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How to Start Producing Music

March 25, 2019
Charles Hoffman
Learn about the music production software, hardware, and skills you need to start producing music.
An Akai MPK Mini MIDI keyboard.

Producing music is a wonderful creative outlet, an excellent way to express yourself, and it’s fun! The two biggest concerns people have before diving into music production is that they’re afraid they can’t afford it and that their lack of music theory knowledge is going to hold them back.

Luckily, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to start producing really great music, and you can learn music theory later on. What’s important is that you keep an open mind and approach music production with an optimistic attitude.

This guide is going to walk you through all of the software and hardware you need to start producing music on your computer. If you can’t afford everything on this list at once, don’t worry. All you need get to get started is a computer and a digital audio workstation (DAW).

The rest of the equipment on this list is recommended in the order that I think it will provide the most noticeable upgrade to your set up, so feel free to collect different pieces of software and hardware as you become more invested in music production. Most gear is going to make producing music slightly easier, but it won’t always provide functionality beyond that of which your DAW is capable of; keep this in mind.

If you have the cash to spend, and you know you’re going to get serious about music production, you can purchase all of the hardware mentioned in this guide by viewing our Music Production Starter Kit.

1. Download a DAW

A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is the type of software that’s used to produce music. It aims to provide you with the recording, production, mixing, and mastering abilities of an analog recording studio.

The music you hear on the radio may sound complicated, but every song can be broken down into its individual components. This concept is most easily demonstrated by taking a look at live acoustic performances. A simple acoustic song like “Muscle Memory” by Lights can be recorded using two tracks within your DAW; one for the vocal, and one for the guitar.

In the following video, you’ll see that one microphone is placed in front of Lights’ mouth to record her vocals, and a second microphone is placed in front of the guitar. In your DAW, these recordings will be captured on two separate tracks, which will allow you to process the recordings independent of one another.

This simple concept remains constant, even as you start to add more elements to a song. You’ll just end up having to record audio to more tracks. The following performance of “Drown” by Bring Me The Horizon contains two vocal tracks, two guitar tracks, a bass track, a keyboard track, and likely a handful of tracks dedicated to the percussionist triggering audio samples off to the right-hand side of the video.

Even seemingly intricate EDM tracks can be broken down into their individual components. “LEGEND” by Tha Trickaz uses an incredibly complex arrangement, relying on tons of evolving sound design, and various samples. At the end of the day, a song like this is constructed in a DAW the same way as a song like “Muscle Memory” by Lights; there’s just more happening.

I like to think of producing music like drawing a picture. You may start off with just a rough sketch on a piece of paper, but by adding more lines and refining the image, you end up with a beautiful piece of art; writing music works in the same way. Most people start with a simple idea like a chord progression, or repeating sound, and expand on their song one track at a time. This substantially simplifies the process of writing music, and makes creating songs with multiple layers manageable.

It's obvious now that songs are constructed by layering different sounds together, but to do this, you need a DAW. Getting a bit more technical, the big question is which DAW should you use? No single DAW is better than all the others; each one has its pros and cons. The best DAW is indeed the one that you’re able to work with most comfortably. Every DAW is going to allow you to do more or less the same thing, so committing to one DAW and learning it inside and out is essential.

You can download a demo of most of the DAWs I’m about to cover. Some of them come in the form of various different versions; the more expensive versions offer more functionality. As your needs increase over time, you can upgrade to the more comprehensive versions of the software you've chosen.

Logic Pro X (Most Affordable)

Logic Pro X is a great option if you're on a Mac. It’s relatively affordable when compared to other DAWs, and provides all the functionality you could ask for. One of its biggest strengths is its comp folders feature, making it my go-to DAW for recording instruments and vocals. It comes with some potent stock processing tools and a massive library of Apple Loops, which are great for beginning music producers. Learn how to use Logic Pro X: Start the Logic Pro X video course now.

Ableton Live (Fastest Workflow)

Ableton Live is one of the more popular DAWs out there for both Mac and Windows. It has a steep learning curve, so it takes a while to get the hang of, but once you master it, it provides an incredibly fast workflow. I wrote a guide called “Learn Ableton Live in 15 Minutes” that’s worth checking out if you decide to demo Ableton. This DAW excels in the realm of creativity but slightly lacks in the recording department. If you plan to create live performances at some point, Ableton offers a whole swath of live routing capabilities; it’s called Ableton Live for a reason. Another great thing about this DAW is that because of its popularity, plenty of people use it in their YouTube tutorials. Learn how to use Ableton Live: Start the Ableton Live video course now.

Studio One (Most Well-Rounded)

Studio One is a DAW that’s been drawing a lot of attention lately and is available for both Mac and Windows. Its layout is fantastic, and lots of hardware and software integrates nicely with it. It offers some very cool advanced features, like the ability to apply plugins to individual audio clips. I currently rely mostly on Ableton Live for the heart of my productions, and Logic Pro X for recording, but Studio One is starting to look increasingly enticing due to how well-rounded it's set of features are. Learn how to use Studio One: Start the Studio One video course now.

Pro Tools (Best for Recording)

Pro Tools has been known as the industry standard DAW for both Mac and Windows for years, but before you go out and buy it, let me explain what this means. It’s been the industry standard DAW for recording studios for years. If you plan to primarily record audio, Pro Tools is a great option. However, if most of the music you want to make involves the use of software synthesizers and samples, I think some of the other DAWs mentioned already will work better for you. Learn how to use Pro Tools: Start the Pro Tools video course now.

Keep in mind that once you learn how to use one DAW, switching to another DAW isn't that difficult. I don’t recommend switching between DAWs very often, since it's a tedious process. Although, if the DAW you’ve chosen doesn’t provide the functionality you need, swapping to another one is a possibility. You aren’t bound to the DAW that you initially decide to use, so don’t stress about it. Just download the demo of at least one of these DAWs and start experimenting with it.

2. Write Your First Song

You've completed the recommended video course for your DAW, but now what? The best way to continue learning how to produce music is by trying to create original compositions, and overcoming technical hurdles as you run into them. It takes most people who’ve never touched a DAW around a month of semi-regular practice to create something reminiscent of music. Don’t be discouraged if it takes you a little longer; everyone learns at a different pace.

I recommend that you create your first song entirely with loops. A loop is an audio file that contains a sound, or multiple sounds, that will play back cohesively when repeated. The idea here is to get used to structuring a song into different sections. A website like Splice will allow you to download royalty-free loops and other samples for use in your productions.

In lots of pop music, a song's structure may consist of an intro, first verse, pre-chorus, chorus, interlude, second verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and then an outro. For EDM this structure may consist of an intro, breakdown, buildup, drop, interlude, breakdown, buildup, drop, and then an outro. Practice arranging loops in a way that gives rise to something that evolves over time. By approaching the process of producing music from a macro level, you won't get caught up with the micro details. Tangible results are encouraging and will motivate you to create even more music.

How you structure a song is based on the genre of music you’re trying to create. By listening to other music, you’ll be able to identify points at which the energy of the songs change, and structure your own song in the same way. When starting out, trying to recreate what you hear in other songs is one of the best ways to learn how to produce music.

If you’re brand new to music production, most of what you make for the first couple weeks is going to sound like complete garbage; this is normal. Watching someone else work, and copying what they do, will expedite your learning process. Once you've finished the video course that teaches you how to navigate the DAW you've chosen, write your first song with one of the following walkthroughs:

3. Learn About Music Theory

Music theory is the study of the practices and possibilities of music. It concerns itself with the methods and concepts composers use when creating music. Music theory is something that you can continue to learn throughout the entirety of your life, but there’s some basic music theory that’s going to help you write songs.

Most music that you hear on the radio is relatively simple from a music theory perspective, so unless you’re trying to create classical music or jazz within your DAW, you can get by with a relatively basic understanding of theory. This is excellent news because it doesn’t actually take that long to learn basic music theory.

I recommend reading Music Theory for Computer Musicians by Michael Hewitt; it walks you through music theory from the ground up. This book made it into the list of “7 Essential Books Every Music Producer Must Read.”

Check out the following video to learn all the fundamental music theory you need to know as a music producer within 30 minutes.

4. Learn About Sound Design

Sound design is the art and practice of creating sounds for various purposes. It includes recording and synthesizing sounds for use in music, television, films, and video games. Sound design is an entire field of its own, and some people work professionally as sound designers.

I highly recommend checking out “The Beginner’s Guide to Audio Synthesis.” It walks through various forms of synthesis and explains how they work. Having a general understanding of synthesis will help you create custom sounds within your DAW.

You should own at least one quality software synth that you’re familiar with. Software synths are third-party software that integrate with your DAW; standard formats include virtual studio technology (VST) and audio units (AU).

Learning how to use a synth can take a while, but just like a DAW, once you know how to use one, it becomes a lot easier to learn how to use other ones. If you want some help picking a software synth, read “5 of the Best Plugin Synths on the Market” for a push in the right direction.

5. Learn About Mixing and Mastering

Once you’ve written a couple songs, you’re going to realize that even if the arrangements are ok, they still don’t really sound like the songs on the radio. The reason for this is that you need to learn more about mixing and mastering. Mixing is the process of combining the different elements of your song together, and mastering is the process of formatting your song for distribution.

Before you even attempt to take a crack at mixing and mastering, you need to get yourself a pair of quality studio headphones like the wildly popular Audio-Technica ATH-M50x. They’ll allow you to perceive your song in a way that avoids coloring the sound and that causes you to make uninformed mixing and mastering decisions.

A structured video course is going to be your best friend when you begin mixing and mastering your music. Two great video courses that are worth checking out include Mixing Breakthroughs and Mastering Demystified with Justin Colletti; these courses aren’t genre-specific. If you’re looking for tutorials that are genre-specific, Matthew Weiss has created a number of great videos that you may find useful via Mixthru.

Stock audio effects are great, but third-party plugins can make mixing and mastering easier. The plugin bundle that I always recommend to beginners who want to expand their assortment of mixing and mastering tools is the Waves Horizon bundle. It includes tons of different plugins and comes at a great value.

Some other plugin bundles to take a look at are the FabFilter Total Bundle, iZotope’s Music Production Suite 2, and Native Instruments Komplete Ultimate. If you click through to any of these links, you’ll see that these bundles can be quite expensive. You don’t need them to produce quality music, but owning them can help simplify and streamline the process.

6. Perform Your Arrangements

If you come from a piano background, or just want a more tactile way to go about writing melodies and chord progressions, a MIDI keyboard is going to be your best friends. MIDI instruments use a musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) standard to communicate information like pitch and velocity with other MIDI instruments, as well as computers. Playing melodies and chord progressions, as opposed to programming them, is a great way to humanize your music.

MIDI keyboards don’t actually produce sound. Instead, they allow you to trigger sounds within your computer; they’re controllers as opposed to sound sources. For example, you could use a MIDI keyboard to play a multi-sampled drum kit like Addictive Drums 2, or a multi-sampled string instrument like RealGuitar. Alternatively, you could use a MIDI keyboard to control a synth like Serum.

A very popular MIDI keyboard is the Akai MPK Mini MKII. It’s affordable, compact, and provides access to different MIDI mappable keys, beat pads, knobs, and buttons. There’s even an X-Y joystick you can use to record automation in your DAW.

If you want to step up your MIDI controller game, Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol S88 MK2 is a great option. It has 88 fully-weighted keys and integrates exceptionally well with Native Instruments’ plugins. As a pianist, this MIDI keyboard should make you feel right at home and provide you with all the expressive functions you're looking for.

7. Explore Studio Monitors and Acoustic Treatment

Studio monitors are the big speakers that you see in music studios. In comparison to a pair stereo speakers that you set up in your living room for casual listening, studio monitors tend to be quite "revealing." Instead of coloring the sound they produce to enhance the listening experience, they make issues (like harsh hi-hats) abundantly obvious, which lets you identify and correct these problems. Unfortunately, new producers don't really know what they're getting themselves into when they buy their first pair of studio monitors, which means they often end up wasting their money on overpriced products. In the following video, I explain what to look for in a quality pair of studio monitors, and I provide you with some great budget-friendly studio monitor recommendations.

Connecting a pair of studio monitors to your computer is easy enough—you just need an audio interface. An audio interface, like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, allows you to convert analog signal into digital signal and vice versa. You connect it to your computer with a USB cable and it lets you to record instrument level signals, microphone level signals, and line level signals. It will also let you to play back audio from your computer through a set of professional studio monitors.

Effectively integrating a set of studio monitors with your room requires that you invest in acoustic treatment; this is where things can start to get really pricey. Tuning the acoustics of your room involves an assortment of absorption and diffusion materials. The goal is to achieve a mixing position with a relatively flat frequency response; doing this will ensure that your mixes are colored as minimally as possible when played back on other systems.

You need to think of studio monitors as a single component of a more complex system that involves your room. All rooms are different and require specialized acoustic treatment. Bedroom studios are less than ideal for mixing and mastering music, but you can definitely treat them well enough to produce professional quality music. The following articles will provide you with all the information you need to apply effective acoustic treatment to your home studio:

Most people reading this guide aren’t ready to drop $1,000+ on speakers and acoustic treatment. You may not even have the space for a set up like this, and that’s okay. Like I said already, all you need to start making great music is a computer and a DAW. When I started producing music, I had friends writing amazing songs using stock audio effects and Apple earbuds. Expensive equipment doesn’t guarantee great music.

8. Develop an Effective Practice Routine

Since music production is a skill that needs to be learned, it’s in your best interest to practice regularly. This means opening up your DAW and spending a little bit of time each day creating something new. You don’t need to write an entire song every day, but try to chip away on at least one project. Look up a YouTube tutorial on how to do something that you were struggling with the day before, and put what you’ve learned into practice.

A good rule of thumb is to split your time into 20% research and 80% practice. By applying what you’ve learned to your production process, it will stick with you and become part of your routine. People who are great at producing music have exceptional production habits. They've put in thousands of hours of practice and have refined their workflow, which allows them to work quickly and effectively.

Initially, you want to spend your time creating a high quantity of work. Don’t bother getting caught up with perfection; it’s a waste of time because you won't have all the necessary skills to execute your ideas when you're just starting out. Each time you finish a song, you’ll have learned something new, and the next song you write will be a little bit better. Just make sure that you’re actively searching for the answer to problems that you run into while producing music.

After you’ve written around 100 songs, it may be time to switch your focus to quality. At this point, you should hopefully possess the skills necessary to take a song from start to finish and be able to refine it to the point where it sounds like something that may be heard on the radio.

Learning how to create music is a non-linear process, and everyone learns at their own rate. There are plenty of different sub-topics like music theory, sound design, recording, production, mixing, and mastering that you need to educate yourself on. You may choose to focus on sound design one day, and mixing the next. As long as you make a point of learning something new every day, you’ll see impressive growth over time.

To jump-start your music production journey, get started with the following video.

The Black Ghost Audio blog offers plenty of free articles on music production that you can read to further your understanding. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get these articles delivered directly to your news feed.

My personal favorite way to stay up-to-date on music production tutorials, news, and gear reviews is to use an RSS feed reader. RSS feed readers allow you to gain direct access to a blog's content, without the clutter that comes along with social media. Check out "12 of the Best Music Production RSS Feeds" to learn how to set up an RSS feed reader and get started with some great learning resources.