Finally! Enough talking about music, it’s time to compose a song! Let’s get out our equipment and compose!
Wait… what equipment do you need to compose, you ask? Good question… I suppose it would help to go through that first. Here’s what I’d suggest as the necessary equipment to be a composer:
There are many modern composers who don’t use a computer for composing. In fact, the soundtrack for Disney’s The Incredibles was recorded entirely without computer assistance. However, if you are trying to compose on your own as “an orchestra of one”, a computer is essential.
As of this writing, most composers seem to favor the Mac for composing. However, I’m a PC guy, so I do my composing on a PC. No matter what your preference is, it is important that you a choose a computer that can handle the musical requirements that you throw at it. Music composing, for various reasons, can be very taxing on a computer’s resources. Your computer should have a dualcore or quadcore processor (or better), and a great sound card. My sound card is a M-Audio MobilePRE USB external card, which allows me to connect my keyboard directly to it, along with a few microphones if I need to.
It’s difficult for me to recommend a specific computer setup. For basic needs, the computer you’re using right now to read this blog would probably work, no matter what it is. 1 The best advice I can give is to find out what software you plan to use, and then get a computer that’s up to the task.
Composing software, at a basic level, allows you to record multiple tracks of music, each with a different instrument, which can then be played back at the same time to form a full song.
There are a lot of different software packages out there, and I haven’t tried them all, so you’re going to have to do some searching here. Personally, I’ve been quite happy with the Cakewalk line of software products. I currently use SONAR X1 Studio, but I started out with SONAR Music Creator 4, which is a wonderful product for composing at a basic level (and fairly inexpensive, too). Other music composing software includes:2
- Ableton Live (has free trials to download)
- Cubase (has free trials to download)
- GarageBand (no link that I could find, Mac only)
- Pro Tools
- Sibelius (has free trials to download)
Now, if you’re looking for demo version of SONAR, the closest I can find for you is this link to a trial version of SONAR X1 Producer. It’s quite advanced for a beginning composer, though.
No, not the one you use for typing. You need a musical keyboard that can connect to your computer in some way.
By the way, your keyboard does not need to have built-in instruments and sounds. Having instruments in the keyboard unit itself is not a bad thing (especially if you also want to use the keyboard by itself for performing), but you will be using the keyboard primarily as a controller for other instruments (more on that later). Keyboards come in 88-key, 61-key, 49-key, and 25-key varieties, although if you come from a piano background you probably won’t want anything smaller than a 61-key keyboard.3 The more expensive keyboards are weighted to feel like an actual piano, but I prefer semi-weighted keys for composing, since they’re less tiring to play for hours at a time.
Do you absolutely need a keyboard? Technically, no. If you really wanted to, you could just use your mouse and place notes to create your song. Certain kinds of music, like techno, actually benefit from this approach.
The instruments you use can make or break your composition. The more realistic your instruments are, the better your song will sound.
Now, your instruments might be real, physical instruments that you play and record, like an electric guitar. However, you’re likely going to need some virtual instruments as well. Virtual instruments allow you to use your keyboard to control sounds that have been previously recorded by another musician.
Some virtual instruments are free, and can be downloaded online. Other virtual instruments will come included in your computer’s sound card, or in the composing program that you’ve purchased. However, the best virtual instruments usually need to be bought from sites that specialize in them, and they can get pretty pricey.
The virtual instruments I use are almost exclusively from SoundsOnline.com, and they’re amazing. The Symphonic Orchestra by itself is beautiful. Another good source is the Vienna Symphonic Library. My favorite free virtual instrument is the “NES VST Pack” by David Farler; I’ve made several songs sound exactly like they came from an original Nintendo console. Whatever virtual instrument you choose, they will have some strengths and some weaknesses… you’ll need to try and compose towards the instrument’s strengths. Oh, and make sure that your composing program can actually use the virtual instrument package you want to use… not all programs can.
Lastly, but most importantly, you need your brain. 200 years ago, people composed without computers or fancy software, and yet they made beautiful music because of practice and talent. The tools you have at your disposal can only take you so far… practicing, listening, and experimentation takes you the rest of the way.
Are there other tools that you might need? Absolutely. If you want to record any vocal work, you’ll need a microphone, along with a microphone stand and pop filter.4 If you don’t want to annoy the people beside you when you compose, you should get a good pair of headphones (and NOT earbuds… those things can destroy your hearing if you use them too much).
However, if you’re a beginning composer, don’t buy all of these tools all at once. Only get what you think you need… you (and your bank account) will be happier if you do.
- Unless you’re reading this from a smartphone. I don’t suggest trying to compose anything on a Blackberry. ↩
- This is not a complete list. There are other composing programs out there… these are just some of the more common ones. ↩
- You can use a 49-key keyboard, but it gets pretty cramped. The 25-key is pretty much useless for composing unless you only want to use one hand at a time and constantly change your octave range. ↩
- A “pop filter” goes between a singer and a microphone, muffling harsh consonant sounds like “p” and “t”, keeping them from ruining your recording. ↩