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Tutorial about composition of computer/digital music: introduction to computer music and the virtual music studio.


This tutorial covers the basic steps that allow to create digital music in a computer through a virtual music studio. For illustrating this tutorial I have chosen the version FL (Fruity Loops) Studio 5 because it is, so far, the one that I have used the most. Along these articles we will create a short composition, assessing some of the creative choices which could be faced during the process, while learning how to use a virtual music studio. We will dive a little into the theory of music and learn just enough to get started, so prior knowledge is not necessary. Of course, true musicians have dedicated many years to the study of music and reading this basic tutorial will not turn anyone into a prestigious composer, but if you want to create your first compositions, for any reason, this tutorial may help to begin a path on this creative field.

FL Studio playback controls

Basically, we can understand musical compositions as structures which have these four parts: lead, chords, bass and drums. This is the approach that this tutorial takes. On the other hand, I have structured the tutorial in these four sections:

The virtual music studio: a brief overview of the functionalities of this type of software that are required to accomplish the creation of a simple composition.

Composing a music theme: a basic process for sequencing a melodic and rhythmic composition which combines multiple tracks, channels or layers in an harmonious way.

Creative variations: a set of ideas that can be put into practice to modify the personality of a composition.

Timing and mixing: a demonstration of how to determine the tempo of a music clip for the purpose of creating additional music which is synchronized with it.

This tutorial is based around a very simple melody which will progressively evolve. The purpose is to expose basic principles that are useful for attempting the creation of our own compositions. By keeping the melody simple it is easier to see how and why things go together as they do. Detailed examples have been included in the form of graphics and sound clips.

The virtual music studio

Before we start composing, we need to become familiar with our chosen sequencer or virtual music studio. Virtual music studios are updated versions of traditional MIDI sequencers which take advantage of the latest developments of music production software. In addition to the management of standard MIDI files, virtual music studios have their own file formats to save our musical projects. They also allow us to render our projects directly in a waveform format, and by using the in-built mixing console we can control the characteristics of the audio output. Virtual music studios allow to produce a music theme from the beginning to the end, possibly rendering unnecessary any external audio editing.

FL Studio 5 has a lot of features but for the purpose of this tutorial we will be concerned with only two of them. The first component that we will see is the piano roll, where notes are drawn to compose either a melodic or a rhythmic pattern. It basically comprises two parts: a vertical piano keyboard located on the left end and a roll with grid where notes are drawn. Some piano rolls have as well, as in this example, a bottom area where the velocity of each note is shown. For our convenience, the piano roll offers different levels of zoom.

In the grid, the thicker vertical lines mark the divisions between measures, whilst the thinner vertical lines divide each measure into smaller time values: half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes. To enter a note we just have to click the grid in the position where the note should be, using the piano keyboard as guidance. The position of a note can be changed by dragging it throughout the piano roll, and its length can be adjusted by dragging its ends. It is possible as well to draw a selection box around groups of notes to relocate, copy, cut or delete them.

In the bottom area we can adjust the velocity of each note by dragging the tips of the drawbars. Velocity represents the intensity of the sound of a particular note in respect of all other notes; in real piano keyboards, velocity is defined by how hard a key is struck. If we are not interested in using the effect of variable intensity in our melody, we just have to leave all the drawbars set at default values.

FL Studio piano roll

Now that we have seen the piano roll, it is time to see the channel list or step sequencer. I have used two different names to refer to this window because it has this dual functionality, as it can be seen in the small pictures below. We can use it to move between different melodic tracks or just to arrange a rythmic pattern in a typical 16-step sequencer, which is the default appearance of the window when the program loads a blank project. The channel list is the overview of the whole composition and thus we should be using this feature all the time. In the image below the channel list shows the four tracks of the simple song which this tutorial uses as example.

Each of the different instruments is assigned to a channel whose properties can be adjusted. Channels can be renamed at will by the user; in this example I have renamed them according to their function rather than to the instrument attached to them. The tiny lights on the left side allow to mute or unmute channels individually, and by right clicking on them we can select the option [Solo], whilst the small knobs next to them allow to adjust pan and volume. By clicking on the channel's name button a small window will open and allow to change the properties of the channel. The lights to the right of the name buttons indicate which channel is currently selected; when a channel is selected certain actions can be performed upon it, such as changing its position on the list, copying the contents of its associated piano roll or deleting it. By left clicking in those lights we can select a single channel and through right clicking we can select multiple channels.

FL Studio channel list
FL Studio step sequencer

FL Studio 5 incorporates a good selection of instruments, including several synthesizers, a few samplers and a couple of drum machines. The pack includes as well a speech synthesizer with different types of voices and a strange instrument that generates sound from graphical bitmaps. For those who are fond of plucked strings there are a couple of small generators and also a lite version of the reFX Slayer VST electric guitar. Another interesting addition is a small instrument which plays as an electric piano or organ. This allows to create compositions of different styles from the first moment. Besides channels connected to plugins, MIDI Out channels are available as well so we can use the large array of voices of the computer's MIDI mapper to render music.

FL Studio SimSynth
FL Studio DrumSynth

All of the aforementioned plugins are native of FL Studio and hence cannot be imported into other different virtual music studios. Every virtual music studio has its own built-in plugins of diverse quality. Later in this tutorial we will be using some of these instruments for the melodic and rhythmic base of the example composition. As we will see, the ability of copying the whole content of channels at once is useful, if not necessary, when we want to change the instrument associated to a particular melody.

The mixing console is used to process the different signals outputted by individual channels. Along with the master channel there are up to 64 effect channels available, to be used in the case that we want to add different effects to particular channels instead of the whole composition. On each channel up to eight different audio processors can be stacked up. Effect channels can be routed toward the master or otherwise toward their peers, which would allow to serially stack a large array of effects. There is available a large number of processors, including the typical delay, reverb, chorus, flanger or phaser. Curiously, a good number of these are VST plugins which can be imported into a different virtual music studio, where they will be displayed through a different graphic user interface.

FL Studio mixing console

It is a good idea to visit the directory where the virtual music studio has been installed, so we can discover interesting things that otherwise could go unnoticed. In the case of FL Studio 5 we will find not only a lot of demonstrative projects, but also many waveform files, some VST processors and a directory called "Trash bin", where the program stores files that have been apparently overwritten but which are actually kept as a backup, so that in case you made a mistake your project is not lost. If we want to install an external VST plugin we have to copy the corresponding files into the Plugins/VST directory, and then effectuate a scan by clicking on CHANNELS -> [Add one] -> [More...] -> [Refresh] to be able to see and select the newly installed plugin.

For the time being we have seen enough things to get started. Further on the tutorial I will explain any additional functionality that would be required for completing the composition. In the next chapter we will lay down a melodic line and build additional channels to accompany it. Let the music begin...

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