Musical software turns a PC into an orchestra


February 21, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

For the last two hours I've been trying to force myself to write about a program called Recording Session from Midisoft. The problem is that I'm having too much fun playing with it to get serious about writing.

But deadline is approaching, and I guess I'll have to bite the bullet -- as soon as I get Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 playing in the background. OK, that's better. Time to start.

Recording Session is part of a two-program package that unleashes the magic of your computer's sound card and turns you into an arranger, composer, or musical tinkerer. Whether you're an experienced musician or a novice, you can enjoy and explore music in ways you never thought possible.

Midisoft's programs, which come with a variety of features at various price points, take advantage of the MIDI capabilities and music synthesizers built into most sound cards available for IBM-compatible computers.

With Recording Session, you can see an entire musical score played before you, note by note, and click on a button to change the violins into trumpets, the cellos into vibraphones, the oboes into glockenspiels.

You can compose note-by-note on a musical staff and have the orchestra of your choice play it for you. Or, if you have an electronic musical keyboard and the right cables, you can have the computer record what you play and turn it into a musical score.

A word here about music on computers. There are two ways of going about it. One is to use the computer as a digital tape recorder, sampling real sounds and turning them into "waveform" files -- a collection of binary ones and zeros -- that can be played back through a computer's sound card. If you turn on your computer and hear Bugs Bunny saying "What's Up, Doc," it's playing back a waveform file.

It's possible to edit and manipulate waveform files -- in a relatively crude way -- by adding echoes, changing the volume and pitch and even overlaying one recording on another. But there's no way to take a waveform recording of a band and accurately separate the various instruments or notes. And there's no way to create a waveform orchestration from scratch, other than recording a performance or dubbing from a tape.

The second method for handling music is through the synthesizers built into sound cards. These gadgets can generate an incredible variety of sounds, including passable and sometimes true-to-life imitations of musical instruments.

These are the same kind of synthesizers built into musical keyboards, drum pads and other electronic instruments. The synthesizer in your sound card can be precisely controlled by your computer. With the right software, you can turn your PC into a recording studio capable of producing an entire symphony, note by note.

MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, an electronic language developed in 1983 to allow synthesizers of all kinds to talk to and control one another.

Most PC sound cards today are MIDI-compatible. Some, like the Sound Blaster Pro that I bought a while back, come with cables that allow you to connect a MIDI instrument directly to your PC. Others require a separate interface box and cables.

Many contemporary performers, composers and arrangers use MIDI instruments, and computers have become popular tools for recording and composing music.

In fact, the "bands" you hear behind many singers on CD's and tapes today are often just a single human using sophisticated MIDI synthesizers and a computer.

From the average user's standpoint, the problem with all this is that the instructions required by MIDI instruments bear no relationship to the standard musical notation most of us have learned.

It's easy for a human to see a Middle C quarter note on a musical staff and play it on a piano or electronic keyboard. But computers aren't as smart as humans.

Working from scratch on computer with a MIDI synthesizer, you have to generate an instruction that tells the synthesizer what rTC instrumental voice to use, when to turn the note on, when to turn it off, volume level and a variety of other information.

A MIDI instrument sees a musical score as a sequence of these instructions, and programs that can record and play MIDI files are known in the trade as sequencers. Unfortunately, the standard MIDI notation for these sequences is a table of numbers that means nothing to anyone but an experienced MIDI musician.

Early sequencing software improved on this by showing notation in "piano roll" format that displayed notes as a series of bars, but in the last few years Midisoft and other companies have figured out how to display MIDI files as real musical scores.

Once so expensive that they were popular only with professional musicians, these programs are now entering the consumer market, and they're great fun for adults and children who are interested in music.

Midisoft packages Music Mentor, a delightful and informative introduction to classical music, with Recording Session in a $149 package (about $100 on the street).

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