So now that we have our DAW and some basic hardware, it’s time to start thinking about how you’d like to communicate with your computer and its software. A QWERTY keyboard is nice for writing this blog post, but it won’t be my weapon of choice when I want to work on music. Peripheral devices, also known as controllers, will allow you to have a tangible instrument to play with while working in a mostly digital realm; they help provide a distraction from the exhausting glow of the computer’s screen and focus your attention into something real. At the very least, they will help you move more fluidly throughout your software, help facilitate decisions, and generally reduce the time spent not playing music.
There are a few different types of controllers, each one having different purposes and powers. Almost all controllers communicate with a protocol called MIDI, and thanks to the evolution of technology, they are now able to communicate through a USB connection rather than with a special MIDI cable and interface. MIDI messages, sent by controllers, tell electronic instruments and software what to do (such as which notes, what tempo, etc.) and allow you to be more expressive with your computer. The style of music you would like to make or how you’d like to make it will determine which controllers are right for you.
Keyboards are the electronic version of the piano, and probably one of the only controllers that resembles a traditional instrument. These generally come with 49 keys (four octaves) and are an amazing tool for songwriting and getting musical ideas flowing. If you have experience with playing piano or just need some sort of peripheral device to start with, then these are probably your best bet. I think a MIDI keyboard should be considered by anyone making music with a computer; they’re fun to play and are a great starting point for the creative process. Also, pretty much any MIDI keyboard is compatible with any software you can find, making them extremely reliable and easy to use.
Examples: Akai Pro LPK25, M-Audio KeyStudio, Alesis Q49
These types of controllers don’t really do anything that a MIDI keyboard can’t, but they do provide a different sort of feel and tactile feedback that is very important. They usually consist of rows of rubber pads that can be used to control drum machines, activate samples, or do almost anything you assign to them. Many of the newer types of these controllers also have LED lights behind the pads to give the user more information or to serve different functions. Drum Pads were designed for – you guessed it – playing drums, but some artists have began using them to play their music in original and creative ways. It’s really up to the musician’s imagination to figure out how they want to use the power of these controllers.
Examples: Akai Pro LPD8, Novation Launchpad, Akai MPD-32
There is a lot of variation within this type of controller, but each one generally consists of two things; knobs and faders. These are designed to control the volumes of different sounds, modulate effects, or do anything else that makes sense to control with faders and knobs. Just like with drum pad controllers, there is a lot of potential for creativity with mixers – they are rather simple but will provide you with a lot of control over your music – it’s up to you to harness it.
Examples: Korg nanoKontrol, Novation Nocturn, Behringer BCR2000
It is also important to note that there are controllers that fit into a couple of these classifications. It’s not uncommon for the higher-end MIDI keyboards to have drum pads and/or mixers on them as well. There are also many drum pad controllers that come with a bunch of knobs to fiddle with and a built-in mixer. These types of controllers are almost always more expensive than their simpler counterparts, but perhaps they might be a good investment if multiple types of controllers fit your style.
Examples: Akai Pro MPK mini, Akai MPK 49, Akai APC40
Take Your Pick
So these are the three types of MIDI controllers – keyboard, drum pad, and mixer – that make up the basic varieties that you can buy for making music with on your computer. It has also become very popular for the more tech-savvy musicians to create their own controllers to produce and perform with using available hardware and materials. The Monome is an example of a great independently-made controller, and it has even been adopted by large electronic acts such as deadmau5, Pretty Lights, and Sound Tribe Sector 9.
Controllers are what make producing electronic music fun; they are the instruments and tools of the digital musician. Try many different options, and think about which controllers inspire you the most or take care of your musical needs and desires. Finding which one (or combination of a few) that works best for your style is crucial to having an enjoyable and creative time while making music. Now take control of your studio!
Give Your Studio Some Life
So we talked about some great options for software to help create music with, although the digital audio workstation is just one (albeit important) tool that is used in producing digital music. The DAW is the heart of a digital studio rig, but it requires some peripheral devices to come alive and be able to get sounds in and get music out. Here’s a concise list of some hardware needed to complete a basic studio setup:
An audio interface is the first step and the most important part of building a digital studio. The interface is where a guitar, microphone, or any other audio source meets the digital realm and is converted into streams of bits that a computer can work with. This is also where a digital audio source will be converted back into analog when you want playback through speakers or a set of headphones. An audio interface’s job, in a nutshell, is to help you move quickly and seamlessly between digital and analog audio and is a key component to producing music electronically.
If a DAW is the heart of the studio, then the cables are definitely the veins and arteries carrying sound signals to and fro. Quarter-inch (1/4”), unbalanced TS cables (“Tip-Sleeve”) are the standard, and they are the normal guitar cables that you see everywhere that can hook up to almost anything. There are also balanced TRS cables (“Tip-Ring-Sleeve”) for running mono signals (Mono vs. Stereo) that are generally more expensive, but will help combat interference and extra noise from being added to your signals. In some cases, RCA cables (the ones with the multi-colored hookups) can be used but are not the norm. XLR is another common type of cable, although microphones are usually the only major device that utilizes this type as a means of communication. USB is becoming more trusted as well, and it has an advantage because it can hook up directly to the computer without the need for an interface. So in short, TRS cables will almost always be needed, but depending on the devices you are using you might have to get some others. It’s a good idea to start building a collection of various cables and converters that will save you some frustration later if they’re needed.
Headphones will act as your ears’ main connection to your computer, so it is important to invest in a quality pair. It isn’t a good idea to use in-ear phones for many reasons (low quality, leaking noise, etc.), so getting a pair that has cushions and covers your entire ear is the best choice. It is extremely important to look for “studio” or “monitor” headphones, and be wary of Beats by Dre or other Hi-Fi headphone brands – they embellish audio signals and won’t provide you with an accurate depiction of the sounds you are creating.
“Reference Monitors” is the term for speakers that are used in studios and for music production. They are different from average speakers in the same way that studio headphones are from Beats; they output a pure representation of what is input, without any embellishing or equalizing for better quality. Headphones are excellent for hearing all the details of your productions, but monitors will allow you to hear how they sound out in the open and in space. Most songs are meant to be played through speakers at some point, so knowing what your music sounds like when it is played out loud is very important.
A microphone will allow you to put sounds directly into your computer, whether it is your voice, an acoustic instrument, or any other source of sound. There are a few major types of mic’s that are used for recording music, including cardioid, dynamic, condenser, and ribbon microphones, but dynamic and condenser are the most commonly used and available. A dynamic mic is one that is generally used for performing live because of its stability and durability, while a condenser mic is more fragile and commonly used for recording in professional studios. It is important to note, as I have recently learned, that each type of microphone can be used for recording depending on how you want to utilize the existing strengths and weaknesses. Each type of microphone has its own unique characteristics that will process sound and add certain qualities to it, so finding the right microphone for the job can be an art. Trying as many microphones as you can get your hands will help you find what works best for you and helps shape the sound that you’d like to make. Depending on what type of music you are interested in creating, a microphone may not be necessary, but it can still be a useful tool for adding small elements to your music. Some professional-quality microphones can go into the thousands of dollars, but there are also kinds that can be bought for less than $100 and are still high-quality (some even connect through USB and don’t need an audio interface/mixer).
A computer mouse almost goes without saying, but I figure that most digital musicians will be using their laptops to produce so I felt that it is worth mentioning. When working in a DAW, it can become frustrating to use a laptop track/touchpad to navigate, and an external mouse will be a much quicker alternative. (Note: As you become more skilled and knowledgeable about the software you use, it will become possible to do almost all navigation without the need for a mouse or touchpad, especially with the assistance of controllers.)
Controllers are not a necessary part of a digital studio; they don’t deal with any of the audio signal and don’t provide much functionality that won’t already exist. However, the reason controllers are important is because they help streamline the process of creating music on a computer. Instead of searching for the “play” icon every time you want to get playback, you can press a single button on a controller to do this. Controllers can remove you from the screen and keyboard perspective that quickly becomes dull and uninspiring, and can help free your hands and imagination. A controller, in many cases, is the real instrument in a digital rig and some musicians can do amazing things with them. There is a tremendous variety of controllers available today, and I’d really like to dive into the various options in an upcoming blog post.
These are just the basic components of a digital studio environment, and a lot of other various devices can be added into the mix. Like I said in my last post about DAWs, its all about finding what you need, what best suits you, and what helps you get your ideas onto the computer as fluently as possible. Once you find the right combination for your creative process, you might be amazed at how fun and easy it is to make music with your computer. Now get things moving!
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