Making Music with Computers and Disabilities

June 1, 1997

Dear Squeak and Blat,

I am a relative newcomer to computing and software music-making. A spinal cord injury leaves me unable to perform but still wanting to make music. This kind of injury is very expensive, so I'm using a lot of hand-me-down and up-graded equipment. I want to write parts, assemble a score, assign voices and hear music from my sound card. I think Cakewalk will do everything I need to in General MIDI but I want to use samples (WAV files?) as voices (with pitch) and no one seems to know if this is even possible before computer output. I don't know where to turn. Tech specs as follows: AMD586 DX5 133, VLB mother, 1.6 G HD, Win 95.

Eric Sampler


Thanks for your question, Eric. We'll try to get you making music as soon as possible. First, I'm afraid that you cannot do this without some investment in new software and/or hardware. Your sound card comes with sounds already included as you know. You can use these sounds to hear music that you compose using the Cakewalk software. The sound card simply responds to the MIDI codes created by your software and does its best job at playing back the music you compose using its standard sounds. By the way, the quality of these standard sounds is quite different from card to card, so you might find a solution to your question by simply trying a different sound card. But let me push on.

I understand from your question that you want to create your own sounds and use them in your music. I am guessing that your sound card will currently play back audio WAVE (.wav) files that you create with a microphone. What happens here is that the card acts as a recorder, but stores the sound file IN THE COMPUTER and not as a sound file inside the card. In other words, the card really is not designed to be a playback sampler device for individual pitches to be played back by MIDI codes, but rather a sampling device that stores a complete audio file on your computer's hard drive to be played back in isolation as a sound effect within say a multimedia program. What you want, however, is for your card to sample a sound and use it as a resource for your music in a continuous way. Soooooo, here is what I would do:

1. I would start by contacting the manufacturer of your sound card and find out it they offer an upgrade of some sort that will allow you to record and save a sound INSIDE the card that can be accessed by your current software. In other words, you want a sound card that can has enough RAM to save sounds for you. You might need a new card for this.

2. Another solution (perhaps more expensive) is to consider an external MIDI device that IS a sound sampler. This is an external box that can record your sounds and store them. This device can then work together with your sound card (via a MIDI connection) to play back your music. You can get these sound samplers as just boxes or as part of a music keyboard. Any electronic music store would have these and should be able to help set them up for you.

3. Finally, another approach (more expensive yet) is to not record a single sample to be played back by your software, but rather to turn your Windows machine into a recording studio that records an entire track of digital sound. Stay with Cakewalk as your software composing program, but contact the company and explain that you want to upgrade to the version of their software that will let you record a track of digital sound along with your regular MIDI music. I'm afraid that you may also need to invest in a new sound card to do this, but the Cakewalk folks can explain this ( This option will let you record entire lines of music (like your own singing voice) and merge it with your MIDI sounds. (See the July 1996 issue of Electronic Musician magazine ( for more on this option.) Hope this helps.

Squeak, what do you think?


Hey Mr. Sampler. Blat has covered your question very well indeed. Must have given up practicing his trumpet long enough to do a bit of research on your question. I'll stop tooting on my clarinet long enough to contribute comments on the future of MIDI and digital sampling software, and on the incredible variety of computer hardware options for folks who have some type of physical handicap.

MIDIFirst to comment on the merger of MIDI and digital sampling software. The world has been one of software tools for capturing, massaging, transforming, and merging digital audio samples (as Blat so well explained), and then another set of tools for capturing and transforming MIDI performance codes. But that state of affairs is coming rapidly to an end, especially with the more professional sequencing software. You will be able to mix sequences of MIDI codes and digital audio codes not just in Cakewalk but with many other sequencers like Opcode's Studio Vision (, Voyetra's Digital Orchestrator Plus (, Cubase VST (, and many others. The merger of MIDI and digital audio will work its way down into the consumer software soon and you'll even see tracking of digital video added to the mixing pot. The Voyetra product lists for about $160! Lots to look forward to Eric and options that will soon fit your wallet!

Some comments on adaptive devices that enable better access to computing for those with various physical impairments. I set aside my clarinet again (that Number 1 Rico is getting pretty soggy), and decided to "ask the Internet" about this topic. I fired up Netscape and accessed one of my favorite search engines, AltaVista ( They've got this really cool new visual map (click on "Way cool topics map" after you've done an AltaVista search) and see the neat and cool visual index that you can use to refine your search. So when I typed in "handicapped and computers" here are some good sites that our readers might find useful on this topic. You might try doing this as well and clicking on the "way cool topics map" and see how nicely it collates the search and helps you narrow it down!

Computers for Handicapped Independence Program (CHIPS). The home page for this program that recyles used computers for the physically impaired has some great links to a wide variety of options for input and output from a computer. (): visual, mobility, speech and language, and learning disabilities.

NCSA Mosaic Access Page. NCSA maintains a web page with links for assisting folks with various disabilities to get access to the Internet through email, FTP, Web, Gopher, and other clients. (

Library of Congress page on the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. (

Eric. I hope our responses did you some good. Let us know how your composing venture develops.

1638 Last modified on December 19, 2013
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