Music embraces technology. From the earliest drum and flute to the modern synthesizer and digital audio workstation (DAW) software, humans have applied scientific discoveries to create musical instruments. Instruments evolve and music changes, yet the joy of music continues to connect us within and across communities.
There will always be a place for instruments that don’t require power and have the smooth warmth of analog technology.
Digital music coexists with and extends the analog. Digital instruments and tools are different, not better. The two have coexisted since the 1970s, when the first digital synthesizers appeared on the market. Digital recording of most music became the norm as compact discs replaced vinyl records and magnetic tapes.
I have a clarinet that once belonged to my father, which I rarely play. We also have a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) keyboard that I play at least two or three times a month. My wife took piano lessons and can still play a few pieces from memory.
Our 5-year-old likes to sit and play simple tunes on the keyboard. In time, we want her to receive music lessons for at least piano and one other instrument.
Significant research exists supporting links between music, math and science skills. The abstract notional language of music helps us appreciate the symbols used in higher math. The fractional nature of notes reinforces a core mathematical concept. Music is an investment with an exponential return throughout life.
Countless music education apps exist for smartphones and tablets. The girls love GarageBand, especially the drums. We’ve also located a Sesame Street music app via the PBS Kids website. The on-screen keys change color, guiding the user through famous tunes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
JoyTunes offers three excellent piano apps for the iPad: Piano Dust Buster, Piano Maestro and Simply Piano. The apps work with or without a MIDI keyboard. The Dust Buster game reminds me of Mavis Beacon typing games. Players help Granny chase the dust away from her piano’s keys by pressing the correct notes. Piano Maestro is more like Guitar Hero for piano. Finally, Simply Piano is for adults wanting to learn the piano or revive
some rusty skills.
Synthesia is another Guitar Hero clone for piano. Color-coded squares and rectangles fall toward piano keys. You press and hold the keys as the colored shapes move down the screen, allowing you to play music. Synthesia offers downloads of popular music and you can transfer standard MIDI files to
the iPad to play. Although many similar apps exist, the JoyTunes set and Synthesia engage our children best.
The free Casio Chordata app for learning music uses tunes that are too complex and unfamiliar to younger learners, although I enjoy it. My MIDI keyboard is a re-branded Casio model, purchased at Radio Shack many years ago in the Sequoia Mall.
I seldom use the keyboard without my computer. Using a MIDI adapter, the keyboard triggers sounds in Apple’s Logic or GarageBand. There might come a time when I pass the keyboard along to our daughters, then maybe I can offer an excuse to buy a more advanced MIDI device.
One of the best-reviewed homehobbyist MIDI keyboard controllers available is the The ONE Light keyboard. A friend let me try his and it is amazing. The ONE Light includes an iPad app similar to the programs from JoyTunes. The keys light as you learn to play a piece of music. The app pairs with the keyboard, allowing the iPad to be your sheet music. Ideal for people learning to play, The ONE keyboard also includes advanced features that work with high-end digital audio workstation software. Casio and Yamaha offer entry-level lighted keyboards, too, although with fewer features than The ONE Light.
When I was working towards my MFA degree, I discovered the Komplete suite of Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plug-ins for use with Apple Logic and Steinberg Cubase. From Native Instruments, these VSTs take a unique approach to music creation. Instead of associating instrument tones with keys, the Komplete software assigns short loops of instrument phrases to keys.
Putting loops together creates music. Collections of loops are sold for royalty-free use by musicians and filmmakers, and Apple includes a massive library of loops with its music applications. In GarageBand or Logic, assembling layers of loops into an arrangement can be tedious, with a lot of dragging and dropping of loops onto the music timeline.
The Komplete method is easier and faster: Press a key, trigger a loop. Native Instruments offers the Komplete Kontrol keyboard, in 49-, 61- and 88-key models. The Kontrol keyboards work directly with Komplete VSTs and various DAW applications. Select a genre of music, such as “’60s Surf,” and the keys of the Kontrol are assigned appropriate loops.
Digital music isn’t all about keyboard, either. Digital drums and multi-purpose pad controllers are popular hardware added to home studios. I’ve used a Native Instruments Maschine pad. (Yes, that’s the correct spelling.) The pads, like the Kontrol keyboard, can be assigned loops or
When the girls mentioned wanting to play drums someday, I immediately thought of the digital drum alternatives. My wife and I aren’t about to have the girls banging away on drums in the house. Instead, digital drum pads offer a great alternative that they can enjoy while wearing headphones. No, it isn’t
the same, but drum pads preserve parental sanity.
With its free GarageBand application, affordable $199 Logic Pro software and iOS devices, Apple opened a whole world of digital music. Before GarageBand, even simple DAW applications were $500 or more, with only a few sampled instruments. In fact, the Alchemy VST synthesizer suite now included with Logic Pro was $250. The loops samples included with GarageBand and Logic once retailed for a combined $400.
I own the DAW software from Avid and Steinberg, but prefer the Apple offerings. Serious musicians will want to learn Avid ProTools, the industry standard for audio engineering.
Consumer digital music software and compositions from loops won’t replace skilled professionals any time soon. Still, creating music at home has never been easier.