This is a legacy blog. It was about the intersection of music and digital audio technology, and was called 'The Verge'. Today, of course, the existence of a much more famous blog of the same name precludes my use of it.

The main focus of this weblog was to assess digital technology as both an enabler of, and an obstacle to, musical progress.

While the tech press usually fixates on exciting new trends, I have always been more interested in trends of a longer scale: in the large scale cultural implications of digital music production and distribution as a whole; and in the effects that these developments have had, or might have, on the nature and evolution of musical culture specifically.

All of the statements of opinion anywhere on this page, reflect my views and only my views.

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Older blog posts:

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

The Digital Audio revolution: A primer

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer, Part 2

July 6, 2008
In part 1 of this series we pointed out how much it sucked to be a composer in the years after the aristocracy stopped building them their own personal opera houses, but before cheap, computer based music production came along.

Of course there were some for whom it didn't suck: theatrical composers from George Gershwin to Andrew Lloyd Weber, film composers from Bernard Herrman to Danny Elfman, and numerous others did just fine in the years referred to. But whatever the level of success achieved by any individual, the fact remained that being a composer in these years was profoundly inconvenient. In fact, in many ways the computer music revolution solved problems that had plagued composers for centuries.

For one thing: the only way to get a proper score, along with all of the separate individual parts needed by the various players or sections, involved a great deal of money. There were several printing methods involved, from a complex form of movable type called the mosaic system, to various forms of lithography. All of these methods were expensive. All were time consuming. And all were technically sophisticated, involving a good deal of expertise in the processes of the graphic arts and printmaking. Obviously, this meant that scores were expensive to buy as well. In fact 'buy' is not really accurate. For all but a handful of people, orchestral scores were rented, not bought.

An even greater inconvenience, from the composers point of view, was the difficulty involved in proofreading a score before this expensive process commenced. How to be sure that what you wrote doesn't contain 'typos' that could result in an unwanted dissonance? Or on the other hand, how to be sure that your intentional dissonances weren't 'corrected' to 'make things nice'? Unlike languages, where most words have standard spellings and there are norms of punctuation, musical practice is far too individualized and variable to admit of a simple 'that chord is spelled incorrectly' approach to proofreading.

These problems have been decisively eliminated by the computer music revolution. There are now many, many ways of making a professional looking score with all of the individual instrumental part scores. And all proof reading can be done by the composer, and can be done through actually listening to the music.

The 'industry standards' for creating scores and working with musical notation are Sibelius and Finale, companies with products ranging in price from 98 to 798 US dollars. But there are many perfectly usable products with much lower prices. Myriad software offers it's Melody Assistant and Harmony Assistant for 25 dollars and 85 dollars respectively. While the queen of computer notation programs, Lilypond, is completely free (though a bit difficult to master). There are other free programs as well, including a limited but usable application called Notepad made by Finale.

All of this software (minus Lilypond, which is a specialized 'typesetting' application) along with related products such as Midisoft and Noteworthy Composer, allow one to work with musical information in a number of ways. Usually one has a choice between using a notation editor, a piano roll, a MIDI event list, or an external MIDI interface.

A notation editor is, as one might guess, a graphic user interface that allows one to input notes and other notational symbols (accents, dynamics, expression indicators, repeat signs, etc) on virtual staff paper, using simple click and drag operations. A piano roll is precisely analogous to the paper rolls used with 'player' pianos, only with much more flexibility and greater ease of use. It, too, allows one to add notes and work with dynamics and tempo using click and drag functionality. A MIDI event list is a table of editable numbers. It is the most raw form of MIDI data in common use, allowing the most direct control over the various performance parameters. Finally, using a MIDI keyboard interface to enter notes is as easy as plugging it in and pressing 'record'. These interfaces are available in many forms. Some are very expensive, with all sorts of expressive capabilities. But people on a strict budget should be aware that most cheap digital keyboards available at consumer outlets and even at garage sales have a MIDI out port. This means that with a very small investment (starting at around 30 US dollars), anyone can adapt one of these for use as an input device.

All of these interfaces create the same thing: a set of numbers that control values such as pitch, note duration, loudness, tempo, time signature and so on, for any number of 'tracks'. These numbers are what constitute MIDI data, and they can be used to control all kinds of things, from hardware instruments to software samplers to drum modules and more. Even racks of lights and video shows can be controlled via MIDI. More importantly for our present purposes, this MIDI data is easily translatable into different forms, from numbers to sound to note symbols to numbers to sound. So on the one hand you can write notation just by playing, and on the other hand you can hear what you write as soon as you write it.

To sum up, all of these software applications allow you to :

  • Turn any musical score into some form of audible music as soon as it is written.
  • Take anything you can play or conceive on a piano keyboard and turn it into musical notation.
  • Print the score and parts for the price of making copies (or the price of ink).

But making sheet music, even a Wagnerian orchestral score, is just about the least exciting thing that a composer can do with a computer. We will get to some of the fun stuff in our next installment.

© 2008 Real Music Media