Since you’re reading this in 2014 or later, you are undoubtedly in a much better position to create music on your own than I was when I started. Even when I started recording in 2001, it was already well into the digital age. But computers weren’t as powerful and the tools needed weren’t as accessible as they are today.
So if you’re just starting out making music on the computer, you’re in great shape because it’s never been easier. But if you’re not sure how to get started, here’s a list of the top 5 things you’ll need first.
1. Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
This is by far the most important piece of software needed for creating music. This is the mothership in your arsenal through which every other tool runs. Basically, it’s your main interface used for digital recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. There are tons of options out there and honestly which one you pick shouldn’t make too much of a difference at first. Some of the most popular ones are Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, and Ableton Live. To get a general idea of what’s out there, MusicRadar has a nice list of the 16 best DAWs.
I personally use REAPER and would recommend it due the 60 day free trial. And it’s the full version you get for 60 days with all the features and no restrictions. It’s also one of the least expensive DAWs out there at only $60.
There is a steep learning curve if you’re a complete beginner. Luckily there are some more newb-friendly DAWs out there like Apple’s GarageBand and Mixcraft by Acoustica. These two programs come with tons of loops as well so you can get started arranging them and mixing them without even having to record or dive into MIDI quite yet.
This should be obvious but for the love of Kobol, do NOT try to make music with only laptop speakers. They produce audio quality equivalent to a tin can. Probably worse actually.
So listen, you’re just starting out. This is a beginner’s toolkit. Don’t go buying $500 headphones or studio monitors just yet. You’re just learning the ropes right now so all you need is something decent. I still simply use Bose computer speakers for general listening and Sony MDR-V6 headphones for mixing. Both of which go for just under $100. But there are plenty of options out there. Read reviews and just get something within your budget for now.
And just try to remember: headphones are a tool for listening, not a fashion accessory.
Once you’ve got your DAW, you might notice that it can’t really do much yet. Why not? Because you have no plug-ins.
Plug-ins can be virtual instruments, samplers, synths, effects, or anything really that “plugs” into your DAW and helps you create music.
So think about what type of music you want to create and do a search for the instruments you’ll need. Whether you need a drum machine, a piano, or an entire string orchestra, you can find them. What you’re looking for specifically are plug-ins in the VST and VSTi format. At first you’ll probably try and find free versions and you might have some success. A decent source for free virtual instruments is DSK Music. Just remember that you’re dealing with free instruments and beggars can’t be choosers. The sound quality might not be great and the samples might sound very artificial but at least it’s something to start with.
If you ARE willing to spend some money, then the real fun begins. There are some amazing sample libraries and synths out there but beware, they can be extremely expensive.
A good inexpensive, starter virtual instrument is SampleTank. It’s one of the first ones I bought and it definitely gives you a ton of sounds for the price.
There’s also Native Instruments’ Kontakt, one of the most popular samplers out there and an industry standard. They have tons of different collections and options but you should start with their free demo.
Though these plug-ins can be expensive, if you’re patient you can get them on sale. I’ve found a great site here that lists all the current promotions and sales.
4. MIDI Controller
When you’re creating virtual music, you become well acquainted with MIDI. If you’re not even sure what MIDI is yet, don’t worry. You’ll find out soon enough. Think of it as a form of digital music notation that a computer can read. You can input this notation with just a mouse if you want or you can use a MIDI controller.
Of all the things you need starting out, it’s odd to find an actual musical instrument this far down the list. But basically, it’s possible to create music on the computer without ever picking up an instrument. Probably not recommended though. And honestly, it’s debatable whether a MIDI controller really is an instrument because it makes no sound on its own. They way they work is by hooking up with your computer (via USB these days) and simply controlling whatever virtual instrument you have selected. So the sound is coming through your computer, not the keyboard at all.
MIDI keyboards come in all sorts of varieties. I have the Alesis QX25 as seen above and also an M-Audio Keystation 61ES. This way I have a lightweight and portable 25-key controller along with a larger 61-key controller which just stays put in my studio.
5. Music Theory
Maybe you didn’t expect to see this listed. But it’s true.
You could spend thousands of dollars on software, gear, samplers, etc. But it would all be useless if you don’t know how to actually create music. Understanding how rhythm, melody, harmony, texture and structure all fit together is the key to creating music with substance.
Now I’m not saying you need to be able to write a symphony. You DO need to know how to spell out chords, how to make sense of rhythm, and understand how chord progressions work. It sounds like a lot but honestly, it’s not too hard to grasp the basics and once you get into it, you’ll constantly be analyzing the music you hear and learning new things every day. There are definitely websites out there you can learn from but I really recommend some sort of formal education. I’m a bit biased since I teach guitar lessons for a living. But if you’re learning an instrument anyway, taking lessons will help you kill two birds with one stone. You can learn the instrument and theory at the same time. Just talk to your teacher about how to get started.
Just understand that music theory will help form what you hear in your head into real actual music.
And that makes it just another important tool in your toolkit.