Become a PC Musician

by Lionel Valdellon. Published in Fast Forward Magazine, Philippines. 2004

Acid42 at work on his PC
Acid42 at work on his PC

You like music, you have a PC, and you’ve heard that people use these contraptions nowadays to make music. People are writing and printing sheet music using software. Some put together songs from scratch using only their PC. Some remix other people’s music using software and loops of music. Many music professionals record live instruments onto their computer, incorporating their computers into their private and commercial studios. Others use their computers to spin tunes like a DJ, or to perform live electronic music using software geared towards performance, installed on laptops which are chained to various instruments via USB or MIDI cables.

How exactly they do it all might seem like medieval witchcraft to you, but that’s why FAST FORWARD is here to enlighten with a beginner’s guide to making music on the PC.

The question now is: what musical thing do YOU want to do with your computer?


First things first: if your computer has a sound card, an Internet connection and a CD-ROM, you already possess the capability to make music on your PC.

Sound cards output stereo sound (you already know that), can record external sources via the microphone (mic) and line-in inputs, and most all sound cards generate and receive MIDI– a musical protocol that allows MIDI musical message data to play back sounding much the same way as the composer heard it. Well, almost. It’s imperfect so it won’t sound exactly the same all the time, but it gets the job done. [For more info, check the MIDI sidebar.]

An Internet connection allows you to download software over the web, including tons of cool freeware which only cost as much as the time it takes to download.

A CD-ROM plays CDs (you know that too), but can also be used to rip music from your CD collection to your hard drive, and it allows you to install software from data CDs.

Building upon these three basic components, we will show you exactly how to unlock the music-making potential of your PC.


I’m sure you’ve heard of software that promises to turn you into a PC recording genius, and seems awfully useful, except that it costs a pretty sum. Usually in dollars. Fear not. In this age of open source, we’ve done the searching for you and found a pretty good sampling of freeware and open source projects that does most everything that commercial software can– some even exceeding the options and possibilities of paid-for software.

All software we mention can be found by running a search on Google. And all commercial software have demo versions (with built-in limitations), so you can try before you decide to buy.

MIDI port in a keyboard


MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital interface.

MIDI is a musical protocol that allows 2 or more MIDI-capable machines such as keyboards or sound cards to communicate via five-pin DIN plugs. MIDI utilizes a common set of 127 instruments known as the General MIDI (GM) sound bank, which is common across all manufacturers. Thus a MIDI keyboard from Casio and a Creative SoundBlaster sound card will both have a piano on patch #1 and strings on patch #49. This allows one instrument to exchange data and have the other play it back.

MIDI data is not audio data though. When you use your computer to record MIDI, you’re not recording the sound itself but the various controller data that MIDI sends out: commonly instrument changes, note on/off, volume level. Thus file sizes are infinitely smaller than if you recorded real audio data.


Disc Jockeys, more popularly known as DJs, can be of two types: the radio disc jockey who spins music and inserts advertisements or spiels (the chitchat between songs) between songs, or the club DJ who spins a non-stop mix of music for parties. You can do both on your PC.

To become a regular radio DJ, you will basically need a media player that can play the music you want, and allow you to insert little pre-recorded spiels, ads or jingles between songs. The software has to be able to record those spiels or if it cannot, there are other available freeware for this. Ideally the software can output and encode your entire radio “show” as a file that can be heard over the Net, maybe in real audio (.RA) or MP3 formats. Once encoded, it’s simply a matter of putting it out on the Net, where your adoring family eagerly awaits the next installment of your love advice show.

Becoming a real club DJ used to mean years of collecting vinyl records or CDs, and learning how to match the beats of one song with the next so that the music never stops. These days though, people have started DJing using laptops loaded with DJ mixing software and self-compiled libraries of MP3 files, or MP3 alternative formats like Ogg-Vorbis. In fact, in higher end software, there are settings that make DJing almost idiot-proof. A song’s beats per minute (BPM) are analyzed and tagged, and songs can be automatically mixed into the next, making the job of beat matching infinitely easier for the fledgling DJ. Other stuff that these new programs can do: automatically crossfade between songs (fade out from the first to the next song), the capability to drag and pull your files like on a vinyl record so you can beat match manually, and various effects options to tweak your sound.

Purists scoff at this technology, but so what? They scoffed at word processors too.

Optional Hardware (stuff you can add to your computer DJ setup):

1. A second sound card: A club DJ can preview the next song by flipping a switch on his mixer and listening to the next song on his headphones without the entire club hearing it. In the computer realm, this can only be done if you have a second soundcard assigned only to the headphone output. This is different from the main output generated on the first soundcard.

2. Headphones: What kind of DJ goes around without headphones hanging around his neck? Seriously, this is the only way you can preview songs without everyone else hearing that next anthem you’re about to drop into your party mix or radio show.

3. Microphone: Speak or rap into this for your spiels, and for making up your own twisted version of Chico and Delamar (both voiced by you).

DJ Software:

Most of the freeware possess the same characteristics: they let you play 2 MP3s or more at the same time. You will additionally need CD rippers and MP3 encoders if you want to convert your CD collection into MP3s (less stuff to lug around at a party).

Free: MixVibes Free, Deejaysystem Mk-I (free edition), Nick’s DJ Workstation, McDJ.
Paid: MixVibes 5. USD $160. Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ Studio. USD$170.


Just a few years ago, recording used to mean saving up a big load of money and booking a recording studio where you paid a ghastly hourly sum for the privilege of committing your musical talent onto tape. You can kiss those days goodbye, thank goodness.

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, you already have the capability to record onto your PC. You can record individual takes of you playing the guitar then shaking a tamborine, and eventually string it together as if you were doing both at the same time, a process called multitracking. With higher end soundcards you can actually record several separate instruments at the same time.

With your default onboard soundcard however, the usual problem is quality. The output will hardly be the hi-fi stereo masterpiece you may be expecting. But if all you want are short snippets of voice or instrument, recorded in mono, then you’ll be fine. It’s simply a matter of connecting the right cables into the holes on your soundcard.

Soundcard Inputs:

Those 3.5mm holes will typically be: a stereo out that connects to your external speakers, a stereo line in, and a microphone (mic) in. The mic input is for a mono sound source such as a microphone, or a guitar. While the line-in input is for stereo signals such as the output from a CD player, tape deck, or mixer.

USB microphone setup

A word of warning here before you start forcing guitar cables onto your mic input: those sockets are brittle. With enough use, especially with heavy cables, they can break. A better option is to connect a mixer to your stereo line-in. This way, you need not keep reaching behind your PC to insert cables, you can connect more than one instrument to your mixer, and you have more control over sound parameters such as volume, equalization (bass/mid/treble) and panning (left/right/center).

Recording Software:

1. You could use Windows Sound Recorder… It’s installed into every modern version of Windows but can only record 60 seconds worth of mono audio. Perfect for a short vocal snippet, useless for most everything else.

2. …Or find yourself a multitrack recorder/audio editor.
Rather than using the Windows Sound Recorder, find a recording software that can multitrack and edit your audio. To multitrack is to be able to record multiple separate tracks of audio, adjust and edit them, then output it all as a single file. Constraints are usually limited to your computer’s RAM and hard drive space. The ability to edit your files after the recording process is an extra boon. This allows you to add effects and do whatever digital cut-and-pasting processes you desire.

There are many choices for this type of software. The most useful though are the all-in-one packages that allow you to record multiple tracks, possess MIDI sequencing capabilities, and even allow you to edit. The problem is: the more a software claims it can do, the larger a drain it will be on your CPU, and the more bugs it will probably have. So read the reviews before installing.

Free: Audacity (open source recorder and editor). Quartz Studio free version.
Paid: Cakewalk Home Studio 2004. USD$129. Steinberg’s Cubasis 4.0 USD$125 .

Optional Hardware:

1. A full duplex soundcard.
Full duplex simply meaning you can listen to what’s playing (a guitar for example) over headphones while recording something else (like a voice). Most soundcards are already full duplex, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

2. Microphone.
For capturing an instrument or vocal performance.

3. Mixer.
A device with multiple inputs where each input has controls for volume and tone. Comes in a variety of sizes, the smallest having 4 channels (inputs), a medium-sized mixer having 12 channels.

SIDEBAR: Professional Recording On Your PC:

If you want to do truly professional sound recording on your PC, then you need a computer that’s dedicated solely to recording audio– what us geeks call a Digital Audio Workstation(DAW). See, computers that are used for surfing the Net, graphics, or word processing will typically accumulate a lot of virtual gunk over time. Audio recording needs to be free of this as much as possible. Plus, audio files are very large and hard drive space is easily filled up. An easy calculation: every minute of recorded audio data in uncompressed .WAV format will take up about 10MB of space.

Professional musicians who use their computers to record suggest the following:

1. Having two separate hard drives. One for all your programs, the other for all your recorded audio. This way if your program drive fails, you lose no recorded data.

2. Using the computer only for music. No other unnecessary programs or games, which might eat up space.

3. Stripping away all the useless trimmings in the Windows OS, which eat up CPU power. Things like animated cursors, screensavers, hibernate options, Windows Messenger, desktop wallpaper, games, MSN Explorer, accessibility options. There are many tutorials on the Net that can help you fine-tune your machine for audio.

4. Loading up on as much RAM and as much hard drive space as you can afford. RAM handles most of the tasks in audio, so the more you have, the faster the processes are done. Hard drive space stores your projects, so the more you have, the more you can record.

5. Backing up all data as often as possible. You never know when the PC will crash, and crash it will. A CD writer is essential to the task of backing up, although newer options such as DVD-R writers and assorted other storage are becoming more and more affordable.


In the Classical era, composers like Beethoven and Mozart could actually hear entire symphonies in their head before putting the notes down on paper for the rest of us mortals to play. These days, you have software and MIDI to help you flesh out complex arrangements before hitting the print button. Plus, people who read your music sheets won’t have to squint at your bad handwriting.

Adding MIDI to the equation, you have a simple way of jotting down the notes and instantly hearing whether your notation sounds correct. Or the other way around– via MIDI cables, you can fiddle around on your keyboard and what you play can be translated as notes.

High-end software even allows OCR scanning of musical pieces– generating a MIDI file as well as a visual. There are even mic dictation features– you sing into your microphone and the software renders it as notes. As is usual, the massive, feature-laden software is geared more towards professional music arrangers and composers since it offers a lot more options than the more hobbyist-targeted freeware.

Crazy Notation

Notation Software

Free: MuseScore, Crescendo, Canzona’s Musette freeware. Finale NotePad (free version of Finale).
Paid: Coda Finale 2003. USD$600. Sibelius 2. USD$600. Mozart Virtuoso 7. USD$86.

Optional Hardware:
1. Printer.
Well, maybe in the future you can notate a piece, then beam it to someone’s PDA, but till then, a print-out will have to do.


Remixing is basically a reworking of an existing piece of music. Elements are re-arranged, new musical elements added, and the music’s tempo (speed) may be changed depending on whether the remix is for the dance floor or the lounge. There are no set formulas for making a remix, it’s entirely up to the remixer. However some of the elements remain the same.

The building block of a remix is the sample. A sample can be one sound, or a phrase of sound such as a drum loop. A remixer takes samples from the original song and adds his own to the end product.Think of this as a musical collage, a cut-and-paste project using sound.

How do you remix? You can use some of the same multitracking/recording software mentioned earlier in this article. Or try software specifically aimed at remixing, such as Sonic Foundry’s Acid family of products, where the software automatically stretches the samples in order to fit the beats.

Remixing Software

Free: Acid Xpress (free version of Acid)
Paid: Acid Music 3.0 USD$70. Acid Pro 4.0 USD$350, Ableton Live

Optional Hardware:
1. CD Writer:
Burn your finished tracks onto audio CD. Plus, because you will work with uncompressed audio, your project will be quite large in size. Burn those finished files onto CD-R.


ReBirth software

MIDI is a powerful beast which, when harnessed, can allow you to play, compose and perform fully layered pieces yourself. You want a violin or a trumpet? It’s all there built into the GM sound bank of your soundcard. The result: music which sounds approximately like it was played by real instrumentalists, which you can easily email to friends since file sizes are never large. Or you could combine your MIDI with recorded audio on a multitracker for an even more realistic sound.

For more flexibility though, modern MIDI software allows you to load or create your own sounds and play them via your MIDI keyboard. This way, you can concoct your own mutant violin-trumpet patch which will definitely not be a default sound on your soundcard.

Whatever your cup of tea, there are a multitude of software out there geared towards making your MIDI experience pleasurable. From the hardcore machine music appeal of trackers such as Psycle (an open source MIDI software studio) to the sleek, I-answer-your-every-MIDI-need of Propellerheads’ Reason. From the easy-to-use drum machine interface of Fruity Loops, to the complete MIDI and audio recording package of the Cakewalk family of products.

MIDI Software

Free: Psycle, Buzz (open source MIDI trackers)
Paid: Propellerheads’ Reason USD$450. Fruity Loops Studio USD$149. Cakewalk Home Studio 2004. USD$129.

Optional Hardware:
1. Controller keyboard.
It is always easier to make music using an external controller to play the sounds found on your PC. A MIDI keyboard is necessary for this.

2. MIDI cable.
In order for your keyboard to control your computer or vice versa, you will need a MIDI cable. For PCs, this usually means a specialized cable connecting the serial game port to the keyboard. In newer MIDI controllers though, this can be done via USB.

3. Virtual MIDI controller and MIDI cables.
You could however opt to use your QWERTY keys like a piano keyboard by downloading the MidiYoke virtual MIDI cables which is freeware, and Bome’s Mouse Keyboard which is postcardware–meaning you send the programmer a postcard and he gives you the serial to halt the nag screens.


Editing an audio file
Editing an audio file

In the end though, you will need to go through the final step in your music-making process: editing. This way you can cut out parts which sound awful, add effects to every sound, increase or decrease volumes, or even output your file as an MP3. This step is the polishing step– the technical side of the process after all the creative play is done.

Most all-in-one packages have decent editing capabilities. Nothing beats the software that is specific in what it does though. If you want your recording to sound as polished as those on commercial releases though, nothing beats the commercial software for amount of features and for its ability to utilize audio plug-ins (third-party software which need a host application). Still, one thing that the freeware editors excel in is they need less CPU power. And did we mention they’re free?

Editing Software

Free: Soliton II (freeware editor). Audacity (open source recorder and editor), Samplitude Soundcloud Silver Edition
Paid: Sound Forge Studio 6.0 USD$70,

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