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With right software, PC becomes recording studio

For the last two hours I've been trying to force myself to write about a program called Recording Session from Midisoft. The problem is that I'm having too much fun playing with it to get serious about writing.

Recording Session is part of a two-program package that unleashes the magic of your computer's sound card and turns you into an arranger, composer or musical tinkerer. Whether you're an experienced musician or a novice, you can enjoy and explore music in ways you never thought possible.

Midisoft programs, which come with a range of features at various price points, take advantage of the MIDI capabilities and music synthesizers built into most sound cards available for IBM-compatible computers.

With Recording Session, you can see an entire musical score played before you, note by note, and click on a button to change the violins into trumpets, the cellos into vibraphones, the oboes into glockenspiels.

You can compose note by note on a musical staff and have the orchestra of your choice play it for you. Or, if you have an electronic musical keyboard and the right cables, you can have the computer record what you play and turn it into a musical score.

A word here about music on computers. There are two ways of going about it. One is to use the computer as a digital tape recorder, sampling real sounds and turning them into "waveform" files _ a collection of binary ones and zeros _ that can be played back through a computer's sound card. If you turn on your computer and hear Bugs Bunny saying, "What's up, Doc?" it's playing back a waveform file.

It's possible to edit and manipulate waveform files _ in a relatively crude way _ by adding echoes, changing the volume and pitch, and even overlaying recordings. But there's no way to take a waveform recording of a band and accurately separate the various instruments or notes. And there's no way to create a waveform orchestration from scratch, other than recording a performance or dubbing from a tape.

The second method for handling music is through the synthesizers built into sound cards. These gadgets can generate an incredible variety of sounds, including passable and sometimes true-to-life imitations of musical instruments.

These are the same kind of synthesizers built into musical keyboards, drum pads and other electronic instruments. The synthesizer in your sound card can be precisely controlled by your computer. With the right software, you can turn your PC into a recording studio capable of producing an entire symphony, note by note.

MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, an electronic language developed in 1983 to allow synthesizers of all kinds to talk to and control one another.

Most PC sound cards today are MIDI compatible. Some, like the Sound Blaster Pro that I bought a while back, come with cables that allow you to connect a MIDI instrument to your PC. Others require a separate interface box and cables.

Many contemporary performers, composers and arrangers use MIDI instruments, and computers have become popular tools for recording and composing music.

In fact, the "bands" you hear behind many singers on CDs and tapes today are often just a single human using sophisticated MIDI synthesizers and a computer.

Midisoft packages Music Mentor, a delightful and informative introduction to classical music, with Recording Session in a $149 package (about $100 on the street).

The programs, which run under Microsoft Windows, require a 386 PC with four megabytes of memory and a MIDI-compatible sound card.

Recording Session has plenty of bells and whistles, and a good sampling of classical, popular, blues and jazz tunes that you can play and modify.

The only thing Recording Session lacks is the ability to print a musical score and create background rhythm loops. For that, you'll have to try Midisoft's high-end ($250) Recording Studio.

At the lower end of the scale ($50 to $100) Midisoft offers a variety of packages incorporating the same technology, but with fewer features, as well as libraries of MIDI files. Some programs are available on disc, others on CD-ROM.

For information, contact Midisoft Corp., P.O. Box 1000, Bellevue, Wash., 98009, or call (206) 881-7176.

Michael J. Himowitz is the computer writer for the Baltimore Sun. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.