by Anders Johanson January 10, 2021 10 min read
There are two ways you can create electronic songs. The first way, and the more traditional way, is to use electronic pads and keyboards. Companies like Korg and Yamaha make instruments like these. They can get expensive, but they're definitely worth it if you want to make this type of music. The second way is to use your computer or tablet to make electronic songs. This is cheaper and more common, but requires a bit more knowledge on how to use the software required to make the music.
You need two main things to make electronic music: a sequencer and synthesizers. A sequencer is similar to the tape recorders you've used in school, except instead of recording sound it records notes that you play on your keyboard. You can also use it to edit those notes using special software. Other types of sequencers work more like a tape recorder, where you can record anything you're doing directly onto the track. In addition to a sequencer, you'll also need something to make sounds with. This is called a synthesizer. There are two main types of synthesizers: softsynths and hardware synths. A softsynth is a synthesizer you can run on your computer. You just download the software and you're ready to go. Unfortunately, even the cheapest models are still pretty expensive, but there are some free and cheap ones if you do some research.
A hardware synth is an electronic instrument that you need to plug into your recording device. Some cost as much as a high-end laptop or tablet, others cost less than $100. There are many different types of hardware synths, and we only have the space to discuss a few of them.
The bare minimum you need to start producing electronic music is a computer and music software. When it comes to computers, you have a choice between a laptop and a desktop PC. The obvious advantage of a laptop is its portability that'll allow you to make music on the road. However, that's pretty much where the advantages end. A desktop PC that costs the same as a laptop will always have the upper hand in all the other aspects like processing speed and hardware longevity. So if you're planning on producing mostly at home, you should, without a doubt, go for a desktop computer.
For a beginner producer, any computer that was bought in the last ten years will probably be adequate to start making EDM because music software has very modest system requirements. The rule of thumb is, if your PC can run Windows 7 and above, it will be powerful enough for music production. However, that's not to say you'll never need an upgrade. As you become more experienced, you'll likely use more external VST plugins that can be very CPU intensive, and your projects will grow in complexity requiring more RAM. Your sound library will grow over time as well, so it'll be beneficial to have an SSD because you'll be able to access and load samples faster. In other words, an older computer shouldn't stop you from producing, but the music software will feel more responsive if you have better hardware.
In professional circles, the music production software is often referred to as a digital audio workstation or DAW for short. As a beginner, you'll face the dilemma of choosing the right one. There are two ways to go about it. You could download a bunch of trial versions and see which DAW feels more intuitive to you. Alternatively, you could pick a software that your favorite EDM producer uses and take it from there. Keep in mind that it won't be the DAW that'll make you a good producer. Even if some programs are recommended more often than others, they all have similar functionalities. Modern-day music software is versatile, capable of covering all the bases of music production from composition to mixing and mastering. You can use pretty much any popular DAW to make a professional EDM track from start to finish.
Once you pick a DAW, you need to stick with it for a while and learn how to use it. Seeing how fast other producers can make a track in their preferred program might be discouraging at first because you can't do the same. What you need to understand is that there are no tricks or shortcuts to learning a workflow of a DAW. Your familiarity with the software will naturally develop over time as you spend hours working in it every day.There are music schools and online courses that teach how to use a DAW, but going that route is not a requirement. Most EDM producers are self-taught; they never took any classes and just kept trying stuff on their own until it clicked. Don't forget that you won't be alone on your journey. Many EDM artists are eager to share their production techniques with the community. In the age of the internet, you can learn anything online, which is especially true for music production. Whatever obstacle you'll come up against, there will be a YouTube video or an article written about it. From simple things like adding an audio track to more complicated topics like sound synthesis, there's no shortage of online tutorials related to DAWs. And if you really want to dig deep into the software features, you can always read the manual. The developers put a lot of effort into making their DAWs beginner-friendly, and the manuals are not as dry and dull as you might think.
Well-known EDM artists tend to work in at least one of the following DAWs: Ableton Live, Logic Pro, FL Studio, Cubase, and Pro Tools. Apart from the DAW, they also use additional software in the form of VST plugins such as Serum, Native Instruments Suite, Sylenth, and more. Here's a shortlist of artists who had multiple hits in the Billboard dance charts and their preferred music tools:
Making good electronic music is hard if you're only a beginner. At first, there will be a big disconnect between what you want your track to sound like and how it will actually turn out when you finish it. Because of that, many producers procrastinate and prefer to watch YouTube videos on production techniques instead of experimenting and creating. The consequence is that many beginners end up getting stuck in the tutorial rut. Although it might feel like you're learning when you binge-watch a series of videos about mixing tips, you won't internalize those techniques unless you spend actual time practicing.
The best way to practice is to make a track. It might seem like an intimidating task, but it's possible to finish an EDM song in a day, even for a beginner, as long as you keep your expectations low. Your first song will be bad, that's almost a given, but the sooner you accept this reality, the quicker you can start making real progress. Producers who learn the fastest are usually those who can strike the right balance between learning from tutorials and getting hands-on experience inside the DAW.
Let's be clear — you do need to spend some time on your musical foundation and soak in some key concepts related to electronic music production. Once you have that knowledge, however, you should invest as much time as you can putting theory into practice. As with everything in life, the real learning comes from trying, failing, and eventually succeeding. Your producer journey will be a lot smoother the sooner you subscribe to that way of thinking.
In general, when approaching music production, it's a good idea to focus on the process first rather than on the results. You shouldn't sabotage your sound on purpose, but you shouldn't be too critical of the quality either. There's probably not a single producer in the world who picked up a DAW for the very first time and made a hit record right out of the gate.
Making electronic music can be perceived as hard because you have to struggle and grow as an artist before your tracks start to sound good. Becoming a talented music producer has a lot to do with having the right mindset and pushing through the moments where it feels like you aren't getting ahead. You'll go through a phase where you'll make a lot of bad songs until a good one finally emerges. And even when you’re way past the basics and have a decent track record as a producer, occasionally, some of your stuff will still be mediocre. That's how creativity works, and there's no way around it.
It's not all doom and gloom, however. There's something inspirational in seeing your own growth and how your music improves compared to your older compositions. It's a lot easier to stay motivated if you truly understand that your initial music production skills are not representative of your potential and that you can get better if put in the work.
We haven't talked about one more hurdle to becoming a good music producer, and that's music theory. Learning music theory is both hard and necessary. The difficulty of it comes from the fact that it's such a broad subject. You'll master your DAW faster than music theory because the latter takes more time and experience to absorb.
If you do decide to learn music theory beyond the rudimentary knowledge, it'll be worth it. You don't have to be an accomplished composer to become an EDM producer, but music theory will play a role in every track you'll make, and knowing how to use it will allow you to be a lot more creative. Having a profound knowledge of music theory is like having a superpower. Once you internalize it, you'll make better music while working faster. Some producers can wing it and make tracks by ear following the "if it sounds good, it is good" credo. There's nothing wrong with that attitude, but if you commit to learning and practicing music theory, you'll be a much more versatile producer. Not only will you separate yourself from the masses, but composing music with a purpose instead of randomly stumbling through notes can also be very rewarding.
So far, we've talked about a computer and a DAW as the centerpieces of your home studio. It's fun to have additional equipment lying around, but it isn't necessary. You can make good music without any fancy gear, and buying equipment as a beginner will rarely translate to a better sound. It's best to focus on mastering the tools you have at your disposal right now instead of chasing the next piece of hardware. Most artists have built their home studios over time and gradually added new toys to their arsenal. So if you're just starting your producer journey, don't compare your humble setup to someone else's who's been making music for years. Between an experienced producer with a laptop and a beginner in a professional recording studio, the former will always make a better track.
However, if you're determined to get some equipment, here's the order in which you should get it:
Headphones will help you pick up lower frequencies that regular speakers can't reproduce. There are many options out there, and frankly, it doesn't matter which headphones you get as long as they are not earbuds and cover the whole ear. This way, you'll be able to hear the full frequency spectrum. There are special studio headphones made for referencing that have a flat frequency response. Typically they will cost you at least $100, and if you can afford it, there's nothing wrong with getting a pair. However, relying solely on your headphones can lead to bad mixes. To avoid it, you should be referencing your tracks on as many different sound systems as possible.
The next potential purchase could be a MIDI Keyboard. You could get a big or a small one, with drum pads or without — it won't make that much of a difference. MIDI Keyboards don't generate sounds on their own; you have to connect them to your computer via USB. When you press a key on the keyboard, your DAW will interpret it as if you clicked a note and play a sound depending on the selected instrument. Even the cheapest most basic MIDI controller has this functionality, so you won't have to break the bank. The beautiful thing about a MIDI keyboard is that it can become any instrument you want. Coming up with melodies and chords on a keyboard will feel a lot more intuitive than clicking in the notes with a mouse. Whether you are a trained pianist or someone who never touched a musical instrument before, a MIDI keyboard will help you with your music and make the whole process more fun.
The last item on the list are studio monitors. Most consumer speakers try to sweeten the sound; they boost specific frequencies to make the music more exciting. As a producer, you want speakers that don't emphasize anything and reproduce the full frequency spectrum as accurately as possible. Studio monitors are made precisely for that purpose; they will play the music without any coloration allowing you to make smart mixing decisions. Studio monitors sound like an essential piece of equipment, and you might rightfully wonder why headphones were prioritized in the list above. In short, if you want to get the most out of your studio monitors, you must treat your room acoustically, and that's not an undertaking a novice producer should worry about in the beginning.
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