Notoriously tight, musicians are always on the look out for something for nothing. The internet therefore, is a treasure trove; a child's toybox full of shiny free stuff for which nimble-fingered strummers, plunkers, thumpers and scratchers pay nothing - or virtually nothing.
And they love it. Here is the equivalent of the local hi-tech music shop, but grown to enormous, global proportions. You can poke and prod to your heart's content without ever being bothered by the scruffy assistants who can always play everything better than you anyway.
The internet has the embarrassment of riches without the embarrassment. You'll find everything from software and samples to Midi files and sound fonts (poor peoples' samples), instruments, tabs (the funny pictograms that guitarists use) and lyrics. Can you hear me? One-two. One-TWO!
If you've got a vaguely modern PC, then it's likely you already have many of the things you need to produce electronic music (the kind that doesn't require you to record pesky acoustic instruments like vocals, nylon guitars, flutes, fiddles and so on). The secret's in the sound card which will contain over 100 Midi instruments (pianos, basses, strings, synths, drums and so on) that attempt to mimic the real thing, and enough gadgetry to let you play back audio samples.
The samples have been recorded by someone else and then cut up into chunks, so you can drag and drop them using popular programs like eJay to make dance-oriented music. The difference between music created using Midi instruments and music created using audio samples can be a bit head-scratching at first, so visit chadales.demon.co.ukfor a concise explanation of what Midi is and how it works.
Now that's sorted, let's go in search of free software. At hitsquad.com you'll find an extraordinarily catholic list of programs. The site has hundreds of every type of music software, though with an unashamedly populist skew towards MP3 players, finders and encoders. Fortunately, there's loads more. Midi sequencers like Massiva and Anvil Studio, drum machines, guitar tutorials and tuners, sound fonts for use with the popular SoundBlaster card, and VST plug-in instruments and effects which add powerful features to Cubase and compatible programs.
Most product descriptions on hitsquad.com include a screen shot and link to the author's site which is often worth a click because they're likely to have the most recent details of updates or - gulp - bugs. Remember to check out the shareware section as well, where you'll find stacks more.
But what makes the site really worth the bookmark is that many of the programs have been reviewed by the very people who've downloaded them. "This program is worthless!", they bark. Hell hath no fury like someone who's sat waiting three quarters of an hour for something to come down only to discover it's cobblers. Favourable 'reviews' posted by the authors (or their mates) are usually pretty easy to spot too.
Remember that all of the major music sequencer makers offer demos of their products. These are usually save-disabled but more significantly, they're pretty big files, so they take a while to download. Visit etcetera.co.uk for Cakewalk software, including the excellent Guitar Tracks; try service.steinberg-na.com for Cubase and related products; and fasoft.com for a shareware version of n-Track Studio which is winning good notices.
More traditionally minded? Take yourself off to sibelius.com and order a free demo CD of the top-rated Sibelius music scoring program. Dance fans can download the truly fabulous Fruityloops from e-officedirect.com and enjoy a bit of instant loop creation, or try the ejay.co.uk catalogue where the range of eJay products waits for eager knob twiddlers. There's also Magix, which has lots of demo software to download at magix.net, and the singular wonders of the bizarre Koan music generator at sseyo.com.
By the way, if the size of the downloads puts you off, the hi-tech music magazines carry cover-mounted software which is often well worth the price on its own.
If you're a SoundBlaster owner (and many are) check out hammersound.com for a fab collection of sound fonts (these, I should explain properly, are special sample-style instruments which can be loaded into memory and played back by the sound card). Sound fonts are typically much smaller than conventional samples, but some of them are of comparable quality and they're a great source for instruments beyond the standard ones that come on your sound card.
If you've got access to a fast connection or an unmetered internet deal, or enjoy getting up in the middle of the night when the Yanks are asleep (wait a minute, of course you do, you're a musician, you're up anyway) then visit samplenet.co.uk where you'll find most kinds of samples, which can be previewed in Real Audio format and are royalty free.
Elsewhere there's proph.org for good techno/dance samples and 16bitsamples.f2s.com for a broad selection which scores high marks for its refreshing notion that the musical world doth not begin and end with dance music.
For musicians of all persuasions, the internet is a global lyric library with squillions of tabs and Midi files which you can play back using the sounds on your soundcard. For the first two, Renegade Olga is excellent - the lyrics are usually accurate and the chords better than many you'll find in songbooks. The entries for Joni Mitchell, for example, include the arcane guitar tunings she favours, while the Steely Dan chords sound right when most others don't.
Elsewhere, the International Lyric Server is OK, but they list songs they don't have words for and make you type searches in 'Dylan, Bob' format which is a bit computery. Much better is the choice at top100tabsites.com. Here you'll find a list of more or less what it says - certainly we were able to find everything from Oasis and Madonna to obscure 1970s Jethro Tull songs. Not that we, er, wanted to, you understand.
If in doubt, go to a major search engine like All The Web and type in a snatch of the lyric you're after. If that doesn't work, try putting the word 'tab' after the name of the artist or group you want to find.
As for Midi files, you can use these as backing tracks for your pub duo, to practice against with your guitar or other instrument, or simply to learn from. Remember that Midi-only files can be slowed right down to aid the efforts of the sausage-fingered. Because these files are put up by amateur transcribers they'll always be a mix of good and bad, but some are amazing. By pulling apart a Midi track and looking at the individual instruments you can pick up all sorts of tips and tricks.
For a good selection of Midi sites try top219.org, but beware - it's one of those sites which spawns multiple windows all over the place trying to get you to sign up for different things. Greg's Midi and Tab is fun because, as well as giving you the chords, you can also play along to the relevant Midi track. MIDI Lounge includes links to progressive, country and jazz Midi sites, and at countrymidi.com you'll find plenty of yee-hah stuff.
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