One of the benefits of being forced to stay at home is that you've got more time to get on with your music-making. That's the good news, but what if, despite your best efforts, that spark of inspiration is lacking?
We've come up with 12 affordable pieces of music technology gear - both software and hardware - that should help to get the creative part of your brain firing again.
1. Malfunctioning equipment
Electronic devices act strangely when you push them to their limits - that’s the idea behind distortion, and that’s now a production staple. Drive your input, tweak the mechanical bits and abuse buttons to get unusual starting points. Anything that you can route a signal through has the potential to become a creative signal processor.
2. A field recorder or recording app
Got a field recorder? If not, got a phone? Well, instead of sitting in a drab studio designing sounds, why not find your own to record. OK, the number of places you can go to is a bit limited at the moment, but your house/flat or garden (if you have one) can be a great source of 'found sounds', and if you're able to get out for a daily walk, your ears are sure to stumble across some interesting things.
3. Madrona Labs Aalto CM
Stuck in a rut with ‘normal’ East Coast-style synthesis? Aalto CM (free with every issue of Computer Music) is inspired by Don Buchla’s West Coast alternative, so will help you cook up more esoteric synth sounds. Make sure you try out the sequencer as an LFO!
4. Nusofting Noisetar
Here’s a free plugin that uses noise as its inspiration. Set up wideband sounds and filtered whistles in Noisetar, and shape them using the onboard envelopes, filters and reverb. The oscillators can also influence each other’s signals with AM and FM. Download it for free now!
5. Inear Display Litote CM
Part of CM Plugins, this reconstructing granular effect lets you slice and dice your signals on a microscopic level, before turning them into sustained sounds using the Grain Speed, Timbre and Diffusion controls. A great way to start off a new project.
6. VCV Rack
If you’ve never explored the world of modular before, why not? Is it perhaps because it’s too expensive? The free VCV Rack brings modular synthesis to your desktop for free, letting you patch signals and make sounds with a completely different mindset to that required for your usual projects.
7. Squaredheads Nora CM
There are so many inspiring goodies in Computer Music's CM Plugins collection that we didn’t even get to mention most of them! Nora CM is a MIDI arpeggiator plugin: it takes in four notes and outputs chords and melodies from its sequencer. You can store patterns and take control of velocities in Nora CM’s interface, too, making it an easy and fun way to come up with completely new material.
8. Audioblast InstaLooper
A four-part looper effect plugin, InstaLooper lets you record and trigger loops in four slots, using left and right mouse clicks to operate it like an instrument. Each can be tweaked for Size, Speed and Reversal, and there are also onboard effects. Just the thing to inspire a new session. And it’s free!
9. Audio to MIDI
The audio-to-MIDI conversion systems built into many DAWs these days are a great way to create melodies and chords that you wouldn’t have found on your own. No audio-to-MIDI algorithm is perfect, and they make mistakes, but these can be used to your advantage. Get your microphone set up and start recording the world and everything in it, then stick your recordings through an automatic audio-to-MIDI process and see what comes out.
10. Melda Production MFreeFXBundle
MeldaProduction have been making great free effects plugins for years. From MAutoPitch to MComb, through MOscillator and MSpectralPan, to MWaveFolder and even MNotepad, this collection of 32 plugins gives you more than enough to inspire endless creativity for absolutely nothing.
11. A new DAW
A lot of producers finish their creative process in one DAW, bounce their stems and move over to another DAW for mixing. This helps put an end-point to the design and arrangement stage, and gives them a change of environment and headspace.
Working in another DAW is like working with a different instrument - it helps us approach things differently. You don’t even have to pay for one, either: Tracktion Software's Waveform Free, for example, is indeed free!
12. The sheer Audacity
This free and open-source software isn’t designed for creating music - it’s an audio editor, after all. But go full Burial and try piecing a few samples together in it, off the grid! These days, you can even use your VST and AU plugins with it, so it’s not too unfamiliar