So, you just found out about the infinite world of music production… Congratulations!
There is too much to learn, isn’t it?
The real question is: Where to start?!
As infinite as it may sound, it’s not really that big if you put your ears and your honest judgment into everything you do. In this article I will help you find the place to start from with an easy-to-follow roadmap.
As a music producer you will find yourself diving into:
- Mastering – not for beginners, especially if budget is important to you.
If you’re going to do the whole process yourself, this article will help you get started. You will also get the chance to experience the entire production process and make better decisions if you choose to focus only on specific steps.
What will you need?
- Computer to create your music projects on.
- Soundcard to translate your music projects into sound.
If you are planning on recording vocals, make sure you have preamp built into the sound card, if you are planning on recording your vocals using a condenser, make sure there is a phantom power/48v option to the preamp.
- Headphones/Speakers to be able to listen to the translated sound.
But before you rush to buy everything…
First try to use the sound card you already have. If it can’t handle the load of real-time audio processing, check the sound card settings in your DAW. If that doesn’t work either, you may need to upgrade your sound card. There are many videos on YouTube that can help you decide which one is the best for your budget.
Before you begin – keep in mind
When you just begin, the journey may look long. Eventually you will reach the point when there is only one tool in this musical jungle – your ears. If you know how to listen, then you will have a big advantage. There is a lot of technical advice on YouTube, shortcuts, quick wins with VSTs and plugins, but no one can teach you to master the only tool you already own – listening, paying attention to what you hear.
With that said, you must start from somewhere, right? in the beginning you should know how things work, what a channel is, how your Digital Audio Workstation works and so on. The following roadmap will help you build a good basis in a short time.
Roadmap to your first steps in music production
Phase 1 – feel comfortable with your DAW
A DAW is a Digital Music Workstation, the software you will use to produce, edit, arrange and mix your music. See at it as a toolbox, and in order to produce good music you should know your toolbox. Here is a video about different free DAWs to choose from, oh and one more thing, there is no BEST DAW, there are less fitting ones, however.
- Choose a free DAW and watch a getting started video on YouTube. You should learn about:
- Setting up your soundcard and buffer size/latency
- Creating tracks (midi & audio)
- Recording or create midi sequences
- Saving projects
- Installing VST plugins
- Dragging audio clips into your project
- Changing the project tempo
- Play with your new downloaded DAW – the whole point here is playing with your DAW with no goal in mind, which will help you develop the skills needed to operate the DAW’s different features. If you need help achieving something, use YouTube, try to:
- Open new channels (midi & audio)
- Create an instrument track (a track that loads a VST/AU instrument, this gives you the ability to play this instrument with midi notes) – VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology and there are many instruments in VST format, here is a list of free VSTs you might need
- Draw some midi events on your midi tracks & drag some loops/sounds on your audio tracks
- Change tempo – listen for the changes it creates
- Quantize your midi notes to 4th, 8th,16th divisions
- Move midi notes out of timing, enable/disable snap to grid option
- Mute and solo tracks
- Create new FX tracks & assign FX to the tracks created
- Play with the effects and listen to how they manipulate the sounds, don’t waste too much time on this, believe me, it’s as fascinating to the ears as sugar is to the tastebuds
- Pick a track/song you like and focus on the easiest instrument in it:
- Kick / Snare / Claps / HI-hats… let’s take the snare/kick – what is its pattern?
- Now create this part on your DAW – you can use free samples to achieve that – free samples – make sure you don’t use loops, that’s cheating! The whole point here is to use single shot sounds and get better at operating your DAW.
Phase 2 – The language of music
If you play an instrument, this phase may go a bit more smoothly.
If you are a keyboard player, you might prefer using a midi keyboard to record sequences, but I would suggest drawing midi notes in your sequences since it will give you more understanding on how your DAW works, shortcuts, capabilities and limitations.
- Download royalty free sample libraries and free VST/AU plugins that you can use in your music – Here is a list to start with.
- Music theory basics – these are the easiest scales & chords to work with at the beginning, start with them and expand your scale & chord repertoire later:
- Scales – C Major scale / A Minor scale
- The root of each scale
- The notes that constitute each scale
- Play with the notes of each scale in your DAW
- Chords – Major and Minor chords
- How to build a major chord
- How to build a minor chord
- Chords that belong to C Major scale
- Chords that belong to A Minor scale
- Learn some basic chord progressions in C major or A minor and choose one you like
- Create this chord progression in your DAW, play some notes from the matching scale – just enjoy the scales and chords, you don’t need a target for this step, play around. After creating a nice sounding sequence, try breaking the rules. Listen – some notes outside of the rules will still sound good, this is something you will want to explore after you finish phase 3.
- Learn basic kick, snare, hi-hat and bass patterns in the genre you like.
- Create some of these patterns yourself. When you get it right, try changing stuff, break the rules, explore the landscapes of rhythm and sound layers/part writing. Part writing is a skill that you will want to explore more after phase 3 and for the rest of your life, it’s one of those subjects that will never end. By the way part writing skill will also help you with strings, synths, effects, sequences, arpeggios and even synthesis further down the road.
- Scales – C Major scale / A Minor scale
Phase 3 – Technical exploration
- Learn how to mix instruments together into one cohesive sound:
- How to use the mixer in you DAW? Volume? Panning?
- What is EQ? what does it do? How to use it?
- What is Compressor? what does it do? How to use it?
- What is Reverb? what does it do? How to use it?
- If you are after getting out of your comfort zone, this will put your skills to the test: Kick and Bass have a great impact, so learning how to mix them will create a solid base for the rest of the instruments. YouTube is full of these videos, so I won’t bother you with another one, just search for “Mixing kick and bass” and enjoy the 14,546,765 hours of everybody saying the same things. Now seriously, limit yourself to 2 videos.
- Learn how to export a project in WAV & MP3 file formats in your DAW
- Wav – 24bit 44Khz
- Mp3 – 320Kbps
- Create more music projects – practice whenever you can, most of time when I tell someone to practice, I get the “I have no time” answer or “creating a track/song takes too much time”. And it’s true, it takes time, but you can start small, like only creating the Kick and Bass pattern. Later you will be able to load your project and add only claps and hi-hats. The day after, you can just add some chords… and after 3 or 4 days you will find yourself working on a project that you actually like. The creation process becomes much faster and more fun as you gain experience.
Phase 4 – For the vocal lovers – optional
this phase is not recommended at this stage, but I know that some artists might wish to explore producing their own vocals.
There is a reason I don’t recommend vocal recordings at this stage: there is too much you will need to invest in to get a mediocre recording, good vocal recording needs a high quality, expensive environment and equipment. A better option would be to get your vocals recorded in a professional recording studio at a comfortable price. Studios usually charge by the hour, from my experience, usually 2 hours are more than enough for one song, including back vocal tracks. If you don’t know how good the studio is, simply ask to hear vocals that were recorded there.
If you decide to go for vocal recordings, you have a pretty interesting path to walk, it’s not as easy as it sounds, but it surely is satisfying to nail a good vocal recording and it adds amazing texture and color to any project. Here are the first steps for starting with basic vocal recording at home:
- Choose your first microphone, don’t go over budget on the first mic, you will most likely buy a new one when your skills & budget grow. You can start your microphone research on YouTube, plenty of good reviews there, especially this channel.
- Condenser mic – condensers lean toward the professional studio side of things. They tend to capture more of the sound dynamic and frequency range, they are sharper sounding, but this comes with a price, sometimes a scary price. Most condensers for singing will have a higher price than dynamic ones. Remember that in order to use a condenser, you will need a phantom power/48v option on your sound card.
- Dynamic mic – these lean toward live performance situations but some of them are iconic and have been used in studios forever. Yes, I’m talking about the Shure SM58. With dynamic microphones, you might need to buy a Cloudlifter (CL-1) if your sound card preamp doesn’t have enough power. If you decided to go with a Cloudlifter, you will have to make sure you have a phantom power/48v option on your sound card.
- Learn about acoustics and how they can help produce better vocal recordings – it is usually expensive to control the room’s acoustics, so instead of refurbishing your whole room, you may consider these portable vocal booths.
- Learn about vocal recording techniques on YouTube and try whatever you learn in your DAW.
Sounds like a lot to do… this is how long it really takes
I know this list gives the wrong impression… it just looks long.
But the funny thing is, you can get it all in 2 intense weeks, or 3 weeks, if you want to space things out.
Take the first phase for example, this phase alone can take 2 to 3 days, and if you are one of those freaks that learn faster than me, 1 day is much more likely.
What about mastering?
Mastering is a process I would suggest leaving to professionals at this stage, this is not a topic for beginners and here is why I say that…
Mastering involves deep knowledge of how sound reacts to certain processes and why one process sounds better than the other. Although this is precious knowledge, if you’ve just started, this will limit you immensely in a couple of ways: less choices for creation – these tools are extremely CPU heavy, and it will force you to waste money on the best sounding plugins before you’ve mastered the process of putting your ideas together into project.
The DMG Equilibrium EQ plugin, usually used for mastering because of its high-quality internal processing, costs around 238$ alone, and this is not the only plugin you will need for a successful mastering session.
What to do while practicing?
Practice makes perfect, but while you are in the practicing stage, try talking to other music producers and learn from their insights. Today, god bless the forums, we have plenty of places to communicate and even collaborate with other musicians, this means limitation for learning don’t exist anymore.
Be active on Reddit forums that fit your style and genre, Facebook groups, Quora… there must be more out there, but stay focused on one place which is active enough. Ask questions, say what you like about things that other producers share, share your music, listen to feedback that can help you evolve, and put your ego aside, learn to recognize good feedback, for example:
Empty feedback: “There is no groove in your music.”
Great feedback: “Add some groove, maybe some triplets in the bass will sound better.”
With the great feedback you can actually go to YouTube and explore triplets. With the empty one you can only thank the person for taking his time to listen to your project and go on with your life.
Free sample libraries
These are some free samples for you to download and practice with, just one thing about samples, if you intend to release your music commercially, make sure you use Royalty Free Samples only. You can find this info on the website you’re downloading from, or inside the downloaded file in a .txt / .pdf file.
- https://www.musicradar.com/news/tech/free-music-samples-royalty-free-loops-hits-and-multis-to-download – Here you will find loops, single shots, instruments, effects and… everything. You won’t need more than this link, download only couple of packs that you think necessary to start practicing. Later, if you want to expand, you know where to find them.
Free VST plugins
This collection of VST instruments and effects is enough for getting started. The main problem with VST plugins is that when you have too many of them, you won’t have a clear choice of what to choose for a certain goal, this not only wastes time but also makes you focus on VST selection rather than producing music. As you grow, you will have the ability to appreciate certain qualities in each VST plugin and you will be able to choose the right VST even if you have 1000s of them.
Free Instruments VSTs
- https://www.dskmusic.com/category/vsti-all – All sorts of instruments
- https://surge-synthesizer.github.io/ – Professional synth
- https://www.powerdrumkit.com/ – Acoustic drum kit
- https://decomposer.de/sitala/ – Electronic drum kit
- https://electroniksoundlab.com/free-stuff/ – All sorts of sounds
Free EQ (Equalizer) VST
Your DAW most likely have its own EQ VSTs, but if not, you can download some free ones here:
- https://2ndsenseaudio.com/plugins/ – free Equalizer plugin is at the bottom of the page.
Free Compressor VSTs
Your DAW most likely have its own compressor VSTs, but if not, you can download some free ones here:
Free Reverb VSTs
Your DAW most likely have its own Reverb VSTs, but if not, you can download some free ones here:
Free VST Effect collection
- https://www.patreon.com/analogobsession – free compressors, EQs, reverbs and more.
- https://www.meldaproduction.com/MFreeFXBundle – free compressors, EQs, reverbs and more.