Once upon a time, electronic music was generally the realm of those with access to thousands of dollars of musical equipment, or bedroom producers working in niche and largely unrecognized genres. But over the years, the advent of home computing has brought these worlds together, with the ability to easily emulate a studio's worth of equipment on a laptop or PC. Furthermore, electronic music has become firmly accepted by modern listeners. (In fact, we'd argue that it has become redundant to even designate music as "electronic" at this point, but that's for another discussion altogether.) We've got decades worth of rock bands (from New Order to Radiohead) and hip-hop acts to prove that computers and music are now entwined, and that their relationship will continually deepen throughout time. For anyone who is curious about making music electronically, the barriers to entry have never been so few, nor have the tools been so easily accessible. Diving into the world of electronic-music production can seem overwhelming -- finding the right software and hardware for your needs, let alone using it, can be a baffling process. We're here to lend a helping hand with our guide to home recording, but it's up to you to become the next Kanye or Kraftwerk.
Our guide is aimed at those who want to make music out of their home, so the first priority is finding a comfortable workspace. A desk large enough to fit a computer monitor or laptop is essential, as is a comfortable chair -- writing music on a computer involves a lot of sitting. The software we've showcased should run on any computer built in the last couple years, but we'll let you know if anything requires extra processing power. One important piece of equipment we've left out of this guide is a monitor
or studio-grade speaker set. Considering how expensive these are, we recommend starting out with a nice pair of headphones instead, such as the Sony MDR-V600s
, or Shure SRH440s
. These are mid-range, quality headphones and they won't end up waking the neighbors.
Let's also outline some terms we'll be using, as knowing the language of music production is just as helpful as knowing the gear itself. MIDI
(Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the protocol that allows synchronization between all manners of equipment, such as synthesizers, sampling machines, and even your computer. This is what allows your computer to instruct instruments (both real and virtual) what to play, and vice versa. Speaking of instruments, let's break down the common types. Synthesizers
create artificial approximations of sound, the kind you'd hear in any Kraftwerk song, that aren't necessarily aiming for authenticity. A drum machine
is an instrument that can be played and recorded in real time, set to emulate -- you guessed it -- the sound of drums. Each tone is made through either pre-recorded samples or through synthesis (making your own unique sound). Finally samplers
will allow the recording and playback of sound, which can range anywhere between a snare drum to a guitar solo. We'll be the first to admit: nothing will ever satisfactorily replace the thrill of banging on a real instrument. But for many musical genres (including almost every permutation of dance music), the only keys you'll need to touch are of the QWERTY variety.
On a basic level, a software sequencer is all that a budding musician really needs to get started. These programs are, in essence, virtual music studios that exist on your computer. They allow you to write music using built-in virtual instruments as well as real ones. Additionally, most such programs provide the ability to record live instrumentation and vocals, and use tools such as effects, EQs and compressors to help craft your sound; which are assets that were once only found behind the mixing desk in any professional studio. While a software sequencer is an inestimable musical tool, different programs are better suited to different musical needs. Whether you're interested in making Brian Eno-esque soundscapes or Cut Copy-style dance music, we'll help break down how each one excels. If you get lost, just refer to our handy reference key. It'll let you know which programs are best used for recording or editing audio, sequencing and programming virtual synthesizers, how much you should spend and how tricky each is to master.
is a great choice for musicians who are new to software sequencers and want to get started making music quickly. It's also used by musicians of all talent levels and across a wide variety of genres, due to it's intuitiveness and ease of use. The program's streamlined interface contains clearly marked buttons that allow for quick recording and playback, as well as the ability to drag and drop audio files directly into its editing window. MIDI synchronization is a breeze, which is a godsend for the less technically inclined who want to plug in a keyboard. Not only that, but it's built to function as a live performance tool, allowing for on-the-fly sound manipulation and synthesis control. Don't forget that Ableton is multi-platform and widely used, so you're likely to find others who are comfortable working in its environs if you get the urge to collaborate.
excels at recording live instrumentation. For those who want to keep their guitar handy but crave a quality workspace in which to edit, sequence and work production magic, Pro Tools is unparalleled and an industry standard. However, it's not an ideal choice for those who want to sequence out every note by hand (er... mouse) or synthesize artificial sounds, so unless you are recording instruments or polishing up work done in another software sequencer, head elsewhere. Accomplished musicians may love its professional-grade quality (and not mind its hefty price tag), but bedroom artists looking to make chill beats might not find it the best fit.
The closest you can get to the thrill of racks of real synthesizers, samplers and drum machines, Reason
is ideal for synth-heads who don't want to drop major bucks. Set up as a series of virtual instruments (complete with modeled rear panels, cables and all), Reason functions very much like a virtual representation of its physical counterparts. While true to life, this can be a drawback when the sequencer emulates the archaic hardware of yore, lacking much of the versatility of modern programs. Reason can serve as a good educational tool for those thinking about eventually using real instruments and hardware. As a synthesis-oriented program, those who want to create more organic-sounding, non-techy work should look elsewhere.
is an exceptionally deep program with an incredible ability to write, edit and polish any piece of music, and it takes years to truly master. The program also comes with one of the best suites of proprietary synthesizers we've seen, which makes it really excellent at synthesizing organic sounds and instruments. The MIDI functionality allows it to sync with a variety of musical hardware, from synthesizers to drum machines, and it's made leaps in its audio-editing abilities, bringing it closer to the industry standard of Pro Tools. Though not as intuitive as Ableton (although it has made strides to be as user-friendly as possible), it's steeper learning curve is offset with flexibility -- and one of the most impressive tool sets of any software sequencer available today.
is basically a simplified, free version of Logic, which makes sense considering it was masterminded by Logic creator Gerhard Lengeling. Some might scoff at its straightforwardness -- or that it comes standard on new Macs – but we think that it's an excellent starting point for any budding musician needing a fast fix now or hoping to graduate to Logic later. Often, tricky plug-ins or weird controls can stifle creativity, but GarageBand's simple, cut-and-dry layout lets songsters get right to it. The program comes with a variety of sampled instruments and synthesizers, as well as support for third-party software (though the program's limited MIDI capability makes it a poor tool for controlling hardware). We like to think of GarageBand as the perfect solution for quick and dirty instrumentation and vocal recording, or a cheap four-track of software sequencers... and that may be all you need.
(formerly Fruity Loops) has traditionally been used as a learning tool by those just getting into making music on their computer. Nevertheless, it's a viable option for those interested in its unique collection of sequencing methods. FL Studio combines the regimented sequencing of old analog gear with a versatile "piano roll," a visual sequencing method that allows one to non-linearly alter the pitch, time and sequence of notes. FL Studio is great for those who want to make dance music or synth-heavy hip-hop beats; and while its proprietary software and built-in sounds aren't as versatile as say, Logic's, it's a fantastic tool for learning the ropes of software sequencing.
It's always nice to have a few bits of gear to use in conjunction with a computer. We like to have at least one piece of physical equipment to mess around on, and it can help shake up the creative process to step away from the computer and twiddle some knobs. While we can't detail every bit of gear worth looking in to, here are a few suggestions to consider.
Our go-to synthesizer is the microKORG
. Not only is it affordable, but it's also extremely portable, making it perfect for your grand debut at your cousin's Bar Mitzvah. It features full MIDI capability, which means it will function as a controller keyboard, allowing keys played in real life to be altered digitally. Playing your computer's software synthesizers with the Korg is far more intuitive than sequencing melodies visually, especially if you already know how to tickle some ivories. To top it off, it's also got vocoder functionality, for your crucial Daft Punk impersonations.
MPD18 USB MIDI Pad Controller
Based on Akai's MPC line of drum machines, the MPD32
is an excellent MIDI controller for those who want to pound out their music creation. Large, comfortable pads can be used to trigger anything you want, from sampled sounds to keyboard notes, helping the player tap out sounds in real time. The MPD32 has both MIDI and plug-and-play USB functionality, meaning you'll be banging out sound in no time.
M-Audio Oxygen 25 USB MIDI Controller
If the microKORG is too rich for your blood, then the Oxygen 25 Midi
controller is a logical next step. It can't produce any sounds on its own, but will plug into your computer to naturally play and record software synthesizers, rather than having to sequence everything by hand (or mouse). Both it and the MPD32 function well with Ableton Live, which can assign notes and noises to each machine, for a dynamic live performance.
M-Audio Fast Track Pro
Let's face it, your computer's built-in sound just isn't going to cut it. If you want to record or use MIDI, a new sound card is vital, providing extra control and another hub for your newly acquired gear. We like the M-Audio Fast Track Ultra
for its ease of use and multiple inputs. It can record vocals and instruments, and also has MIDI In/Out ports for communicating between software and hardware. With a simple USB input, the M-Audio is so simple to use, it's hard to believe that the sound card is such an essential piece of hardware.
Lastly, budding bedroom producers may want to try their hands at playing an instrument or singing. For beginners who want to record their ax or belt out some vox, we've picked the Shure SM57
, the two classic workhorse microphones. The 57 is ideal for instrumentation and the 58 for vocals, and each should suit any bedroom producer's needs well.