Nothing beats the buzz of playing along with your fellow musicians. Particularly when you've reached the "mindreading" stage, where your individual improvisations overlap, coinciding in point of rhythm and key; it's almost a psychic experience. But for every hour spent together refining and polishing your collaboration, two or three or more have to be spent practising in isolation, discovering and learning new tricks and repertoire, to ensure that you always have something new, interesting and fresh to bring to the next session.
Today's tech can help every amateur gain more from these private studies. Let me take that back, in fact. That was yesterday's tech; today's, well that can turn any toddler into a mixmaster.
So now, as we patiently await the imminent arrival of Pai Mei's ten-point palm exploding heart technique - sorry, I mean, universal ten-finger multi-touch user interface - here are a few of the more interesting music making websites out there. Some are just for fun; others have enough on offer to let you get excited and make things.
Ken Brashear's Virtual Drumkit
Sitting at the resolutely fun/beginner side of our studio, Ken's site features a 15-piece* set of skins and cyms that you can play by either clicking or just moving the mouse over them, or using the keyboard shortcuts.
Fun, certainly, but not too practical without multitouch, and even then, would suffer from too much latency to be really useful.
* I counted the hi-hat as 2 pieces, because well, it does comprise two cymbals, and there are two ways to play it: stick and pedal.
Tony-b Machine 3.0
Speaking of just for fun, the Tony-b Machine hits the floor running, with a catchy beat already playing on a stylised laptop. You control the bass, drums, melody, vocals, patterns and accompaniments using various rows of keys, organised in a scheme that's simply far too ludicrously easy to pick up. Just go there. Then click Start.
Within seconds there'll be more musical talent in your little pinkie, that in Simon Cowell's whole genome (if there isn't already). Tweak and mix, cut and add, then once you've become utterly addicted, as you will, explore the online tutorials and forums to learn how to expand, develop, loop, sequence, and publish your clubby little masterpieces.
Seriously, it really is that addictive. You'll see. In fact, why don't you just put down that cup of coffee, Go There Right Now, and click Start (open that link in a new window, so you can follow the instructions below). If bass and melody are already running, locate and press the appropriate keys (4 and 7) to stop them temporarily. Also press A and V if their corresponding keys in the onscreen keyboard are not already down (note: although there is also an AZERTY keyboard alternative UI, this brief tutorial assumes you're a QWERTY type of person). Now start playing:
Drums first. Locate the Q - W - E - R keys and then press them, one at a time, allowing at least a full eight beats to elapse between these.You can hear my version of the above by searching for user name dogbiscuituk, track name Basics. Click the CD icon to access thousands of recordings by hundreds of other artists, and get a feeling for what's achievable. At the time of writing, Italy's Dyablo is the star player, with recordings of Waka Waka, Blue, Barbie Girl and The Final Countdown.
Now press 5 to bring in the bass. Simmer for 10 seconds and then add a twist of middle melody with 8. That sounds a bit lax, so break it with 9. That's better, now do the same to the bass with 6.
Next add a touch of decoration by cycling the 1 - 2 - 3 keys. Leave a beat or two between these. When you get tired of that press 0 (zero) to cancel this accompaniment.
Now for some advanced stuff! On the bottom two rows of the keyboard, locate the following key pairs: SZ - DX - FC - GV. Now press these pairs, one pair at a time, leaving just two beats between pairs. Experiment with more pairs on these key rows. You're now playing melody and bass, not in unison, but in harmony! Try to hit the keys "early" so the transitions land just where you want them. Press A and V when you're done with that.
Now use the rest of the top row T - Y - U - I - O - P to add some tastefully vocoded lyrics. While you do that, also press 1 or 2 or 3 occasionally to vary the accompaniment.
Finally, wind it down. Press 0 (zero) to stop the accompaniment; 8 and 5 to simplify the melody and bass, followed by 7 and 4 to park them; and last of all, shut down your rhythm section in the reverse order to which you started them, so: R - E - W - Q.
Now, the real challenge is not to do it again!
Below are a few more sites to progress on to, with successively more samples, options, voices, etc., and correspondingly steeper learning gradients.
First order of business here is to click on the Tutorial tab, then Basics in the sidebar, to acquaint yourself, via the medium of video tutorials, with the installation (Windows only) and use of this music creation tool.
Select from a library of over half a million copyright-free music and instrument samples. Record and incorporate your own voice. Use their Music Robot, a proprietary algorithm, to add harmonies. Create songs and ringtones, download as MP3s (note: this is a paid feature), and share on social networks or embed them anywhere with the Musicshake Widget.
Watch out for their scheduled server update-downtime, on Oct 25.
Aviary Music Creator
Roc is the name of the music creation app in the Aviary suite. Select your instruments from soundbanks containing over 50 different types of guitars, keyboards, percussives and more.
With Aviary we are beginning to get into the area of music creation tools which can support your own compositions, rather than relying almost exclusively upon sample banks. But for actual musicians, as distinct from console ones, even better is available, and it's still free...
With the sole exception of a beautiful Epiphone Hummingbird, this last one must be my favourite musical plaything. It's a WYSIWYG score editor, a serious compositional tool, using the same input methods as popular commercial offerings like the proprietary Finale and Sibelius; but crucially, now in its third year of independent development, it's still free (yes there is a Donation page on the musescore.org website, but that's just to support the site itself; all coding, documentation and forum support are provided free of charge, by teams of double rainbow-bedecked angels riding on unicorns).
Advanced features include cross-staff beams, automatic left/right note head positioning in chords, slur edit mode, and drum notation. Currently available for Windows, Mac and Linux.