Music production can have a steep learning curve. With the increased accessibility to great gear and technology, anyone can make music from their bedroom. But that begs the question, "But where do I begin?". My hope is that after going through this blog post, you'd be able to have a definitive answer to this question and have the right tools to begin your music-making journey!
The brains behind the modern day home studio is the computer. Computers have come a long way since it's inception, and with that comes the power to handle all your music production needs - be it recording a simple singer-songwriter to handling full-on productions for live bands and even orchestras. The sheer power of the modern computer is the foundation upon which us music producers turn ideas into finished masterpieces. Below are a few key points when buying a new computer or even considering upgrades to your current one if necessary:
CPU (Central Processing Unit)
In order to begin producing music, you would need to have a good computer that is able to handle the heavy load that music production brings. Realtime audio can be quite tasking on a computer's processor, so an Intel Core i5 or higher, AMD Ryzen 5 or higher or an Apple M1 chip or higher would be ideal to handle it. That should set you up nicely to produce, mix and master your songs and other projects.
The next most important thing after a good CPU is the storage. High quality audio files can add up quickly when you're working on a project and the last thing you need is to run out of storage space during that perfect vocal take. Not to mention additional instrument samples will also eat up precious storage space. At minimum, I would suggest having 512 GB of storage space. Be sure that the drive inside is a Solid State Drive (SSD). SSDs are super-fast hard drives that will allow you to work smoothly and efficiently on your computer and prevent long loading times and an unwanted lag in performing audio processing tasks. They have reduced in price over time and therefore are the best option for music production.
RAM (Random Access Memory)
RAM is useful for certain sample libraries and at minimum, 8 GB is the recommended spec. However, I would personally suggest using 16 GB to ensure no hiccups during a session. Also check which type of RAM is being used. The standard at the time of this blog post is DDR4, which is suitable for music production and multi-tasking.
GPU (Graphics Processing Unit)
Although the Graphics Processing Unit or GPU is not directly a factor of music production, I would propose a more cohesive approach to being a producer, if I may. Today's world of social media is driven by video content. At some point or the other, it would be in your best interest as a producer trying to put themselves out there, to create video content to support your music productions. Which is why although you do not need the latest and greatest in graphics performance, I would suggest at least getting a dedicated graphics card from either Nvidia or AMD. Not to mention that these graphics cards include separate encoders should you ever decide to live-stream or render high quality video content.
Desktop vs. Laptop
In my time as a music producer and session musician, I have used both desktops as well as laptops to aid in my projects. It is dependent on a few factors, namely:
Will you need to be mobile? If you are the type that desires to create music on the go, or you'd like to have the option of recording or working with someone at another location, then a laptop would be the best option for you. A laptop is also necessary when taking your music to the stage, so if you do plan on performing live, a laptop is the way to go.
What fits your budget? High-end laptops that meet the recommended spec for music production often come with an expensive price tag. On the other hand, an equivalent desktop workstation can be built for much cheaper. It is therefore important to understand the difference in performance each route can give you.
Is upgradability important to you? Technology is advancing faster than it ever has before. With that said, it is important to consider an upgrade path for your purchase that will save you money down the road. A desktop PC can be upgraded easily as it is simply a question of replacing any of the components inside with new and better ones, provided they are compatible with the other components inside. In the laptop domain however, these upgrades are limited to RAM and storage at best.
Mac vs. Windows
Eluding to my previous statement on working with both desktops and laptops, I have also had the pleasure of working on both Windows and Mac ecosystems. Here are a few of the pointers that I would ask you to consider:
What software do you plan on using? Without getting into too much detail in this section, if you plan on using Logic Pro, you're restricted to a Mac, All other software can be used on both Windows and Mac.
Again, what fits your budget? One of the main talking points of Apple's products lies in their pricing. Not only do you pay 1.5-2.0x the cost of a similarly-spec'ed Windows machine, you also continue to pay that in maintenance costs, AppleCare, etc.
Is a vast port selection important to you? (Hint: It is to me.) Ever since the launch of the 2016 Macbook Pro, the port selection on these machines has been limited to 2-4 powerful Thunderbolt 3 ports. As long as you're comfortable carrying around dongles to connect your other peripherals, you should be fine. Windows machines tend to have a better selection of ports built right in to the machines so you don't have to worry about leaving your USB C-USB A converter behind.
And again, is upgradability important to you? Macbooks have zero upgradability - what you see is what you get. And that's it. Windows on the other hand does have upgrade paths in terms of RAM and Storage. As for the desktop variants, the Mac Pro and Mac Mini also have limited upgradability while the Windows desktop would have complete customization based on your ever-evolving needs as a music producer.
How about reliability? It has often been said that Macbooks offer greater reliability than Windows. This does in fact hold true. This is due to the fact that because Apple's stocks are limited in comparison to the various companies Microsoft supplies their operating system to, Apple has much more control over tightly integrating and optimizing each of their products. Apple's audio framework, known as CoreAudio, is also much more stable than Windows's ASIO framework.
Brent's Two Cents:
"I love to experiment with things like sending audio sources to different destinations internally as well as sending MIDI over networks. And macOS' CoreAudio allows me to create all kinds of MIDI and Audio routings between the use of Network Sessions, the IAC Driver, Multi-output Devices and Aggregate Devices."
The next thing on our list of essentials is with regards to the kinds of software needed to produce music.
DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
These applications are known as Digital Audio Workstations or DAWs for short. There are many great options to choose from, with some of the most popular being Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, Steinburg Cubase, Ableton Live, PreSonus Studio One, the list goes on...
All DAWs have the ability to produce hit records and have done so in the past too. Apart from Logic Pro, they also run on both Mac and Windows platforms. Logic, being built by Apple, is solely supported on macOS. So if you plan on using Logic as your DAW of choice, you'll need be running a Mac computer. Digital Audio Workstations allow you to record, edit, process and mix audio, but their functionality can be further expanded by add-on software known in the music world as plug-ins.
Plug-ins are essentially smaller pieces of software that, when used in conjunction with your DAW, can significantly improve your audio processing capabilities. Some of the most popular plug-in companies include Native Instruments, Universal Audio, Waves, Spectrasonics, Soundtoys and Fabfilter. It is worth noting that plug-ins can further be divided into two types based on their function:
Audio Effects These include things like EQs, Compressors, Reverbs, Delays, etc. and are applied to audio tracks. Companies like Waves and Universal Audio recreated the sound of vintage outboard gear digitally so as to mimic the way they react to incoming audio signals.
Instruments Instrument plug-ins include sound generating sources like synthesizers, pianos, guitars, choirs, etc. They are often triggered by MIDI Controllers but more on that later.
As similar as they are, there are certain pockets of the music industry that prefer certain DAWs depending on use cases. This is very subjective however so do note that these are reflective of my personal opinions in my time working as a musician and producer. Logic Pro and Ableton Live are often used in the creation stage due to their vast array of high quality sounds and creative workflows. Pro Tools is the industry standard as far as recording and mixing are concerned, while Cubase is a mix of both creative and recording applications. Both these DAWs support surround sound mixing and are often used by film composers when working on film projects.
3. Audio Interface & Monitoring
Up next, we have the audio interface. Second to the computer, this too acts as a central hub between your computer and all your peripherals including MIDI controllers, instruments, microphones, speakers and headphones. An audio interface essentially handles all the audio processing that is required for a musical work, with some companies like Universal Audio actually adding CPU cores inside their line of audio interfaces to take off some of the load on your main computer while running their plug-ins. Let's dive deeper into the main points to look out for when considering your next audio interface.
Audio interfaces connect to your computer through two main connectivity options - USB and Thunderbolt. It is important to consider which options your computer supports before buying an interface. For example, if you own a Macbook Pro, consider purchasing an interface with Thunderbolt 3 or USB C connectivity. That would allow you to connect your interface directly without the need for a dongle.
When starting out in music production, you would often rely on the preamps built into the interface to capture your microphone or instrument. Thankfully, most modern day interfaces come with preamps capable of capturing high-fidelity audio at a fraction of the cost of a commercial preamp. For starters, consider purchasing something like a Focusrite 2i2 or an Audient iD4 interface (Read on before purchasing these). These contain one or two preamps which should be enough for simple overdubbing of different sound sources, e.g. recording a guitar and then recording a vocal on top of it.
From the get-go, an audio interface will give you at least one set of stereo outputs to plug in a pair of monitors or a pair of headphones to listen back to audio from your DAW. One thing to consider when starting off with an interface is to think about whether or not you plan on taking your productions to the stage. Often times, extra outputs can come in handy for running aux tracks like click tracks, cue tracks, separate vocal stems, etc. or even for real-time processing of a live input like a vocal through your DAW.
Although I mentioned the Focusrite 2i2 and Audient iD4 for starting out, I would suggest an alternate approach to choosing an audio interface. And that is to ask the question "What will my studio eventually include?" rather than "What does my studio currently have?". And this is where future-proofing yourself with the right amounts of inputs and outputs (or I/O for short) will save you money down the line. One way to achieve this desired result without breaking the bank is to pick an interface that includes ADAT, which allows a secondary set of mic preamps (usually in sets of 8) to be connected to your interface, thereby expanding it's I/O and opening up a wide range of possibilities. These include interfaces like the Focusrite Clarett 4pre and the Audient iD14 mk ii.
If you ever plan on documenting your own recording sessions to video using software like OBS or vMix or plan on routing the audio to video conferencing devices like Zoom or Google Meet for entertainment or educational purposes, one nifty feature also built into the aforementioned ADAT-supported interfaces is a feature known as Loopback. Loopback essentially allows you to send outputs from your DAW to an internal input within the interface that can be used to route back into software like OBS, Zoom or Google Meet. It's an extremely robust solution for streamers and teachers who would like to conduct virtual classes, especially during COVID-19.
The music you create is only as good as the music you can hear. If you can't accurately listen to what you're creating, you may fall prey to inconsistent low-end, mid range or even levels between tracks. For this reason, I recommend a pair of Audio-Technica M50X Studio Headphones or equivalent studio headphones. Studio headphones offer a flatter frequency response than consumer-grade headphones. This means that you will be able to correctly and accurately listen to what your track sounds like in every frequency so you can make the right mix and production decisions.
The reason I do not recommend studio monitors when starting out in music is because studio monitors are only as good as the room they are being placed in. If you want to accurately listen to what's coming out of your speakers while mitigating the reflections in the room, you would also need to install acoustic treatment in your room, the costs of which can add up. Hence, when starting out, a good pair of headphones is the way to go. Be sure to rest those ears periodically as ear fatigue can set in quicker than studio monitors.
On to one piece of gear that is often the face of a studio, the microphone. Microphones are essential to capture audio from a vocal or an instrument into your DAW. There are two main types of microphones when starting out in music production - dynamics and condenser microphones.
Dynamic vs. Condensers
Dynamic microphones like the Shure SM58 and SM57 are great for live use due to their robust design. They also translate quite well to the studio and have great noise rejection. However, if you want that polished detailed sound out of your recordings, then condenser microphones are the way to go.
Condenser microphones require 48V of what is called Phantom Power, which comes with most audio interfaces and is just a matter of switching on from the interface itself. They have a highly detailed sonic quality about them which makes them the perfect candidate for recording vocals, shakers, etc. One of my favorite mics to recommend is the Aston Origin microphone, which honestly sounds amazing for the price.
Do keep in mind however that these mics are highly sensitive to noise. If you're in a noisy environment, you may want to consider sticking to a dynamic microphone until you can dampen external sound by sound-proofing your room.
5. MIDI Controller
And finally, a way to control your sounds - the MIDI controller. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and was developed way back in the day. This is good news because chances are the keyboard you might have lying around may actually be your first MIDI controller for your studio. All you need is a MIDI to USB converter like the Roland UM-1 which converts your MIDI signal for use with your computer.
Keyboards and Drum Pads
MIDI Controllers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Controllers like the Novation Launchpad or the Ableton Push have what's called finger pads. These are pressure sensitive pads that allow you to control your sounds from within your DAW, and are great for programming drum sounds. Then there's the more conventional keyboard-style MIDI controller, which is great for melodic instruments like pianos, strings, synthesizers, etc.
MIDI vs. Audio
One topic that causes a lot of confusion in the minds of producers starting out is the difference between MIDI and Audio. It is important to note that MIDI is simply performance data - it answers questions like "What note was played?", "How hard was the note played?". "When was the note released?". It does not actually capture any audio. It only sends this data to a VST instrument. The plug-in then interprets this data and generates the audio. So no, please don't think that one MIDI controller sounds better than the other, because they simply don't sound at all. They do however offer addition control.
The basic use of MIDI controllers is to input notes into your DAW to trigger sounds. However, certain MIDI controllers like the Novation Impulse series also allow you to control your track volumes, mute, pan as well as transport controls like play, stop, fast forward, rewind, etc. all without having to use your mouse. These are great tools to enhance your workflow and I would highly recommend buying a controller that offered these features along with just the simple keyboard. The faster you get things done, the more you can do, the quicker you can turn an idea into reality. And that really is the whole point, isn't it?
And that's it! That's all you need to jump-start your music-making career. Always remember that making music is not about the destination, it's about the journey. I urge you to enjoy the process of creating songs out of ideas and to always be keen to learn. The world is your oyster so go out there and make the most of it!
"But Brent, what do you use?"
Well I'm glad you asked! To know more about my personal music production setup, click below to watch my video: