Music can be as expressive as any other art form, sometimes more.
It gives us a chance to escape into a different world, it can tell a story, or tell someone how we are feeling.
Music is capable of so much, and there are so many genres and subgenres of music that there is something for everyone.
But when you are looking to start producing music, all this variety can be difficult. Knowing where to start can be the biggest hurdle.
This guide is going to be your gateway. It will allow you to avoid all the incorrect information provided by people who just want to sell you something.
Starting up is not all that difficult, and you can start today with very little. Chances are, you may already have, or at least have access to, a majority of the things you will need.
Today we will discuss the various stages of music production, as well as everything you will need to do so. This includes what you need to get started, and many other things like discovering style.
One thing to remember: when it comes to modern music production, the number one rule is that there are no rules.
You can write and record whatever you want and use it, automate in new ways never done before, revolutionize your music and discover new sounds.
Music is an art form, and being creative is about forever discovering new ways to do things.
Table of Contents
- 1 Music Production Stages
- 2 How To Get Started With Music Production
- 3 Additional Steps
- 4 Summary
Music Production Stages
We will start you on your production journey by discussing the stages of music production. These aren’t set in stone, of course.
They are just guidelines, to help you mentally organize the process as you start up.
If you find that something else works better for you, then do that. There is no obligation to follow any strict rules.
Remember that being creative is about working out new ways to do things, and discovering new arts. That is why musicians are called “artists.”
When we say ‘writing’ a song, this can be confusing. So much music is wordless.
Songwriting is the process of putting musical ideas together to form a larger structure of coherent melody, harmony, and rhythm.
It is basically a brainstorming process that results in a beginning, middle, and end. You are creating the skeleton of the song.
What makes a good song is subjective to the listener. But writing the song, preparing ideas, and brainstorming its rises, falls, and the skeleton of its format will always give you a more satisfying result.
It is basically the lesson that planning ahead is always beneficial.
Good songs develop as they progress. They can take us on a path that is full of surprises that ensure we are really listening.
How many people love a song that suddenly feels like it explodes with power after a gentle and calm tune? The sudden rise that exudes power.
In songs with lyrics, the melody (lyrics) fit with the harmony (guitars, bass, and synths) in a way that is pleasing to the ears. Assuming the singer knows how to memorize song lyrics, of course.
Repetition helps listeners get used to the chord progression before you transition to the next section with a different chord progression. Rhythm makes you tap your foot, even without those drums.
For many songwriters, this process is tied to the tracking process. Most will start with a drum loop and build from there, recording new ideas over and over until they get a finished song.
Although this may be different in style to a singer/songwriting who sits with a guitar and notebook, the result should still be evaluated by the same guidelines.
- “Are the melody and the harmony catchy enough to stay in your head?”
- “Does the track keep your attention with new ideas?”
- “Does it make you want to tap your foot or move?”
The process of arranging is probably the most neglected part of songwriting. When a song has a good melody and a good beat, but it gets too repetitive, this is often a fault in arrangement.
It is the arrangement of a song that makes it interesting and captivating.
The arrangement of a song basically refers to the selection of instruments playing in each section, and how they are ‘arranged’ per se.
What we mean is the way in which the sections themselves are arranged within the larger timeline of the song will have the greatest impact on its enjoyability.
No matter how enjoyable or great the verse and chorus are, it is simply not enough to just repeat them over and over. There needs to be buildup.
For example, perhaps the first verse only has some guitar and vocals. The second adds in bass and drums. The first chorus adds in synths and harmonies. Perhaps a second chorus adds in some strings, and so on.
This is arranging various instruments within a song.
It is also worth remembering that just because you added in an instrument, it doesn’t mean it now needs to stay there. You can always fade it out, or just remove it as the next part of the song is introduced.
You could bring it back in during the second half of a final chorus for a climax. Music is about keeping things moving.
Of course, you should also consider how many sections you wish to include. You can often feel when a section has reached its end, or if you need to change something to keep your audience engaged.
Listen to your music and consider the length. Take Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd for example. It is an infamously long song, but it is exceedingly popular despite this.
Why is this?
Despite the length of the song, the sections change at just the right moment, and it has sufficient rise and fall to be engaging. Always think about what you want your audience to focus on in your music.
Now is when you introduce the gear. The recording process can be different now, so we just call it ‘tracking’ instead. The goal here is to capture a performance of the song.
A song is simply a capturing of musical thoughts. What makes it tangible is the recording of that song at a moment in time.
Playing a song live makes it communicable, but it is not tangible. It disappears the moment it is over.
It is the recording that captures it. It is much like how we can tell stories, but the story is gone forever afterward, unless it is written down.
Tracking is the process of recording the instruments used to perform a song. Often a song will be recorded one track per time.
And every time you record a new track, you will hear all the other ones you have recorded as well. This is called ‘multitrack recording’.
It is important to think of this process as separate to songwriting because songwriting is a different kind of focus than performing.
When you are writing, you wish for your mind to be free to make all new associations and connections, so you experiment without any editing.
But when you are performing a song, you need to be able to concentrate in a different way. You need to focus on playing in time and with the right feeling.
Sure, you have editing on hand for fixing any mistakes and helping the overall performance, but editing does have its limitations. Besides, nothing beats starting out with a superior performance.
Digital editing has been a game changer. It makes it so much easier. Although it is best to use these tools as a fall-back and not a go-to.
You should treat editing as a separate stage for a few reasons.
It is unwise to be editing as you write or record. Focus on each stage separately and give each your undivided attention, so you do not lose the vibe and mood each time you stop to correct something.
Let this be a separate part of the process for the best results.
You also do not want to overdo it with editing. If you do, your song could sound very ‘choppy’ and lack feeling.
Thinking about editing as a separate process and you will be inclined to give more effort for a solid performance and capture what you need in the tracking process, rather than spending even longer trying to edit something together.
Remember not to go overboard either. If something sounds good, then it does not need editing.
Use this stage to move things around that aren’t in time, or adjust pitches, or polish up the tracks by fading beginnings and endings for a smooth flow.
Mixing is often the most fun part. You have written and recorded the song, and now it is time to turn your song into a masterpiece.
Knowing how to mix well is an art form that in itself takes years of learning and practice. However, anybody can do it. There is no reason for you not to dive in and give it a try. Explore the possibilities.
Mixing is the process of combining the instruments into a stereo 2-track mix. A good mix lets you hear all the instruments clearly and with plenty of detail.
Mixing is a whole universe in its own right, and many people will choose to focus on just this aspect of the process.
It is much like being an orchestra conductor, where you get to be the decider on how everything will sound, which instruments will take precedence over others, which will sound upfront and which will sound far back, as well as when certain effects take hold.
There are decisions in the decisions with mixing, and the final mix has a colossal impact on how the song sounds and how it will be interpreted by listeners.
The most basic side to mixing is to adjust the volume of each track so that they blend well. Start with this and then go from there. The more you learn about the mixing process, the more control you have over how the final track sounds.
Mastering is traditionally treated as its own stage of production. However, for many bedroom producers, it is simply the final part of the mixing process.
When recording an album, artists will sometimes use various studios, producers, and engineers for different songs. The result is always that each song will have its own sound.
Mastering is the overall process of making all these songs sound coherent and like part of the same album.
A good engineer will have outstanding equipment and an ear for this. They will correct any minor deficiencies in the mix that the mixing engineer may have missed due to the sound in their room. They will also raise the level of the tracks, so they are loud and even in volume.
Thus, by putting each song through the same mastering gear and adjusting them all to the same level, they all sound like they come from the same album.
Since many bedroom musicians and producers do not have the intention to combine their songs into a larger album, the role of the mastering engineer is reduced.
The function is then to make the final mix sound accurate, meaning that it translates the sound as intended on different playback systems. And also to bring up the level as hot as the artist wants it.
The professional way will always work best, but you could fake it with a good chain of plug-ins and the right presets.
How To Get Started With Music Production
Now that you know the basics of music production, let’s talk about how you can get started.
If you are certain this is something you wish to do, then you will first need to get all the bits and pieces you need to start up.
1. Get The Necessary Equipment
The following is the bare minimum equipment you need. You will see it is not nearly as much stuff as many will have you believe.
This is without a doubt the most basic piece of equipment you will need, and probably one of the most obvious.
Even if you do not play an instrument yourself, you can create music electronically on a computer. Of course, the results are never the same as using a live instrument.
However, a computer is also needed for editing, mixing, and mastering at the most basic level. As with most things related to production of any sort, Macs are often the preferred PC type for this.
That said, any PC will work, as long as it has a good amount of RAM, adequate internal storage, and an Intel Core 3 or higher processor. Any computer made in the past few years should do.
Above all, it should have plenty of RAM and storage, because you will need a number of applications to edit, mix, master and generally create your music.
This may seem like stating the obvious, but you will need a decent pair of headphones for this. While you could just blast the sounds out of your speakers, you will probably lose the subtleties of your sound by doing so.
Headphones help you zone in on the tracks as you edit, mix, and master.
A decent pair of headphones should not set you back too much, but you do not want to just buy the cheapest ones you can find.
They should have sufficient padding, and we also recommend noise-cancelling headphones so that you have no outside distractions or disturbances.
While many people enjoy Bluetooth headphones, we recommend wired headphones, as the last thing you want is to lose charge halfway through editing your track.
Consider Studio Monitors
While headphones are great, you may want to consider studio monitors. Or at least add them to your wish list for when you feel more comfortable with your music production.
Hearing your recordings for the first time through a set of specialist studio speakers is a milestone event. The treble has more clarity, the bass sounds fuller, and everything is reproduced in HD.
It is on par with the first time you got an HD TV and finally got to watch your favorite movie in HD. It is the same epic feeling you got then, and it will certainly help you better understand your music and your music making process.
While it may not be in everyone’s budget, and for some beginners it may be a long shot, it is a good milestone to work towards. Looking at them and considering them as a future option for yourself and your music career is a wise decision.
DAW stands for digital audio workstation. It is the type of software used to produce music. It provides you with the recording, production, mixing, and mastering capabilities of an analog recording studio.
While music you hear on the radio (or on Spotify) may sound complicated, sounds can be broken down into the individual components easily.
This concept is easily demonstrated by looking at live performances. A simple acoustic song can be recorded using track tracks in your DAW: one for vocal and one for guitar.
The use of a DAW is simple, and no matter how many instruments or tracks you add to your song, it stays simple in its most basic elements.
Every song is layered by multiple elements and sounds, and to do this you need a DAW. No DAW is better than any other, but some may be better for one person than another.
There are plenty of different options, including Logic Pro X, which is probably the best choice for those new to the music production scene, mainly because it is one of the most affordable.
It is only available for Mac, but Macs are so prominent in any creative process that most people use them anyway.
Logic Pro X has a ‘comp folders’ feature, which is brilliant for recording both instruments and vocals. It also comes with some stock processing tools, and a library of Apple Loops, which are perfect for budding music producers.
In short: it is a great DAW software for beginners.
There are plenty of other options available, though, and you should choose the one that is best for you. If you do not use a Mac, check out Ableton Live. It is a good alternative for Windows users.
A MIDI keyboard, which can also be known as a MIDI controller, is a piano styled device that lets you play and record your DAW software’s instruments and any other VST synths that you have. They will typically connect to your computer via a USB for easy use with minimal set-up.
You can manually change recorded notes using your DAW MIDI functions. It makes the editing process, and the mixing process, much easier and more fun.
And no matter how much of a beginner you are, getting, using, and understanding the workings of a MIDI controller/keyboard can be very beneficial to you and to the future of your music.
“MIDI” stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface”.
It is a standard which includes a communications protocol, digital interface, and physical connectors for different electronic instruments, computers and so on, for playing, editing, and recording music. That is why these are such integral parts in the process of learning to produce music.
2. Write Your First Song
The first step once you have all your equipment and are ready to start is to write your first song.
Go through the steps we spoke about above, and use it as a chance to get to know your equipment and your own musical taste.
You can create in any genre, or even create your own like the band Tool did. This is a time to understand your kit and yourself as a musician.
You can also create your first song entirely with loops. A loop is an audio file that contains a sound, or multiple sounds, that play back cohesively when repeated.
This can get you used to structuring a song into different sections. It can be a good way to get yourself used to how you create music. Read “What Does A Looper Pedal Do?” to learn more about looping.
3. Learn Music Theory
It is something that you can continue learning throughout your life, as we never truly stop learning. However, there is some basic core music theory that will help you as you write your songs.
A vast majority of music that you hear on the radio is likely to be very simple from a basic music theory perspective. Unless you are looking to create classical music or jazz with a DAW, you can get by with a simple understanding of music theory.
4. Learn About Sound Design
Sound design is the art and practice of creating sounds for varying purposes. It includes the recording and synthesizing of sounds for us in music, television, film, and even video games. It is its own field of study , and some people do work as professional sound designers.
If this is something that interests you, having a general understanding of synthesis will help you to create your own custom sounds with your DAW. You should also own at least one quality software synth. These are third-party software programs that integrate with your DAW.
5. Learn About Mixing And Mastering
Even if you create quality songs on your own, without mixing and mastering they will never sound like the ones on the radio. This is when you need those headphones.
There are plenty of courses available that can help you learn mixing and mastering, so that you can give those songs that radio feel. There are also plenty of third-party plug-ins that will help to make this whole process even easier.
6. Write Melodies
Melodies are often what the singer sings. If you are seeking to create vocal contributions in your music, practice with writing melodies.
The melodies and rhythms, harmonies, and so on will all fit together when you are crafting your musical masterpiece. Remember, any part of music takes practice, so do not worry if you are not perfect at it from the get-go.
7. Develop An Effective Practice Routine
Like anything, music production is a skill that must be learned. Practicing regularly will help you to understand your pieces of software, the whole creative process, and get used to working with rhythms.
This doesn’t mean write a song every day. It simply means opening up your DAW and spending a little time creating each day, even if it is just 15 minutes. Adding this into your daily routine will help you to build your skill.
Let’s take a quick look at some other things that will help you to grow as a music producer.
Determine Your Production Style
If you take a look at the music industry, you will find that musicians and music producers can often take a while to find their style. And even then, they may even reinvent themselves completely.
Finding your style can take time, and a ton of output.
It takes time to get to know your sound fonts and samples. You also need to understand the rules of each genre, so you can break them down and revolutionize the game you face.
You need to understand how you can make your sound recognizable to your listeners, and make yourself stand out from the crowd in your chosen genre.
Determining your style of production and sound takes practice and experience, but most of all experimentation. Much like other arts (and even things like science), experimenting is the leading cause of new and exciting things.
Practice, Practice, Practice
‘Practice makes perfect’ as the age-old saying goes. It is not just a saying, but great advice. Practice can help you build and discover yourself and your music.
Experience is behind every professional. Even just practicing your music for a few minutes a day will help you build the experience that will lead you down the path to becoming a pro.
Make a plan, so that even on hectic days you can make time to pursue this passion of yours. Try to fit your music into your schedule, so that you get plenty of practice. It really is true that practice makes perfect.
In any area of the arts getting feedback is always useful. While you won’t always hear what you want, it is a key part of growing, and understanding what your audience wants and how you can give it to them.
Constructive criticism is part of a creative career, be it literature, art, music, or otherwise. Find a friend or family member who enjoys the genre you are aiming for and ask them to listen to your creations and give feedback.
Take their notes and adapt from there. Eventually, you can make your music public and ask for outside opinions for feedback.
Feedback helps us to grow and evolve our music and better fit what our audience seeks.
Starting out in making music may seem daunting, but it really can be simple, and you do not need to spend tons of money to get yourself started.
It can be a simple process from just writing your songs, arranging your music, tracking, mixing and mastering. You do not need to get the most expensive MIDI keyboard, or the highest-end DAW.
Start small and work up from there.
But be sure to practice often and be open to feedback. That’s the best way to go from newbie to producer in no time at all.
Practice, experience, and experimenting are the key components to being a great music producer.