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|I do not intend to go into huge detail regarding home music production and I stress that my own experience relates to the use of Windows operating systems. Many professional musicians use Mac systems instead and there are indeed many benefits to this. It is, however, likely that most people trying home music-making for the first time will have a Windows-based system and my comments are directed at these individuals.
There are lots of different sequencing software packages on the market, ranging in price from maybe £30 to £500 or more. The key requirements for any sequencer are that it should support multiple tracks of both MIDI and audio. It is also important that the software is compatible with DXi or VST (preferably both). You don't need to buy the top-of-the range software to produce decent music and most of the software companies market products aimed at the home musician - these don't cost the earth. For example, Cakewalk (www.cakewalk.com) retail Sonar Home Studio for around £80 - this has the same core features as the top-of-the-range Sonar Producer Edition. Home Studio XL, at £119, adds more effects, sampled sounds and software synthesisers. Most decent sequencing programs include "plugin" effects, such as reverb, chorus, compressors and EQ. You can also buy effects separately, but there are some good free ones available on the internet. I have provided links to some of these on this site. I personally have 2 sequencing programs: Making Waves Studio (www.makingwavesaudio.com) and Cakewalk Sonar. I use Sonar for rendering MIDI to audio and Making Waves for most of my mix-downs.
To create real instrument sounds, you'll also need a VST or DXi software sampler or player - this allows you to convert MIDI tracks to quality audio sounds. Most of these are quite expensive, but there is an excellent free soundfont player (the Sfz player), now available for download from Cakewalk's Project 5 website here. This does have limitations, but the Sfz+ player, which can be purchased from the Cakewalk site for $60 here, overcomes these and is every bit as good at playing sampled instruments as samplers costing more than 3 times the price!
THE SAMPLED SOUNDS
The final consideration is the sounds themselves. The quality of sampled sounds varies enormously. On the one hand, there are thousands of "soundfonts" available for free download from the internet. These will happily play in the Sfz player, but most of them are nothing like good enough for serious music production - they were really intended for use with Soundblaster sound cards. On the other hand, there are the huge multi-sampled instruments sold by the big sound studios. These generally sound great, but cost a fortune - it could easily cost $1,000 or more to put together a full collection of instruments from the professional studios.
However, if you know where to look, there are some very high quality multi-sampled sounds available via the internet for comparatively little - in fact, some are completely free! By spending many hours scouring the internet, I have located most of the best free and reasonably priced sounds available. Details of these are posted on the links page of this site. Unfortunately, putting together a complete collection of quality multi-sampled guitars is extremely time-consuming and requires investment in special equipment and software - this is why my own collection is not completely free. However, I hope you will agree that the sound justifies the modest cost - and they are still just a fraction of the cost of a comparable set from one of the big-name sound studios!
Discussing all the various hardware options for home music production is way beyond the scope of this small website. Making Waves (www.makingwavesaudio.com) stock pretty well anything you might need at competitive prices and their website should give you plenty of ideas. However, I should say a few words about computers.
Music production is an especially demanding application for computers because very large audio files are being processed. Therefore, the newer and faster your computer, the better it will be, but almost any P4 (or equivalent) computer running Windows XP should do the job. However, you will certainly need a minimum of 512MB RAM and 1GB is better to be on the safe side - it's a fairly easy matter to install extra memory. You'll also need quite a lot of hard disk space to store all of the audio files and sample banks. If you're getting short of space, one of the USB external hard drives is an excellent solution. These are now normally at least 200GB! Assuming that your computer has USB2.0, you should be able to read all of your sampled instruments direct from the external drive. You may even find that your computer runs faster - especially if you assign the virtual memory to the external drive.
You'll also need to consider upgrading the soundcard. This needn't cost the earth, as it is possible to purchase a decent audio card, capable of handling audio at up to 96kHz/24bit, for around £50. The ones produced by ESI Pro and M-Audio are generally a safe bet. These cards come with Asio drivers, which are important as they provide much lower latencies than older MME drivers. The main downside to these soundcards is that the recording inputs include no preamps, so separate microphone preamps, preferably with phantom power, are required to record guitars, vocals etc.. In the longer term, if you get serious, you might want to invest in a slightly more expensive soundcard, with an external break-out box. These generally include microphone preamps
I would advise against using your music computer for internet access, as the anti-virus software, which is now so essential for internet work, slows down the computer too much. If you have no alternative, I would suggest that you disconnect from the internet and turn off your anti-virus software before using music applications.