Ages ago I dabbled in making music. How long ago was it? Well, I was making tunes for the Doom 2 mods I was building. So, sometime around the mid-90’s. While writing this post I searched around and found that my mods are still out there in the wild, still being played. Here is someone playing through one of my levels with the music cranked.
That is a pretty good demonstration of my musical approach at the time: Find a few notes that sound barely tolerable together, then loop that arrangement to the limits of human endurance. Seems ghastly now, but I remember thinking it was awesome.
I never really understood music or music theory. My music-making was purely brute force. The software I was using at the time (Cakewalk) let you build MIDI music a note at a time. This is ideal if you can’t play an instrument and don’t know what you’re doing. Just shove the little notes up or down until you find something that doesn’t sound dissonant. Didn’t understand chords. Had no idea how different keys worked. I had no idea what the sharps and flats were for. (They always sounded dissonant, so I stuck to the “white keys”. I suppose this means all my stuff was technically in C major?)
Recently I got the urge to try my hand at making music again. I have no idea why. I have important projects that need doing. But in a mad impulse I bought myself MAGIX Music Maker 2014 Premium on Steam. It wasn’t even on sale.
I’ve hammered out a couple of tunes. Here is probably the most complete effort:
On Soundcloud I said this was my “first effort”. Technically it’s my first full-length piece of music in 20 years. (I made a shorter tune on Saturday.) But you get the idea.
If you’ve never used a program like this, here is how it works:
You make a sequenceThe nomenclature is all over the place here. You can call them “sequences” or “arrangements”. Music Maker calls them “objects”. Whatever. Boxes with notes in them. of notes by drawing on this grid. You adjust the pitch and length of notes by moving the little rectangles around and re-sizing them. Above are the chords that repeat throughout the song I linked. If you actually know what you’re doing, you can just play the notes you want on your MIDI instrument of choice. And if you’re completely clueless, you can skip arranging notes and just use the hundreds of pre-fab sequences that come with the software. You really can make a half-decent song by just throwing crap togetherAll you need to do is make sure your sequences are all in the same key, which the program helpfully lists for you.. And if you’re both clueless and lazy, you can use the automated song maker tool, which will let you specify a genre and it will gather a bunch of samples and combine them for you. (I tried it a couple of times. It’s not as good as something made by a real musician, but it’s surprisingly serviceable and roughly equivalent to what I can accomplish. Which, now that I think about it, is kind of embarassing.)
You could put an entire song into a single sequence, but that’s like working in photoshop and putting everything in the same layer. Your goal is to make these little groups of notes that can be dragged around, copy and pasted, looped, etc. You can then take an arrangement and put it on one of your tracks. Maybe one track is a saxophone, and another is a keyboard, and another is a guitar. Drag-and-drop your box of notes from the guitar track to the sax track, and it will play those same notes but with a different instrument.
See? Easy peasy.
In case you’re curious: I made all the sequences myself, but I used a couple of pre-fab drum loops and some vocal samples. (I find mapping out drums to be kind of tedious.) The green, orange, and purple boxes are pre-fab, and the rest is stuff I mapped out by hand.
It’s a fun activity, and it’s amazing how far you can go with just rudimentary knowledge. It’s a shame the software itself is kind of annoying in a lot of trivial ways.
It crashes every couple of hours. Sometimes the play button just stops responding to the mouse, but the hotkey (spacebar) still works. Sometimes it won’t play at all until you hit play half a dozen times, rewind to the start of the song, and chant an incantation. Once you get even a modest-sized project like mine, the whole thing becomes very sluggish, even when doing simple stuff like opening a single sequence. There are a bunch of annoying bugs with scaling the track list, and sometimes you can re-size things and sometimes you can’t. The vocal tune tool is horrendously sluggish and hard to use. (And I’m not even sure it does anything.) It doesn’t let you set your MP3 or OGG tags when you export. When you’re mapping out notes, the time markers are displayed in a completely unreadable white-on-yellow. It locks up instead of closing and has to be killed with task manager. It pops up two gibberish error notifications in a row when you reverse an audio sample, even though the process worked just fine.
Also, the company has a completely nonsensical approach to adding content. Half the fun in using the program is in arranging all the cool little samples and instruments. The base product has a bit of everything: Pop, electronic, rock, metal, techno, reggae etc. After a while, you might wish you had a bit more. In a sane world, if you were working in heavy metal then you could go download the “heavy metal pack” and get a ton of samples that are useful to your project. But instead they’re sold in these grab-bag mixes that cost $40 each. You don’t know how many samples it has, or what portion of them are in your genre, or what key they’re in. (It generally offers samples in several different keys so you have a little flexibility, but sometimes the sample you want isn’t available in the key you’re using.)
|On the left is the sound pool you start with. It has a little of everything. Except country. And classical. And folk. And reggae. And new wave. And do-wop. And bluegrass. And classic rock. And industrial. But if you buy enough booster packs maybe you’ll find what you need!|
I would love to spend a little money and get more samples to work with, but I’m not dropping $40 on a sound collection when I can’t tell what I’m getting or if it would be useful to me. This “booster pack” approach to content is ludicrous. It guarantees that the majority of the content you get will be useless to you and just clog up your samples list.
Also: The program is available through Steam, but the sound packs aren’t. So if you get it through Steam you’ll have the worst of both worlds: Your software will be tied to Steam but you’ll have to manage all the add-ons manually. Oh, and they only sell physical copies. You have to buy PHYSICAL media for your DIGITAL software. So you have to pay for shipping and wait X business days to get your content. What century is this?
Basically, this program is a magical toolbox that can make you feel talented and clever, but the software is harmed by a glaringly bone-headed decisions that can suck the joy out of the experience.
 The nomenclature is all over the place here. You can call them “sequences” or “arrangements”. Music Maker calls them “objects”. Whatever. Boxes with notes in them.
 All you need to do is make sure your sequences are all in the same key, which the program helpfully lists for you.
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