The digital sound machine

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5 May 2005 | 0

If you dream of turning your musical aspirations into reality by recording music and creating a CD of your tracks, or you just want to capture a child or grandchild’s musical party piece, your PC can help. Gone are the days when making an audio recording meant buying expensive equipment or making a trip to a studio and paying professional prices. Now you can use your computer to record vocals and instruments, edit the whole lot together to create a music track and compile and burn a CD of your work, all with the minimum of fuss and expenditure. Whatever you want to achieve musically with the aid of your computer, the information and guidance in this feature should help you to get started and will give you an idea of the creative possibilities within your reach.

Wired for sound
Let’s start with a quick look at the hardware you’ll need to start making music on a PC. If you’ve bought a computer in the last few years, it’s more than likely that your PC will already have a sound card fitted. A sound card offers better quality audio playback and more audio recording options. If your PC doesn’t feature a sound card, it will rely on what is known as on-board sound (an audio processing chip mounted on the PC’s motherboard). This may be fine for day-to-day computer use but for the purposes of recording sound onto your computer, you’ll need to invest in a dedicated sound card. The good news is that nowadays this needn’t break the bank and it’s possible to pick up a decent sound card for as little as EUR*40.

To fit a new sound card, you’ll need a free PCI card slot inside the computer to house it. You’ll have to unscrew the side panel of your PC and check for the slots highlighted in the picture below. Alternatively, you can pick up an external sound card that plugs into a spare USB port on your PC for a little more money.

Even the cheapest sound cards on the market today will be more than up to the job of recording audio onto a PC so don’t worry too much about things like sample rates, which will be listed in a sound card’s specifications and are an indication of audio quality. What are more important are the connections and ports that a sound card will add to your PC.

A basic sound card will give you just two inputs, microphone and line-in, and
an output socket to connect up speakers. The Creative SoundBlaster Live 24-bit (EUR*??) can record better quality audio than on-board sound chips and features
line-in and microphone ports. Meanwhile, the Creative SoundBlaster Live 24-bit External card (EUR*??) can be hooked up to a spare USB port with the minimum of fiddling inside the PC’s casing.

Once you’ve taken care of this, you’ll also need to buy a microphone to plug into the sound card before you can get on with the business of making music. Common sense dictates that the pricier microphones on the market will give better-quality audio recording. How much you want to spend is up to you but you can buy a microphone suitable for home recording for less than a tenner. Check with Harvey Norman or Peats.ie for the best deals from manufacturers such as Sony and Sennheiser.

 

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The right connections
So far so good, next comes a very simple, but very important, part of the process of recording music to your PC: connecting the right plug to the right socket. If you are using a high-end sound card, there should be a comprehensive guide to connecting up the ports in the accompanying user manual but for the kind of sound cards most of us will have in our PCs, the following guidelines apply.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the microphone should be plugged into the microphone socket, but it is handy to know that this is usually coloured pink. Any other audio input device should be plugged into the line-in socket, which is coloured blue in most cases.

Finally, some sound cards feature a MIDI socket which is coloured yellow and has 15 pin-connectors within it. This is actually a MIDI game port interface but can be used for audio input from a MIDI keyboard, for example, providing you have the right cables.
While it is possible to plug a guitar directly into a PC to record music from it, you’ll need to invest in a pre-amp to do so and even then the sound quality will be pretty poor. A better approach is to set up an electric guitar and amplifier as normal, then put a good-quality microphone next to the amp and record audio this way. You can experiment with the positioning of the microphone until you achieve the sound you want.

For the record
Windows comes with a very basic program for recording up to one minute of sound from an audio input socket onto your PC. It doesn’t let you do much else but it’s a useful starting point for experimentation with getting sounds onto your computer. Once you have connected the microphone to the PC’s microphone-in socket, select All Programs from the Start menu, then choose Accessories*Entertainment and then Sound Recorder. Clicking on the button with a circle in it starts recording and you can stop recording at any time by clicking on the button with the square in it. There are no volume control settings within Sound Recorder itself, so you’ll have to revisit the Start menu, selecting Accessories*Entertainment and then Volume Control to change this. Now select Properties from the Options menu and check the Recording circle, then ensure that the Line in and Microphone boxes are ticked. Now click on OK. You can use the sliding volume controls displayed on screen to adjust recording levels.

While Sound Recorder is interesting to experiment with when you’re just starting out recording audio, you can download the free Audacity sound recording program, which is infinitely superior to Windows Sound Recorder, from our Cover CD ROM. Once the software is installed and you’re ready to go with all the right connections in the right sockets, select the input you are recording through from the drop-down menu next to the slider with the microphone icon.

To check the input level, click in the meter toolbar above the picture of the microphone at the top right of the screen and start to play. You will see two red bars move as you play and these represent the volume of the audio input. The light red part shows the average volume and the dark red shows the peak. If the input is too loud, the bar will reach all the way to the right and the end of the meter will glow red. This is to be avoided, so move the volume slider with a microphone icon to the left to reduce the volume. You want the input to be as loud as possible without straying into the red.

When you are satisfied that you’ve set the right volume level, click on the Record button to start recording a track. If you are recording more than one part to a track – guitar and vocals, for instance – you can use Audacity to play back the first part you recorded while you record the second, so you can keep time. To do this, though, you’ll need to make sure that the sound card in your PC is duplex-capable (able to record and play back audio at the same time). Most new cards are, but be sure to check your sound set-up to be sure. To record another track alongside the first, click on the Project button and select New Audio Track then click on Record whenever you’re ready.

The hardest part of recording on your own is starting to play at the same time every time you record another part. If this is proving problematic, the best solution is to record yourself tapping out the beat or counting yourself in as the first part you record. You can delete this part when you have finished recording as part of the editing process. Audacity allows up to sixteen parts to be recorded for any one track and lets you import audio from your computer if you want to play along to a CD. Once you are satisfied with a recording, save it as a WAV file to maintain audio quality rather than using the MP3 format.

Room for improvement
The recording stage is just the start of the process of creating music tracks, and once this is completed you’ll want to fine-tune the tracks you’ve created. Audacity has 28 audio effects that can be applied to whole tracks or just to sections of a track and you can preview each one before applying it. One of the most useful effects is the compressor tool that evens out the volume of a track, making it sound more professional. To apply this effect, use the mouse to highlight the track as it is displayed in the main window and then select Compressor from the Effect menu. There are three options that you can change: Threshold, Ratio and Attack time. Threshold sets the point at which the Compressor will start to change the volume of your track. Ratio affects the strength of the change and the Attack time sets how quickly it will take effect so you don’t end up with a totally uniform sound, which would make the track sound a little lifeless.

The only way to really tell how the different effects will sound is to try them out. The effect named WahWah, for instance, is a fun effect to add to guitar parts. If you wanted to add this effect to a guitar solo rather than an entire guitar part, click on the selection tool (the button that looks like a capital ‘I’), then highlight the section of the track you want to apply it to. The selected section will appear with a darker background. Click on the Effect menu and select WahWah, then click on OK. The disadvantage with Audacity is that once you have applied an effect it’s not easy to reverse it. You can use the Undo option in the Edit menu to remove an effect but this will get rid of any other changes made to the track too.
If you are prepared to make an investment in audio-recording software, Cakewalk Music Creator offers even more possibilities, giving you the ability to record more parts to build up audio tracks and supports MIDI. You can also use music loops from the Cakewalk loop library, create your own loops and record samples from CD. Cakewalk Music Creator costs EUR*???. Alternatively, you might also want to consider Magix Music Studio 2005 Deluxe, which offers a greater degree of flexibility and control over Audacity and costs Stg£50 from www.fasttrak.co.uk.

Musical truth
Making and recording music is no longer something that only those with access to a music studio or dedicated equipment can do, and the audio-recording software we have looked at in this feature means making music is even more accessible. Using free software, and with the minimum of expenditure on additional hardware, it is possible to either record an idea for a track quickly or record an entire track complete with drums, keyboard and samples. You can then use your computer to improve the quality of the music you record or add effects that would otherwise require expensive equipment. Whatever your musical ambitions, your computer is a versatile music-making tool and one that is not hard to master with a little know-how and commitment.

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Jargon buster

MIDI  Musical Instrument Digital Interface. A standard for controlling electronic musical instruments by computer.

Motherboard  The main circuit board inside any PC into which every other component connects.

MP3  A standard for compressing digital audio. The sound quality is close to that of CD audio but requires only a fraction of the storage space.

Ogg Vorbis  A free alternative to the MP3 compression standard for audio files.

PCI  A high-performance expansion slot for desktop PCs, allowing simple installation of PCI components like sound cards and modems.

Sound card  An expansion card that lets a PC create sounds – game sound effects, music, and so on.

USB  A standard which allows quick and easy connection of external peripherals to your PC.

WAV  An uncompressed audio file, used for recording music and other sounds to disk.

WMA  Windows Media Audio. A compressed digital music format that is less widely used than MP3.

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The finished product
You may be content to record music simply for your own enjoyment but the chances are you’ll want to share it with others. As even compressed music files are a bit too large to share in bulk via e-mail, the best way to do this is to create a CD of your tracks or share files on the Internet.

Windows Media Player will help you burn tracks to CD if you don’t have audio-burning software installed on your PC (CD writers usually come with accompanying burning programs). Simply click on the Copy to CD or Device button in Media Player and then drag and drop the tracks you want to burn from their folders into the left-hand side of the pane under the Playlist to Copy heading. Ensure that each track you want to copy has a tick in the checkbox next to it, insert a blank disk into the PC’s CD writer drive and click on Copy in the top right of the Media Player window.

If you have your own website, you can save music here for others to listen to or download. It is best to save tracks you are going to make available on the Web in MP3 format to keep the file size as small as possible. Check with your ISP to see if they have any limits on the amount of data people can download from your website.

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Audio file converters
There are many different music file formats to choose between and it’s important to know which is best for a particular purpose.

When you save a music track, it should be in WAV format to preserve as much quality as possible. If you want to e-mail a track, though, it will need to be converted to a compressed file format to make it small enough to send. There are three main file format choices suitable for this: MP3, WMA and Ogg Vorbis. You can convert between these formats using the Cheetah Audio Converter or Audio Converter and Ripper 4. Converting to a compressed format destroys some of the detail, so you should always convert from the original rather than from another compressed file for best results.

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