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What does it take to start producing music? What do materials do you need to start producing music?
There isn’t much you need to start producing music. Ever since the transition from analog to digital, everything can be done on the computer.
The question is, what specifically do you need on the computer?
Laptop vs Desktop for Home Audio Production?
A laptop beats a desktop in one area: portability.
Now, we’re not saying you should go with a desktop, this is just the reality of the situation. You can still create classic music with a laptop though.
If you’re going to build a home studio, a desktop is better. Almost all laptops are worse in comparison to a desktop when it comes to hardware. If you’re going to produce most of your music in your house, desktops can’t be beat.
And there are 4 reasons as to why. One, is they give you more bang for your buck, give you less technical difficulties, are customizable, and are more durable.
We’re not here to dissuade you from picking a laptop, both have trade offs like anything, but desktops give you more options as a producer.
Whether you’re going with a laptop or desktop, we wrote some specs you need to look out for. Keep in mind that some of these specs will be a little more biased towards laptops more because we’re assuming you want to make music anywhere.
This will make it easier for you to decide which laptop is right, or which specs you need to adjust for on your desktop. Regardless, all of these specs can be applied to a desktop.
- At least 2.2Ghz i7 quad-core processor
- At least 4GB of RAM
- 64-bit operating system
- At least 256GB of internal storage (HDD or SSD)
- At least a 15-inch screen.
The most important aspect of a laptop you need to look at is the processor. A processor is also called different names. Some names include “central processing unit” or “CPU”.
It’s important because it determines how much and how fast a computer can execute. An easy way to think of a processor is its similarity to a brain. A CPU determines how well your computer runs programs.
Think about all the accessories music production requires. You obviously need the “Digital Audio Workspace” (DAW) which takes up a lot of space. Then you have plug-ins and songs that you keep in files.
Producers who are respected and who have “made it” have a bunch of songs stored. This is why it’s important to have “Random Access Memory”, also known as “RAM”. RAM is considered short-term memory.
It’s faster for a laptop to access data from the RAM instead of the hard drive. Think of RAM like a remote control for the TV. You can change things quicker with the remote control instead of walking up to the TV itself to change something.
Except instead of changing something, you're accessing memory. And RAM makes it faster to access that memory.
The minimum requirement for RAM a music producer needs is at least 4GB. Obviously, the more RAM you have, the better.
To play it safe though, we suggest going with 16GB of RAM. If you want more RAM than that, look into gaming laptops or different workstations.
If you’re willing to shell out big bucks, look at a laptop like the latest Alienware. It gives up to 64GB of RAM. You’ll be able to hoard music for years if you go with these specs.
To be able to use a laptop with 4GB of RAM, you need a laptop with a 64-bit operating system.
Operating systems let you handle more data simultaneously and lets you access more data. When you’re working with music, you’re doing so much at once that it’s a requirement to have a 64-bit operating system.
If you have Windows as an operating system, anything later than Windows 7 will be a 64-bit operating system. Any MacBook that’s newer than a 2008 model will have a 64-bit operating system. Basically, any new laptop will be a 64-bit operating system.
Before we talk about internal storage, we want to talk about backing up your music.
The rule of thumb for backing up your work is to store it in 3 places. One of those 3 places needs to be offline too. A common setup is to have 2 backup locations in the cloud, and one on an external hard drive. The last thing you want is for all your work to disappear after years of hard work.
You want a good amount of memory when you purchase a laptop. If you’re using the laptop primarily for music production, having a laptop with 256GB is fine. Assuming you use an external drive, you can get away with 128GB. The storage size depends on you. Figure out how much music you plan to make, and then figure out how much storage you need after.
The smaller your screen size is, the more portability you have. Remember that you can also hook it up to a bigger screen anyways.
A general rule of thumb is you don’t want your screen to be smaller than 15 inches. Anything smaller than that makes it hard to work inside a DAW. If you have the budget, we suggest getting 2 monitors to multi-task. As a beginner, you can watch videos on how to use the DAW and have the DAW on the other screen.
Choosing a DAW can be its own article. We have provided some DAWs you can choose from below. There are a lot of factors to consider. First, you have to consider the computer you’re using, and the hardware you have.
You also have to consider your goals. This factor brings a whole other subset of questions.
Questions like how do you plan to arrange your music? Are you going to use more virtual instruments? Or, how much control do you want over the music?
These are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself. Besides that, there are 2 things you need to know about a DAW:
Plug-ins & MIDI Controllers.
Plug-ins are basically code to let you do more things in the DAW. For example, if you wanted to turn up the pitch of a sound but didn’t have the functionality in the DAW itself, you would install a plug-in and insert it into your DAW to fix.
A Musical Instrument Digial Interface (MIDI) controller doesn’t have any use by itself. The MIDI controller is more of a preference.
The main purpose of a MIDI controller is to help you control the software. But, that’s just the obvious part. Here are some other reasons.
Seeing a musical instrument will want to make you play music. Looking at your laptop doesn’t give you that feeling.
Just playing with a MIDI controller will inspire creativity. This leads to new music ideas.
Playing on a keyboard will help you with melodies, chord progression, and bass. For a visual person, a MIDI keyboard really brings out the creativity.
You can start experimenting much faster than in a DAW. Just start hitting notes instead of pressing play on your DAW. The time it takes to hit the play button ruins creativity. Having the MIDI makes it easier to get into flow state.
- Human touch
A MIDI controller is not sound, but data. Every time you hit a key, or pad, that’s actually a numeric value that represents the note.
When working with MIDIs, you need to know about velocity. Velocity is understood as the volume of a note. When musicians play live music, you’ll hear it in the instruments. Some instruments overpower others.
You can translate this velocity using a MIDI by either hitting a drum pad a certain way, or, a key a certain way. Figure out what sound you want to emphasize in the song and work that angle.
Automation is when you sync the MIDI keyboard with your plug-ins in the software. Being able to do this means you don’t have to drag your mouse everywhere which is tedious. You can just experiment with the controls on your board.
You can use the modulation wheel or a front panel slider to automate writing your track. For music production, automating is a process where you define something in your software with a physical interface.
One example is automating the volume level during specific parts of the track. Let’s say you have an automation setup for volume that keeps the decibels level at 5. Your track will never go above 5 dB when producing it.
There are 2 advantages automating with a MIDI keyboard. The first is it’s more easy/enjoyable to automate with a keyboard instead of using a mouse to automate. The second is it gives a human touch to your tracks.
Now, let’s review some DAWs and find out which is right for you. We have divided the DAWs up between free and paid.
1. Garageband (Mac)
Garageband is one of the best DAWs for beginners.
They provide a lot of samples, synths, and loops. What’ll probably surprise you is Garageband is even used by professionals. This goes to show how great Garageband is.
One downside of Garageband is it only comes with Macs and other apple devices. You can create different templates of a song with an iPad and a MacBook simultaneously.
Other downsides include no mixer screen and lack of pro-features. There’s no support for plug-ins to process your audio.
There are some positives though or else we wouldn’t put it here. Those pros include being able to navigate Garageband easily because of its interface. It’s easy-to-use and is similar to a video game because of how much fun you’ll have using it. Another cool benefit is the feature of multitrack recording.
- Variety of instruments
- Intuitive interface
- Multitrack recording
- 3rd-party plug-ins
- Only compatible with MacOS
- No mixer screen
- Lack of pro-features
2. Tracktion (Mac + Windows)
Tracktion is a great DAW for beginners, not only because it’s free, but it also has features that make it easier to make music.
It has a dark GUI which stands for “graphical user interface”, and GUIs are part of the user interface making it easier to use. Similar to Garageband, Tracktion’s interface is simple to navigate.
Tracktion is also compatible with VST plug-ins. VST stands for “Virtual Studio Technology” and it’s a plug-in software interface that contains effects and more into DAWs.
You can also do multitrack recordings, mixings, and MIDI compatibility. Other tools include using automation and warp time to master your tracks. If you don’t know what automation is, we talked about it in our drum programming track.
Some limitations include a lack of mixer meter and picture/music capability. It also lacks multi-screen features. Nonetheless, it’s still free which is to be expected.
- Easy-to-use interface
- Compatible with VST plug-ins
- Multitrack recordings, mixings, and MIDI compatibility
- Lack of mixer meter
- Single-screen interface
3. Cakewalk by BandLab (Windows)
Some believe Cakewalk to be the best free DAW out there. It comes with MIDIs, instruments, loops, an unlimited choice of audio, and more.
BandLab is a cloud-based platform that functions like a social music platform. Producers can collaborate with others, and this includes fans. For a beginner, this is great because you can see the stems of a great track and contribute your own idea.
Similar to open-source coding, there can be a lot of great music that comes from this. Consider Cakewalk a “cross-platform DAW” that allows you to message and share videos. Think of it as a social network for musicians.
When it comes to DAWs, it all comes down to what you prefer. Sometimes producers prefer an interface over another while others prefer what a specific DAW offers in terms of tools.
The audio portion Cakewalk offers is ridiculous. They offer at least 200 different options ranging from pianos to drum kits.
Similar to Tracktion, they offer other features that make it easier on the producer. This includes time stretching, automation, and simulation to guitar/bass amps.
Their mission is to create a community of creators who want to collaborate with each other. Be warned though, even though it’s free now, their platform is growing fast and it’s highly possible they start monetizing.
One of the reasons why we listed it lower is because of its interface. Cakewalk isn't the most beginner-friendly.
A big reason why it’s hard to list this DAW at the top is due to its choppy interface.
- A lot of audio options (loops, instruments, MIDIs)
- Collaboration tools
- Editing tools (automation, stretching, and simulation)
- Harder interface to use
- Compatibility with MacOS
4. Pro Tools (Mac + Windows)
Producers rave about Pro Tools for multiple reasons, but one big reason why is due to their strong software support. DAWs are hard enough to navigate for a beginner. Having strong support gives beginners a step-by-step guide on how to use specific tools.
The bigger reason as to why beginners start with Pro Tools is they’re the standard for producers. If you can use Pro Tools, you can master the fundamentals of music production. You’ll be able to work in different environments such as home studios and professional studios.
Pro Tools is also appealing for its ease. Its ease of accessibility to advanced functions, mixing, and audio editing make it easy for beginners. Mixing and editing are important in creating a good track, and you’re guaranteed to do both when creating a song which is why Pro Tools stands out.
A downside are the third-party tools. Plug-ins are expensive and third-party interfaces are hard to work with.
Overall, it’s an easy-to-use program and one example of that is being able to use templates. You know how it takes awhile to get in a groove when doing creative work? Well, templates save you time by letting you get into creative mode faster.
- Software support
- Music production standard
- Intuitive interface
- Expensive plug-ins
- 3rd party interfaces are hard to work with
5. Cockos Reaper 6 (Mac + Windows + Linux)
The first noticeable thing about this DAW is its price. Its launch price is $60 which makes it affordable.
It also doesn't take up a lot of your storage space. In other words, it leaves a tiny storage footprint. It's also great for MIDI and audio routing tools. You'll be able to do a lot with this DAW.
To be fair, this isn't the easiest DAW to use. But, it does come with software support. In addition, it also comes with a lot of automation tools including modulation, scripting, and more.
Another problem users have are the native plug-ins. There isn't much of a selection when compared to other DAWs. Most importantly, it doesn't have the most intuitive interface. Although the price is beginner friendly, the user experience is not.
- Doesn't take up a lot of storage
- Software support
- Audio routing tools
- Interface isn't beginner friendly
- Not many plug-ins
Why Should you get a Paid DAW?
Paid DAWs generally have better customer service. Assuming you’re a beginner, you’ll be dealing with a lot of technical questions. Having support makes the learning less steep.
Support also includes controllers available in the market. A lot of the MIDI controllers aren’t compatible with free DAWs. When manufacturers built those MIDI controllers, they weren’t intending it for free DAWs.
Latency happens when there’s lag or delay with digital audio. It’s common in digital audio production.
Let’s give an example. Latency is when you’re playing a guitar track to your DAW, you notice a delay between what you just played, and what you hear through either the headphones, or speakers. Keep in mind that this also happens with virtual instruments. This happens a majority of the time because of the default sound card your computer has.
You’re always going to get better options with paid options when comparing free and paid options. And this is no different. Purchasing a DAW gives you more features like better VSTs, mastering features, mixing features, and more.
Free DAWs also lack the options like automation or surround sound options. It’s just what the marketplace brings.
Workflow makes it easier for users to organize their work. Streamlining your mixing and recording improves efficiency and leaves you with more energy to work on creativity. This is why artists don’t want to handle administrative work, it takes away from their work.
Free DAWs aren’t streamlined like paid DAWs either. Having a streamlined workflow lets you jump through less hoops.
An example of this is working around a lack of plug-ins. Having a streamlined workflow with intuitive plug-ins is like having the tool right in front of you. This is better than having to look for the tool, or making a tool from scratch.
Plug-ins and 3rd party VSTs are lacking in free DAWs. VST makers create for monetization. Their intentions to create aren’t for free platforms, they want a return on their investment.
1. Ableton Live (Mac + Windows)
Ableton is available in 3 versions. This includes the Intro version, Standard version, and Suite version. Ableton is a compelling choice because it takes out a lot of difficulty for installation and workflow.
The Intro version has features like MIDI sequencing, advanced warping, and real-time stretching. MIDI sequencing lets you take better control of all the different instruments on hardware or software.
Advanced warping allows you to time-stretch audio meaning it stays in sync with your tempo. Warping also allows you to tune audio into creative ways.
A couple adjustments Ableton can make is to add track comping and give producers the ability to adjust pitch. Overall, Ableton is a great DAW for both professionals and beginners.
- Quick navigation
- Huge library of instruments
- Great producer tools (MIDI sequencing, advanced warping, real-time streching, etc.)
- No track comping
- No pitch adjustments
2. FL Studio (Mac + Windows)
FL Studio is a staple in the DAW industry. There have been a lot of producers who took their talents to this DAW.
And, there's a good reason as to why. FL Studio is a great DAW that offers a lifetime of free updates. Competitors usually charge $150-250 for an update, but one purchase with FL nets you a lifetime of free updates.
A great feature for FL is its piano roll. A couple cool things you can do with the piano roll is a dramatic melody, or chord progression. It’s also available for chopping, cutting, and more.
FL Studio is also known for a great workflow. The interface is quick from point A to point B. Think of the interface like putting pencil to paper, but, instead, you’re putting ideas into DAW. What creates this quick interface are the sample folders, custom templates, and plug-in managers.
Besides its workflow, FL is known for present developers on their forum. They take their user’s ideas and complaints seriously. Coinciding this with the free updates, it’s easy to see why FL is known for great tech support.
- Lifetime free updates
- Tech support
- A lot of automation features
- MIDI controller integration
- Piano roll
- Workflow isn't traditional
- No audio quantization
- Video integration
- Plug-in management
3. Apple Logic Pro X (Mac)
Apple Logic Pro X is another DAW with an intuitive interface making it easy to navigate. The mixing of Logic Pro is great and shows you where all the levels are at.
Logic Pro X shows the mixing tool as analog and it makes it easier to work with it. It also has great MIDI sequencing and soft synths.
Making a great user interface comes down to making the tools easy-to-use. And, the Logic Pro X is easy as 1-2-3 for sequencing and recording notes.
There are a couple of issues that are glaring though. One such problem is automation. Sometimes there can be bugs when you try to automate certain tasks, and the bug takes longer to fix. This also goes for plug-in compatibility. 3rd party compatibility comes with bugs that make it hard to finish a track.
- Intuitive interface
- Mixing tools
- Automation tools
- Plug-in compatibility
4. PreSonus Studio One 4 (Mac + Windows)
Studio One has great track arrangements and track markers. Studio One’s workflow is drag-and-drop, and you can drag audio loops, virtual instruments, and plug-ins all together in your dashboard.
What makes the track arrangements easy-to-use in Studio One are the scratch pads. It makes moving sections of songs simple and easy. Another editing tool that’s great is “Harmonic Editing”.
Harmonic Editing makes it easier for songwriting and song arrangement. Studio One also has a unique pipeline of XT plug-ins. They’re a collection of classic and vintage analog signal processors. In addition, the Channel Editor has a Splitter tool that lets you use multiple plug-ins simultaneously.
One common complaint for Studio One are the native plug-ins. Users have said that the native plug-ins aren’t the best to put it nicely. They also make it hard to save templates and the interface gets cluttered.
Looking at Studio One overall though, it’s a complete DAW giving everything you need.
- Workflow interface
- Track arrangements
- Harmonic editing
- Splitter tool
- Native plug-ins
5. MOTU Digital Performer (Mac)
The Digital Performer has 5GB of content. It includes a sound library containing acoustic instruments, loops, synths, and more. You can also arrange songs using woodwinds, organs, and different ethnic instruments.
The MOTU Digital Performer also comes with Stretch editing where you can drag different beats and different anchor points to make specific adjustments.
Stretch Audio also lets you control the whole tempo for the track. They also include pitch adjustments and time stretching.
Although you can adjust the tempo of the whole track, track customization isn’t Digital Performer’s best asset. They also don’t have constant updates like FL Studio.
Digital Performer’s plug-ins and instruments are great, but they aren’t on the same tier as the other DAWs we’ve listed above. Some tools that are good, but, aren’t great are the pitch manipulation and audio time.
This is still a great DAW though. It has been around for awhile and continues to do so thanks to its overall quality.
- Diverse sound library
- Stretch editing
- Stretch audio
- Anchor points
- Track customization
- Quality of plug-ins & instruments
There are a lot of factors that can affect your recording process. You have background noise and echoes to name a few that disrupt your recordings. To combat that, producers treat their room (which we’ll get into later).
Studio headphones also make editing music easier. Imagine working on a song and saving it. The next day, when you open up your DAW, you have to put everything back together to the last point you were at. This doesn’t happen, but just imagine. This would be irritating and you could possibly miss something from the day before.
Studio headphones make it so you can hear the track as its most original. It makes it easier to EQ your music.
The great part about studio headphones is they’re not crazy expensive. You can get a good set without breaking the bank. Some are even cheaper than Beats headphones.
Studio headphones are not merely for entertainment. They’re a tool to perfect your music.
Every desktop or laptop comes with an audio interface. The problem with the default audio interface is they’re not capable of serious music production. This means you need an external audio interface.
Think of an audio interface as a way for your instruments to enter your computer and come out the speakers. You’re basically inputting the sound you want into your computer.
An external audio interface gives you the connectivity options you need if you’re a serious producer. An audio interface also has less jitter, less noise, and better converters in comparison to your default sound card.
Similar to headphones, you can find many options for audio interfaces at affordable prices. If you’re serious about producing music and want to incorporate different instruments into your music, buy an audio interface.
Studio Recording Microphone
We wrote about recording mics on a budget before. This is something you don’t require, we’re just assuming you’ll record some vocals too.
Even if you won’t lay vocals down, recording mics are good for capturing natural sound. Mics capture the actual sound of an instrument, or other sound sources. In comparison to DAWs, veteran producers know instruments provide a different feel.
Being able to record instruments is just another trick in your producer bag. It’ll also allow you to work with artists who prefer to record live instruments.
Thanks to the cloud, we don’t have to go crate digging. We understand audio enthusiasts find crate digging to be enjoyable. But, sometimes producers don’t have time, especially if you’re trying to make 5 beats a day for 3 summers.
Here are the top sample services to help you lay the foundation:
The best overall sample service is Splice. It has a search engine that’s great for finding what you want fast. They also have preset filters that help you narrow down the options for what you want. You can filter down all the way to drum loops if you want.
One negative thing about Splice is there’s no DAW connection. This is more of a convenience thing but you’re going to be using your sample in your DAW anyways so it’s only logical that it connects to the DAW.
- Search engine
- Preset filters
- DAW connection
Another sample service in this space is Noiiz. It has a huge collection from every genre you could think of. And unlike Splice it connects with your DAW. The port goes directly into your DAW with a drag and drop function to accompany it.
A downside of Noiiz is their filtering function. Thankfully, this is more of a convenience issue so it doesn’t hurt your experience too much.
- Samples from every genre
- DAW connection
The last sample service is Loopcloud. Similar to Splice, you only pay for the samples that you download and use. Another similarity is both work on a subscription basis. And that subscription basis is not expensive. If you spend $8/month, then you’ll get 100 credits.
If you start with Loopcloud, you’ll also get internal plug-ins. Most producers who start out get discouraged because plug-ins are expensive. Starting out with plug-ins saves a lot of money.
A great reason why beginners should go with Loopcloud is its free subscription service. You get free samples but a limited selection. But, with a 30-day trial, you should have enough time on whether or not Loopcloud is for you or not.
- Internal plug-ins
- Free subscription service
- Only pay for samples you use
- No preset for synthesizers
Studio treatment is a must for recording. As we’ve discussed when talking about studio headphones, there are factors which affect it. And one of those factors is natural reverb.
The remedy to that is acoustic treatment. You see, sound travels outward in all directions which causes the sound waves to bounce back. The treatment is foam panels on the walls which absorb the sound reflections.
If you’re on a budget, you can always place a blanket over yourself when recording. It sounds funny, but it works.
These other tools we talk about are not necessary. They’re more honorable mentions once you get comfortable producing music.
- Autotune subscription
There are 2 popular plug-ins and they are called “Auto-Tune Pro” and “Auto-Tune Access”.
You’re probably wondering why you would want auto-tune if you can pitch correct inside your DAW. Well, that’s a fair point.
Auto-Tune Pro provides the modern sound of version 9 while balancing it with retro sounds. If you’re on the fence of purchasing the Pro version you can always do a trial run. Producers who get an auto-tune plugin do so for pitch adjustments. This is one way to justify an auto-tune plugin.
Auto-Tune Access provides low latecy processing and provides knobs for tuning.
It's also compatible with Auto-key (sold separately) which helps detect the key and scale which sends the info to Auto-Tune Access with one click. This is another great alternative to adjusting pitches.
Starting out as a Producer
If you’re starting out as a producer there’s no need to get overwhelmed with all the tools. Just go on YouTube and look at producers making music. Some of them just use the software to make great songs.
If all of this is overwhelming, remember, all you need from the beginning is a laptop and the DAW. These 2 alone are enough.
Focus on learning the software because in the end, that’s all you need to create a great song. Also find time to learn from other producers too. Find time to reach out to others through social media, especially if you’re trying to grow your online presence.
If you’re just trying to learn, here are some great resources: