Music Technology Music Theory

The Evolution of Digital Music Composer Technology

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In advance, I apologize for some of the technical language used in this article, but I made an honest effort to put things in layman’s terms wherever possible.

My Recent Studio Recording Upgrade

So, I recently upgraded my audio interface and microphone to industry standards, meaning I can now make legitimately production quality recordings of my singing or trumpet playing. This was a breakthrough for me that made my recordings so much easier to mix with the background music I had written for each lyrical song (or trumpet solo). However, something was missing…

What I Do Best

My specialty is, and has always been, composing Soundtrack Music. Well, since I had already upgraded my bedroom into a literal home studio, I thought I’d go the extra mile and purchase commercial sound libraries (the same libraries used by many film and video game composers).

From 8-Bit to 16-bit Sample Libaries

The industry standard for film and video game music composers is a technology called ‘VST’ or ‘Virtual Studio Technology’. Explaining (in detail) what that means would require an entirely separate article.

In layman’s terms, VST means you’re using very high quality instrument ‘sound samples’ that imitate what real instruments sound like. The best VST libraries normally contain sound samples that are recordings of literal orchestras and professional players of each instrument. This is called 24-bit music technology. That’s today’s standard, but let me walk you through just how we got to this point!

To give some background, before the late 1990s and early 2000s, most composers who wrote their music on computers had to use MIDI sounds. Those working with higher budget projects (such as major films) would just write the parts of each song on their computers and print out the sheet music, passing it onto an orchestra or symphony to record the songs on their movie soundtrack.

I’m not writing this to talk crap about MIDI technology, though. MIDI technology itself was a breakthrough that allowed video game composers the ability to create 16-bit music. If you listen to very old video game music, you’ll notice it has sounds that aren’t even remotely close to what real instruments are like. It sounds “computerized”. Any NES game soundtrack will be using these “computerized” sounds. That was called 8-bit music, which, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was strongly associated with video game music.

Here’s an extremely popular example of 8-bit music technology used by composer Koji Kondo:

You may have heard this before!

Catchy, huh? But, notice how it sounds “computerized”? MIDI technology allowed for 16-bit music, which was a major upgrade from 8-bit music.

I’ll use a short song I wrote back in 2014 as an example. I will show you 8-bit vs. 16-bit with my own work. This song was part of a project wherein I practiced composing simple songs that might be fitting for a soundtrack. So, I titled them ‘Simple’ with a number.

I present to you ‘Simple 1’ from that project, composed by Jeffery Branham (me)!

‘Simple 1’ in 8-bit:

Just like those old NES soundtracks!

‘Simple 1’ in 16-bit (MIDI):

This is more like the SNES instead of NES.

This is the exact same song, ‘Simple 1’, that I composed back in 2014. The difference is pretty obvious between 8-bit technology and 16-bit MIDI technology. However, the 16-bit MIDI technology still doesn’t sound like real instruments because the samples are too basic, but that wasn’t the worst part about MIDI.

Even though it was 16-bit music technology, MIDI had a very extreme limitation. It depended entirely on the soundcard of the device the file was played on. This is why most SNES and N64 music used the same instrument sounds on all their games, even though the songs were different and, of course, each game had its own composer writing the soundtrack.

Well, to solve this problem and bypass this limitation of MIDI, I introduce to you ‘SoundFont’ technology…

‘SoundFont’ technology uses libraries of higher quality samples than normal MIDI files, but today it’s outdated. The samples libraries are stored into a single file with a .sf2 extension. This meant the soundtrack music was no longer limited to the samples stored on the device’s soundcard.

So, how could a composer use one of these libraries?

A composer who created a MIDI file of his/her composition could use this ‘sf2’ sample library file to change the sounds of each instrument into something higher quality. SoundFont was, in essence, a way to maximize the quality of 16-bit music so that it sounded much more realistic than normal MIDI technology, even though both are 16-bit technologies.

To demonstrate, I will use popular SoundFont library Arachno.sf2 to show you what my 2014 composition ‘Simple 1’ sounds like. You can compare it to the regular MIDI. Both are 16-bit, but sf2 libraries alter the samples into higher quality instrument sounds.

‘Simple 1’ in 16-Bit (sf2):

Much higher quality samples than MIDI, but still 16-bit music technology.
This is Arachno.sf2 in action!
Compare this to the regular MIDI to see the improvement.

These types of sample libraries allowed video game music composers to alter MIDI files to improve sound quality. It also allowed for easy conversion of MIDI files into MP3 audio files or OGG audio files so that the new, improved 16-bit music could be used in video game soundtracks, but only on devices that supported standalone audio files (MP3 and OGG are both standalone audio file formats). This was used on late 1990s and early 2000s game consoles such as PlayStation 1 and GameCube.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: ‘SoundFont’, or sf2 files (sound sample libraries), were not the only sample libraries that altered MIDI files into standalone audio files. There were other libraries as well, but they essentially did the same thing, so I used sf2 as my primary example because I’m familiar with it. More than likely, PlayStation 1 and GameCube used a different sample library format than sf2, probably with each composer using their own library to create standalone audio files for each soundtrack or even individual song (using 16-bit music technology).

Previously, I was using sf2 sample libraries to produce my music. I have quite the ‘General MIDI’ collection of sf2 libraries.

‘General MIDI’ libraries contain instrument samples that correspond to each of the 128 MIDI instruments, but technology MIDI has 129 instruments because it separates drum set as its own instrument, but doesn’t include the drum set in the 128 normal instruments. In fact, MIDI reserves an entire Channel for the drum set (Channel 10).

I don’t want to get too technical, so I won’t dive into what MIDI ‘Channels’ are in this article. There are plenty of ways for you to learn about what that stuff means elsewhere by Bing/Google search or whatever search engines you personally use.

This is just a meme.
This is NOT a representation of my political views!

Just for fun, of course I will present my song from 2014 ‘Simple 1’ in one more form… modern form!

‘Simple 1’ in 24-bit VST

As you may hear, ‘Simple 1’ isn’t quite as… simple as you might imagine!
(Please excuse my pun.)

The Phrase ‘Industry Standard’ Refers To Studio Production-Level Creation of Music – Here’s Why That Matters

Let me make something very clear so that I don’t confuse everybody:

When I say 24-bit Music Technology is the current year (2019) industry standard, I’m not saying the music you hear in movies or the radio are “24-bit”. Let me explain…

The music you hear in films, video games, or television shows are probably OGG files combined with the video footage using video editing software. They’re probably not going to be using MP3 in film/video game/television for two reasons:

1.) MP3 is “patented” as a format, so the owner of the format can ask for ‘royalties’, but OGG is Open Source, so if composers use OGG files for the soundtrack, the composer doesn’t have to worry about the patent owner stealing money for his/her hard work.

2.) MP3 has lower sound quality than OGG when you maximize specs on both formats for a comparison test. This means the actual soundtrack on the film, series, or game will be of higher quality if they use OGG instead of MP3.

However, that’s not to say MP3 is useless in development of things like smartphone apps. For example, somebody creating a video game for Android or iPhone devices might use MP3 files from the composer for the soundtrack, despite OGG being potentially higher sound quality. The reason for this is because phone speakers aren’t exactly known for high quality sound in the first place.

When listening to audio from a smartphone, your best option is to use external speakers or headphones because the phone speaker itself will nearly always be low quality sound on any smartphone. Yes, even your precious iPhone 30x with 500 billion megapixels camera or whatever (that was hyperbole) will have horrible built-in audio output. You know… that phone which costs more than your mortgage? That one; still bad speakers!

Bit Depth, such as 8-bit, 16-bit, and 24-bit, which I’ve been talking about in this article, matters to LOSSLESS audio data. This means none of the sound quality is decreased because the audio file is lossless. However, lossless audio has different formats, the most popular being WAV and FLAC.

Skip the next three paragraphs if you want to avoid my tangent about WAV vs FLAC

FLAC is more efficient than WAV because the file is smaller, but both are the original audio without any loss in sound quality, so if storage isn’t an issue for a music composer, there’s nothing wrong with using WAV for your original recording/sampling). The vast majority of today’s smartphones and computers simply don’t have the storage space for mass distribution of FLAC audio to customers who purchase your albums, soundtracks, or digital downloads.

So, as a music producer, you should just convert your WAV or FLAC audio file into MP3 320 Constant Bitrate and 48Khz Sample Rate before selling your digital downloads to customers. Most of your customers probably don’t want a 2 minute song they purchased to take up 30 MB of storage space and OGG is unfortunately less popular for customers than MP3 (and less supported by consumer music apps).

In the future, FLAC will likely become the industry standard because it can store ‘metadata’, which WAV cannot do. FLAC, as I said, produces smaller files of the same quality, the highest sound quality possible. Lastly, when storage space on smartphones, computers, and other electronic devices begin to be multiple Terabytes of storage, even when purchased on a budget, that’s when we’ll see MP3 lose its popularity and FLAC become the new file type for music distribution to fans/customers.

Tangent complete.

If you want an easy example of OGG music files, the extremely popular music streaming service Spotify plays OGG files. They do not use MP3 files. Meanwhile, SoundCloud preserves the quality of whatever you upload, but has liability protection if the MP3 “patent” owner comes salivating for ‘royalties’ for other people’s work!

(This means SoundCloud doesn’t lower the quality of user audio file uploads, but they may adjust volume so your file is most listenable on all common devices.)

Shameless plug: Check out my SoundCloud!

Anyway, most of the audio you’ll be hearing as a consumer of music will be in what’s called a ‘lossy’ format, meaning some of the data of the original production level audio file has been removed. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting “low quality” music files. All it means is you’re not getting the maximum audio quality.

I know what you’re thinking…

“But, wait a minute, Jeff… are you saying I’m getting ripped off by the music industry?!”

~What You Might Be Thinking

The answer is not really. As of current year (2019), it’s doubtful that a non-musician would hear the difference between an iTunes song and a Digital Download MP3 320CBR.

Hint: The iTunes song has a slightly lower quality, but it’s difficult to notice unless you listen carefully.

However, if you listen to the same song on Spotify, it will be higher quality than the MP3 320CBR digital download. This is because OGG is simply a higher quality ‘lossy’ audio format than MP3.

Most people aren’t going to care about these small differences in sound quality across different platforms and file formats. Even though, out of the three different formats I mentioned, the iTunes song will be of lower quality than the other two, it’s hard to even notice that unless you’re comparing the same song, side-by-side, in the three formats.

***Trigger Warning for fans of the company ‘Apple’!***

Furthermore, I’m not necessarily bashing iTunes (although I may not be Apple’s biggest fan). All three formats I mentioned of are good enough quality to hear the song clearly. Even crappy iTunes has good enough sound quality for the purpose of casual listening or ‘jamming out’.

To most people, hearing the song clearly is all that really matters. To me, I wouldn’t be caught dead purchasing music through iTunes. Instead, I purchase through other ways, such as directly through the record company’s or musician’s website. This ensures you get the highest quality MP3 file possible, not watered down iTunes.

Side Note: I also don't use 'Mac' computers. I think they're garbage. Instead, I either use Windows or Linux, depending on what I'm doing. Suck it, Apple!

Lastly, another reason why the music industry isn’t “ripping you off” or whatever by giving you files in lossy format is pretty obvious… an MP3 file of a 3 minute song, at its highest quality, will probably be about 5 or 6 MB of data. Meanwhile, that same file, in WAV format would be HUGE, around 50 or 60 MB! It would be 10 times more data, taking up a crap ton of storage on your device. The FLAC format would, more than likely, be around 5 times larger than your highest quality MP3 file of the song, likely around 25 to 30 MB.

If you’re downloading a lot of music, which many people do, you will save A LOT of storage space on your device by getting high bitrate MP3 files instead of FLAC files. But, if you really want FLAC files, some artists/record companies actually do offer that, but many musicians and companies don’t offer FLAC files.

When storage on your typical smartphone or computer gets about 5 to 10 times more, on average, than today’s device (current year 2019), that’s when FLAC will probably become the industry standard for distribution of music to consumers…

For example, most personal computers today have about 1 Terabyte of storage, which is 1,000 Gigabytes. Since FLAC is around 5 times larger audio files than highest quality MP3 files, I expect FLAC will be the norm when your typical personal computer has a 5 Terabyte hard drive. Maybe that will happen in the next decade; sometimes technology improves very quickly like that.

WAV will likely never be the norm for music distribution to fans/consumers because it cannot store metadata. However, WAV will still be useful to music composers and producers because it’s easy to work with and it’s literally the highest quality audio file possible, despite being about double the data of FLAC.

Now, when I talk about ‘lossy’ audio file formats, such as MP3 and OGG, they don’t take bit depth into account. Of course, 8-bit, 16-bit, and 24-bit refer to bit depth. It matters mostly in sound sampling and studio recording of things like instruments/vocals.

However, bit depth and lossy formats aren’t entirely unrelated. There’s simply a difference in the way a lossless format (i.e., FLAC) handles audio data compared to lossy (i.e, MP3). If you’re lost, let me explain…

Lossy formats use something called bit rate, which means it’s handling the information in a way that doesn’t really care too deeply about bit depth. What bit rate means is literally the number of bits per second contained in the audio file. Higher bit rate almost always means higher sound quality unless the original audio file is of incredibly low quality (it would definitely not be any kind of serious studio recording).

Another thing about bit rate is that MUSIC has a lot more nuances than certain other forms of audio data. That’s why the higher bit rate matters so much in music files. A podcaster, for example, can use a bit rate such as 160kbps and sound perfectly clear/professional, possibly even 128kbps. Why? Because somebody talking into a microphone has far less nuance than a studio music recording or a comprehensive music composition. Meanwhile, if it’s an MP3 music file, 320kbps is the best option for bit rate so that most of the nuance of the song is kept intact for the listener.

Sample Rate is another important thing to take into account (especially for lossy formats), but most sample rates, especially for MP3 files, are standardized. The best quality sample rate for an MP3 music file is 48Khz.

However, many CD Music Albums have a sample rate of 44.1Khz, slightly lower than the best, but normally the bit rate is maximized on a CD, so even somebody with very good ears would be hard pressed to tell the difference between 44.1Khz and 48Khz, provided they have the same bit rate.

NOTE: Some newer CD Music Albums might be using FLAC format due to improvements in storage technology. If that’s the case for a CD you’ve purchased, you are hearing the absolute best, studio-level quality of that song.

Today’s Industry Standard: Introducing 24-bit VST

As of current year (2019), 24-bit VST music technology is the industry standard for digital music composers and songwriters.

That music you hear in movie, series shows, animated movies/series, and video games released in recent years? If the songs weren’t a recording of a real orchestra or symphony, you can guarantee with almost total certainty the composers used 24-bit VST music technology to create the music.

One major improvement of 24-bit VST over 16-bit technologies is the lack of reliance on working with MIDI formats. Technically, you could also use 16-bit VST, continuing to bypass MIDI formats, but that’s not the industry standard. For whatever reason, 24-bit has become THE CHOSEN ONE, even though you could use 16-bit VST theoretically.

Most software that works with VST uses 24-bit music technology, though, so 16-bit VST is less supported in general. This includes software used by music producers at record companies in the creation of lyrical music, whether it be Pop, Rap, R&B, Punk, Metal, etc. You name it; they’ve got it with VST-compatible software.

If you have a $1,000 budget, you’ll have no problem obtaining the software that works with 24-bit VST. However, you might want to run it on a computer with a strong processor, such as 2+Ghz with 6 physical cores, perhaps something in the i7 family if Intel is your brand choice. That also costs money and isn’t cheap for anybody below middle class incomes.

If you have those things already and want to make professional studio recordings, you’ll need a studio microphone (large diaphragm cardioid condenser) with an XLR cable, an audio interface with a pre-amp providing 48 volts of ‘phantom power’ to activate the microphone with USB connecting the audio interface to the computer. A studio microphone of industry standard quality will NOT be found lower than $300, so that’s another expense.

If your budget is between 300 to 400 dollars for a microphone, choose wisely and test them for quality before purchasing them. Most microphones in that price range will not produce studio quality recordings, but some will. Shop smart!

NOTE FOR BRASS GROUP RECORDINGS: If you’re recording multiple brass instruments or ‘big band’ jazz stuff, look for a ‘Ribbon’ Microphone, but be warned that even the budget Ribbon Microphones will be outside of the 300-400 dollar price range. Sure you might find a $400 ribbon mic, but it’s not going to be production quality, unfortunately. You’ll be looking at a $1,000 to $1,500 microphone for an industry standard Ribbon Microphone. For some reason, Ribbon Microphones are, in general, more efficient at capturing the nuances of brass instrument sounds compared to Condenser Microphones. Don’t ask me why, but it’s true. The condenser is fine for solo brass, but for group brass, you’ll want a ribbon. I know this from experience with different microphone types.

A decent audio interface will run you $150+ and that’s if you’re on a tight budget. That kind of budget interface won’t have fancy equalizers all over the place, but just basic capabilities. Of course, this is to meet minimum industry standards.

To make Taylor Swift level recording quality, you’d need to shell out probably a lot more money on both the microphone and audio interface than I just mentioned. Doing that won’t be cheap at all and there isn’t really a way to cut corner with this stuff. If you’re wealthy enough to purchase that stuff, go ahead and do so. But, many music producers buy top-tier studio equipment one at a time, accumulating a lot of very expensive equipment over time. So, if your goal is to be an industry powerhouse, don’t feel so overwhelmed that you have to buy everything all at once. Save money; get one thing at a time!

Even the budget music production equipment is expensive (unless you’re making 70k+ a year income), but not impossible to save up and purchase, even if you’re below middle class level, provided you’re not living ‘paycheck-to-paycheck’. If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, I sincerely hope your financial situation improves. I hate it that people can work hard and still not be middle class, but that’s the situation in which our society finds itself (that was not meant as a political statement).

I want to end this article on a positive note. If you wish to become a music composer, even as a hobby and not a profession, but you don’t have the means to purchase expensive software or a powerful computer, I have VERY GOOD NEWS for you! I’ll be writing articles and, in the future, making videos on how you, as a beginner, can start composing music using a combination of free and very cheap software (I’m talking $15 one time payment cheap). So, your dream doesn’t require industry standard equipment and software to get started. As the saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Regards,

Jeffery Branham (owner of The True World)


Special Thanks to Anton Ponomarev for the featured image in this article at the top. If you’d like to check out more of his work, click on the link below:

unsplash-logoAnton Ponomarev

Constructive criticism and opinions are welcome!

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