Making Computer Music – A Buying Plan for Dabblers and Absolute Beginners

I get emails from students and other folks who want to dabble in computer music. They don’t know where to start, or at least they read this FTL article and cringe at what the bill probably was. If you’re not really sure where to start and don’t want to spend a whole ton of money, what should you do?

Dabblers and beginners, this article is for you. The cool thing about modern music production is that you don’t need a ton of expensive hardware to make cool stuff.

This is my plan for a low cost electronic music setup, and it assumes that you already have a computer and want to make electronic music like I do. This is professional stuff and even though it’s your starting equipment, it in no way impedes your ability to make professional-quality music. It will cost you less money than a decent guitar would and it has the potential to serve you well for years. Also remember that this is just one way to get started.

Okay, here we go!

Cubase Elements 7 – $100

This will be the heart of your music writing. It’s the most basic version of Cubase. It’s a full-fledged digital audio workstation (or DAW), and comes with a great key editor (for placing notes on a grid like Danny B and I often do), a ton of professional effects, a nice synthesizer, drum machine, and Halion Sonic SE, a basic sample library. Seriously, the amount of cool stuff you get here is a steal. Dive into that included synth, called Prologue, get real good at it, and you can make all sorts of awesome sounds. Plus, if you decide to take it further, you can upgrade to the bigger versions of Cubase minus the original cost of Elements.C_706_Mixer_a_gallery

Search for Cubase tutorials on YouTube. You’ll probably find some out-of-date ones, but they’ll still be valuable. If you know someone who makes computer music, even if they don’t use Cubase, bribe them with pizza or something to come over and help you figure out how to use it. It’s astounding how few resources are available for learning Cubase, but it’s the inevitable result of a fractured DAW market. Just remember that you don’t need to know how all the features work in order to make music.

Free Stuff! – Cubase and most other DAWs support VSTs (VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology), which are virtual instruments or effects in software form that ‘plug in’ to the DAW so they can be used seamlessly. Everything I use is a VST. The best part is that there are a lot of free VSTs out there. Music Radar publishes a list of what they find to be the best free VSTs out there.

Keyboard – $70-80

01_microKEY-25_slant_634678988056070000Korg microKey – $80 – This modest-sized keyboard won’t take up much space (perfect for a dabbler) and is rugged enough to be carried around.

Alternatively:  Akai LPK25 – $70 – For when you absolutely have to have a tiny setup. It has only two octaves and there’s no pitch or mod wheel, but it will probably fit in a laptop bag.

You may decide that you just want to enter in notes manually and don’t want a keyboard. That’s fine, but if you’re also learning music theory, then having a keyboard will make it a lot easier.

Optional Stuff

Headphones – $60-100 – Since you’re just starting out, don’t worry about getting 41-8Cspj9yLprofessional speakers. Headphones will serve you just fine for now. I put this under optional because if you’re interested in making music, there’s a good chance you already have decent headphones. If not, get a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs headphones.

How are you going to ensure a good mix when you don’t have professional studio monitors? Make a habit of listening to your mix on a variety of speakers. Listen to it in the car, on your home stereo, even on your terrible laptop speakers. This will ensure that you catch all the mixing problems. This is something professionals do even when they have professional equipment.

Software Instruments – If you’re willing to dump more money into your music making, absolutely nothing beats the incredible deal of Native Instruments’ Komplete Bundle. For $500, you get a full orchestra library, pianos, amazing synthesizers, drum kits, effects, just about everything you could possibly use. I saved up and bought Komplete 6 back in 2010 and I still use pretty much all of it today. Again, all the instruments you get in the bundle are VSTs and will work seamlessly with Cubase with only minimal setup.

What about a sound card? – If you have a reasonably powerful PC or a Mac, you should be able to handle electronic music without a hitch. If you start getting more serious, like adding more and more tracks in your music or you start using the Komplete bundle extensively, you might think about getting a professional sound card. These handle the audio externally, freeing up your CPU to handle everything else and lowering your overall sound latency. I use Native Instruments’ Komplete Audio 6, which is relatively inexpensive ($230), and even has plenty of external inputs for microphones and guitars and such.

Epilogue – Where’s the hardware? And you call yourself a nerd?

You’ll notice that all you’re really doing here is getting a single piece of software and a keyboard. If you hang out in nerdy circles, you’ll probably get flack, as I did, from people who will tell you that in order to get authentic chiptunes/synthesizers/elephant mating calls/whatever you’ll need to get the actual hardware and learn its engineering intricacies. You’re not taking apart a Game Boy or building a synthesizer from scratch? Well, you’re simply not a true electronic musician.

This is bollocks. My only goal is to make awesome music, and I’m profoundly lazy. I’m a pure software guy because learning the engineering principles behind synthesizers and old sound chips is not worth my time.

There’s nothing wrong with getting into the hardware side of music production, and to some degree you must, but remember that time spent building a synthesizer or learning hex-code for a tracker is time that you could spend composing. Just keep in mind what your goals are. My point is don’t let the fear of engineering and hardware details keep you from making music. The only thing that really matters is compositional quality and the sound quality of your final product. Once you make something cool, no one really cares how you did it.

The most important thing for you to do right now is to just dive in and learn as you go. Maybe pick up the Dance Music Manual while you’re at it.

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