Music Production 101: Tips and tricks for Beginner Music Producers

Do you feel it's time to begin producing your own music but you don't know where to start?
Whether you're a guitarist, a songwriter, a vocalist or a synth lover, we're going to help you set up your recording studio without breaking the bank and guide you through creating your first track. Are you excited? So read on!

Anna Colombo

Anna Colombo

Part I: Setting up your studio

First and foremost, you’ll need some essential gear to actually start making music. From software where you can record vocals, beats and instruments up to monitors where you can listen to your work, here’s an outline of what makes for a great home studio, both for a beginner or a seasoned producer.

Choosing a DAW

The fundamental tool required to kickstart your music production journey is a DAW, which stands for digital audio workstation. This is going to be the place where all of your music is created, recorded, mixed, mastered and much more! Each DAW has its own unique workflow, so it might be a good choice to try them out via a free trial that all major brands offer to beginner music producers. Most of the software is available in different versions, from Intro to Suite, tailored to your level of ability.

Most DAWs are compatible with major operating systems. As far as your laptop or computer RAM is concerned, 8GB is a great starting point to manage all of your audio tasks without your laptop starting to smoke after a few hours. If you’re planning to use higher sample rates (see our glossary below), lots of external instruments (and hence heavy audio tracks) consider upgrading to 16 or 32GB.

Here’s an overview of the major DAWs you can find at Andertons!

  • Ableton Live: Ableton set the standard for both composition and arrangement with Live. Offering two intuitive interfaces, Session view for live performance and Arrangement view for production, it gives you the best of both worlds. You can switch seamlessly between the two views to jot down ideas and set them up as a proper song in real-time. If you like a hands-on approach, this is probably the best software for you, as it’s designed to interact with external MIDI controllers. It’s also ideal if you like playing around with samples thanks to its Simpler, Sampler and Drum Rack customisable instruments. Ableton comes in 3 different variants – intro, Standard and Suite – to adapt to your skills.
  • Avid Pro Tools: Pro Tools was introduced in 2000 and has been a staple in world-class recording studios, for the music, film and TV industry. It’s the best software for sound recording and audio editing. The main interface is the Timeline, where you can see the chronological development of your recordings. A variety of actions, including time-stretching, equalizing and dynamics processing can be applied to your tracks non-destructively and in real-time. It’s also ideal to craft layered sound design for video, thanks to its integrated video engine that allows you to sync up your effects to match the action happening on screen.
  • Cubase: The origins of Cubase date back to 1989 when it appeared as a MIDI sequencer in an Atari computer. MIDI is still the strong point of this DAW, which is renowned as one of the best softwares for composition. It features an easy and smooth MIDI editor and advanced export features that come in handy when working with track-dense projects like the ones for videogames, TV, and films.
  • Reason: Reason can be used both as a standalone DAW or plugin. It’s designed as a rack where you can build your own sound, choosing from Reason’s extensive built-in library of instruments and effects (that can easily turn into a modular synth for the more advanced producers). You can record vocals and instruments, play with built-in samples or your own, and mix your songs with a digital mixer reproducing the SSL 9000K mixing desk. Reason can also be rewired to your DAW of choice and become a powerful plugin, so you don’t have to choose between the two.

BONUS:

  • Logic Pro: Logic Pro is a music production software specially designed for Mac. It features an intuitive workflow that suits beginners and advanced music producers equally well. The key features of Logic are quick and easy audio and MIDI editing tools, an extensive library of first-class plugins, VSTs and Apple loops.

Best DAWs for Music Production

What do you need to start producing music?

 

Studio Essentials for Success

Once you’ve sorted out which DAW is best for you, you need to get some essential tools to set up your studio! Let’s have a look at the most important ones:

Audio Interface

Audio interfaces convert audio signals from vocals and instruments into digital signals that a computer, and hence your DAW, can recognize. The interface also sends audio to your headphones and studio monitors. The first thing you should take into consideration is the type of connection you need, whether it’s USB, Thunderbolt or USB-C. Secondly, you need to think about how many inputs and outputs you want to have, based on your current gear and how you want to expand your setup. Ideally, you should start with at least 2 inputs, one for your mic and one for your guitar or synthesizer, and 2 outputs to use for your monitors.

If you’re just starting and want a professional interface without breaking the bank, Arturia MiniFuse line and Focusrite’s Scarlett line are some of the best options on the market. More advanced options include Universal Audio and Antelope interfaces, which feature first-class preamps for amazing recording quality and DSP to alleviate pressure from your CPU when using plugins.

Best Audio Interfaces under £200

Headphones

Headphones are essential for a variety of tasks, from checking the tracks you’re laying down in your DAW, to recording to mixing. Bonus: they’re also going to spare you from your neighbour’s complaints about volume! There are two main types of headphones:

  • Closed-back, which deliver optimal isolation and good sound quality (good for mixing)
  • Open-back, which deliver excellent sound quality at the expense of lesser isolation (good for tracking)

At Andertons you can find first-class closed-back headphones under £150 to get started without breaking the bank. Some of our favourites are Audio-Technica M50x, AKG K240 and Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro, but you have an incredible wealth of options to fulfil your needs! We also rated our favourite cans between £20-£40 to give you our opinions on the best most affordable options on the market.

If you don’t want to risk being tangled, you can also go for wireless headphones, like Boss’s Waza-Air.

If you’re looking for a less isolated, more natural response, open-back headphones are for you. Some of our favourite budget options are AKG K240 MKII, Roland RH-A30 and Beyerdynamic DT990.

Best Headphones under £150

Speakers

Headphones are excellent for all audio-related tasks, but you must have seen that in all serious studios they have speakers. Let’s debunk the myth that one is better than the other. Headphones and speakers are complementary, as they make you experience sound in two different ways. Using headphones, it will seem like the sound is coming out of your head, because both your ears are fed the same signal at the same time. So you’ll hear all panning, reverbs and more in great detail. Speakers make you experience your song with the interference of the external ambience. The key to a great mix is having both of them, to have both a surgical and more natural approach!

Studio speakers are referred to as nearfield monitors and they’re different from consumer speakers because they respond to sound in a flatter and less coloured way to let you have good feedback of what the actual sound is like.

Before buying your monitors, check the size of your room and choose a suitable cone. Ideally, you can go between 5” to 7” for a medium-sized room and be sure it will sound good. Some of the best active studio monitors for your home studio are Yamaha’s HS5 and HS7 (both in black or white), Adam Audio’s T-Series T5V, Tannoy Gold 5 or 7 and KRK Classic 7”.

If you want help with choosing your speakers, we put together a guide to give you all the info you need when buying your first set of nearfield studio monitors. You can read it here.

Best Affordable Nearfield Studio Monitors

Microphone

If you want to record your vocals or a vocalist’s, you’ll need a microphone. There are two main types of microphones: dynamic and condenser. The former is designed to capture loud and focused sounds, such as vocals and drums specifically in a live situation. The latter can capture softer sounds at a better quality and are ideal in a studio. There is no black or white though, you can combine both to give new nuances to your vocals and instruments.

You can find great condenser microphones on a budget like the SE Electronics SE X1S, AKG C3000 and Audio-Technica AT2035. If you’re willing to invest a little more on a life-long mic, we stock some of the best world-class microphones such as Neumann TLM102, AKG C414 XLII and Warm Audio WA-14. Some dynamic mics are excellent for studio purposes too, like Shure’s SM7b, one of our all-time best-sellers. Try it for warm, crispy vocals or go crazy with preamps; you won’t regret it.

Microphones also require accessories like microphone stands, clips, pop filters and we stock all of it and more!

Best Condenser Microphones under £200

Cables

You’ll never have too many! Cables are essential to connect all your gear and make it work as it should. There are a lot of types of cables. Let’s start with the most famous analog ones: Jack and XLR. The former is mostly used for line instruments (synths, guitars, bass…) and can be TRS (tip, ring and sleeve) hence stereo or TS (tip, sleeve) or mono. XLR cables snap into place and they’re commonly used to transmit a balanced signal when recording.

RCA cables are recognizable because of their white and red heads. They’re mostly used for analogue audio devices (like a tape recorder) to achieve stereo and are super common in DJ equipment.

In recent times digital cables have become a staple in countless studios. We’re talking about MIDI cables that for instance send digital information (like tempo and notes) from your DAW to your synth. USB cables are also a modern producer’s bread and butter, as many pieces of gear now feature USB connectivity to take a lot of hassle off your shoulders.

If you want a quick fix to have all your recording staples in one place, might be worth having a look at our bundles! You’ll find audio interfaces with mics and accessories and speakers with cables to get you going in no time!

Part II: Taking your first steps into music production

Now that you have all the gear, it’s time to get your hands dirty creating your first track. In this section we’re going to give you some tips and tricks regarding all the different life stages of a song. But first, here are some key terms that are a producer’s bread and butter.

A basic music production glossary

  • ADSR: This acronym stands for Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release. Together they form the ‘envelope’ of a sound. This term is mostly found on synths and is essential to shape their sound. Turning up the attack will result in a softer start of your note, turning up the release will have your sound fading in volume over a longer interval of time once you’ve released the key, short decay means a short burst of sound. Play around for unique results.
  • Audio Sample Rate: it’s a measure that determines the number of frequencies captured in digital audio. Major DAWs usually offer you 3 sample rate options: 44.1kHz, 48kHz and 96kHz. Let’s skip the Nyquist and physics explanation and go to the core. 44.1kHz is the standard sample rate used in CDs and many audio recordings. It reproduces frequencies up to 20kHz, which is the limit of the human ear. Higher sample rates like 48kHz and 96kHz mean more measurements per second, so a more faithful reproduction of the original sound. There are no rules when deciding what sample rate to use, just be sure to stick to one in your project and don’t change it while it’s a work in progress!
  • Bouncing: exporting an audio file to a format like wav or mp3. Can be done offline or in real-time (meaning you’ll hear the track playback. It’s standard practice when using outboard gear).
  • Compression: Reducing the dynamic range of a sound to level out between loudest and quietest parts.
  • DAW: stands for Digital Audio Workstation, and it’s the name indicating software for music production like Ableton, Cubase, Reason… where you can play, record, mix and master your tracks.
  • EQ: Short for Equaliser. Equalisation is the process of removing or boosting certain frequencies inside a sound by reducing or increasing gain. For instance, you might want to remove very low frequencies that make a mix muddy or boost the high end in vocal tracks.
  • FX: Short for Effect. Effects are many and different and they are fundamental tools to shape your sound. Common effects are reverb, delay, chorus, flanger and distortion. All DAWs have built-in plugin effects, you can also find them in the form of external devices, such as pedals.
  • Gain: How loud a signal is before it enters an amp.
  • Gate: It’s a tool helping you to remove certain frequencies below a specific threshold. It’s really useful if you want to create glitchy sounds.
  • Input: The source of the audio chain. You usually connect an audio cable such as a TRS or an XLR to send audio data from your instrument or vocals.
  • Jack: Another name for the TRS/TS cable.
  • Latency: Latency is the time it takes for your hardware and software equipment to read the sound signal that’s being played, process it, and play it into your speakers. Your guitar sends an analogue signal that your software needs to turn into a digital one and back into an analogue one to play it to you. That process is responsible for latency.
  • Loop: A repetition of an audio section.
  • Mastering: The process of taking an audio mix and make it ready for distribution.
  • MIDI: A digital language that allows digital music devices to communicate. It was first developed in the ‘80s, when the growing amount of digital hardware called for a standardised language to make them compatible.
  • Mixing: the process of taking tracks and blending them together via volume adjustments, EQs, compressors, reverbs and more.
  • Plugin: it’s a software add-on that enhances your DAW with effects, virtual instruments and processing tools.
  • Sample: a piece of audio data taken from a larger file. It’s the smallest unit of measurement in digital sound.
  • Stem: a stem is a sub mix of a larger mix. Stems are usually composed of the main elements of a song, i.e. drums, synths, vocals, backing tracks and so on, grouped together to go into the mixing phase.
  • Tempo: The speed of music, usually measured in BPM (beats per minute)
  • Tracking: the process of recording audio tracks that make a song.
  • VST: Stands for Virtual Studio Technology. It’s a format for plugins to add instruments and effects to your DAW.
  • Wet/Dry: It’s the balance between a processed signal and the original one. It’s usually found on effect plugins to determine how incisive they are on a sound.

Creating your first track

 

Although there is no formula to laying down a track, here are some tips to start jotting down your first ideas and developing your workflow. As we all know, multitracking is the standard way of recording music, where multiple tracks are recorded separately and combined in a mix.

Create a track to follow

One of the key steps when recording a song is finding a tempo or BPM. This will allow you to record all instruments in sync and craft a song structure. All DAWs have the option to activate a click track and some have the option to use ‘Tap’ tempo. This means you can click on a button following the rhythm you hear in your head and your DAW will set a BPM for you.

You can even use a pre-recorded drum loop, that you can find in your DAW’s library. That’s a really handy way to get a song started!

Song Structure

Again, nothing’s set in stone about a song structure. However, here are some of the most popular song patterns:

Bridge and Chorus are usually the most important parts: a bridge builds up the intensity which releases into the chorus, which is the more memorable part of the song.

Building Elements – Tracking

Once you have these sections in mind, you can start recording the elements of your song. A good idea is to write a chord progression, that can slightly change throughout the song. This can be the basis on which you start laying your bass, additional synths and vocals.
Don’t overlook the arranging phase: a song can get repetitive, even though it has all the right elements in place! Some ideas to spice up your mix are: removing some elements to create quieter and louder sections, including new instruments starting at different points, or change the panning (aka the direction the sound is coming from) of some instruments.

This is the real creative phase, so probably the best tip we can give is just to let things flow, not giving yourself restraints on what to use and how you should use it. Browse for samples that inspire you, use your gear in an unconventional way (tip: try sending MIDI from a synth to another!), use your vocal chops as percussions… The possibilities are endless!

Editing

Leave the editing phase for a later stage, after you’ve recorded all your tracks. This process is essential to clean up your vocals, select takes, adjust volumes and all the things that make your track ready for the mixing phase. As to vocals, one of the main processes is to tune them. From the slightest imperfection to real hardcore tuning, one of the best plug-ins is Melodyne, which analyses the track bit by bit and breaks it down for you.

Another famous tool is Antares Auto-Tune, a real-time pitch corrector suitable both for studio and live performance. You can decide to use it in a more “humanized” way or put it to 100% wet and enjoy the alteration. Other things you need to look out for when editing are: noise, clips (when the audio signal is too loud and spikes up creating a glitch in the recording), and sibilant consonants like ‘s’ that can be easily defeated by a De-esser.

Production

After you’ve polished your tracks, it’s time for the second round of creativity, which is the production phase. We refer to production as the process where you add effects to your tracks, create transitions and add other sonic intrigue; put simply it’s here where you make your track unique. Here are some quick tips to spice up your production:

  • Velocity: you made a sick beat but it feels a little bit too tight and dehumanized, especially if you quantized it to the bone. Try changing the velocity of the hits (especially hi-hats) to create a groovier and more natural rhythm!
  • Sidechain: if there’s an effect you (almost) can’t go wrong with, this is it. Sidechaining consists of activating an effect through another track, that is set to a threshold. It is commonly used with Compressors and noise gates, especially between kick and bass to give that wonderful bouncy atmosphere.
  • Reverse tracks: it can be a cool way of creating “organic” build-ups before you get to the chorus. Try reversing a snare and you’ll hear a nice ramp perfect to launch your drop!
  • Vocal chops: if your song has a vocal track, try to slice it into pieces, especially with vowels, and use them as percussion! It can be an interesting and unique alternative to drum samples.
  • Effects: this is not a proper tip, but effects are essential to your production! A delay in the right place can make a huge difference in your track. Whether you prefer digital effects (plug-ins) or outboard gear, experiment with your chorus, reverb, distortion and combine them to achieve incredible results!

Mixing

Mixing is an art of its own. It’s the process of gluing your tracks together to make them sound cohesive and complete. It’s usually carried out using tools like EQs, Compressors and Reverbs, as well as directly acting on your tracks’ volumes and panning.

A good way to get your song mix-ready is by grouping your tracks into coherent chunks, called STEMS. An example of stem could be a synth track and its effects, different snares grouped together, or a series of backing vocals. Once you’ve successfully streamlined your project, you can create a new one dedicated to mixing, so you can always go back to your original project to edit or retrieve elements.

Many DAWs offer mixing templates you can choose from, which come in handy if you’re mixing for the first time. One tip we can give you is to find out the overall feeling you want to convey with your song, and push it as much as you can while you’re producing. Try to have your tracks sounding as you want them to, rather than having to tweak them in the mix!

One of the pillars of mixing is EQ, short for equalisation. All sounds are made of frequencies, that are measured in Hertz. Equalising is the art of boosting, reducing and balancing all the frequencies in the mix to get a clear sound where all elements are present and work well together.

Mastering

What’s mastering? If you ask around, some people might tell you it makes the song “louder”. However, mastering is a very simple but subtle process, that requires great training and ears. The main things you achieve through it are: making the track’s perceived volume louder; making the track translatable to different kinds of speakers & making the track generally sound better.

If you’ve already mixed your song by yourself, a good tip would be to hand the mastering phase to a pair of fresh new ears… and speakers. In fact, a great deal of mastering depends on the speakers used and the acoustic treatment of a room.

The main tools for mastering are EQ, compression & a limiter. Compression is essential to balance out volumes because it makes loud parts sit in the mix and turns up quieter ones. It glues up all elements of the song to create a cohesive product. A limiter is the final stage in the mastering process. It’s a special kind of compressor that sets the overall loudness and makes the track competitively louder, without allowing any clipping or distortion to happen.

After mastering your track, it will be ready to be uploaded to all major digital stores and streaming platforms!

Conclusion

So we gave you all the tools and notions you need to start producing your own music. Even though it might be a daunting process in the beginning, nobody is born knowing everything. Just keep going and practising, trying out new gear and never be afraid of making mistakes!

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Anna Colombo
Anna Colombo

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