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Digital Rocker

Software helps users record and produce their own music with their home computers
Sunday, July 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:01 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Tom Atwood, a 49-year-old documentary filmmaker, has been making music most of his life. He began writing songs on a guitar when he was just 17, then recording them on an old multitrack tape recorder in his closet.

“No one would ever hear them,” he says.

Then Atwood, 49, stumbled across the audio production program GarageBand and ditched his archaic tape recorder for a laptop.

But Atwood is not the only one getting in on the fun. Amateur maestros across the state and nationally are beginning to march to the beat of their own drum with easy-to-use music creation software.

Using computer programs like GarageBand, which comes preinstalled on all Apple computers, and Reason, by the Swedish software company Propellerhead, these part-time musicians are laying down tracks that can be turned into full-fledged productions in just a few hours.

“You feel like a little rock star,” Atwood says.

Mark Speckman of Columbia began experimenting with audio creation in high school. He now creates electronic music using his PC and Reason, an audio interface that allows him to record musical instruments to his computer program.

“I’d like to have a band,” he says, “but I’d rather be the band.”

The programs give users access to thousands of pre-recorded loops of various instruments and sounds, which can be manipulated and arranged into a homemade symphony. Want-to-be rockers, regardless of whether they can play an instrument, can start out wailing on a saxophone and switch to pounding out riffs on an electric guitar.

“What you’re faced with in this software is an infinite amount of possibilities,” says Nick Brown, a Columbia resident who has been experimenting with music-creation software for several months. “If you’re in a band, there’s only so much you can do.”

Before the conception of GarageBand and similar programs, those looking to lay down tracks at home would either have to buy bulky high-priced equipment or, more realistically, hover with painstaking care for hours over a multitrack tape recorder. The results were never that sophisticated, Atwood says.

Inexpensive programs like GarageBand and Reason, as well as more professional software like Logic Pro and ProTools, take up no more space than a CD. Although some basic understanding of musical theory is a plus, actual results rely more on the user’s understanding of the software and individual creativity.

“Now that I know what I’m doing, it’s really opened up what I can do with music,” says Channing Kennedy, creator of Cat Jams, a Columbia-based record label.

Kennedy uses ProTools, a high-end Apple program.

Since these programs started growing in popularity, Web sites such as macjams.com and icompositions.com, which allow users to post their creations, began popping up all over the web. The site has a rating system that directs users to new downloads and creations worth listening to.

“There’s some really good music, some really bad music and some really good bad music,” says Kennedy says.

When a user finishes a song, he or she can “Just post it,” Atwood says. “With Macjams it was almost like I had discovered a worldwide audience for my music.”

Larry Snyder, a banjo picker from St. Louis who toys with GarageBand in his spare time,says getting feedback from people around the world is his favorite thing about logging on to these Web sites.

“It’s kind of fun to put stuff out there and have people vote on it,” he says. “I just happened to stumble across the Web site. It’s sort of a community thing.”

Increasingly, it is not only amateurs who are using music-creation software. Although computers have been used by professional musicians have used computers to mix and master studio recordings, more and more bands are using computer-based audio production to piece together their compositions. Recently, Trent Reznor, frontman for the hard rock group Nine Inch Nails, put samples from the band’s latest release “The Hand That Feeds” on its their Web site for fans to download and remix.

“Change the tempo. Add new loops. Chop up the vocals. Turn me into a woman. Replay the guitar. Anything you’d like,” says Reznor on the band’s Web site, NIN.com.

Meredith Lovelace, music director at Columbia radio station KCOU, says songs created using only these programs are seeing radio play. However, Kennedy cautions, although such software is almost effortless to use right out of the box, users need to take the time to learn the program in order to get the most out of its capabilities.

“A lot of local music could benefit from a dedication to learning the program,” Kennedy says. “It’s like a lot of other things, you have to learn how to use it before you can create,” says Kennedy. “When I started using ProTools, I was almost in tears.”

Atwood, offers another warning.

“When I’m working at my computer, it’s very tempting for me to turn around to the keyboard and start playing around with Garageband,” he says. “You almost don’t want to get off it.”


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