Producing music with computers – Part 5

After the computer had already established itself as an essential tool in the recording studios, digital progress evolved again. Highly developed software now joined ever more powerful hardware. Programs and plug-ins with the most varied capabilities and range of functions filled the remaining holes left by analogue and filled them with virtual sounds.

Oscar & Moby  

Bedroom sound with no time pressures

The first version of their software came onto the market at the beginning of the 90s, in 2004 Digidesign was awarded an Oscar for Pro Tools. The recording system had become a sort of standard tool for sound editing and design in the film industry. They didn’t have to wait long for success in music production and today having a magnetic tape recorder in the studio has become exotic.

Moby. (Flickr: Justin Wise  / CC BY 2.0)
Moby. (Flickr: Justin Wise / CC BY 2.0)

Computer technology did not just take Hollywood by storm, but entered the most private chamber of a musician: the bedroom. Moby was one of the first internationally successful artists to record entire albums in his bedroom. The versatile musician frequently changes his style, sometimes performing as a DJ and sometimes with a band. Thanks to computer technology he can produce without the pressures of time at home.

A computer in the studio – a studio in the computer

Competitive thanks to fast Intel processors

Using software, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) becomes a virtual studio in a computer with a mixer, effects processors and even instruments. However, powerful computers are required for this purpose, especially if a workstation is not using additional electronics as Pro Tools does.

DAW. (Flickr: Lauri Rantala / CC BY 2.0)
DAW. (Flickr: Lauri Rantala / CC BY 2.0)

In 2006 Apple computers were fitted with Intel processors making them competitive with Windows systems, which had overtaken Macs when it came to performance. Apple managed was even able to establish itself in studies, purchasing the German firm Emagic and the DAW program Logic Pro therewith. GarageBand was developed for beginners, which still enjoys popularity today. In the meantime, both PCs and Macs can be found in recording studios.

Program mix on two screens

The host program of a DAW looks like a virtual tape recorder

To have a good overview of a DAW, two monitors at least are required. Alongside the aforementioned programs the following are used widely: Cubase and Nuenda from Steinberg, Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, Magix Samplitude and Motu Digital Performer.

The host program of a DAW is a combined audio-MIDI sequencer – a sort of virtual tape recorder used to record tracks. The number of potential tracks is limited by the capability of the computer. For modern productions on multi-processor computers it can sometimes be over 100 tracks. For every track there is mixer channel on the monitor for regulating effects, volume and panorama.

Logic Arrange and mixer on one monitor.
Logic Arrange and mixer on one monitor.

Plug-ins are additional programs that can be looped into a channel, similar to effects devices in a real mixer. They can have the function of an equalizer (tone control), add reverb or echo or condense the sound through compression. Even virtual instruments with a range of tones can be plug-ins. Host programs have a variety of plug-ins, but software from other producers can be integrated into the DAW as well. For this reason, standards were established, the most important of which are Virtual Studio Technology (VST) for PC and Mac, Audio Units for Macintosh computers with Apple software and Avid Audio Extensions (AAX) for Pro Tools.

Exaggerated values and synthetic sounds

Creating the “Cher effect” with significant voice distortion

The Auto-Tune plug-in makes it possible to “clean up” off-key vocals. Modern computers can analyze vocals lightning fast and correct the pitch. If exaggerated values are consciously set up in Auto-Tune a distorted effect like in the Hit “Believe” from Cher is achieved, which is so significant in this song that sometimes vocal distortion is referred to as the “Cher effect”.

Programs such as Melodyne provide particularly inconspicuous pitch adjustment, however, Auto-Tune still enjoys lasting popularity in Hip-Hop and Pop. The sound is characterized by volatile pitch intervals and a metallic timbre which makes the voice sound almost synthetic.

Perfect illusion thanks to virtual instruments

Even the peculiarities of old analogue equipment have been simulated via software

There are two types of software tools, software synthesizers and software samplers, some of which can be run independently and used as a plug-in on a computer. Some synthesizers are purely software based products, like Diva from u-he. Others simulate real equipment, such as Arturia with the legendary Sequential Prophet and the Minimoog among other things. Even the peculiarities of old analogue equipment have been simulated via software, such as the lightly fluctuating tuning of oscillators.

Logic Pro Synth ES-2 and Arturia Minimoog
Logic Pro Synth ES-2 and Arturia Minimoog

Software samplers can use many megabytes of memory in modern systems. As you may expect, sounds can consequently fade away for a long period of time. Different velocities on the keyboard trigger different samples of the same sound. Even at the same volume the “Round Robin” function can play interchanging samples with only minute audial differences, creating the perfect illusion of “real” instruments.

NI Kontakt Abbey Road Drums
NI Kontakt Abbey Road Drums

Pimp with digital, trim with analogue

Artists with a big enough budget sometimes treat themselves to analogue sessions

Some music lovers still swear by vinyl records in the age of CDs and digital downloads. The typical sound of studio equipment with tubular or transistor technology is also still appealing. Even the subtle overtones created by over winding a magnetic tape often enrich the sound. For this reason, artists with a big enough budget sometimes treat themselves to analogue sessions, which today are far more expensive than digital production.

Software manufacturers have responded with products featuring “virtual-analogue” properties, for example many plug ins offer a saturation setting. There are even some which make a DAW sound like a tape recorder, you can even choose the manufacturer of the tape recorder.

Living in the box

The finished product can be burnt on to CD without ever having to leave the computer

While in some studios the final mixing of numerous tracks is done on one mixer with many channels and edited using real studio equipment, there is also the possibility to master an entire production “in the box”. In this manner even the end mix is created with the aid of plug ins.

The finished product can be burnt on to CD without ever having to leave the computer. The music can also be sent to download portals such as iTunes or Musicload via the internet. This technological development is very popular among many successful artists of the new millennium.

Hip-Hop, club & house – digital keeps evolving

Some songs first came together at the digital editing stage by combining different takes

In contrast to the bleak lyrics common to hip-hop artists, many songs from the Black Eyed Peas are often considered to be positive. Alongside the singer Fergie, band member will.i.am is particularly important for the band and their success. He is a producer and gifted electronic musician, the numerous sound effects found in the music of the Black Eyed Peas carry his trademark. “Shut Up“ and “I Gotta Feeling“ are well known hits of the Black Eyed Peas.

The Black Eyed Peas. (Wikipedia: Walmart / CC BY 2.0)
The Black Eyed Peas. (Wikipedia: Walmart / CC BY 2.0)

David Guetta is an example of how a musical career does not have to include being in a live band, but can go from the DJ turntable to the studio as well. At the age of 16 he began his career in Parisian clubs, later on he would own his own club. As he can’t sing himself, world stars such as Rihanna are often invited to take the mike on his productions. His most successful albums are “One Love” and “Nothing but the Beat”, which have each sold three million copies. Songs like “When Love Takes Over” (with Kelly Rowland) are not only ideal for dancing in a club, but are often played on the radio as well.

David-Guetta (Flickr: Eva Rinaldi / CC BY-SA 2.0)
David-Guetta (Flickr: Eva Rinaldi / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The French electro band Daft Punk is composed of two musicians who hide their faces behind robot masks. Their first house music success was primarily produced with samplers. Their most successful album to date “Random Access Memory” was recorded in collaboration with singer Pharrell Williams and guitarist Nile Rodgers, whose typical rhythmic guitar play had defined the style of his band “Chic” since 1976.

Daft Punk (Flickr: whatleydude / CC BY 2.0)
Daft Punk (Flickr: whatleydude / CC BY 2.0)

Both guest musicians are also very successful producers. In order to capture the analogue sound, the music on the album was recorded on digital equipment and on a 24 track tape recorder simultaneously. The tape recordings were then dubbed in Pro Tools too and edited further using a computer. Some songs first came together at the digital editing stage by combining different takes. The single “Get Lucky” became the hit of the Summer in 2013, Daft Punk won two Grammy awards in 2014 for the single and album of the year.

Music of the future: let’s go mobile!

Technological developments keep progressing

Laptops are being increasingly incorporated into music production as they are now nearly as powerful as desktop computers. Technological developments keep progressing, smartphones and tablets are also increasingly equipped with music applications. GarageBand for iOS is compatible with the DAW Logic Pro from Apple. There are now mobile microphones and keyboards for iOS and Android. The future is mobile!

Teaser Photo: Flickr / Marco Raaphorst (CC BY 2.0)

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