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Getting Our Feet Wet
By JJ Biener - 12/07/2005 - 06:21 AM EST

The dream. We all share it. Most of us have had the dream for as long as we can remember. The dream is to record our music. I am not talking about a scratchy, noisy analog recording from a cheap 4-track. I am talking about hearing our music the way we hear it in our heads. Clean, pristine sound that we can send out into the world with pride and confidence. The dream.

We live in a wonderful time. The price of entry into the world of recording has never been lower. Gone are the days when a professional studio was required to make a decent recording. With just a little disposable income, the average musician can put together a home studio capable of producing professional quality CDís. Of course, we all go to sleep on Christmas eve with visions of Pro Tools dancing in our heads, but most of us have to settle for something less pricey. The trick is to assemble a set of tools to do the job and leave enough left over for food and rent.

If you are working with inexpensive software, there are trade-offs, of course: features, performance, sound quality, ease of use. It is tempting to assume that you need newest, biggest, best software in order to compete, but here is something to consider. George Martin and the Beatles made some of the best, most creative recordings using a simple 8-track analog tape recorder They discovered techniques to get the most from the technology they had.

The Shallow End is the result of my own desire to record and my corresponding lack funds to acquire the hardware and software I would like to own. I have been recording for years on a shoestring. When I began planning my latest project, I started looking at the latest crop of shareware and freeware to find the tools I needed. It occurred to me others could benefit from my research. This column will attempt to help you find the tools you need to create your own magic.

To that end, letís get some preliminaries out of the way. To anyone who has been poking around music software for any length of time, most of the terms are probably familiar. In case there are some readers who are still unfamiliar with them, here are some quick definitions..

The original and most common term is shareware. Originally it referred to software with a license that allowed it to be freely copied and used. If you found the software useful, you were supposed to pay the author a small amount of money if you continued to use it. The payment was to support the effort and fund future releases and new products. Yeah, that didnít work very well.

Over the years, shareware morphed into what it is now. Generally it is a limited version of the software that can be unlocked through the use of a code or a license file. The software can be limited in several ways. It might only operate for a specific period of time. It might have a features that are disabled. It might put noise into the audio stream. The purpose is to allow the user to test drive the software before deciding if it is worth purchasing a full license and full functionality.

Freeware is just that. It is free. Take it. Use it. Give it to your buddy. Frequently freeware is a stripped down version of a commercial or shareware product designed to get you hooked into buying the full product. Other times freeware is fully functioning and its purpose is to draw you to the company to buy their other products. It would be considered a loss leader in the retail world. Still other freeware applications are the result of hobbyists sharing their work for their own personal satisfaction.

Donationware is freeware where you are expected to kick in something to the author if you find it useful. This is pretty much where shareware started.

Commercial products generally offer trial or demo versions which have some of the same properties as shareware. They have limited functionality to give the user a taste of the product before making a purchase.

Each vendor who uses the above terms does not necessarily mean the same thing. It is important to understand the details of each vendorís license agreement. If you go out and buy commercial software, there is usually a page or two of fine-print legalese going into the whys and wherefores of the license agreement, and it leaves no doubt of how the software can be used. In the shareware/freeware world, licensing can be a bit more dicey. The agreement may vary based on how the recording will be used. Commercial recordings may require additional payments or simply attribution. Check the fine print

This column will focus on software for recording. It will cover the obvious choices like, sequencers, multi-track recorders, audio editors, CD/DVD authoring tools and various effects. It will also cover sound generation products like virtual samplers and synthesizers. To round out the recording process, it will touch on free and inexpensive patches, samples and loops.

Of course a fair amount of time will be spent on plugins. These are the bits of code that can be used by host software like sequencers and audio editors to provide additional functions like reverb or amp simulation or virtual instruments. There has been an absolute explosion in available plugins for free or a nominal charge. This is thanks in large part to Synthedit, a shareware product I will reviewing in depth in my next column.

I hope you find these articles useful. If you have questions or suggestions, please drop me an email at In the mean time, jump in and get your feet wet.

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