Digital Music Production [Epic Beginners Guide]

Do you wanna learn about music production? Maybe you have an intuition you could be really good at it. Well, if you found your way to this page. Your epic music quest begins today. This is a guide written with love and care, meant to cover some core knowledge you need to have with you. It’s full of information, good tips, definitely no fluff but with a little bit of sparkle. You’ll be ahead of everyone else. Let’s begin.

Choosing Your DAW

You’re going to need a DAW, a Digital Audio Workstation to get started with making music. It’s a program where you record any instruments or vocals, where you make drums, where you play virtual instruments. Everything in terms of music will happen within the DAW, so it’s a really big deal to find the right one.

Here are some tips for picking a DAW

  • Go for a reputable DAW that has a big userbase
  • Avoid the easiest ones, as they will limit your creativity by not having full functionality.
  • Try the DAW your favorite artists or composers use.
  • Get a DAW that has plugin support and that lets you use your own samples
  • Go for a few trials. See what connects with you.
  • The core of any DAW is the sequencer. Import a few samples, play them. If that doesn’t work smoothly, you might as well try another DAW.
  • Built-in instruments and effects are unique to every software and very handy to have, so it can be great to check out how many you get before downloading.
  • Don’t give up too early. It can be overwhelming when you open your DAW for the first time, but you will learn quickly if you’re determined.

Super Beginner Alternatives

If you get stuck trying to figure out what DAW to use and you don’t feel like you have the technical ability to work with the other DAWs. Consider getting your feet wet using Soundtrap or Garageband. They are the easiest, but they are not as professional as the other alternatives.

Soundtrap [Spotifys Unique Browser Music Maker]

Spotify Soundtrap is a full-fledged DAW available right in your browser. That’s right! On your phone, laptop, tablet. It doesn’t matter where. You get instruments, you get samples, you can record anything you wish. It’s absolutely astonishing that someone who just wants to get into music-making can pick this tool up and get started within seconds. Don’t get discouraged if it still takes a bit of time to learn.

GarageBand [Free for Iphone and Mac]

Garageband is the best beginner alternative hands down. It’s simplified and extremely competent. Features instruments and samples ready for you to use right away. This is a no-brainer. It’s free, it can be in your pocket and you can make full songs with it. It’s of superb quality and every built-in instrument feels really polished. This is a powerhouse of a DAW and it took Apple years of work to perfect it. What’s good about it, is that its works very similarly to professional DAWs and so your experience with it can be used in other software.

Here is a list of popular and free DAWs with notable features and prices. It’s meant to give you an overlook of whats available for you, because there are just so many alternatives to choose from. Go to some of their websites. See what you connect with.

DAWFeaturesPriceOperating System
Acid ProMelodyne Included$199Windows
AbletonGood Allround DAW$99+Windows, Mac
Bitwig StudioSamples Included$99Windows, Mac, Linux
CakewalkPaid Quality For FreeFreeWindows
CubaseHas Been Around The Longest$99+Windows, Mac
FL StudioPopular With The Electronic And Hip Hop Scene$99+Windows, Mac
GaragebandBeginner FriendlyFreeMac
LMMSOpen SourceFreeWindows, Mac, Linux
Logic ProPopular With Mac Users$199.99Mac
MixcraftSamples Included$199Windows
MulabSimple InterfaceFreeWindows, Mac
Pro ToolsPopular With Professionals$299/yearWindows, Mac
ReasonFeature Rich And Unique$399Windows, Mac
ReaperGood Allround DAW$60+Windows, Mac, Linux
SoundbridgeTouchscreen FriendlyFreeWindows, Mac
SoundtrapWorks In The BrowserFree or $7.99+/monthBrowser
Studio OneGreat For Mixing And MasteringFree
/$14.95Month
/$99.95+
Windows, Mac

Either go for buying a DAW that’s reputable, or go for a free alternative that has full functionality. That is one where you can use your own samples and install your own plugins.

We recommend FL Studio 20, It has a long history, a huge userbase, but first and foremost, they bring you lifetime upgrades. With nearly all other DAWs on this list, you will get charged whenever there is a big update. If you want to start out free, our recommendation for Windows users is Cakewalk and Garageband for Mac users.

What DAW do professionals use? Justin Bieber uses Logic, Hans Zimmer uses Cubase, Deadmau5 uses a combination of DAWs. It’s all over the place. With every popular DAW, there will be professional people using it. The most common software professionals use however is Logic, Ableton, Cubase, Pro Tools, and FL Studio.

How long does it take to learn a DAW? It can take few days to get acquainted with your DAW. It all depends on how motivated you are. Even if you can learn to create music very quickly, you will be learning new things for years to come.

Covering The Basics

In order to get you up to speed and familiar with different words and concepts. Let’s go over some basic functions and terminology.

Arrangement Window is the window where you arrange your loops, samples, and recordings into the song. This is the most important feature of any DAW, and everything is built around it. It’s a timeline and it always has a grid structure.

Loops are longer pieces of audio often containing many samples. They are called loops because most loops can be played on repeat.

Samples are like loops but they are smaller. A loop contains a drum rhythm, an entire melody, or a set of chords. Samples are often just smaller pieces of audio, containing just one drum hit, or one tone, or one chord.

Automation is when you automate changes in volume or different effects. It’s used so you can control when you want a certain volume when to activate an effect or how much you want of it.

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation, which is any type of software that is used to produce or edit music.

Plugins are add-on software used to add functionality to your DAW. It can be effects, virtual instruments, or utilities. It’s called plugins because, in a sense, they plug into the host software. Plugins play an important role in modern music production.

Getting Acquainted With The Music Making Process

So you’ve chosen a DAW and now you’ll just need a little more knowledge in your backpack before you head out on your epic music quest. Let’s talk about some techniques and utilites used within music making on computers.

What is Loop Based Music?

The easiest way to get started making music without knowing any instruments is by using samples and loops. These are small pieces of audio, containing drums, instruments, sound effects, and vocals.

You combine those loops to make music. The picture above shows a song made out of samples and loops that are put into what’s called a sequencer. Every DAW has one and it’s where you put your samples and loops so you can play and combine them. In any software you will use, it will look in a similar fashion.

Getting Loops and Samples

Over the years I’ve used freesound.com and Looperman.com to obtain those unique samples that arent available anywhere else. They are totally free and it’s great because you can pick which loops and samples you want and build your own library. The width and quality of your library are absolutely determining factors in how your music will sound.

Freesound is the best free resource for sound effects. They got a lot of special sounds like rain, birds, and explosions. But you’ll find the more common variety of samples there as well.

If you want to download more complete packages of samples try https://free-sample-packs.com/. However, to download free sample packs from any site you will often need to subscribe to newsletters and register accounts. It may be a bit tedious actually, but in the end, you will end up with some deliciously-sounding samples that you paid nothing for.

Of course, you can skip right through the processes of signing up for newsletters, and such. If you want to download great sample packs from the get-go, just buy a few from a site that sells them.

Buying Samples

All the online stores that sell plugins, also sell sample packs. There are also a massive number of small creators, selling their sample packs. Many creators and companies provide Free sample packs and they are great because you can determine their usefulness and quality. If you like it, just get some paid sample packs from the same providers.

Sample Subscription Services

There are also sample and loop subscription services. Just like with Spotify and Apple Music, where you have all the music you could wish for in one place. Those companies work the same way. You get access to a world filled with more samples than you could ever use. These are super useful services because getting good samples has always been a challenge. Those services completely demolish that, and you will have an absolute blast getting the best sounds on the market with ease. They are subscription-based and that means you pay monthly.

Instruments

What is Virtual Instruments?

You can make the best songs in the world, and never even touch a real instrument. With virtual instruments, you can play the violin, piano, guitar, flute, etc. Without ever touching an instrument. It’s all about using the power of your computer to make your music ideas a reality, without going through the tedious and lengthy process of learning instruments. There are mainly two types of virtual instruments and I’ll explain them to you now.

Sample Based

Sample-based instruments often use real recordings from real instruments. When you press a key or click on a button in your software, you play a recorded sample from the real instrument. While it may sound like it could never ever sound like the real deal. That’s far from the truth, often, it sounds just like the real instrument.

Spitfire Labs [Free]

Spitfire LABS is another great plugin that’s sample-based. As you can see from the picture, you can get many instruments to play around with and it’s totally free. There are many more available than you can see in the picture. Just pick which ones you want, install them and start playing. Definitely try the lap steel guitar! It sounds amazing.

Get Spitefire LABS here!

Waveform Generators

Waveform generator-based, are synthesizers. They generate sounds using mathematics and programming, to produce different waveforms. All sounds are waveforms and therefore if done well. Can produce any kind of sound.

KLEVGR SyndtSphere [Free]

KLEVGR SyndtSphere is by far the easiest synthesizer you can get for your plugin collection. It’s beginner-friendly because you don’t need to mess around with any settings, you can just scroll through the sphere to find a sound you like. Get it here!

If you need more plugins and effects in the future. Try KVR Audio, they have provided a free plugin database for many many years.

Here’s how to play virtual instruments

To play virtual instruments. You can use either your mouse, your computer keyboard, or a MIDI controller. In any DAW, the instruments will be controlled by notes played with virtual piano keys. You don’t really need to be able to play the piano to be able to control the instruments this way. But it does use the same layout.

When using virtual instruments. You have two options to record your music. Either, you press the record button in your DAW and play a few notes using the controller of your choice, or you add the notes manually. These techniques work for every virtual instrument in every DAW.

MIDI Files

You can always cheat and download MIDI files to get you started. Those files can contain chords, melodies, and rhythm. Instead of a sample, they contain data of which note to play. The good thing about MIDI files is that you can load them into the virtual instrument of your choice and get different sounds using the same melody, while a loop will forever sound the same.

Actually, since you are just getting started on this epic journey. I composed a few MIDI files for you if you need them. It’s just a few basic chords and some melodies.

For most DAWs you should be able to drag and drop the file into the DAW and it should import the melodies.

Stock Plugins And Effects

Every DAW comes with built-in effect and instrument plugins. Let’s look at the effects used. They are used to modulate your audio. For example, compressor and reverb are super handy to have for recorded vocals and guitars. It’s hard to get a professional result without them.

There are knobs everywhere, and they can look intimidating. Because you don’t know what they do. As a matter of fact, don’t ignore them because they look intimidating. Behind every plugin type, there’s a whole science. This is why certain elements of music production can take quite a long time to learn.

Know most types of plugins has a standardized interface. This means that you can watch a tutorial on the same type of plugin, without it being the exact same plugin.

Here is a rundown of most effects and what they do. As I said earlier. Don’t be discouraged if you think this is hard or if you dont understand. Effect plugins are not necessary to being making your songs. They are just used to Better them.

  • Compressor: Alters the volume shape of sound.
  • Limiter: Removes sounds above a volume threshold.
  • Equalizer: Controls the volume of different frequencies.
  • Saturation: A light type of distortion, often used for mastering purposes to accentuate audio.
  • Distortion: Clips audio past a volume threshold so that it flattens and creates square waves and new harmonics.
  • De-esser: Used for controlling shh and ess sounds in vocals.
  • Multiband Compressor: Works like a compressor but is used to control different frequency ranges at the same time
  • Autotune: Auto corrects the pitch of a vocal or instrument to the nearest note in a scale.
  • Reverb: Puts audio in a virtual space.
  • Chorus: Same sound is played twice at the same time with a difference in time
  • Flanger: Same sound is played twice at the same time with a lesser difference in time.
  • Phaser: Uses phase cancellation to produce a sweeping effect.
  • Volume modulator: Applies volume patterns to a mix or sample
  • Gate: Mutes sound below a volume threshold.
  • Bitcrusher: Reduces audio resolution.
  • Exciter: Accentuates high frequencies through EQ and distortion.
  • Filter: Cuts off frequencies in a given range.
  • Analyzer: Analyzes volume levels, dynamics, frequencies, and spatiality.
  • Stereo Expander: Widens or narrows the stereo width.

Peripherals

They told you, you need this, you need that. It’s never true. You don’t need anything other than your computer to begin making music. It’s how I started and it worked for many years. In fact, even though I own studio gear, I still use consumer headphones to make music. Because I like them, and you can think like that too. Be comfortable in that sense.

However, it can be nice to have a pair of headphones or speakers, as a laptop or phone speakers are generally of poor quality for music production. You do not need the following things, but eventually, you might want them.

Audio Interfaces

Audio interfaces are used to connect microphones and other instruments to your computer. They are always available for cheap, often around 100$. If you want to record vocals or guitars. This is an absolutely have to have. You just plug it in via USB and your good to go.

A nice benefit of Audio interfaces is that they have built-in audio processors, so you can use them as a soundcard. This offloads a lot of processing power from your computer to the soundcard. It’s going to free up resources and make things run faster.

MIDI Controllers

MIDI controllers come in all shapes and sizes. The common denominator is that they send MIDI data from the controller to your workstation. You use them to play virtual instruments with physical buttons and keys. Above you see two of the most common varieties, on the left a midi keyboard and on the right a pad grid. You can use your computer keyboard as a midi controller. For example, you can play a virtual piano with it. Although, getting a real MIDI controller will bring a lot of joy to your setup.

You can use your phone or your tablet as a virtual MIDI controller. There are apps for both Android and iPhone that do this.

For Iphone try: MIDI Studio and for Android: TouchDAW

FL Studio has its own MIDI controller app, for both Android and iPhone called ILRemote.

Studio Headphones And Monitors

Studio headphones and monitors are mostly important for mixing and mastering purposes. While they are not required for making music, most music makers will eventually mix their music to some capacity. It’s just natural to be mixing as you make the music because you want to achieve an as-finished sound as early as possible.

Sometimes, headphones and monitors are named “studio” without them actually being compatible for studio usage. When you’re looking for studio headphones or monitors, there are two things that are important to look for.

  1. You want as flat a frequency response as possible. If you’ve ever used the function bass boost on a pair of speakers or on your phone, you’ve changed the frequency response. Most consumer headphones and speakers come with uneven frequency responses, and bass and treble are boosted.
Ideal Studio Frequency Response
Uneven Frequency Response

Why it’s good to have that, is because then you will have an easier time producing music that will sound good everywhere.

That’s why there’s a software tool called Sonarworks reference. It’s a software tool that changes the EQ curves on many speakers and headphone models to a flat one. You don’t have to get it by any means, but it’s cool to know it exists.

However, you can use any headphones or speakers you like. The only thing to keep in mind is that you will want to try your music on other systems to make sure it sounds good. If it sounds good. It’s all good.

Mixertable

While you may have seen professionals sitting at huge mixer tables, it’s neither necessary nor common in modern music production. The mixer is inside the DAW, and that is the one you have to learn to work with. The real mixer you’ll be using is inside your DAW, and so you’ll need to play around with that instead. Mostly it’s just choosing if you want volume up, down or how you want to pan the audio on each channel.

Microphone

You can get microphones everywhere. If you plan to record instruments as well as vocals, there are microphones that work for both. You don’t have to pay a lot to get a good-sounding one. One important thing to look out for is what the noise floor of the microphone is. This is called self-noise and is caused by the circuitry of the microphone. Especially on cheap microphones, this can result in a buzzing or hissing being picked up in your recordings. So on reviews, make sure to see if that’s mentioned somewhere. Other than that. A microphone is better than no microphone.

Beginner advise if you are just getting started and quickly want to record your voice or guitar to play around with. See if you got some earbuds with a built-in microphone laying around. Plug them into your computer or phone to start recording. You can also use your phone’s built-in microphone and send the recording over to the computer. It’s far from good audio quality, but it’s absolutely a great way to start since it might let you start recording today instead of next year. It’s a great way to get some audio material to work with.

Additional Knowledge

  • Samples can always be dragged and dropped into the DAW.
  • Make sure you keep your downloads organized. If you save a project and move the location of the project’s files. The project might not open.
  • Save often. Once every hour or after you’ve created something awesome is the rule. If you make something really good and the DAW crashes, you might not find your way back.
  • Plugins are installed into default folders and your DAW should automatically recognize them. If not. Check specifically for your DAW.
  • To turn your music project into a Wav or Mp3 file. You need to export it as Wav or Mp3.
  • If your software feels slow. Check within the settings. There are always things that can be optimized to make your project quicker.
  • Most songs use a BPM of 50-150

Final Words

It can take you an hour or two to learn the basics of any software. Don’t give up too early. When you found the DAW that works for you, you can really create wonderful music that you enjoy and get an outlet for your creativity forever. So if it takes a day or two, or more, to get started. Don’t give up. If you want to make music, that’s it, you’re gonna be making music.

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