I need a hobby
January 13, 2010 5:07 PM   Subscribe

What gear and/or software would make a basic, inexpensive setup for someone looking to experiment making electronic music? Specifically ambient?

Well I'm completely new to this, but I want to start messing around with a synth & computer - and make some electronic music, probably spacey ambient stuff.

I have no idea what is necessary to get into this - a midi controller? Mixing software? Some kind of synth program?

I'd like to keep my whole investment under $200, and would prefer to use my old P4 desktop to replace as much gear as possible.

Would something like this and a good piece of software get me started?

Any other resources for where to begin?

posted by pilibeen to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I've been using Buzz for 10 years now. It's not professional grade, but for me, an amateur, it's pretty much exactly what I want. Plus, it's hard to beat free.
posted by ifandonlyif at 5:44 PM on January 13, 2010

You can do a lot with Audacity and The Freesound Project, and it won't cost you a thing. Check out users ERH, acclivity, digifishmusic, epanody, and Jovica for good examples of the different types of things people have to offer here. Lots of fun!
posted by aquafortis at 5:46 PM on January 13, 2010

I'm not a great musician but I'm interested in synthesizers and electronic music and I've always had fun with my cheap MIDI keyboard + Propellerheads Reason. It's a virtual rack with a bunch of fake synths, effects, samplers, animated patch cables, and so on — for example in addition to the advanced synths there's a basic old two-oscillator subtractive synthesizer (another fun thing is you get to learn a bunch of sweet jargon, and also the theory behind musical waveforms turns out to be really beautiful and fascinating) and it's so cool 'cause you can make it sound like a fat trance lead and then a bass guitar and then like an ambient background pad and here lemme show you this little tune I made it's only like five secs long but I really like how the bass sound is like totally crunchy and if you turn this knob here it goes like whoop whoop — that's how much fun this stuff is, it's like being a kid in a spaceship. Also I have heard reputable reports that you can make seriously good music with it, and I see no reason to doubt this even though all my tunes are lame.
posted by mbrock at 5:54 PM on January 13, 2010

I'm far from the best person to answer your question fully, but a couple things I've picked up:

For me, as a piano-trained musician, a small MIDI controller such as the one you linked would just be frustrating as hell. Yes, it can play all octaves, but only about one or two at a time without making some adjustment. That would drive me absolutely nuts, personally - my playing style would bump up against those boundaries constantly and ruin the flow of playing. The keyboard I have is 76 keys, but I'd probably be ok with something like this at 61 keys too.

(Because I'm fairly piano-based, I also have a sustain pedal. This may be useless if you're not going to be trying to emulate a piano at all.)

Then you need some kind of software on the computer, and a link between the computer and the keyboard controller.

Currently I have this MIDI interface hooked to my iMac, and I use GarageBand software. This MIDI interface will work if all the music you record is software/synth based - basically, the sounds are on the computer, and this interface uses the controller keyboard to play them. (My keyboard is actually a synth of its own - it has its own sounds on it - but I can't currently play them into the computer. A different type of interface would be needed. But if you get a keyboard that's only a controller, with no sounds of its own, then an interface like this would work.)

If you want to record other audio, such as vocals or guitars, you need a more complex interface - something like this perhaps. (That's not a recommendation - never used it - just using it as an example of the sort of box that can do both MIDI and digital audio recording.) You'd need at least one microphone with this, as well.

(Alternately, there actually are microphones that connect via USB. That's what I'm thinking of trying next, myself.)

For software, well, since I have a Mac I'm sticking with GarageBand for now until I get more familiar with the whole process of computer-based writing and recording. Not really sure where I'll go from there - I've looked at Ableton Live but frankly it confuses me. (I just know that a couple songwriters I admire use it at least to some degree - Imogen Heap and Duncan Sheik.) I'll let others address the software issues.
posted by dnash at 6:01 PM on January 13, 2010

ZynAddSubFX is my favorite software synthesizer ever. And it's free. It lets you build up your instruments from basically raw soundwaves--adding and subtracting harmonics from a base waveform (hence the name).

You can control it with any basic midi keyboard. I recommend you buy one of those... but, it needn't be a full keyboard. Just a little one- or two-octave jobbie will get you started. ZynAddSubFX can also be controlled through a midi sequencer, if you aren't interested in playing the instruments directly (but would rather score it). There are a number of those available for free as well--just google "midi sequencer".
posted by Netzapper at 6:25 PM on January 13, 2010

Micro Korg on Craigslist is your friend. $250. Has midi capabilities. Follow others' software advice.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:29 PM on January 13, 2010

You need a MIDI keyboard of some kind. I started out with a Korg padKontrol and kinda regretted it; the padKontrol is an awesome toy, but is better for beats/drums than anything remotely melodic.
posted by nihraguk at 6:47 PM on January 13, 2010

Seconding Buzz.
posted by ropeladder at 7:02 PM on January 13, 2010

Forget about using your old, computer - it's old. Running a new computer is leaps and bounds ahead of an old P4. Use your Thinkpad X31 - it'll be less frustrating and you'll be way more productive.

So that being said here's a 130 dollar shopping list:

Something to record with: I think samples are the key to good ambient, a portable recorder is required. Start with a handheld casette recorder, and move up to a stereo recorder as you become more comfortable. $30

Sample chopping and mangling: Audacity FREE

Something to make drones with: nanoKEY - $50 bucks

Something to manipulate midi data in real time: nanoKONTROL - $50

Synths and Sample Players: AudioMulch + Free VSTS (I would not recommend AudioMulch to any one just starting making emusic, unless they were doing ambient droney stuff) Also, because you are just "trying this out" and seeing if you want to do this, just download the trial -which is 60 days, by then you'll know if you really want to do this and can afford the software. Remember you can't return software. (Jeskola Buzz, as mentioned above is free - but not so easy to learn how to use, you should try it and play around with it - but it's not easy, and it doesn't lend itself to ambient.)

Make sure you read all the manuals to AudioMulch and Audacity and try everything out. That's so much of the fun of doing what you are about to embark on.
posted by bigmusic at 8:53 PM on January 13, 2010

If you want to use your old computer, try SynFactory or StudioFactory, both of which are completely free. They are virtual modular synthesizer software and would be great for slowly evolving ambient stuff. I originally started using SynFactory years and years ago on a Pentium-II 266MHz and was able to make extremely complex patches that output audio in realtime without any hiccups. Your P4 will do just fine.
posted by bigtex at 11:40 PM on January 13, 2010

nthing the recording kit and Audacity. CoolEdit is also great if you can find the old version from before Adobe turned it to sh*t. For making / changing sounds, be sure to check out the free effects/synths plugin database at KVR - http://www.kvraudio.com/ . I found e.g. that the free KTGranulator from KTFx can be used to make great drones.

As suggested above I would definitely look into the pioneers such as Pierre Schaeffer, the musique concrete gang, the elektronische Musik movement around Stockhausen, IRCAM, cinema du son, the electroacoustic thing (which the unschooled ear may mistake for ambient).
posted by yoHighness at 11:10 AM on January 16, 2010

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