Besides “computer,” what word perfectly modifies “geek”? If you said “music,” take a bow. You could spend thousands on pro equipment, but with your computer you can get started for zero dollars.
• Drum machine: You need a backbeat first, right? Since drummers aren’t real musicians* and drum kits are a pain to record, you can replace them with free software.
DrumTrack is my current favorite. The default kit has 30 sounds that you can mix, match, add to or replace to get a customized sound. Time signature, tempo and volume can all be edited while you click the beats where you want each sound to go. Export your pattern as WAV or MIDI and bam, you’re done. drumtrack.sourceforge.net
OrDrumbox has a more old-schooly interface and a bunch of preset patterns for rock, disco, mambo, etc. Their website has downloads for more sound samples, a video tutorial and an online lite version. www.ordrumbox.com
Speaking of which, how many freakin’ online drum machines does the world need? At least four, apparently, because here are three more:
HammerHead Rhythm Station: www.threechords.com/hammerhead
Monkey Machine: rinki.net/pekka/monkey
OneMotion Drum Machine: www.onemotion.com/flash/drum-machine
*Kidding, kidding. Don’t beat me up, tattooed muscular drummer dudes.
• Synthesizer: Creating sounds from the ground up, straight from their most basic waveform, is where synthesizers shine. There are loads of softsynths available as plugins for more advanced audio applications, but there are a few free standalone programs as well.
A great one is the cumbersomely named ZynAddSubFX. Why is it great? Well, it has tons of advanced options taking you into the depths of sound synthesis, but it’s designed so you can jump right in, turn some knobs and learn as you go along. The on-screen keyboard gives you an instant musical interface. A Windows installer is available if you dig through the files on Sourceforge. zynaddsubfx.sourceforge.net
If that’s too straightforward for you, Syd might be more to your liking. You connect various patches, filters, envelopes and other generic-sounding words I don’t totally understand with virtual patch cords until you get the timbre you want. That exports to a WAV file which, uh, I guess you then use that as a sample in your audio software of choice? Sure. www.jbum.com/syd
• Audio recording and editing: There’s one free program that pretty much blows everything else away in this category, because it’s easy to use, pretty to look at and does everything that most beginners are looking for. It’s called Audacity.
Want to record from a microphone, line-in or another application? Got it. Want to mix multiple tracks together, maybe with some fades and effects to make it all sound smooth and professional? Check. Want a program for your operating system? Don’t worry, Audacity comes complete with installers for Windows and Mac OS and source code for Linux, UNIX, FreeBSD or whatever else you might be running. Download the stable, rock-solid 1.2.6 version for trouble-free operation. If you’re OK with the occasional crash or bug in exchange for more features, try the latest 1.3.whatever beta release.
Since it’s open source, extending Audacity’s capabilities is just a matter of getting the right code. For some projects that can be a real hassle, but this development team has gone the extra mile to put straightforward links and instructions on their website so you can enable MP3 exporting, additional audio effects plugins and more. audacity.sourceforge.net
If you really want to get crazy with your audio projects — I’m talking MIDI sequencing, virtual instruments, low-latency recording and playback — you want a full digital audio workstation (DAW) program. More on that next week.