Have you ever looked at Calvin Harris and Tiesto filling up stadiums and wondered if you could make music as well?
Surprisingly, making music today is neither technically complex nor musically challenging. Anyone can start making music in as little as a few weeks, if not days. The investment is minimal, and making simple tracks is as easy as learning the ABC.
In this article, I’ll show you the basics of music production.
Get the Gear
Before you can start pumping out your own electronic music hits, you need proper gear.
Since we’re focusing on electronic music produced via a computer, you can skip buying guitars and drums and pianos (net savings: thousands of dollars).
Instead, you need the following:
- A digital audio workstation (DAW) for production. This is the primary software you will use to record and arrange music. Try Ableton Live which has a 30 day free trial and a $99 beginner version. Alternatives include FLStudio and Logic Pro.
- A pair of headphones. Any will do, but for accurate results, you’ll want professional headphones. Here’s a good list of studio headphones under $100 for beginners.
- A computer and mouse, of course. You don’t need a $2,000 powerhouse, but try to get something with at least an i5/i7 processor and 8GB of RAM. Windows and Mac both work fine.
- (Optional) A MIDI controller or keyboard, such as the Akai MPK Mini MKII. You can very well use your computer keyboard and mouse, but a MIDI keyboard will make the entire experience more “organic”.
That’s it – once you’ve got the bare minimum (DAW + headphones + computer), you can jump ahead and start producing music.
Understand the Basics
You don’t need in-depth theory knowledge to start creating music.
You do, however, need to know the four basic ingredients in any music track.
Most music is essentially made of four elements:
- Drums that give the track percussive flow and rhythm.
- Bass that gives the track percussion, rhythm, and “body”.
- Rhythm, usually through rhythm guitar, plucks, etc.
- Melody, usually through a lead synth, guitar, or wind instruments (flute, saxophone, trumpet, etc.).
Of course, in an actual, professional song, you’d have dozens of each of these tracks – drums split over several tracks, multiple bass guitars, complex melodies, atmosphere and buildup, etc. But the basics remain the same – drums + bass + rhythm + melody = complete song.
I’ll look at these four tracks below.
Drums can be incredibly complex, as any thrash metal fan will testify. Or they can be simple, as in a lot of early hip-hop and EDM music.
The two basic elements of any drum track are the Kick and the Snare. In the context of music, these make up the “call” and “response” pattern. The Kick is the “call” – a loud, bass-heavy sound that builds up anticipation for something. The Snare is the “response” – a loud, high-pitched sound that resolves the kick’s call.
The most basic drum pattern follows the 1-2-1-2 beat. That is, a kick on the 1st and 3rd beats, snare on the 2nd and 4th beats, as shown below.
Countless songs use this basic drum pattern.
You can add hi-hats to the drums to create a sense of timing and rhythm, but its not necessary. If you do, you’ll usually place them on the 1-2-3-4 beats, or 1-1.5-2-2.5 etc. beats for a faster rhythm.
Other drums such as wood blocks, tambourines, toms, etc. are all optional and used for embellishment.
Understand Rhythm and Bass
The two other elements of any music track are rhythm and bass.
The rhythm can be anything – a piano track, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, etc. Its purpose is to give body and structure to the song.
The most basic rhythm section would simply be a piano playing a chord progression. For those of you who don’t know, a chord progression is a set of chords that sound good when playing one after the other, such as C-Am-F-G.
This simple progression will give structure to the sound and its core ‘tone’.
Next up, bass.
The most basic bass rhythm is based off the root note of the chord in each bar. For example, in the above progression (C-Am-F-G), the root note of each chord is, respectively, C, A, F, and G.
A simple bass line would simply play these notes over the entire length of the chord, like this:
The bass typically sits in the lowest frequencies and gives rhythmic structure and body to the song. Combined with the drums, the bass makes up the “foundation” of the song.
Melody is the actual “tune” of the song. This is what you hum when you sing a song. The melody can come from anything – a lead guitar, a saxophone, a trumpet, etc. But more often than not, the melody comes from the human voice.
Capturing melody in a DAW isn’t always easy. You need to understand your basic music notes and transcribe them into the DAW.
This is why I recommend grabbing a microphone and simply recording the melody by singing into it. You don’t have to use words; just hum a tune using vocal sounds and harmonies.
Melody isn’t truly “essential” for a song – you can have a song built solely off the bass, rhythm, and bass. But melody is what gives the song its “heart”.
With these four elements in place, you can start experimenting and expanding to create your own songs!