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CREATION OF DIGITAL MUSIC

In this article I will showcase the typical creative process which I once followed to complete a musical composition. I am not a professional and I have to admit that even if I can compose melodies I have never developed the ability to play an instrument, above all because I am not really interested in it as other creative hobbies occupy my time. I am a programmer, web developer, graphic editor, illustrator and redactor involved in the development of the Sakhalia Net Content Network. Perhaps my interest in producing music came too late in my life, but that would not prevent me from composing my own music and experimenting with many aspects of the world of sound.

I have tested a variety of sequencers until finding one which I liked the most. Prestations are obviously important but I have liked as well older software which no longer works in my current operating system. Software is continuously upgraded to newest versions, but I do not see a real necessity to work under the latest releases offered by the industry; for achieving good results it is always better to rely in talent and to maximize the knowledge of the software used. It is pointless for the user to operate a very complex piece of software if he only masters the basic aspects of the application.

In a different yet somehow similar order of things, I can only think that there exists some kind of "mania" for grabbing countless plugins that should contribute well to our productions, but which in practice are just toys to spend time with. There is an ever growing army of VST instruments and effects of the most diverse qualities offered in the internet; the largest part of them are free of cost but, not surprisingly, also hardly free of mediocrity. There exist as well those instruments which feature so many controls as the consoles of a large aircraft. It is easy to get distracted by this huge offer from the purpose of creating great music, so I prefer to recall that less is often more.

Unless the average user or the musician is truly fascinated by those gadgets, it would probably safe to state that music itself and the emotion that it conveys is more important than the instruments used to create it. If we think about the work of famous musicians we can conclude that their studios are filled with quality rather than quantity, besides talent. It seems contradictory that while hardware and software quickly evolves to be soon declared obsolete, the music created by those elements is often labelled as "immortal". I personally like music which is not subject to fashions and which hence can achieve a certain degree of immortality.

Being one of its diverse manifestations, music is considered an abstract form of art. It is without doubt a powerful way of expression and hardly there is anyone whose mood cannot be affected by music. I consider music to be not only the expression of a emotion, but also the expression of a concept. As culturally molded beings, we have learned to associate different types of musical compositions with different figurative concepts. So, when we are ready to begin a composition we might be driven by a figurative idea. If that is the case, we are bordering the concept of conceptual music. However, music can hardly be truly conceptual without the help of figurative assets, in the form of sound samples taken from well known elements other than musical instruments.

Composition

When time comes to get to work on the idea, the first step would be to choose a musical key that seems suitable for the composition. The key is crucial to define the character or mood that the composition will have, along with the characteristics of the sounds that will render the composition. A rough approach states that major keys are aligned with a positive mood while minor keys are aligned with negative emotions. There is detailed documentation about this topic so the musician can set a narrow field of test to begin with. It is easier to create a composition which includes only one key, but the concatenation of different keys gives new ways to expressiveness.

Another interesting aspect of keys is the number of notes that form them, which in practical terms can vary from a few notes to the twelve notes of the full chromatic scale. The number of notes will deeply affect the character of the composition, as it determines the amplitude of intervals between notes. It is quite noticeable that larger intervals favor a more "striking" form of music, which however remained for long time in a second plane after the arrival of what we call nowadays "classical music", a musical standard which favored scales of seven or more notes.

We could consider as well to adopt a unusual time signature in our compositions. For some reason, the 4/4-meter time signature became the standard of modern music. We can try different time signatures and see how this affect the composition. Unfortunately, the piano roll of music sequencers is typically set to distribute the space according to a 4/4-meter time signature, just because the developers thought that no common user would want to try a different setting. In such case, the musician who wants to depart from the common 4/4-meter time signature will have to face the confusion of keeping track of imaginary divisions between measures which exist only in his mind.

Now that we are ready to begin to define the first melodic phrases which will define our composition, we have basically two options for doing this: either writing the notes directly into the piano roll or using a physical piano keyboard to improvise them. This is probably just a matter of preference, and as far as I am concerned I prefer to use a physical piano keyboard for elaborating the most complex melodies, using the piano roll for the secondary melodies and drum kits, which are rather simple and repetitive in nature. The work of composition is a matter of seeking combinations of notes within the chosen musical key, which are pleasant or suitable for the artistic purpose of the composition.

After a very variable time span, the concatenation of multiple melodic phrases arranged in different sections or passages could lead to the conclusion of the musical idea. However, if the composition includes complex melodies that play simultaneously a solid knowledge of harmony should be put on the table. The degree of complexity that a composition should have is open to interpretation from the musician. Typically, the simplest musical theme includes these three layers or channels: lead, bass and drums. However, the musician can include or discard anything in favor of the intended musical idea. These are the typical layers used in a musical composition:

Lead: the most complex form of melody, which constitutes the "soul" of the composition. It requires special effort and talent to create a lead that successfully provides the desired character to the composition. If a composition is destined to be remembered, it is because of the lead. Depending on the character of the composition, this part is generally represented by sounds of low to high frequency, low to high intensity and short to medium duration, which stand out above those of accompanying layers.

Pad: a subtle form of lead which may serve as a companion of the main lead or else take its role in the composition, either integrally or in certain sections. They are very effective at enriching the main lead when synchronized and harmonized with it. This part is generally represented by sounds of low to high frequency, low to medium intensity and long duration, which confer a mysterious or mystical character to the composition.

Effects: individual sounds which, placed in precise locations throughout the composition, are intended to enhance its "personality". They generally consist of audio files which are incorporated into a specific layer and which depict figurative sounds to clearly convey a concept.

Bass: a simple form of melody which has a rythmic function and helps to fill the composition. Typically, the melody repeats itself on every measure and may change its pattern on different sections of the composition. This part is generally represented by sounds of low frequency, low to medium intensity and short duration.

Drums: a variety of generally non-melodic sounds which along with the bass serve as the rythmic foundation of the composition. Typically, the pattern repeats itself on every measure and may change on different sections of the composition.

Music production software

This kind of software can be classified into three different categories: instruments, sequencers and audio editors. Modern software-based sequencers typically include support for VST and DX plugins, a piano roll in which musical patterns are drawn and to which instrument plugins can be connected, a playlist in which musical patterns are arranged to structure the whole composition and a mixing console to which effect plugins can be connected. It is possible to use the piano roll alone or in combination with the playlist, and to generate sound through synthesis or pre-made waveforms. Sequencers have also their own built-in plugins, both generators and processors, which are hardly of excellent quality but allow to begin production without external support.

Orion Platinum piano roll
Orion Platinum music sequencer

To begin with, melodic phrases have to be arranged in such a way that they form a complete and definitive musical structure. This work can be easily made in the piano roll of a sequencer. It is a common feature among sequencers a playlist where short melodic patterns, drawn in different instances of the piano roll, can be arranged together; however, we could as well draw the whole melodic structure of a track in a single instance of the piano roll. Since the MIDI standard includes information about the velocity of individual notes, it is common as well the possibility of adjusting this parameter in the piano roll.

During this stage of creation the musician can add chords or other types of harmonic notes, as well as ornaments, that can enrich the composition. The piano roll is used as well to add rythmic tracks to the composition, which generally include a bass and a drum kit. Choosing the right sounds may be thorough task which requires to browse through the countless sound patches stored in different virtual instruments. But in the end, this will allow to find the most appropriate personality for the melody and set the mood that the musician wants to transmit.

The output of the different tracks or channels is routed toward a mixing console where effects may be added for independent tracks or for the whole composition. Certain processing effects may be useful if the virtual instrument attached to a track is not able to generate a sound of good quality. However, even if adding effects such as reverb or chorus can be interesting, this kind of effects will cause "blurriness" in the audio output, so they should be always used with moderation.

When the work of composing and arranging is finished the sequencer should allow to export the result to a MIDI file or to an audio file, either in raw (WAV) or compressed (MP3) format. This latter capability along with audio-processing plugins turns a sequencer into which is known as a virtual music studio, a piece of software capable of handling the complete creation of a musical production, from conception to masterization. If we intend to use an audio editor for post-processing the audio, then the different tracks will have to be exported individually.

It could be necessary to remove audible disturbances that are present in the audio track due to the influence of the very hardware which renders the sound, which generally consist of a continuous layer of hiss and, occasionally, clicks and pops that appear isolated throughout the audio output. Some other typical manipulations include the equalization of individual tracks to give preponderance to a certain range of frequencies, or to process the sound through a harmonic generator to improve the definition of audio which became blurry after excessive processing or add brightness to the sound generated by mediocre virtual instruments.

A last step should be the normalization of amplitude (term which refers to the intensity of sound). To maximize performance we can normalize the audio signal to levels close to 0 decibels (db), without ever exceeding this value to prevent clipping, which is the abrupt removal of portions of the waveform. The gain of amplitude favors the apparition of noise which previously was hardly audible. Audio processing effects often generate a gain of amplitude, so before starting the processing of a piece of audio subsequent to its normalization the levels of amplitude should be reduced to prevent clipping.

It often happens that a waveform contains very different levels of amplitude. This may have been a choice of the composer, who wanted to play with surges and declines of intensity to create the desired atmosphere; however, this is likely to be inconvenient when listening the composition in a not so quiet environment. Since the normalization of amplitude is applied with the same proportion throughout the whole waveform, a very irregular pattern of amplitude peaks will cause some passages to sound much lower than others. It is of course desirable to remain fidel to every aspect of the composition, but we can create a compressed version to listen in noisier situations. A compressor, which is also available in the form of plugin to load into an audio editor, can level the sharp differences in amplitude, so the volume of the composition will be more regular and after the process of normalization the result will be a waveform which is louder in overall, but not absolute, terms.

Cool Edit Pro multitrack view
Cool Edit Pro spectral view

When storing audio the perfect quality will be given by raw formats such as WAV, which however demands a lot of disk space. This format is most appropriate for storing the tracks created in the music studio, which are subject to possible modifications in the future. On the other hand, a compressed format such as MP3 would be the most suitable for distributing the music themes to the public. If the ratio of compression is not excessive the resulting audio should keep a high level of quality.

Albeit the audio output of a music theme can be fully processed within the scope of a virtual studio application such as FL Studio, audio editing software confers a greater control over the sound; for example, in addition to hearing the sound the user can also see it as a clear graphical representation, which helps not little. As it happens with sequencers and virtual studios, there are many offerings in the market of audio editing software. I have been using so far the veteran Cool Edit Pro 2, which despite its many years in service offers many functionalities for the manipulation of audio tracks, including support for DX plugins.

Cool Edit Pro 2, which still works in the 64-bit version of Windows 7, has a good waveform viewer with spectrographic capabilities. This makes any task related with audio manipulation, such as the cleaning of noise and artifacts, the generation of harmonics or the manipulation of frequencies, easier to accomplish. The spectrographic view is very useful to see at a glance the quality of the harmonics of an audio track. In addition to the single waveform editor there is a multitrack waveform sequencer where complete music themes can be arranged.

The built-in processors are numerous and complex enough to solve almost any problem or necessity. The support for DX plugins is an interesting complement, however these plugins can occasionally cause a crash in the program. Fortunately, there is an automatic session-saving feature which generally prevent the progress of the work from being lost after a crash.

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