Digital know-how sounds sweet to those who record music at home. By Brian Sullivan
When John Lennon acquired his first home recording studio shortly after the break-up of the Beatles, he said it was like a dream come true. Had he lived in the age of the microchip, he would have been able to realise his dream while he was still just a member of the working class - before he became one of its heroes.

Since the invention of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, amateur musicians have been amusing themselves and boring their friends with musical masterpieces created in their own bedrooms. Such hobbyists are increasingly turning to digital technology to achieve these aims. If you own a PC, for a few hundred pounds it is possible to have not just a recording studio but a virtual orchestra at your fingertips.

We have all heard about the tricks of the recording trade that are capable of making a moderate musician sound like a virtuoso. With the latest Midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology, such devices are plentiful.

Midi recording is in general done with an electronic keyboard. Playing a difficult solo on a trumpet requires years of patient study; on a piano keyboard, using one hand, it can be mastered by a relative novice in minutes.

Even if the piece you want to play is beyond your expertise, the music (or sequencing) software now commercially available (ranging between L70 and L250) enables you to slow down the tempo to one at which you are comfortable playing it; then just speed it back up again for playback. If your timing still isn't quite right, a function called quantize corrects any slight error to create a perfect performance.

You can copy and paste musical passages; experiment by chopping and changing which instrument you want to play any phrase you have recorded. And what fun it is to see your musical ideas instantly translated into crotchets and quavers using the "score" function.

The standard modern PC configuration includes a 16-bit soundcard, which is fine for generating sounds for games but hopeless for music sequencing. But for the past year, manufactures such as Roland and Yamaha have been producing a chip, or "daughterboard", based on Wavtable technology that simply clips on to a standard soundcard. The ability of the Wavtable chip to represent the authentic sounds of real musical instruments is staggering. So is its range - it can mimic anything from a glockenspiel to a sitar. These chips range in price from pounds 70 to pounds 180. Some come bundled with basic sequencing software to get you started.

The Yamaha and Roland daughterboards are the same chip as you will find in their most expensive MIDI keyboards, which cost well over pounds 1,500. However, any Midi-compatible keyboard is capable of accessing the full range of sounds when hooked up to a daughterboard-enhanced soundcard. The cheapest Midi keyboards cost less than pounds 100, though I would think twice before using such instruments for your debut performance at the Royal Albert Hall. It also helps to have a little talent, of course - this is just about the only thing that you cannot buy off the shelf - yet.

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