This page reviews mostly free yet quality software and other resources mainly for music students.
Last updated May 10, 2013.
Quick links to jump to sections below:Note: software is often listed as FLOSS. Read the first section here to understand what that means.
- On Software and Freedom
- Mac vs Windows vs GNU/Linux
- Apple's attacks on freedom, iOS vs Android etc.
- Recommendations for every computer user (not music specific)
- About computer music hardware
- Audio recording software
- Plugins (effects, virtual instruments)
- Audio speed/pitch change for practice with recordings
- Music notation software
- sequencers, loopers, and other composing software
- Music theory and ear training
- Misc: drum-machine, jam-tracks, metronomes, tuners, games
- Other online resources
- additional resources and notes
Imagine a choir learning some song arrangement where the director realizes that some of the pitches are out of range for the singers. Because the director has the score and music theory understanding, they may be able to alter the arrangement without diminishing the musical effect. It would be nice, perhaps, if the director chose to share the update with other choral groups who might have the same issue, but because of restrictive copyright law, this may be excessively difficult (see my article A Rational View of Copyright). Nevertheless, at least the director can adjust things for their own singers.
Similarly, a computer user may wish for something to work better or differently. If they have some programming skills, then they can make adjustments as desired — if they have access to the program code and permission to change it. Furthermore, the whole world community (programmers and non-programmers alike) can benefit from programmers choosing to share their software improvements. Unfortunately, as with sharing music arrangements, excessive restrictions can get in the way.
This issue is the focus of the Free Software Foundation created by Richard Stallman in 1985. Free in this case means freedom rather than price. This is often clarified by borrowing the Romance language term libre (as in liberty) to contrast with gratis (zero price). The official Free Software Definition specifies the following four freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program for any purpose
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it as you wish
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
- The freedom to release your modified versions to the public, so that the whole community benefits
Many FLOSS licenses are also copyleft, which means that derivative versions must be also shared under the same terms. This concept was invented by Richard Stallman when he wrote the first Free Software license: the GNU General Public License (GPL). You can learn more about his philosophy behind software freedom from the inspiring essays at gnu.org. I especially recommend:
In principle, however, there is nothing that could be achieved by restricted proprietary software that could not be done as well or better with Free Software. Developers who care about the ethical issues (or who care about their own freedom) have worked to create many robust alternatives to restrictive proprietary programs. In some cases, Free Software has actually dominated. Much of the internet today runs on FLOSS.
How does FLOSS get funded? In many cases, institutions such as schools, governments, and businesses hire developers to make software for specific purposes and then license the programs as FLOSS. Besides supporting ethical values, the original institutions share the benefits of improvements made by others in the community. Many companies also create FLOSS and then offer optional support services. Finally, individuals around the world donate funds and volunteer their time to support FLOSS development, promotion, and documentation. Despite these mechanisms, FLOSS struggles with low funding, and I am now co-founding a new non-profit cooperative system to help improve the situation: Snowdrift.coop
Though I support these ideals, I am not dogmatic. In an ideal world, all software would be free/libre, but reality demands pragmatism and compromise. I respect and support some software developers who choose non-free licenses for their work (even though I disagree with their choice). Nevertheless, I still want developers to meet a minimum of ethical standards. I support only software which at least: does not include intrusive advertisements; has no significant anti-features such as Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) or invasions of privacy; does not have unreasonably frequent update costs; and is not limited to saving work in proprietary file formats.
Furthermore, while I think compromising and accepting some proprietary software is reasonable, it depends how much power the proprietary developers have. A proprietary puzzle game is benign (assuming the developer can truly be trusted not to do anything malicious, such as spying on the users). On the other hand, developers of proprietary operating systems (such as Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS and iOS) are in the position of influencing everything about the computing ecosystem.
*The full name "GNU/Linux" identifies the two main components of the system: (1) the GNU system and user space software (GNU uses a wildebeest mascot) and (2) Linus Torvald's "Linux" kernel (which uses a penguin mascot). Many people refer to the whole system as simply "Linux," but this is confusing because Google's Android and Chrome OS systems also use the same Linux kernel but not the rest of the GNU/Linux system.
For basic computing (web browsing, music and photo sorting, word processing etc.), GNU/Linux systems can be used with minimal learning curve. More advanced features like audio/video production take some work to get comfortable, but there are supportive communities and other resources to help. GNU/Linux has software for everything from office and school work to scientific research to games to video-editing and 3D modeling — nearly all free.
To learn more about the whole concept, the pros and cons, and how to get started, the best thorough introduction is at GetGNUlinux.org
There are many variants (called distributions) of GNU/Linux, so choosing among the options can be confusing. There are specific systems designed for multimedia, for business, for science, or for younger children… Because GNU/Linux software is mostly interchangeable, advanced users can mix and match different system elements in any way they like, and they can offer their variations to others, which is why there are so many options. Because it is all free, you can try different systems and change your mind later. Or just go with whatever variant seems appealing, or ask for advice from someone knowledgeable. For the most part, all the same programs work on any version of GNU/Linux, only the default setup and window-dressing varies.
You can try GNU/Linux on your Mac or Windows machine without affecting your current system. On Windows, the easiest way to set up GNU/Linux for either testing or installation is the user-friendly program Linux Live USB Creator. That handles everything from downloading the GNU/Linux system to making a USB flash driver ready for install. It even can automatically set up the free-of-charge Virtual Box software for testing without installing. Mac users might try Linux USB Creator for Mac, although I have not tested it to see how reliable it is.
When ready to make a full install, you can still dual-boot and keep your existing Mac or Windows OS on the same machine. Each time you start your computer, it will give you the option to choose between the systems. There is also a free program called WINE that can run the majority of Windows-based applications within GNU/Linux!
Most computers will work with GNU/Linux, but you can search online for information about any issues with a particular computer model. As a general guideline, you will have a better experience with Intel graphics accelerators because they are FLOSS and so are easier for Linux developers to get working well. Nvidia or AMD graphics can also be functional but are less ideal. You can also just purchase a new GNU/Linux-dedicated computer from any of the companies listed at LinuxPreloaded.com.
GNU/Linux audio is a bit different from other systems but is more powerful because it is more modular and flexible. Though the most basic audio software works well enough without hassle, there are advanced tools for serious music production. I recommend (and use myself) the superb KXStudio, which is essentially a pre-compiled collection of GNU/Linux audio software along with powerful tools for configuring and working with the system. It includes everything from synthesizers to recording programs to special effects and more.
KXStudio can be installed as its own GNU/Linux distribution with a simple download which is then enabled on a USB drive or burned to DVD. Alternatively, the KXStudio repositories can be added to any system that is itself based on the Debian GNU/Linux distribution (including any Ubuntu-based distro). Also, the Cadence tools, which are the heart of KXStudio, will work on any distribution of GNU/Linux. All of this a work in progress, but it is already very powerful and capable. Documentation and beginner tutorials are in progress as well.
I am happy to help advise any student interested in trying GNU/Linux, though I am still learning myself and am not an expert. There are many helpful community forums online of all sorts, and for audio check out linuxmusicians.com. A reference wiki is at wiki.linuxaudio.com. and see also this this full list of Linux-related audio groups.
Regarding iOS (iPhone/iPod/iPad) and Android systems:Before moving to GNU/Linux, I mostly used Macs, but Apple's secrecy and locked-down control went past the tipping point for me when they introduced the iOS. The iOS system (iPhone/iPod/iPad) requires users to go through Apple for their software, a situation called a walled garden. This makes support, security, and profit easier for Apple — at the expense of user freedom. As Richard Stallman puts it:
"Apple iThings pioneered a new level of restricting the users: they were the first general purpose computers to impose censorship over what programs the user can install." [source]Apple has used this control to lock users in, violate their privacy, and embed a whole advertising system into the software. The idea that a simple guitar tuner program now flashes ads at you is frustrating enough. For me, the most troubling issue is that Apple's Terms of Service are incompatible with many Free Software licenses, thus effectively blocking the use and development of FLOSS for iOS. Essentially, the FLOSS licenses guarantees certain rights (see above), but Apple wants to add further restrictions. If the FLOSS developers do not allow these extra restrictions, Apple simply blocks anyone from installing the software. You can read more about this here.
Although users can legally bypass many of Apple's restrictions by jailbreaking their devices, this is not a real solution. Apple does all they can to stop jailbreaks, and if only a minority of users jailbreak their devices, it limits the size of the market for apps that require jailbreaking. Apple's policies are a sabotage of Free Software and an attack on the community. In opposition to a free market, Apple's App Store is a restricted market dictated by Apple with no checks and balances.
To read further, see the Electronic Frontier Foundation's article Apple's Crystal Prison and the Future of Open Platforms.
Although not ideal, Google's Android system is better for freedom than Apple's iOS (and also better than Microsoft's Windows Phone). Android is based on the free/libre Linux kernel, and the base system is free/libre — although many of the programs and other system functions are not. Android devices allow users to install software from multiple sources without too much hassle. All Android users should install the fully free/libre alternative app repository F-Droid. With F-Droid, you can trust that every single app is FLOSS and not have to go through Google's store.
For those especially committed to software freedom, a first step in that direction is to root your Android device to have a little more control and use better ad-blocking. A further step is to install a system that is more free, like OmniROM. It is possible to have that working without the proprietary Google Apps, but you can add those back also if you prefer. The process can be a bit screwy and varies from device to device. For the most hardcore, Replicant is a 100% Free/Libre version of Android that works on select devices if you can (at this time) give up having things like functional wifi or video recording.
There are also some up-and-coming alternative portable systems that are freedom-respecting. Mozilla's FLOSS Firefox OS runs all features using the open standard HTML5. That potentially avoids platform lock-in. GNU/Linux is also coming to mobile devices via the Ubuntu Phone OS. There's also Sailfish. Some of these may turn out to be similar to Android with a FLOSS base yet many non-free elements and some other potential issues, we'll have to see. They are all generally more community-focused than Google. Finally, organizations such as MakePlayLive are hoping to develop other fully GNU/Linux portable tablets.
Issues of freedom aside, both Android and iOS devices have tons of apps available which are useful for music students. There are apps for these devices for all the categories I'm addressing on this page. I would certainly hesitate to buy separate chord-chart books or guitar tuners before considering the options for your device. Unfortunately, the options can be confusing and overwhelming. Android and iOS systems have incredible numbers of apps (the vast majority of which are surely redundant clutter, mediocre gimmicks, and app versions of fully functional websites). While many apps are worthwhile, others are a scheme designed to get you hooked in and then sell you more features or content; and free/gratis (i.e. not libre) apps commonly show [obnoxious] ads. I have not evaluated the options, but if you know of particular apps that you feel truly deserve mention here, please let me know.
UPDATE 2014: Although the options are still much smaller than the generic app store, I just learned that F-Droid (the fully FLOSS app collection for Android, mentioned above) a good metronome and a great strobe tuning app! So that's probably the best option for most students. Just install F-Droid and search.
Concerns about the future of Mac and Windows desktop systemsThe introduction of the Mac App Store now has the Mac OS moving toward the walled garden of iOS. Apple says that they will never restrict the Mac in the same way. While this may be technically true so far, they have implemented anti-competitive designs to effectively lock-down their monopoly in the Mac world as well.
Mac users can adjust their system to install whatever software they like, but the system default is for Apple-approved installations only and a scary message if anyone even considers trying something else (see article at EFF). The dominance of the Mac App Store means that developers will have to play by Apple's dictated rules if they want to reach the widest audience.
The latest Mac OS version is also full of built-in connections to services like Facebook which are based on spying on users in order to display ads. Facebook is itself a closed system which works in opposition to the values of an open internet. We can now expect our computers to be always advertising at us even when we don't actively access the internet.
If you still aren't convinced about Apple's anti-freedom direction, consider that the latest Apple hardware now uses non-standard pentalobular screws just to stop users from upgrading or repairing their own machines. The latest MacBook Pro even glues in the battery, so it is virtually impossible to replace, and this planned obsolescence lowers the machine's life-span.
Using Apple's otherwise high-quality products means losing freedoms and becoming locked in to their restrictive platforms. At the same time when technology could be more freeing than ever, we are facing digital feudalism imposed by unethical monopolies and oligopolies.
Despite the marvelous technology, I am ending my own use Apple products. I am not happy with this situation. I will miss a lot of wonderful programs that offer real value. I wish we had legal protections of user freedom and privacy. If Apple were forced to respect these rights of users and the community, then I might consider Apple products again.
Microsoft Windows, of course, presents its own complex issues for freedom. Microsoft has a long history of monopolistic business practices and an anti-freedom philosophy, and now they are following Apple's lead toward locking-down the systems even more. And then there are the problems with Windows viruses and other malware — problems which are virtually non-existent on GNU/Linux…
For the time being, both Mac and Windows still retain the ability to install FLOSS programs, and there are admittedly some advantages to using the most popular systems. So, although I encourage it, I don't expect everyone to switch to GNU/Linux. For those who do switch, the GNU/Linux systems have built-in tools for managing and discovering software. Once inside the GNU/Linux world, it is easier to be aware of the options for FLOSS and identify what is Free/Libre and what is proprietary.
For those who continue to use Apple and Microsoft systems, my recommendations below emphasize FLOSS resources that are compatible with Windows and Mac OS. Many programs here are also GNU/Linux compatible, and not all the suggestions here are strictly FLOSS).
MY SOFTWARE RECOMMENDATIONS
General recommendations for all computing:
f.lux (Free/gratis, Mac/Win; on GNU/Linux use Redshift instead). This software adjusts your screen color (not just brightness) based on time of day to make it healthier for your eyes under indoor lighting. It is fully user-adjustable. I love this and would not want to go back to using any computer without it.
[F.lux is available for Apple's iOS, but its functions don't fit Apple's restrictions, so Apple doesn't allow users to install it! To install f.lux for iOS, you have to jailbreak your device. The f.lux website has old instructions on this although it may not work for the latest versions of iOS. Jailbreaking is free and legal, but it wouldn't be necessary if Apple didn't try to stop users from running this in the first place.
For Android, there are dozens of different apps, but none that I have found are FLOSS. Several are gratis though. Generally, they do not work as well in default mode because they add color instead of subtracting, thus it brightens the black colors, so the result is not so good. For supported devices that have full root access, some of the apps can actually do it the right way. I wish the clutter would go away. I can't tell what's best of the many redundant apps. A fully FLOSS version would be ideal. Anyway, you can search the Google app store or Amazon app store for things like "flux" and "eye health"… "Twilight" seems popular…]
To be in control of my web browsing, I use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. DuckDuckGo is a simple, clean search engine that doesn't track or bubble you and has many useful features (for example, you can search other sites instantly with "!bang" syntax such as "!w" for Wikipedia).
I also use the FLOSS Firefox web browser which has features including security and privacy protection, password management, syncing of history and bookmarks across many devices, and more.
Within Firefox, I use the FLOSS Adblock Plus plugin which stops nearly all advertising (even video ads). You can whitelist particular websites if you prefer to allow their ads; with ABP, you are in control. ABP defaults to allowing text-only non-intrusive ads (which may still track you!), but you can change this (as I do) in order to block all advertising. I suggest turning on the additional privacy options too.
Everyone on all systems should also use Disconnect, a simple FLOSS plug-in that quickly blocks most tracking online.
These tools and a few other suggestions for privacy are referenced at the excellent simple summary site fixtracking.com. For complete listings of freedom and privacy options, especially for advanced users, check out prism-break.org.
Organizing:Task Coach is a great FLOSS task management/to-do/organizing software. It is cross-platform (Mac/Win/Linux) and has a companion iOS app that syncs to the main program. Unfortunately, there is no Android app planned at this time, but it has Todo.txt export/import so Android users can still access and create tasks and sync with Task Coach.
Compared with other programs which are either too simple, too restrictive, or too complicated; Task Coach is powerful yet flexible. The features include limitless levels of subtasks, marking prerequisites, time tracking, flexible priorities, reminders, schedules, tags, sorting, notes, and more. Organizing systems like GTD can be easily implemented, but no particular system is forced on you.
Though powerful already, Task Coach is far from perfect. There are some bugs to fix and hundreds of feature requests that the small team working in their spare time cannot get to. After some time volunteering to help with these things, I accepted an invitation to become an official member of the Task Coach development team! I had not previously been involved in software development, but this sort of thing happens more with the free/libre/open community, and it's been a wonderful learning experience. Anyway, please try it out, be patient getting used to it, feel free to ask questions, report bugs, request features, and otherwise get on task, track your time, and be productive!
Other general tools:Finally, just a quick mention of the best FLOSS options for non-music stuff (all cross-platform for Mac/Win/Linux):
- LibreOffice: a powerful suite for all types of office and school work: word processing, basic graphics, presentations, spreadsheet, charts, database, and more.
- Inkscape: for vector-based illustration and other graphics
- GIMP: for raster-based graphics like photo editing
- MyPaint and/or Krita: illustration and virtual painting/drawing
- Blender: a complete 3D graphics, animation studio, and video editor
- Scribus: for page-layout, publications
- Open Clip-Art Library: a huge online library of public domain, unrestricted images
- also for free-as-in-freedom fonts, check out openfontlibrary.org
Hardware: audio recording
In addition to what I've written here, another simple introductory resource is the well-illustrated hardware section of the Audacity manual (the first software program listed below under recording software).
Most computers today include a microphone, and the sound can be adequate for practice feedback or playing around. However, built-in mics pick up the nearby noise from the computer. The most important factor to good sound is to get the microphone close to the sound source and away from unwanted noise.
The built-in 3.5mm jack on most computers works well with two types of sources: (A) dynamic microphone(s) and (B) stereo line-level sources from electronic instruments, mixers, or other preamps. Though far from optimal, direct connection of electric guitar or similar instruments is also possible.
The cheapest functional option is to get a budget mic designed for computers, such as these Mini Lapel Microphones. These come as cheaply as just over $1 each if you buy them in a set of five! The sound is ok, and this allows you to get the mic away from the noise of the computer and closer to the sound source.
For more flexibility, get a 3.5mm Extension cable (or two). You can then get the little mic right where you need it and clip it to anything handy near the sound source (or put a cup or something on a desk or whatever for a make-shift stand).
Note: computer-focused mics usually have 3.5mm plugs, but it is common for other lower-end mics to have larger 1/4" plugs. There are also microphones now with built-in USB connections. Professional mics use XLR plugs designed to work with an appropriate interface or microphone preamp (see "better studio recording" below).
For larger microphones (as opposed to the little lapel style), you'll need a good mic stand and appropriate mic clip(s) in order to record with your hands free (such as while playing an instrument).
Electronic instruments, mixers, or other preamps
Electronic instruments like digital piano or line-level outputs from a mixer or other preamp can simply be plugged into your computer's mic jack (with appropriate cables/adapters if necessary). Make sure to turn the gain (sometimes called "boost") down in the computer's settings (on some systems, just switch the setting from "mic" to "line") and set the volume output from the keyboard, mixer, or preamp.
Multitrack recording on a budget
For cheap additional inputs, there are $4 USB 2.0 Sound Cards which offer a mono 3.5mm input that will work with either line-level inputs or with 3.5mm-plug microphones. Buy several of these and combine with a USB hub to have a cheap multitrack studio! Note: to actually access multiple devices simultaneously some messing with settings is required, which varies depending on the system you use (for example, on GNU/Linux this involves some commands with alsa_in). While possibly functional, this setup won't be precisely time-locked the way a dedicated professional multitrack interface will be.
Recording electric guitar or similar instruments
For basic recording or sound effects, it is possible to plug electric guitars directly into a computer's built-in input using the right adapters. The sound can be a bit noisy but acceptable for basic recording, and the output can go to a speaker or headphones, so no separate guitar amp is necessary. Some of the noise comes from the input having the wrong impedance for the guitar signal. To correct this, one option is to use a guitar preamp such as a mixer with a true guitar input, or the line-out on some guitar amps or appropriate guitar pedals or effects units. The output from the preamp can then go into the computer's audio in jack.
For low-noise guitar sound without a separate preamp, there are under $20 guitar-to-USB interfaces that provide proper impedance. These interfaces can also directly link input and output (the setting in this case is done in on your computer, whereas some interfaces have a physical switch). This bypasses the computer's processing to remove any latency while monitoring your playing.
Some guitar multi-effects pedals and amps also include USB audio interfaces. For effects pedals, options include the DigiTech RP255 or the Zoom ZG21NU (these are the cheapest from each company's line that include both an expression pedal and USB audio). For amps with USB, consider the Fender Mustang line which ranges from the least expensive Mustang I to the optionally-battery-powered Mustang Mini to several larger amps. In addition to USB audio, the Mustang amps include a wide range of built-in effects, and the settings can be saved and tweaked with software (and the PLUG project brings these features to GNU/Linux).
Better studio recording
Alesis iO4 4-channel interface
or 2-channel USB-powered iO2
Both are 24-bit with full feature set,
compatible with all systems
For electric guitar or similar, look for mention of "guitar" or "hi-Z" unless you plan to use a separate preamp. For microphones, anything with specific mic inputs will work, but phantom power is required for condenser mics (which are used for their high-sensitivity and crisp studio sound). When moving beyond intro-level interfaces into professional quality, there are a range of picky details to consider. There are great numbers of websites, magazines, reviews, and forums dedicated to discussing the minuscule details of professional audio gear. I'm not going to address that here, nor am I convinced that the subject deserves quite the level of attention it gets, although some aspects of gear do make a noticeable difference.
Hardware: MIDI controllers etc.The other common music hardware used with computers are controllers which can play computer-based instrument synthesizers and samplers, enter notes in notation and sequencer software, and activate software commands. Your computer's alphanumeric keyboard is a type of controller and lots of programs include settings to actually play musical tones using your computer keyboard. However, the precision, expression, and options from dedicated music controllers is much better.
USB-MIDI Cable Converters are available under $5. Thus, an old keyboard or your state of the art digital piano can both be used to control and input musical data to your computer.
With these controllers, your computer can be a full expressive musical instrument able to be performed with live; or they can simply assist the process of inputting and adjusting notes and parameters while creating and recording music.
Other hardware notesSome sort of headphones are necessary to hear recorded tracks while adding new ones with a microphone. Over-the-ear closed headphones offer further sound isolation. I suggest also having external speakers (ideally dedicated studio monitors, although any decent stereo speaker system or external computer speakers will be better than a computer's built-in speakers). Once you get started, there are lots of resources out there for learning more about recording tools and techniques. Most hardware works with Windows or Mac. For GNU/Linux, all the options above work; if you are considering other choices, it is best to get advice or check wiki.linuxaudio.org to learn whether specific interfaces are compatible.
Audio recording software:
Audio recording can help with music practice and offers amazing creative possibilities. Computer software is by far the most flexible tool and offers much more features than separate dedicated audio recorders. Audio software can also be used to play and edit lesson recordings. I generally record all my lessons and transfer the files to students on a USB flash drive. Instead of just listening the whole lesson, however, specific parts of a recording may be clipped out and saved separately.
Audacity is a FLOSS audio recording and editing program for Mac, Windows, and GNU/Linux.
Audacity is great for basic audio recording, editing, multi-track mixing, and more. It can also open and save in a wide-range of file formats and can use many add-on plugins. I recommend it to everyone. Note: though undo is possible, effects in Audacity are destructive — meaning the audio gets processed and saved. With non-destructive processing in other software, effects can be adjusted or removed at any time without affecting anything else. Otherwise, Audacity is the best introductory audio recording software.
For more advanced music production (without switching to GNU/Linux), I recommend REAPER, a professional multi-track audio and MIDI sequencer (Mac/Win). REAPER is unfortunately proprietary but allows unrestricted trial with the honor-system requirement that you pay the $60 non-commercial license fee if you decide to keep using it. REAPER is a complete package with everything needed to make commercial-quality recordings. It includes mixing, automating, pitch/time editing, composing, live performance options, effects, and lots more. It includes a set of quality effect plugins and can also use a whole variety of third-party plugins. There are many resources for learning the program, including a very active online user forum, and the software is continually updated and improved. In many respects, REAPER is competitive with much more expensive programs such as Logic, Digital Performer, Sonar, Pro Tools, Cubase, etc.
Garageband: If you have a Mac that came with it or have this for iOS, Garageband works great for many things. The main benefits of Garageband are ease of getting started, lots of ready-to-go loops and effects, and aesthetic appeal. But Garageband has restrictions and simplifications that partly reduce its creative potential. And it is not FLOSS nor does it respect the other values I've expressed here.
GNU/Linux options: I am not emphasizing GNU/Linux software here, but for quick reference, the best FLOSS audio-recording and sequencing programs are: Ardour (which is also available for Mac, but installation is a bit complex), Rosegarden, MusE, and Qtractor. These and others are included or easily installed in KXStudio (mentioned above).
KVRAudio.com or Hitsquad.com for their huge databases of plug-ins and related software. Search options can specify types of effects such as distortion or reverb, or virtual instruments (electronic synthesizers or samplers), free/gratis plugins, compatibility with your operating system, and other parameters. These plugins can be installed to add further options beyond the built-in effects in Audacity, REAPER, Garageband, or other programs (which are also listed in these databases).
The most common plugin type is called VST (for Virtual Studio Technology), and is cross-platform. There are other types such as Audio Unit (AU) on Macs and LV2 on GNU/Linux. Installing plugins varies based on what system you are using, but it is mostly a matter of just unzipping the files and putting them in the right folder. Some plugins come with installers that take care of this. The VST and AU frameworks are unfortunately proprietary, so they are not widely supported by free/libre/open developers. NOTE: GNU/Linux users who install KXStudio (see above) will automatically have a large set of FLOSS plugins and effects, but you can additionally download Windows-based VST plugins and many will run successfully within GNU/Linux through WINE.
Audio speed/pitch change for practice and learning:The ability to slow-down recordings for practice is very useful. Also, speeding up is useful for lesson recordings so students can quickly review their lessons (also for quickly studying song form!). Pitch-change is useful to adjust songs to match capo changes.
Audacity (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux, see above under audio recording) can handle this with "change pitch" and "change tempo" effect options.
Note: Audacity also a setting called "Sliding Time-Scale / Pitch Shift" which can create the effect of speeding up or slowing down (or sliding pitch) over time. The "sliding" effect uses a superior algorithm which takes longer but sounds better than the "change…" effects, and you can set a steady speed or pitch with the "sliding" algorithm by making the end and beginning amounts the same.
Note: many advanced studio recording programs, such as REAPER (see above), include pitch and speed changing features, but they are overkill and the wrong tool for just studying recordings or practicing.
The simplest program for pitch and tempo change is Slow MP3, which is a free/gratis (but not libre/open-source) Java applet (thus cross-platform). It has limited features but good sound and simple interface. As the name implies, Slow MP3 opens only MP3 files (and not all encodings) and only slows but does not speed up.
Stretch Player for GNU/Linux (FLOSS) is a similar limited-but-easy program which opens many formats but not mp3 (this is because the mp3 format is actually burdened by problematic patent restrictions — learn more about this issue at xiph.org and the related vorbis.com). Play It Slowly is a similar simple program for GNU/Linux that does play mp3 along with other formats, but the system it uses doesn't sound quite as nice.
|Practice Sharp for Windows|
The FLOSS program VLC (Mac/Win/Linux) is already the best all around media player for all sorts of file formats. VLC also has a simple control for playback speed. Because it handles video too, you can slow down video performances for careful study or speed-up instructional videos or lectures to save time. Note: You can download audio or videos from YouTube videos and to then open in VLC by using the Firefox extension YouTube MP3 Podcaster.
Sonic Visualiser (Mac/Win/Linux). The tempo is controlled by a simple knob. It also has many additional advanced features for audio analysis. Notably, Sonic Visualiser has a greater speed range — both slower and faster — than any similar program. Pitch change isn't as simple but can be achieved easily with optional plugins. Users of KXStudio (GNU/Linux) will have access within Sonic Visualiser to the whole range of included plugins, and the best for pitch change is probably the Rubber Band plugin.
AnyTune, and Android some of which are free/gratis but have ads). The best proprietary tools feature high-quality sound, easy controls for looping, changing tempo and pitch, additional tools for identifying pitches, marking song sections, and more. The overall best is Transcribe from Seventh String Software (Mac/Win/Linux, $39 — note: license purchase is system-specific, i.e. must purchase separately for Mac vs Win vs GNU/Linux). Transcribe has a large range of features, is easy to use, and also handles video. Capo (Mac only, $50) is also great, is more guitar-oriented, and has a very clean and simple interface.
Musescore is an excellent FLOSS notation and composition program for Mac/Win/Linux. Musescore is especially great for printing, with professional results notation able to match the quality of engraved scores. It plays the notes, though it doesn't play all the markings and ornaments. It comes with a basic sound set, and optional higher quality sounds in soundfont format are free to download.
Notes can be entered with mouse, computer keyboard, or with an external MIDI Keyboard. All manner of time-signatures and rhythmic groupings are possible. Individual notes can also be independently edited (though a bit tediously) for exact timing, volume, and tuning (to a hundredth of a cent). Musescore also handles lyrics and drum tracks. Support for guitar tablature and other improvements and new features will be available in the upcoming Musescore version 2.
Tux Guitar is a FLOSS guitar-based tablature/notation program for Mac/Win/Linux (and also can run directly on the web). Everything is based in tablature, though it can be hidden to see only notation. Includes basic sounds; a drum pattern editor; and a virtual guitar neck which shows chords, scales, and the location of notes in a song. The guitar neck can be also be used for entering notes. Fretted instrument with other tunings and numbers of strings are also supported. Adjustable pitch-bending and other effects are included.
Tux Guitar can import files from many proprietary formats including Guitar Pro (v5 & older), TablEdit, and PowerTab. Music in these formats can be found online for an extremely large selection of music, particularly for pop/rock music (see online resources below).
Tux Guitar vs MuseScore: Tux Guitar is the choice for tablature focus and for getting pop music files from the internet. Musescore is the better choice for notation-only scores for various instruments with finger markings and other details. Both do a lot of the same things though, and both have various advantages. Some students might use both for different purposes.
Among the most popular from a number of proprietary guitar-tab focused programs, Guitar Pro (Mac/Win/Linux, $60). This is the program the free Tux Guitar is mainly modeled after. Guitar Pro has much higher sound quality, adjustable effects, better printouts, and a nice-looking interface. It does most of what Tux Guitar does along with additional features. One notable benefit over Tux Guitar is the ability to incorporate non-fretted instruments without forcing them to be based in tablature. It is specifically designed around guitar and pop/rock/folk type ensembles but can also do piano/keyboard, bass, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, drums, woodwind, brass, classical strings, and percussion. The main benefit is the superb sound quality, including effects and special techniques. It can handle most any guitar notation, though not everything is fully editable or customizable. Tablature can be hidden if desired.
Demo can be tried but nothing can be saved without purchase. Be aware that this is a large program requiring a lot of drive space. Printouts are decent, but less adjustable than MuseScore or other notation-focused programs.
Basically Guitar Pro is a better version of Tux Guitar for those who like that type of guitar-oriented approach and are willing to pay for higher quality sounds, more appealing layout, and better support for other instruments.
Harmony Assistant from Myriad Software (nonfree, Mac/Win/Linux) is like an older but more mature version of MuseScore. Like MuseScore, H.A. offers detailed control over all sorts of elements. It offers more control over sound and effects, more markings, and plays back more articulations. It costs $85, but that is a one-time charge—Myriad software doesn't charge fees for any updates ever (unlike most other commercial software), but note that the license is platform specific (you have to pay again to switch from Mac to Linux, for example).
H.A. also has many of the features of Tux Guitar, including tablature, guitar-neck interface, and the ability to import Guitar Pro files. It also has some additional features including:
- Virtual singer, $25 extra (again, only one-time charge; functional demo is included in regular program). This sings lyrics, though it sounds funny. It is extremely adjustable. Advanced users can use recording capabilities to make a model based on their own voice. It is good along with H.A.'s microtonal tuning capabilities (which are comparable to MuseScore).
- Sounds for hundreds of instruments from around the world and the ability to expand more and even record your own.
- Audio recording and editing that can be played alongside the notation.
- Automatic arranging features
- Adjustable sound effects
- Thorough adjustability of nearly every parameter
Sibelius/Finale/Notion and others...
There are many other programs, notably some expensive ones. The most popular high-end programs are Finale and Sibelius (and Notion is a similar commercial offering that is a little newer). They all include very professional instrument sounds with subtle variations that are used to play different sounds for different markings in the score. They also run plugins in VST or AU formats (mentioned above under audio-recording), and thus have an unlimited variety of sound outputs including everything from professionally-recorded orchestral and ethnic samples to the latest complex techno synthesizers. They also offer various types of "humanized" playback where either the computer creates more subtle interpretations in dynamics and rhythm, and/or the user can choose to "conduct" the score by tapping a key. None of these features are currently available in less expensive products.
These all are available in light versions that are good but intentionally limited. The $100 Finale PrintMusic or $100 Sibelius First both are decent. Finale also has cheaper versions that I suggest avoiding because they really restrict creative options. I have not evaluated the $120 guitar-focused version of Notion called Progression which seems good in some ways. List prices for full, unlimited versions are $250 for Notion; $600 for Sibelius; $600 for Finale (though Finale and Sibelius offer educational discounts). These companies also charge substantial fees for regular updates. For really getting into composition, preparing scores and parts for large ensembles, or creating really high-quality sounding audio for movie soundtracks and such, these may be worthwhile. Perhaps one day, if we are patient and we do all we can to support FLOSS development, there will be free resources that approach this professional level. For now, these commercial programs are worthwhile if you really need the power they offer.
Notion has the best user interface and has some unique, powerful features and excellent sound. I especially like its ability to have unmeasured and/or unmetered music. There are some ways it is limited, especially regarding exact placement of items for printing (currently not even as flexible as Musescore). Notion's focus is more on composing and sound. I don't like their business model based on selling costly add-on sound sets, and it especially bugs me that they don't include any nylon-string guitar sound with the basic program, instead charging $50 for the (admittedly excellent) add-on; of course, third-party plug-ins — including free options — can be used to get all sorts of sounds beyond what comes with the program.
Sibelius and Finale are the most popular professional programs, and both are great for very detailed layout control, have tons of features, wonderful sound, and more. Many users seem to feel that Sibelius is more user-friendly and generally superior, but others prefer Finale. The depth of features of either is vast, and they compete neck and neck.
There are a handful of additional programs out there each with their own quirks, some more dedicated to avante-garde contemporary notation. Many do warrant some attention, but I don't have time to discuss them further here.
REAPER and others (mentioned above under audio recording) are actually sequencers combined with audio recording. Music notation programs also do much of the same things as sequencers, except the notation programs are more focused on preparing visual symbols for printing and display. Many sequencer programs also include some traditional notation as well. So there is a lot of overlap, and the distinctions are confusing.
Put simply, if your goal is to work with traditional notation or tablature, go with notation software. If you want to record live performances or just mix and edit recordings, go with audio recording software. If your goal is control over the details of how the computer generates sound, consider sequencers and loopers.
For a fun goofy option that somewhat crosses notation and sequencing, this free/gratis (not libre) program for Mac and Windows is based on an old Nintendo game. This program is limited to less than two octave range and a strict note grid with no control of note length. But these restrictions provide more focus for just getting started. When I was young, friends of mine had this game, and it was part of what got me excited about composing. The new version can save unlimited songs, use accidentals, has full dynamics and more. It is a fun and simple, though limited, tool that may appeal especially to younger kids and beginners. Search online to hear amazing things people have done with this.
Aria Maestosa (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux) is a good basic sequencer for beginners. It has the traditional "piano roll" view which lays out pitches vertically and shows timing horizontally using lines of different lengths. It also has a notation mode which works well but is not appropriate for preparing printouts. The drum sequencer mode is nice. It is a good tool for record live keyboard input. It offers some odd rhythms and changing time signatures, but it isn't super advanced.
The assumptions made in most music theory and ear-training are problematic and often make the subject confusing and frustrating even for students interested only in Western music. A particular concern is the flawed idea of identifying individual intervals completely out of context. My own experience is that intervals are heard mainly in relation to their categorical function, not as pure musical distances (see my article on Absolute vs Relative Pitch). That said, among the best starting points for this common flawed approach to music theory is the popular website musictheory.net which is licensed as Creative Commons.
GNU Solfege (Windows and GNU/Linux compatible — Mac is possible but installation involves complex advanced setup). GNU Solfege does the full gamut of traditional ear-training tests as well as several extra tests for rhythms, tempos, and more.
Nootka, (FLOSS, Win/Mac/Linux). Nootka is guitar-oriented but works with other instruments or with vocals. It is a training / testing program for standard notation. It tests inputting of different notes, location on guitar fretboard, and it will recognize notes when played into a microphone. It includes some flexible exercises and quizzes.
My current favorite overall intro book on music theory is Music and Memory: An Introduction by Bob Snyder. It does not teach the generic Western music jargon at all, but actually describes theories about what music really is as we perceive it. This book is far from basic or simplified, but it makes no assumptions of the reader having any prior music theory knowledge. Snyder describes the basic ways that the human mind experiences music over time and groups events into pitches, melodies, rhythms, and more. It is completely universal in scope rather than focusing on any particular music culture. Readers will even gain insight into the nature of human consciousness. The one major element of music not addressed by Snyder is harmony. For harmony and many other subjects, there are other books and resources I recommend, and I hope to organize a separate page of book reviews in the future.
For the study of pitch, one tool I use in my teaching is a Tonal Plexus keyboard from H-Pi Instruments. With its unique 205-pitches-per-octave layout, it is unique in being visually clear, flexible for accessing any pitch, and more precise and consistent than completely continuous-pitch instruments (though it is not as easy to control smooth gliding and lacks other dynamic subtlety). It is connected to Western theory, but is capable of playing any non-Western tuning. The ideas behind the keyboard design are interesting and complex and there is a theory section on the site worth reading for those who are really curious. I don't entirely agree with everything about the maker's particular emphasis, but the ideas are interesting and well-presented.
The proprietary TPXE software (Mac/Win) is a virtual version of the Tonal Plexus keyboard and can be used with many features at no charge. All varieties of pitch can be tested out in this unique visual layout. Also, chord shapes can be shown and played over the keys, highlighting various justly-tuned or customizable chords.
H-Pi also has many other interesting software programs to explore. One of the best ways to explore tuning for beginners is to buy a ($24) license for CSE Pro (Mac/Win) and use it with any MIDI-capable keyboard (many keyboards now include USB connection, or you can get a $5 USB-MIDI Converter with any keyboard with MIDI-output). CSE can retune the pitches of your keyboard to any pitch and includes a large selection of preset scales.
H-Pi also has ear-training software called Xentone (nonfree, Mac/Win) which can do traditional tempered ear-training as well as train for all varieties of pitch beyond the limits of western 12-note temperament. For anyone wanting the traditional out-of-context ear-training, this is better than the other options out there, though some theoretical understanding will help to best use the software. Xentone costs $59, but can be tested for free (the demo adds some irregular noises and works only 12-minutes per session).
Also, check out the fascinating galleries of alternately-tuned guitars and keyboards. H-Pi also has other software for designing scales and instrument layouts and much more. There is also a preliminary version of a composing software designed to work with more pitch possibilities. It isn't fully functional yet, but hopefully the company will continue to do good business and this and other unique tools will continue development.
I also have some music theory / ear-training projects of my own that are just getting started, but it is too early to provide any time-frame on when they'll be available...
Jam tracks, drum beats, metronomes, tuners, and more
There are countless basic metronome programs (including built-in metronomes with many of the software listed above), mobile apps, and websites, but nothing else compares to the phenomenal Bounce Metronome.
Bounce is Windows-native but has been adapted to work with WINE under GNU/Linux (and maybe also Mac). This is proprietary software, but basic features are available at no charge. For $10, you can get more odd time signatures and additional features, and the full extensive program is a reasonable $30 for a lifetime license. Substantial discounts for education or low income users are available, and there is a 30 day free trial. Also, the license is not restricted a single computer, it is a fair and flexible license. This is about as ethical as software can be short of being real FLOSS.
Bounce Metronome provides the ultimate in visualization for beat with many different features found nowhere else. The visualizations are unparalleled for basic metronome use. Plus, it has support for a huge range of different visual presentations, uneven beats, world-music rhythms, poly-rhythms, complete range of swing, even lengthening of the final beat of each measure (something live musicians commonly do). The power and versatility is mind-blowing. It has full Flamenco rhythm circle options, African drum beats, Afro-cuban beats, all varieties of polyrhythms, and novel things like rhythms connected to the harmonic series. It is quite simply the most remarkable software for rhythmic music study. Check out the enormous selection of Bounce Metronome demonstration videos which are educationally and artistically valuable on their own merit!
Beyond metronomes, music that is worth practicing with a steady beat can be fun and engaging with a good drum beat (even for classical music practice). I recommend the Hydrogen drum sequencer (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux). Hydrogen is simple to start at first, just to write your own simple drum loop, but it has many advanced features. It can vary the sounds in many ways, play with a swing rhythm, arrange complex shifting patterns, and download many free extra sound sets. It can also arrange full songs with changing drum patterns. Hydrogen even is a full sampler with an interface for adding your own sound sets.
Beyond just drum beats, a jam track is a full musical backing, often in a particular style and structure, such as a 12-bar blues. Some programs include demos with jam loops. Or, search online for free jam tracks, and you will find lots of resources. Some are Creative Commons licensed, some not. Some are tied to sites with obnoxious advertising, some less so. Students can also simply jam along with any music, of course, whether intended for this purpose or not. There are tons of interesting music and sound resources at the sites listed at creativecommons.org/music-communities. If anyone knows of any more specific community-oriented jam-track sites that are not just limited gimmicks to promote commercial products, please let me know.
Singing training, karaoke / rock-band gamesThere are many reasons people may be skeptical of the popular guitar hero and karaoke type video games: the excessive focus on prescriptive right/wrong notes, emphasis on social ideals of fame and glory over community participation, pop-music industry focus over other musical styles; and so on; but these games offer some real positives as well. Rock band games encourage musical involvement, active listening, social participation, some legitimate skill building, and they are fun.
Performous (FLOSS, Mac/Win/Linux) is a complete program with karaoke, guitar, bass, drum, and dance modes. It can use any microphone, a computer's normal keyboard, or any of the specialized USB hardware sold for the proprietary games. The program comes with just a few songs (all Creative Commons licensed), but more can be downloaded from the website or elsewhere online. You can add your own songs with its composer tool. It actually uses file formats designed for other FLOSS games: Frets on Fire (a guitar game), Frets On Fire X (altered version with full band features), and UltraStar Deluxe (a karaoke game). All these games are more complex to set up than some software, but they are remarkably fun and high quality; and they bring FLOSS ideals and community engagement to this idiom of gaming.
Though karaoke games give feedback on pitch, they aren't as flexible or practical for serious singing practice. For visual feedback on pitch for singers, try Canta (FLOSS, Windows-only, but works w/ WINE for Mac and GNU/Linux). Canta works either open-ended or connected to songs in MIDI format. While Canta only uses standard 12-tone tempered tuning, it is perfectly functional as long as the user knows that sometimes pitches other than the "correct" ones can be musically desirable.
Free Music Instrument Tuner. FMIT gives feedback for tuning vocals as well as for any instrument, and it includes visualizations of harmonic spectrum, Just Intonation tuning, and more.
Online resources:blanksheetmusic.net - customize and print sheet music for free. Younger students who want a larger staff can choose that, and it can do tab, notation and various combinations.
One of the most popular of a huge number of guitar-related websites out there. Ultimate-guitar has free user-submitted chords and tabs for all sorts of guitar music. Being tab-focused, the majority are pop-music related, but there's lots more including jazz, classical, flamenco, etc. Many are available as downloadable "Guitar Pro" and "Power Tab" files that can be opened in Tux Guitar or Guitar Pro (Harmony Assistant also opens Guitar Pro files). None of this is the same as carefully edited scores designed for professional publication, but chord-sheets are great for simple strumming and tab and program files often are very detailed for specific work on particular pieces. Some of the pieces here are not available in any other form and there are certain advantages to using these program files that no book or recording can match. The site also features reviews, articles, and a forum (and lots of confusing ads and links, so try not to get overwhelmed). While the resources here are impressive, this is now still connected to the reactionary traditional music industry that seeks to control music publishing. I encourage everyone to instead focus on Creative Commons music rather than the traditional pop music emphasized here; but, to be practical, if you want to play traditional pop music, this is one of the best resources.
Guitar Codex online chord/scale reference
This is one of many online guitar chord and scale reference programs. I like how flexible and complete this one is. Look up all sorts of versions of chords or scales in any tuning. The site also has download-able versions for Mac/Win/Linux and more as well as a cell-phone based chord program.
Free (no charge) Classical guitar scores (and other sheet music)
Here are just a small selection of the huge number of free music scores on the internet. Search and you can find complete scores of all the classic composers like Sor, Giuliani, Aguado, Coste, Tárrega, etc. The links here are well-organized enough to be accessible to students and easy to read. Some of the older public-domain material includes full instructional methods.
- www.classicalguitarschool.net — hundreds of great pieces, well-engraved, easy to read, lots of the classics of great guitar composers, a few new pieces
- Jürg Hochweber's guitar compositions — Swiss guitarist and composer's collections from absolute beginner to advanced, mix of pseudo- [classical, folk, flamenco, blues, jazz, and rock styles] all written for classical guitarists
- International Music Score Library Project —Ambitious project to share all public domain sheet music. Mostly PDF scans of original publications, but there are also MIDI files, some other music files, some performance recordings… Lots of the classic etudes and other repertoire are available here. The site has the best open policies without real ads or anything else. I encourage everyone to contribute further. One great contribution would be to engrave the scans with MuseScore (see music notation section above) and upload your files to the IMSLP.
- There are lots of other resources, of course. One worth checking is mutopiaproject.org. Please contact me if you know of other sites worth including here.
- I know of one guitar method with a Creative Commons license, available here: cnx.org/content/col10421/1.2. Please let me know of other CC guitar method resources!
Free Music recordings and more:
There are many online resources for free music. One of the best is the non-profit public-library oriented Internet Archive (archive.org) which is mostly Creative Commons and public domain material. They have videos and recordings of many concerts, lots of other material, and it is all free, and they do not have ads like YouTube or other sites. Users can upload their own material to archive.org as well.
There are also many other resources listed at creativecommons.org/music-communities. There are also other great CC-music sites not listed there. Kompoz and FreeSound.org are especially great for samples and resources that can be used in your own creative projects. For a more extensive list of CC content sites, click here. Search online for "creative commons" music and you'll find still more sites, such as Split-notes.com — a free online "record label" dedicated to microtonal experimental music.
Beyond listening and sharing, music that is licensed under Creative Commons (with the exception of the no-derivatives license) may be altered, combined with your music, or used in other multimedia creative projects! Just be sure to follow the license guidelines, including credit for the original creator(s). With all these resources, you can easily find sounds for your own music, music for your videos, music for just listening, and more — all free (as in freedom).
Note: Look especially for the two truly Free Culture licenses: CC-BY and CC-BY-SA. The NC or ND restrictions are problematic even though they permit sharing the original work.
Public library:In Ann Arbor, where I grew up and taught for many years, the Library is one of the best for any city of similar size. The resources are vast and there's something really satisfying about using real books instead of computers. I've reviewed nearly all the guitar methods and related books (a few hundred) that our library has, so I can recommend things when appropriate. They also have huge music CD collection, and instructional, historical, and concert DVDs. And new for 2012, they now have musical instruments!
Of course, one library can't have everything. The Michigan eLibrary online catalog allows you to quickly request titles from most libraries in the state and they will be delivered for you at no charge to your local library branch. I highly recommend utilizing these resources and only buying retail books when it truly makes sense.
Future for this page...If you have any suggestions about resources you think should be mentioned here, please feel free to let me know. If you have trouble with or other opinions about the programs mentioned here, let me know. Thanks!
General note about all resources:There are, as you know, seemingly infinite resources online. It may be worth trying all sorts of things. You can watch videos of great performers, chat with fellow students on forums, download various compositions, read about all sorts of related subjects on Wikipedia and elsewhere... I can tell you from personal experience how easy it is to get absorbed in all of this. Every choice you make is not only to engage in one thing but that also means not engaging in something else. Try to keep a balance between checking out new things and appreciating and progressing with what you already have going.
Of course, that is part of my job as a teacher: to provide direction and keep these things balanced for my students. I always welcome feedback and appreciate students who ask thoughtful questions and who are both self-motivated to make use of the resources out there and also willing to follow instructions and try suggestions.