Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) was a virtuoso pianist and composer, and generally recognized to be the one of the greatest of all time. To help him with his composing, Liszt had a custom desk built which had a small piano keyboard built into the middle drawer. It was built by a manufacturer called Bösendorf, and it is currently on display at the Franz Liszt Museum in Budapest.
These days, many aspiring musicians have similar set ups in their compositional studios. We still use the same musical language and symbols that Liszt used, but we also have a variety of programs and technology to help us capture and develop our musical ideas quickly. In this article, I would like to review a few of these technologies and programs that can help you put your music studio to work.
There are several compositional programs available to music writers. I should note, however, that the ability to read music is definitely a prerequisite to using these programs effectively. If you don’t know how to read music, or you need a little brushing up on the basics, there are several free applications, YouTube tutorials, and websites available, such as musicnotes.com, or teoria.com. You can also hire a private tutor like me to guide your progress and tailor your experience to fit how you learn.
If you are comfortable reading and writing music, you can try out compositional programs like Sibelius or Finale. These are comprehensive music writing programs that you would find at any music school, and they are the standards used by most professional composers. With programs like these you can create musical works with as much or as little detail as you need. You can, for example, compose for any instrument and play back what you write as you go. You can adjust your work, such as changing the key signature, transpose a passage, or copy & paste selections with jus a few clicks. You can insert lyrics, performance markings, or even make custom symbols if you’re trying to create special musical diagrams (as I often need to as a music theorist). They are also compatible with USB connected piano keyboards, so you can add to your compositions directly from your piano.
Sibelius and Finale are largely interchangeable programs. I use Sibelius, but more out of familiarity at this point than anything else. There are free, more limited versions of the program if you only need the basics. But for more complicated writing, I recommend getting the full program. There are also other free programs such as MuseScore, although they may not offer the same level of reliability, compatibility, or range of compositional options.
Maybe you want to skip the writing programs and go straight to recording and mixing your voice or instrument. If so, you can start by creating an audio file, either with an iPhone voice memo or any other kind of digital recording device. The microphone on most smartphones is of a reasonably high quality these days, but if you want to make something with a more professional sound, it is important to get a high-quality microphone.
Microphones can range in price significantly, from $50 to $300 or more. I use an Audiotechnica ATR2100-USB for my meetings and performances, which works well for me. To improve the quality even more, you add a pop filter and a foam ball mic cover. These are great for reducing overly harsh consonant sounds. A microphone arm to suspend the mic in the air is also helpful for reducing extra noise caused by placing them on a table.
Once you have your studio set up for recording, you can start plugging those recording into sequencing, or “mixing” programs. For Mac users, the most popular mixing program is probably GarageBand. For PC users, there is Adobe Audition CC or Audacity, to name a couple. I use Adobe Audition CC and I do recommend it, although there is a steep learning curve to use it effectively.
With programs like these you can drop in your audio files and organize or adjust them in several ways. If you have multiple files, you can time them together, cut & paste clips for a master track, or add effects like fade-in/fade-out transitions. If you want to run multiple tracks simultaneously, such as one for each instrument, you can record a new track while listening to another in headphones. This will help you line them up properly and make sure you keep the same speed.
Some programs, like GarageBand, also have the option to create electronic music directly from the program. This allows you to choose from a range of instrumental sounds, create programmable loops, and drop them into a track whenever you want. This is actually how many recording artists do it these days. Why hire a full band of musicians when you can do it all with a single computer program? Often performers write (or have written for them) an electronic back track using a program like this, and then sing another track over it.
Creating Your Own Music
Sometimes you need to feel yourself play or sing your idea to confirm that it is what you really want; to make sure that it feels natural. It’s easy to put something into a program and then realize that it is incredibly awkward to sing or play. If you are starting a new song from scratch, there is something to be said for just sitting down with your instrument, a pencil, and some blank sheet music paper, just like Liszt did at his piano studio desk.