Free Music Software
By Andy Harris
This month we look over a number of wonderful free tools for creating and enjoying
music. Quite a bit of excellent free software is available.
Audio Mixing With Audacity
The most straightforward class of audio tools involves recording and manipulating
sounds. Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net) is a marvelous tool for this job. Use it
with a microphone to record music or speech, import audio in wav, mp3, or ogg
formats, and manipulate the sound waves directly. Once you have recorded or
imported a sound, you can tweak it in hundreds of ways: add digital effects play it
backwards, cut out parts you don’t need, and much more.
Audacity is a multi-track editor, which means you can record several different audio
samples and place them in layers for interaction. For example, my father was once
responsible for creating the sound effects for a community performance of Henry V.
He and I spent a wonderful afternoon gathering battle sounds for the Agincourt
scene, building a marvelous multi-layer sound effect with horses and swords. (They
always cast Dad as a king who dies in the first scene so he can run the sound
effects for the rest of the play.)
I also frequently use Audacity in my daughter’s dance ministry, to shorten songs
for performance purposes or to pre-fade a song at the spot she needs. Audacity is
perfect for mixing sounds, editing audio files, and converting files to other formats.
I use it for virtually all the sound effects in my game development.
Tracking With SunVox
If you really want to create digital music in a powerful way, you might want to look
into SunVox (www.warmplace.ru/soft/sunvox). It is a fascinating example of what
musicians call a “tracker.” Essentially, it allows you to create audio samples by
specifying a specific wave or importing a sound file. Each sample can be used as
the foundation of an instrument that can be used to play any note on the scale. You
can then put together a measure’s worth of notes to make patterns, and you can
combine patterns to make complete songs.
The process can be confusing at first, but if you look at examples and view some of
the many excellent videos on YouTube, you’ll find yourself making incredible music
soon. This tool allows you to create any electronic sound you wish, as well as
import any other sounds, add drum tracks, and make complex and incredible
music. There can be a steep learning curve, but once you understand the interface,
you’ll find it to be absolutely incredible. Versions of SunVox are available for nearly
every platform. The Computer versions (Windows, Linux, and Mac) are entirely
free, but the mobile versions (IOS and Android) cost about $5.00 each. Use a free
version first to find out if you like it. If you decide to purchase a mobile version,
you’ll find that the flexible interface works very well as a mobile music studio,
especially on a tablet with a bit more screen real estate.
Midi Editing With Aria Maestosa
The MIDI audio format is under-appreciated by technical folks. While MIDI files
generally sound pretty bad on computers, that’s because it isn’t really a file format
at all. MIDI is really a language for describing music. MIDI sounds pretty bad on
most computers because most computers have very limited sound cards. When
played back on more sophisticated instruments, MIDI can sound really wonderful.
MIDI does not record music. Instead, it is a form of musical notation. MIDI tools
are really interesting because they allow you to look at the actual musical notation
of a piece at a very detailed level. For example, I loaded up a MIDI recording of the
Second Movement of Beethoven’s second symphony into a MIDI editor. I was able
to see the entire score as I listened, and I could even look at the score for each
individual instrument. (I was a bassoon player, so I absolutely love the woodwind
trio toward the middle of this piece.)
You can also modify music, changing instruments around (What would Beethoven’s
7th have sounded like with bagpipes playing the viola part?) by modifying volumes,
muting and isolating various instruments. I truly wish I could have had access to
this kind of music analysis tool when I was a serious classical musician. You can
find a MIDI file of nearly any classical piece you can imagine with a quick Google
search. Try www.musedata.org as a starting place for some high-quality, open-
source classical music. Of course, you can also compose music with a high-end
MIDI editor, whether you use a mouse, the computer keyboard, or (preferably)
plug in a high-end musical instrument into the computer.
I’m a big fan of Aria Maestosa (ariamaestosa.sourceforge.net/index.html). It is
available free for all main operating systems. It has the ability to view and edit
MIDI files in a number of ways, including the raw computer notation, as well as
sheet music, piano roll, and guitar tab views. It can be a very interesting way to
study music, especially if you’re comfortable reading musical notation.
Music Animation Machine
While on the classical bent, this is not exactly software
(www.youtube.com/user/smalin), but one of the most impressive YouTube
channels I have ever seen. If you can look past all the pop trash on YouTube, every
once in a while you can find something really grand.
Stephen Malinowski is a musician and computer programmer (it’s remarkable how
often those two skills coincide). He has written a number of programs that allow
him to visualize classical music. On YouTube, he has produced a huge number of
videos that show these remarkable visualizations. They are not only beautiful but
also are instructive. If you look at an orchestral piece, for example, you will see a
line representing each instrument in the orchestra. Malinowski has also released
the software for producing these videos for free, so you can experiment with your
own music (stephenmalinowski.com).
These tools should give you a lot of fun composing music on your computer. Don’t
forget to use your headphones!
Andy Harris is a homeschool dad, father of four great kids, and husband to the
greatest homeschool teacher ever. He has taught all ages of students, from
kindergarten to university level. Andy is the author of a number of well-known
books, including HTML/XHTML/CSS: All in One for Dummies, Game Programming—
The L Line, PHP6/MySQL Programming for the Absolute Beginner, and Beginning
Flash Game Programming for Dummies. For more information about his books, to
see where he is speaking next, or to just say hi, please stop by his website:
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally
appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the
family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or
read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the
magazine on your mobile devices.