Making electronic music has come a long way since the days of Switched On Bach. In 1968, when Wendy Carlos painstakingly multi-tracked a number of Johann Sebastian Bach compositions with an early Moog synthesizer (the Moog was a monophonic instrument, only capable of playing one pitch at a time) over the course of months, the sort of quick and intuitive software-based methods of making electronic music, made without a instruments entirely on a computer, would have seemed so far-fetched that even science-fiction writers would have scoffed at it as implausible.
It’s easy to get intimidated by the process of making electronic music if you’ve never done it before, whether you’re a “conventional” musician or not. Electronic music has its own language, its own logic, its own universe of methods and ideas that can be both shockingly different and surprisingly similar to more traditional ways of making music. If you’re interested in making some electronic music, here is an online class called “Introduction to Electronic Music” that will serve to get you started on the basics.
Today, we’ll look at making electronic music in terms of the big picture, and give you some ideas about how to get started, what kind of equipment you’ll need, and most importantly, how much you’ll need to spend.
Starting at the Beginning
All right, you want to make electronic music. But do you know anything about music? Do you have a basic understanding of music theory? Do you play an instrument? If the answer to all three of these questions is “yes,” then you have won a free pass to the next section of this article. If the answer to any or all of those questions is “no,” then you’d better sit down, son, because we have some talking to do.
A basic knowledge of music theory is helpful for anyone who wants to make music of any kind, whether it’s strumming chords on an acoustic guitar, singing, playing the saxophone, or making electronic music. You can’t avoid this, no matter how much you may wish to, and no matter how many guitarists shrug at you and say things like, “I don’t know, man, theory is fine, but you don’t need it. You just need to ROCK!”
If you don’t have a solid foundation in the basics of melody, harmony, meter, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and the myriad other elemental principles of music theory, you need to get one. There are two great online classes designed to do just that for those who want to make electronic music, called, appropriately enough, “Music Theory for Electronic Musicians,” and “Music Theory for Electronic Musicians 2,” that will give you a good basic background so that you know why certain pitches, harmonies, or rhythms create specific responses in the listener. Once you’re up to speed, you’ll need to start thinking about composition, so here’s a great blog article by April Klazema called “How to Compose Music” that will put you on the right path.
Equipment: Your Computer
Ok, you’ve either taken some courses or you’ve got enough experience with music to feel comfortable. Now what? Well, you’ll need to start with the hardware. First, you’ll need a computer.
Yes, we know. That’s rather obvious, but you will need something a little more specific and powerful than the 10-year-old hand-me-down laptop you’ve been using for social media.
So what kind of computer will you need? There are some old-timers who will tell you, “You need a Mac if you want to make music—they’re just better for that kind of thing.” This was true 20 years ago, but today it doesn’t really make any difference. The main thing is to stick with what you know. If you’re a Mac user, use your Mac. If you’re a PC person, stick with that.
More important than the type of computer is the operating system you’re running, and the specs of the machine. How much RAM do you have? What kind of processor have you got in there? What sort of audio card is installed? While some PC music makers swear by Windows XP for music production, Microsoft has just announced that it will no longer issue security updates for XP, so you’d be better off with something more recent. Windows 7 is popular with electronic musicians. On a Mac, of course, just make sure that you have the most recent OS.
In terms of RAM, it’s probably wise to have more than you think you need. 12 GB is a good starting place, and should more than suffice for a beginner. Your processor speed is even more important. You’ll need something over 3 GHz to be certain you can work with no hassles. Your hard drive is another matter. You’ll need to invest in an external drive, no question, and connect via firewire. A USB connection isn’t fast enough to handle your music, and your computer’s built in drive or flash storage will have too much else to deal with to store your music files. Uncompressed audio files are VERY LARGE, and you WILL NEED an external storage system. There’s no way around it.
In addition to your computer and your external storage device, you’ll need some specific hardware. Even if you plan to create music that is exclusively electronic, you’ll need an interface or two. You need one that can handle a microphone-level signal, preferably with a preamp to level things out, as well as line-level signals so you can hook up external instruments like guitars. There are to choose from, and the simplest ones start in the low 3-figure range. You may need to invest in a new soundcard as well, especially if you’re using a computer that wasn’t specifically designed for making music. Look at the specs for the various interfaces to determine if you can get by with what you have or if you’ll need to upgrade.
And of course, you’ll need a microphone. At some point, even with electronic music, you’ll want to do some vocals, and the built-in mike in your Macbook just isn’t going to cut it. Invest in a decent studio-friendly vocal microphone. You can find basic ones to start with for around $100.
Now we come to the nitty gritty. You need what’s known as a DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation installed on your machine. The basic one that’s included with Macs is GarageBand, but it is a very basic DAW and lacks the flexibility and much functionality of other, more high-end set-ups. It’s a good place to get your feet wet if you’re a Mac user. PC users don’t, unfortunately, have as much luck with free software.
Most people making electronic music use Ableton Live, ProTools, or Fruity Loops, although there are those who swear by Logic and Sonar as well. Fruity Loops does not work on a Mac, so be aware.
Be prepared to spend some money. You’ll have to. It hurts, we know. But you can’t really hope to get by with a pirated version of one of these. To start with, you’re stealing when you use pirated software. If that’s not enough to dissuade you, consider that you can never call tech support if you didn’t pay for your DAW. You will never get an update or free downloadable patches or sounds from the manufacturer. Expect to pay upwards of $500 for a good DAW. It’ll be worth it, we promise. Here is a great course called “Creative Flow in Ableton” to get you started with that DAW, recognized by many as the current industry standard.
Once you’ve got the knowledge, equipment, and the software you need, and you’re comfortable with how to use all of it, you’re good to go. You are limited only by your imagination, whether you’re making deep house music, trance, jungle, old-school techno, or dubstep, or any of the hundreds of other genres. Remember one thing as you get started on your journey: if it sounds good, it IS good.