Published with Permission
Written by Andy Harris
This month we look over a number of wonderful free tools for creating and enjoying music. Quite a bit of excellent free software is available.
Audio Mixing With Audacity
The most straightforward class of audio tools involves recording and manipulating sounds. Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net) is a marvelous tool for this job. Use it with a microphone to record music or speech, import audio in wav, mp3, or ogg formats, and manipulate the sound waves directly. Once you have recorded or imported a sound, you can tweak it in hundreds of ways: add digital effects play it backwards, cut out parts you don’t need, and much more.
Audacity is a multi-track editor, which means you can record several different audio samples and place them in layers for interaction. For example, my father was once responsible for creating the sound effects for a community performance of Henry V. He and I spent a wonderful afternoon gathering battle sounds for the Agincourt scene, building a marvelous multi-layer sound effect with horses and swords. (They always cast Dad as a king who dies in the first scene so he can run the sound effects for the rest of the play.)
I also frequently use Audacity in my daughter’s dance ministry, to shorten songs for performance purposes or to pre-fade a song at the spot she needs. Audacity is perfect for mixing sounds, editing audio files, and converting files to other formats. I use it for virtually all the sound effects in my game development.
Tracking With SunVox
If you really want to create digital music in a powerful way, you might want to look into SunVox (www.warmplace.ru/soft/sunvox). It is a fascinating example of what musicians call a “tracker.” Essentially, it allows you to create audio samples by specifying a specific wave or importing a sound file. Each sample can be used as the foundation of an instrument that can be used to play any note on the scale. You can then put together a measure’s worth of notes to make patterns, and you can combine patterns to make complete songs.
The process can be confusing at first, but if you look at examples and view some of the many excellent videos on YouTube, you’ll find yourself making incredible music soon. This tool allows you to create any electronic sound you wish, as well as import any other sounds, add drum tracks, and make complex and incredible music. There can be a steep learning curve, but once you understand the interface, you’ll find it to be absolutely incredible. Versions of SunVox are available for nearly every platform. The Computer versions (Windows, Linux, and Mac) are entirely free, but the mobile versions (IOS and Android) cost about $5.00 each. Use a free version first to find out if you like it. If you decide to purchase a mobile version, you’ll find that the flexible interface works very well as a mobile music studio, especially on a tablet with a bit more screen real estate.
Midi Editing With Aria Maestosa
The MIDI audio format is under-appreciated by technical folks. While MIDI files generally sound pretty bad on computers, that’s because it isn’t really a file format at all. MIDI is really a language for describing music. MIDI sounds pretty bad on most computers because most computers have very limited sound cards. When played back on more sophisticated instruments, MIDI can sound really wonderful.
MIDI does not record music. Instead, it is a form of musical notation. MIDI tools are really interesting because they allow you to look at the actual musical notation of a piece at a very detailed level. For example, I loaded up a MIDI recording of the Second Movement of Beethoven’s second symphony into a MIDI editor. I was able to see the entire score as I listened, and I could even look at the score for each individual instrument. (I was a bassoon player, so I absolutely love the woodwind trio toward the middle of this piece.)
You can also modify music, changing instruments around (What would Beethoven’s 7th have sounded like with bagpipes playing the viola part?) by modifying volumes, muting and isolating various instruments. I truly wish I could have had access to this kind of music analysis tool when I was a serious classical musician. You can find a MIDI file of nearly any classical piece you can imagine with a quick Google search. Try www.musedata.org as a starting place for some high-quality, open-source classical music. Of course, you can also compose music with a high-end MIDI editor, whether you use a mouse, the computer keyboard, or (preferably) plug in a high-end musical instrument into the computer.
I’m a big fan of Aria Maestosa (ariamaestosa.sourceforge.net/index.html). It is available free for all main operating systems. It has the ability to view and edit MIDI files in a number of ways, including the raw computer notation, as well as sheet music, piano roll, and guitar tab views. It can be a very interesting way to study music, especially if you’re comfortable reading musical notation.
Music Animation Machine
While on the classical bent, this is not exactly software (www.youtube.com/user/smalin), but one of the most impressive YouTube channels I have ever seen. If you can look past all the pop trash on YouTube, every once in a while you can find something really grand.
Stephen Malinowski is a musician and computer programmer (it’s remarkable how often those two skills coincide). He has written a number of programs that allow him to visualize classical music. On YouTube, he has produced a huge number of videos that show these remarkable visualizations. They are not only beautiful but also are instructive. If you look at an orchestral piece, for example, you will see a line representing each instrument in the orchestra. Malinowski has also released the software for producing these videos for free, so you can experiment with your own music (stephenmalinowski.com).
These tools should give you a lot of fun composing music on your computer. Don’t forget to use your headphones!
Andy Harris is a homeschool dad, father of four great kids, and husband to the greatest homeschool teacher ever. He has taught all ages of students, from kindergarten to university level. Andy is the author of a number of well-known books, including HTML/XHTML/CSS: All in One for Dummies, Game Programming—The L Line, PHP6/MySQL Programming for the Absolute Beginner, and Beginning
Flash Game Programming for Dummies. For more information about his books, to see where he is speaking next, or to just say hi, please stop by his website: www.aharrisbooks.net
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.