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Music software turns bedroom artists into stars

Hack Reactor

photo credit, unsplash: Nathan DeFiesta

Photo Credit: Nathan DeFiesta, Unsplash.

By Peter Suciu For Hack Reactor

The days of garage bands are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Not only because the average American garage is now simply too cluttered to even park the car let alone to be transformed into a jam space, but because it is now increasingly easy to create music in a home office or bedroom.

In many ways, this trend is bringing the music creation process back to its classical music roots. Beethoven and Mozart lived long before artists "went into the studio," and generally most composers worked within their homes. The concept of the "studio" was really brought about thanks to the ability to "record" music to a physical medium.

Over the years there have been great leaps forward, notably multi-track recordings – which meant that music didn't have to be performed in a single take. It allowed the recently deceased Phil Spector to create his "wall of sound" with overtakes and layers of instruments.

Music Software

The advent of MIDI (musical instrument, digital interface) in the 1980s saw the birth of synth-pop, while sampling transformed the creation process even further. It created a revolution in dance music, hip hop, and even mainstream pop music.

"The search for new sounds and creative inspiration is nothing new," explained technology industry analyst Josh Crandall of Netpop Research.

"Think about the creative arc of Joy Division/New Order and Kraftwerk for instance. These musicians were always on the hunt for a new, influential sound," Crandall added. "They set off on a new path of electronic music and influenced a generation of musicians."

Watch and listen: New Order - Blue Monday 88

It has been the last decade that has seen the most notable transformation in how technology has revolutionized music-making. It isn't just synthesizer-based music that can now be produced on a computer. Claire Boucher has become a successful experimental pop artist known to her fans as Grimes, and as a self-taught musician, she has even encouraged her fans to make their own music.

After quitting college to promote and distribute her first two homemade albums, Grimes was signed two years later to international record label 4AD, whose artists include Bon Iver and St. Vincent. What is especially notable isn't just the fact that Grimes has little-to-no actual training, but that she essentially used Apple's Garageband software, which is available for free.

In fairness, Grimes has admitted to being dedicated to her process to the point that it is an obsession, and in interviews, she's claimed to have spent 14 hours or more working on a song non-stop.

Watch and listen: Grimes - Oblivion

Grimes' story isn't unique.

In fact, it was just a year ago that Billie Eilish, who burst onto the scene in early 2019, won five Grammy Awards – in addition to two American Music Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards, and one Brit Award. She has become the youngest person and only the second artist to win four main Grammy categories, and she has already become the 26th highest-certified artist of the digital singles era.

Eilish and her co-writer, producer, and older brother Finneas O'Connell recorded her first album in his bedroom. She literally sat on the bed to record the vocals, while Finneas sat at his desk using Apple Logic Pro X and a Universal Audio Apollo 8 interface. The resulting music is a wall of sound that would have required Phil Spector to call in half a dozen studio musicians, at least a pair of 24-track analog tape recorders, and a budget in the tens of

Watch and listen: Billie Eilish - Ocean Eyes

music software

The Evolution of the Bedroom Band

Eilish and Grimes are just the more recent examples of artists who have gone the DIY at-home method.

"This has been coming for a long time, going back to the 1980s when mixing and remixing became a strong pathway to success," said technology analyst and semi-professional musician Billy Pidgeon.

"That was the early days, but by the late 1990s you could start to work from home – now you have pro tools where you can work on a PC workstation at home," added Pidgeon. "Folks that can learn to use it can really do something that is very professional."

If anything, today's breakout artists have shown that there isn't really much to be gained by going into the studio, which can be expensive and forces that creativity to be confined almost to set blocks. The ability to work at home to compose and write songs has
literally allowed artists to make music when the inspiration strikes – while it has also made it easier for the new artist to get started without a lot of investment.

"There is cheap and even free software. It is an easy on-ramp for new artists. And then they get their hands on more advanced software as their skills improve," said Pidgeon.

When Grimes said anyone can make the music – today it is literally true. However, technology will still only get you so far. What it doesn't provide is talent.

From the Garage to the Laptop

It is almost fitting that Apple would be the company to literally name its free music creation software "Garageband," not because its founders were known to be in a band, but the two guys named Steve started out in a garage.

Since its introduction in 2004, Garageband, which was designed with the newbie in mind, has been updated to allow use of third-party software synthesizers (that are Core Audio compatible). It also includes pre-made loops and an array of instrumental effects that can help the would-be digital Mozart get started. It is also good for multiple musical genres.
However, a downside of the free program is that its ability to work with external instruments is limited and it is a MacOS-only program. But for free software, it remains a good place for artists to start.

Apple isn't the only company to offer free music creation software, nor was it even the first. Among the oldest platforms is Cakewalk Sonar, which has been allowing desk jockeys to become music makers for two decades. When Gibson stopped producing the program, Bandlab stepped up and now has made it freely available. It still includes unlimited
MIDI and audio tracks, a full suite of editing tools as well as advanced mixing
and master tools.

Available only for Windows 10, Bandlab Cakewalk is unique in that "artists" can publish
their work directly to SoundCloud, YouTube, or Facebook among other sites. About the only thing missing is the talent, but maybe that will come in a future update!

Oftentimes, it can seem that digital music creation would also be more focused on keyboards, but today the guitarist can get in on the action with AmpliTube Custom Shop, which is available for Mac and Windows from IK Multimedia. It is the free version of the AmpliTube and allows guitar players to record directly to a computer.

It even features a range of customization including choice of microphone and microphone placement as well as official amp models from Fender and Mesa Boogie, which allows for that full-stack sound without the need to shake the walls and irritate the neighbors.

These products can also be easily integrated with low-cost musical keyboards and affordable microphones, and this has allowed those with a dream to get started quickly and grow in scale accordingly.

"The convergence of inexpensive digital technology and online resources has not only opened the doors to musicians at an affordable price point, it is also enabling enterprising
musicians the ability to connect with like-minded people online for the support
often needed to explore the edge of creativity," noted Crandall.

Taking it to 11

In addition to the "free" programs that are available, there is also a whole range of digital audio workstations (DAW) programs. Not all of these are exactly user-intuitive, however, and experience with both music (theory or actual ability) is all but required, while some computer skills won't hurt either.

Some of the more advanced programs, such as AVID's Pro Tools, which was first introduced before the Internet was commonly used, has been the de facto standard since 1989. It is not for beginners and there are even classes taught at universities.

Music creation software is much like the instrument. It takes time to learn how to play, and while you may not need to "practice" in the traditional sense (after all it remains the way to Carnegie Hall), remember that software is just a tool in making music. Grimes, Billie Eilish and up-and-comer Gianna Stansell used the programs to further their talent. The software doesn't make the music, it just allows those artists to create it more easily.

"Today, digital technology has opened up a vast new playground of music-making
opportunities," said Crandall. "Whether it's ripping samples or blending tracks, computers and digital mixing boards are the tools of a new generation. What's amazing is that the cost of an entry level system is only a few hundred dollars, and a full-featured leading-edge system will only set a curious creative mind back a couple of thousand dollars."

Then there is the fact that it is easier than ever to learn how to use these tools – and while Pro Tools may require classroom study, the Internet has opened ways for others to quickly learn how to use the more introductory products.

"It's not only the inexpensive price points of the technology that's important. Educational content about creating digital music is just about everywhere," Crandall added. "'How to' videos and support groups for musicians are just a few clicks away. YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook are all resources available to creative minds at any time of day or night. Musicians may be exploring their 'voice' at home, but they are never 'alone.'"