Composing & recording music just for fun
May 10, 2020 6:18 PM   Subscribe

What's the minimum software/hardware I need to compose & record music?

Umpteen years ago I used to compose little ditties for my brother’s kids, singing while playing on a midi keyboard and recording the whole thing onto a cassette tape then mailing it to them. They loved it. They played the tapes in the car and sang along until the tapes wore out.
Now those kids are adults and have their own little ones. I would like to make some tunes for them too. I want to use current technology and am willing to put in the time to learn. But I don’t want to go hog wild. I just want to create something that sounds nice on an amateur level. What do I need?
posted by mono blanco to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a MIDI keyboard? Depending on what you want to do you might not need one. If you do need one you can pick up an Akai MPK Mini MKII for $120. It's about as good as it gets in terms of bang for your buck.

With or without that: If you already have a Mac or iOS device (iPhone/iPad) you can pull it off for zero additional dollars. Garageband is free and a fully functioning DAW including a bunch of MIDI instruments that you can use the MPK with, sequence, or use "musical typing" which allows you to use your qwerty keyboard as a MIDI keyboard. It's also very, very easy to use out of the box and quite easy to learn the advanced functions of.

If you have a PC I don't think there's anything nearly as easy to use. Audacity is fantastic (and free) for pure audio DAW stuff, but I don't believe there's any built-in MIDI support for instruments. I think you can import MIDI files, but you'd need to sequence them elsewhere (again, I may be wrong.)

All told: You can definitely do *something* for free whether you use iOS Device, Mac or PC. If you have a iOS/Mac, Garageband will almost certainly do everything you're looking for.

If you want to do stuff totally separate of any kind of computer, I've heard really good things about the Spire. It's akin to an old-fashioned 8-track device but in a slick digital package.
posted by SpiffyRob at 6:30 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]

At minimum: A computer. DAW software like GarageBand, Reaper, Logic, etc. An audio interface so you can plug in mics and instruments.
posted by gnutron at 6:32 PM on May 10

If you are really looking to go for cheap and easy, I've been using Noteworthy Composer on and off since college for quick composition stuff. It can take keyboard input as well if you don't want to manually write out the score. But it doesn't handle vocals is the big thing.
posted by Zargon X at 7:26 PM on May 10

I've done stupid kid songs in Garageband on a standard Macbook with internal mic. You could use an iPhone/iPad too. In a past life, I used n-Track Studio on a Windows PC.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:30 PM on May 10

For software, you might look into LMMS, which is free, open source, and cross platform.
posted by smcameron at 8:33 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

My suggestions for a cheap and simple setup on PC:

The Samson GoMic condenser USB mic allows you to skip buying a separate interface, mic, and mic cable. The sound is surprisingly good for a $30 microphone, and I made decent-sounding recordings for years on one before upgrading my setup.

REAPER is an inexpensive (or free, if you don’t mind it nagging you) but fully featured DAW that will let you record MIDI or actual noises w/the mic. Lots of support resources out there for learning to use it.

You can find all kinds of VSTis out there to allow you to actually make noise with your MIDI keyboard, but I like AIR Xpand2 as a cheap, lightweight, and utilitarian bundle of instruments—all the stuff you might find as presets on a keyboard, eg piano, strings, pads, horns, etc. If you want something more specialized but free, the Spitfire Labs VSTs are great, lots of weird experimental sounds.

I’ve used the Spire 4-track phone app that corresponds to the device SpiffyRob linked, and it was surprisingly great for recording quick ideas and mixes! Haven’t tried it lately though. (Also, it won’t take MIDI input.)
posted by music for skeletons at 8:44 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

It’s maybe worth mentioning that Ableton has extended their usual 30 day evaluation to 90 days. I suspect Reaper is a better fit for the production you want to do, but in the interest of completeness...
posted by Alterscape at 8:48 PM on May 10

Everyone in my band who records music first learned on Garageband. It's a pretty soft launch into a field that can escalate to arbitrary complexity. (we are a hobby outfit with varying levels of technical enthusiasm and we are all short of time to engage a lot of complexity, so I feel pretty comfortable recommending it.)

If you can read and write music you've got everything you need with GB. You can start by composing on the piano roll with your mouse/trackpad and recording your voice with your built-in mic. Add hardware complexity like a MIDI keyboard (so you can play your song directly) or an external mic (so your voice will sound more "professional") as you like.

alas, if you're not on a mac or iphone, I have no idea what to recommend. I super heart Bitwig, a sweet and slick DAW that runs on every non-mobile platform. It has a free no-saves demo version, a $99 16-track version (more than you'll need from what you say) and a $399 all-the-trimmings version, but I have zero idea how easy it is to learn on.

re: LMMS ... LMMS is not a fully-featured digital audio workstation -- you can't record audio (like your vocals ) into it, you'll need to use another program for recording audio and then import that audio into LMMS. That adds complexity, so I wouldn't recommend it. Note that my knowledge of LMMS is only current to November 2019, when I stopped using it because it wouldn't record.
posted by Sauce Trough at 2:17 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

As a counterpoint to the computer-based methods above, have you considered a digital recorder? The downsides are that MIDI is not available unless you're using a workstation like an AKAI MPC (which is probably overkill). The Boss BR-800 and smaller Micro BR-80 offer 8 tracks of drums, backing tracks, vocal and guitar effects and rudimentary editing.
posted by srednivashtar at 3:51 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Another good free Windows option is Cakewalk. Until recently it was called SONAR and cost a few hundred dollars, but a new company bought it out and moved to a free model. It's a full-featured DAW with several good built-in instruments, recording through mic's, etc.
posted by svenx at 6:11 AM on May 11

The Akai mpk mini PLAY has a few less knobs than the regular mpk mini, but includes some really decent general midi sounds and a speaker, so you can play eg piano or brass etc on your couch before plugging in to record.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:21 AM on May 11

+1 to a hardware recorder. Dedicated hardware is often easier to futz with than a PC with a bunch of software, hardware, and dongles. I use a Zoom R24 for live recordings, but don't know if I'd recommend it, mine has been slowly developing faliures.

If you're on Windows or Linux, consider (maybe the same "bandlab" as the makers of cakewalk?) It's fully online, runs in Chrome, no install required, and has the basics ... recording audio, piano roll midi editing, virtual instruments, some nice FX presets.

It also has all kinds of socially share-y and discovery bits that kind of clutter it tbh, but if you want to collaborate with other folks online it's pretty great -- this is how my crew uses it.

I think bandlab also has a feature that'll share a finished track in a soundcloud-like player so publishing out of that environment may be pretty easy.

(note that runs on a Mac as well, with either Chrome or Safari, but if you have a Mac, use garageband.)
posted by Sauce Trough at 11:51 AM on May 11

Nobody's mentioned (computer) recording hardware yet -- you're likely going to want a USB audio interface with at least one mic pre-amp, for recording vocals. Maybe two pre-amps if you want to also record acoustic piano or another live instrument, or want to record a live performance in stereo. (Generally speaking, if the interface has those big XLR mic jacks on the front, it also has a mic pre-amp for that.) Personally I have a Focusrite Scarlett and it's pretty good -- there's even a no-delay monitoring mode for recording.

For mics, the "industry standard" is a Shure SM58 (for vocals) or SM57 (for everything else). You'll want a pop filter. Beware of counterfeits.

Reaper is astonishingly capable software for the price, and is more geared toward recording than others like Ableton Live, but it's also pretty complicated. Ableton Live is also worth looking into, it's very popular with electronic musicians.

If you have a Mac then it likely came with Garageband, which is probably the most user-friendly of the bunch.
posted by neckro23 at 6:09 PM on May 11

Thanks everyone. I'm on a Window's 10 PC by the way. I'm contemplating getting the Akai MPK Mini MKII that SpiffyRob recommended. For an audio interface, I'm intrigued by the Zoom H4n Pro. Any comments on that? Then a DAW....not sure which.
posted by mono blanco at 7:25 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Yes, the H4n is brilliant – superb onboard mics for the price, and definitely all you need for this (much easier than mics + cables + interface).
posted by kalapierson at 11:19 PM on May 11

yeah that H4n is a nice proposition -- as a plug-in USB microphone, a portable recorder, and an audio interface ... that solves a lot of problems with one little unit.

It also comes with a Cubase LE license, so you'll get a DAW along with it. Don't know anything about Cubase LE as a learning platform but feature-wise it'll do everything you'll need at this point.
posted by Sauce Trough at 3:51 PM on May 12

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