original. acoustic. music.

On Computers and Music

A little nervous writing this as we are going back to The Adelaide tonight to redeem our rather poor performance last week.

Darrel's been on holiday (and hopefully hasn't done any more amateur plumbing) and I've been pretty busy at work but have found time to sit down and practice for once, so we should pull out something a lot better this evening, I'm sure.

I've been exploring music composition software lately. I'm a tracker from way back, having cut my teeth on the Commodore Amiga MOD format using programs such as ProTracker. When I tearfully left my Amiga to go to PC I was overjoyed to find Fasttracker 2, by Starbreeze Studios THE tracker for the PC (unless you were brought up on Screamtracker or Impulse Tracker - there was fierce competition in the scene in those days). The Internet brought me to the Kosmik Free Music Foundation and scene.org and to the wealth of material available for free download in MOD, XM, or IT formats.

Fasttracker 2 satisified my every tracking need until I moved away from MS-DOS and Windows 95 into Windows 98SE and needed a more easily-accessible application that didn't require an MS-DOS window. Enter MadTracker 2 by Yannick Delwiche. Not only could I play all my old Amiga MODs and FT2 XM files and instruments, but I could add EFFECTS! MadTracker 2's MTM format included support for its own FX plugins as well as (gasp!) VST plugins! There are literally hundreds of freeware VST FX and Instruments available for the PC on the Internet, and I amassed a modest collection that I never really got round to using. And why? Well, soon after I found MadTracker 2, I found Apple Macintosh, and fell in love/hate (as opposed to my hate/hate relationship with my PC). I also began using ProTools LE and working alongside professionals who were deeply entrenched in its arcane secrets. I started to expect higher quality out of my music applications and since I had shifted platforms to the Mac, I needed something that would suit my style of composition. Thanks to Renoise, I have my cake and I'm eating it as we speak. Sorry for spitting crumbs.

Renoise is a tracker with VST support for both Mac and PC and has just undergone a major upgrade (although still in Beta stage) which has added a bunch of cool features that had been in MadTracker 2 but not in previous versions of Renoise. The one thing that MadTracker still has over Renoise is ReWire support, which would allow me to run sequences directly into ProTools. Currently I have to render tracks to WAV files and import them, which is time consuming. I really like Renoise and, although I am a registered user of MadTracker as well, it's still not enough to take me back to my PC. I'm even convinced myself I don't care that all my VST plugins collected for use on my PC don't work on my Mac. Almost... (snif)

But as I said at the start of this rant... er ... post, I've been exploring music composition software. I've had a serious crack at using Reason Adapted that came with my ProTools bundle. Reason is a good example of the MIDI approach to music. I would add a Wikipedia link, but there are some things you just have to do on your own.

I'm still getting to grips with Reason's sequencer, which scrolls from left to right instead of top to bottom, like a tracker. I'm also unused to "drawing" notes on a piano roll - trying to use a MIDI sequencer without a MIDI slave keyboard, you have no other choice. I do have a MIDI keyboard, but I haven't really used it with Reason yet. The great thing about trackers is that they map the piano keyboard to the computer keyboard, allowing you to compose your tracks on your laptop without any external gear. Find me a MIDI application that will do that and I may make the switch.

The MIDI approach to composition implies a certain financial status, age, or dedication to your craft. Put simply - you've got to buy a lot of gear, and to do that you need to be either rich, over thirty years old, both, or so dedicated you live on peanut butter and cigarettes to be able to afford it. If you're willing to part with the cash up front, Reason allows you to do away with the constant accumulative purchasing inherent in the MIDI world, and packages together a bunch of software instruments almost identical to the more common professional bits of kit you are likely to find in a studio.

As Propellerheads are not paying me, they can do their own marketing so I won't go into much more detail. Suffice to say, Reason immediately caters for the dance musician, but with a bit of perseverance you can bend it to your will in other genera. This is also the case with trackers - a simple mindless dance track is a few clicks away, but more interesting things are not much further distant.

I miss my Amiga, and I miss its predecessor, the Commodore 64, where I wrote my first pieces of music on a program the name of which I have forgotten. On the Amiga, besides ProTracker, I used Sonix, and Deluxe Music Construction Set. Where are they now?

I will, however, never forget the work of geniuses (genii?) such as Rob Hubbard, David Whittaker, Fred Gray, Tim Follin, Jeroen Tel, Martin Walker, Galway and others - those pioneers of electronic music created on the Commodore's amazing SID chip. Visit www.sidplay.org and you too will be able to experience the pure joy of 8-bit game music on your fancypants modern machines.

Til next time: wish us luck.