Creating electronic music is not the hardest thing in the World. However one needs a lot of basic knowledge to start. All the main aspects required to start are described here.
This manual consists of the 15 most basics things needed to get started with electronic music. Pieces of advice given here will not only help with electronic music, but will as well create smooth understanding of how other types of music are being created. The following paragraphs will be highlited:
- Equipment required to start composing electronic music;
- Basic programs and plug-ins;
- Monitors and headphones;
- The first steps of producing own tracks an remixing them;
Disclaimer: so many producers – so many opinions. This article only represents one of possible ways to get started.
This article should help you find your place in the World of electronic music. Consuming and analyzing information provided here is enough to start creating unique content.
Computer and Operational System
Computer is the first and most essential thing for making it into music creating and producing. Any type of PC or laptop that is not older than 7 years old will do. Both of the most popular operational systems (Mac and Windows) are suitable as well. Professional DJs use them, as most of programs for creating music (including Ableton Live and FL Studio) are designed to work correctly with both of them.
This sounds pretty obvious, but still. Use the operational system that you are already experienced in. It is important to spend time learning exactly how to work with musical software, not with the new system. Simply don’t switch from what you are already using. Neither of the systems is superior to another one, so the most rational decision is to stand with what you already know.
Well, PC users should use the latest version of Windows. Windows 10 Ultimate would be perfect, but Windows 7 will do as well. This is only important in terms of comfort and speed of work.
Another important part is the hardware. Processor and Random-Access-Memory don’t play role as big as sound card, but they still matter. The more powerful these two elements are, the smoother the work will go, and the bigger the potential will be. Hard drive is not meaningless as well. Here is the list of what an average combination of these three parts should be:
- Processor. Either Intel Core (I5 or I7) or AMD (FX-series);
- RAM. At least 8 GB, but better 12.
- Hard Drive. You do not need much space, so 2 TB capacity is enough.
Finally, it is worth mentioning, that though laptops are more compact and convenient, PCs are more preferable, as they have bigger upgrade potential. It is still OK to get started with a laptop, but PC is obviously the best decision for creating large projects.
Sound Card and Audio Interface
Every computer has a built-in soundcard. Its’ only advantage is that it gives an opportunity to start creating music immediately. The first step to optimize working process is to install ASIO4ALL driver (which is a standard plug-in for reducing sound latency).
To start more extended work, it is necessary to have an upgraded soundcard or n audio interface. Choosing it is a bit complicated, as there is simply no such thing as the best one. There are hundreds of soundcards on the market, each is more suitable for some specific situations.
- Audio interface. It is a little box, that you place outside your computer. It has a lot of ports, so it can be connected to multiple devices. This should be a better pick, however there is always a risk, that audio interface will not work correctly with your system.
- Soundcard. It is just basic inside-the-computer element, that sits on the motherboard. Not so advanced, but cheaper and more stable.
It is also necessary to remember some basic concepts: the fresher the operational system version is the better drivers it is possible to install; there is always a probability that something will be lagging and not working correctly; audio interface provides bigger opportunities, but is harder to work with.
Studio monitors and Headsets
Though some famous DJs claim that is possible to create hits using a cheap headset from local store, they still recommend to purchase audio monitors and decent headphones. These devices, developed for sound directors, are capable of making sound frequencies clean and clear. They are created to show weak spots, not to hide them. Neither do they make sound better nor worse.
Their honesty allows to compose balanced tracks (though it depends a lot on mixing skill as well). It makes music sound good on both professional stereo systems and cheap radios.
Studio monitor is one of the most important components in the home studio. Before picking one, try ask as many people as possible. It is important to install and connect the device correctly as well.
Headphones are yet another important element for controlling audio quality. The truth here is that the more expensive they are, the better the quality is. It is clearly possible to tell the difference between professional studio devices with powerful and juicy sound and casual headsets, which make sound dull and flat. Here are some decent examples from different price categories:
- Cheap and medium. M-Audio and KRK Systems are two manufacturers to choose from, if your budget is limited to several hundred dollars. They will do their job properly, and, for sure, better than the opponents.
- Expensive. Professional sound makers prefer Genelec and Mackie. Their prices are above thousand dollars, but the result is worth it. However, if you are new to creating music, purchasing something this expensive is not necessary.
Absence of high-quality equipment should not stop you from creating music. Even your everyday headphones and basic built-in stereo system is enough to start and succeed. Just make sure to check tracks on as many systems as possible (PC, mp3 player, phone, iPod, etc). The sound should be balanced on all of them.
A usual keyboard and a mouse are enough to create tracks. Musical software provides an opportunity to compose melodies with usual keys. However, having a MIDI keyboard is much more convenient. Usual keyboard makes a melody that sounds mechanical, as the keys do not respond properly to strength and length of the push. MIDI makes more melodic and artistic at once.
Another recommendation here is to get a bit of general musical education. Composing melodies is much easier, when you have a “living” instrument, like a guitar, piano or MIDI at least. This will make musical and personal development much faster, as real instruments improve an ear for music and rhythm.
Here are some examples of nice MIDIs for beginners:
- Yamaha MO6 – 61 key. This one is pretty much universal as it is suitable for both home studio action and live performances. It provides a wide variety of voices and styles.
- Waldorf Blofeld – 49 key. It starts with 60 megabytes of sample memory, which is convenient if you are not that familiar with composing music and don’t know where to start. 49 key structure makes it easy to play this keyboard.
- Korg M50 – 88 key. It’s leight-weighted and compact synthesizer. Korg has some juicy and powerful splits and layers, as well as decent sequencing tools, keybed and SD data storage.
Again, MIDI is not the most necessary tool in the world. There is nothing wrong with creating tracks using basic hardware only. However, if you have extra couple hundred bucks and want to improve your skills – MIDI keyboard is the purchase for you.
Software: DAW. The host program
The next thing-to-do is finding a suitable host program. Professionals use the DAW definition which means Digital Audio Workstation. It is exactly where 90 per cent of the work is being done. There is a lot of workstations and even more arguments on which one is the best. Honestly, it is the matter of the taste only. Here is the list of the most popular of them:
The one preferred by DJs composing music in different genres. One of the advantages of FL Studio is the high multitasking. It is suitable for creating house, chillout, dubstep, ambient, game for music and even rap bits. It is one of the oldest programs as well (18 years on the market) with quite a good reputation.
Demo-version and free trial period are available. You’ll be able to make some music, but the tracks will not be saved properly until purchase. There are four versions of program, the cheapest is 99 dollars. They also provide lifetime-long free updates.
However, the full pack of plug-ins and software is worth almost 750 dollars which is a little frustrating. Another downside is that is for Windows users only.
This another popular option for DJs. Users claim that is has the best logical interface and is easy to work with. The great feature of Ableton is that it has built-in audio editor and some free samples of high quality. The program is designed mainly for sampling and mixing tracks.
Being a great instrument for creating tracks, Ableton, however, is a bit disappointing for sound engineers. It lacks some functional for recording simple sounds.
Company provides a free 30-days trial period as well, and have own shop with great samples (which are pretty expensive though). The full version of Ableton Live costs 199 dollars.
The third most popular workstation. It has OK parameters and is nice to work with after getting used for a while. Unlike the opponents, Pro Tools is not directly music oriented software. It is often used for recording dialogues and just different sounds (others do it, but not so intenese).
The program is widely known among sound engineers, but is not that popular among producers, which might be a little downside.
Pro Tools is a financially flexible product. It has a lifetime-free version with limited options (really good for beginners) and extended version which you rather purchase once for 600 dollars or subscribe to it for 30 dollars a month. A huge pack of samples is gifted for any kind of purchase.
Cubase is known for its’ wide variety of versions. There is one for DJs, sound engineers, voice actors and some other ones. The great flexibility is the main advantage of Cubase.
The company produces a lot of software and hardware products along with own educational material. However, Cubase is not that convenient for the complete beginners, as it requires either knowledge or a lot of investments to get started properly.
Entering the market is hard for new players. BitWig developers tried creating some really innovative product to get their place under the sun. Their best achievements are:
- customizable interface, that is is really is to work with;
- well-balanced audio and MIDI editing;
- completely new modulation system, that makes it possible to basically connect everything to everything, which opens a wide field of experiments.
However, BitWig still feels a little bit raw. It doesn’t have enough plug-ins. The system is lagging sometimes. The product comes at the price of 300 dollars.
A rather new one as well. It was originally a child product of PreSonus, which grew in popularity really fast. The powerful parent provided a large library of plug-ins, samples and additional software of all kinds. This, along with intuitive design and wide variety of mixing tools helped Studio One succeed.
However, latency and connecting troubles as well as lack of MIDI editing and price of 400 dollars didn’t let the program go to the very tops.
A not-so-well-known DAW, which has a great potential. Let us start straight away with the pros: it is absolutely free and it has a friendly community. Ardour was originally developed by a group of enthusiasts and still remains a non-commercial project funded by donations only.
However, working with Ardour is not that convenient. Its’ interface is not the easiest thing ever to understand (starts feeling OK after a couple months though). New versions are not being released that often and there is still a plenty of bugs. It is a nice pick if you feel, like you are over DEMO versions already, but the budget is still tight.
Last, but not the least comes ZyneWave. It is rather basic DAW, that has all the necessary features and OK interface, but lacks some “sweets” and feels a little boring.
Probably, it is not the workstation itself that is so interesting but the large community and cheapness. There is a lifetime-free version, which is really powerful in comparison to other DEMOs and trials and a pro version, available for 25 dollars a year.
Again: workstation choice is the matter of the taste only. Download the demo-versions (they are not “heavier” than 1 GB each), go for free trials, try working in community created DAWs. The host choice is something worth spending a lot of time on, as it is the future base for creating all the tracks.
Software: VSTi-synthesizers and VST-plugins
VSTi-synthesizers and VST-plugins are must-have utilities for every DJ. Creating electronic music is impossible without them.
VST-instruments are electronic analogues of usual musical instruments. They help with creating sounds of different types. It is possible to use classical instruments of wood, iron and strings as well, but virtual ones provide bigger amount of opportunities and are more convenient to work with. There are two main types of VSTis:
- Built-in. The instruments that can only work in combination with host programs. Such soft is useless by itself, but working as a plug-in saves a lot of time, because process of saving and importing separate files is simply cut off.
- Stand-alone. More independent programs, that do not need any other soft to be launched. They are positioned not as add-ons to DAWs, but as fully-functioning emulators.
Right after installing the soft, you can start recording your own melodies. There are tones of special plug-ins for creating extra-sound effects like reverb, delay, chorus, compression, etc.
It is better to get started with free software. It is easy to find any kind of VSTis by simply googling “Free VST” or “Free virtual synthesizers”. Free doesn’t mean bad. DJs recommend checking “VSTplanet” and “Audiomastermind” sources. They are free online libraries, that have all sorts of goods and sweets for beginners.
If you can afford spending some money, then also look through “Native instruments” and “IK Multimedia” production. These are commercial companies, that create virtual instruments of the highest quality.
Finally, there is that beautiful “Ez Drummer” plug-in, that is especially good for creating electronic music. It has extra natural sounding and lots of effects and customizing opportunities.
Software: Audio Editor
Audio editor is the program, where track parts, samples and even full tracks are polished to perfection. Even though most of hosts have some built-in soft for working with separate audio fragments, it can not replace the fully-functioning audio editor. Here is the list of the most important features:
- Basic editing. Cutting, copying, pasting, looping, adjusting volume level, etc. The simplest things for doing mechanical part of track composing.
- Format editing. Enables saving final composition in different formats, in order to get it played in a stable way on as many devices as possible.
- Analyzing and finishing the job. Audio editors graphically show the picture of the whole track. It is possible to find some weak spots by simply looking at it.
- Sound Forge Audio Studio. Probably, the most popular and well-known soft among professional music writers. It is one of the best functioning and most stable tools available. Sadly, it can not be called the cheapest one.
- Adobe Audition. Yes, it is the same company that developed Photoshop. Adobe Audition has nice intuitive design, flexible working field and powerful base. It has a long free trial period and acceptable price as well.
- Audacity. The most worthy free soft. It is simple, yet effective enough to get started with. It was developed but community, and hasn’t got any updates since 2015. Still the existing version meets the minimal requirements for creating electronic music.
There is a lot of audio editors in the internet. As they basically all do the same things, the main difference is customization and working speed. Feel free to choose whatever fits your style the best.
Samples are short pre-recorded sound elements. They include not musical instruments only, but sounds of nature, chorus and other types of sounds. You’ll need a lot of samples to start recording music.
Samples are used for creating percussion, special effects, etc. There is a lot of sample-packs in the internet. They can either be free or payed. The price varies from five to several hundred dollars, depending on sound quality, number of elements and how unique they are.
Usually packs are divided by genres and instruments. Every pack is pre-recorded for some exact genre, but you should pick whichever you like, without any limits. Using them only depends on your imagination, not the label.
Important: Create a neatly organized folder and sort all samples. This will help to orientate easily after you have more than a hundred packs.
Samples can be divided into categories, by the form of organization:
- Simple sounds (one shots). They are just sounds, some separate notes, basses, hi-hats, snares, and so on. These sounds are just like LEGO pieces. You can create any kind of melody or rhythm using them.
- Loops. Loops are pre-recorded combinations of sounds. Simple melodied of two or three notes, basic rhythms and stuff like that. They are especially useful for beginners, who do not know what to start with. Using loops, you can build the base for your track and then experiment with adding some sounds and learning their influence on the track. Professionals use loops as well to make tracks more well-built.
Just as any other software components, loops have payed and free versions. If you are starting, you might want to check “FLstudiomusic”, “sampleradar” or “TheSample”.
You’ll need following instruments for electronic music:
- Drums. Drums are alpha and omega of electronic music. The tempo and rhythm are based on drum sounds. There is a lot of drum-types, so try picking some multipack first, to find out which ones you enjoy using the most.
- Piano and guitar. These two instruments are the base for melody. The best choice for the beginner is going for some loop-packs, as composing music isn’t easy. It is better to have some ready material to start with.
Last, but not the least, it is worth mentioning, that purchasing a sample-pack does give you a license for official usage of these samples. In other words, having once purchased a pack, you’ll never have to pay royalty to its’ creator for using samples in commercial music.
Listen and Learn: The Basics
Now, that all the hardware and software is ready to work, the time has come to learn the process itself.
The first step is simple. Start listening to as much music as possible. All the professionals have once started with imitating of what other artists do. Just as painters try re-drawing the masterpieces of the geniuses, the musicians gather the experience of their colleagues to create own tracks.
I do not mean thoughtless copypasting parts of other works. Using ideas, melodies and tracks created by another people is illegal.
So, before starting to make your own electronic music, listen and analyze other tracks of the genre and sub-genres. The more you do it, the more clear the idea of what you want to create yourself and the easier understanding of how to do it will be.
Then follow several easy steps:
- Study your DAW’s interface thoroughly. At least know all the basics. Although, of course, the more features and options you know, the more complicated melodies you can create.
- Pick one music genre. You may already have some preferences, but for creating music of high quality it is important to choose one genre or sub-genre you enjoy the most.
- Update your playlist weekly. Pick the genres you like and then do the following: create one playlist to store the classical tracks of this genre (for example, if you picked house, there will be tracks of FatBoy Slim) and one for trending tracks. You’ll need to download new top tracks from Beatport or PromoDJ weekly, to stay up-to-date with the latest tendencies.
- Listen to the tracks and try to find some logical consequences. It is a bit early for hard definitions, so simply try to realise the way the track is built. Choose playlist 1 from previous advice and listen to songs from it in loop mode. Soon, you’ll start noticing the structure.
To make working the structure out, try some pop-songs. They might not sound that great, but are simply built and are suitable for learning basic material. Most of them have one “eternal” structure: Intro – Verse 1 – Chorus – Verse 2 – Chorus – Bridge – Outro.
Sometimes chorus IS the intro and the outro.
This one is not used in every song ever, but try listening to “Gangnam Style” or “What does the Fox Say”, and you’ll fully understand what I’m talking about. It is also useful to analyze tracks of different genres, for example rock or jazz. This will help not with the electronic music only, but with the total realizing of how the music works.
Listen and Learn: Electronic Music
It is worth mentioning, that structure of any sort of electronic music (produced for clubs and parties) does differ from classical build-ups. The components are usually longer and develop in a smooth manner. Tracks are designed to create a lot of tension, keep it on the pick for a while, then release and set up the listener for the next composition. Take a look at an example of structure like this:
Intro – Breakdown (Tension starts raising) – still Breakdown (Tension reaches its’ pick) – Release – Cooldown phase – Release 2 – Outro. Let’s take a closer look at what all these definitions mean.
- Intro. The track begins and DJ creates sort of trampoline for a listener. The most common intro component is combination of drums.
- Breakdown. This is where intro elements (rhythmic drums) disappear. The main melody has already been developed and is by this moment playing by itself. It can be either something aggressive, funny, fast or any other sort of emotional thing. This is where tension starts growing and people on the dancefloor get completely charmed by the sound.
- Release. The crowd’s most favorite part. The tension explodes with some powerful rhythmic melody.
- Outro. The tension goes down and people get a little relaxes before the next hit drops.
This is the most basic thing. But comparing the most popular hits of this year to what was popular five or ten years ago, you might notice, that not many structure-based elements change.
Now pick your personal favorite song and upload it into DAW. Mark all the elements down, piece by piece learn the track’s structure. Having that done, use this structure as the base (but do not copy any samples, just the structure).
Then pay attention to the smallest details. Find out what the leading instrument is. What the second one is, if there is any. What effects are used. Basically just analyze the track as deep as you can. Try removing some parts and listen how the composition sounds without them. Add your own effects. Replace claps with whistles, add a piano loop instead of guitar. Learn what influence different types of sounds have on sounding.
There is nothing wrong with simply googling the video-tutorials. There is a lot of helpful material on YouTube. Remember one thing only: stay individual, don’t be afraid of using your own ideas, even if they sound bad at first. The more you study, the better the final result is.
Getting Things Done: the Start
The first essential component of any track is the rhythm. The easiest way to create the rhythm is by using sample packs, that were mentioned before. Try making the party of one-shots first. If it doesn’t work (which happens quite often), simply use pre-recorded loops.
The rhythm is so to say skeleton of the track. All the other components of composition’s body are adjusted and held together with it. After finishing the rhythm, start making “the muscles” – bass party. Honestly, it is quite easy, because it is almost impossible to spoil the sound of bass.
So, here comes the bit. This is what track’s base made of drums and bass usually called. Well, this is where you can say, that your first track is oficcialy ready. There is sub-genre named exactly drum’n’bass. It is simple, but can already be used for some home parties, especially after adding some voice effects over the track.
When you start feeling confident with loops, go to the next step. Create your own one-shots rhythm. Start developing from the simplest things and smoothly go up to more and more complicated. For example:
- Create the most basic impact drum rhythm. Place one in each quarter. This will be the OK house rhythm.
- Add snares on even quarters.
- Start moving components a little. Even of you have no idea of what you are doing, just move every bit to left and right and listen to result every time. You’ll get a unique rhythmic pattern pretty soon.
- Save the project and add new components. Try whatever you like. Hi-hats, claps, whistling, chorus, until you like the result. In case everything goes wrong, you have a back-up version, so have fun with experimenting as much as you can.
Just remember to have everything organized. Save the result of each session in separate folder in order to be able to find it easily when needed.
Getting Things done: Adding Melodies
It is rather important to add melodies only after composing the rhythmic part. Just as muscles, organs and skin are situated above the skeleton, the melodies and vocal parts should be added on top of drum’n’bass base.
This is where VSTis come in handy. They have a lot of pre-recorded samples built-in in case if you have no idea of how to make music. Feel free to use them all, but do not forget to make experiments. There is a lot of handles, cushions and sliders. Roll them, swipe them and listen to the result.
After several trials google some tutorials and find wht the definitions mean. Then try again. It is possible to get unique sound qualities with the method of trial-and-error. Simply continue trying.
Finally, combine the instruments. Modern and classic. Guitars and pianos. Violins and trumpets. I highly recommend to get started with piano, as it provides the widest variety of options.
Getting Things done: Mixing
The track will not sound perfectly right away. Even if it seems great in the process, it will not be finished after adding all the parts together. This is where mixing appears. Mixing is the clever word that means polishing the composition up to perfection. It is the final part of customizing and personalizing the track.
Electronic music professionals recommend to start with drum’n’bass part again. It is the soul of the track, so it must be reach, juicy and complete. Make it sound a bit louder and really clean, especially the impact. It will make the music full of energy.
Them make sure the bass is OK. It should not be very loud or clear, but the vibrations must go on. Find the golden equity of bass and drums and even the simplest track will sound like hit. Make sure that no other instruments are louder than drums and bass. These two have the leading role.
Getting Things done: Learning more
Continue listening to the pioneers of the genre. Listen to the top songs of the charts. Now, with all the experience you gained, they will sound completely different. Analyze the mixing, the instruments, the melodies and the vocal. Compile the knowledge and continue getting new pieces of information. Try to find out which sounds have the leading roles and why. Compare your own mixes to professional ones and find out what your mistakes are.
Another important thing is to get your mixes played on as many devices as possible. On your own phone, on your friend’s iPod, in your uncle’s car and in the neighbor’s old stereo system. There must be balance between all these devices. The main purpose of good mixing is to make track sound good, independent from what device it is being played on.
Finally, even trying really hard, you’ll not get the result immediately. Professional music has tones of information to study. You’ll have to try, make mistakes and try again. As they say “no pain – no gain”.
Do not Overwork
Sometimes it will feel like you’ve created the best track of your life in a single 10-hour session. However, after listening to it after a break, you’ll realize that it sounds awful, volume and equalization are not balanced, rhythm sucks and so on. This will be both disappointing and tiring as you’ll have to go through full mixing process once again (which is really hard and unpleasant).
The thing here is that after working for several hours without breaks your ears get tired and can not work with sounds in normal mode. The amplitude and equalization “parametres” of your brain tighten. You do not feel the process itself, but have to deal with its’ consequences later.
Remember that you need a break for ten minutes or so every hour and a half. Go to a silent place and sit there for a while enjoying the sound of silence. Do not finish the track in one day, even if you really feel like doing a lot of job.
Summing Things up
The path to professional music is long and hard. You’ll meet a lot of differences on the way. Just remember to be yourself, try new wild things, create original stuff (even if it sounds bad) and continue studying and analyzing. The bigger the effort you make the sooner you’ll see great results.