I decided to write down some guidelines on how to make electronic music (although some of the following tips may apply to other musical genres as well, not just electronic music) covering such things as what hardware is required or recommended, what kind of music making software is needed, how to get a hang of different kind of electronic music styles, etc. There’s a lot of choices in hardware and software, countless of ways to do things in production wise and as many arguments and differing opinions as there are producers. In this article, I try to point you in the right direction in electronic music production, mostly based on my own experience.
A little info about myself is that electronic music production has been my longtime hobby for years and I’ve been creating music on such genres as trance, downtempo, ambient and experimental. Some of my songs have been released commercially through record labels and have also been used in a film project.
Excuse my English, it’s my second language and not so perfect, but I hope you understand and find these guidelines useful and get your answer on how to make electronic music. Also, if you have any questions, opinions or improvements, feel free to leave a comment!
UPDATE ON AUGUST 16th, 2015: Even though I wrote this article back in 2011, I’ll update it regularly so it should still contain valid information.
So, without further ado, let’s begin!
1. Computer and OS
The computer is naturally a must have hardware if you want to make electronic music. You can actually produce good music with any kind of modern computer (I mean anything made in the past 5 years), including a laptop. You also have a choice: PC or Mac. Both systems are widely used in many professional and home studios. You can make excellent music with both platforms and most of the music making software are available for both (except FL Studio, though the MAC version is coming). The thing is, you should pick a platform you’re already familiar with. If you’ve been using PC, stay with the PC. And vice versa. That way, you don’t have to put time and effort on learning a completely new computer system and you can concentrate more on learning how to make the electronic music.
However, like I already mentioned, even though you CAN make music with any kind of modern computer, it will help a LOT to have decent specs. The more CPU power and RAM you have under the hood, the smoother your music software will run and you’re able to build much more complex projects without choking your computer. Also, choosing the right kind of hard drive makes difference as well. You might even consider getting a solid-state drive (SSD).
The computer I’m using has Intel Core i7 950 processor, ASUS P6T Deluxe V2 motherboard, 12GB RAM and 24″ widescreen display and it’s been a very good computer setup for electronic music production for five years now. If I’m going to upgrade this at some point, I probably get the SSD where I install the Windows. That will speed up things even more.
If you’re on the edge of buying a new computer solely for music production and don’t have a clue what kind of specs it should have, look at some of the custom built computers that are made for audio production. Check what kind of specs and components they have and start from there.
Few words about the OS: if you stick with the PC, I can recommend Windows 7. I bought the Windows 7 Ultimate with my current computer setup and it has been mainly in audio usage for a
little over a year now (UPDATE: 5 years now) and I can say it’s been good. Best Microsoft OS so far and I’ve been using Windows since 3.1. UPDATE: a short while ago, I updated to Windows 10 and so far it seems to be really stable and working good with FL Studio 12!
Check these online shops for audio computer systems:
2. Sound Card (Audio Interface)
These days every modern computer has some kind of on-board sound chip so basically, you can start off making electronic music without spending money on an external sound card or audio interface. And if you want to be able to use low latency with your sound chip/audio card and it doesn’t have native ASIO support (ASIO stands for Audio Stream Input/Output and it’s a sound card driver protocol for digital audio specified by Steinberg, providing a low-latency and high fidelity interface between a software application and a computer’s sound card), you can use ASIO4ALL driver. It works with most sound cards (even with those on-board chips) making it possible to use lower latency settings.
However, if you’re looking for a higher performance and/or planning to do a lot of recording from external sources, then the decent quality sound card or audio interface is recommended. At this point, I recommend checking out the Tweakheadz article The “Best”Audio Interface for your Home Studio and Soundcard FAQ. Also, check the Image-Line’s knowledge-base Help choosing a soundcard.
I myself have an M-Audio Audiophile Delta 2496 and even though it’s not a high-end sound card, it has been enough for me for all these years. And at 2015, I’m still happy with it! Some users report they are having problems with Delta series cards in Windows 7 machines though. But there are tons of alternatives too in a decent price range. For example, check out Sound Blaster Z PCIe. Or some of the Focusrite audio interfaces such as Scarlett 2ie.
3. Studio Monitors Speakers and Studio-grade Headphones.
Although I created one of my Dutch dance charts hit songs using only cheap Sony headphones I bought from a local supermarket, decent studio monitors (near field monitors) are highly recommended. Why? Because studio monitors are specifically made for audio production and they give an accurate reproduction of the tonal qualities of the source audio. In other words, they tell you the truth what’s REALLY going on in your music in terms of frequencies. The sound is uncolored so there will be no bass or high-frequency boosts or anything like that like the normal hi-fi speakers or headphones tend to have. This will help you to create music where every sound is in balance (depending on your mixing skills of course) and this will increase the probability that your music sounds good on different sound systems like car stereos, portable mp3 players with earbuds and so on.
Studio headphones are also recommended, for tracking purposes.
There’s a wide range of studio monitors and headphones in the market on all price ranges. The truth is, the more money you put into these the more quality you will get and be aware that many low-cost studio monitors actually DO color the sound or artificially boost frequencies even if they label themselves as “studio monitors” with flat frequency response.
If you don’t have the possibility to use studio-quality monitoring systems, use the equipment you have – whether it’s headphones or normal loudspeakers. Don’t let that stop you from start making music. However, before releasing your musical production to the public, I recommend that you listen to it through as many different sound systems as possible (like normal home and car stereos, etc.) and tweak your music until it sounds good and balanced on all of those systems. (Actually, this is recommended to do even if you DO have a studio quality monitors).
Also, remember to position your studio monitors right. That makes a huge difference how they sound.
I personally have Behringer Truth B2031A’s studio monitors. A lot of professional say they are not very good, or that they completely suck, but so far I’ve been doing ok with them. And after all, I think one of the most important things with your studio monitors is to learn to listen to them. Then you know how your music translates to other audio systems.
I’m also using AKG K271 Studio headphones occasionally and I must say I like them.
I have to say that studio monitor are one of the most important hardware in your home studio, so before choosing your monitors (or headphones), try to listen to as many different models as possible and ask around and chat with the audio professionals and people who work in the audio production field. Search KVRaudio and Gearslutz forums for more advice.
Here are some articles I recommend checking out:
4. MIDI keyboard controller
MIDI keyboard is not necessity though. Personally, I’ve created many songs just by using a mouse and regular computer keyboard. Many computer music software like FL Studio and Ableton Live lets you play music using your computer keyboard. It’s like having a virtual piano keyboard. But on the other hand, you get a totally different feel for playing melodies and controlling your audio software with a MIDI keyboard controller. I use M-Audio Oxygen 61 (the first generation model) and I’m still happy with it.
Here are more helpful articles:
5. Sofware – DAW
Get the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). The DAW is a software environment where you actually create and compose the music and it is one of the most important components in your electronic music studio. To put it simply, it’s a music making software.
There are lots of DAW software choices in the market, but the following four are the most popular, especially amongst electronic music producers: Logic Pro X (for Mac only), Ableton Live, FL Studio and Reason (other well known DAW’s are Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar, Reaper, Bitwig Studio and PreSonus Studio One to name a few. There are some free alternatives too such as Ardour and Zynewave Podium).
If you ask me what DAW I would recommend, I’d say FL Studio hands down! Why? I’m strongly biased of course as I’ve been personally using it over a decade now. It’s very powerful, easy to use music making software and you can produce just about any type of music with it. IMHO FL Studio is MADE for electronic music. The sequencing features and workflow are outstanding and that counts a lot because it goes hand in hand with how well you are able to put your musical ideas into action.
But in the end, choosing the DAW is something you have to do yourself… You need to download the demo versions, test them thoroughly and pick the one you feel most comfortable working with. And learn it inside out!
6. Software – VST synthesizers (VSTi) and VST effect plugins
(Check Virtual Studio Technology) VST/AU synthesizers and effects are MUST if you’re going to start making music digitally with the computer. VSTi’s (VST instruments) are virtual synthesizers that produce a different kind of sounds. You can use them just like you would use real hardware synths – only difference is that they’re software and you install them as plugins (some work as stand-alone too) to your DAW which acts as a host to these synths and you use them to produce sounds which you can use to compose melodies and make music.
There’s a lot of VST effect units as well such as reverb, eq, compressor, delay, chorus, phaser, some special fx, etc.
You can find tons of free VST plugins in the net. Just Google for “free vst plugins”, “free vsti” or “free soft synths”. Or check out this website. If you have money, I highly recommend Native Instruments stuff. Check out the demos of synths like Absynth, FM8, Massive, Reaktor. These are suitable for almost any kind of electronic music style. Also, reFX has some quality synths like Nexus 2 for example which is their flagship. It’s awesome sounding all around rompler. It has sounds for practically any kind of musical style from trance to house to hip hop to ambient to film music.
Also, check out Reveal Sound Spire.
All of these virtual synths are very good for electronic music.
But are there any free virtual synths or effects?
Yes, tons of them!
Actually, there’s just too many of freebies to list them one by one so here’s a links for places where you can browse and download whatever you want:
7. Software – audio editor
Even though most of the DAWs does have a basic set of tools for such audio editing tasks as cutting, fading and encoding to MP3, you may prefer a separate audio editor. If that’s the case, I recommend Sound Forge Audio Studio. It’s cheap, yet versatile. There are free alternatives as well like Audacity.
You need a bunch of good quality samples as well. Usually, samples are used for drums, percussion, effects, etc. There are THOUSANDS of commercial sample packs costing anywhere from $10-$200 or more. Sample packs are mostly genre specific meaning they contain samples that are suitable for a certain musical genre, but you can use whatever samples in whatever genre you want – it’s up to you and your imagination.
Sample packs consist usually of single drum hits like kick drums, snares, hi-hats, hand claps, crash cymbals, percussion sounds, synth hits, bass sounds and so on which you can use to build your own beats and grooves. Most of the sample packs include loops as well well: drum loops, top loops, bass loops, synth loops, fx loops… (loops are ready made grooves or melodic compositions which you can use in your own music). I personally use drum- and top loops quite a lot to enhance the rhythmic sections of my songs.
When you buy a commercial sample pack, you buy the license to use the samples and most (if not all) are royalty free meaning, if you create a song which uses samples from these sample packs, you don’t have to pay any additional fees to the sample manufacturer.
Here’s more links to some well known sample manufacturers and online shops:
Loopmasters (my personal favorite, I’m a regular customer!)
Sample Magic (my favorite!)
Wave Alchemy (my favorite!)
Big Fish Audio
There’s also TONS of free samples available in the net. Here’s links to some of the free sample resources:
Okay, so now that you have your hardware, software and sample collections in place, you ask: how do I make that electronic music then?
9. Listen electronic music and learn
Let me tell you how I learned to make electronic music in a first place: I listened what other artists do and started to do the same. Just like many painters have learned to paint by studying and copying other peoples work, same goes for electronic music. (I don’t mean that you should copy the song melodies and ideas. Songs and ideas are copyrighted and there are legal consequences if you take an eg. a melody from another song, and use it as your own without permission from the original author). So before I was able to make my own song in trance genre, I listened to a lot of other producers trance songs, analyzed them (especially the song structure) and finally got a hang of how they were put together.
So, in order to learn how to make electronic music, I would recommend taking these steps:
- Decide the musical style or genre you want to make music in.
Get some songs from that genre. For example, go to Beatport.com – it’s the most popular electronic music online shop and you can find all the most popular songs from every electronic music genre there.
- Listen HOW the song is built.
Take a song you like, listen to it carefully – over and over again and pay attention. Analyze it. Learn the song structure first. Every song (in almost whatever genre) follows some sort of common and logical structure – including the different styles of electronic music. Try to get a hang of what the structure is your favorite song: how does it progress, how long are the intro and breakdown… In other words, WHAT happens and WHEN.
If we think of a popular radio song (in rock, pop genre) they’re typically 3-4 minutes long and many of them follow this kind of structure:
OR chorus can also work as the intro. Then the song structure would go like this:
There are few other variations as well, but I think these are the most common ones. Just check out Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right” or Katy Perrys “Hot And Cold” for example. Or any other popular radio pop song. They all follow pretty much the same structure.
Check out these articles for more info about popular song structures. Yeah, they’re about pop, but it helps you to get a hang of the idea of song structures and you can apply the same principles to electronic music as well.
However, in EDM (electronic dance music) such as uplifting trance or dance music that is generally aimed for club’s, the structure is a bit different than in radio pop songs. Different parts are longer and usually, the intro is like one big buildup to the breakdown. If you’re into trance music, you might want to check out my tutorial about trance song structure and how it progress. It’s a bit old, but it should give you the idea though.
Here’s one common structure in EDM, such as uplifting trance:
[intro]->[breakdown and buildup]->[section after the breakdown and buildup. It’s usually called drop, release or climax]->[outro]
Or a little longer version:
[intro]->[breakdown and build-up]->[drop]->[another breakdown and buildup]->[drop again]->[outro]
And here’s explanation to those terms:
[intro] This is the part where you slowly build up your song towards the breakdown from the beginning. Usually, you build up the intro by adding a new element after eight or sixteen bars. So it could go like this: first eight bars contains just the kick. After that you add in maybe hi-hats and claps or some percussion loop. After sixteen bars comes the bass. And so on.
[breakdown and build-up] This is where the musical elements introduced in the intro usually disappears completely for a while and you introduce your big musical idea which could be a nice, emotional and uplifting melody for example (let’s just call it a “hook”). In here you also start to build tension towards the drop which comes after the build-up.
[drop, release or climax] This is the best part of your song! Usually, this is where drums, bass (and maybe the “hook” melody) start to play together and everything kind of explodes. This is very typical in EDM. At this point, people will typically go NUTS on the dance floor and dance like crazy!
[outro] Things are starting to fade out towards to the end.
That’s it basically.
When you start to create your own song, I suggest you pick up your favorite song and load it into your DAW and – no, do not copy the song itself, but use the song structure like a reference to see what happens and when.
Also, while listening to your favorite song:
- Pay attention to the sounds
Make notes what kind of sounds it has. Saw lead synth sounds, square wave bass sounds, huge pads, weird effected sounds are all the basic musical elements in electronic music. Try to hear what kind of sounds your favorite song has and try to replicate these sounds with your virtual synths. Or use ready-made presets. Many virtual synths have readily programmed preset sounds for various electronic music styles. Use them to your advantage.
Next, try to get a hang of the:
What kind of melodies your favorite song has? Some certain chords and chord progressions are commonly used in trance for example, but there’s definitely room for fresh melodic ideas so don’t be afraid to depart from them.
And one last thing:
- Sound effects
Pay attention to what kind of sound effects you can hear in your favorite song. Swooshes, risers, uplifters, down lifters, white noise sweeps and fx hits are some commonly used effects in electronic music. You can find these in many commercial or free sample packs.
Here are some helpful guides on various electronic music styles:
Also, go to Youtube and do a search on “how to make EDM”, “how to make trance” or “how to make hip hop” and you’ll find tons of tutorial videos there.
Seriously, I really think the best way to learn how to make electronic music is listening tons of other producers work and then try to do the same. But remember, keep it original and don’t be afraid to try something completely new. There’s a lot of room for fresh ideas!
Next, a few short words about the production itself.
10. Start with the drums and bass…
Personally, I’ve found it’s best to first build the drum groove. At this point, the sample packs I mentioned earlier comes in very handy. You can also use the ready made drum loops to help you to build your grooves. Whatever the style is going to be, with a cool drum groove, it’s much easier to start creating other musical elements such as the bass groove on top of it and other instruments as well. Remember to make drums and bass work together. They’re one of the most important elements in any kind of electronic music that has a drum beat. Seriously, I recommend putting a GREAT effort on these two.
11. … and add the synth melodies
Again, this is where the VST synths come in handy. Start building a melody on top of the drums and bass groove. Like mentioned earlier, many VSTi’s have several ready made quality preset sounds to start with. These will help you to get going. However, I also recommend to experiment and tweak the knobs, sliders, and buttons and see what happens. You can come up with some really original and wild stuff just by experimenting with the different synth parameters.
Next, few words about mixing.
12. Mixing – give a power to the beat
When I mix my songs (if it’s an electronic dance music aka EDM), I give most power to the drums. Kick drum to be exact. In most electronic music, drums are the elements that should be heard clearly. Especially the kick drum. Then, I balance the bass and other instruments against the drums. Mostly with the kick. I always use drums as the foundation on how I mix other instruments in my song. I try to make sure that the drums are punchy and loud enough and if some other instrument is trying to compete with my drums too much in frequency wise (or bass in this matter), I use an equalizer to cut the low frequencies off from that sound. I use my drums to measure how to mix other instruments in my song.
13. Mixing – hear how pro’s mix and to try to do the same
Again, listen to your favorite songs in the same genre you’re trying to make music in and notice how they’re mixed. What kind of sounds stand out and why? How does your song sound compared to your favorite, professionally mixed songs?
Here’s a tip: try to listen to your mixes through as many different sound systems as possible: car stereos, home stereos, through iPod with those little earplugs – basically everywhere and try to make it sound as good as possible on all of these systems. Try to find the balance.
I have to say that trying to make your mix sound good is probably one of the hardest part in music making. And it’s something you won’t learn overnight. Yes, it takes quite a lot of practice (through trial and error) to make mixes sound decent, but don’t worry, it’s NOT an impossible task. You will learn it. It just takes some time.
14. Beware of ear fatigue. Take a break or continue producing in the next day
It has happened to me several times, that I thought I’ve made a killer song in a day and then, in the next day when I listen to the song again, it sounds like garbage: all the sound levels and EQ settings are out of balance or there are elements that don’t seem to fit into the mix at all. At that point, I usually get frustrated, give up and forget the whole song. This can happen if you produce music for several hours non-stop: your ears get tired and in the end of the day you, can’t hear things as balanced anymore as with fresh ears. So, my advice is this: try not to finish a whole song in one day, spare your ears and leave something for the next day.
15. Links to forums you should start reading
Here’s a bunch of forums where I have learned quite a lot. A lot of audio professionals are hanging there. Read the threads and ask questions.
The end. Hopefully, this gave you a rough idea on how to make electronic music. 🙂