02 Feb The Beginner’s Guide to Producing Music
Over the last twenty years or so, the process of music-making in the electronic realm has become far more democratic. Electronic music has been growing in popularity since the 1970s and with it, the ability to create and distribute it has been granted to far more people.
Here’s a list of a few points that I have learned over the years and that I think are important for people brand new to the world of producing.
Build Your Arsenal
In the same way that the traditional musician uses wooden instruments, amplifiers and microphones to interface with music and bring it to life, the electronic musician needs instruments too. The good news, however, is that one only needs to spend a very small amount of money to create a setup of instruments to create electronic music with. When I started producing electronic music I made a list after doing some research and bought the following items;
- A desktop computer and screen
- A pair of mid-level studio monitors (speakers)
- An audio interface
- Some music software
All of this totalled about $1,500. Over the last eight years, I have upgraded these components; however, the setup is still exactly the same in structure. The music-creating potential in such a small setup is staggering!
I produce music exclusively “in the box”, meaning that everything I do happens on my desktop computer, there is no hardware or outboard sound-producing gear involved. This approach requires at least a moderately powerful PC to handle all the number crunching and for smooth flow of audio.
Next, a pair of studio monitors is beneficial. Studio monitors differ from regular speakers in that they are much flatter sounding and are not boosted to sound more pleasing to the regular listener and will give a more accurate representation of the sound. Studio monitors start at a few hundred dollars and end at the edge of the universe, price-wise. Alternatively (or additionally), a good pair of studio headphones will also do the trick.
An audio interface, a device which exclusively handles audio processing with much lower latency and problems than a standard PC driver, is optional or required, based on the setup.
For the software, a range of options is available. A DAW (digital audio workstation) is the mothership of your musical ventures where all things are hosted and there are a handful of core ones to pick from, including Cubase, Ableton Live, Logic, ProTools and Fruity Loops. I would recommend starting with Ableton Live; it’s very versatile, intuitive, relatively clear and has a large support base. These DAWs also contain all the basic ingredients to start making music right out of the box. Or rather, in the box…
Learn Your Weapons
While it’s totally possible for a virtuoso musician to spend their entire career and barely learn about the physics of music or the tools used in the world of production and engineering, the electronic producer simply cannot make too much progress without learning some of these things.
Producing electronic music at home with software presents a whole new myriad of components to be understood and learned in order to navigate the new environment and learn the instrument that is electronic production. Aside from the basic operation and handling of simple tasks inside a DAW, it’s wise to become acquainted with:
- Other standard plugins
- Using basic synthesisers
- Using basic sampling techniques
A basic understanding and comprehension of these will open galaxies of possibility to you. A point I can’t stress enough, however, is to keep your number of tools small! DAWs can be immensely complex and deep systems and the world of third-party plugins and software is limited only by the amount of time in one’s life. You simply cannot comprehend, fully understand and properly utilise all of these products and options at once. Better results are always attained from using fewer tools that you understand how to use than a large number that you are not fully confident in. Find what works for you. Minimise the input and master the output.
As a side note, while it is totally feasible to create music electronically with no musical background, you will be infinitely benefitted by learning or at least dabbling in the playing of an acoustic, “real” instrument. The two best choices are the guitar and/or some keyed instruments are they are both polyphonic. Even basic understanding of harmony, melody and rhythm will benefit your producing and can set you apart from the swathes of producers with no musical background.
Cheat, Copy and Steal
Ok, not literally…but amongst one of the more daunting challenges facing the beginner producer is the task of trying to seemingly pull ideas from thin air. Traditional instruments have the benefit of having their timbres, operation and structure of use laid out for the user and these are things that have been refined and used for sometimes hundreds of years.
You open a new project in your DAW and are faced with a bunch of plugins, software and the cold sterility of the digital world.
Never forget that you are making music which, it seems to me, mostly, is usually largely disconnected from the environment you make it in. We want to bring interesting ideas, creativity and musically interesting concepts to life and a great way to find the seed of something that will grow into a musical tree is pick bits or sections from music you like and try to emulate or copy it. Don’t worry; making anything of any worth is so insanely hard in producing that you generally don’t need to fret about plagiarising someone. Use a certain sound, rhythm, riff or vibe as the beginning of an idea and then pour your own creativity into it to make it your own.
Once the novice producer is up and running and making music, they will often be faced with the daunting realisation that they have stepped into a world of incredibly high standards and almost incomprehensible and insurmountable accomplishment of others. This is natural.
When I was assembling my first producing setup and beginning to produce music, I quickly reconciled with myself that everything I would make in the first year or two would be absolute garbage, and I was fine with this. You don’t pick up an electric guitar for the very first time and expect to be creating music which influences a generation or brings people to tears within twelve months and electronic production is no different. Understand that you are beginning to learn a new instrument and that attaining results in any field require time and dedication.
However, this is not to say that creating amazing music is not possible from the get-go. Learning something new is like building a never-ending pyramid of knowledge; at first, huge amounts of new abilities, information and ideas are thrown at you. As you gain confidence in these aspects and key fundamentals and as your pyramid of knowledge and skill grows, the number of new techniques and concepts reduce but the skill and time required to keep growing the pyramid of specialisation increases. It’s all about specialisation and diminishing returns; the difference in quality between a song made by a producer who’s been making music for a month versus one who’s been producing for a year is vast but the difference between the song made by the year-long producer and a five-year-long producer will most likely not be as large, or at least, not so glaringly obvious. By the fifth year of learning a language, you know all the same words as you did near the beginning but you’re stringing them together with much more finesse.
One thing I have always found very useful regarding this subject is to finish projects that you start at all costs or delete them. Even if you dislike something, finishing it totally and then moving on will award you far greater benefit than simply letting it languish and fester on your hard drive. The clutter and nagging itch of unfinished projects and songs create much too much mental despair for me and I always find it better to simply finish them, nod your head with finality and move on to the next project which, you will promise to yourself, will be at least 1% better than the last.
Enjoy the Experience
I am a firm believer that achieving almost anything worthwhile takes substantial amounts of effort and requires a great deal of work and producing music is no different. It takes a simply gargantuan amount of effort just to reach a baseline level of musical and technical proficiency (although your mileage may vary based on your goals and dreams). Because of this, there will be much time in which producing music can seem like a chore or “work”. In the face of this, it’s important to realise that this is necessary and that it cannot be fun the entire time. Enjoy the whole experience and do the boring and tiresome things which you know will benefit you down the line; the devil truly is in the details and he will reward you if you pay him his dues.
So, there are some tips and concepts which I’ve tried to follow over the years and which have benefitted me greatly. Just remember to have fun and try your hardest and good things will follow.