Keyboards: Your Computer, Your Piano, and Your Child
The computer age has entered all phases of our lives. I am delighted with computerized scanning at the supermarket and the ATM machines; I could not live without desktop publishing, and I encouraged my son to learn to use Excel for ratio problems in math. But, as the computer has moved into the world of music, I have found that I have the same initial pangs of emotion that I had when I was still caught between the yellow legal pad and my first Mac computer. It was even worse, being akin to sitting in front of my first terminal at the computer center in graduate school and realizing that I did not know how to turn the terminal on! So, when your son or daughter decided to turn his room into a recording studio, don't be surprised. This is the new age.
Note: I am including this article as it shows how much has changed just in the last 10 years. Today, everything that is describe below can be done with a Mac and GarageBand!
Piano keyboard with MIDI inputs and outputs ($100 & up);
MIDI box, technically called a MIDI interface (comes without cables!), usually has one MIDI IN and three MIDI OUTS ($45) for the MAC.
Don't forget cables ($20), which are purchased at electronic keyboard stores. The IMB/PC takes an internal MIDI interface, which is a card placed inside the computer. (MAC is easier than IBM/PC!);
Two speakers with integrated transformers. Your computer speakers are adequate, but an electronic keyboard store, such as Chuck Levin's, will sell Yamaha MS©101 speakers for about $90 each that produce better quality sound;
PC or MAC computer with at least 2 MB RAM;
Your software and MIDI interface are either PC/IBM or MAC compatible; they are not interchangeable. Your piano keyboard works with either.
Once one reaches the question of software, another embarrassing question arises: What to do with a computer, musically speaking?
The first use has been, like word processing, to notate or copy music so that it prints out looking as though professionally published and not as though it has been written by hand.
The next use has been to "sequence" music. Sequencing is like taking a musical score, playing each line separately and then putting them all together. Imagine a conductor sitting in front of a piano and wanting to play an entire score. He or she can play much of it, but having only two hands and ten fingers, some notes will have to be foregone. With a sequencing program, each instrument's part is played separately into the computer and then the computer puts them all together simultaneously.
To start sequencing, you choose an instrument sound, assign it a track, and set the metronome. Then click "record" on the small set of cassette recorder-like controls, which appear in a corner of your computer screen (it works like the calculator on your computer). The metronome begins to click, giving the countdown, then you begin to play on your electronic keyboard the first line of music that you wish to input. As you play, you hear the line of music coming out of the speakers with the sound you have chosen (such as trumpet, violin or piano). On your computer screen, either simultaneously or upon playback, you will see what you have played notated on a musical score.
Now press "play" on your tape recorder controls, listen to what you have created, view it on the screen, and decide what you are going to add to it on the next track. Repeat the previous procedure, selecting an instrument, a track, and pressing "record". Listening to what you recorded before on track one, play a new line of music (harmony or accompaniment, or second melody), which will be added to track one. (NB: Track one will not be erased as you record on track two.) Every track that you have previously recorded is played as you add each new instrument/track.
If you are composing for a brass quintet, you would go through this procedure five times, once for each part. If you are composing for a full symphony orchestra, you may write for as many as 24 tracks. If you are a young person experimenting with composition, you very quickly discover what does not sound well, can easily erase your track without destroying what you do like, and can make alterations with ease. The beauty of the sequencer is that you can hear exactly what you have composed, albeit with digitalized sounds, long before musicians ever have to be assembled to give the work a first reading. There are even composers today who write exclusively for electronic synthesizers, which is what you have just done with your sequencer.
Finally, you can find programs like "Band in a Box", which have pre-recorded rhythms and harmonies for accompaniment, so that you can create "prefab" accompaniments to songs. At the most basic level, you take a song from a song book, which has chord changes listed above the staff, copy the chord changes into the computer, change the style, sound, rhythm section, and then you play in the melody line. At a more sophisticated level, you can write the melody, add the chord changes, fiddle around until you find a sound you like, and voila, you have composed a fairly impressive song with accompaniment that your computer can now play for you and your friends.
As you might surmise from the above, not many people have set up computerized music studios in their homes as yet. But schools are very rapidly heading in this direction, and for many students middle school is the perfect time to begin this exploration. I know of one public school in Maryland where the entire 7th and 8th grade general music program is now in the computerized audio/visual laboratory, and a private girls school that is gearing up to begin in January. In short, your child may be exploring music on the computer before long, so there is more that you should know.
In the professional music field, until five years ago, all copyists (the people who actually take the composer's score and write out parts for each musician) had been writing out parts by hand just as they did in the time of Bach. Now, every professional copyist is on the computer, either playing the part on a keyboard, which is attached to a computer, and then getting a print out, or "mousing" it in on the screen. The program of choice has been "Finale" (at a whopping $549), but there is now an easier form called "Finale Allegro" ($259.95 MacWarehouse). "Finale" will import your sequencing from another program, but is essentially a music copying program, like a word processing program. Available for IBM/PC and MAC, "Finale" and "Finale Allegro" are the best known programs, but are NOT programs for anyone but professional copyists. You begin with a sequencer, not a copying program.
To start sequencing, I recommend "MusicShop" ($99.95 MacWarehouse) for the MAC. MacWarehouse (1©800©255©6227) also offers an "Easy Music Starter Kit", which includes a MIDI interface, Musicshop and Band-in-a-Box for $159, which is a great deal. For the IBM/PC, I recommend "Power Tracks Pro" (1©800©268©6272) or "Cake Walk" ($89). "Band-in-a-Box" is also available for IBM/PC. These sequencing programs have notation components to them. If your child or you are really interested in this, or have had some previous experience with sequencing, "Cubase Score" ($245 from MacWarehouse; $395 from Chuck Levin in Wheaton) is currently the top-of-the-line combined sequencing and music notation program on the market.
Is this a lot of fun? Yes! Is it art! Well...Word Perfect never created a poet, but great poems have been written on this program. Will your computer ever sound like an orchestral violinist at the Kennedy Center? No. Will this encourage a musical child to explore musical composition? Yes. Did my conductor/composer/arranger husband make MusicShop sound fabulously easy? Yes. Would I set my 12-year old up as a Christmas present? I think so....but not if he doesn't finish his homework soon, because like all new computer programs, they are great time-eaters in the beginning.
Bonnie Ward Simon, BA, MA, M.Ed, M.Phil.,
President of Maestro Classics