The answer to the first question that electronic music producers get asked
Take a quick tour through just about any producer’s youtube or soundcloud account, and you will run across the same type of question. And after producing for a little while, trying to learn the ins and outs of how to make the music that I love, this question almost seems silly now, which is why the question so often goes unanswered. But it still comes up, and at some point anyone who wants to dabble in electronic music needs to answer it. The question, naturally, is this: “How do I make sounds like that?!?!?”
Let’s get something straight: this is NOT a dumb question. In fact, it’s almost impossible to answer most of the time because it it so very complicated. Most producers spend a LOT of time working on their sound, refining the different elements, synths, and structure of what they do. They go through a ton of different hardware and software, fiddling for hours with small details that make the whole picture come together. And since this is such a big subject, I’m going to try to break down the important pieces to try to fill in some of the many gaps between starting out and actually making music.
“Where do I start?”
This is usually where people get bogged down, as it can be a very expensive piece of the puzzle. In my opinion, in the modern age every new producer needs to decide on a DAW, or digital audio workstation. This is your bread and butter…what all of the work you will be doing is placed into. The DAW allows you to write, arrange, record, and otherwise go nuts with music. Without a DAW, you might as well go buy a portable voice recorder from Wal-Mart and make music on that. Every single major producer uses one, and if you are serious, you need one as well. Which DAW you get depends a lot on how much you can spend, and what type of computer you are running. Personally, I’m a PC guy till the end and I love a lot of flexibility, so the Cyborgs produce with Ableton. I have messed with FL studio and Reason, but Ableton finally gave me the full compliment of features I like in a DAW….easy audio routing, automation, plugins, etc. I will say though, that Ableton has it’s fair share of issues though. First, it’s not cheap, though the savvy user may be able to find their way around this. Second, it’s not the most stable beast in the world. The Cyborgs have dealt with many a strange issue including random crashes, strange driver conflicts, and processor/memory creep. These things are all minor for the most part, but they do stem from the biggest issue Ableton has: It has a steep learning curve. Often times I call it the Photoshop of music creation, because, while it has a MASSIVE amount that it can do, finding all of teh functions that you want takes time and dedication to learn. We are STILL learning new tricks that this software can do, and we have had ti for years. That said, once you learn what can be done, the limit to what you can do musically only lies in your own creativity.
I am talking a lot about Ableton, since it is what I know best. However, there are plenty of other DAWs (even some free ones!) that can be found on the web. Even Wikipedia can turn up a short list of DAWs, so anyone can go out and find software to get their music desires off the ground.
“Okay, I get that, but what about the sick sounds?!?!”
Once you have a DAW up and working, you might notice that the sound that the included synths make (assuming you even get any!) is not professional sounding. This is because designing a software synth is tricky and expensive, and developers are not just going to give them away for free. This is where VST plug ins can take you to the next level. A VST is essentially an extension of your DAW, which allows you to generate new and fascinating sounds that your DAW cannot make alone. Most of them work both within your DAW and in so-called stand alone mode, but mostly people choose to run them inside a DAW so the new sounds that you are making can be recorded and arranged. The blessing and curse of the VST though, is the sheer number and variety of VSTs that are currently on the market. Now, a word of caution: NOT ALL VSTs ARE CREATED EQUAL! Specifically, not all VSTs are stable and bug free, meaning that you should save regularly when working with a new or questionable (read:free) VST, as they can crash your DAW and make you lose all of your work. I’m not going to tell anyone which plugins to use, as there are so very many, but I will point those that are interested toward synthtopia.com. This site has anything and everything related to synths….including reviews of VSTs and usually videos of them in action. Check em out!
When I first wanted to start making music, I did some checking, asking, begging, etc, and found that a lot of the big producers in the genre that I wanted to make music in (bass, dub, glitch) were using a VST called Massive to make their synth lines….so I went out and bought it! There is no better feeling than walking out of my local music retailer KNOWING that I would soon be an internationally known producer once I started making music with this sweet synth. Imagine my disappointment when I got home to realize two things: 1) Massive does not have a “Make Awesome Sounds” button as I had hoped, and 2) It’s really hard to play music on your computer keyboard. Now issue #1 I’ll talk about in a minute, but let’s be clear about #2…anyone that is serious about producing should pick up a keyboard to play with. You don’t have to be an amazing pianist or anything, but it helps, and there are a ton of very cheap keyboards to be had. Here is the one that I ended up getting:
That little gem is the Akai MPK mini. It’s cheap, fits in a laptop bag, and can take having several beers spilled on it and still work like a champ. With this, I was now able to stumble through melodies in Massive, but no matter which keys I pressed, it still didn’t sound like I was the next Truth or Bassnectar. This is where the next layer folds in.
“Dude…this still sound like a dude in his basement trying to make music!”
So, let’s say you have all the parts but it is just not coming together. Maybe it sounds generic, or you just can’t make the BAAAAAASSSSSS, well, not to worry. We live in the information age! As my associate Trip Spacey put it, “Everything that I have learned about making music, I have learned from the internet.” Specifically, our favorite place to learn from is dubspot.
These guys are a music school that is based in New York, and have decided to put a massive amount of content on the web for people to look at and learn from. They have a gigantic youtube channel on DJing and music production, whic will tell you everything from the basics to the most advanced, bleeding edge info. And don’t be worried that what they are teaching only applies to one genre. Most of the lessons that the Cyborgs have seen apply to most kinds of music, if used creatively. Seriously…..if you have not been to their amazing youtube channel, go now….I’ll wait……………
Back? Great, right? :)
“That’s a lot to think about”
Yes, yes it is. Making music is not the “push buttons, make hits” type of experience that some folks might hope for, but the era we live in provides ANYONE who has an interest with all of the tools to at least take a shot and see if they have a passion for it. I know that the Cyborgs were not at all sure that we wanted to stick with it, but now, after over a year and much capitol investment, we seem set to keep doing it as long as we can afford to. Hopefully this can set a few folks on their way. Cheers!