When you search about how to start producing music, you get a lot of bad advice from companies trying to sell you something. That sucks, so I've written this guide for the absolute beginner who needs to learn the lay of the land and understand exactly what gear is needed (and nothing more) to start making music today...
Learning music production isn't that hard if you can cut through all of the extra, non-relevant information out there. The truth is there's very little you need to begin today and you likely already have most of it.
All of that extra info comes into play later once you start progressing further down the path of making music. Below I tell you the minimum equipment you need based on your goals, and then I give you a framework for actually writing your first song.
From there the discussion is about getting better and how that's done, plus the next set of essential studio equipment you might need if you want to expand your repertoire. At that point you can decide how serious you want to get about music production and if it will become a career or at least a side-hustle.
I want to make sure I'm making zero assumptions about what you know, so in this part I'm going to talk to you as if you know absolutely nothing, so everyone gets taken care of with the info they need.
Companies will tell you about all of this advanced and professional studio equipment you need (coincidentally they're ready to sell it to you), but the truth is at the bare minimum you can actually start making music with two things.
If you're interested in making rap beats, electronic dance music, or pop instrumentals, you can get away with only a computer and a mouse or even just a tablet (though I don't recommend going the tablet route because you can't grow a lot that way).
Beyond that, you need a piece of software designed to help you make music. These are called Digital Audio Workstations (DAW). You've probably heard of a few like Pro Tools, Logic Pro, or Ableton Live. If you're on a Mac computer, then you already have the free Garage Band installed.
To recap, the bare minimum you need is:
That's it. For Windows there's plenty of free DAWs you can use and for Macs you already have Garage Band. Thanks to MIDI (What is MIDI?) you can punch in musical notes with your mouse on the piano roll and write entire professional songs. This is how most rap, pop, and EDM songs are produced.
Your DAW software will come with a ton of stock audio sound fonts, samples, and plugins. Everything you need is already included, believe it or not. There's no hurdles or road blocks in your way other than learning how to use the DAW, which isn't too bad.
It may be the case that you want to record guitar, ukulele, keyboard, etc. Maybe you'd like to toss some vocals into the mix. There's a high chance you're already ready to do that too.
Most laptops have webcams built in that contain a microphone. All you need to do is set the webcam's mic as the input source in the DAW and you can record any audio you want. This is more than enough to record full demos and at least get started and practicing.
We'll talk more about this further down the article, but your next step to getting a bit better quality out of your recordings will be an audio interface and a microphone (or, god forbid, a cheap USB microphone). But neither of these are a must at the start.
The only real hurdle is getting a free DAW. If you're willing to pay for one at the beginning, then I recommend starting with FL Studio for ease of use on Windows or use the free Garage Band on Mac.
Turns out Avid put out Pro Tools First which is a free but limited version. It's good enough to get started for sure. It limits you to 16 tracks which is way more than enough if you're clever and not wasteful.
If you learn either of those, you'll know how to use them all and can upgrade later once you know you're committed and not wasting money (because the professional DAWs can get expensive, like Pro Tools for Windows and Logic Pro for Mac).
All you need to do is figure out how to:
If you can play the keyboard and have one you can even enter MIDI data if you get a MIDI-to-USB cable. Otherwise you'll click it in with your mouse. It's extremely simple and often faster to use the mouse.
As a singer-songwriter, you can create an entire song out of two tracks: one for vocals and one for your guitar track. You should be skeptical of anyone that tells you it's more complicated than this.
You probably won't get a full song completed or even one that sounds great yet. But that's exactly where you want to be. You should be exploring the software, testing out plugins and sounds, and simply learning your way around.
DAWs have a learning curve and more and more features get revealed to you over time, but typically only as you need them. So don't get bogged down or overwhelmed. Start simple and work with what you know.
That might mean you create a drum loop and then add a melody and bass line to it that are incorrect as far as music theory goes. Who cares? As a beginner you should be having fun, stay excited, and keep learning.
At this point, your job is simply to get better. You now know that using the software and actually getting your computer to record and/or playback music you created isn't that hard. What is hard is writing songs that sound musical.
Turns out even those simple pop songs everyone makes fun of aren't that simple. The first and foremost difference between your music and those that seem simple but still sound good is music theory.
There's no way around this truth. Without understanding the basics of music theory, you can't write chord progressions, melodies and bass lines, or even create a basic song structure. As you start learning techniques here, start listening as an active participant in music and try to listen for what you're learning.
You should start at learning about how musical keys and chords work, then how to extract melodies and bass lines out of the chords you choose. Play around with that for a while then add chord progressions into the mix. From there you can start toying with chord inversions.
That's enough to take you all the way to the top. You don't have to get into jazz levels of theory or even beyond an intermediate understanding. Because there's some other tricks and methods you'll use that will add a sense of complexity and maturity to your songs. The process of learning how to start producing music cannot be separated from music theory.
Your next step in the journey is to learn about orchestration and song arrangement. Orchestration is about knowing which instruments come together to form a band. Each plays a specific role in the frequency spectrum and are chosen to not clash with each other sonically.
Those that do risk clashing play different roles, like lead guitar versus rhythm guitar, or kick drum and bass. Understanding these roles is also important which leads into the next topic you'll study, which is arrangement.
Arrangement refers to when each of the instruments in your orchestration actually are playing or not. Knowing when to drop them out and bring them back in can add a level of excitement and life to your songs, upping the energy levels during certain parts like the chorus.
Finally, you'll need to venture into mixing and mastering. Honestly you don't even need mastering other than realizing it exists, but mixing is a must if you want the final versions of your songs to sound decent. This can literally make or break a song, so you should take it seriously.
Mixing is the art of balancing the variance of volume levels (called dynamics), the positioning in the stereo field (called panning), and the clarity of each instrument (called equalization). You don't have to become a pro at mixing but you need to be better than a beginner.
We have much more if you check out the category, but here are some articles to help you find your footing:
The idea here is to take your final song and polish the presentation so it's more listenable and more closely resembles what you hear on the radio and professional albums. You can make vast improvements easily with a little studying.
At this point, you know how a DAW works and some basic music theory and mixing principals. Now it's time to learn music production beyond the beginner stages. What this tends to involve is a long period of time of you doing the same thing over and over.
The difference is, with serious focus and intent, you'll get better each time. Iteration is the key to success. You should have a monumental output, making as many songs as possible. You don't have to share them all, but moving from start to finish is the key to improvement.
"Lock yourself in a room
Doing five beats a day for three summers
That's a Different World like Cree Summers
I deserve to do these numbers" - Kanye West
If you want to improve, you can't treat this like a game. You have to treat it like you're in school, studying and practicing with intent. And you'll actually have to study more and more music theory and mixing techniques, etc. Discovering techniques and applying them is what it's all about.
Putting in serious study and practice doesn't have to be hard and boring. With music production it's actually a blast. When you get sick of trying to invent new ideas right out of your own brain there are a few things you can do to keep it interesting and turn up new techniques.
Remakes - I recommend first and foremost to try to remake songs you like. That means figuring out their key, chord progressions, orchestration and arrangement, and recreating it the best you can. You can usually find acapella tracks, too, though I recommend performing the vocals yourself.
Remixes - Another fun method is to create remixes of songs you enjoy. Again, you can use an acapella and even time-stretch it to target a different tempo. Taking songs you're familiar with and turning them into something completely different is a blast.
Challenges - Finally, I love to create music production challenges. For instance, I once challenged myself to make a children's music EP album from only FL Studio stock sounds, only in major keys, and it had to be in the genre of world music. I learned a ton from that and the songs were great.
The more you restrict the parameters during challenges, the more creative you have to be, which forces you to expand your thinking and your arsenal of techniques. You end up having to study new genres that have a lot to teach you.
How you get feedback is up to you. You have friends and family and can use message boards and forums online to get anonymous criticism. But the key here is to take all of the constructive feedback and actually try it out.
And to get a lot of feedback you need to have a lot of output, meaning you need to be pumping out songs like a madman. I talked already about why writing as many songs as possible from start to finish is better than trying to write one masterpiece. This is another reason why.
Think about producers like Major Lazer, Timbaland, etc. It took them years and many albums to find a style, and then some professionals will even reinvent themselves completely. But to know what your style is, let alone to be able to choose a style, requires a ton of output.
You need to know your sound fonts and samples like the back of your hand. You need to know the rules of a genre so well you can break them and revolutionize the game. One could almost say Timbaland is responsible for the resurgence of the 1980's style. You can repurpose decades and make them your own.
The key is to become recognizable by listeners but also to carve out a niche for yourself, one in which you can get better and better in a tight zone and completely dominate that sound. Then you become the go-to person when someone wants a beat in that style. I've talked about marketing and how to sell beats before, which is the start to making this a real career.
That's it. You take the methods above and repeat them again and again and never stop. That's the path as a beginner and even as an expert. The studying and practice never stops if you want to keep improving and gaining fans.
A few things you will start doing is improving your home studio. You'll need to know how to setup a home recording studio as well as pick up some more and better gear. Don't just buy gear willy nilly, wait until you have an actual need and then research which is the best and why. The same goes for plugins and sound fonts, too.
Ultimately you can start collaborating with other artists. You'll produce tracks for artists' albums, you'll work with other producers, and begin to pick up tricks of the trade from them. This will start your networking process and help you climb the ladder.
And if you don't want to be the independent artist or behind-the-scenes producer, you can look into other career options, though what's the fun in that as a musician? You don't learn how to start producing music to take a salaried job, you do it to be a rock star!
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