Between audio effects, sample libraries, and MIDI controls, there are a whole lot of aspects of digital music to get familiar with. Let’s go over some of the basics!
Musical building blocks
These are the basic tools used to create music in a DAW (digital audio workstation).
- Audio plug-in
- A piece of software that is loaded from within your DAW to create or modify sounds. Audio plug-ins come in many formats, but the most common of these are VST and AU. See: List of audio plug-in formats.
- Sometimes used interchangeably with “VST,” as in “check out this piano VST!”
- A type of plug-in that applies algorithms to alter the qualities of audio files (or the sound produced by a virtual instrument or synth). Types of effects plug-ins include reverbs, compressors, and pitch-correction plug-ins.
- A music or drum clip that can be seamlessly repeated (looped) and is meant to be used in music production. Sometimes loop producers will create a song, export the various tracks as separate loops, or stems, and release them as a collection called a construction kit. Assembling loops is the easiest way to create a song when you’re just starting out. If you’ve ever used GarageBand or Magix Music Maker, you’ve likely done it before!
- Data describing a sequence of musical notes and their various qualities. (In pop culture, the term “MIDI” often connotes the sounds of cheap General MIDI synths, Casio keyboards, and autoplaying Web 1.0 music.)
- A high-quality recording of a single usable note or cue from an instrument (or ensemble). A sample is recorded to be used in conjunction with other samples. Some kinds of virtual instruments, like a violin, may need several thousand samples to achieve a realistic sound, whereas a simple drum kit might use less than ten. Much of the work in developing high-end virtual instruments involves scripting the various ways in which samples are associated with keyboard notes.
- (Drums, FX) Equivalent to one-shot.
- A type of plugin that allows you to map samples to keyboard notes. You can also load existing sample “maps,” also called sample libraries, sample instruments, patches, or sometimes presets. NI Kontakt is a kind of sampler in which you’re more likely to load existing instruments than make your own.
- A piece hardware or software that programmatically generates sound based on waveforms rather than simply playing back a sample. In the context of virtual music, “synth” is usually referring to a software synthesizer plug-in. Types of synthesis include:
- Creates sound by combining sine waves. An example is u-he Zebra2.
- Creates sound by modulating the frequency of one wave using a second wave. An example is the Yamaha DX7.
- Creates sounds using audio samples. An example is iZotope Iris 2. Chiptune emulators may also have a DPCM/PCM channel, which can be used to play back samples, e.g. for drumkits.
- Creates sound by subtracting frequencies from a basic waveform. An example is NI Massive.
- Creates sound by modulating any of a number of complex, arbitrary waveforms saved in a table. An example is Xfer Serum.
- Virtual instrument
- A type of plug-in (or a patch used by a sampler) that produces sound by playing audio samples in response to MIDI messages. For example, putting down a C4 in the piano roll on a track with a virtual violin assigned to it would trigger an audio file of a violin playing a C4. It’s basically the Mellotron of the future.
These terms describe features or aspects of plug-ins and synths.
- ADSR envelope
- A function or graph where the x-axis is time and the y-axis is an audio parameter (most often volume). The x-axis is divided into four sections: attack, decay, sustain, and release (hence ASDR). You can modify the sound of a note by adjusting the length of these sections or the y-axis value within them.
- The start of the note. In a volume envelope, long attack will cause the note to fade in rather than sounding immediately.
- The transition between initial attack and sustain.
- The duration of the note after the initial keypress until the key is released. In a volume envelope, a short sustain will end the note even if the key is still being held.
- The part after the key is released. In a volume envelope, a short release will make the note cut off as soon as the key is lifted, which can sound jarring or unrealistic.
Virtual instruments often have a volume envelope that can be adjusted with ASDR knobs. Synths are more likely to have multiple visual envelopes (for amplitude, filter, pitch, etc.) which you can manually adjust on either axis.
- Dry signal
- The original audio before an effect has been applied to it.
- Filters can be used to block certain frequency ranges.
- High-pass filter (HPF)
- Blocks off sound below a given cutoff frequency, allowing only the higher frequencies to pass.
- Low-pass filter (LPF)
- Blocks off sound above a given cutoff frequency, allowing only the lower frequencies to pass.
- Band-pass filter (BPF)
- Blocks off sound outside of a given frequency range, allowing only that “band” on the frequency spectrum to pass.
- All-pass filter (APF)
- An uncommon filter that allows all frequencies, but modifies the phase of some of them. APFs are mostly used in phaser plugins, but you may occassionally see one on your synth, too.
- A key outside a virtual instrument’s range that is used to switch between articulations or toggle certain features.
- An LFO is a signal at 20 Hz or less which is used to modulate a parameter of a synth sound (like volume or pitch) in a rhythmic fashion. LFOs can be combined with other LFOs and envelopes for even more drastically modulated effects.
- An instrument or synth which can only sound one note concurrently (e.g., the human voice1).
- In the case of digital instruments and the keyboard layout on which they are based, an octave is an inclusive range from one C note to the next B note above it. An 88-key piano includes seven full octaves, plus bits of octaves 0 and 8 at the beginning and end of its range (because the lowest and highest notes on a piano are not actually C). It’s not common to find octaves above 8 or 9, though a lot of keyboard interfaces will go as low as -4. To refer to a note in a particular octave, you append the octave number to it. For example, C4 is
a bombwhat pianists call “middle C.” Black holes apparently resonate at a B♭-53. Wow!
- An oscillator is a thing that goes back and forth, basically. In synth, the term “oscillator” by itself refers to the signal generator in a synth which creates a periodic sonic waveform. Synth waveforms are far more basic than the waves created by actual instruments. Read on as I attempt to describe their various types:
- A wave with a randomly modulating amplitude that lacks musical quality. Outside of a synth context, noise signals are described by different colors (most commonly white, pink, or brown) depending on the relationship between their amplitude (dB) and frequency (Hz). In the case of the NES 2A03 sound channels, noise comprises a repeating sequence of 93 or 32767 random bits. Matt Montag, who created the Nintendo VST, compares them to “a square wave with a continuously-varying random pulse width.” 32767 bits is the highest signed 16-bit value, and 93… uh… I’m not sure why they picked 93. The robotic-sounding intro of Metal Crusher is all sounds using 93-bit noise.
- Pulse wave
- A transient wave with a flat crest and trough, representing an “on” state (amplitude of 1) and an “off” state (amplitude of 0). Pulse waves are described by their duty cycle, which the ratio of time spent in the “on” state to the entire period of the wave. For example, a pulse wave with a 12.5% duty cycle is “on” for 1/8th of the total period. The four types of pulse wave you’ll find are 12.5%, 50%, and 25%/75% (which sound almost identical). A pulse wave with a 50% duty cycle is called a square wave.
- Saw wave
- A wave with sharp, sawtooth crests shaped like a right triangle. Saws are the bread and butter of Hi-NRG, Eurobeat, EDM, and Para Para. Usually, the intense, face-blasting saw leads you hear in these genres are referred to as supersaws or hypersaws.
- Sine wave
- A wave shaped like a sinusoid. Take a math class sometime, nerd! Sine waves have a softer sound that you might hear in hip-hop.
- Triangle wave
- A wave with sharp, triangular crests which lack the vertical descent of a sawtooth. Triangle waves make great chiptune basses.
- The panning of an audio signal represents its horizontal position in a stereo image. A track could be panned hard left (only audible from the left speaker), hard right (only audible from the right speaker), center (equally audible from both speakers), or anywhere in between. Along with volume, panning is one of the basic parameters of an audio track.
- An instrument or synth which can sound two or more notes simultaneously. Many virtual instruments and most synths offer the option to toggle between a polyphonic mode, which allows you to play chords and harmonies, and a monophonic mode, which can be used to play legato and, in synths, often results in a much bigger sound.
- An alternative recording of a given note. Instruments with this feature rotate through round-robins so that the note sounds different when played multiple times within a short space. A neighbor-borrowing round-robin is a sample “borrowed” from an adjacent note which is then tuned to match the given pitch.
- Wet signal
- The audio signal after effects have been applied to it. Most effect plug-ins let you adjust the volume of the wet and dry signal. By setting a low volume on the wet signal, you can make the effect more subtle.
There’s more to MIDI than just a note’s value and duration.
Many components of a MIDI message, such as velocity, are represented in your DAW as a number from 0 to 127 (the largest signed 8-bit integer).
- A MIDI message based on the pressure applied to a key after it has been pressed down.2
- Controllers for additional MIDI note parameters. Each virtual instrument has parameters (such as volume, vibrato, bow direction, etc.) that can be mapped to different CCs, of which there are 127 in all. An instrument may also reserve ranges of CCs for internal use by the script. Mastery of CCs can help you create more realistic-sounding passages.
- Mod wheel
- A wheel on physical MIDI controllers/keyboards assigned by default to control CC1, modulation. By default, the mod wheel affects the pitch oscillation, though on many instruments it affects note volume. On synths, the mod wheel can be assigned to many parameters and used to shift between two completely different sounds!
- Pitch bend
- Pitch bend is a separate control from the 127 CCs. It’s controlled by the pitch wheel on MIDI hardware. Its default value (0) starts in the middle of the wheel’s full range and can be tuned up or down to modify pitch, usually to create a portamento effect. Unlike the mod wheel, which will stay where you, the physical pitch wheel snaps back to its default position on release.
- Note-on velocity is a MIDI controller which determines how hard the note is struck. Depending on the instrument, velocity may only affect the volume of the notes, or it may completely change the sound of the attack/. Note-off velocity is rarely used by comparison. It affects how quickly the note is released.
These are a few words to know if you’re interested in mixing, mastering, or adding effects to your music. Most of the effects mentioned here are much more complex than I make them sound, so they’re worth looking into further if you want to become an audio mastering master. I am not an audio mastering master, in case that’s not extremely obvious.
- A compressor reduces a sound’s dynamic range by quieting the loudest points and amplifying the softest points. A regular compressor is usually applied to individual tracks, while a limiter is more likely to be added to the full mix or submix.
- An echoing effect achieved by repeating a dry signal at a given rate, for a given stretch of time, at increasingly lower volumes. Delay plugins will often allow you to tweak the panning of the wet signal for a stereo “ping-pong” effect.
- A plug-in that “brightens” sound through harmonic distortion, EQ, and phase modulation.
- A type of compressor with a higher gain reduction ratio.
- A phaser uses all-pass filters to combine the original signal with a phase-shifted version of itself. Here’s what a phaser sounds like on guitar.
- A phaser where the wet signal is delayed by a very short amount before being recombined. The result is a phase-distorted, jet-like sound.
- A flanger with a longer delay time (usually greater than 20ms). The result is a more subtle, shimmering sound than can be achieved with a flanger. Unless you’re working in creative sound design or using a lot of electric guitars, you’ll be more likely to use a chorus than a regular phaser or flanger. For example, to turn a regular Jhin into a Project Jhin, you just add a chorus effect to his voice lines. True story.
- The sound produced when a dry signal interacts with surfaces in an acoustic space. In digital music, reverb plug-ins can be used to emulate real-life spaces using impulse responses (IR).