So when you think about making music on a Surface, or on any computer, it’s very easy to assume that we’re talking about electronic music – about beats and loops and wotnot. Well it certainly can be but it can also be this: – notation or this – live music!
Note: I did most of this video off-the-cuff so the written version is incomplete but there should be some good info here, but the video gives the most complete picture and of course demonstrations!
But your Surface is just an empty vessel for your music, it’s a blank canvas, an empty page you can make whatever sort of music you like, write whatever you like, compose whatever you like, record whatever you like in whatever style you wish. It’s a multi-track recorder, a score writer, a midi sequencer, a sampler, a virtual sound and instrument generator, it lets you create music, put together songs, arrange and mix your tunes – and of course it can make loops and beats as well – But how do we do any of that? Well we do it with a combination of software and hardware. The software is your virtual studio into which you create, record and arrange your music and the hardware gives you the physical connections to plug things into it.
So to get started lets get hold of a piece of music software – pop along to http://www.openlabs.com and download Stagelight. There’s a free version that comes with everything you need to start making music. Stagelight is what we call a DAW – a D A W – which stands for Digital Audio Workstation and it’s a fairly inaccurate term that’s taken to mean it has the ability to record audio, record sound, it’s a MIDI sequencer, so it can record notes from a MIDI keyboard and play them back into a synth or MIDI sound module; it has virtual sounds – synths and instruments that can be played from a MIDI keyboard and it has a mixing facility to let you mix your tracks and add effects and come out the other end with a single mixed audio file of your music that you send to a record company and become a star – or more likely ends up on a website somewhere that no one ever listens to.
So what about the hardware? We’ll come onto that but for the moment we’re going to be using the Surface’s onboard audio – the speakers and headphones.
Right, let’s get some sound out! When you get to the Stagelight front page tap on Lessons and then demosongs and Megafauna demo. Stagelight has two sides to it – one side is a loop player, a performance tool where you can set any loop going you like and the other is a more traditional multitrack view where you record your music in a horizontal plane across the screen against a timeline.
Groovy – now the sound is coming out of the speakers which is fine but it does sound a bit tinny. But we do have this headphone output that we could connect to some better speakers, to better appreciate our awesome music – so let’s do that. I’ve got a cable here I can plug in and it should now come through the speakers. Except, it hasn’t, it’s still coming out of the onboard speakers. The reason for that is that in the Surface Pro 4 the speakers and the headphone outputs are treated as individual devices and they have their own drivers and their own destination in software. What does that mean? It means that in order to automatically switch between the two the software has to be written to do it – so games and regular windows apps all cope with it fine. Stagelight and all other DAW software doesn’t because it addresses audio drivers differently and sees them as completely independent. Let me demonstrate that quickly in Windows Groove.
As you can hear it’s coming out the on board speakers, and now as I plug it in it’s now coming out of the big speakers out there. And then back to the speakers. But when you run Stagelight it’s not able to do it.
Let’s look at the audio setup in Stagelight. There are a few other options listed here in mind because I’ve installed a few things already but normally you would just see “speakers” as the only option. Now if we close that and plug in the headphones, give it a second and go back into the audio options we now have a second option called “headphones”. Select that and we should find out music is now coming out of the headphone socket into my big speakers – hooray! So it’s not ideal and we’re going to find this happen in all music production software because it sees those drivers as two independent things. So for instance you’re sitting there on the bus making tunes with your headphones on and your mate next to you wants to hear what you’ve done you can’t just unplug the cable and have it start playing – you’ll have to dig into the audio setup and change the driver to headphones. Or if you’re making beats on the kitchen table and your mum tells you to shut up you can’t just plug your headphones in you also have to go into options and select the driver. It’s not awesome at all but there it is. Can we do anything about it? Yes we can get a proper USB audio interface which will sort out all this nonsense and we’ll get onto that in a minute – a USB audio interface is actually the solution to pretty much all the issues around making music on your Surface but for the moment we’ll persevere with the onboard sound because it is completely possible to just plug in some headphones and make music.
So, we’ve got sound out – got that sorted – how do we start making music. Well there are two things we can use, we can use audio, either by recording sound or using prerecorded samples or we can enter notes to play MIDI synths or in this case virtual synths and instruments.
Entering notes is fine but we could also be playing these from a keyboard. Stagelight has an awesome keyboard and drum pads built in that you can use to record in real time. Here’s a synth, here’s some drums.
Now this is where we get into the world of latency – that dreaded word that spells doom for all music making. Latency is the time it takes for the computer to generate the sound in response to us hitting a key. You want that to feel like real-time. Now “real-time” is very subjective but generally you’re talking about 10ms – anything under 10ms will feel totally playable, anything over that will start to feel a bit laggy. So you hit a note and the sound is heard just behind it. The result is that it makes it difficult to play, particularly with percussion. With Windows 10 the latency on the audio drivers has got much better but it requires the software to specifically access low latency modes to take advantage of it – Stagelight and most other DAWs don’t do that and so with the standard mode drivers we’re looking at around 30ms latency which you can definitely feel. Can we do anything about this? Yes – the best solution, as always, is a USB audio interface but there’s another solution that can reduce the latency of the onboard sound called ASIO4ALL. ASIO4ALL wraps up the audio drivers in what we call an ASIO driver A S I O which is the standard high performance driver protocol that all audio interfaces use for low latency in music software. So download it, install it and let’s set that up.
Now it was at this point that everything went weird and wrong. With every other device I’ve used including the Surface Pro 3 you install ASIO4ALL, select it as the driver and off you go. With the Surface Pro 4 it’s unfortunately more complicated than that. I’ve made a video going into all the messy detail but here’s the simple version of what you need to know. Once you select the ASIO4ALL driver in options a little control panel will become available via a green button by the clock. This is where you can enable and disable different parts of the driver. The first entry is the speakers and the second one is the headphones. For this to work you must only have one or the other activated and within that option you must select the top entry that says 2x 44.1-48khz. It’s annoyingly complex and I really dearly wish that Microsoft would release an ASIO driver for Windows 10 that just sorts this nonsense out in an elegant and usable way. Anyway, with the right bits activated you now have much better latency – set the buffer size down to 128 samples – this is the amount of space the CPU has to process the audio, the lower it is the quicker it does it but also the higher the strain on the CPU.
There – you see, much better and now I can record drums and other instruments right from the touch screen.
For more, and some awesome demos of me making music, check out the video.