Friday, November 11, 2011

How To Make Electronic Music With Computer? Where To Start?

I decided to write down some guidelines on how to make electronic music (although some of the following tips may apply to other musical genres as well, not just electronic music) covering such things as what hardware is required or recommended, what kind of music making software is needed, how to get a hang of different kind of electronic music styles, etc. There’s a lot of choices in hardware and software, countless of ways to do things in production wise and as many arguments and differing opinions as there are producers. In this article I try to point you to the right direction in electronic music production, muchly based on my own experience.
A little info about myself is that electronic music production has been my longtime hobby for years and I’ve been creating tunes on such genres as trance, downtempo, ambient and experimental. Some of my songs has been released commercially through record labels and has also been used in a film project.
Excuse my english, it’s my second language and not so perfect, but I hope you understand and find these guidelines useful and get your answer on how to make electronic music. Also, if you have any questions, opinions or improvements feel free to leave a comment!
So, without further ado, let’s begin!
1. Computer and OS
Computer is naturally a must have hardware if you wan’t to make electronic music. You can actually produce good music with anykind of modern computer (I mean anything made in the past 5 years) including laptop. You also have a choice: PC or Mac. Both systems are widely used in many professional and home studios. You can make excellent music with both platforms and most of the music making software are available for both (expect FL Studio).  The thing is, you should pick a platform you’re already familiar with. If you’ve been using PC, stay with the PC. And vice versa.  That way, you don’t have to put time and effort on learning a completely new computer system and you can concentrate more on learning how to make the electronic music.
However, like I already mentioned, even though you CAN make music with anykind of modern computer, it will help a LOT to have a decent specs. The more CPU power and RAM you have “under the hood”, the more smoother your music software will run and you’re able to build much more complex projects with less effort. Also, choosing the right kind of hard drive makes difference as well. You might even consider getting a solid-state drive (SSD).
I personally have Intel Core i7 950 processor, ASUS P6T Deluxe V2 motherboard, 12GB RAM and 24″ widescreen display and it’s been a very good computer setup for electronic music production. If  I’m going to upgrade this at some point, I probably get the SSD where I install the Windows. That will speed up things even more.
If you’re on the edge of buying a new computer solely for music production and don’t have a clue what kind of specs it should have, look at some of the custom built computers that are made for audio usage. Check what kind of specs and components they have and start from there.
Few words about the OS: if you stick with the PC, I would recommend upgrading to Windows 7. I bought the Windows 7 Ultimate with my current computer setup and it has been mainly in audio usage for a little over a year now and I can say it’s good. Best Microsoft OS so far and I’ve been using Windows since 3.1.
Here’s interesting discussion about XP vs Win7 btw.
Here’s some helpful related articles worth checking out:
Mac vs PC DAW’s
Online Guide Choosing a Computer
Lifting the Lid on Audio Laptops – Part 1
Lifting the Lid on Audio Laptops – Part 2
Check these online shops for audio computer systems:
ADK Pro Audio Computers
Scan Computers For Audio
Links to interesting discussions:
PC for music production
Newbie here! Need a new desktop pc for music production!!
2. Soundcard / audio interface
These days every modern computer has a somekind of onboard sound chip so basically you can start off making electronic music without spending money to external soundcard or audio interface. And if you wan’t low latency for sound chip/audiocard that doesn’t have native ASIO support (ASIO stands for Audio Stream Input/Output and it’s a soundcard driver protocol for digital audio specified by Steinberg, providing a low-latency and high fidelity interface between a software application and a computer’s sound card), you can use ASIO4ALL driver.
However, if you’re looking for a higher performance and/or planning to do a lot of recording from external sources, then decent quality soundcard or audio interface is recommended. At this point, I really recommend reading the The “Best”Audio Interface for your Home Studio and Soundcard FAQ.
I myself have M-Audio Audiophile Delta 2496 and even though it’s not the highest quality soundcard, it has been enough for me for all these years. Be aware though: some users report they are having problems with Delta series cards in Windows 7 machines. Gladly there are tons of alternatives in a decent price range. Check out some of the ESI audio cards like Maya44 or Juli@ or Echo Digital Audio MiaMIDI for example.
Here’s articles around the subject:
The “Best”Audio Interface for your Home Studio
Soundcard FAQ
Interesting discussion:
AKA What is the best… Sound card?
3. Studio monitor speakers and studio grade headphones.
Although I created one of my dutch dance chart hit songs using only cheap Sony headphones I bought from a local supermarket, decent studio monitors (near field monitors) are highly recommended. Why? Because studio monitors are specifically made for audio production and they give an accurate reproduction of the tonal qualities of the source audio. In other words, they tell you the truth what’s going on in your music in a terms of frequency. The sound is uncolored so there will be no bass or high frequency boosts or anything like that like the normal hi-fi speakers or heapdhones tend to have. This will help you to create music where every sound is in balance (depending on your mixing skills of course) and will increase the probability that your music sounds good in different sound systems like car stereos, portable mp3 players with earbuds and so on.
Studio headphones are also recommended, for tracking purposes.
There’s a wide range of studio monitors and headphones in the market on all price ranges. The truth is, the more money you put into these the more quality you will get and be aware that many low-cost studio monitors actually DO color the sound or artifically boost frequencies even if they label themselves as “studio monitors” with flat frequency response.
Lot of audio professionals vouch for Genelec, Focal or Mackie monitors. They are in the higher price range, but the quality is the best.
In a few hundred dollars price range, I recommend checking out the M-Audio and KRK Systems. Here’s some specific models you may wan’t to check out: Studiophile BX8a & KRK Rokit G2 8.
As for the studio headphones, check out these: Beyerdynamic DT 880Sennheiser HD 380.
If you don’t have the possibility to use studio quality monitoring systems, use the equipment you have – whether it’s headphones or normal loudspeakers. Don’t let that stop you from start making music. However, before releasing your musical production to public, I recommend that you listen it through as many different sound systems as possible (like normal home and car stereos, etc.) and tweak your music until it sounds good and balanced on all of those systems. (Actually this is recommended to do even if you DO have a studio quality monitors).
Also, remember to position your studio monitors right. That makes a great difference on how they sound.
I personally have Behringer Truth B2031A’s studio monitors. Lot of professional say they are not very good, or that they completely suck, but so far I’ve been doing ok with them even though I may upgrade to KRK Rokit G2 8 at some point.
I’m also using AKG K271 Studio headphones and they sound quite ok.
I have to say that studio monitors are one of the most important hardware in homestudio, so before choosing your monitors (or headphones), try to listen as many different models as possible and ask around and chat with the audio professionals and people who work in the audio production field. Check KVRaudio and Gearslutz forums.
Here’s some articles I recommend checking out:
The Truth About Studio Monitors
Studio Monitors Buying Guide
Studio Headphones
Here’s links to interesting discussions around the subject:
Best Studio headphones?
Just starting out, best studio monitors?
Which studio monitors for mixing?
Good studio monitor headphones
The best headphones as studio monitor
4. MIDI keyboard controller
Although its not necessity: I’ve created many songs just by using mouse and regular computer keyboard. Many computer music software like FL Studio and Ableton Live lets you play music using your computer keyboard. Much like having a ‘virtual piano keyboard’. But on the other hand, you get a totally different feel for playing melodies and controlling your audio software with a MIDI keyboard controller. I use M-Audio Oxygen 61.
Here’s more helpful articles:
Tips on Buying a MIDI Keyboard
Discussions related to subject:
Best MIDI controller keyboard?
best midi keyboard for fl studio?
5. Sofware – DAW
Get the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). The DAW is an software environment where you actually create and compose the music. Based on my own experience, I recommend FL Studio. It’s a very powerful, easy to use music making software and you can produce just about any type of music you want with it: hip hop, rap, r&b, house, dubstep, chill-out, film music, etc. FL Studio is MADE for electronic music. I’ve been using it for years now and all my music has been produced with FL Studio.
Other good and well known DAW’s are Ableton Live, Cubase, Sonar, Reason, Reaper and Logic (Logic is only for Mac) and there’s some free alternatives too.
I’ve been working with few different kind of music making software: Ableton Live, Cubase, Sonar (the earlier versions) and Reason, but I’ve always came back to FL Studio. Why? Because of the workflow and interface. In FL Studio the workflow is unbeatable and that counts a lot because – IMO – it goes hand in hand with how well you are able to realize your musical ideas (NOTE: if you decide to buy FL Studio, I have a special link which gives you 10% off the regular price).
Ok, enough about praising the FL Studio now :) Remember, this was just a recommendation and my personal opinion. What works for me may not work for you and ultimately, choosing the DAW is something you have to do yourself and you do that by testing. Download the demos, test them throughly and pick the one you feel most comfortable with. And learn it inside out.
Here’s links to some of the most well known and popular music making software.
Cubase & DEMO
Logic Pro (Logic is for Mac only)
Pro Tools
SONAR
Ableton Live
FL Studio
Reason
Reaper
Here’s two freeware DAWs:
Ardour
Zynewave Podium
6. Software – VST synthesizers (VSTi) and VST effect plugins

(Check introduction to VST)  VST synthesizers and effects are MUST if you’re going to start making music digitally with computer. VSTi’s (VST instruments) are virtual synthesizers that produce different kind of sounds. You can use them just like you would use real hardware synths – only difference is that they’re software and you install them as plugins (some work as stand-alone too) to your DAW which acts like a host to these synths and you then use them to compose melodies and make music.
There’s a lot of VST effect units as well such as reverb, eq, compressor, delay, chorus, phaser, some special fx, etc.
You can find  tons of free VST plugins in the net. Just Google for “free vst plugins”, “free vsti” or “free soft synths”. Or check out this website. If you have money, I highly recommend Native Instruments stuff. Check out the demos of synths like Absynth, FM8, Massive, Reaktor. These are suitable for almost anykind of electronic music style. Also, reFX has some quality synths like Vanguard for example. It can produce many kind of sounds from huge basses to lush pads and sharp leads and arps. And Nexus 2 , which is their flagship, is TOTALLY AWESOME sounding ‘all around’ rompler. It has sounds for practically anykind of musical style from trance to house to hiphop to ambient to film music.
Moreover, check out some of the IK Multimedia stuff. I have all of their virtual synths and I especially love Miroslav Philharmonik which has very good orchestral sounds.
Furthermore, check out H.G Fortune synths like ProtoPlasmTSMPro, STS-33 and Artvera’s Golden ASET. These can produce some really beautiful and experimental pads and background sound and the price is very low.
All of these virtual synths are very good for electronic music.
Check these well known commercial soft synth and effect manufactures:
Native Instruments
U-he
ReFX
Arturia
IK Multimedia
Ohm Force
Cakewalk
Spectrasonics
East West
Garritan
List of free ones:
There’s just too much of them to list here one by one so here’s a links for places where you can browse and download whatever you want
Freeware VST plugins
Dontrack.com
VSTplanet.com
Audiomastermind.com
Freemusicsoftware.org
Musicradar.com
7. Software – audio editor
Even though most of the DAWs have a basic set of tools for editing audio, separate audio editor is recommended for editing samples and doing final adjustments for your songs like cutting, encoding to MP3 before you let them go public. I recommend Sound Forge Audio Studio. It’s cheap yet versatile. There are free alternatives as well like Audacity.
8. Samples
You need a bunch of samples as well. Usually samples are used for drums, percussions, effects, etc. There are thousands of commercial sample packs which are usually high quality and cost anywhere from $10-$200 or more. Sample packs are mostly genre specific meaning they contain samples that are suitable for a certain musical genre, but you can use whatever samples in whatever genre you wan’t – it’s up to you and your imagination.
Sample packs consists usually of single drum hits like bassdrums, snares, hihats, handclaps, crash cymbals, percussion sounds, synth hits, bass sounds and so on which you can use to build your own beats and grooves. Most of the sample packs includes loops as well well: drumloops, bassloops, synthloops, fx loops. (Loops are short, ready made grooves or melodic compositions which you can use in your own music). I use drumloops a lot to strengthen the rhythmic sections of my songs.
When you buy a commercial sample pack, you buy the license to use the samples and most (if not all) are roaylty free meaning if you create a song which uses samples from these sample packs, you don’t have to pay any additional fees to the sample manufacturer.
For some good quality single drum hits for making your own hip hop beats, I recommend checking out The Producers Choice website.
Here’s more links to some well known sample manufacturers and online shops:
Big Fish Audio
Loopmasters
Primeloops
Vengeance
Best Service
Ueberschall
Producerloops
Soundstosample
SoundsOnDemand
There’s also TONS of free samples available in the net. Here’s some links to some of the free sample resources:
Free samples
Linklist for tons of free samples
FLstudiomusic.com
Sampleradar
Thesample.net
Okay, so now that you have your hardware, software and sample collections in place, you ask: how do I make that electronic music then?
9. Listen electronic music and learn
Let me tell you how I learned to make electronic music (trance) in a first place: I listened what other artists do and started to do the same. Just like many painters have learned to paint by studying and copying other peoples work, same goes to electronic music. (I don’t mean that you should copy the song melodies and ideas. Songs and ideas are copyrighted and there’s legal consequences if you take a eg. a melody from another song, and use it as your own without permission from the original author). So before I was able to make my own trance -song, I listened a lot of other producers trance songs, “analyzed” them and finally got the hang of how they were built.
So, in order to learn how to make electronic music, I would recommend taking these steps:
  • Learn the basics of your music making software first. Of course, you need to be familiar with your DAW before you can do anything with it . Learn the basics of your software first.
  • Decide the musical style or genre you wan’t to make music in.
  • Get some songs from that genre. Go to Beatport.com - it’s the most popular electronic music online shop and you can find all the most popular songs from every electronic music genre there.
  • Listen HOW the song is built. Take a song you like, listen it carefully – over and over again and pay attention. Analyze it. Learn the song “structure” first. Every song in whatever genre follows some sort of common and logical structure – including the different styles in electronic music. Try to get a hang of what the structure is in your favourite song: how does it progresses, how long is the intro and breakdown.. In other words, WHAT happens and WHEN. Here’s a few thoughts about song structures:
If we think popular radio songs (in rock, pop genre) they’re typically 3-4 minutes long and many of them follow this kind of structure:
[intro]->[verse]->[chorus]->[verse]->[chorus]->[bridge]->[chorus]->[outro]
OR chorus can also work as intro. Then the song structure would go like this:
[chorus(intro)]->[verse]->[chorus]->[verse]->[chorus]->[bridge]->[chorus]->[outro]
There’s few other variations as well, but I think these are the most common ones. Just check out Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right” or Katy Perrys “Hot And Cold” for example. Or any other popular radio pop song. They all follow pretty much the same structure.
Check out these articles for more info about popular song structures. Yeah, they’re about pop, but it helps you to get a hang of the idea of song structures and you can apply the same principles to electronic music as well.
However, In uplifting trance or dance music that is generally aimed for club’s, structure is a bit different than in main stream pop music. Different parts are longer and usually intro is like one big buildup to the breakdown. If you’re into trance music, you might wan’t to check out my tutorial about trance song structure and how it progress.
Here’s one commong structure in uplifting trance music:
[intro]->[breakdown]->[the thing after the breakdown, "release", "climax", "drop" or whatever it's called]->[outro]
Or a little longer version:
[intro]->[breakdown]->[the thing after the breakdown, "release", "climax", "drop" or whatever it's called]->[another breakdown]->[outro]
Ok, I try to explain it a bit more:
[intro] -> This is the buildup to the breakdown from the beginning.
[breakdown] –> This is where the  intro elements usually disappears completely(drums and such) and you introduce your musical idea which could be a nice, emotional and uplifting melody.  Let’s call it the “hook”. In here you also start to build tension towards the “climax” / “release” that comes next ->
["release" / "climax" / "drop"] – This is the best part. The “hook” together with drums and everything.  This is the “climax” (or “drop”) where everything explodes and plays together. Very typical in uplifting trance. At this point, people will typically go NUTS on the dance floor lol ->
[outro] -> Things are fading out towards to the end.
That’s it basically. However, if we compare recent trance music to what it was a few years ago, it has changed a bit, but at least in uplifting trance the structure is basically still the same.
When you start to create your own song, I suggest you pick up your favourite song and load it into your DAW and – no, do not copy the song itself, but use the song structure like a reference to see what happens and when.
  • Pay attention to the sounds: again, listening your faourite song, what kind of sounds it has? Saw lead synth sounds, square wave bass sounds, warm pads, weird effected sounds are all the basic elements in electronic music. Try to hear what kind of sounds your favourite song has and try to replicate these sounds with your virtual synths. Many of the virtual synths have readily programmed preset sounds for various electronic music styles. Use them to your advantage.
  • Melodies. What kind of melodies the song has? Some basic chords and chord progressions are widely used in trance for example, but there’s definetely room for fresh ideas so I would suggest you to try something completely new. Don’t do what everyone else does.
  • Sound effects. Swooshes, sweeps and “explosions” are some commonly used effects in electronic music. You can find these from almost any sample pack you’re going to buy or download from the net.
Here’s some helpful guides on various electronic music styles:
Hip Hop Beat Construction Made Easy
Hip Hop Beats: Song Structure
Understanding Trance Music
Understanding Basic Trance Structure
The structure of a trance track
Dubstep Structure
7 Day Song Tutorials
Also, go to Youtube and do a search on “how to make hip hop” or “how to make trance”, you find tons of tutorial videos there.
Seriously, I think the best way to learn how to make electronic music is to listen it a lot and then try to do the same. But remember, keep it original and dont be afraid to try something completely new. There’s lots of room for fresh ideas!
Next, a few short words about the production itself.
10. Start with the drums and bass..
I’ve found it’s best to first build the drumgroove /beats. At this point, the sample packs I mentioned earlier come in handy. You can also use the ready made drumloops to help you to build your grooves. Whatever the style is going to be, with a cool drumgroove /beat it’s much easier to start to build a bass groove on top of it and other instruments as well. Remember to make drums and bass work together. They’re one of the most important elements in anykind of electronic music that has a beat. Really, I recommend to put a GREAT effort on these two.
11. … and add the synth melodies
Again, this is where the VST synths come in handy. Start building a melody on top of the drums and bassgroove. Like mentioned earlier, many VSTi’s have several ready made quality preset sounds to start with. These will help you to get going. However I also recommend to experiment and twiddle and fiddle with the knobs, sliders and buttons and see what happens. You can come up with some really original and wild stuff just by experimenting with the different parameters in your synths.
Next, few words about mixing.
12. Mixing – give a power to the beat
When I mix my songs (if it’s a dance music), I  give most “power” to the drums. Bassdrum to be exact. In most electronic music, drums are the element that should be heard clearly. Then, “according to drums”, I level the bass and other instruments. I use drums as the basis for how I mix other instruments in my song. I just make sure drums are punchy and loud enough and if some other instrument is trying to compete with drums (or bass in this matter), I equalize the low out a bit or simply drop down the level of that instrument. I use the drums like a “yardstick” to make other instruments fit in to the mix.
13. Mixing – hear how pro’s mix and try to do the same
Again, listen to your favourite songs in the same genre you’re trying to make music in and notice how they’re mixed. What kind of sounds stand out and why? How does your song sound compared to your favourite, professionally mixed songs?
Here’s a tip: try listen your mixes through as many different sound systems as possible: car stereos, home stereos, through ipod with those little earplugs – basically everywhere and try to make it sound as good as possible on all of these systems. Try to find the balance.
I have to say that mixing is one of the most hardest part in music making (or should I say mixing GOOD is the hardest part). It’s something you won’t learn overnight. There’s a lot to learn: how to use eq, compression, limiter, reverb etc. It takes quite a lot practice and trial and error to make mixes sound decent, but dont’ worry, it’s not an impossible task. It just takes some time.
14. Beware of ear fatigue. Take a break or continue producing in the next day
It has happened to me several times, that I thought I’ve made a killer song in a day and then in the next day when I listen the song again, it sounds like garbage: all the sound levels and equalization settings are out of balance or there are elements that doesn’t seem to fit in the mix at all. And then I usually get frustrated and and dump the whole song! This can happen if you produce music for several hours non-stop: your ears get tired and in the end of the day you can’t hear things in as balanced anymore as with “fresh” ears. So, my advice is this: try not to finish a whole song in one day, spare your ears and leave something for a next day.
15. Links to forums you should start to checking out

Here’s a bunch of forums where I have learned quite a lot. Lot of audio professionals are hanging around in these forums. Read the discussions and ask away: