Friday, 7 October 2011

Make Music at Home: How to Make Sounds

Make Music at Home: How to Make Sounds
How to get sounds into your DAW, and how to get sounds back out of your DAW, and out through your speakers or headphones

You have downloaded and installed your DAW.
This is the exciting first step in your journey of learning to create music.

Now, you need to tell your DAW to use your soundcard so that, once you have sounds, you will be able to hear them coming from your computer.   

After this, you can download, install and start using sounds.  These simple steps are explained in this tutorial.

Part 1: Your Soundcard, or, 'So, how do sounds come out of my computer anyway?'

Note: This part assumes that you have not downloaded and installed ASIO4ALL.  If you have, please go straight to 'Part 2: I Wanna Play!'.

Note: 'Soundcard' below refers to your computer's internal soundcard, ie, the one that comes in the computer already.  For external soundcards, which you are likely to want once you have been making music on your computer for a little while, check out my experience with the Lexicon Alpha external soundcard, an affordable and popular external soundcard, here.

'Here's the Science Part': The role of the soundcard in computer music making

Your soundcard works as the liason between 'external' sources (your microphone / musical instruments) and your DAW when playing and / or recording an instrument:

Mic / Musical instrument > Soundcard > DAW > Sound file / item / recording

It also works the other way round, as the liason between 'internal' sources (in your computer) and your speakers / headphones during playback.

Sound file / item / recording > DAW > Soundcard > Speakers / Headphones

Whilst I've previously mentioned the probability of needing to upgrade to an external, more professional, soundcard sooner or later, your onboard one will suffice for the time being.

Introducing your DAW to your soundcard

Assuming that you are working in a PC and are using REAPER as your DAW, please do the following.  Visit:  

Start > Windows Control Panel > Sounds and Audio Devices > Audio 

Ensure your soundcard (e.g. Realtek HD) is shown as default on 'Sound Playback' and 'Sound Recording'.

Next, go into REAPER and on the tool bar at the top, visit:

Options > Preferences > Audio > Device

Using the drop down function, ensure that your Audio System and Audio Driver match your soundcard settings in your control panel.

The fastest way to test if your settings work is: 
  1. Select the metronome tab just under the word track in the tool bar.
  2. Hit play on the transport bar.  
  3. If you hear a rhythmical tick or a beep, congratulations, you now have sound in REAPER.  
  4. A word of warning: the metronome tick is defaulted to a high volume which has left my ears ringing on more than one occasion - especially when wearing headphones.  You can turn the metronome down by right clicking on it and pulling the volume slider down.
Part 2: I Wanna Play! The soundcard works, where are the instruments and samples?

Some higher priced DAWs come fully bundled with hundreds of sexy instruments for you to act all 'kid in a candy store' with.  However, if you've just installed REAPER, got your soundcard set up nicely and clicked on Insert > Virtual Instrument on New Track, you'll probably be thinking ' that it?'.  

Fret not.  As I have said before, what it lacks in 'in the box' instruments and sounds, REAPER makes up for a hundred times over in power, useability, it's absolute bargain of a license price and - most importantly for now - just how easily it hosts third party plugins and samples.

VSTs and VSTis

Developed by Steinberg, the company behind the massively popular Cubase series, VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.  VSTs are plugins. Plugins are small pieces of software which sit inside a larger piece of software to provide a specific function.  

VSTs provide effects, such as reverb, compression, etc, whereby VSTis are virtual instruments such as 'soft' (software) synths, guitars, drum machines and 'soft samplers'.  People, including me, often shorten the term VSTis into VSTs.  If a product is called, for instance, 'Piano VST' it is safe to say it will be a VSTi.  

Hits and Loops: Making your own music through samples

Hits are small pieces of pre-recorded music, often of just one note or drum hit ('one shots').  Loops are longer stretches of music.  Both hits and loops come in formats such as WAV and you can edit, arrange and sequence them as you wish inside your DAW's project file.

VSTis vs Samples  
      So, which are better?  Well, I think the best approach would be to use both to your advantage.

      There are millions of VSTs, samples and sample packs to download and many professional companies offer free VSTs and sample taster packs for you to use as you choose.  

      Many VSTi's come chock - full of multiple presets.  For example, DSK's Overture VSTi comes with 40 classical instruments to quickly scroll through, from timpani drums to string sections. In addition, VSTi's tend to have ADSR envelopes built in to help you manipulate the preset sounds to your heart's content.  On the downside, however, VSTi's create sounds through mathmatical equations which emulate the sounds of a 'real' recording.  Sooner or later your computer will struggle if you use too many VSTis at the same time or if a particular VSTi is CPU hungry.  In addition, some of these emulations can be unrealistic.    

      Samples and loops have the advantage that a real musician has played the instrument.  There's a human swing to the loop, a variation in how hard they've hit the drums, the keys, the strings.  If you are making a track which is not relying solely on electronic sounds, samples will make the live elements sound more real because they are more real.  Also, when using samples, your computer is just playing a small snippet of music.  It is not doing the hard, fast mathematics it has to do when you are playing VSTi's.  Your computer will happily play far more samples at the same time than it will VSTi's.  The disadvantages of samples are that they are more difficult, sometimes impossible, to manipulate.  You might love that drum beat, but don't like how the cymbal crash 'bleeds' into the next kick drum - good luck trying to remedy it.  In addition, loading and reloading sets of one hits into your multisampler by clicking and dragging can become time consuming.

      Experiment with different VSTis and samples.  You love the sounds on a particular power hungry VSTi?  Try rendering your favourite notes or chords as WAV Lossless files - that way, you get the sounds you love and the benefits of using a WAV sample.  You've spent hours trawling through a thousand drum hits to find 16 sounds that you adore?  Great, save them as a preset so they are there at the click of a mouse next time you want them.       
      Go check out the 'Freeware' section and get yourself some free VSTi's and samples!     

      Recommended Reading: 'Home Recording for Beginners' by Geoffrey Francis, is the perfect introduction to making music at home.

      If you are looking for a book which teaches you the basic fundamentals of home recording, I highly recommend, 'Home Recording for Beginners' by Geoffrey Francis.   

      The book takes you through everything you could possibly need to know when starting out: from the basics of how a computer and a soundcard work, to how music is recorded digitally in your computer; from installing the REAPER DAW, to recording and editing sounds; and all the way through to rendering a completed track and beyond.  

      The perfect introduction to both music recording and working within REAPER, 'Home Recording for Beginners' can be bought here.

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