Most likely you’re reading this post because you want learn how to produce music, but either you don’t know where to look, don’t know how to begin, or, perhaps you’ve just started but you feel you need a little guidance.
You’re in the right place.
Let me not overwhelm you, but there’s a ton to learn, a lot to explore, and many things to discover…
But of course, you have to start somewhere, right?
Well, bookmark this page, because here we will discuss every step involved in getting into music production, from gear to songwriting, up to mastering your final draft.
We will be covering a lot of ground, so don’t rush. Try to take in as much information as possible before moving on to the next step.
And of course, don’t forget to enjoy it!
How to Produce Music
Get the right gear
Prepare your music project
Compose your song
Sound Design and Mixing
Master Your Track
Let’s start with step 0.
Learn Music Production
Music production is an accumulation of different aspects of digital sound. Try to familiarize yourself with technical terms such as synthesis, attack, release, gain, wet/dry signal, etc.
That being said, there are countless resources for novice producers, a lot of which are free. Youtube is a common option, and our website of course. Many successful producers have built their entire careers through learning from fellow producers.
If you want a more structured learning approach, then consider enrolling in a professional music production school. We have covered some of them in our list of the best online music production school, so head to that page to learn more.
If you’re more into Ableton Live, take a look at our Noiselab review.
Get The Right Gear
“You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.”
And while that may be true, you probably don’t want to produce music on a shoestring. A shoestring budget, sure, but not an actual shoestring.
It goes without saying that, in order to produce music, you need to have the gear to do so. And the right gear. Unfortunately, many sites will mislead you, and sometimes forums are outdated with information, or filled with subjective answers.
So aren’t you lucky you found us! (ha-ha…)
Anyway, though we may be collecting some commissions from anything you may buy that we recommend, as we said in the about page, it’s to keep this stuff up and pay the writers (who are producers as well).
So, what do you need?
Gone are the days when producing music requires an entire building stocked with gigantic audio hardware. Today, all of that can fit inside a decent laptop.
Of course, you still need to have some basic gear to make music. We compiled a massive list of computers for music production, which covers some of the most reliable brands and models suited for music production work.
Moreover, given the level of computer technology today, it has become feasible to produce music out of a laptop. You don’t need a high-end Macbook to make music (although that would help a lot). We included some budget-friendly options for starting music producers in our music production laptop guide. Check it out.
It has even become possible to make music out of your smartphone. There are now digital audio workstation (DAW) apps such as Steinberg Cubasis and Apple’s Garageband that allow users to craft bangers with just a few flicks of the finger. Synth hybrids such as teenage engineering’s OP1 and Pocket Operators are also becoming popular. These little machines have integrated some elements of music production, albeit limited.
Of course, we have a list of those too 😉
A Digital Audio Workstation (DAWs)
Speaking of DAWs, there is a lot to choose from.
The question of what is the best DAW usually generates very heated debate, but we prefer to sit on the fence. After all, the DAW is only a tool for creativity, so the quality of a track really depends on how masterfully a DAW has been used.
Nonetheless, there are some things worth keeping in mind. Ableton Live became known as the definitive live performance DAW among electronic music producers because of its innovative Session View. FL Studio has recently introduced a live capability of their own, so it is pretty much on par with Ableton Live.
Pro Tools is considered an industry standard in the audio industry, particularly for post-production. The Mac-only DAW Logic is also quite popular. Other options include REAPER, Cubase, Studio One, Garageband, and Bitwig also have their own share in the market.
We discussed some of them in our article on what we think are the best DAWs out there.
Simply answer? Ableton Live.
We’re kidding. Maybe. It all depends on who you are and what you want to accomplish musically. So read through our DAW the guide to decide
Needless to say, you have to know how to use your DAW before using it. Refer to the provided manual or watch some videos on your chosen DAW’s basic functionalities.
Headphones or Monitors?
We pretty much covered this in depth in another post on this topic.
That being said, it’s preferable to start with headphones, and then get a decent pair of studio monitors (not stereo speakers!)
Why start with headphones? Why not just use stereo speakers? Click one of the links above or below where we explain it.
As for your headphones, they are like your musical compass. Without a decent pair, you’ll be lost.
That being said, look for headphones that can cover a wide range of frequencies. Also, stay away from those that claim to boost the bass (we’re look at you, fashionable-pair-of-professionally-looking-headphones-whose-name-we-can’t-mention).
For production purposes, you need something that doesn’t add any extra flavor to your sound. They should be bland. It will suck but you will get used to it.
Don’t what headphones to get? Read here.
Ready for Monitor Speakers?
You can also opt for some studio monitors and speakers with cables. Having them enables you to listen to your track in a real acoustic setting, so it is also crucial, especially if you are making club or dance music.
In our studio monitor speakers guides, we mentioned that different monitors imbibe different characters to tracks. This means that your track will sound different depending on the speakers used.
This is also why we suggest listening to your track through different monitors, such as a laptop speaker, a phone speaker, or even your car’s speakers, before sending them to a client or distributor.
Get a MIDI Controller
This here is optional depending on what your objective is. But if you’re going to produce music and not just record instruments and layer tracks, you’re going to find a controller handy.
What is MIDI?
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It is the language which digital instruments and computers use to communicate. MIDI controllers enable you to send data from an instrument (the notes of a song, a hit of a drum, or a flick of a knob).
Although it is possible to create music with just a mouse or even a laptop tracking pad, controllers make it much easier to input MIDI data.
There are limitless options for controllers, as you can see in our guide on the topic.
Get a Microphone
Microphones are not just for singers and rappers. You can use mics to make your own samples. That helps in making you sound different from the rest of the pack.
There are many ways to be creative with microphones. For example, watch this video of a producer who samples fruits and kitchen utensils for his drum samples.
The world of microphones is vast. Depending on what you want you may only need one, or ten. But don’t worry, we have a few options for you:
- Microphones for Home Studio
- Condenser Microphones for Vocals
- Microphones for Rap Vocals
- Microphones for Drums
- Low-cost Ribbon Mics
Finally, you may need an audio interface to connect your external instruments and microphones to your computer. Audio interfaces make it possible for your instruments to enter your DAW. They come in all shapes and sizes.
If you are using an audio interface, it also means you would be using cables. There are many kinds of cables out there that you can use such as ¼-inch unbalanced cables, TRS cables, USB cables, and others. Right now all you need to think about is how to make your external gear work, so consult your manual on how to make these connections.
Dealing with latency
We may be stepping ahead of ourselves, but you’ll probably notice this sooner or later. Latency is the delay in the transfer of data, both digital and audio, when producing music. If your machine has specs limitations, you will likely experience latency, especially when recording. Latency is a fact of life in music production, and most DAWs use algorithms to compensate for the delay and make it unnoticeable.
If you are experiencing heavy latency, consider restarting your machine or closing unnecessary programs. If these do not work, you can also export or render some parts of your project (for example, a pad sound made with a VST instrument). After exporting, import the file into the project again as audio. This way, you can remove the VST instrument as well as the effects that you used on it. This conserves computing power and reduces latency.
Prepare Your Music Project
Just like in any other craft, it is best to be organized before diving into the actual process of production. This way, it would be easier to sift through your materials and go through the production as efficiently as possible.
In the following sections you will learn about:
- Setting up your samples
- Setting up your instruments
Now that you have the hardware you need, you can now move on to actually crafting your song. We imagine that you already have a rough idea of what song you will be making. If not, then it is time to at least draft a rough sketch of your track.
Here are some questions to ask yourself: what sound are you trying to achieve? Will it be hard, soft, aggressive, mellow? Will it be fast, slow, or easy-going? What feelings or emotions do you want to convey to your listeners? If you need more ideas check out this post.
Set Up Your Samples
Pre-production is also the best time to layout your musical material. Do you want to use a particular sample, clip, or ad-lib? If so, begin by getting it ready. Import the source of the sample and extract your desired clip.
If you are dealing with multiple samples, organize them now so that all you need to do afterward is to plop them into your piano roll or timeline.
Generally, you’ll be using multiple samples, such as a snare or hi-hat sample. Your choice of samples determines your personal sound, so choose wisely! Don’t be afraid to do something wild, such as layering two samples on top of each other.
You check out some sample ideas from our selections of EDM samples, Techno samples, and Hip-Hop samples.
Set Up Your Instruments
If you plan on using digital instruments inside your DAW, now is also the time to set them up. Most DAWs have multiple virtual studio technology (VST) instruments that you can use to make your song.
You can also choose to install external VSTs. There are loads of professional VSTs that we discussed in one of our previous articles. Most DAWs allow third-party VSTs through the use of ‘wrappers.’
Of course, if you plan to do everything using real instruments, you have to set up those too. If you are using a guitar or a piano, you have to make sure that there are no hums or unintended noises coming into your DAW. You want your signal to be as clean and clear as possible.
Know Your Theory
Music production is music making. Since we’re making music, you need to have some basic knowledge about its theory.
This guide is not the place to go into it in-depth. There are many resources available online for free or to buy that will guide you in the process.
But we will cover the basic essentials of what you need to know about music theory.
You don’t need a professor’s level of knowledge, but these basics you will require:
A song usually has three elements –
Melodies can be made with a voice or a lead sound if it’s an instrumental track. It is the “tune” of the music. The part you’re likely to whistle. A good melody will stay in your listener’s mind for a long time.
Harmony is composed of different notes stacked above each other. For instance. A C-note, E-note, and G-note produces a C major chord. If you’re next harmonic progression is G, B, and D, then you have a G major chord. This is called a I-V progression, which is used often and repeatedly in music. Try it out yourself, also try out I-IV, I-IV-V, and ii-V-I, using only the “white notes” on your DAW piano roll or your keyboard.
Believe it or not, these four chord progressions make up the vast majority of music all over the world, across cultures. Of course, there are other things you need to know, such as doing these progression in different keys, voice leading, other harmonic progressions, and adding other notes stacks (such as 7ths and 9ths) to “jazz” things up a little. But for now, experiment with this knowledge.
Don’t be too overwhelmed though. When in doubt, all you need to do is to keep everything in tune. If it sounds good to you, it probably sounds good enough. Stay away from the windows though, your neighbors may not have the same musical taste (just kidding!)
Finally, rhythm provides the energy for your song. Rhythm is usually established through drums. It can be as simple as a looping drum sample, such as in most boom-bap hip-hop. It can also be as complex and crazy as in drum-and-bass music.
You can use anything for drum sounds, such as your DAW’s stock drum samples or your own recorded samples – entirely up to you.
Do you really need theory?
Of course, it is possible to produce music without any knowledge of theory. Many electronic music producers, for instance, maximize the use of texture instead of harmony to create interest in their songs. Some producers such as Burial are known for their musical simplicity, while some (Venetian Squares is an extreme example) prefer to make dense and abstract songs using a ton of samples – musicality be damned.
Still, knowing theory greatly improves your versatility and assists you in songwriting. Andrew Huang has a fun video on music theory wherein he discussed all of the basics in half an hour. It is worth checking out.
Compose Your Track
In this section, we would be looking at the actual process of song-writing. You will learn how to:
- Write and arrange a song
- Program rhythm and bass parts
- Use other instruments such as pianos and pads for harmony.
1 – Structure and arrangement
Most songs produced these days follow this basic structure:
intro – verse – chorus/hook/drop – ending.
Some put a refrain between the verse and the chorus while some also put a bridge before the last chorus. These are creative choices that you should have already made in the planning stage.
If you are making a long electronic music or club set, there are usually no defined intros and endings, only hooks and drops. Although these tracks have simpler structures, determining when to do a drop is a matter of feel. Knowing when a drop should happen requires experience and the ability to ‘feel’ the track from a dancer or listener’s perspective.
The advice regarding placing your drop is simply to listen more attentively to EDM tracks. Notice how it builds up to the drop, and the sort of drops that are used. Some drops are over the top bombastic. Others are cute and unsuspecting. Still, there can be more than one drop. So keep in mind that sometimes repeating the same drop over and over again can be, well, repetitive.
Sequencers are your friend
Most DAWs utilize a pattern-based software sequencers which are based on their hardware equivalent. This means that you can write or draw a pattern that you can duplicate along a timeline. Most mainstream songs are written in fours, which means that a particular pattern or bar is repeated four times, sometimes with small variations, before moving to the next pattern.
You can draw or at least make an estimation of how many bars a pattern may repeat before moving on to the next part of the song. You can also write all of the patterns first (intro, verse, chorus, etc) and then draw the repetitions afterward.
Again, read our article on songwriting ideas for further ideas.
2 – Writing the rhythm
The songwriting process usually differs depending on the producer. In our article on how to produce beats and instruments we outline this difference and talk about each case.
In this case, we will start with the rhythm section and do some preliminary drum programming.
A benefit of starting with rhythm is that the rhythm usually dictates the ‘feel’ and flow of a song. This means that the accents and downbeats of the song depend on the drum patterns you use. You can then follow these same patterns for your bass and rhythm instruments.
Naturally, an emcee will usually write lyrics that correspond to the rhythmic patterns in the song.
If you have already written lyrics for the song, make sure the rhythm you are writing sticks close to how you want your words to be sung.
Different styles of music follow certain stylistic conventions on how drums are programmed. For example, trap music has a very distinct drum programming style that uses a lot of triplets and fast hi-hat patterns, over a very present snare on the backbeat and an 808 kick that often acts as the bassline as well.
If you are just starting, the best way to learn is to try to replicate your favorite tracks. Go on YouTube and search for how to make a certain type of beat or song on your preferred DAW, and simply follow along. A couple months of doing this will get you into the right groove.
Writing for Instruments
Like rhythm, the bass provides the energy and the ‘umph’ that pushes your track forward.
Usually, bass sounds follow closely the patterns set by the rhythm section. You don’t have to follow it to the T, though. To make it more interesting, write a bass that differs a bit and has its own melody.
Because bass uses very low frequencies, you have to be extra careful with the tuning. Most 808 samples out there need to be tuned properly so that they don’t clash with your melodies and harmonies.
Most DAWs have native bass VSTs. Nonetheless, you can make your own bass using any synth. The key to any bass sound is a full and solid sound that fills the lower end of the frequency spectrum. Check out some bass presets available in your DAW and try to replicate them using a synth.
Writing pads, pianos, keys, strings, etc.
To make your harmonies richer, you can always layer it with a long-sustaining pad, a piano or a guitar.
To have a working harmony, you need to have some knowledge of musical chords and even voice leading.
Sometimes, even the sparsest harmonization will suffice. But if you have a more complicated arrangement, you have to figure out how each part of the harmony will complement each other. You also need to think about how each chord can go smoothly into the next.
It is very easy to over-do harmony, so it is best to think of each layer in the context of the song, rather than as a separate element.
For instance, you may come up with a cool-sounding piano lick. But it may also distract listeners from a more important element, say, the vocals. In that case, write something a bit more simple or just ditch it altogether.
Imagine harmony as a sports team. Not every instrument can be the hero; some need to play a supporting role. These roles may change depending on the part of the track.
A lead serves as the melodic focal point of any song. In a lyrical song, the lead draws in the listener through a catchy melody. Some lead melodies are so iconic that most people remember them more than the song’s chorus. Some fine examples are Van Halen’s “Jump” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”
Sometimes, a lead can be written with a synth sound. But it can be written with any sound, such as a horns section or even a “la la la” vocal refrain (“Hey Jude”, anyone?). The key, after all, to a good lead melody is catchiness. It doesn’t have to be long and complicated.
To be effective, the lead needs to reference the main melody. It must make sense within the context of the song.
After songwriting and arrangement, it is time to work on how your song will ‘sound.’ This is called sound design.
You have already done some elements of sound design in the first sections of the production process. Part of sound design is choosing samples and instruments. In this section, we will focus on manipulating these sounds further to make them work with each other. In the mixing section, we will delve into producing a clean and professional-sounding mix.
Under sound design and production, we will discuss:
There are two kinds of audio signals: mono and stereo. Mono audio only has one channel, and this channel plays the audio in the center. Stereo audio has two channels, the left and the right.
Most songs are in stereo. You’ll notice when listening to songs while on headphones that the two channels play different, albeit complementary, channels of the same song. Together, the channels simulate a three-dimensional sonic space.
As a music producer, it is part of your job to arrange your sounds within this stereo space. It is like interior design or arranging furniture in the living room, but sonically. This process is called stereo imaging.
You can change the position of the elements in your track through panning. You can do this in the mixer, but you can also pan your instruments within the instrument itself.
You can also use stereo imaging plugins or effects. Most DAWs have native plugins for this task. FL Studio, for example, has the Fruity Stereo Shaper and the Fruity Stereo Enhancer. The Stereo Shaper gives you more options other than left and right (width) by adding depth. The Enhancer, on the other hand, widens these dimensions, making it possible to push a sound further away. Numerous third-party plugins can do much more than this.
Check out our post on killer stereo imaging techniques to use in your mixes.
It is possible to automate panning, or any other parameter, through envelopes. This means you can move a sound from left to right, slowly or rapidly, any way you want. We will discuss more of this in the effects section below.
Usually, the most important elements of the song must remain in the middle. This refers to the elements that sustain the energy of the track. This includes the vocals, the bass instruments, and the kick drum.
All other sounds can be relegated to either left and right. These elements can even move around for creative effect. Nonetheless, be careful not to overdo it, as it can be a bit distracting and may take away the focus from the more important parts of the song.
An interesting example of creative panning can be heard in Isaac Hayes’ ”Walk On By.”
Listen to how the electric guitar solo slowly moves from far left to center to far right in the stereo field. Moreover, its levels (volume) also changes from soft to loud and vice verse. This allows us to feel the full emotional intensity of the horns section while giving us the option to ‘follow’ the story of the guitar solo.
Stereo imaging is not just a matter of aesthetics. It is also supposed to distribute your sounds across the stereo field so that the mix will not sound too crowded. This is very important when you have to deal with a lot of sounds and instruments.
Audio effects are arguably the most exciting part of the production because they can change your sound drastically. There are five basic groups of audio effects, namely:
- Modulation: Chorus, Tremolo, Flanger and Phaser.
- Dynamic: Compression and Distortion.
- Time-based: Reverb, Delay and Echo.
- Spectral effects: EQ and Panning.
You can read more about these plugins in our plugin guide (we’ll talk about mixing in a sec.)
Each of these effects can be used creatively, but they also have practical uses. Reverb, for instance, can be used on the entire mix to make it sound more organic, as if it comes from a real 3-D space. Compression decreases the distance between the loudest and softest sounds in your track so it would sound more compact and less jarring to the ears.
These effects, like most parameters in your DAW, can be automated. This can be done through envelopes. An envelope is an instruction that you can draw on your timeline to determine changes in a parameter across time.
Most effects have a dry/wet parameter. 100% dry means the effect doesn’t affect the sound at all. 100% wet means the whole sound is affected by the effect. Dry/wet levels can be automated with an envelope.
For example, you can have a 20% dry reverb effect on your vocals during the intro, and then push it to 40% during the chorus.
Mixing refers to the process of combining multiple sounds into one or more channels. Because all tracks go to the same track, the master track, mixing is necessary to make all of them sound good together.
Mixing usually implies cutting away unnecessary frequencies to give space to another sound that needs to occupy the space.
Imagine the frequency spectrum as real estate. Not every sound can occupy the same frequency, or else they will clash. Mixing is the process of delegating frequencies to particular sounds.
For instance, a bass sound doesn’t need to have high frequencies. You can cut these higher frequencies using an equalizer or a low-pass filter.
Mixing is a delicate skill. Some professional mixing engineers take years to master it.
Once you are happy with your mix, you can export it into a mix-down or final draft.
Read 10 killer mixing techniques the pros know and so should you.
The final stage in production is mastering. Mastering refers to the post-production process of transferring a final mix to a data storage device for the best playback experience.
Mastering often implies adding some final touches to the mix through compression, some filtering, adding some stereo width, and making the track louder.
Mastering is both a creative and technical task. It is similar to smoothening a sculpture and then carefully placing it in a box for delivery.
There are now automated (artificial intelligence) services that claim to have the capability to master a track. Of course, nothing beats a professional mastering engineer who knows how to best deliver your track to the intended audience.
Further studies: experiment!
These are just the basics of music production. Once you have mastered it, you can come up with your own process of exploration and even your own sound. You can do this through relentless experimentation.
Try to make your own sounds through synthesis. Research about advanced techniques such as side-chain compression or mid-side processing. Or even try to break some rules just for fun!
For instance, a generation of so-called Soundcloud rappers popularized a heavily-compressed and distorted sound in their 808s. Prior to this, distortion and clipping (the distorted sound that happens when a sound goes over the DAW’s level limit) are frowned upon as amateurish. But artists such XXXTentacion and Lil Pump owned the sound and made it part of their sonic identity. This sound has been heavily copied by other producers since then.
Just as the saying goes, it is about the journey, not the destination.
So there you have it! Now you know how to produce music. It can be a bit overwhelming, but it also is exciting, isn’t it? Launch your DAW now and start producing!
2 Comments on “How To Produce Music: A Free Beginner’s Guide”
Wow. Such an informative article, thank you. Would be interesting to read, maybe in future, more in-depth articles about Mastering at Home. You wrote “nothing beats a professional mastering engineer” but I suspect that learning to do that at home could led to good results if done properly… noone knows our music like ourselves, isn’t it?
An in-depth article on mastering would definitely be a good idea. In fact we’re thinking about it, so perhaps you can look out for one sometime in the future 🙂