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 previous musical experience is going to hold them back.
Luckily, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to start producing great music, and you can learn everything as you go, even if you didn't grow up playing instruments. 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, hardware, and skills you need to start producing music on your computer. All you need get to get started is a PC or a Mac, and some free music production software that I'll recommend in a moment.
But first, allow me to introduce myself! My name's Charles Hoffman, founder of blackghostaudio.com. I created Black Ghost Audio with the intention of making music production accessible to everyone. I've been producing music since 2012 and it's my mission to help you produce great music. This checklist will help you get started.
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, mixing, and mastering capabilities 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 voice, and a second microphone is placed in front of the guitar. In your DAW, these recordings will be captured to two separate audio tracks, allowing you to process the recordings independently.
This simple concept remains constant, even as you start to add more elements to a song. You’ll just need to record audio to more tracks in your recording software. 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 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 beef up the complexity of 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. 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.
Ableton Live is one of the most popular DAWs out there for both Mac and PC, and it's my personal recommendation. It has a somewhat steep learning curve but once you master it, it provides an incredibly fast workflow. This DAW excels in the realm of creativity, providing plenty of unique creative effects—which is why many hip-hop, pop, and EDM artists choose to use it. If you plan to create live performances at some point, Ableton offers an assortment of live routing capabilities as well; 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.
So you've downloaded a DAW, but now what? The best way to continue learning how to produce music is by creating original compositions and overcoming technical hurdles as you run into them. It takes most people who’ve never touched a DAW a few months of 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 audio loops. A loop is an audio file that contains a sound, or multiple sounds, that play back cohesively when repeated. At this point, the goal is to get used to structuring a song into different sections. There are websites that 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 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 each song changes, 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.
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. The more you know about music theory, the faster and easier it's going to be to write songs. If you want to make huge improvements to the quality of your music in a short period of time, focus on learning the basics of music theory—the return on your time investment will be tremendous.
At a basic level, music theory concepts that you should become familiar with include tempo, time signatures, note values, pitch, and intervals. As soon as you gain an understanding of keys and scales, you'll be able to work with a wide variety of audio loops because you'll understand how to fit them into your songs. With the appropriate training, you'll be able to start writing chords, chord progressions, rhythms, basslines, and melodies quite quickly.
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, you can get by with a relatively basic understanding of music theory. This is excellent news because it doesn’t actually take that long to learn basic music theory... if taught properly.
The problem is that if you ask a piano or guitar instructor to teach you music theory, they're going to teach it to you in the way that they were taught. Likely, this will involve time-consuming exercises that focus on muscle memory and reading music theory books targeted at children.
You can produce music with nothing more than your computer and a DAW. Although, if you want to make producing radio-quality music easier, it's wise to invest in a quality pair of studio headphones. These will allow you to hear your music in excellent detail, with much more accuracy than consumer listening devices like AirPods or laptop speakers. The result is that you'll be able to produce songs that sound great when played across a variety of playback systems.
An audio interface is a piece of hardware that's main purpose is to extend the audio recording and playback capabilities of your computer. If you want to record a vocalist using a studio microphone, or play audio from your computer using a pair of studio monitors (speakers), you’ll need an audio interface.
More specifically, an audio interface performs analog to digital (A/D) conversion and digital to analog (D/A) conversion. A/D conversion is the process of converting an analog audio signal, such as the one picked up by a microphone, into binary code that your computer can understand. D/A conversion is the opposite of A/D conversion, and converts digital audio files stored on your computer into analog audio signals that can be played back by headphones and speakers.
Beyond recording vocals, a quality audio interface lets you record with multiple microphones at once, capture the sound of various instruments like guitars and synths, make use of multiple sets of studio monitors, and process your recordings through external audio hardware like compressors, delays, and reverbs.
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.
Effectively integrating a set of studio monitors with your room requires that you invest in acoustic treatment. Tuning the acoustics of your room involves an assortment of absorption and diffusion materials. The goal is to achieve a mixing position (the spot where you sit when producing music) with a relatively flat frequency response; doing this will ensure that your music is 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 with the right type of acoustic treatment, you can produce radio-quality music at home.
Like I already said, all you need to start making music is a computer and a DAW. However, if your goal is to record instruments or vocals, you'll require some basic recording gear.
Not all music production gear is created equal. Some headphones are a drastically better value than others, and the same thing goes for audio interfaces and studio monitors.
Being able to record professional-quality vocals, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar/bass allows you to completely customize your songs. You no longer need to depend on audio loops or one-shots from sample packs.
If you sing or play instruments, this is a great way to integrate existing skills into your music. Assuming you primarily write computer-based music, as many EDM artists do, being able to record audio allows you to add a desirable live component to songs that helps your music connect with listeners.
One of the other benefits of learning how to record audio is that local artists will pay you to record them. This is a great way to make a couple hundred dollars each weekend, while building music industry connections.
Assuming these artists like the work that you do for them, they'll likely be happy to appear as featured artists on your songs. It doesn't take long to build a list of artists that you can call up for vocals if you're the go-to recording guy in your area.
While recording audio may seem like a simple and straightforward process, there's a lot that goes into it. If you've tried to record high-quality audio in the past, you've probably come to this realization.
You need to record in a sound-treated space to minimize background noise, set your input levels appropriately to avoid distortion, and select a microphone that's appropriate for the recording task at hand.
For example, a dynamic microphone with a cardioid polar pattern is a good choice when recording guitar amps; it can withstand extremely high sound pressure levels without distorting.
Mic-level signals are produced by microphones, instrument-level signals are produced by electric guitars and basses, and line-level signals are produced by hardware synths and effects. Different types of cables are used to route these signals around your studio.
Using the wrong type of cable or attempting to record one of these signals through an inappropriate input on your audio interface can result in dull recordings that are full of noise. When working with speaker-level signals, you can severely damage gear if you use the wrong type of audio cables.
Mixing refers to blending tracks together in a way that sounds good. For example, layering a vocal together with a guitar can result in mid-range frequency masking, in which the guitar muffles the sound of the vocals. Using appropriate mixing techniques, you can fix this type of issue along with others.
Taking it a step further, it's possible to enhance the desirable qualities of each recording, such as the intelligibility of the vocals and the brilliance of the guitar.
One of the main goals of mixing is to help listeners focus on the most important elements of your music, such as the vocals, by setting track levels appropriately. If the bass in your song is overpowering the vocals or lead synth, it can create a challenging and unpleasant listening experience.
There are various mixing tricks that you can leverage, such as using pink noise as a reference, to achieve a balanced mix even with no previous mixing experience.
Another one of the main goals while mixing involves tastefully distributing the elements of your song throughout the stereo field, which is a three-dimensional space created between the left and right speakers of stereo systems. This space consists of the dimensions of height, width, and depth.
The frequency content of a sound determines its height within the stereo field, whereas width is affected by the difference between left and right channel information. Factors such as volume level, dynamic range, and reverberation amount affect a sound's depth within the stereo field.
Learning how to place elements within the stereo field using appropriate mixing techniques allows you to create songs that sound balanced, rich, and full.
There are countless mixing tools available on the market as third-party software, but there are only 5 audio effects that you need to produce radio-quality music.
These tools include an equalizer, compressor, saturator, reverb, and delay. In some situations, you'll need to reach for a specialized tool, like pitch-correction software, but gaining an in-depth understanding of these 5 tools will allow you to mix 90% of songs.
The good news is that you don't need the fanciest or most expensive mixing tools on the planet. You can achieve professional-quality results using the stock effects included with your DAW... if you know what you're doing. It's more important that you understand how your tools work than it is to own the most advanced mixing tools on the market.
An equalizer like FabFilter's Pro-Q 3 is capable of advanced audio processing but it's near useless in the hands of someone who doesn't understand how to use it.
Mastering is the process of making a master copy of a song from which all other duplicates of the recording are created.
For vinyl distribution, mastering refers to creating a vinyl lacquer master, and back in the day of CDs, mastering meant making a glass CD master. With streaming services now dominating the music scene, the digital file that you upload to these services is referred to as the "master file."
Technically, and regardless of the quality, any file you export from your digital audio workstation (DAW) and upload to streaming services is considered a master file.
When someone tells you their song has been "mastered," they likely mean that stereo buss processing has been applied to the audio file; this is done in an attempt to enhance the audio file's playback quality for the destination format (vinyl, CD, streaming, etc.).
If you're mastering a song for vinyl or you're mixing the audio of a show for Netflix, there are precise formatting requirements that you need to adhere to.
For example, if the grooves cut into a vinyl record are too large, they can cause the needle of a record player to jump or skip. Additionally, if the dynamic range of the show you mix for Netflix is too small, the show could get rejected by Netflix.
Mastering a song for streaming services has its own set of requirements. You need to export your music at the appropriate sample rate and bit depth, as well as leave a sufficient amount of headroom so that your music survives the transcoding process of different streaming services. Failing to do this can result in songs that sound distorted once they've been uploaded.
Maximizing the loudness of your music is another part of the mastering process. You can increase the loudness of songs using a device called a limiter but many new producers struggle to make their songs as loud as other commercially released songs. The reason they struggle with this is that loudness is prepared for at the mixing stage of the production process and executed at the mastering stage. A poor quality mix can impede a song's loudness potential.
If you attempt to maximize the loudness of a song incorrectly, it can destroy the dynamic range of your mix and make your music sound dull and lifeless. There's a balancing act between dynamics and loudness that you need to be mindful of.
Since music production is a skill that needs to be learned, it’s in your best interest to practice producing music 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 should 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 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.
The first year of learning how to produce music is rough for most people. There's so much to learn that you spend most of your time searching for answers to trivial questions in online forums, rather than producing music. A lot of the information you come across in blog posts and YouTube videos is either too advanced, or it just isn't the right information. Many people give up before they get to the point that producing music becomes fun.
For this reason, I created Music Production for Beginners, which is an online video course that walks you through the process of producing three songs from start to finish. You learn how to write, record, mix, and master music at home in four weeks. No previous experience required.
Music Production for Beginners launches you past the awkward beginning stage of producing music, teaching you what it takes most people years to learn on their own. By the time you finish the course, you'll be able to confidently call yourself a music producer, and you'll have gained a well-rounded understanding of the music production skills and techniques taught at industry-leading music production schools.
How do I know this? Well, I wrote the curriculum for one of the most notable music production schools in Los Angeles, that people are willing to spend $20,000+ per year to attend in person.
Now, I want to make music production accessible to the masses. You shouldn't be required to move to Los Angeles or take out a huge loan to learn how to produce music like a pro.
Music Production for Beginners is a compilation of the most important music production lessons I've learned since 2012, bundled into a structured video course that you can watch at your own pace.
Learn the workflows, tips, and tricks that it took me a decade to figure out on my own. Get instant access to a music theory cheat sheet and home recording checklist that will streamline the music production process for you. Use my personal mixing project template and customizable mastering chain to write songs at lightning speed.
Everything you need to produce radio-quality songs is waiting for you. Click "Learn More" below to get started.