Beat Week: Going All Soft – Assemble Your Portable Beat Station, pt. 2

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Date: Tuesday, June 18th, 2002, 01:00
Category: Archive

So, after yesterday’s introduction to creating a BeatBook, you’ve got your hardware solution, from a basic iBook with its built-in audio out all the way to a high end G4 with an 828. What about software? Thanks to the software synthesis age, software can replace thousands of dollars of hardware — and do things that weren’t possible before. Now the only challenge is choosing which to use, with limited time and money. If beats are your bread and butter, here are some ideas to maximize your software arsenal. Click ‘read more’ for all the details.


So, after yesterday’s introduction to creating a BeatBook, you’ve got your hardware solution, from a basic iBook with its built-in audio out all the way to a high end G4 with an 828. What about software? Thanks to the software synthesis age, software can replace thousands of dollars of hardware — and do things that weren’t even possible before. Now the only challenge is choosing which to use, with limited time and money. If beats are your bread and butter, here are some ideas to maximize your software arsenal.

If you’re the “do-it-yourself” type, you may want to skip over all the other options and start playing with the package that started live laptop performance: Cycling 74’s incredible MAX/MSP, which lets you make any kind of interactive music on your machine you can imagine via a visual programming language that lets you connect functions via virtual patch cords. MAX has deep academic discounts for individual students, so check out their academic pricing. MAX also plays well with all the other software I’ll mention in this article thanks to ReWire, which lets multiple apps share the same audio hardware and routes audio from app to another in OS 9. (OS X natively supports similar features, once OS X support becomes widely available.)

Given the wealth of music software out there, I’ll focus on beat-based solutions. There are two basic approaches to creating beats: forging your own with software synthesis from scratch, or recording (or sampling) audio and looping it. There are many ways of creating your own synthesized loops, including building them in a traditional MIDI environment like Cubase, Logic, or Digital Performer. For dance music (or any music you like) with vintage analog sounds, the Mac favorite remains ReBirth from Propellerhead, and if you want one package to get started with, this may be your best bet.

Looping prerecorded materials is all the rage at the moment, led by the PC-only application Sonic Foundry ACID Pro. For years, Mac users had to be jealous of the Windows side in this category or use the more-limited (and now a bit outdated) Phrazer from BitHeadz. Now there’s a cross-platform app that, frankly, allows more creative music, Ableton‘s Live, which I reviewed in April. If you want to use sampled loops, or record your own, Live is a must-have: it couples powerful looping and beat-matching features with the ability to do everything (as the name suggests) live, in real-time. Rather than duplicate what turntables already do quite well, thank you very much, Live takes advantage of the computer as an audio file-triggering musical instrument. Beginners can get started with the library of beat samples already included and can start assembling their own songs with no previous musical or technological background, making this a very fun way to get started.

The other great all-in-one package is Reason by Propellerhead, which will hit version 2.0 and add OS X support this summer. If you want a well-rounded package that does everything, Reason is a good choice. It includes virtual versions of mixers, samplers (including a full-fledged software sampler in version 2.0), analog pattern-generators, some basic analog synthesis, and assorted other goodies. Reason also compliments Live well, which I’ll talk about later this week. Create a virtual rack of equipment in Reason, plug in that Midiman keyboard, and you can start playing. The analog synthesis features aren’t as extensive as in ReBirth, so if you’re dedicated to that, you may want both. Likewise, Reason’s own looping capabilities are playback-only: to create your own, or import other samples, you’ll want Propellerhead’s ReCycle (also a good choice if you find the sound-chopping facilities in Live a little limited). ReCycle lets you create markers within an audio file so that you can adjust a loop’s tempo in a way that sounds natural without adversely affecting sound quality.

Reason and Live can be limited on their own if you want multitrack audio recording and MIDI sequencing capabilities. For instance, while these apps work extremely well for DJs, just constructing a traditional song structure can be needlessly complicated. For that reason, you’ll probably want to combine these apps with the sequencer/audio workstation of your choice: Emagic Logic, Steinberg Cubase, or MOTU Digital Performer. If you have Digidesign’s free version of Pro Tools, aptly named Pro Tools Free, you can use that, although you’ll find MIDI tools in this app and even the full, top-of-the-line Pro Tools to be limiting. The good news is, Reason, Live, ReBirth, and the mighty MAX/MSP will all interface directly with these apps via ReWire. OS X support is promised for all these apps, as well, although it will be at least 6 months before there is a critical mass to make OS X a primary OS, and for more advanced users, possibly up to 12 months.

Okay, now that you’re thoroughly confused, let’s prescribe some basic setups for different skill levels.

Dirt cheap plug and play: If you’ve not almost no cash but want to start playing, stick with that out port on your laptop (add input via the US$30 Griffin iMic). Use what cash you have to get a copy of Live and go to town!

Semi-poor keyboardist: Plug in an existing MIDI keyboard via an interface (less than US$70) or buy a Midiman Keystation for about US$200. If you want software that’s truly deep that you’ll spend months learning, satisfy your inner geek with MAX/MSP. To just start playing, opt for Reason and the US$100 Steinberg Cubase VST for MIDI sequencing and recording.

Intermediate setup: A complete basic setup: Keystation keyboard, Tascam US-224, Reason, Cubase VST, plus Live. Just over US$1000 for a complete studio! That’s what you used to pay just for a basic MIDI keyboard!

Advanced setup, deep pockets: Go all out; you won’t regret it. Keystation keyboard, MOTU 828, Reason, full version of Cubase, Logic, or Digital Performer (which is a matter of personal preference), Live, Recycle and ReBirth (each optional), music notation like Sibelius so you can hand out parts to singers to sing along with your songs, and heck, MAX/MSP so you can start playing with it, too!

Join us later this week for some tips on how to start using all this stuff — if you’re not too busy maxing out your credit card!

Assoc. Ed. Peter Kirn is a music technology instructor as well as a composer and musician working on a PhD at the City Univerity of New York. And yes, it is possible to write classical music AND dance music.

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