music right away with samples by simply dragging them into a DAW. Combining loops and samples in a computer is a fun and intuitive way of making music that takes away most of the guesswork involved in more advanced methods of music making. Samples are also heavily used among advanced beat makers and finger drummers, constituting the raw material that fuels drum machines and hardware workstations such as Maschine, Push or Akai Force.
Once you get comfortable with loops and samples and start to feel the need to dig deeper and gain more control over your music, it’s time to start getting involved with virtual instruments. Virtual instruments are software modules capable of generating all sorts of musical parts and sound effects in a precise and highly controlled manner through MIDI instructions. These instruments include faithful emulations of many known analog and acoustic instruments, as well as completely novel and innovative units that focus more on the strengths of interactive graphical interfaces.
In order to use virtual instruments is necessary to use MIDI, a digital protocol that enables communication and synchronization between computers and electronic instruments.
MIDI doesn't generate sound by itself, but rather gives electronic and virtual instruments precise musical instructions regarding notes, rhythm and dynamics.
We can use MIDI to control every aspect of a musical part including rhythm, harmony, timbre and dynamics, in a fast, precise and straightforward manner, allowing us to change any aspect of a musical part at its most fundamental level, instead of trying to fix it after the fact with costly and artificially sounding processors and computer algorithms.
But as great as all this sounds, the downside of MIDI is a steep learning curve that can involve years of music theory and piano practice. It’s for this reason that commercial MIDI Loops exist; they provide an easy and inexpensive way of starting out with MIDI without having to go through all the training and study required to create MIDI from scratch.
Sounds & Presets
Sound design is another specialised skill that only experienced producers possess. It involves lots of knowledge on advanced topics such as physics of sound, audio synthesis and digital signal processing, as well as years of practice. Through sound design, producers elaborate sounds and presets, another two major components in the functioning and use of virtual instruments. Some instruments, such as samplers use sound recordings of physical instruments such as pianos, guitars or analog synthesizers as a basis to generate new sounds, whereas other instruments like virtual synthesizers rely on sets of settings called presets to store and share collections of predefined sounds. As with MIDI, sound design takes years of study and practice, as well as expensive gear to master, so there’s a big market of commercial sounds and presets available for users who lack the time, money or expertise to do it themselves.
Construction Kits are packages of related music production tools such as loops and samples, MIDI files and presets, that can be put together to produce complete tracks in a much faster way. They take the hassle out of music making allowing users to go straight to the arrangement and mixing stages of the entire process without having to do it all from scratch. Construction Kits are also excellent educational tools that give students a direct insight on preliminary stages of music production such as sound design and MIDI writing through exposure to the main building blocks of computer based music. These kits are an extraordinary and quick entry point for amateur producers and newcomers eager to start getting things done without having to go through years of theory, as well as a fun tool for more seasoned producers seeking to expand their music portfolios in a more agile manner.
As we have seen, there is a vast array of options when it comes to acquiring digital assets for music production. These tools include loops and samples, MIDI files, virtual instruments and presets, which provide the foundational building blocks of computer based music. These elements can also be found in complete packages called Construction Kits that have the advantage of ensuring total compatibility and coherence between the different parts.