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Music Computer Tutorial

:: Introduction

The purpose of this tutorial is to cover some of the basic steps in creating computer generated music by using a virtual music studio. There are many fine music creation programs available and they all work in a similar way; I have chosen Fruity Loops Studio because it is the one I have used the most, because of its reliability. In this tutorial, we will create a short song together, learning how to use a virtual music studio, and also discuss some of the creative choices we are faced with in the process. We will touch a little on music theory, just enough to get started, so no prior musical training is necessary (although always helpful, of course). Many people dedicate their entire lives to the study and composition of music. To suggest that reading this basic tutorial will make anyone a composer would be a disservice to everybody. But if you would like to create a little background music for your game, or simply as a creative outlet, this tutorial may be of help.

Certainly, there are many approaches to composing and assembling songs. Personally, I tend to understand compositions as structures having four main parts: lead, chords, bass and drums. This is the approach we will take in this tutorial. I have structured the tutorial in three main sections:

The Virtual Music Studio: a brief overview on the functionalities of the program that we will be using for this tutorial, particularly how to enter notes.

Creating A Music Theme: here we will program a simple music theme, successively adding multiple tracks on it to accompany the melody.

Creative Variations: some ideas we can apply to alter the personality of our music theme.

Music Theory: a reference section, with an introduction to timing, scales and chords.

This tutorial is based around a very simple melody. The idea here is to learn some basics before going on to create your own compositions. By keeping the melody simple, it is easier to see how and why things go together as they do. As we proceed, there are detailed examples on the composition and sample sound clips. All of these can be downloaded by right-clicking on them.

And now, let the music begin...

:: The Virtual Music Studio

Before we start composing, we need to become familiar with our chosen virtual studio or sequencer; as I stated above, I will be using FL Studio (version 5) for this tutorial. Virtual music studios are more modern versions of the traditional midi sequencers. In addition to the management of the universal and compact midi (.mid) files, these programs have their own file formats to save our work when more and better features (such as VST plugins) are required for our projects. They also allow us to render our projects directly in a wave (.wav) file, and by using the included mixer it would be possible to do a basic masterization of the sound before rendering it into a file, so this is why these programs are called virtual studios, for they can produce a music theme from the beginning up to the end, though for a more serious audio processing, you would prefer to use a dedicated audio editor.

FL Studio has a lot of features, but for this basic tutorial we will be concerned only with two of them. The first component that I want to show is the Piano Roll, where the notes are entered to form a melody or a drum pattern. As you can see it has a vertical keyboard to the left (the piano) and a grid where the notes are drawn (the roll). The thicker vertical lines in the grid mark the beginning and end of each measure, while the lighter vertical lines divide each measure into smaller time values: half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes. To enter a note, click on the grid where you want it to go, using the notes on the keyboard as a guide. The length of a note can be changed by clicking and dragging the mouse on its ends, and its position can be changed by doing the same on the note itself. Certainly, its operating principle works similarly to a music box, but with the possibility of choosing note lenghts and sound patches. In the image below, you can see the velocity bar in the lower part, which allows us to set a certain velocity value for each particular note. You can think of velocity as loudness; in the real keyboards, it is based on how hard or softly a key is struck when playing.

Piano Roll

Now that we have seen the piano roll, it is time to see the Tracks Window (called Step Sequencer in FL Studio). Music themes usually have more than one instrument playing, and each of these instruments is assigned a track. This window will give us an overview of our entire composition, showing all the tracks used and allowing us to adjust their properties. In the image below, you can see this window showing the four tracks of the simple song that I will use as example for this tutorial. The small lights on the left allow to mute or unmute each track. The small knobs allow to adjust pan (left) and volume (right) for each track. Clicking on the track's name box allows to change the instrument or rename the track, among other things. The lights right of the boxes indicate the selected track; when a track is selected, we can perform certain actions on it, such as change its order on the track list, copy the entire track, delete the track, etc...

Step Sequencer

Working with a virtual studio or sequencer is all about creating and mixing tracks. For the time being, we have seen enough things to get started. Along the tutorial I will explain any additional functionality that would be required to know for completing the song. On the next chapter, we will start laying down a melody line, and then building additional tracks to accompany it.

Join me for the adventure...

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