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Music-Making Made Easier, Affordable

April 13, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I couldn't carry a tune if someone handed it to me in a paper bag. I occasionally toot my clarinet, but the last time I performed in public was in high school band. Lately, however, I've been composing and editing music and "laying down tracks," just like a real musician.

All this is possible thanks to the latest generation of PC- and Mac-based music composition and editing programs. Several companies, including Cakewalk, Magix, Opcode, MidiSoft and Steinberg, have adapted professional-level programs for use by music enthusiasts, serious amateurs and even wannabe musicians, like me.

Features that used to require expensive software and hardware are available on programs that sell for under $100 and run on off-the-shelf PCs and Macs.

But just because they're affordable doesn't necessarily make them easy to figure out. After several days of tinkering, I'm just beginning to get productive with a few of these programs.

Before I get into the software, let's go over some basics. All PCs and Macs sold today have the ability to record and play back two types of music: audio files, called "wave" files, and musical digital instrument interface, or MIDI, files. A wave file is basically an audio recording. Anything that can be recorded on a tape recorder can also be recorded to a PC's hard disk and saved as a wave file. Because wave files contain all the information necessary to replay the sound, they tend to be quite large.

A MIDI file is a set of instructions that tells a MIDI instrument what to play. The files are very compact; they just contain instructions. The music is generated by the instrument itself. MIDI keyboards, which plug directly into PC sound cards or attach to Macs via an inexpensive external interface, start at about $300 and are available from Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Casio and other companies. You don't need a MIDI keyboard to record and play back MIDI files. All PC sound cards have built-in MIDI synthesizers, and most consumer-level musical-composition programs allow you to enter notes via your PC keyboard or through an on screen virtual keyboard.

Music programs that let you record and edit MIDI files are called sequencers. I looked at a Cakewalk Home Studio ($89/Windows), Music Studio 3.0 Deluxe ($89/Windows) from Magix and Musicshop ($79/Mac and Windows) from Opcode, all of which are positioned as programs for beginners and music enthusiasts. All have many of the features built into professional music-editing software.

"I have customers who don't play any instruments but are buying these programs just to play around with and modify musical files that others create," said Jerome Palma, manager of Drapers Music in Palo Alto.

These programs give you a great deal of control over MIDI files. You can record a MIDI file by playing the tune on a MIDI keyboard or using your PC keyboard. You can then edit the file the same way you would edit a text file using a word-processing program. The music programs will display a sheet-music representation of what you played. If a note is too low, it can be changed by using the mouse to drag it up a line on the staff. If it's sharp or flat, it can be adjusted. From there, you can play it back and continue to tweak until the tune is just right.

Cakewalk Software ( or [888] 225-3925) publishes a range of music recording and editing software for both professionals and home users. Its consumer product, Cakewalk Home Studio 6.0, lets users record music with any acoustical or MIDI instrument (including your voice). Users can then edit, print and play back the music on a PC or MIDI instrument. A built-in

sequencer lets you arrange the piece any way you want. You can record up to 256 MIDI tracks and four audio tracks. You can listen while you're recording so you can easily add tracks to your composition.

I used Cakewalk to record a tune from my MIDI keyboard. By copying and pasting, I was able to add several instruments. After I had the instruments down, I picked up the microphone and sang along. It didn't sound very good, so I tried again. By adding three more voice tracks, I started to get some harmony. When I was done, I had the equivalent of a barbershop quartet with a backup orchestra. It's still far from what I'd call good, but it sounds a lot better than what I could do with just my voice and a single instrument.

I could e-mail my piece to a friend across the country, who could add more MIDI tracks.

Magix ( or [888] 866-2449) Music Studio Deluxe ($89.99) has most of the features of Cakewalk Home Studio. This program also allows you to integrate AVI video files to create your own music videos. Music Studio Deluxe comes with video samples, but if you have a video camera and video capture card, you can make your own video.

The program handles up to 16 audio tracks in case you have a whole choir or a really large vocal section, and the CD-ROM comes with 1,200 sample audio files. Magix offers a $49 standard edition, which supports fewer audio tracks and doesn't import video.

Simplicity is the strength of Musicshop from Opcode ( or [650] 856-3333). The program handles only MIDI files--it doesn't let you record or integrate audio wave files. But its interface is clean and easy to figure out. It doesn't handle as many instruments or tracks as the other programs but has more than enough power for the beginning music enthusiast and is the way to go for someone who wants to be immediately productive.

Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at His Web site is at

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