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Rock with Your PC

If music be the food of life, the secret of well-being lies in learning to rock with your PC.

Long ago, in a place far away, I wanted to be a musician.

Ah, the story of many a young person's life. Dreams of weaving melodies around an audience, mesmerizing them with raw talent, to hear them cheer and yell "Encore!"

I remember the nights when I sat with our drummer (a chappie named Jesus Mario Euseberito Fernandes - thankfully called "Mario" for short) practicing, trying to sound like the Beatles, or Smokie (hey Mario! Remember "Living Next Door to Alice"?) or just plain us. And there was Robert trying to keep his home-made lead guitar under control (we needed to work in longish breaks and solos so that he could re-tune his instrument in mid-air). Enrich battled with his Bass, while hyper-ambitious me was desperately trying to keep everything together, long enough to make it through four minutes and 30 seconds without major mishaps.

In those days, three guitars and a drum-kit made up our collective instrument pool. Orchestration was a real problem. Timings and even our instruments left a lot to be desired. Maybe that is why we did not make it to the Billboard listings. While we became a pretty tight band, and sounded really good, there were limits to what we could do in those days.

Take two

Almost 20 years later, it was time for another stab at it. But I couldn't trace any of the original band members, so I had to resign myself to the fact that I would have to do it all alone.

Multi-track recording is a concept as old as recorded music itself. The concept is simple. You recorded one instrument on a tape track, then rewound and recorded the next instrument (and eventually your voice) on other tracks. Finally, you had something you could mix, down to a performance that sounded like there were half a dozen people playing and singing at the same time. You could add or subtract stuff until it was sounding right.

Multi-track recording equipment costs a bomb, and then you still had to worry about the instruments themselves. No way an amateur musician could put all that together on a budget that was competing with a round of pizza and coke.

Then several things happened almost at the same time. It started with my investing in a good sound card for my PC (a Creative SoundBlaster AWE64, to be precise). Unlike its forerunners, the AWE64 has actual instrument samples stored onboard - these can be played back sounding like the real thing. Given the right kind of software and hardware, you could actually begin to sound almost decent.

Uh! Yeah! Software and hardware. "Huston, we have a problem".

Hardware issues

The hardware I needed was a pretty powerful machine - but then the home computers of today are pretty powerful machines. What I had was a Pentium MMX 200 MHz, with 64 MB of RAM, and 4.2 GB of disk space. But what I didn't have was a keyboard!

"What kind of PC is that without a keyboard," you'd ask yourself. The answer is - not a PC Keyboard, but a MIDI Keyboard that you use to enter your melodies, play your contras, fill in the drums, and so on. While I had plenty of those, they were the cheaper Casio kinds, without a MIDI interface. (MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface - an industry standard way of connecting digital musical instruments to computers and other equipment).

Someone up there loves me. Right around that time, my daughter "inherited" an old Casio MT-240 keyboard from my little cousin in Germany. "Ho hum" says me, as I prepared to cart it back to India, "yet another addition to the growing collection." How boring. And then I glanced at the back of the keyboard, where I found two sockets marked MIDI-IN and MIDI-OUT! We were in business. I will skip over the subsequent battles between my daughter and me over use of the keyboard. I ran out to the nearest computer shop in Berlin and picked up the required PC-to-MIDI cables I would need back in India. Took all of 5 minutes to locate and purchase. A sign from above?

Back in India, I hooked everything up, and prepared to wow the world. Nothing worked. Not a peep out of the machine. I even soldered together a fresh set of cables, still no go. But by this time, I was too fired up to give in. I logged into Compu Serve (still the only place where you can get quick and usable help on any topic under the sun - despite what people will say about the Internet being the place to check) and hollered.

It turned out that Creative's SoundBlaster cards needed a special cable to work with MIDI instruments. That cable ships with the AWE64 GOLD card, but cheapskate that I am, I had only purchased the AWE64 VALUE cards, which came without the cable. I asked around, but everyone I knew was as cheap as I was - no one had the cable.


But I wasn't beaten yet. I fired off an e-mail message to PC Quest Labs to see if they could help. They could. They had the card (and cable) in stock for review. They couriered it to me overnight. The next day, I finally heard the first sounds of music coming out of my PC's speakers that were triggered by the Casio keyboard, with the sounds themselves coming out of the SoundBlaster AWE64's wave-table banks. It sounded like heaven (though my cat did scramble out of the room in sheer panic).

While the Casio MT-240 is a synthesizer, fully capable of producing its own sounds, it sounds like, well, like a Casio instrument. Very artificial, and not at all flexible. The rhythms were fixed and definitely not suitable for what a real musician would have in mind. Basically, in our scenario, I used the Casio keyboard only as a MIDI Input device to my PC, using it to trigger sounds that were actually produced by my sound card, the SoundBlaster AWE64.

The software issues

At this point, I was all set to roll, when God dealt me another joker? I found out that I would also need something to digitally record, multi-track and re-mix the individual instruments I was emulating. I shot off mail to my next known source of expertise - Steve Rudolph of the Jiva Institute.

Steve suggested various packages that would do the job comprehensively. Among them was CakeWalk - a sequencing software favored by many musicians and about which I had already heard a lot. So one goes out looking for a copy of CakeWalk.

Hmmm, in India's Silicon Valley - Bangalore - you can get compilers and games and just about everything else, but music software? No dice.

Did I mention that someone up there in the empty ether really likes me? Well, it has to be true, otherwise explain to me why I would get a call from Computers@Home asking me if I would review some music software that they had received just then? And why, when I asked, oozing curiosity, what software, the answer was "CakeWalk HomeStudio 6.01"?


Getting going

Life is good. The next day I really had everything in place, the hardware, the software, the interfaces, the cables, and a serious dose of enthusiasm. All that was required now was to marry my genetically inherited musical talent (thank you, mom!) with my professional talents (I am a technology consultant, after all) and get the show on the road.

The box that CakeWalk HomeStudio came in said, "no experience required". Promising, but another sad case of misleading advertising. The manual started off rather well, but quickly degenerated into pages and pages of menu-item descriptions without providing even an iota of fundamentals. For example, I tore through the entire 456-page manual looking for information on how to lay down a drum track. No go. I figured out the bit about multi-track recording, but basic stuff on what to put into the tracks was sadly missing.

Putting pride aside, I hollered for help again. This time on my BBS - CiX.

Response was almost instantaneous - there were people on CiX who regularly used CakeWalk, albeit an older version. Hari N. (not his real name, or rather, that's the name we call DC on the board) offered to help. He also dragged Adhish and Umesh along - both CakeWalk users and all musicians in their own right. So I ordered stacks of pizza and coke, and we prepared to rock.

Getting an education

Over the next three hours, I received a compressed course in electronic music that made me feel like a fully loaded Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic.

Hari, Umesh and Adhish took me from basics to advanced usage, filling in with tips and tricks, hoopla and musical backflips that made my jaw drop. I spent a thousand bucks on pizza and coke that night, and received information worth a million to me. At one point, they were operating the Casio, an electric guitar plugged into the PC, the mouse and the PC keyboard all at once, recording tracks, reversing sounds to give them a completely new dimension, laying down drum tracks, and generally making magic. CakeWalk Software would do well to have these guys rewrite the manual for them. In a sudden burst of inspiration, I scrambled to fire up my video camera to immortalise some of the happenings that night.

By the time the trio left for the night, I had that final vital piece of information in place that I needed to turn my dreams into reality. Watch out BillBoard - here I come.

The first, faltering steps

First of all, I decided to practice my newly acquired knowledge by orchestrating and recording a tune Mario and I had thrown together almost two decades before - a piece of music that we knew then as "Atul's Theme". It was my signature tune when performing on stage.

Hours later, things were beginning to sound good - really good. "aTheme" was beginning to sound on the speakers just the way it had been ringing in our heads for the past 20 years. I added track after track - drums, violins, guitars, bass, piano and more. The final piece had almost 15 tracks in it, which I then mixed down to 8 tracks - panned across 180 degrees of the stereo spectrum, complete with reverb, echoes and a serious dose of magic.

While I was at it, I learned how to deal with clips. Basically, there are many repetitive components in a melody, such as drum beats, refrains, lead melodies, among other things. I learned to record just the first instance of each, then, using copies of these clips to add to the piece, resulting in a complete tune with drum rolls and fade-outs.

Mario, I don't know where you are, but you've got to hear this. Fire up the CD-ROM that comes with this issue of Computers@Home, and listen to atheme.mp3 (you will need to install WinAMP 1.92 from the same CD in order to hear it).

Assembling the new band

Next, I decided to sequence a backup-band for myself, so that I could have this playing along with me when I sang and played my guitar. I am a sixties kid, and I chose songs from that era. The Beatles were a natural choice, but I didn't use them - I was far too familiar with those songs. Instead, I started off with an old number by a group called Herman's Hermits called "No Milk Today". I sat down with headphones and a Walkman, and painfully listened to the number over and over again, identifying and separating the various components of the song - the guitars, the drums, among other things. Each of these represented a track I needed to record to completely reproduce the song.

Then I fired up CakeWalk, and began reproducing each track. I started with the drums, which was fairly easy after Hari's tutorial (he used only a mouse to quickly produce the effect of a complete drum-kit - carefully placing each beat and each cymbal in its right slot). After I got the basic beats and rolls in place, I duplicated the clips, resulting in a complete drum sequence for the song. Not quite Mario, but we were getting there.

Next came the Bass guitar. I got it almost perfect in the very first attempt. The SoundBlaster offered me a variety of different bass guitar sounds, and it was simple finding the right one.

The rhythm guitar came next. This was an easy one, for two reasons. One, I used to play the rhythm guitar in our group, so I knew what needed to be done. And second, since this was to be a backup band for me while I was singing and playing the guitar, I wouldn't actually need this track in the final product, since I would be playing that live. I contented myself with rhythmic stabs of Electric Guitar (Clean) that I played on the Casio keyboard.

The lead guitar was tricky. I experimented with producing the riffs through the keyboard, but there was no way I could even get close. I could play them easily enough on a real guitar, but trying to emulate that using a keyboard was a nightmare. Thankfully, Hari, Umesh and Adhish had shown me how to mix real sound (analog recording straight off my electric guitar) into the CakeWalk sequence. So the final mix consisted of drums, bass and rhythm (all digitally reproduced via the wave-table banks of the SoundBlaster), mixed with an audio track of a real guitar. (CakeWalk HomeStudio allows up to four audio tracks in addition to unlimited digital tracks. CakeWalk Pro has no such limits).

Once I had all the basic pieces in place, I used CakeWalk's StudioPanels (that simulate an actual recording studio's mixing desk, complete with faders, reverb controls and panning controls) to mix the whole thing into the right proportions of volume and reverb. (For copyright reasons, the result of this session cannot be distributed on the CD)

Finally I sat back, and played the whole thing back.

The process is complete

You know that feeling you get when you hear a familiar song playing on your stereo or performed by a good band in a restaurant or on stage? That irresistible urge that grabs you, forcing you to tap your foot, to throw back your head and sing along full throttle, while your hands automatically fall into the famous "air guitar" pose, as you close your eyes and "play along"?

Oh man, this was too much. I plugged in my microphone, cranked up my reverb and echo unit, jacked in my faithful Ibanez guitar, closed my eyes and 20 years after I had last played with Mario, Robert and Enrich, I was on stage again, performing "No Milk Today" with a serious lump in my throat. All that was missing was the cheering of the crowds (which I could have easily mixed in, too), but at that moment all that mattered was the pure ecstasy of performing with a band whom you knew almost as well as you knew yourself.

Tomorrow, I will go back to my spreadsheets, my reports, my network designs and my regular work. But when evening comes, I know that the same computer I used all day for mundane things like number crunching would turn into my old band, allowing me to do what I did long before I got involved with computers - play music.

First published in Computers@Home 01-Oct-1998

Copyright © 1962- Atul Chitnis. All Rights Reserved.