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Producing Natural-Sounding MIDI Notes

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

When making electronically-produced music, you’ll find yourself often programming notes rather than playing them. People who don’t understand the medium will say that this makes the music cold, mechanical and lifeless, but they simply don’t understand the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes into manually arranging notes. A composer needs to take into account very precise attributes of every note of every measure of every part they program. This can be very daunting. When I write melodies that are more complex than I can feasibly play, I’ll use Cubase’s piano-roll style grid to place notes, and then I’ll let the computer play them. In the early days, this usually meant that the notes sounded harsh and machine-like. How do I fix this? How can I make MIDI-generated tones sound more natural to the listener?

Well, I thought, human hands are not machines. We don’t hit every note on precisely the right beat, right? After placing my notes, I would nudge them just slightly out of sync with the rhythm. Hopefully this would be the subtle change needed to make the music sound more organic. Right?

As it turns out, the hands of a trained musician actually have excellent rhythm; better than you would ever expect. Once I’d learned to play piano with some moderate skill I found that my own notes pretty much hit precisely on the beat when needed. My nudging of the MIDI tracks only served to make my melodies sound amateur and unrefined.

No, the key to lifelike melodies, I found, is in the velocity of the notes played. With some exceptions, almost all of your machine-played notes can be placed in perfect sync as long as they have heavily varied velocities. Velocity, in this case, means how hard the note is played. Think of the difference between a piano being played softly and a piano being played loudly and you’ll know what I mean.
I could spend several paragraphs describing the method to you, but I’ll let this picture do most of the talking:

As you can see in this very generic guide, the odd-numbered notes are louder, while the even ones are quieter. You can also see that there’s a more subtle pattern of general volume change: The smaller the note (8th, 16th, 32nd etc.) the more likely it will be relatively quiet when it is not on the main beats of a measure.

When making a melody, I will start with this pattern and then adjust it according to what I want it to sound like for that particular part. Following this pattern works particularly well for complex melodies with many notes.

If you simply follow that chart to the letter, your melody will still have a machine-like quality to it. It’s best to arrange your velocities in this pattern and then adjust everything a little afterward, putting emphasis on certain notes for dramatic effect. This particular chart, for example, is clearly skewed towards something that emphasizes beats on 1 and 3, which you don’t alway want. Try adding a little randomness too and see how it comes out. The beauty of MIDI-generated music is that if you don’t like it, you can endlessly tweak it until it sounds perfect.

Do you have any cool techniques for MIDI melodies?

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Weekly Music Writing – Like lifting weights made of creativity

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

A while back I wrote about writing music constantly in order to build your skills and flex your creativity. I’ve been making music for several years now and my biggest project had been a 16 track score for a tragically unreleased computer game, which I finished in about 6 months. This was a great exercise, but afterward I got somewhat lazy. I was still producing music and getting better all the time, but unfortunately at a very slow rate.

It was roughly two months ago when I had completed a song in the studio that took me about a week to make when I realized ‘You know, I should really be finishing a song every week.’That’s when I decided to start my project.

I call it the Jupiterman Weekly Song-A-Thon. I’m writing and producing a new piece of music every week for three months. This means by the end of it I’ll have twelve tracks, and so far I’ve completed nine. There are no requirements in the project other than finishing each song by Friday. The songs can be any length and any genre. In the 9 songs that I’ve already made, I’ve done electronica, jazz, solo piano, cinematic, ambient, and… er, harpsichord rock (kind of a failed experiment. It was a rough week.)

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way so far:

1. There are ways around writer’s block. Usually by Friday when I’m finishing up a new song I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to do for the next week and I may even start working on the next song immediately after finishing. This isn’t always the case, however. There have been a couple of weeks when I’ve started without any clue what I was doing and nothing I try seems to click with me. It can be very frustrating. This is not the end, however! I’ve somehow managed to deliver a song every week regardless. How?

Well, one week I simply couldn’t get much time to work on anything. Instead of just giving up, however, I dug around through my hard drive and dredged up an older song that I had been working on several months before. I hadn’t been too happy with it, but in the few hours that I had that day I polished it up and finished it off in time to release it that afternoon. I became much more satisfied with it.

Another week was truly a case of writer’s block. Friday came around and I still had nothing, despite having spent a lot of time in the studio previously that week. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then I remembered I had a piano piece that I had written as a sort of chord exercise for myself almost a year ago. I only played it on my keyboard in my bedroom and never really considered recording it. Until now, that is. Despite it starting out as an exercise, it was musically sound, had an interesting chord progression, had some real emotional power and I could play it fairly competently. Problem solved! I recorded it, tweaked it, and had it done in less than two hours.

Writer’s block will most likely hit you sometimes, but there are creative ways to get around it. You can also try doing something completely off the wall, if you have no ideas left. This is how you get stuff like harpsichord rock; not the best thing ever, but something different, at least.

2. I have a style/formula and I have certain limitations.
I’ve always kept this idealized vision of myself as a composer who is genre-less who can write a competent piece of music in any style imaginable. This project has shown me the reality of myself as a composer. There are certain genres that I gravitate towards, like electronica, and others that I struggle with, like rock or symphonic. I really want to make another rock song after the success of Mighty Surf Wizard Battle, but I have a hard time mixing electric guitar sounds and coming up with chords to make up the verse and chorus sections. I have an easier time with symphonic works, but again, chords (my arch-nemeses) are difficult. The real problem with symphonic, however, lies in the technical limitations of my own studio.

I also have a very specific way of putting chords and, indeed, whole songs together. I tend to have chord changes occur every measure, but almost never more frequently. This can be very limiting.

None of the problems I’ve mentioned here are insurmountable. They are not intrinsic aspects of my or anyone’s character. There more learned about music and more practice one gets, the better their work becomes.

3. Time constraints will give you perspective. Since I’m not living in a mansion built out of solid gold BMW’s, I have to work at a job like everyone else. My particular job, thankfully, affords me some flexibility to work on other endeavors. Still, work, social obligations, self-education and writing for multiple websites take up a lot of my time, and I’m sure you can relate. With all of this in mind, I set aside around 8 to 16 hours of my free time each week to work on my music. This is certainly not enough time to create a masterpiece, but it is enough to put together a well-made 2 to 3 minute song.

Having such a time constraint will force you to know and understand what is most important in the music you’re composing. There are many things I could tweak on each piece that I write; making sure every last drum beat and portamento swing is absolutely perfect, but I simply don’t have enough time. Instead I focus on making sure it’s a finished product that has some emotional weight and is produced well. When you write all the time, you get more efficient. Little technical things that you struggled with before and would take up so much of your time will eventually fade away as you become more competent at them or you find a more efficient way of doing things. You’ll learn to produce quality on your first try, rather than your third, simply because you’ll have no choice.

4. Forcing yourself to make music is incredibly rewarding.
This project has been great fun and I’ve learned a ton from doing it. It has even given me a lot of ideas for things to do after the project is over. I’m thinking of doing a pure electro-jazz album in the style of my third song in the project. I want to do some collaborations with a few of my friends. I’ve now proven to myself that I can make quality music quickly and efficiently, so there’s no hesitation or wariness about getting started on a new project.

I urge you, fellow makeshift musician, to start your own Song-A-Thon. It doesn’t matter if all you have is a guitar and a tape recorder, just give it a try. Maybe bring some other musicians in to help. By the end of it you’ll have a sweet album to give away or sell. It could just be the best thing you’ve ever done for your music writing career.

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Microphones, Cables and Everything Else in Your Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is the final part of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

So, you’ve got your room for your studio, you’ve set up your computer, hooked up your audio interface and installed your recording software. What’s next? Actually, a lot of stuff.


Unless you’re an all-software kind of musician, you need a microphone or two. Entire books have been written on the subject of microphones and how they are used in different situations; it’s a very large field. You can get specialized mics for any instrument you can think of for thousands of dollars and often they are purchased in pairs. If you’re like me, though, and I know I am, you don’t have those kinds of resources. I’ll try to point you to some general-purpose mics instead.

AKG Perception 120 – This is the one I use in my studio. It’s a good general purpose mic that has a very crisp sound. It comes in a nice case with a shock mount. It usually goes for around $120.

Shure SM57 – This is a classic mic that has been in use for something like 30 years. It generally goes for $70 to $100. It works great for guitar amps and drum kits, (just don’t put it too close to the kick drum; that’ll be too much for it) and if you get a decent preamp, it works pretty well for vocals too.

Wait, what is a preamp? What a great question! A good microphone needs power to sound good. Some microphones can work with very little power but they’re not very sensitive, i.e. your computer microphone that comes with your webcam. The more power your microphone has, the better your overall recording quality will be. A preamp’s job is to provide power to your microphone, which your mixer or audio interface may not be able to do. My M-Audio FireWire 1814 audio interface also acts as a preamp, but I’m thinking about picking up a separate one.

Don’t forget to check out my article How Microphones Work.


You should get cables for each device you have. Don’t scrimp here. A cable for each microphone you have, two 1/4 inch cables for each synthesizer or drum machine you have. Also, you may be tempted, as I was, to get shorter cables to save money. This really isn’t a good idea. 3-foot cables are almost useless unless your device sits right on top of your audio interface. Get at least 6-foot cables for everything. You might consider getting a particularly long mic cable, as you never know how you might set up a mic and you may need some extra length to accommodate.

Everything Else

There are lots of other items you’ll most likely want to round out your studio and make it more usable.

Mic stand – If you have a microphone, you want a mic stand as well. What, are you going to hire someone to hold the mic in front of the guitarist while he plays?

Stools/chairs – A musician needs to sit on something while they play, especially during long recording sessions. Simple, cheap stools or chairs do the trick.

Instrument stands – for putting guitars and such on between records. A rack could work pretty well also.

Vocal booth – If the room for your studio has a closet, this is a great opportunity to turn that into a vocal booth. You often want an intimate sound when recording vocals, and even in a padded studio room a voice can sound echoey in recordings. This is why professionals have separate recording booths. If you don’t have a closet, try to find some other way to isolate a singer as best you can. Always experiment!

Mini-fridge/food – Long studio sessions can lead to hunger. Always keep musicians happy and fed.

Couch – for lounging. ‘Nuff said.

Now get in there and start making some music. Let me know how it goes!

Go to part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

>>> Go back to the index

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Audio Recording Software for Your Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is Part 4 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

We’re now down to the last big component of your beast of a studio. To add this last piece, we need to dive into the prickly, sometimes confusing realm of software. Luckily for you, though, there are a lot of easy options to work with.

What does the software do? In the old days of recording, I’m talking, say, pre-Beatles era, audio-guys would just stick a microphone in front of a preforming band. The band would play, the mic would record onto a big reel of tape, and the audio-guy would call it a day and presumably get trashed afterward. Now, we’ve all listened to those old recordings and, well, they’ve got personality, but overall they sound pretty bad.

There’s a misconception among folks that modern stuff sounds great in comparison because our space-age microphones and recording media are simply better, but that’s actually only a very small part of the reason. Most engineers can’t even tell the difference between a well-built microphone from the 1930’s and a well built microphone just off the assembly-line.

The real reason modern recordings sound so good is because of the multitrack recording technique. Essentially multitracking allows you to record and synchronize multiple tracks at the same time, drums on one track, guitar on another and your vocals on a third, for example. You can add effects and edit each of these tracks without affecting the others or destroying or really even changing the original audio, allowing you free reign to tweak the sound until it’s perfect. Since the edits you make are on top of the audio in a separate layer instead ofintegrated into it, if you mess up you don’t need to rerecord — you just take off the edit and you still have your pristine file. For a more in-depth explanation of how it works, read my very first article: An Introduction to Multitrack Recording. Back yet? Okay, now we can delve into software.

There are several options at your disposal and in fact some of them happen to be free of charge. Lets take a look at the free ones first.

GarageBand – If you’re using an Apple computer for your studio, then, lucky you, you’ve already got software built-in. Professionals may scoff at it, but GarageBand is a true, honest-to-god multitrack system, that you can use to record real stuff. Like all Apple products, it’s easy to use. This would be a great place to start, and it won’t cost you a dime if you’ve already got a Mac.

Kristal – Another free bit of software, Kristal is so good they could charge $100 for it and people would be willing to pay it. 16 audio tracks, effects built in. VST support. This has everything. If you’re just starting out, get this first. You can’t beat free.

Those are the nice free ones, and are probably good enough for anything you might need. If you really want to go pro, however, then following is the studio software that’ll take big chunks out of your wallet. Keep in mind, all these are competing with each other for your business, but really, ask any professional and they’ll tell you they all do the same thing. The important thing is that you take the time to learn to use your software effectively.

DigiDesign ProTools – ProTools is usually the software choice for professionals. You can get the LE version for around $150. The high-end, HD version is much more, but seriously, you probably won’t need it. The nice thing about ProTools is that there’s a lot of specialized hardware, like mixing consoles and audio interfaces, that can accompany the software seamlessly. DigiDesign has built a whole, unified system around ProTools and supports it really well. I’ve used it some, and I believe it is geared more towards traditional studio recording, so it may have just slightly less support for purely electronic and MIDI setups.

Steinberg Cubase – This here is my software of choice. Steinberg invented the VST (Virtual Studio Technology) system, which is a platform, of sorts, for developers to create new systems that ‘plug in’ to Cubase, so you can add things like new effects processors or synthesizers. It has been so successful that other companies have added VST support to their systems. Anyway, Cubase is more geared towards electronic setups, but it can handle pure acoustic recording just fine, as I’ve used it for both. Cubase Studio 5, the current lower end version, goes for $299, which is pretty pricey.

Cakewalk Sonar – To be honest I don’t know a whole lot about Cakewalk, and their product line is a little convoluted, but I know there are some artists that swear by it. The Home Studio version goes for a paltry (by comparison) $100, so it may be the most cost-effective of the bunch.

Remember to approach your software as you would an instrument: This is something you need to practice with and learn the intricacies of before you can really be effective with it. Find tutorials online and record and experiment as much as you can.

You’ll most likely be overwhelmed by all the stuff onscreen when you boot up your software of choice for the first time. Here are some items to help get you oriented:

1. Find out how to get your Audio Interface talking to your Software. This is the first thing you need to do. You want to be able to hook up a microphone and start recording, so make sure it actually works when you do it. Go through the manuals for both products, and if all else fails ask the internet: search for both items in a single query on Google.

2. Figure out how to make new tracks. Also, each track has a ‘recording input.’ This is how it decides where it gets it’s sound, be it from the microphone or the synthesizer or the bass guitar. Find out how to set this.

3. Automation. It’s generally fairly simple to see how to change the volume of a track manually, but what you really want is to have the volume change throughout the song automatically, such as when an instrument fades out. This is usually called automation. Automation can cover other things too, like panning the sound left and right, or mixing effect levels.

4. Find the keyboard shortcuts. I can’t emphasize this enough. Learn the keyboard commands! They will make your life easier.

5. Learn how to use Equalization and Effects. Equalization (EQ) is your best friend. You can use it to cut or boost, with great precision, any range of frequencies in your individual audio tracks. You do this so that you can fit lots of different sounds together without it all sounding like mud. Fiddle around with EQ a lot to learn how it works. Also experiment with effects as much as you can.

Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or How to Get Sound into the Computer

>>> Go to Part 5: What Speakers Should I Get?

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Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound into Your Computer

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is Part 3 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Now that you’ve got a computer, it’s entirely possible that you’re now standing in front of it with your guitar or piano or whatever, your eyes slowly moving back and forth between the two objects in a confused manner, wondering how to get sound into machine. At least, that’s what I did.

You see, computers don’t normally come with a usable audio interface. Sure, you’ve got a sound card, and it probably has a tiny microphone jack, but you’re not actually thinking of using that, are you? Are you??

So what is an audio interface? It’s a box that hooks up to your computer, usually through FireWire (you did remember to get a computer that has FireWire capability, right?) On this box is a number of inputs, for taking in sound, and outputs for, uh, outputting sound. I’ve made a little diagram to show you how it all works. This is to give you an idea of roughly how your studio should be set up:

Click on the image to see it full-size.
Now here are the different components that you want to look for in an audio interface:

Mic inputs

What can I say? These are for your microphones. If you do any acoustic stuff (guitars, drums, vocals, sound effects etc.) your audio interfac e should have at least two of these inputs on it. If you’re recording a whole band, you’ll want as many mic inputs as possible.

1/4-inch Line inputs
These are for bass guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, turntables or anything electronic. If you’ve got a rack full of synths, you’ll want more of these.

MIDI inputs

It’s hard to find an audio interface that doesn’t have MIDI inputs and outputs, but make sure yours has these anyway, especially if you’re planning an all-software electronic setup.

With all this in mind, here are a few interfaces I found with a little digging on

PreSonus Inspire 1394 – This has two 1/4-inch inputs and two mic inputs for $200. No MIDI though.

Roland Edirol FA-66 – Now we’re talkin’. 2 mic inputs, 4 1/4-inch inputs, RCA inputs (you know, those red-and-white cables on your DVD player?) MIDI in and out, this one looks pretty sweet. Not bad for $280.

Alesis iO|26 – If you’ve got a larger studio setup, or you just want to get fancy, this has more inputs than you’ll ever need, plus you can use it to control your software. $430.

In my studio, I use an M-Audio FireWire 1814 , though these seem to be increasingly hard to find these days. It has eight 1/4-inch inputs, two mic inputs, MIDI and some other nice features. When it works, it works well, but it tends to crash a lot. Remember to do a lot of research before plunking down your cash for one of these devices. You can find reviews for just about any product by typing in the product name followed by the word ‘review’ on Google.

Hopefully, this can get you started with choosing an interface. What you get depends on your needs as a musician and recording artist. For example, I have more synths and workstations, so my interface has more 1/4-inch inputs. Some of you might have an all software setup, so you may only need midi inputs, in which case you’ll be spending very little on hardware and spending more on software.

Speaking of software, that’s our next issue to tackle. See you next week!

Go to Part 2: Get a Computer for Your Studio

>>> Go to Part 4: Audio Software

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The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

So you have a great band or you’re a composer and you really want to make a sweet album yourself, but you don’t know where to start? How does someone even record music? How does one go about putting together a studio? Don’t you need to go to school for that kind of thing?

Fear not, gentle reader. Like the majestic albatross, I swoop down from the heavens and bestow upon you the greatest tool you’ll ever receive, The Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

My article Make Your Own Recording Studio is the most popular piece on this site. I’ve always felt like it was a bit short and lacking, so I really wanted to make something, well, more comprehensive and valuable. I hope this guide can help you make the whole process of home recording a little less daunting and mysterious and more fun.

Remember that there are roughly 5 million different ways to build a studio, and what I’m telling you covers just one way. The studio I’ve built for myself is a pretty good general purpose setup that is also highly portable and easily changeable, and that’s about what you’ll see in this guide.

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Get a Computer For Your Studio

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

This is Part 2 of the Makeshift Musician’s Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Own Studio.

The computer is the most important part of your studio. It is the brain, the place where all the audio and data crunching happens. You can make a studio without one, using a dedicated mixing console, but I find it more useful and intuitive to just use a computer. You can use it for not only recording, but also mastering and manipulating your files.
So what do you look for in a computer? The general rule of thumb is the more powerful, the better. You need RAM to manipulate multiple audio tracks at the same time; essential for multitrack studios. You need hard drive space to store all these recorded tracks. Again, that is essential. You need a speedy CPU so you can actually hear the audio while you’re editing it, without delays. Jeez, it’s starting to sound like you simply need the most expensive machine available, doesn’t it?
Here’s the thing though. If you have a computer that was built in the last few years, then it can probably work with multitrack software, and you can use it for your studio, just fine. You don’t absolutely need the most powerful system money can buy. Computer makers prey on people’s desire to own the best product and will release new systems every few months to maximize their profits. You don’t need to give in to their pressure. As long as you have a system that works fine for you, you have no need to upgrade. Wrap that thing in duct tape and write “NO UPGRADES EVER” on it . That’ll keep it working for years.
I’m reluctant to write down precisely what you should get since standards do change over time and will potentially make this article out of date. It is good to have a reference though, so I’ll put the minimum that you should have in order to have a seamless, trouble free experience. Hopefully, if you’re an advanced space-musician from the future, my writing will help you get the gist of what you should get for your Infini-core DNA Supercomputer even if the numbers I list seem laughably out of date.
  • CPU: Get something 1.5 Ghz or faster. This may sound a bit low to gamers or graphic designers but the fact is people have done multitracking on computers since the 1980’s with much, much slower CPU’s than that. I’ve personally recorded professional-level audio using Cubase on machines that were 700 Mhz and 1.5 Ghz and it’s always worked without a hitch. This is the one area where you can afford to cut costs a little. Right now my iMac is a 2.4 Ghz. Not the fastest but it’s respectable.
  • RAM: Simply get as much as you can afford. Again, I’ve recorded with as low as 512 megs and it worked out alright. Each track you record and mix into a song uses a chunk of your RAM while you’re working on it. As you can imagine, it really starts to add up as you go and there is undeniably an upper limit to how many tracks you can have going at once. To guarantee a high number of tracks and a good comfort level for you, don’t go below 1 gigabyte.
  • Hard Drive: You’re going to be recording lots of audio, probably more than you realize right now, and you need a place to store it all. Get a big hard drive. Hard drives are relatively cheap these days, and a hundred dollars can get you pretty high capacity. Get two and use one to back up the other.
  • FireWire Port: Make sure your computer has a FireWire port or two. This will be necessary if you use an external device to plug in all your audio equipment. It will also be good if you use an external hard drive to backup your data.
Now, I’m going to break from my already feeble grasp of professionalism and give you some unofficial, personal, man-to-person advice, based on my experience. Get a Mac. I’ve used Windows-based PC’s for lots of things, including recording. They generally work fine, but man, nothing is easier to use than a Mac. They’re built for this kind of thing. You plug stuff into it and it works. A Mac works so well, in fact, that it is invisible. I never even have to think about it when I’m writing music or recording or backing up files or whatever. It’s like using a reliable appliance: you turn it on and forget about it. Though I can’t give up Windows on my sweet gaming rig, I’ll probably never go back to PC for recording.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with using a PC for recording. In some cases it may be better because any given piece of software is more likely to be written for Windows rather than Mac. And of course, PCs are cheap, and Apple has never understood the meaning of ‘affordable’, so that’s not in their favor either.

What about a display? When working with software like ProTools or Cubase it’s nice to have a big display with high resolution. A lot of data is displayed at once and can things go quicker when you don’t have to keep closing some windows to make room for others. Many studios employ a dual-monitor setup (or duel-monitor setup, if they’re badass.) For me, this is a luxury that I simply can’t afford at the moment. It’s nice, but not really necessary. Again, the general rule of thumb is the bigger the better, but even if you can only afford a 15-inch monitor, you’ll still get by.
So, you’ve got your sweet computer, now how should you take care of it once you set it up for your studio?
The setup: The computer keyboard should always be placed in a way that makes it readily accessible. This may sound obvious, but it’s always tempting, when working with limited space, to have your musical keyboard in front of you and push the computer keyboard to the side. This isn’t going to be like web browsing where you only need your mouse, however. You will want to learn all the keyboard commands, or better yet, set them yourself, so that you can operate this beast with maximum efficiency. I’ve used a studio setup where the keyboard was mostly out of reach, and without having every function at the push of a button it can be almost crippling.

Backups: If you’re the tech-savvy type, then you probably can come up with some sort of fancy automated system for regularly backing up your data. Even if you’re like the rest of us, however, you can still backup your files pretty easily. Whatever kind of operating system you choose, Mac or Windows, learn the basics of how the filesystem works: know how to create folders, copy files and move them around. You bought two hard drives, right? On a regular basis, copy all your important music files over to this second drive.

Now that you’ve got your computer, it’s time to start making some music on it. Check out the rest of the articles in the series, including getting an audio interface and software for your machine.

This is part 2 of the Studio Guide

Go to part 1: Do-It-Yourself Sound Dampening

>>> Go to part 3: Audio Interface, or, How to Get Sound Into Your Computer

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Anniversaganzathon! Free Music!

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Well, the Anniversaganzathon is over, and although I didn’t get as many submissions as I would’ve liked, the ones that I did get were pretty awesome. These are songs from regular folks like you or me, readers of The Makeshift Musician who wanted to make something cool. Click on the title of each song to download it.

First up we have Jettison Joe from California, with the, ahem, creatively titled Makeshift. He says:

“I composed this piece in four or five short sittings at the piano. I recorded it in Garage Band on my Powerbook laptop, which I connect to my Roland FP-7 keyboard with a normal USB cable. The only instrument sound used is Garage Band’s default Grand Piano.”

It’s a very fun piano piece with an absolutely awesome twist about two-thirds the way through the song. It totally changes the feel of the song without changing it’s spirit. Very clean overall, the piano sounds great, which shows you that you don’t need a studio full of professional equipment to make something sound good. GarageBand is truly a great tool for the Makeshift Musician. Thanks Joe!

Next up is my own piece. It’s surf rock mixed with 8-bit chip elements and it’s called Mighty Surf Wizard Battle, because wizard battles are totally sweet. I got the ‘acoustic’ instruments from my Yamaha Motif ES6 and the chip-sounding elements from my Novation XioSynth. I recorded it all in Cubase on a Mac and mastered it in WaveLab on a PC. It started out as a pure rock piece, but, as is the case with most of my songs, it didn’t stay that way for long. The chip elements were an experiment, but they sounded cool as a back-and-forth contrast to the acoustic elements so I decided to keep them in. Also, it’s quite a process to get an electronic guitar to sound realistic. I hope you enjoy it, dear reader; my credibility as a music writer is at stake.

Lastly, we have Jim Hickcox Heartbreaker from either Texas or Tennessee (?) with our only song with lyrics, titled Heartbreaker . In his writeup he weaves technical and personal issues into a classic tale of the troubles of a Makeshift Musician:

“When I saw that the Makeshift Musician was looking for submissions for the Anniversaganathon I decided immediately that I would make not only a pop song, but a second (perhaps less poppy) song using only free software. Two songs. That was my goal. Unfortunately, this goal could not have come at a worse time, as I was in the process of moving from Austin, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to my being in process, most of my instruments (including my midi controller) are in a guy’s garage in Los Angeles right now (remind me to take care of that, would you?). This leaves me with just what’s on my computer and a stunning lack of inspiration.

I have been into pop songs lately, so I wanted to go in that direction, even though I am a rapper by trade. My options for music were as follows: Pd, Max/MSP, Reason, or playing real instruments into either Garageband or Acid. My first attempt was to build a drum machine and synthesizer in Pd. I didn’t get very far. It’s hard. To just program in one song didn’t seem worth it. Perhaps I’ll get back to that. My next try was to program some drum beats in Reason, and then use Acid to record me playing an actual piano (the only instrument I have access to at the moment) and put them together. I kept getting pretty insipid results, though. I’m not a piano player, much though I may wish for it. I ended up working almost entirely in Reason. I had a new restriction this way, because I don’t have my midi keyboard I could only program melodies in Reason’s pattern sequencer, which is fine, but not awesome. Lucky for me, I have a thing for the basic chord playing features on your average fifteen dollar keyboard, so I emulated that. I took the (relatively minimal) track that I made and stuck it in Acid so I could record me singing on it. For whatever reason, I decided to record my singing slow so it would be high-pitched. Sometimes I do that. I also did the opposite, and if you listen closely you can hear what sounds like a retarded bear singing along in the background. I think I needed to do that to fight back against the crispness of the track.”

Seriously, this is a hilarious song. Is it just goofy or is it wry satire? It’s hard to say, but it’s great that he can pull something like this together against difficult odds, some of which he places against himself intentionally. Now I got that chorus stuck in my head.

Thanks for the submissions, guys. Here’s to another awesome year of making music any way we can!

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Be a Part of the Makeshift Musician’s Anniversary

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Originally Published January 2009

That’s right, reader. The Makeshift Musician has now been around for a year! It is now old enough to walk around clumsily and can eat mostly solid foods! I’ve written a little over 40 articles in the last 12 months, and some of my favorites turned out to be yours too, and some articles I’d just rather forget about. Anyway, for the anniversary I thought we would do something a little different. I present to you

The Makeshift Musician’s Music Anniversaganzathon!

I challenge you, reader, to make a song in ONE MONTH. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Just make it, put together a short writeup about how you made it and what equipment you used, and then send it to The Makeshift Musician via I’d prefer that you sent a link rather than the actual file, but do what you need to do. I’ll post the submissions on here for everyone to hear, along with the writeup and whatever lame comments I’d like to add myself.

I don’t care what genre the song is, or how you made it. You could take a Fischer-Price tape recorder and record yourself throwing plastic cups at your Grandma, as long as you did itmusicallyThe due date is February 7th. Also, it would be cooler if this song was something that you started after you read this post, but obviously I can’t regulate that.

Send your ridiculous, awesome, or ridiculously awesome song to by February 7th.

What are you waiting for? Why are you still reading this? There’s nothing left here of value. This sentence doesn’t tell you anything useful. Make some music!

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Learning Music Theory

Posted by makeshiftmusician on June 30, 2009

Hey folks, I hope you all had a good holiday. I went to Maine and discovered that I don’t necessarily enjoy snow as much as I thought I did. Shoveling snow out of a boat will do that to you. Anyway, onto the article!

Wait, what is music theory? I get this very question from a lot of folks. The phrase ‘music theory’ isn’t exactly self-explanatory. Let’s see if I can give it an understandable definition. When you study or practice music theory, you are breaking down music into it’s individual elements, defining them, fitting them together and seeing how they work. Pitch, melody, chords, notation, rhythm, notes, these are all different elements of music theory. By understanding every aspect of music and how all the pieces fit together, you can easily figure out how to make melodies and songs that will move the listener in the exact way you intended.

Why is that some songs sound sad? Or triumphant? Mysterious? How is that a song can build tension and release it? If you learn music theory, you will understand how all of that works, and you’ll know how to do it yourself when you write your own songs. Sure, some people can get away with not learning any of it formally. They have managed to figure it out intuitively. I’m not one of those people. For the most part, I can’t listen to a chord and be able to guess what notes it’s made out of, for example. At least, not yet. This is why I learn theory.

After you’ve gotten started playing your instrument of choice for a while, you’ve got a good base for learning theory, and you probably already know a lot of it already and don’t even realize it yet. I don’t recommend studying theory before you’ve played any music.

The first thing you should learn is how to read sheet music. This doesn’t necessarily have to come first, but it will make your life ten times easier, by my extensive calculations. Though youcould, theoretically, learn music theory without knowing how to read music on a staff, I don’t know of anyone who has. Theory is usually expressed using the staff. Learn what the staff is, how to read notes and rhythms and by the end of it you should be able to sight-read at least some really simple tunes. If you want to be a composer, then you should learn some piano too. I’ve covered that in a couple of other articles. By taking up piano you can get the triple-benefit of piano-playing skills, the ability to read sheet music, and some basic music theory all at once.

Now we get to the meat of this. While the Makeshift Musician usually recommends that you learn things on your own, perhaps in this case it might be good to get a lesson or two from someone else. Music theory is both complicated and abstract, like math or a language, so it can be difficult to learn without someone there to make things clear for you. You don’t have to get a Bachelor’s in Theory or anything, maybe just a couple of classes to get you started, or find a mentor to help you out. Check local colleges and adult education programs and see if they offer some sort of basic music theory course.

If, on the other hand, you’re like me and want to slog through it all by yourself, then I have a great book to recommend. In fact, I recommend it even if you are getting lessons:

Edly’s Music Theory for Practical People

This books starts from the basics and goes all the way through up to the most complicated chords and unusual concepts. It is taught in a clear, linear way (don’t you hate it when books tell you to skip ahead and back just to get everything?) It’s written in a conversational style so as to not be confusing and it has a goofy sense of humor, which I like. If you read this book while you’re learning an instrument, it’ll all come together pretty intuitively.

There are several other books that will teach you music theory, this is just the one that I’ve been using and I like it a lot. If you have any questions about learning theory just shoot me an email:

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