Music Lessons Learned: Hardware and Music Study
I have been spending a lot of time learning music technology and composition recently and want to to share what I have learned. I do mostly MIDI composition and orchestration, so my experience relates to those areas.
The first half of the post discusses some of the hardware requirements that I thought about when upgrading my laptop to handle audio recording demands. The second half talks about music writing and the recording process as I was trying to recreate a song from the game Shadow of the Colossus.
Music studies are just like doing drawing studies in my opinion. It is good to look at an object or listen to a song - but much more enriching to recreate it from scratch.
Music Recording Hardware Needs
I recently bought a new laptop for music recording. It just couldn’t keep up with the demands I had. I was fed up with clearing buffers and constantly having to fix the errors it kept giving me, so time for a new one.
I did a lot of research on what is important for audio recording and here are a few things I learned about how audio recording uses your computer hardware.
CPU - Your DAW(digital audio workstation) uses this for plugins, musical instruments samples, and effects for doing processing. A better CPU means that your system can handle more plugins and effects processing more effectively. It also obviously is needed for your operating system and everything else your computer needs to do.
External Hard Drive - Your computer’s hard drive has a big job to do when it comes to audio recording. What makes hard drives so critical is the amount of audio information that has to be simultaneously written and read. If you have 15 audio tracks, your hard drive has to read all of them separately in real time as well as writing to another one. Coupled with manging the OS and everything else the computer does, it is good to offload some of this read/write burden to a separate hard drive.
RAM - Your CPU has to crunch a lot of the data, but it won’t be able to get the data quick enough if you don’t have a lot of quick RAM. Music sound libraries can be huge. Music libraries can easily be +100GB. The audio samples you buy are very high quality, low compression files that are big. Having more RAM can help with latency issues as well handling more tracks simultaneously.
Those are the most important hardware concerns that I have seen and experienced first hand. For me, getting 8GB of RAM and an Intel i5 2.4Ghz CPU is perfectly fine ( and easier on the wallet). Don’t worry about the graphics or video card. Whatever it comes with will be good enough.
Shadow of the Colossus Study
I have always heard from a lot of people how great this game was, so I picked it up about 6 months ago and played through about half of it. If a game takes longer than 8 hours to beat, I get tired of playing it. Grinding and spending hours doing repetitive tasks is something that I relate to work, not play. That is my excuse for not beating it anyway. :)
I thought the music was exceptionally good though, and wanted to learn a lot about what makes it sound the way it does. A great soundtrack to a game or movie really makes it more memorable in my opinion. Here are some things that I learned about music in general.
Lead instruments, especially strings, sound very empty if you are only playing a melody with single notes. Playing octaves really fills the sound out and makes it much stronger. I heard this repeatedly with many of the different themes in “An Opened Way”. Melodies never seem to be by themselves with one instrument. Even having other instrument play in unison seem to make the sound much fuller.
Mixing is the art of balancing all of the instruments after they have been recorded. After watching a bunch of videos on mixing as well as going to my local Guitar Center for their free recording lessons, this is an area I thought I have learned the most in recently.
When mixing all of the instruments together, it is important to leave some “head room” in your mix. This means not going to 0dB when you are adjusting your levels. I usually try stay in the yellow area about ( -10dB) when doing everything. Since peaking at the top is 0dB, this gives room for the mastering process to adjust the waveform with any filters needed to give the sound its final touches.
I originally heard some advice to take a finished song that you like and use it as a reference when mixing, but I am finding you have to be very careful with that approach. Since the songs that you hear from iTunes or the radio are mastered, the output is going to be much louder and the dynamic range much smaller than what you should be striving for.
There are a few filters that a lot of MIDI instrumentation uses to help it seem more “natural”. One of the biggest filters I see everyone using is the “reverb” effect. This simulates a sound reflection from a room and it makes the sound appear less mechanical. There are a few properties that you can alter, but one of the important ones that I haven’t understood before was the “pre-delay”. Pre-delay offsets the reverb so it doesn’t start until later in the note. This allows the notes to have the attack and vibrancy when the notes are first struck.
Adding more reverb also makes the music appear farther away, so it can help make musical passage blend better with other instruments if it is standing out too much.
Reverb is so common that it seems to be one of the overused and abused filters of the music recording industry. Being judicious with its use is important.
Mastering is the last part of the music creation process. It takes your song and makes it ready for the masses. Since most speakers can’t output a very high quality sound, the mastering process takes the sound and compresses the waveform so it can sound better on a broader range of speakers. I am starting to use a “Maxim” filter in Pro Tools for this when I started finishing the recording. It seems to do a good job at exposing the lower frequencies in the music and make the overall sound more full. I don’t like going to 0dB for the ceiling, so I bring it down a little.
This phase definitely seemed to normalize the frequencies more so you hear the lower frequencies just as much as the high ones. This seems to sound better for most speakers and ear buds that can’t represent the lower frequencies very well.
Steel Plates and Other Percussion
There are so many percussion instruments out there that can add a lot to a song. For “An Opened Way”, The closest natural instrument I can find for the odd crashing sound was the steel plates. When you first start using a new instrument into a score and see how it can be used, it is pretty eye-opening how it adds to the texture of the sound. There was some pretty heavy reverb on the instrument which makes it sound less harsh. Using these non-typical percussive sounds seems to be more of an experiment than a science. Here is the final mix of the study
“An Opened Way” Study from Shadow of the Colossus
At the end of the day, the most difficult things about music composition isn’t software or acoustic issues. All of those issues have technical or scientific solutions that don’t need to be tampered with. The soul of music is much like the soul of art – feelings.
I took piano lessons all throughout highschool and learned some really technical things. The one thing that really made an impact on me was that most people don’t care how technical your work is. It all boils down to how the music makes them feel. I base the quality of a song on how strong it exudes an emotion you are striving for. Everyone has an opinion on what is good and bad, but if the majority of people view the song in a positive light, that is success in my mind. The song has achieved its goal.
Enough writing…back to work!
I mostly keep this blog to help me remember things. Writing is also a great way to understand things at a deeper level. I would highly recommend it if you don't write at all.