Before we get into it, grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
You’ve come to the right place!
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What I will bring you in this article
Blast from the Past
What is VST?
Hooking Up Your Controller
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!!
Blast from the Past
Way back when, making music and recording sounds in general was a lot different that it is today. Before multi-track recording was possible, every musician of a band had to be in the same room at the same time in order to record a track. They basically had to perform the song until it was either perfect or close to perfect. Wow! Not sure I could even thrive in a time period like that. LOL.
Let’s take a look at some of the very first recording devices.
Reel-to-reel. This is one of the earliest tape recorders and used magnetic tape developed in Germany in 1928. It required you to load a reel of tape onto a machine and thread it through a bunch of rollers and guides. Proved to be much more complex than simply playing back Vinyl, but was utilized for things like radio station commercials and spot announcements. It was held on a reel rather than being secured inside of a cassette. Only one company to this day (Mechlabor) still manufactures Reel-to-reel tape recorders.
The Endless Loop Cartridge. Just as the name implies, this one used magnetic tape and played back it’s contents infinitely.
Fidelipac. Based off of the Endless Loop, this 2-Track recorder also used magnetic tape, and was utilized in radio broadcasting, commercials, jingles, station identifications, and music. The pinch roller in a 2-Track was integrated into the player rather than the cartridge, as with an 8-Track. It would instead swing into place to support the tape against the capstan. Learn more aboutTape Transport!
3-Track. This was first used by Les Paul after he contacted Ampex, asking them to build him a 3 Track so he could record various takes and overdubs, as well as play multiple different parts of the same song.
Multi-track recording (4 Track). Developed in 1955, this enabled engineers and musicians to record instruments and vocals separately using different tracks, which could be deleted or re-recorded without affecting the other track. Bands like The Beach Boys and The Beatles were pioneers of the 4 Track, which allowed them to be highly experimental and creative during the music making process.
8-track tape. Developed in 1964 by Bill Lear, it just continued off of the concept of the 4 Track, becoming the new standard around the late 1960’s.
During the 80’s and 90’s, the digitization of recording and production is what actually revolutionized the way we approach and create music today. No longer is it even necessary to obtain expensive gear or use ancient recording devices for the purposes of laying down a track.
We now have VST’s, DAW’s, and MIDI for all that!! But what are they?
What is VST?
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology. It is a way for musicians, beatmakers, and producers like myself to utilize sound from instruments without having to pay expensive price tags for it.
It’s done through what is known as audio plug-in software in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). These DAWs utilizesoftware synthesizers by emulating or simulating hardware synthesizers. It becomes more convenient for the average person who just wants to make great music without the hassle of buying a bunch of separate gear. Some common DAWs include:
Image Line’s FL Studio
Apple’s Logic Pro
and many more. I personally have been using FL Studio and Reason since I started back in 2007, and don’t see a reason to switch.
Even though the above programs are DAWs, a Digital Audio Workstation actually comprises 3 things:
Your Audio Interface
The Sequencer is the actual name for a DAW, and it’s what’s used to lay down the track. The Audio Interface on the other hand is a multi-purpose tool that can do a few different things:
It’s a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) meaning it converts the digital 1’s and 0’s that your PC understands into analog that you can understand (music). Related:What is a USB DAC? An interface also acts as an ADC converter (Analog to Digital) when you’re screaming obscenities into the microphone and calling it “Rap.” Lmao.
It can be a Headphone Amplifier depending on if it has a headphone jack on the front. Most of them do. So I can plug in my headphones and simply use it as an amp if I want.
It can connect to Studio Monitors via RCA/Analog Outs, Balanced Line Outputs, or something similar. Which is used depends on preference and the available jacks. I like to use balanced cables because they eliminate noise and interference by utilizing reverse polarity. Related:What are Studio Monitors?
Provides Microphone Power. It can raise the line level output of your condenser microphone via 48v phantom power, which in essence increases the volume of your recorded voice to a listenable level.
So you can quickly see that the Audio Interface is just about the most important part of your studio outside of the computer itself!
Let’s backtrack a sec..
What’s cool about VST’s is that they aren’t required downloading, although you’ll probably want to add some later on down the road. If you are just starting out, the Sequencer (or DAW if you’re a nerd) that you buy may come with preloaded synthesizer sounds and various effects, drum kits, and other virtual instruments like guitars, violins, harps, etc.
Let’s say for instance I was getting tired of the stock drum sounds that come with FL Studio. I would simply search the internet for a cool drum pack, download it, and install it into FL Studio. BAM! No more crappy drum kits. You can do this with countless other things, but often times you’ll have to pay a little somethin’ somethin’. It just depends on the pack and how cool the person is. A lot of guys give away free downloadable kits that they’ve created and it’s always much appreciated.
When I first started out back in 2007, I used the factory sounds that came with Reason for awhile. I was able to create some interesting tracks out of just these kits. A lot of the sounds that come with Reason are actually pretty cool! The interface contains software racks that emulate the look and feel of an actual hardware synthesizer, effects rack, mixer, drum pad, sampler, etc. Inside of these software racks are sounds you can use to lay down tracks! Pretty neat..
Instead of having to buy all that stuff separately, it’s provided for you digitally!
Essentially, VST’s come in 3 types:
VST Instruments. We touched on those above. Synthesizers, Samplers, etc.
VST Effects. Stuff like EQ, Reverb, Phasers, Compressors, Mastering, etc. This is for processing, mixing, and generally tweaking the sound of the mix.
VST MIDI Effects. These process MIDI data and send it to other VST instruments or hardware devices.
The only thing you need to really worry about is some type of hardware device to control those sounds and effects. That’s where MIDI comes in. Related:What is MIDI?
There are a couple of options you have when deciding:
A MIDI Controller. This is just a box with nothing pre-loaded inside. It’s a device used to play sounds, but it’s not an actual instrument itself. “Is Mayonnaise an Instrument?” Lol I think I’ve put that line in like every single one of my articles lately. A MIDI controller is ideal for sample based producers but you could also program sounds into it from something like Reason.
A MIDI Instrument (Keyboard). This does come with sounds inside, and also functions as a controller. So it’s a cross between an instrument and a controller. You can hammer away on the keys, record, assign sounds to keys, etc.
Hooking It Up
Once you buy the device, you would hook it up to your computer and sync it up to your DAW using the preferences panel. Now you’re ready to lay down a track!
Each program is a bit different but for Reason you would go to Edit > Preferences > Page > Keyboards & Control Surfaces. From there Click Auto Detect. If that doesn’t work, Click Add and fill in the Manufacturer and Model of your MIDI Controller/Keyboard. If you can’t find the Model, just choose “Other” and that should work.
In FL Studio
Go to Options > MIDI Settings. Your MIDI Controller should be recognized and will show up under the Input section as whatever it’s called. In my case it’s padKONTROL 1 MIDI IN.
Make sure that both 1 PORT A, 1 PORT B, and 1 MIDI IN are all active or you won’t hear anything.
After this is done click enable if it’s not already clicked Gold.
If for whatever reason nothing is showing up under Input, don’t panic. Just go back to Options and scroll down until you see the MIDI Section. Make sure “MIDI Output” is checked. Press a pad on your controller. You should hear it through your speakers or studio monitors.
You get the idea. Each program is slightly different in it’s method but the basics are the same.
Sampling inside Reason is fairly straightforward. For sounds and such, we’ll use the NN-19 Digital Sampler. Just click “Create” at the top of the menu, and choose the NN-19. Instead of using the folder to the left, we’ll use the folder in the middle towards the top. It’s highlighted blue. Find your sample from your computer and press “OK.” Make sure that your file is in WAV format. Then press that little button to the right that says “Solo Sample.” If this isn’t clicked you won’t be able to hear anything. It will turn Red after you’ve clicked it.
A “Sample” could be anything. This is why producing music this way is so much fun and so flexible. Theoretically, you could record yourself playing a bunch of chords on the guitar and use your MIDI controller to trigger those sounds inside of Reason. Then you would lay down a sweet loop, add some drums, bass, and whatever else tickles your fancy. Because I’m not too great of an actual performer, making music in this way is truly invaluable.
You could also sample from Vinyl which is what I like to do. One of my favorite past times is going to the Thrift Store and buying a bunch of records for 25 cents a piece. Some of my best compositions came from old dusty records that people were willing to part with. Here’s one such track. An added bonus is that they usually have a distinctly awesome scent to them. Don’t ask lol. Yeah, I smell my records before purchase 😛
A third option (and something we touched on) is to scour the internet for sample packs that people are either selling or giving away. I just found one today with some great melodic keys. You can download it here!
Finally, you could sample your own drum sounds from Vinyl and put them all in a zipped folder. If you had a website you could give these away as freebies to your readers as a way of saying Thanks! Lol I just gave myself an idea.
Each program also has it’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, Reason is much better for laying down a quick loop, but FL Studio is better for actual sampling from Vinyl, etc. It utilizes Edison, which is perfect for getting really precise razor blade cuts. Learn more about how to sample in FL Studio using Edison! I will be updating that article also so hang tight!
When you think of a VST, just think Virtual Instrument. It’s sound that you can achieve from an instrument without actually having to buy that instrument. Is the quality of the sound as good as it would be in real life? That really depends on who made the sample. Some larger manufacturers provide incredibly life like ones, but some you’ll come across are just bad. You’ll have to really dig deep and do some discovery of your own!!
With that said..
My Favorite DAW in which you can use VST’s with is definitely FL Studio!
As for a MIDI Keyboard? I think my padKONTROL is a bit complicated for the average person, including myself. I eventually got the hang of it but I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner. I would go with something like an AKAI MPK Mini MKII or Novation Launch Key to start.
Stu is determined to help you make sound decisions, and strives to deliver the best and most in depth content on the internet! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, pray, rap, make beats, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His sense of humour, coupled with a knack for excellence and strict attention to detail are what allow him to stand out in an crowded industry.