The MYT Ultimate Beginners Guide To Music Production in 2023!

The MYT Ultimate Beginners Guide To Music Production in 2023!

ableton live logic pro Sep 06, 2023


Starting out in music production is in many ways easier than ever. However, the choices can be overwhelming.

Geraint Rees from MYT is here to help you get you up and running in no time…


Producing music has moved from the hands of elite producers into the hands of the masses. No longer is it necessary to have a mixing desk, thousands of pounds worth of analog synths and hardware compressors. In fact, all you really need is a reasonable laptop and some software to kickstart your career as an electronic dance music producer. However, before we get started let’s look at what music production actually entails.

In truth, it requires having a few different strings to your bow, what were once tasks designated to different people such as the musicians, mixing engineer and mastering engineer are now largely done one person. Yes, that’s you! In effect music production refers to the entire process of taking a piece of music from its creation to being ready to send off to labels or for some other form of release.



What essential equipment do you need to start making electronic dance music? 


Let’s get this one out of the way before we start. You will need a reasonable quality computer or laptop. It’s certainly true that tablets and even phones now offer viable options for sketching ideas, with an ever-expanding array of apps for entering the world of making music. However, dusting off some long-forgotten laptop from the bottom of the study drawer and hoping it will have the processing power to deal with modern music making applications would be wishful thinking.


Purchasing a good quality laptop or desktop is a sound investment as is a critical part of the production jigsaw, without which the rest can come tumbling down.


Get as much RAM (the computer's memory) as possible, the fastest processor you can find and make sure you have a decent sized hard drive to store projects on or an external drive to supplement your set up. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to buy the latest modern machine. A brand new iMac for example can set you back thousands but many older models have plenty of grunt when it comes to running music software and lots of pros out there use these older iterations to produce amazing music. 




What will I need to record and arrange music? 


Once you have a reasonably powered computer at your disposal your next decision is which Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to install upon it. The DAW is the beating heart of many modern music production setups. As the name suggests it is your one stop hub for recording, arranging, mixing and (if you so wish) mastering your own dancefloor destroying behemoths or ambient epics. Once again it is worth investigating the pros and cons of the many DAWs out there, which range from free offerings such as Garage Band and Bandlab, to some of the big names used by the pros such as Ableton Live, Cubase , Logic Pro X and FL Studio. With an ever-increasing number of DAWS on the market however, it’s up to you to choose your tools wisely and get to work.  



What should I use to Mix down and listen back to my music on?


Next up on the essentials list is a pair of studio monitors or alternatively a pair of high-quality headphones. If like me, you have small children or limited space you may opt for the headphones option. While nothing can replace a pair of quality studio monitors, many professionals with busy touring schedules rely on headphones to mixdown tracks on the road. There are plenty of options out there for around the £100 mark from reliable companies, such as the Beyerdynamic DT700-Pro X, Sennheiser HD-206 or even the new Rode NGT-100s. However, be prepared that the listening experience may initially be underwhelming.


When I purchased a pair of AI AI AI TMA2s I frankly hated them. They sounded flat and unflattering but over time I began to appreciate their accurate, neutral sound which meant I could reliably say if the mix sounded good on the headphones it would sound even better everywhere else. Remember, you do not want to have headphones that sound brilliant but are not accurate as your mixes will not translate over to other listening environments. The same principle should be followed if purchasing studio monitors. Fortunately, there are some great options out there when on a limited budget from companies such as KRK, M-Audio, Presonus, Mackie and Fostex.


Do your research and look for speakers that offer transparent sound. You will also want to consider the size of your room; you simply don’t need huge speakers for a small space but if in a larger room you may want to go a model up to compensate.


On the topic of monitors, we should address sound treatment. Many professionals recommend doing this as soon as possible and it is certainly something you should do when you have a consistent designated production space and importantly the cash flow to invest in treatment. However, given time and some trial and error your ears will adjust to whatever size room you are in so you may wish to wait until you splurge out or look at monitoring options such as Sonarworks which adjust your audio set up according to the size and space of the location you are working in.   





What specialist equipment will I need for music production?  


The next few pieces of equipment may not be essential but are certainly desirable when setting out on your mission to make the next Xpander. Firstly, consider purchasing an external audio interface for your laptop or desktop. Whilst internal soundcard on your computer can deal with video calls, they are not designed for music production. If you are planning to record vocals or other external instruments you will need to purchase one in order to plug in microphones, guitars or analog synths.


An external audio interface translates audio signals from your external gear into the digital realm and vice versa as the music comes back out of the DAW to your speakers. This process of digital to analogue conversion and then analog to digital conversion is best done by a designated external device which will reduce latency (the delay in the conversion process). Look out for low or zero latency devices, as if you do experience latency you will notice an audible delay between striking a key on a midi controller keyboard and any audible noise coming out. Such delays can make recording difficult, messy and frustrating. Fortunately, most decent modern audio devices will have zero latency but make sure you check for the sake of your sanity later. 



How can I play and have control over virtual instruments?


In order to get some hands on tactile control over the in built instruments in you DAW and any VST plugins you get your eager little paws on, you will need to pick up a controller of some sort. Effectively, a controller turns your DAW into an instrument allowing you a direct connection to the instruments available within its environment.


Be aware, the controller itself will produce no sound of its own accord so make sure you consult the DAW and controllers manual on how to connect it up before you fling it headlong out of the window in frustration. The controller actually only sends midi data (via USB) to your DAW telling it which notes or samples to play on the virtual instruments within it. Fortunately, integration between DAWS and many controllers is ever slicker these days with some even being plug and play.




If you're classically trained or even know your way around a piano a little bit you may decide on a standard keyboard controller from the likes of Novation or Native Instruments. However, there are also a range interesting pad based controller devices such as Ableton's Push or the Novation Launch Pad for those of us with little musical know how. These can generate all manner of creativity in no time with  step sequencers and scale features making programming melodies and beats a breeze. 



What VST plugins and virtual instruments will I need and how do I use them? 


The truth is that many DAWS come bundled with some excellent built in virtual instruments and devices these days and you can successfully create tracks without going outside of your DAW. However, the chances are you will want to expand your sonic armoury at some point but you might be surprised to know that this can be done on a relatively low budget.


There are an array of free or low cost plugins on the market for everything from compression to your full blown analog synth emulation. Just check our top free VST plugins for 2023 for a full run down of some of the best freebies currently on offer.  


The two main formats for virtual instruments are VSTi (Mac and PC) and AU (Mac only) and most virtual instruments come in both formats. These instruments exist solely on your computer being based on digital algorithms and thus are highly portable if working on a laptop. Increasingly, they provide accurate emulations of analog gear (companies like Arturia offer vast collections of desirable vintage synths) or they may be vast sample based instruments such as the incredible Omnisphere. Most modern soft synths offer intuitive preset browsing which means you can fluidly scroll through different ready made sounds to find and organise those you like without having to be a sound design whizz. It's a great place to start and you will soon find yourself tweaking away and exploring new sounds in no time. 



How can I use samples and loops when writing dance music?


Samples and loops have often been a source of creativity and inspiration when it comes to dance music. With everyone from Daft Punk to DJ Shadow famously manipulating samples to create dance floor smashes throughout the history of the electronic scene.  The art of sampling is a whole topic unto itself, but needless to say a good sample can be the centrepiece for a successful track. Some producers even create whole tracks using samples, particularly in genres such as hip-hop or disco-fuelled classic house where samples are chopped, layered and looped to maximum effect.


The good news is you no longer have to have stacks of disks ready to load up into cumbersome old school sampler machines. Instead, most DAWS such as Ableton and Logic contain internal samplers, while there are also many VST samplers on the market. Perhaps the most famous of these is Native Instruments Kontakt with its vast library of sampled instruments but the market is constantly expanding.


Copyright can be an issue so if you are using samples from old records, YouTube or other sources so you need to tread carefully rather than ripping out entire segments of tracks. However, there are excellent subscription offerings from the likes of Loopcloud and Splice which provide a wealth of royalty free samples to slot into your productions without any legal concerns. Just remember to be inventive and get creative with your use of samples for maximum originality.



What is MIDI and how do I use it in music production?


When you first move into the world of production it can at times feel like people are speaking a different language. Entering the world of midi can initially seem confusing. In fact the best way to think of midi is like a language that your DAW and your controller keyboard use to communicate (normally via USB). The invention of midi back in 1983 was a massive game changer for the industry.


Now, every time you press a key on your midi control keyboard it sends a bundle of information via midi to your computer telling it which notes were pressed, for what duration, volume end even if you moved other controls on your controller keyboard. This information then appears (when record is triggered) as notes in the clips (recorded segments) on your DAW so effectively you have captured your live performance. Alternatively, you can also simply draw in midi notes within your DAW or play them in using features such as step sequencers and arpeggiators if you are not a natural keyboard player.



How do I get start and actually begin recording?


Once you have opened your DAW the first thing you will need to do is create a new 'session'. Think of it like a blank canvas where you will begin drawing out ideas, record, arrange and move through the process. You will need to create a new audio channel (for samples) or midi channel (for instruments) You can choose a tempo within the DAW (normally located near the top of the session in bpms), load up any instruments via the DAWS browser (normally by dragging them onto a channel or double clicking)  and arm different channels to make them ready to record by  selecting the arm button on the channel.


You will need to check your audio and midi settings/preferences to make sure everything is connected correctly.  You should see your audio interface appear in audio input/outputs and you will need to select this device to hear the sound come out of your speakers. Equally, if you are using a controller keyboard you will need to make sure this is selected in the midi preferences so that you can use your keyboard to have hands on control of any devices in the project.



What are the different phases of music production I will need to move through to finish a track?


Creation Phase


As I mentioned right back at the start electronic music production requires you to adopt different roles as you move through the phases of making a killer track. Firstly, comes the creative writing process. This involves sketching out various ideas within your DAW using your soft synths, programming drums, editing samples and coming up with different variations, melodies and possible beats. Ableton even has a special view for this called Session view to segregate off your creative/sketching process before moving over to full- arrangement. This initial period is the time to experiment and let loose.


Try out the different features within your DAW such as arpeggiators, sequencers and explore the effects. The more ideas you generate in this phase the better as you literally throw paint at the canvas and see what sticks.  Once you have a bunch of ideas to roll with its time to get selective, remember most big dance music tracks are based around one strong hook or idea. Pick your hook:  a distinctive sound, killer melody or memorable vocal sample. Quality control your sounds and patterns to make sure they all gell and be prepared to throw away anything that simply doesn't fit. You are going to be making a lot more tracks so be brutal (if you are really attached to an idea or sound simply save it for another future project)


Arrangement Phase


Once you have all your ideas together in the form of a short loop or series of recorded clips.  You will need to move the track forward into arrangement so that we have a sonic journey complete with peaks and troughs. This involves taking the clips you recorded and laying them out along a timeline (shown at the top of the DAW). You can add, delete or duplicate clips to create the basic structure of your song. For music aimed at the dance-floor its worth considering have a stripped back intro and outro allowing DJs to easily mix your track and recognisable features such as breaks or drops.


Familiarise yourself with tracks that have great arrangements or you can even drop them into a channel as a reference track to compare with your own arrangement to. At this stage you may also wish to add automation using your DAWs pen tool. This is the process of drawing in gradual changes in volume, effects and modulating synth parameters to match the dynamics of the track. This can be done live via your controller but you will often need to smooth out and fine tune this in the DAW using the mouse. The key here is to make sure the arrangement is functional but also be prepared (once you know what works) to break the rules. If you want to learn more tips and tricks for arrangement check out our MYT Arrangement Mastery course





The process of mixing down may well take place as you are writing and arranging but the final levelling up should really be done separately with fresh ears. The mixdown is effectively balancing the sounds, and volume so that nothing is too loud or quiet, panning sounds left and right so they have space in the mix and generally smoothing up those rough sounds using EQ so they fit together well complement each other. EQs primary function is to shape the tone of each track cutting out unnecessary frequencies (such as the lower frequencies of a hi hat sample) or boosting elements that you may wish to pop out in the mix.


The general rule of thumb is to clean up samples (cut out low end where needed) but have a gentle touch when boosting EQ to avoid it sounding unnatural.  Other effects such as compression can be used to 'glue' tracks together such as your drums  (giving them a more consistent volume and the feel of being in the same space). Reverb and delays can be further employed to add space and depth or to create transition effects (shifts or washes of sound between sections). One thing always to bear in mind in order to keep you mix clean, is to watch you gain-staging.


At its most basic this  means keeping the volume on the master channel low with plenty of headroom (this means it will never be going over -0db and into the red) preferably around -6db to -9db. One way to do this is to start all you individual channels at -6db and whenever you add some volume (eg You just slammed on a distortion plug in) adjust the output of the plug in downwards so this channel volume does not increase. This could save you years of frustration as it's easy to pay the price in muddy mix downs and unhappy mastering engineers. The MYT Mixdown Mastery course offers a comprehensive course showing you how to improve your mixdown.




Should I try and master my own music?


The final stage of production is mastering. Mastering is the process of adding extra polish and sheen to a mix while bringing it up to the competitive volume of a professionally produced track. Typically, this involves techniques such as multi-band compression, limiting and stereo processing. This is an art form in itself and requires a highly skilled hand to do correctly. Many mastering engineers have years of experience and labels often have their own favourites to work with. So in short the answer for a newcomer is to probably to avoid mastering your own tracks to begin with. That being said the principles of mastering are worth learning, will improve your productions and you may need to make your own demo 'masters' to road test tracks. One to explore for the future then via the MYT Mastering course. 



When should I start making my tracks?

You know the answer to this. The time is now. The tools are more freely available than ever and with platforms such as MYT providing extensive support for those starting out in the industry the opportunities are vast. Clear and practical courses are available on the MYT website for all aspects of music production moving through every level from beginner to mastery.


Too many talented DJs & Producers can't get signed to the record labels they need to be to break through.

MYT uses in-depth Track Feedback, Live Masterclasses, Personal Coaching and Courses, to support our Community to become full time Electronic Music Artists


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