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Part 1: Stuff You HAVE to Buy

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
COMPUTER
It's kind of obvious that if you're going to be working with electronic music that you need to buy a computer. I'm a computer technician, so I can suggest a lot of different things, but I don't want to get overly detailed.

For purposes of these articles, I'm primarily going to be talking about and using a Windows 8.1-based PC. Without getting overly detailed, the main reason that you'll want to use a PC over a Macintosh, iPad/iPhone, Android device, or Linux box is because there is an awful lot more free music software available for Windows. The secondary reason is that you'll get more performance for the money. As I mentioned earlier, I want to get as close to free as possible. However, if you've already got something other than a Windows-based PC, some of the software I'll mention may have an equivalent for your device and, for Linux users, you might be able to run some of the software through WINE.

Allow me one geeky comment: there is a really interesting piece of software available for the Microsoft Surface Pro called StaffPad. It's a piece of software that allows you to use the Surface Pro's digitizer pen to hand-write notes on the screen and it converts what you wrote into a variety of formats. If I didn't already have a PC, I'd definitely consider this a reason to look at the Surface Pro.

At bare minimum, you'll need:

Intel Core 2 Duo (not "Core Solo")
8gb RAM
128gb Hard disk
Display capable of at least 1280px x 720px (aka "720p"). You can also read that as "most displays."
Windows 7 64-bit

This is quite inexpensive. You can pick up a used used Dell E6400 laptop for around $150. If you look around a bit, you might be able to pick up on even better deals, like a used i7-powered Dell E6420 for $300.

I understand that it's a bit difficult to tell which computer is better than another. There are lots and lots of variables that will affect computer performance. Intel hasn't helped: they've had i7 processors around since 2010 and, of course, a 2010 i7 is slower than a 2015 i7. If you go by raw processing speed and assume that the machines you're comparing have the same amount of RAM, same kind of hard disk, and same kind of video, if you can find out the name of the computer's processor, you can use a benchmark chart to tell you what's fastest.

You may have wondered why I just mentioned laptops. The main reason is because you don't have to buy a separate monitor, thus you'll keep the cost down a bit. However, provided all other components are equal, a desktop computer can have a faster processor at a lower price. Another way of looking at it is that I couldn't build you a desktop computer that has the same specs as that Dell E6420 I mentioned for $300.

I also want to mention that a lot of the free software I've tried requires you to have an "ASIO-compatible sound card." Most sound cards are or can use a free driver. However, if you're going for performance, you might want to check out Amazon and buy a dedicated card. A PC-card based sound card is about $14 and a desktop sound card is about $26 new. This is a PC-only thing. Macs don't need it.

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MIDI KEYBOARD
If you really want to get technical, you don't really need to get a MIDI-capable keyboard. However, you've made your life a lot more difficult. You'll have to point and click to edit notes and that's really not fun. Fortunately, MIDI-capable keyboards aren't that expensive. I'd also recommend that you get one that can use a sustain pedal: one of the input methods in some notation software has you play notes on a MIDI controller while you tap out the beat on the sustain pedal or using a specific key on a keyboard controller. I've never used that feature much because I'm not a keyboard player, but it can be a really fast way of entering notes.

The cheapest keyboard controller on Amazon is the 49 key Alesis for $80 new and $65 used. You can get an 88-key controller for about $170, used. I've got an old Yamaha PSR-175 that my wife hasn't used in a few years, so I didn't need to buy anything.

Before I leave the topic, I should mention that you'd probably want a keyboard that has a minimum of 49 keys. Smaller keyboards generally have a button or two that will allow you to play an octave or more higher or lower, but if you're playing a piano part, the 25-key devices get really annoying really quickly. Also note that we really don't care about the sound quality of the keyboard because we're just going to be using it for note entry and editing.

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MIDI INTERFACE
You have to get the keyboard to talk to the computer and vice-versa. For that you need a MIDI interface.

There are hundreds of brands of MIDI interfaces. I bought this one because I can use it with my iPad 3, PC, and Mac. It's $30 new, $24 used. If you just want to use one kind of device, there are cheaper ones. The cheapest one I found was this one for all of $8. Just browse the Amazon Best Sellers list. You might even consider the IK Multimedia iRig 37-key controller with built in MIDI interface and cables for $70, used.

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Let's total up the purchases, using the lowest prices:

Computer: Dell E6400 Core 2 Duo, 8gb RAM, 128gb hard drive: $150
Keyboard: Alesis 49-key controller: $65
MIDI Interface: AY03 MIDI Interface: $8
Optional: Dedicated ASIO-compatible sound card: $14
TOTAL: $223 ($237 with sound card)
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
Good suggestion. $80 new, $65 used. However, this is "while they're still available." The Q49 has been replaced with the V49, which is $129. In both cases, I'm not sure if they're compatible with Mac.

Of course, there's also eBay and Goodwill.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I did some quick research and also wanted to mention that it looks like the Q49 comes with Ableton Lite 8, which is a decent MIDI sequencing app -- I'll talk about these much, much later. However, 8 was discontinued in 2013 and you might have some problems getting 8 to register because it's a discontinued product. Essentially, if Abelton's your main reason to get a Q49, you might want to rethink that. However, Alesis makes good hardware, so I'd consider it from that angle :).
 

SOTSDO

Old King Log
Staff member
CE/Moderator
Something that I've wondered over the years is what ever happened to Professional Composer? I had the program and the entry keypad, but I moved away from music in the late 1980s for a spell, and lost track both of the keypad and the software during computer upgrades.

I loved the ease of entry with the keypad (much like some remappings that I've seen of the regular keyboard, only everything was always there right in front of you on the keypad. It was a simple matter of glancing at the keypad to pick up the right key, hitting it plus the appropriate arrows when called for, and there was your chart.

Since I've never bothered with piano keyboard technique, I've never been comfortable with the 88 key version. But, that little trackpad made all of the difference in the world. I only wish that I had had it long enough to transcribe and transpose the bass clarinet part for Chadwick's Jubilee when I was tasked with that bass clef in A mess.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
Something that I've wondered over the years is what ever happened to Professional Composer?
Quoting from this thread: "MOTU Professional Composer was replaced with MOTU Mosiac, which was a buggy mess. Mosaic went away quickly and was replaced by the notation portion of MOTU Digital Performer."

Digital Performer is still around. In that thread it mentions that Composer turned into Mosaic around 1995 and was only available up through MacOS 9. From what I remember, there wasn't much of any playback control in Composer. You had to set all that up in Performer. Considering there are good free notation programs out there (more later!), I can understand the reasoning of rolling a notation feature into Performer.

When I get around to talking about software, I'm going to mention something I have already mentioned here: I use a virtual keyboard/macro program on my iPad where I can map a virtual button on the iPad to do stuff on my PC. Kind of a virtual version of the Optimus keyboards.
 
Something that I've wondered over the years is what ever happened to Professional Composer? I had the program and the entry keypad, but I moved away from music in the late 1980s for a spell, and lost track both of the keypad and the software during computer upgrades.

I loved the ease of entry with the keypad (much like some remappings that I've seen of the regular keyboard, only everything was always there right in front of you on the keypad. It was a simple matter of glancing at the keypad to pick up the right key, hitting it plus the appropriate arrows when called for, and there was your chart.

Since I've never bothered with piano keyboard technique, I've never been comfortable with the 88 key version. But, that little trackpad made all of the difference in the world. I only wish that I had had it long enough to transcribe and transpose the bass clarinet part for Chadwick's Jubilee when I was tasked with that bass clef in A mess.
Yep. Bloch's Schelomo is another one. Got called in to sub on bass clarinet part in a symphony rehearsal about 40 or so years ago - the guy I was subbing for had the first 40 measures or so copied out and transposed - the rest was up to me to read. Plus, I was using a school horn, and it wasn't a good school horn either. I was used to the A/Bb transposition, and I was used to playing tuba parts on a bari sax or EEb Contra-alto, but both conversions at once fried my weak mind into something that looked like an overdone Cheeto. How long did I have with the music before rehearsal? About an hour.

An educational night that is seared (seared!) into my memory. Ah, those misty, water-colored memories...

A very educational night (welcome to the music business, kid!). Much dap to @pete for the educational post above.
 
I started with Sibelius First (the cheaper version for $99) and eventually upgraded to the full version. I mostly just chart out parts for my band, but someday (when I have time :/) I plan to get more into syncing sibelius with my DAW software through rewire, and try getting some actually decent sounding horns via midi.

I've got Mojo Horns VSTI, which sounds very nice. Lots of learning curve though. I've been trying to find a way to write horn parts in Sib against an existing rehearsal MP3 in my DAW, but the midi horns that are embedded just sound uninspiring (which is why I bought Mojo Horns).

But using mojo horns has it's own idiosyncrasies too. A lot of the way you make them sound good translates into extraneous midi events that shouldn't be part of the notation. It actually seems easier just to use the basic midi functionality in my DAW, than using rewire to drive Sib, but then the resulting notation is useless. I still haven't found a satisfying composing process but I feel this is the right direction. My goal would be to be able to compose using notation against a good sounding library like Mojo Horns / Vienna Symphonic Library etc, and have it all play back synced with my audio track ideas. Definitely not there yet, and distracted by lots of other projects. But that is a goal...

Good luck with your midi endeavors!
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
A lot of the way you make them sound good translates into extraneous midi events that shouldn't be part of the notation.
I don't care about how the score looks, too much, because I'm just worried about sound output -- at least, as far as this project is concerned. If I was interested in creating a pretty final score, I'd probably be into looking at musescore (which I talk about in Part 3 of this series) vs. Finale and/or Sibelius and/or other "score production" software. One reason for me not to bother with articulation marks or dynamics at this point is because most programs with that nice-looking output don't support playback of those things or only support a subset of them. However, I should probably check to see what performance notations Finale and/or Sibelius currently support.

FWIW, either Sibleius or Finale has a video where they test built-in sounds vs built-in sounds, with the person on the video proclaiming one of those to the "best." My opinion was that both sounded tinny :).

Oh. Definite +1 on the Vienna Symphonic Library. I mention their goodness elsewhere. However, in research for another part of this series, I found some that sounded even better to me. I'll have to see if I can find where I bookmarked it. Of course, the drawback is that they're expensive.
 

SOTSDO

Old King Log
Staff member
CE/Moderator
One thing to keep in mind with all of this music related software is that the cost can be brought way down if you first search for an older copy in the junk bin at the local music supply house. Buy it for pennies on the dollar, then get the latest and greatest from the manufacturer at the upgrade price.

I never would have bought Finale but for this subtrefuge. Cost went from circa $500 down to something like $75.00
 
One reason for me not to bother with articulation marks or dynamics at this point is because most programs with that nice-looking output don't support playback of those things or only support a subset of them. However, I should probably check to see what performance notations Finale and/or Sibelius currently support.
With Sibelius, a few of the major (professional) sound banks come with a translation layer specific for Sibelius. Once installed, it allows special notation marks to be translated to specific library sounds or functionalities. Mojo Horns has one here: http://www.soundsetproject.com/soundsets/vir2/mojo-horn-section/
It is very tweaky to setup and I have not yet spent the time to figure it all out. As you state it's just a subset of the special marks -- whatever the VSTI / Translation layer has implemented. Mojo Horns sound great BTW.

With Mojo certain ranges of keys can be used as modifiers so your left hand on a keyboard controls the type of patch or certain implemented signature sounds for that instrument, while the right can perform the melody. So it's performance oriented, but with the translation layer I can instead use a trill mark (or Doit, Stab, or whatever is implemented) in the Sibelius notation and it should be correctly translated to the mojo horns VSTI. Without the custom translation layer all those special notations will do nothing but you can still add the control notes if you don't need the charts to look clean. Theoretically it should be pretty good, but I have found it confusing and tedius to setup, and I just haven't spent enough time on it yet. Need to get back to it sometime, because it would be great to get it all working together. ...Another back-burner project for now.

My current Sibelius project is to transcribe horns for Liv Warfield's 'Why do you Lie' and 'Catch me if you can'. If you haven't heard Liv Warfield yet, check her out on Youtube. Awesome horns, especially on some of the late night show performances.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
Hey. A lot of the sound sets on that website are free. Which is good, because Sibelius runs from $295 (academic) to $599 (non-academic).

When I first saw the sound sets, I thought, "Kewl. Compatible with the free Kontakt Player!" Erm. Compatible with, but you still need Sibelius for the sounds to play. :(

I might actually get around to trying Sibelius, but I'm really, really trying to do this close to free as possible. However, I also want to add on, "Free, but not something that's waaaayyyy more complex than the commercial version." The comparison I'd like to try is how much more or less difficult it is to add all those articulations and dynamics in a sequencer as opposed to Finale, Sibelius, or another commercial product. I'd also wonder if you can save the data output from Sibelius AFTER all those articulations, etc. are added and export it elsewhere so you can use other virtual instruments and/or a sequencer and/or DAW.

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SOTSDO also speaks truth. I mention elsewhere that it's now legal in the US to buy older software. However, I did a brief eBay search and only saw used copies of Sibelius without key codes ("license number"). That's not gonna fly.
 

pete

Brassica Oleracea
Staff member
Administrator
I now have GAS again. For electronic doo-dads. After I bought a really nice set of studio monitors (Behringer MS40) -- mind you, you don't need studio monitors, but they help -- I found the used gear section of Guitar Center. You want a good monitor? M-Audio AV40s are $80 (Amazon has 'em for $150) and you can buy a year warranty for $15. I picked up an external sound card called a Focusrite Scarlett Solo, got a warranty, paid for tax and shipping and still came out to about $80. The cheapest one on eBay is $84 and it's $24 for a warranty. And they have coupon codes.
 
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