Writing music: my new hobby

Videography will remain my hobby, but I’m now ready to take on a new hobby too: learning to play, and (most importantly for me) compose music. So yesterday, I bought the Casio CTK-3000 keyboard (got a bundle at Amazon).

The problem is that I’m 37 years old. I can’t learn brand new things easily anymore. In fact, I never could. Truly and deeply learning was always a struggle for me, because of focusing/learning problems (ADHD). So naturally, I feel that I have a mountain in front of me learning play music.

Thankfully, just earlier today, I found this free application: Synthesia. It’s a game like Guitar Hero, but it’s for the PC/Mac, for the piano, and it supports MIDI controllers. There’s no easier way to learn to play by ear! There are thousands of .mid files around, for free, so this can make learning very easy.

In the past year I noticed how good my husband became by playing these GuitarHero-type games on his PS3 and XBoX360. His instrument of choice is drums, and within a year, by playing only 4-5 hours a month, he’s already pretty fast with it. This doesn’t mean that he knows how to play real drums, but it is obvious to me that this kind of visual “game-like” training works, and it will surely work for my purpose too.

My ultimate goal is to compose my own music. I’m not interested in playing/performing music, I just want to write original music, and share it with everyone. But in order to write music, you must know how to play it too (when composing it). I’m not going to use loops and ready-made melodies, you see. To help me with composition, I’m eying Ableton Live for the PC, an $800 piece of software. I will cross that bridge when I get there, when I feel I’m ready for something like it. I tried the free Rosegarden and Ardour on my Linux laptop, but they were pretty chaotic — and buggy.

I have very specific ideas of what kind of music I want to write. I want to write chillwave, but not the kind that exists today (which echoes ’80s new wave music). I want to write chillwave that echoes jazz. Basically, that would be reverbed electronic music, that has jazz overtones, instead of the nostalgic summer melodies chillwave has today.

I know little about jazz, and I only started to listen to it recently. I’m planning of buying 4-5 more jazz albums (the classics), and stop there. I don’t want to know a lot about jazz, because I don’t want to get influenced by it. Instead, I want to give the impression of jazz to my music (chillwave is modern impressionism, for those who don’t know). I want to convey how jazz sounds to the NON initiated! But through the distorted glass that is chillwave.

Difficult to explain. All I can say though is that it won’t be real jazz. There won’t be improvisation, or solo exchanges between a number of musicians on stage — as Jazz requires. What it will be, for sure, is chillwave: [jazzy] bedroom pop. Hopefully, it will overall sound fresh.

For now, I also bought this book: “Music Theory for Computer Musicians”. At some point in the future, this would be needed knowledge to go further in my quest. Playing by ear, and mastering a piece of software, only gets you so far.


mikesum32 wrote on September 12th, 2010 at 7:07 PM PST:

You could always get a few once-a-week lessons.

Ralfoide wrote on September 12th, 2010 at 9:13 PM PST:

I’d recommend you get the basics first. There are tons of resources out there. I personally enjoyed http://www.howtoplaypiano.ca/ and his stream of youtube videos.

Glenn wrote on September 12th, 2010 at 10:02 PM PST:

You should try recording some music in Vegas. If you set the grid to measures and beats you can load in Acid loops and they will all sync up. Keep track of what key they’re in, and then you can pitch shift other parts in their properties to match up. Then you can record live audio or instruments over the top. About 4 or 5 of my videos on Vimeo were done with the music being recorded and video edited in the same Vegas project. I used to use Acid, Nuendo, Logic before then etc, but it’s much easier doing everything in one program including the video.

Or try Acid, same key commands and layout as Vegas. It would make more sense than getting Ableton Live with a completely different gui. I’ve had lite copy for years and still can’t get my head around it! Or even FL Studio which Mr Zux uses – $99 with free lifetime updates.

Matthew Galvin wrote on September 12th, 2010 at 10:07 PM PST:

I’ve been composing music for a long time – 20+ years. I’m still learning, so take your time. I studied jazz composition, scoring, and electronic music composition extensively.
I always like your approach to new subjects and material, Eugenia. You will get there.

Anyway, I’d recommend 2 software programs – PG Music’s Band In A Box and David Zicarelli’s MAX environment.

Essentially, as I’ve approached it, music is just syncopated and synchronized noises from varied instrumentation. So many similarities to BeOS.

Max will help you with synchronization (and I think you will “get it” programmatically) and Band In A Box will teach you some of the instrumentation and modal “rules” of how Jazz masters (Brubeck, Coltrane, Ellington. et al.) built their styles and sound.

Feel free to reach out directly to David Z., he’s Bay Area and a talented teacher.
David – http://cycling74.com/products/maxmspjitter/

PG Music – http://pgmusic.com/

I watched this today, which might inspire you, from my friend Ruth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-To4hJ-3zWs

Jon wrote on September 12th, 2010 at 10:14 PM PST:

After getting my degree in Video & Motion Graphics, I really wanted to score my video and not have to worry about copyright of other material in my work. I realized the power of midi and found that you could play a lot of different instruments through it. I ended buying a midi keyboard controller and using FL Studio. Your keyboard probably has some good sounds, But if you look up soundfonts you will find a lot of free instruments for midi devices. These are sampled from the real instrument and not synthesized. It’s a great way to get a real sound to your work. I am self taught its been very rewarding. Thank God for the internet’s resources!

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Eugenia wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 12:42 AM PST:

>you can load in Acid loops

No, I don’t want ready-made stuff. It has to be completely original. Also, Acid is not as powerful as Ableton for the things I want to do. It doesn’t have the right tools to create a professionally-sounding piece (the same way Vegas doesn’t have the tools After Effects has). It’d still sound like cheap electronic made at home, at the end.

Also, I’m not doing this to provide music for my videos. I use Creative Commons for that.

Elvar Aron wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 1:14 AM PST:

Hi Eugenia,
Been following your blog since I read some news from you on Osnews, you also helped me out when I was trying out Beos.
And I see now is my chance to give back a litle since I have been making music on computers since Atari ST
Before you buy Abelton (wich is a fine host by the way) you really should check out kvraudio.com .
There you will find a couple of free host, but more importanlty there you will Vsti instruments.Wich are plugins instruments and there are lots and lots of them free or very cheap.

Glenn Thomas wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 1:29 AM PST:

>Also, Acid is not as powerful as Ableton for the things I want to do. It doesn’t have the right tools to create a professionally-sounding piece

Hahaha, ok. If that’s what you think 🙂 That’s like saying you can’t make a professional looking music video with a HV20. What exactly can you do in Ableton that you can’t do in Acid? I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Gnarls Barklay who have had a few big hits? That guy uses Acid. He’s done production for Gorillaz amongst others. His music might be tracked using Pro Tools or Logic in other studios, but all his production work is done in Acid.

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Eugenia wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 1:35 AM PST:

>That’s like saying you can’t make a professional looking music video with a HV20.

No, the HV20 is the midi keyboard in that case. Acid vs Ableton is more like Vegas versus After Effects. And Vegas is not After Effects. It’s as good as Premiere, but not as good as AE. And for the kind of music I want to do, I need both.

I didn’t have the money to go with Adobe CS2 when I started doing video, so now I’m stuck with the cheaper Vegas. I just don’t have the strength anymore to re-learn a new video package (CS5). I DON’T want to do the same mistake with music too. I will just go with the industry leader from the get go. And for the music I want to do, Ableton Live is where it is.

>That’s like saying you can’t make a professional looking music video with a HV20

Very few are. From all the thousands of HV videos I cataloged for Vimeo, maybe about 30 of them are professional-enough to the level I’d like. It’s simply more difficult reaching that result with a cheaper tool. And while I’m all for geekiness on the video side (e.g. pushing limits with the SD780 IS), I’m not on the music side. Different parts of me.

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Eugenia wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 1:51 AM PST:

>What exactly can you do in Ableton that you can’t do in Acid?

Proper MIDI. Acid is known to be the most sucking tool for MIDI. Read up online. I did my research, and Acid is not the tool I’m looking for. The general consensus is that Acid Pro is great for loop-creation music, but it sucks dry when you want to work with original compositions, via MIDI (according to some, it even “misses” notes sometimes). And since that’s what I want to do, Ableton is the best tool for the job. It’s more expensive, and more difficult to use. I agree with that. But it does what I need.

Elvar Aron wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 2:05 AM PST:

Why not try other host.
Flstudio is cheap and Podium is free.
Dont get stuck in Abelton hype, there are lots of good host out there, try the demos, Abelton is not the easiest

Glenn Thomas wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 6:18 AM PST:

Alright, so you have done your research 🙂 By the sound of it, you’ve read a bunch of crap on forums written by amateurs or people who have no idea about how to get the most from their gear.

To be honest, I’m disappointed you’ve chosen a program based on people telling you it’s the ‘industry leader’. You can’t compare music apps like you can Vegas & After Effects, which you can’t even compare anyway. The best music app out there is the one you’re most comfortable with that lets you get the most done. The only way to find such an app is to try out a bunch of them yourself.

Download demo versions of Cubase, Live, Reason/Record, Acid, Pro Tools, FL Studio, Tracktion, Sonar, Reaper, Samplitude, and probably a few more. Do something with them. Try recording the same song in each and then see which you like working with the most. But please, ignore what other people tell you and make your own decision!

I suggested Acid because you’re already using Vegas, so you wouldn’t have to learn anything new. As simple as that. You can’t tell me its MIDI sucks. I use the program myself a lot and know for a fact its MIDI DOES NOT SUCK!! I’ve been recording music for 20 years and own other programs too. Nuendo, Logic (old PC version), Pro Tools M-Powered, Samplitude SE, and Live LE. Nuendo is easily the powerful of the bunch, but the one I use the most is Acid. Why? Because it’s fast and lets me record and get tracks recorded a lot quicker than any of the other programs. It’s MIDI features are quite powerful too with all the automation you could need. Its arrangement features too. I could easily fill a whole page describing the advantages it offers.

My wife loves Acid too and uses it for all her music, as it’s as simple for her to use as Vegas. I’ve never heard her complain about its MIDI. Another good friendwho uses Vegas does all his music in Acid as well. Never heard him complain about its MIDI either. Seriously, editing video and having a music app that works the exact same way is a huge bonus. You never have to change your thinking or working habits when switching from working on music to working on video and vice versa.

But as I said, make you own decision. Try as many of these programs as you can. Ableton Live isn’t the most feature packed MIDI app by the way. Its features are actually more suited to electronic musicians who perform live using loops. Cubase and a few others are still ahead in regards to MIDI. But I guarantee, those extra MIDI features you would never use. Most artists usually record straight to audio these days anyway. Logic is good too, but Mac only.

Glenn Thomas wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 6:37 AM PST:

This was the last project I mixed in Acid. His vocals were recorded here also. It actually gets used the most here for recording vocals. It’s beat mapper tool lets me find the exact tempo, which I also use for music videos to find the tempo. Very handy 🙂

Michael C. wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 10:47 AM PST:

“I want to write chillwave that echoes jazz.” — Um, like acid jazz?

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Eugenia wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 11:59 AM PST:

>Um, like acid jazz?

Absolutely not. Please listen to chillwave linked to understand how it treats other, older, sub-genres, in order to understand what I want to do.

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Eugenia wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 12:16 PM PST:

Glenn, my problem with Acid is that it doesn’t have good reverb plugins, while Ableton does. The kind of music I want to write is full of reverb and lo-fi effects. It’d cost me the same money at the end of the day to get Acid Pro, plus a gazillion of third party plugins.

>Download demo versions of Cubase, Live, Reason/Record, Acid, Pro Tools, FL Studio, Tracktion, Sonar, Reaper, Samplitude, and probably a few more.

This won’t work for me, because I will simply get lost with them and I won’t be able to evaluate them for what they can really do. I’m a newbie. This is why I HAVE to base my purchase on whatever the popular opinion is regarding some features I’m interested in (e.g. mixing, mastering, reverb effects, MIDI support).

As I said, I will cross that bridge when I get there. I don’t see me deciding on software for another 6 months anyway. By that time, Acid Pro 8 will be out — no doubt.

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Eugenia wrote on September 13th, 2010 at 7:36 PM PST:

And so Acid Pro 7 is a piece of shit. I just downloaded its demo 7.0e version, installed it, and I was able to crash its media manager (and as a result the whole app), within 2 minutes. I installed the “Sony Loops and Samples Reference Library” database as instructed, but it says that this database has nothing in it, or some shit like that (and even activating that was an exercise in patience to find where to switch to that DB). And then, kaboom.

And I haven’t even made anything on the timeline yet. I just tried to load the loop DB. This shit seems to be every bit as crashy as Vegas is.

I’m going Ableton Live. There’s a reason why it costs $800 and not $300.

Elvar Aron wrote on September 14th, 2010 at 4:35 AM PST:

The 800$ version is the same software as the 500$ version
The 800$ only has more plugins from applied-acoustics bundled

Glenn Thomas wrote on September 14th, 2010 at 6:38 AM PST:

You need to reinstall media manager. It shouldn’t crash.

As for reverb, one of the best out there is a free one called Ambience. A vst plugin that works in any program. Sounds amazing too. You don’t need to spend anything else on additional plugins for a program like Acid. There are hundreds of free plugins out there. Clavinets, guitar effects, electric pianos, effects, synths.. A lot! They’re mostly all great sounding plugins too.

$800 for Ableton? That must be the whole suite? Do you really need all that? Personally, I wouldn’t waste that much money on Ableton. Check out the Reason / Record bundle. The mixing desk they’ve emulated in Record is an SSL. That alone makes it pretty impressive. Plus, its a closed system, but still with all you need, so you never have to worry about incompatible plugins. Another thing, its timestretching is apparently a lot better than Live.

Maschine is worth checking too. Comes with its own hardware interface and an amazing sound library including the drums from NI’s Abbey Road 60’s drums which sound brilliant.

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Eugenia wrote on September 14th, 2010 at 12:54 PM PST:

>You need to reinstall media manager. It shouldn’t crash.

It’s not a matter of re-installing the media manager. It’s a matter of not having bugs when trying to read the reference library. The crash was an obvious bug, not a mis-installation.

I only dread of how many more such bugs are around on the rest of the app.

kiwi wrote on September 14th, 2010 at 1:05 PM PST:

Having gone through the evaluation of most of the mentioned audio software during the last year, I’d say for you and chillwave, Ableton is a good choice.
I personally don’t use it, as I’m doing a bit more guitar oriented stuff with Logic (which is horrible, but it’s still the only thing I could use. I have a Fasttracker 2 history, and none of the current apps still don’t get the UI innovative enough. And no, the solution is not Renoise.)

You don’t have to know how to play to compose music. It will help, but you can start composing before. You can just draw the notes or drum patterns and test stuff, until it becomes interesting. MIDI keyboards are great for testing ideas, but you don’t have to really know how to play them to get some interesting ideas.

Maybe start with the drums. Listen to some tracks you like, and try reproducing the drums, or ask someone how to do it. Then put some synth pads above that with lot’s of sustain or reverb. It will help to know a thing or two about chords.

If you get time, skim through stuff like this: http://www.musictheory.net/
Don’t try to memorize everything. Just skimming through stuff, will give you new ideas. Experiment!

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Eugenia wrote on September 14th, 2010 at 1:23 PM PST:

Hi Kiwi, this was helpful, thanks. Both the PDF and the advice. Indeed, most of my music composition will be midi-drawing, rather than myself playing on the keyboard, recording it, quantitazing it. So I need software that has the ability to allow midi drawing, and then allow a lot of effects on it (e.g. echoes, reverb, making the sound “thicker” or more natural, crashing the sound like being “under bed covers”, making the sound of a synth sound different by changing some parameters etc). I need this kind of sound processing for chillwave. I always felt that Ableton has these abilities, while Acid Pro is more restricted regarding that kind of stuff.

Ivan wrote on September 14th, 2010 at 2:13 PM PST:

Here are 2 jazz albums you MUST listen to if you plan on anything even remotely linked to jazz:
1) Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
2) Keith Jarret, The Koln Concert
I’m looking forward to hearing your creations.

horace wrote on September 15th, 2010 at 2:23 PM PST:

i really like the jazz of the 50’s. bebop and hard pop. for example the clifford brown and max roach quintet is totally awesome 🙂


modern free jazz sounds too random to me.

horace wrote on September 15th, 2010 at 2:36 PM PST:

two youtube examples: 🙂

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Eugenia wrote on September 15th, 2010 at 3:50 PM PST:

Heh, actually I find all jazz music after Charlie Parker, who influenced all these musicians, to be “random”. Only pre-Parker jazz has a recognizable beat or melody (e.g. swing). At least that’s how it sounds to my untrained ears. 😉

BTW, I decided to go with REAPER. Amazing software. Just $40. Very powerful. Rock solid. Very impressed.

Ignazio wrote on September 16th, 2010 at 1:51 AM PST:

I’d like you take some time to listen to the music I link below. Nothing special. Maybe you won’t like the kind of music because one is classical and the other is dance but please, tell me if you like it or not. I’ve used them as a soundtrack for two picture slideshow of NYC and another place in Italy.
I’d like to point out that the man (woman in your case) is FAR MORE important than the machine or the software used.

The next two are just… me playng guitar… but I think they’re nice 🙂

Thanks for your interest, this blog is awesome,

ypesh wrote on September 16th, 2010 at 6:12 AM PST:

Cool, I’ve always been fascinated by music production (electronic/otherwise)- and I’d be even more keen to follow your progress in this – so please keep us updated….thanks!

mark warner wrote on September 17th, 2010 at 3:05 PM PST:

I have 4 major credits to my name as a remix producer and I will say this……I use ACID for the overall layout of the music,REASON for effects and sounds as welll as Abelton Live
for effects and sounds.

It all depends on how you use it. Go with what you feel comfortable with and feel you get the most bang for your buck.

If you want to make real music with no loops then you are going to need to start a band or learn to play a bunch of instruments.

Good luck with all that!

Jon wrote on September 17th, 2010 at 10:51 PM PST:

Mark Warner has it right. At the college I attended [MMI], there are several award winning audio engineers there teaching and one told me I have to use Reason. Plus Acid and Reason are the programs they are teaching there [along with Pro Tools]. My roommate at the time was taking the audio program and ended up purchasing Reason. Hope that helps.

Jim wrote on September 21st, 2010 at 9:51 AM PST:

There is a website called KVR which is a great place to pick up free synth programs. Companies like M-audio with their keystation keybds are inexpensive yet have a miki/usb interface. http://www.smartlix.com have some rental keyboard instruction dvds.
One of the best ways I know to write music is to begin by taking a chord progression from a song you like and then using that same progression as a basis to write your song. Sometimes I take the feel or the emotion that a certain song will create and then nurture that feeling when writing a new song. It is good to understand basic chord construction major triad (1-3-5) a seventh chord (1-3-5-flat7) and major seventh (1-3-5-7), Learn what a suspended forth is, the circle of fifths a 1-4-5 progression and a 1-2-4-5 progression and turn arounds. When playing keyboard you will be playing alot of inversions which just means the one note is not on the bottom.
Then forget everything I have just said, fire up the keybd and or the computer program and make some noise.

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