As a complete beginner starting out on a music production adventure, it can seem like an impossible task having so many steep learning curves to climb. With such an abundance of options for equipment and music software, plus studio space requirements and necessary skills to learn, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
This article is our guide to the essentials, to help you figure out a manageable path through the sometimes overwhelming world of music making.
Topics we’ll be covering include:
• must-have equipment for making music
• recommended music software
• key skills and knowledge
• useful additional tools
What equipment do you need to make electronic music?
1. A Computer
The most essential equipment a producer needs is a relatively decent desktop computer or laptop, meaning something that’s ideally not much more than 5 years old, or refurbished if so, and capable of running on current Operating Systems. For the exact specifications, you can always check those of the music software you want to use, as they will most likely list them on their site, but these days it’s not normally too much of a concern as the average computer is normally powerful enough to run the majority of music software.
Just as a quick reference though, you should aim for a spec that’s comparable to an Intel® Core™ i5 or better i7 multi-core processor and at least 8GB of RAM (Random Access Memory).
2. Music Software
Once you’ve got a decent computer, you’ll need some software to make music with. This generally comes in the form of a DAW, which stands for Digital Audio Workstation. Although these can be quite expensive, they normally have light versions, such as Ableton Intro, which you can try out at first, then upgrade later on when you have the budget. DAWs are comprehensive platforms that come with all the tools you need to make music, whether it’s purely working with audio, through recording or importing samples, or mainly MIDI, by playing various software or hardware instruments.
Additional 3rd party plugins are optional extras, and these add new sounds, effects processors and handy utilities to a producer’s collection, but they can be added over time, so aren’t necessary right away by any means. Some of these plugins are comprehensive enough to almost be DAWs in themselves., with NI’s Maschine being a good example of this, as it not only comes with a hardware control surface for tactile beat making, but also runs as a standalone app with a limitless amount of sounds and groups, allowing complete arrangements to be made within the software itself.
3. Headphones and/or Speakers
The next thing you’ll want on the hardware side of things is a decent pair of headphones or speakers. This enables you to hear a ’truer’ version of your music. That isn’t to say built-in computer or Bluetooth speakers aren’t any use, as quality production is all about creating a mix that sounds good on all playback systems. However, if you don’t have something of higher quality, there’ll most likely be a lot of parts of the mix that you can’t hear, or some parts that are greatly overemphasised (a lot of Bluetooth speakers have significantly boosted bass, to improve the sound).
If you’re on a tight budget, then maybe go for the best headphones you can at first. These will allow you to hear your music more fully and will of course be portable, meaning you can make music wherever you are, especially if you have a laptop. Although it is possible to mix fairly well with headphones alone, speakers give you a better sense of the width and depth of your music (which is hard when each ear only hears one side of your mix), so you will want to invest in speakers as soon as you have extra budget for them. When using speakers though, a very important consideration is the space they’re located in, as this can have a huge effect on what you hear, especially if it is small and symmetrical with reflective surfaces. Also with speakers, you’ll need to consider whether they are powered (active) or not (passive) and how to connect them to your computer, with the most common method these days being active speakers going through a USB interface.
4. Interface (Optional/Dependent on Requirements)
An interface is a very useful bit of equipment when producing music and can be picked up pretty affordably these days. Most devices use USB as their means of interfacing, so the only other main consideration is how many inputs and outputs you have. The smallest number is 2 in/2 out, so you can record 2 mono or one stereo signal and send your stereo mix from your music software to your speakers. Virtually all interfaces have phantom power so can be used with a condenser microphone, when recording a vocal for instance, but you should check this if that’s something you’re planning on doing. They also normally have at least one 5-pin MIDI In and Out, which can be useful if you have any hardware synths you want to play using MIDI tracks in your music software, but again check this if it’s something you need. And of course, if wanting to record a lot more channels simultaneously, to record drums or a whole band for instance, then pick up an interface with more inputs, such as an 8-channel one.
5. MIDI Controller (Optional)
A control surface is the least of the essential items on the list, as it’s certainly not required to make music. However, it can transform and dramatically improve the experience for some people. If you’re a keyboard player for instance, you might want keys to play with, but it is worth noting that you can play simple phrases using your QWERTY keyboard, which is limited to around an octave range and has no velocity sensitivity (for playing softly or loudly) but it does the job. MIDI keyboards also often come with a number of other controls, such as drum pads, buttons and encoders, which are often automatically assigned to software for you, so they provide additional hands-on options for adjusting settings.
Some software manufacturers also offer their own controllers, for optimum integration and enhanced playability, with Ableton’s Push being a good example of this. If just wanting something simple, more affordable, portable and not limited to a single application though, then there are a wealth of options for mini USB MIDI keyboards from manufacturers like Novation and AKAI.
Do you need your own studio to make music?
When starting out, you might think that having a studio is an essential aspect of producing music, but this is absolutely not the case. As stated already, you can make quality music with a very limited setup, such as a laptop and headphones. However, once you’ve ascertained that this is something you want to take to the next level, having a studio space of some kind is ideal. This may simply be a small area where you have your speakers, interface and a MIDI controller connected, or it might be a larger one with more instruments and microphones for recording, depending on your requirements.
When choosing a space, the first important consideration is how noisy and isolated it is. The best location is somewhere quiet and out of the way, that ideally has the least sound from the outside world coming in. This is why closed-backed headphones are the best option when starting out, as they isolate you from outside interference. Furthermore, you also want it to be somewhere where you can make a bit of noise without annoying others.
Next up, you need to be aware of the acoustics of the space, e.g. how reflective it is. A top tip here is to try to choose spaces that are as irregular as possible, so not square with flat-facing walls. Whatever the space, it is likely you’ll need some kind of acoustic treatment though, such as bass traps and acoustic panels, to help with absorbing some of the reflections, particularly the earliest ones that bounce off ceilings directly above and walls directly behind for instance.
What knowledge do I need?
When it comes to learning about production, there are a lot of different skills to develop, which will most likely be a never-ending journey through your musical life. That said, acquiring the basic knowledge you need to get started can happen fairly quickly and instantly unlock doors to your creativity, to have you constructing artful beats and arrangements in no time.
A good place to start can be a Beginner’s Guide to your software. This will teach you the main areas of the software, whilst also covering the different stages of putting together a track. A good complement to this can be other Core Courses that focus on certain aspects of production in greater detail, such as EQ and Compression Fundamentals, Beginner’s Guides to Music Theory and so on.
Once comfortable with the basics, moving on to more advanced techniques will help to take your skills to the next level. These are taught in a broad sense in the Advanced Guides to the different DAWs, and then more specifically in the numerous Genre Production courses on the site, where professional producers show how to create music in their chosen styles.
To recap, if you’re on a tight budget, I would recommend getting these essentials…
• Light version of a DAW, e.g. Ableton Intro
• Decent Headphones, e.g. AKG or Sennheiser Studio/Monitor Headphones
Once you have these, you’re ready to take our Beginner’s Guide to your DAW, and any Core Courses on different areas of production.
Then, when you have more budget, you could progress to (in recommended priority order, although tailor to your preference)…
• Full version of your DAW, e.g. Ableton Standard or Suite
• Control Surface, e.g. Novation Launchkey or Ableton Push *
• Speakers (Active Nearfield Monitors) and USB Interface, e.g. KRK Rokit RP5s and a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
• Basic Acoustic Treatment
* Making music with a control surface in a tactile way can very much improve and enhance the overall experience, as well as yield better results in your music, so getting a control surface as early as possible can be a good idea. However, it is by no means essential, and a mouse is absolutely adequate, so this step is very much a matter of preference.
Recommended tools to improve your production
Just as a final point, there are a few things that are worth mentioning to further enhance and simplify your production process.
This free application is Loopmasters solution to every producer’s sampling needs. It’s not just a cloud-based sample browser with a tonne of free content, but also provides huge time-saving benefits for finding the right sound for your track, with tempo-locked previewing and comprehensive sequencing and editing of samples.
This is Plugin Boutique’s tool for assisting in the creation of melodic content in your music, often the bane of a producer’s life! Regardless of your theory abilities though, this will greatly help in finding inspiration for hooks and harmonies in your music, as well as making sure everything is in key.
• Sonarworks Reference 4
Every producer benefits from hearing a ‘true’ version of their mix, that is to say one that isn’t tampered with by the response of their playback equipment and listening environment. This software aims to eradicate this problem by compensating for the response of your setup. Furthermore, there is a Headphones version, which caters for people mixing mostly on headphones.