Where Did It Start?
For the home studio user, computer music history started with the invention of the musical instrument digital interface (MIDI). MIDI is a standard language that allows electronic instruments and computers to communicate. The invention of MIDI led to the computer's ability to control a keyboard synthesizer. Unlike audio, MIDI does not have to be played in real time; it's a text file of commands, not sounds. Because MIDI data are just simple commands and not actual recorded audio, you can play MIDI parts one note at a time, at any tempo you choose.
MIDI, then, is a form of electronic composition; you write it one note at a time and the computers or instruments play it back. Since MIDI issues simple note-on/note-off commands to control the keyboard, editing and manipulating MIDI music is very simple. The sequencer was born from this marriage of MIDI and computers. Sequencers can either be physical machines or computer programs, although nowadays it's more common to use sequencing programs in your computer.
A sequencer functions much like a multitrack audio recorder. Tracks are recorded one on top of another and arrangements are built up one layer at a time. Since the sequencer doesn't actually make any music—all it does is control the keyboard, much like a player piano—the sequences can be substantially edited. Just like book publishers reveled in the idea of being able to cut, copy, and paste text in a word processor, the creation of sequencers gave MIDI-based musicians the same power. Whole sections of music can be rearranged with ease, and editing can be as precise as note-by-note changes. Since sequencing doesn't require a powerful machine to operate, computers of the 1980s could handle the job of sequencing MIDI. A great deal of the commercial music of the last twenty years has been a combination of sequenced and live music.
Sequencers continue to be a vital part of professional and home studios. For more about sequencers, check out Chapter 7 for details on specific programs.
Composers and musicians were delighted by the unbelievable editing power that MIDI sequencers afforded them. Sequencers answered the growing need for programs that made it easy to edit audio as easily as MIDI. In the past, editing audio with analog tape meant cutting and gluing tape together on a splicing block. This was a very difficult and arduous task, and inexperienced or careless splicers wound up with music that sounded like it had been hacked to pieces. The introduction of audio to the sequencer world made it possible to edit at high resolution of the computer screens.
However, the computers had a hard time dealing with the large file sizes of audio, nor were they very good at handling the complex processing needed to work with audio data. In time, multitrack computer audio became available and there is now an industry standard for multitrack audio: Digidesign Pro Tools. All of this technology came with a hefty price, however, which put it out of reach for most home studio owners. Recently, the power of the modern personal computer with its lower-cost, well-crafted software has allowed home musicians to join the party. Now, anyone can own a version of Pro Tools, and the democratization of recording technology has allowed other manufacturers to offer comparable recording tools at low prices.
What the Computer Can Do for Your Music
The computer has changed the way music is made. The flexibility and sound quality of current audio software has made the computer an indispensable tool. You might be asking, “This is all great, but what can it do for me?” Here is a short list of what a computer can help you accomplish:
Integrate multitrack audio and MIDI
Edit and move music around much like a word processor lets you edit words
Easily burn to CD or distribute and sell your music online
In short, the computer can be whatever you want it to be. It can easily function as a recorder, sequencer, effects processor … you name it, a modern computer can handle the job. Now that you're convinced you want to use a computer in your home studio, you'll need to get the computer set up.