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Your Very Own Hit Factory


It seems like a common career trajectory: Pimply faced rock star wannabe. Member of a band that's gonna be really big, really soon, Mom, I promise! Ex-member of band that no one remembers. Responsible working stiff and parent. Gray-haired rock star wannabe.

In my 20s, I played guitar, sang, and wrote songs for a long-forgotten Burlington (Vt.) quartet we dubbed The Jetsons. Then a couple of years later, while living in Eastern Europe, I was the lead singer for Pudelsi (The Poodles), a combo that actually went on to be a top-selling act. In Poland. A decade after I left the country.

When I quit Pudelsi in 1987, I thought I was hanging up my guitar for good. But left over from those days as an aspiring rocker were dozens of songs I never got around to putting on tape. So when I rekindled my interest in music a couple of years ago, I thought the time had come to finally flesh out and record those songs -- mostly just lyrics and guitar chords, the musical equivalent of a sketch.

In the digital era, I had heard, all you needed to make really great recordings was a guitar, a microphone, a computer, and some inexpensive software. That's true, but it isn't exactly easy. Two-plus years into my transition from rocker wannabe to budding recording engineer, I'm finally starting to turn out tunes that sound pretty good to me and to friends who are polite enough not to tell me otherwise. Still, professionals assure me there are plenty of flaws, so I know I have a long way to go.

If you're planning your own home hit factory, the most important thing you'll need is software. There are now at least a dozen music recording packages available, ranging from basic to extravagant. For anyone with a Mac, the choice is easy: Apple Computer's (AAPL) excellent GarageBand program comes free with any new computer. Mac owners who want to graduate to a more complex offering can use Apple's Logic, available in $299 and $999 versions. For PC users, things get a bit more complicated. At least a half-dozen companies offer decent packages, many priced under $100. I use Cakewalk's Sonar Home Studio ($100-$160) and have tried its $40 Music Creator and Steinberg's $100 Cubase SE, all of which let you record various instrument and vocal tracks and add software-based synthesizers to round out your sound.

Once I had my software, I thought I'd be ready to plug in and go. Not so fast. Few guitars generate a signal that's strong enough for a computer to hear clearly. I was stymied until I figured out that I needed some kind of amplification to goose the sound. There's no shortage of options. I settled on the $250 M-Audio Ozone, a pre-amp with two inputs (one for a microphone, one for a guitar) plus a 25-key piano keyboard. Manufacturers such as Tascam, Line 6, and Edirol offer pre-amps for about $80 to $500 or more. And Cakewalk, Steinberg, and other software makers now bundle a pre-amp with some programs.

NO PREREQUISITES

Once i had gotten past the pre-amp roadblock, I was ready to roll. The foundation of any rock song is the drums, so I started there. At first, I used loops -- short snippets of a drummer playing a beat pattern that can be sped up or slowed down to match the song's tempo. Later, I wanted a more complex sound, so I started using a sampler -- software that takes a beat pattern I create and repeatedly triggers supershort recordings of individual drum sounds to play a drum track.

With the drums setting the tempo, you can move on to the rest of the song. The software lets you create scores of separate tracks, so you can add a virtually unlimited number of instruments and vocals. I played the guitar and sang, invited a friend over to play bass, and added piano and synthesizer sounds with my tiny keyboard. If you don't like a track, you can record over it or mute it while you try a different approach. One or two bad notes? You fix them by recording over just a tiny sliver of a song. You can cut and paste passages of music or even individual notes just like you might a bit of text in a word processor. And most software also lets you insert loops of different instruments if your playing isn't up to snuff. In short, musical talent isn't really a prerequisite.

Once I had my tracks down, it was time to get creative. The software lets you add reverb (an echo that gives recordings a livelier feel), compression (which evens out the volume of an instrument or a vocal track), and a dozen or more other effects that tweak sounds to make them richer, deeper, or just weirder. Then came mixing. The first step is panning each track toward either the left or the right, to put the song in stereo. Then I set the volume of each track so it didn't overwhelm the others, giving the song a balanced feel.

It sounds simple, but it takes a lot of time, and the learning curve is steep. I typically spend at least 10 hours recording and mixing a three- or four-minute song. And most programs, even some scaled-down versions for relative neophytes, are written for knowledgeable professionals. For instance, the manual or help file might tell you how to add reverb, or pan to the left or right, but it won't tell you when or why you should do it. Tip: Go to Web sites such as Sweetwater.com or user forums hosted by the software manufacturers, where you'll find aspiring musicians trading tips on how to make your recordings sound professional.

The Web is also a great place to let the world hear your songs. I post mine on a site called SoundClick, which hosts tunes for free. Anyone can stream or download them, also for free, and it has dozens of charts that rank the popularity of songs in such genres as pop, rock, and country. Truth be told, I've never broken the top 50 in any category, so I'm still as far from stardom as I was two decades ago.

That's fine with me. I know I'm going to be really big, really soon. Really. Just ask my Mom. And this time, I have the recordings to prove it.

By David Rocks


Silicon Valley State of Mind
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