How to make electronic music: A beginners guide that contains all the essentials
So you had a moment of epiphany in which you decided you want to learn how to produce electronic music. When you’re starting out you can easily feel overwhelmed by all the things you need to know. Luckily, regardless if you want to make Techno, House, Deep House, Tech House, Drum n Bass or any other subgenre, the basics remain the same. In this article we’ll guide you -a beginning producer- through the most important aspects of electronic music production. Here are the things we’ll discuss:
• Required computer specs
• Which DAW is best
• Required gear
• Hardware vs software synthesizer & learning synthesis
• What plugins is needed
• Samples: Choose quality over quantity.
• Organizing your library
• Learning music theory
• Deconstructing your genre & learning from your favorite producers
• Getting quality studio monitors & headphones:
• Getting a quality audio interface
• Mixing your tracks
• Mastering your tracks
• Important tips
Required computer specs
There is a good chance you already have a good enough computer to start producing. If this is not the not the case, it should be the first thing on your list. These are the most important things to look for when buying a computer:
1.A dual-core 3.00 GHZ processor: A fast processor is one of the most important things you need. Go with at least a dual core 3.0 processor. If you have more cash to spend, look for something better.
2. 8GB of RAM: 8 GB is a minimum requirement, 16GB will be quite comfortable, 32GB might come in handy when you use a lot of sample-based instruments.
3. 500 GB hard drive capacity: Depending on your personal needs, 500 GB might not cut it.
4. A widescreen or dual monitors. Having a widescreen or dual monitor setup will speed up your workflow. Ableton has the option to split up its arrangement & session view. You might prefer to use dual-monitors, while others might prefer to work on a widescreen monitor. If you’re on a budget find yourself two decent sized monitors. With the low prices of monitors these days, there is no reason not to get a dual monitor setup.
5. Video card: If you’ll be using your computer only for producing, the only reason why you might need a video card is the ability to hook up two monitors. Unless you’re planning on using the computer for gaming or editing videos, there is no reason to get an expensive video card. This money is better spent on a sound card or good speakers/headphones.
Laptop vs Desktop
The questions you should ask yourself before buying a computer is, “Am I planning on producing while traveling” and “Do I want to use my computer for live gigs or DJ-gigs”. If this is the case, you should get a laptop. However, you should keep the disadvantages of a laptop in mind: it offers less performance for the price and it limit’s your options for expansion and upgrades. The ideal scenario would be to get both a desktop and a laptop, so you can produce while you’re on the road.
Mac vs PC
Another question you might have is “Is a Mac or PC better for electronic music production”. While on a lot of forums you’ll find debates on this subject, it all comes down to what you’re most comfortable using.
Which DAW is best
DAW stands for “Digital Audio Workstation”. The DAW is the “environment” where you produce your tracks. While each person will have arguments why their DAW of choice is best, it all comes down to personal preference. That’s why it’s hard to choose a DAW that’s best for electronic music production.
Most DAWs offer a demo version or trial period. This makes it possible for you try out different ones before committing. One thing that you should take into consideration is what your friends are using. Having the same DAW will make collaborations easier.
Essential gear: What’s needed to start producing
Being a great producer has little to do with WHAT gear you have, but has everything to do with HOW you use that gear. That’s why you can learn the basics of electronic music production with a small investment in gear. These are the things a beginner needs to get started:
• A hardware or soft(ware)-synth: The Korg Minilogue is an excellent hardware synth option. Serum, Massive and Omnisphere 2 are great VST synth options.
• A Midi Keyboard: The AKAI MPK mini is an excellent affordable Midi keyboard.
• Assignable knobs and faders for volume and automation: The KORG nanoKONTROL2 is a good option if you don’t have a lot of money to spend.
• Velocity sensitive keys for percussion: The KORG nanoKEY2 is a good option if you don’t have a lot of money to spend.
Hardware vs software synthesizer
To learn synthesis you’ll need a hardware or a VST synthesizer. Each has its own advantages. A purist will advise you to go for a hardware synthesizer because the sound is perceived to be purer and it offers a more hands-on approach.
However, these days there are a lot of good VST synths, that in some cases come with a DAW. They’re also a lot cheaper than hardware synthesizers. If you dislike your DAWs native synthesizer, consider getting Serum, Massive, Sylenth or Omnisphere. Of course, these are just a few options; there are a lot of good VST-synths out there.
Learning synthesis is one of the hardest, yet most important and rewarding parts of being a producer. There is nothing wrong with using samples or adjusting presets, but it will only get you so far. In the long run, the effort to learn synthesis will make it possible to create any sound you want. Sound On Sound (SOS) wrote an excellent series of articles on synthesis, called Synth Secrets. Combine what you learn with plenty of experimentation.
The different types of synthesis
Here is a short explanation of the most common types of synthesis:
Subtractive Synthesis: “The process of creating sounds by using some of the overtones from a complex original waveform (square or sawtooth).” Note: Most people start off learning subtractive synthesis as it’s the easiest form of synthesis to learn.
Additive Synthesis: “Generates sound by adding the output of multiple sine wave generators. Audio synthesis technique.”
FM Synthesis: “Synthesis making use of frequency modulation. The timbre of a simple waveform is modulated by another frequency causing the waveform to change and become more complex and different sounding.”
PCM-Based Synthesis: “Pulse Code Modulation based synthesis. In this type of synthesis, samples are used as the primary sound source”
Learning music theory
While most genres don’t require a deep understanding of music theory, it will be helpful to have an understanding of the basics. While you can take the traditional route to learn music theory, there are also books that cater specifically towards producers.
What plugins does a beginner need
As a best practice, you should get comfortable with your DAWs plugins before you add more to your collection. If you decide that you want to get another plugin, have a clear idea of how that plugin will help to achieve the sound you want. It can easily happen that you waste a lot of time collecting plugins. This results in an overabundance of options, which will make you waste time. Learning the basics should always come first.
Samples: Choose quality over quantity.
A best practice for collecting samples is to go with quality over quantity. Far too often what happens is that beginning producer’s collect as many samples as possible, and at a later point, feel overwhelmed with all the options. When you have a large library of low-quality samples, it will cost you time.
Organize your library
Organizing your library will save you a lot of time in the long run. That’s why you should make a different map for all the different types of samples, plugins, and sounds you make. Losing something you made during sound design is something you don’t want to happen.
Deconstruct your genre & learn from your favorite producers
Listen to the kind of sounds that are used in your genre. Have a good sense of what kind of sounds you like and dislike. Sometimes knowing what you don’t want is more important than knowing what you want. This is because the best tracks are made through experimentation. Do your homework; read about your favorite producers. Through interviews, you’ll gain insight into their creative process. By trying to recreate your favorite tracks you can learn a great deal.
Get quality studio monitors & headphones
The best recommendation when it comes to headphones and monitors: DON’T try to save money and DON’T make your decision too fast. Else you’ll find yourself having to replace the ones you bought just a couple of months later when you develop a better producer’s ear.
The goal of buying good monitors & headphones is to find ones that give an accurate portrayal of the tonal qualities of the audio. This means that the sound is uncolored, without alterations to anything in the frequency spectrum. This will help you when you get to the mixing stage. Beats by Dre headphones are notorious for boosting bass frequencies because it’s experienced as pleasurable by some.
If you’re on a budget it’s probably a good idea to get headphones before buying monitors. This is because there are a lot of reasonably priced headphones out there, like the AKG 701. It will also give you time to orientate yourself on buying the right set of monitors, so you won’t make a bad buy.
Know that even though great records have been released with the use of (mediocre) headphones, good headphones will never fully replace good speakers/monitors. Since finding the right studio monitors & headphones is a whole different subject, we’ll make a separate article about the best monitors/speakers & headphones for different price classes in the future.
Get a quality audio interface
Some people think they don’t need an audio interface because they can get by with their internal interface. While this is true to some degree, an audio interface will help make everything sound more accurate. It will also prevent latency -a time delay in sound- issues. The Focusrite audio interfaces are an excellent option.
Mixing is the process of blending all individual “tracks” in a recording, to create a version of the record that sounds as good as possible – the “mix”. There are numerous approaches to mixing a track and the way a track is mixed can be different for each genre. This is because different genres chase different sounds. It’s important to listen to your mix through as many sound systems as possible. When every instrument and sound in a track sounds balanced, the goal of mixing is achieved.
Using reference tracks
A great way to get better at mixing is by using reference tracks. A reference track is a professionally mixed and mastered track that you use as a standard to measure your mix against. Choose some of your favorite tracks, but make sure the mix is well balanced.
Mastering your tracks
While it will take you a long time to arrive at this point, “mastering” is a term that you will be hearing frequently. Mastering is the process of taking an audio mix and preparing it for distribution. Basically, it makes your track sound as good as possible.
While with mixing you’re balancing all the sounds, with mastering you are balancing songs against each other to get a great sequence. This can be a very subtle process, involving minor tweaks to an existing mix, or sometimes very detailed changes can be made.
Do it yourself
Mastering your own tracks is something you should consider doing because you can learn a great deal from it. It’s, however, not a necessity since there are a lot of people out there that offer mastering services. Only you can make the decision whether you have the time and want to make the effort to learn how to master. If this is not the case, you should at least consider sitting in with your mastering engineer, because you can learn a lot from being there during the process.
- Use multiple sources to learn
- Finish your tracks
- Get feedback on your tracks
When you get tired of spending time in your DAW, remember that there are different ways to progress: Read a book, read articles, watch Youtube tutorials or courses on sounds design.
While this can be hard to do, because you either get tired of a track, or you’re a perfectionist and never consider a track finished, it’s a best practice to complete the tracks you’re working on.
Look to get feedback on your tracks from people that are qualified. Getting feedback from people that are less qualified can be useful as well, however, they will be less able to pinpoint where the exact problems lie. Listen to all feedback, but don’t automatically take every advice you get. A great way to get feedback on your tracks is by posting them in production forums.
- Use samples from youtube videos
- turn knobs
- layer different samples
- use a different synth
- use your plugins in different ways
- layer different FX
There is an endless amount of things you can do in your DAW. Make use of that possibility; The sky is the limit.
More important than anything else, you need to put in the hours practicing. Even though reading books or following youtube tutorials can help, most of your progress will come from experimenting.
Malcolm Gladwell makes a case for needing around 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class in any field. While this amount of hours may or may not hold true for electronic music production, it’s good to have a realization that it will take many hours to become good at producing.
Keep reminding yourself that guys like Aphex Twin, Trentemoller, Paul Kalkbrenner, Photek or whatever producer you look up to, took a very long time to get where they’re at. So don’t worry if it takes a long time to make progress. As long as you fall in love with the process you´ll be just fine.