How to Make Electronic Music on Your Computer

A few decades ago creating music was an expensive task because you had to buy equipment, pay for studio time, hire session musicians, etc.

Thanks to technological advancement you can now do it all on your home computer.

In this article, we’ll discuss how you can create music on your laptop without playing a single live instrument.

What Do You Need to Start Making Music on Computer?

There are various ways of producing music using your computer, but most modern studios have the following pre-requisites.

  •         A computer running Windows, Mac OSX or Linux
  •         A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
  •         An audio interface
  •         A pair of speakers or headphones
  •         A MIDI controller
  •         A microphone

Choosing a Computer and Operating System

Your choice of computer and operating system (OS) is the primary determinant of the type of software tools you’ll be able to use when creating music.

Audio production software uses a lot of computing power, so it’s best to get yourself a machine with at least a Core i5 processor, a minimum of 8GB RAM and a solid-state drive.

The best software is mostly available on Windows and Mac OSX so I’d recommend getting a computer running one of those operating systems.

If you prefer, you can use Linux OS. There are distributions of Linux which concentrate on multimedia creation such as Ubuntu Studio and AVLinux.

Be prepared to spend more time getting things to work if you decide to use Linux because many of its music creation tools are not as polished as those on Mac OSX and Windows.

Audio Interface

Practically all computers come with a sound card already installed so you can work on music without a dedicated audio interface.

The obvious question is why do you need an audio interface then?

If you want to record from external sources or if you just want better performance an audio interface is required.

You also need an interface if you’re going to connect proper studio monitors to your setup.

Interfaces come in different, shapes, sizes and with ports. If you’re unsure which interface to choose, you can read this article to point you in the right direction.

Choosing Studio Monitors and Headphones

Is it possible to make music using consumer-grade speakers and headphones?

Sure it is. BUT, it’s better to buy studio-grade monitors and headphones for monitoring your sound because they give you much better results.

Studio-grade monitors/headphones are designed to have a flat response so that you can accurately hear what is going on in your music.

Monitors and headphones come in various shapes, sizes, and prices. Popular monitors for home and project studios include:

  •         KRK Rokit 5
  •         M-Audio BX5
  •         Yamaha HS5, HS7, and HS8
  •         JBL LSR305

For a more comprehensive look at studio monitors, you can read this article which ought to help you make a decision on which set to buy.

Choosing a Digital Audio Workstation

Your DAW is the heart and soul of your setup, and it determines your overall workflow when creating music, so you have to choose wisely.

You can make practically any type of music on any DAW, but some handle specific tasks better than others.

For instance, if you want to make electronic dance music (EDM), then your best choices are FL Studio, Logic Pro, and Ableton Live.

I use different FL Studio for my production and REAPER for my mixing and mastering tasks.

Some DAWs are also designed to be easy to use with just a mouse and computer keyboard.

FL Studio, for instance, is one of the most popular DAWs today thanks in large part to its ease of use with a mouse.

Some DAWs only run on specific OSs. For instance, Logic Pro only runs on Mac OSX, and Acid Pro only works on Windows, so this is a major determining factor.

The most popular DAWs are:

  •         Apple Logic Pro
  •         Ableton Live
  •         Digidesign Pro Tools
  •         Image-Line FL Studio
  •         Cockos REAPER
  •         Presonus Studio One
  •         Steinberg Cubase
  •         Propellerhead Reason

If you don’t have the money to buy a DAW you could always opt for free DAWs such as the ones listed below:

  •         LMMS
  •         Tracktion 4
  •         Ardour
  •         Apple GarageBand

Some developers offer free versions of their DAWs albeit with limited functionality. Some good examples are:

  •         Studio One Prime
  •         Pro Tools First
  •         MU Lab

Choosing a Microphone for Recording Vocals

If you need to add vocals to your tracks, or record other sounds you’ll need to get a microphone.

Condenser microphones are usually preferred in the studio environment because they typically capture sound better than dynamic mics.

However, dynamic mics can work just as well or even better in some situations.

Microphones come with three main connector types:

  •         Jack
  •         XLR
  •         USB

Each has its advantages, but the most portable is the USB type because you can plug it directly into your computer and get started right away.

You can find a great selection of studio mics here.

MIDI Keyboard Controller

A MIDI keyboard controller allows you to input notes using a traditional musical keyboard layout.

It’s not necessary to have one to create music on your computer since most DAWS will enable you to draw in notes using your mouse.

I use an Alesis V25 due to its portability. Questions ask when getting a controller include:

  •         How many keys does it have?
  •         Does it use USB or a traditional MIDI connector?
  •         Does it have drum pads?
  •         Does it have additional knobs and controls you can map?
  •         Is it customized for use on a specific DAW?

Choosing Virtual Instruments and Synths

How can you generate real sounds like pianos, guitars, analog synthesizers, etc without the actual live instruments and gear?

Virtual instruments are the answer.

Virtual instruments are software modules that allow you to generate and play different sounds. They mainly come in two forms:

  •         Sample players: these work by playing back pre-recorded sounds (samples).
  •         Synthesizers: these generate sound using waveforms, such as sine waves, to emulate different instruments.

So you need to get software instruments.

These come in the form plugins which you can insert into your DAW to generate sound.

The good thing is that most DAWs come with some built-in instruments so you can get on with production right after installing.

Reason, Logic, Ableton and FL Studio are well-known for coming with a comprehensive selection of built-in instruments.

However, if you want to expand your sound library, you can find a large selection of plugins such as samplers, synthesizers and SoundFont players for purchase and for free on the Internet.

Some of the most popular commercial plugins used by the music community are:

  •         reFX Nexus 2
  •         Native Instruments Massive
  •         u-He Zebra
  •         Lennar Digital Sylenth1
  •         Spectrasonics Omnisphere
  •         Xfer Records Serum

You can also find plenty of high-quality free plugins on the Internet if you need new sounds. Some of the best free software instruments are:

  •         Synth1
  •         Superwave P8
  •         Tone2 Firebird
  •         Magix Independent Free
  •         Kontakt Player
  •         Kairatune
  •         Sound Magic Piano One

Drum Samples

The next step is to collect a lot of one-shot samples and loops.

You will typically use these samples for drums, special effects, percussion, vocal licks, etc.

There are various ways of getting samples:

  •         You can download free samples from sites like Sample Swap.
  •         You can buy samples and loops from marketplaces like Producer Loops.
  •         You can record and create your own samples.

The fastest way is to download samples, paid or free, and then manipulating them.

However, creating your own samples ensures that you have your own unique sound, which plays a BIG part in making your music easily identifiable.

Deciding What Type of Electronic Music You Want To Create

Once you have all the tools in place, you have to decide what style of music you want to create.

If you choose to create electro house music, then it’s a good idea to listen to that type of music extensively so that you learn how it’s supposed to sound.

As you’re listening to the music ask yourself the following questions:

  •         How is the song structured?
  •         What type of sounds did the producer use?
  •         Which instruments are the loudest in the mix?
  •         What kind of melodies and chord progressions were used to build the song?

As you grow into a seasoned musician, you should make a habit of referencing and learning from other people’s work.

Try your best to avoid copying outright, but don’t be afraid to borrow from others.

Creating the Drum and Bass Sections

Drums are the driving force in EDM. Workflows differ, but if you’re just starting out as a musician, I’d recommend that you work on your drum section first so that you get the groove of the track down.

You can use premade drum loops if you don’t want to build a drum section from scratch.

Depending on the song you may decide to start with a premade drum loop and then layer additional drum samples on top to beef up the beat.

Bass works in the same frequency range as your kick drum, so it’s advisable to work on these two elements side by side.

The rest of the music making process becomes much easier once you get the bass and kick to play nice with each other.

Creating melodies

The melody is the most infectious part of a song.

Your software instruments come in at this stage. Your melodies need to sit nicely on top of your drums and bass section.

You can get creative with all sorts of synth sounds, pianos, and various sample libraries to bring life to your track.

Your melody can be in the form of chord progressions or single note progressions. It’s all up to you really.

Use this time to experiment with arpeggiators, strumming and play around with some dope effects to vary up the melody.

I often add some layered pads to add texture and fill the empty space.

Don’t be afraid to introduce quirky and unorthodox sounds into the track. The only condition is that they have to sound good.

Not everything is meant to be a lead though. It’s easy to get carried away and add too much melody to a song.

Some sounds should be used to add harmony, others melody and others texture/depth to your track.

Adding Automation to your track

Ever wondered how producers get their tracks to gradually sound like they’re being submerged in water or playing from a gramophone during certain parts?

Automation is the key.

Automating various parameters and effects in the song can introduce some interesting results.

The most popular DAWs allow you to draw out automation envelopes.

Practically anything which has a knob can be automated. This includes volume, pitch, panning, EQ, wet effects knobs, etc.

For instance, you can automate the volume of a pad or lead synth to slowly increase as the song begins, so as to create a building up effect.

Another example is to automate a low pass (or high pass) filter on the lead synth in various parts of the track. This can help to bring or take away the energy of the track.

Automation can help bring your track to life and add some variety and movement.

You should avoid falling into the trap of automating every single element in the track. The song may end up being overproduced which is a big no-no.

Mixing your song

How do you get your sounds to balance up?

Easy, you need to mix your track to give a professional polish.

This process requires the use of gain knobs as well as effects modules such as equalizers, compressors and reverbs.

Levels are the number one thing you need to watch, even before start adding EQ and compression.

EQ should only come into the picture when you need to carve out space for your sounds or you need to use it for special effect.

Virtually every DAW comes with built-in effects which are good enough to get the job done.

I prefer to start by mixing my drums and bass first. I try my best to make them punchy and in your face, then I mix the other sounds around that foundation.

Panning is another tool which is often overlooked. Avoid panning your kick and snare drum though. Panning these can make your mix sound unbalanced.

It’s important to reference other people’s work while mixing, so don’t be afraid of taking breaks to listen to how others mix their tracks.

Mastering your song

Ever wondered why some songs sound louder than others?

The reason for this difference is that the songs were mastered differently.

Mastering is the process where a song is made loud, punchy and given an overall professional feel.

It’s the final coat of paint which optimizes your song to ensure the best possible playback on all systems.

EDM doesn’t pay too much attention to dynamics unlike other genres like jazz or classical music. Louder is generally considered better in EDM, as long as the song doesn’t distort.

Your primary tools for mastering this are EQ, mastering compressors and stereo wideners.

You should only be making minor EQ changes at this stage if your mix was done well.

If you find yourself having to make extreme changes it may mean that you didn’t optimize your mix. Don’t hesitate to go back and mix your track again if this is the case.

Once your song is published you can’t un-release it, so you need to spend plenty of time perfecting it until you’re satisfied.

Other Music Production Forums and YouTube Channels to Check out:

There’s so much information available on the Internet to help you grow as a musician. Some of the forums and YouTube channels that you may find useful are:

Making a song can be challenging at first but it becomes easier with time and practice. Try to experiment as much as possible. Some of the greatest creations in the world came about by experimentation. Lastly, enjoy the process.

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