Trying to decide whether you need a sequencer, a notation package or auto-accompaniment software? Here we take a look at the key features of each to help you make your mind up. Remember one program cannot do everything, so the product you buy first will depend on what it is you want to do most of in the first instance.
Composition programs in their various guises include: sequencers, scorewriters (notation software), and some auto-accompaniment programs. They can all be thought of as musical word processors that allow you to record, edit, arrange and publish music. These “music processors” share many common features: most will allow you to edit, copy, cut and paste music; record from a MIDI keyboard; transpose; import data from MIDI files; and print.
This technology enables anyone to create and edit their own music, with professional results. However, the software can be quite expensive, so thinking about the way you want to work now will help you make the right choice between the numerous packages available.
In a nutshell
- Notation programs: best suited to musicians who already read music well, and want to create their own professional sheet music; or import MIDI files and turn these into high-quality scores.
- Desktop Audio Workstation: multi-tracking composition environments with a range of editing screens so the ability to read music is not essential. You can easily combine audio and MIDI files, apply effects and mix down to create your own CD-quality compositions in any genre.
- Auto-accompaniment: the first choice for musicians who want something to play along with; superior to CD’s in that you can alter the tempo, and extend them to create backing tracks for any song/piece of your choosing. Some programs even have the ability to adjust their tempo and volume dynamically to your playing. You may have created your own compositions, but it is probably more likely that you want to create backing tracks for an existing piece you are learning, or import a MIDI file to play along with.
- Looping Composition Environments: such as FL Studio 11 Fruityloops also offer a really excellent composition environment: they offer a full-featured sequencer and virtual studio ideally suited for creation of songs, backing tracks, loops and realistic drum tracks, which can be exported as wav, mp3, midi songs or loops only minutes after launching. The FL Studio 11 Producer Edition includes everything found in the FL Studio 11 Fruityloops , plus audio recording and editing capabilities. Then there is the FL Studio 11 Signature (XXL) which contains ALL the Fruityloops sound generators, plus the DirectWave Sampler.
Just like a word processor, notation programs like or Finale allow you to transcribe your compositions into professional looking arrangements using traditional notation, guitar tablature, or drum tracks. You can easily save your music for future use and further editing, as necessary. Transposing to a better vocal or instrumental range becomes an easy task. You can quickly turn your composition into printed sheet music, and share it with other players.
A sequencer such as Mixcraft Studio Software on the other hand, is an indispensable tool for creating your own compositions from scratch. You record each voice or part onto a separate track, and then use the sequencer as a “virtual tape deck”. Most sequencers allow you to start and stop at any point, change tempos, instruments, solo and mute parts and even transpose on the fly. Sequencers are particularly suited to musicians who don’t read traditional notation, as they generally have a range of graphical editing windows, though most also incorporate at least a basic notation editor too. Using quantization and through careful editing it’s easily possible to create music well beyond your performance ability, and immediately hear the results and record them to CD.
Technology enables you to interact with music in many new ways. Sequencing programs like Mixcraft include an Overview that allows users to define and manipulate the overall structure of a composition. Working with different musical forms is made easy when this type of view is available. You can then use these building blocks to arrange the music into different order, or to create their own theme and variations.
Auto-accompaniment programs such as Band In A Box are excellent tools for creating or generating your own accompaniments for any ensemble. Accompaniments created by these programs can be recorded to CD – though the benefit of keeping them computer based is that the tempo can very easily be slowed down if necessary, and you generally get a visual clue of where you are in the piece, so you are less likely to get lost along the way. Learning to play along with other instruments is an essential pre-requisite to joining a real band or orchestra, and can make practicing a much less lonely experience.
As well as helping you create instant backing tracks, auto-accompaniment programs like will you to experiment with different harmonizations and styles by making simple choices. Once you have heard how the I, IV and V chords sound with your melody, you can discover the relationship between the notes in the chords and the melody. You can also experiment with tension and release, and learn more about functional harmony, improving creativity and aiding experimentation.
Things to think about before you buy
Although the boundaries can be blurred, as a general rule, sequencers are most concerned with how the music sounds, whereas notation programs give you more control over how the music looks. (The more you spend, though, the more you get of both in each package).
Number of Tracks/Parts: Consider how many parts will be required for your music – more expensive software allows a greater number of tracks, though this is becoming less of an issue for cheaper software – often the limiting factor now is your computer’s processing power rather than the software.
Sound or Vision? If you want to print your music out, then notation software is specifically designed for this and will do the job better.
Finished Songs: If you want to create your own MP3’s or CD’s – then you are likely to find that sequencers, with their built-in effects and mixing environments, will allow you to create better sounding results than scoring software.
Interactivity: If you want to create backing tracks quickly, then choose an auto-accompaniment product. Band In A Box is particularly useful if you just want to enter a bunch of chords from a song and play along, or you can simply load up any MIDI file.
Since there is no one program that “does it all”, eventually you will probably want more than one piece of software. But simply deciding at this point in time what you think you will do the most, and taking the plunge to buy your first piece of music software will give you the chance to get going and start to see the possibilities of making music on your computer.