Column: Project5 and computer music

Loose Wire — So You Wanna Be a Rock Star?: If you still harbour teen dreams of fronting your own band, this new software’s for you – it brings an entire sound system to your PC

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 24 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Making music used to involve chunks of metal, miles of cable and roadies called Phil. Not any more.

Take my closet, for example. Taking up most of the space are half a dozen boxes that once formed my music studio (what I’d call my rig when trying to impress people). Among them: a drum, three synthesizers, an effects rack, a compressor box and a mixer. All of this must have cost me at least $2,500 in the early 1990s. Linking them all was a maze of cables producing enough hum to scare away bears. Now it’s all been replaced by a CD-ROM from a guy called Greg.

The CD-ROM in question is called Project5, launched this month by a United States-based company called Twelve Tone Systems, and Greg is Greg Hendershott, the unassuming genius who runs it. I don’t use the term “genius” lightly, but Hendershott is up there in my pantheon of heroes for once producing a program called Cakewalk, which allowed me to hook up all my musical equipment to my computer and do something called “sequencing” — playing them all at once. So, instead of laboriously recording a drum part onto tape before adding a keyboard part, Cakewalk used a standard called MIDI to store the raw data of what was played — which notes, how long you hold them for, how hard you hit them — onto a computer, and then allowed you to tweak it. Cakewalk revolutionized song-writing for people like me, who couldn’t afford to rent a studio or hire musicians, and, most importantly, tended to hit a lot of wrong notes.

Now Hendershott’s done it again. Project5 (about $400 from www.cakewalk.com) is a program that not only stores the raw data, it also provides the sounds, mimicking all your synthesizers and drum machines via an on-screen display that looks like a console on the Starship Enterprise. All you need is a MIDI keyboard to play, and the computer will create the sounds, as well as store, or sequence, them. Suddenly you can tweak the belchings of Shrek, or the timbre of a Javanese gamelan, or record your grand piano and play the whole thing from your PC (no Mac version is available).

Hendershott is not first to the table with Project5: Programs like Propellerhead Software’s Reason ($400 from www.propellerheads.se) are collections of “software synthesizers” that can be played using a MIDI keyboard, or a sequencing program like Cakewalk’s successor, Sonar.

Still, Project5 is definitely the future. It capitalizes on all the standards that have evolved within the computer sequencing world, so that you can easily plug any competing “softsynth” into it and start using it immediately. What’s great about all this is that whereas all my old synthesizers were mostly just banks of sounds — piano, string, thrush warble — that took a rocket-science degree and a weekend to tweak, all the parameters in new softsynths can be tweaked easily and extensively. That all this appears on your screen just like a bank of synthesizers on a rig, along with knobs, sliders, flashing lights, bits of discarded chewing gum, etc., makes me feel as if I’ve died and gone to a sort of synth heaven.

Of course, the computer/music revolution has already begun, and left me way behind. Amateur musicians all over the world have produced a catalogue of electronic dance music that dwarfs the musical output of the past few centuries combined. It is this crowd that Hendershott is aiming at — indeed, his work helped create much of the phenomenon. However, if the computer revolution is to fully realize its potential for musical creativity we need to see programs like Project5 developed for folk who couldn’t tell the difference between a synthesizer and a microwave. Then I think we’ll be hearing some seriously interesting music coming out. Just don’t expect me to create it: I’m too busy selling a cupboard full of cables.

Column: MP3 burning

Loose Wire — Burning for An Eternal Flame

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 17 October 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Those of you who spent your lovesick adolescence painstakingly making compilation tapes for your paramour, wasting hours hunched over a record deck deciding on a perfect segue to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin exhaling their way through Je t’aime . . . Moi non plus, I’m happy to report that technological advances now make the process a less exacting experience. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but recent improvements in software and hardware have made compilation CDs something you can create at home, quickly and easily. Here’s how.
 
What you need are a CD writer, some music and some software. For Windows users I’d recommend Cakewalk’s new Pyro 2003 ($25 for a download version from www.cakewalk.com/ pyro), but you might also try Ahead’s Nero (about $40 from www.nero.com) or Roxio’s EasyCD Creator (about $90 from www.roxio.com).
 
First, the music. If you’re using CDs, programs like Pyro will convert them to a format that can be stored on a PC. These are either MP3 files or rival Windows Media Audio (WMA) files — a compressed format that loses a little of the original sound quality — or a wave file, which retains all the original range of sound, but makes for a whopping great file. Want to use your LPs, or a cassette? Pyro will handle those too, basically by having you plug the relevant machine — turntable, or tape player — into your PC, and playing the track so the PC can record it. Pyro can also remove any clicks, pops or other sound quirks that were either on the original, or which appeared during the transfer to PC.
 
Pyro does all this quite intuitively, which is why I’d recommend it over other more feature-heavy, but less user-friendly, programs. That’s not to say Pyro isn’t powerful; Cakewalk made their name in music-recording software for pros and Pyro is a spin-off from that technology, so you’re in good hands. Once the tracks are in a format that Pyro can deal with, you can view them graphically as waveforms, like the jagged signals on heart-monitoring equipment. This is great for arranging the order of songs, and sorting out how you want them to follow on from one another.
 
Once again, Pyro makes this very easy: Click and drag a horizontal line over the waveform to set the volume of each song, and drag the ends of the same line to alter fades in and out. Drag the song’s waveform to alter the gap between each song, or overlap them for that wild party feel. In my day you could only do this with two turntables, fiddly cassettes, a mixer and a lot of patience, and if you got it wrong the first time there wasn’t much you could do about it except curse Serge Gainsbourg.
 
Once you’re happy with sound levels, segues and the overall brilliance of your compilation, it’s time to burn it to CD. This is also pretty straightforward, though I ran into some minor problems, probably as a result of my CD burner more than Pyro. Pyro could have done better on the error message, which ventured little more than something like ‘You’ve got a problem, dude.’
 
On balance, though, this is an excellent way to make CDs and it’s not as time consuming as it sounds. If halfway through you decide to add a song from elsewhere, Pyro handles it without any kerfuffle. If I had any complaints, I’d like to see better contextual help, which though innovative is too patchy to be helpful.
 
Programs like Pyro also make sense for the growing number of folk downloading music off the Internet, whether it’s from the dark and illegal world of post-Napster file sharing, or the uncertain, but legal, world of on-line music subscription. If you haven’t tried the latter, I’d recommend Emusic (www.emusic.com), which, for a monthly fee of just $10, allows you to download an unlimited number of MP3s from its sizeable library. You won’t find everything you’re looking for, but it’s a great way to check out new stuff, or come across some forgotten favourites. This isn’t for hi-fi perfectionists, but it’s a worthy successor to the grab-bag tapes of old.
 
Finally, suggestions please for what song should follow Je T’aime. I’m considering Eric Carmen’s original of All By Myself, but I’m open to suggestions.