Rob Mounsey shuts his eyes as he listens to the end of the trumpet track of a song he’s composing. It’s not quite right. He erases the symbol representing the trumpet’s fade, and then he decides just to cut the entire last bar. The computer plays the track again; on the screen a line sweeps across the bars like a Zamboni cleaning an ice rink. Now the trumpet hits a final shrill crescendo, and Mounsey sighs with relief, saying, That’s what I meant to do.
In the past a change like the one he made would have required a tedious session of fast-forwarding, rewinding, and rerecording of tape. But now, just as word processing lets writers blithely toss around hunks of text, software allows composers to alter their work almost effortlessly, giving them unprecedented control over every part of the process, from the structure of the entire piece to the sound of individual notes.
Digital music, born in the late seventies, differs from old- fashioned analog recording in the same way a digital watch does from a pocket watch. The pocket watch has hands that move smoothly around its face; the digital watch uses a binary pattern of on and off signals. In the early eighties engineers agreed on a standard for how electronic instruments and computers could talk to one another digitally and dubbed it MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This early cooperation enabled MIDI to dodge the kind of paralyzing squabbles that plague the standardization of high-definition television, and as a result the system has been able to flourish for nine years now.
Using MIDI, you can hook together keyboards, drum machines, guitar synthesizers, and computers. A traditional instrument like a trumpet can become part of such a network if you play it into a sampler, which can digitally record and play back sounds. When you play any instrument in this networked band, MIDI data go to the computer, describing the sound by means of the start time, pitch, volume, and other variables. Once you’ve recorded one performance, the computer can play it back for you. After that, you can add more tracks until the composition is complete. Once you’re satisfied with a piece, the computer can play the tracks together.
The software packages that capture music or let you edit it are collectively known as sequencers. Combined on a screen, they give the distinct feel of a studio, showing the notes being played, a track sheet detailing what instruments go where, a counter, a metronome, and the controls of a tape deck. The software becomes your cocomposer, allowing you to shuffle bars of music, or mute, merge, and add tracks with a keystroke. There’s even a rehumanizing function that injects offbeats into perfectly timed sections.
Editing software lets you mold individual sounds by showing you the pattern of a sound on a graph and giving you the hard numbers for values such as the length of time it takes for the sound to reach its maximum level. You can change the anatomy of the sound by hand or have the computer help. Say you have two different bass sounds, says keyboardist and producer David Rosenthal. From looking at them, the computer will create fifty more bass sounds. Sometimes they really come out strange. But sometimes you find something useful.
The printing of music has been glaringly pre-Gutenberg--until recently, a composer had to write every note by hand. Notation software now turns improvisation directly into sheet music. Showing the staffs on the screen, the software allows you to move notes around or add lyrics, and then prints them--meaning that you can concentrate your energy on making music rather than developing writer’s cramp.
The top-end equipment that Mounsey uses has a daunting price tag, but it is possible for an amateur to buy electronic equipment and a MIDI system for a few thousand dollars and produce startlingly professional compositions. Moreover, as new products hit the market, the MIDI standard ensures that your system won’t become obsolete.It’s like anything else in computers: there’s always a bigger hard drive, there’s always a better monitor, says Paul Lehrman, a University of Massachusetts music professor. But if you’re happy with your tools, and you know how to use them, they can last for a long time.