So you want to start making (electronic) music, but you have no clue where to start in terms of software and hardware. In this article I'll describe to you all the different things you might need to consider when you want to start making music. Which tools will come in handy and which tools you won't need as a beginning music producer?
Since there are so many different software kits, third party plugins and hardware gear it might all sound a little daunting to first time music producers, but at the end of this article you'll have a much better view of all the things you need to basically start making music and get the best out of your skill. I'll go through all the different things you might need and why I think you should get it as soon as possible. Note though, that if you are just starting out and you don't know if aspiring a career in music is the right thing for you, then don't start buying all the gear listed below immediately. Instead start by investigating first and finding out if music production is really something you want to learn. This will save you from losing both valuable time and also a lot of money, you don't want to spend hundreds of Dollars and then find out that music isn't the right thing for you.
The first thing you need to consider is if your current workstation is the right thing for music production, now with a workstation I mean a desktop computer or a laptop. Your workstation has to meet the minimum required specifications to run all the software, otherwise you'll get a lot of performance problems as soon as you start diving in the production process. Most computers bought in the last three years will do the trick, but below I've listed the specs of my own workstation to give you an idea:
Operating system: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit CPU: AMD Phenom II x6 1090T (6-cores) RAM memory: 16 Gb DDR2 - 667 Mhz Graphics card: XFX Radeon 4650 1 Gb XXX edition Power supply: XFX 750 Watt Motherboard: AsRock M3A-GLAN Cooling: 2x 120mm case fan, 2x 80mm case fan Soundcard/audio interface: E-MU 1616 PCi Monitor speakers: Alesis M1Active 520 (non-USB version) Headphones: AKG K240 MkII MIDI controllers: M-Audio Axiom 49, Korg Kaoss Pad 3 Effects processors: Korg Kaos Pad 3 Microphones: Shure 58A, RØDE NT1-A Additional instruments: Fender Squier SA-105, Meinhl Deep Shell Tar
So you can see I use Windows and not OSX, it doesn't really matter as a first time producer, but for me since I've already worked with Windows for a long time and don't want to switch all my software to OSX versions I keep on working with Windows.
So what do you need and why? Well first of all a good CPU is advisable, since you need a lot of processing power to be able to produce the music you hear from other producers. A quad-core or higher CPU is probably your best choice. For working with samples you need RAM memory and to be honest I would advice at least 8GB of RAM. That way you can work with quite a lot of samples before the memory will be full, allowing you to keep on working without having to think about memory crashes.
Graphic cards are not that important for music production, so a 1GB card will be enough, but when you also want to get into making videos to go with your music then having a better card will be much more suitable for your needs. After all, you don't want to wait hours for your video software to load or render things, keeping you from using your valuable time to make more and better music.
Cooling is also really important when building or buying a new workstation, since without proper cooling the temperatures will increase a lot. This is both bad for the hardware inside your workstation, but it will also slow down the speed of your machine when doing heavy tasks like music production or video rendering. Having a couple of additional case fans buildin your machine is never a bad idea, since it will improve the overall airflow in the case.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
This is the name for the main software packages that are used by music producers and since there are a lot of different ones available on the market it might all seem a little overwhelming when you first get into it. My first advice is to try them all out before buying anything, so you can see what you like most. Everybodies personal preference matters and will vary for each person, since that's just the way we human beings behave. Some people like simplicity in terms of the interface, others like things to look professional and extraterrestrial to non-producers. It's all about what you like the most and what suits your workflow, but since a new producer hasn't even discovered his/her workflow yet it's always wise to spend some time with the demo versions.
Personally I've started with Fruityloops, which is now called FL Studio, after that I switched to Cubase for a little while. Now Cubase felt way too techy for me and made me feel like I was doing mathematics so I made the switch to Propellorheads Reason shortly after. I used Reason for about two years rewired into FL Studio before making the final switch to Ableton Live. Ever since I've never looked back at any other DAW than Ableton Live.
Soundcards and audio interfaces
The onboard sound cards that come with most motherboards are good enough for normal use, but for music production they will not succeed. The thing is that these onboard soundcards can't deliver a fast response and will most likely introduce either latency or audio drop-outs. So you'll need a good quality sound card to begin with. Now there are a lot of possible options to be picked, so it's wise to investigate a little bit before actually buying a new soundcard. If you're on a really tight budget, then buy only what you need to minimize your spendings, but if you have a little more to spend than be sure to purchase something that allows you to improve and expend your gear without having to upgrade your soundcard.
So what options are there? Well first you need to decide if you are working on a desktop computer or on a laptop, do you want your setup to be mobile? Or will your setup stay in the same position in your studio? There are multiple options when selecting a soundcard, either have one that is build in your computer and connected directly to the motherboard (which is not suitable for a laptop), or one that is connected using USB which will provide a higher mobility (and be suitable for laptop use). Both options work great and will require not much to setup, if you are not too confident about opening your desktop computer case and attach the soundcard to the motherboard than please stick with the USB versions. Now you also need to think about the near future: will you be recording any additional instruments or use a microphone to record samples or vocals? If yes, then you'll need a soundcard that comes with an audio interface. That audio interface will be an additional box that's connected to the soundcard that you've connected to your desktop computer's motherboard, or for USB soundcards it's the actual box that holds the soundcard and that will be your interface as well.
So let's take a look at the actual soundcards that are available on the market as of now, there are a lot to choose from and for new musicians and producers it might be a little frightening to dive into. I'll make a list of some of the best choices and their prices.
Windows compatible OSX compatible PCi (Express) USB Firewire
M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496 PCi card with 2x analog RCA I/O @ 24-bit/96kHz, S/PDIF I/O, MIDI in/out, includes adapter cable. Win XP/Vista, Mac OSX
This is a great little soundcard for all the new musicians and producers who want a cheap solution for their desktop workstation. The card comes with two standard analog RCA in- and outputs to connect it to other audio gear, but note that only a very minimal setup is possible. It also comes with an adapter cable which also adds S/PDIF in and out and MIDI in and out. The card offers a good audio quality for recording up to 96kHz on 24-bit.
Personally I'm not a fan of working with the adapter cable vs having physicial in- and outputs on either the card or an external breakout box, so if you don't want an adapter cable hanging on the backside of your desktop computer.
M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496 Digital audio system with 24-bit/192kHz converters, hardware-accelerated effects, PatchMix DSP zero-latency hardware mixing and monitoring, 2x mic/line/Hi-Z preamps with soft limiter and 48V phantom power, 4x 1/4" balanced inputs, 6x 1/4" balanced outputs, phono input, ADAT I/O (switchable to S/PDIF optical), S/PDIF I/O (coaxial), 2x MIDI I/O, stereo headphones out, ASIO drivers.
This one is a bit more advanced than the M-Audio soundcard, but with that also comes a higher price. I personally work on the previous version from this soundcard/interface which is basically the same except it's connect through PCi instead of PCi Express.
One big advantage compared to the M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496 card is that you now get an additional breakout box that you connect to the soundcard using a cable that comes with the soundcard. This breakout box holds all your in- and outputs in one place so you're not left with that big adapter cable on the back of your computer. This card also allows you for samplerates up to 192kHz on 24-bit, allowing for even higher audio quality on recordings.
Next to that you get much more audio in and outputs to work with and most of them use the 1/4" balanced connections which allow for better sound quality. On the front of the box you can now find the additional microphone inputs that use the big XLR type connection you generally find on studio microphones, but the same port can also be used as an instrument input using 1/4" plugs. So you get not four but five additional inputs using 1/4" plugs. Next to the front XLR inputs is a nice gain rotary knob to control the input gain. Also on the front is now an additional headphone output with a volume control for easy monitoring of your recordings. Another big thing on this soundcard is the 48V phantom power switch which you need for powering studio microphones, this function is not available on the M-Audio card. Finally this card uses a MIDI adapter cable connected to the back of the breakout box, which allows for up to two MIDI devices to be connected through the same MIDI port on the breakout box. This means you can for instance connect both an MIDI keyboard and a DJ controller at the same time.
One thing though, on my 1616 PCi Express I get problems a lot when I try to use the WDM driver together with the E-MU ASIO driver, allowing for no higher samplerates than 48kHz. I blame this one the lack of proper drivers from E-MU, and so far they don't seem to have any plans on upgrading them. The last released driver is a beta version released when Windows Vista came out and that's the last driver they've released. This problems only seems to be for 64-bit users of Windows Vista and 7, and no driver is available for Windows 8. E-MU itself claims that the beta version of the 64-bit driver is stable and works just as well as the official drivers, but that is simply not true. If a beta version of a driver only allows for samplerates of 44.1 and 48kHz while the card supports samplerates up to 192kHz, then I don't see this beta driver as a stable and good final version yet E-MU announced that they will not upgrade the driver anymore. I'm now looking in upgrading the card to a different brand, just wanted to point this issue out to possible future buyers.
M-Audio M-Track 2 channel USB audio interface, 24-bit / 48kHz digital audio processing, zero-latency audio monitoring, 2 XLR mic inputs with selectable phantom power, 2 balanced 6,3mm jack line inputs with guitar-level switching, 2 TRS 6,3mm jack inserts; one per input channel, MIDI In and Out jacks, balanced 6,3mm jack main outputs with level control, headphone out with independent level control, convenient single thomann USB cable data and power connection, includes Ableton Live Lite 8 and Ignite by AIR music creation software.
The M-Audio M-Track is a very good budget solution for all the producers out there who use a laptop or who don't want to open up their desktop case to install a new soundcard. This soundcard will add two XLR microphone inputs to your workstation that can be powered by 48V phantom power, so you could use studio microphones with this as well.
I really like the aggressive black design combined with the visual metering a lot! One downside for this card is that you're somewhat limited to the maximum samplerate of 48kHz, which should be enough for most beginners but when you want to start expanding your skills in terms of recording you'll have to upgrade to a better card again.
Though this card is probably the cheapest solution of this list, my advice will be to invest a little more into something with higher samplerates.
MOTO UltraLite MkIII Hybrid 24bit/192kHz FireWire and USB 2.0 audio interface, 2x mic/instrument inputs, 6x balanced inputs and 10 outputs (1/4" TRS). 48V phantom power, S/PDIF I/O, headphone output, CueMix FX, internal DSP, LCD display. Suitable for use as a standalone mixer. Compatible with Windows 7, Vista, or XP, 32- or 64-bit; XP SP3 or later required, Mac OS X version 10.4, 10.5, or 10.6; v10.4.9 or later required. Supports WDM, ASIO and Core Audio. Includes AudioDesk software for Mac
This is the first 'hybrid' card in this list, which means it provides both USB2.0 and FireWire connections which allow for even higher data transfer speeds. In terms of functionality and specifications this card is very similar to the E-MU 1616m, the biggest difference is the type of connection you need to hook it up to your workstation.
This card is slight more expensive than the E-MU card, but it's also a little newer so that's just common sense. MOTU is known for their really stable ASIO and WDM drivers, which when I compare that to the E-MU ASIO and WDM drivers is a big step up. One thing I liked more on the E-MU 1616m is that is has both XLR microphone ports on the front side of the box, compared to one on the front and one on the back for the MOTU UltraLite. Now this isn't really a problem more something like personal preference.
The visual feedback and metering on the MOTO card is really nice, since it also shows the current settings for the onboard DSP effects that come with this card.
MOTU 828 MkIII Hybrid 24bit/192kHz FireWire/USB 2.0 audio interface and 28/16 digital mixer with FX, DSP (EQ, compressor and reverb), new CueMix console, 2x mic/guitar inputs with internal hardware limiter, 48V phantom power, 8x balanced line I/Os & 2x XLR main outputs, 2x sends, 2x ADAT I/O, S/PDIF RCA I/O (24bit/96kHz), MIDI I/O, Word Clock I/O, 2x headphone outputs.
This card is the biggest and most expensive in this list an will be only for readers who need the best of the best. Maybe come from a music background and have been making music for years using real instruments, then this one will give you as many different in- and outputs as you need. Basically this card is just the big brother of the UltraLite by MOTU, but then with 28 inputs and 30 outputs (two main XLR outputs for your monitor speakers). It also comes with two separate headphone outputs for even better monitoring while recording. The card can either be connected through USB2.0 or FireWire just like the UltraLite, making it a great addition to every studio environment. This card can also be daisy-chained (hooked up) to other MOTU cards to expand the amount of in- and outputs if needed.
This will probably be the card I will get in the near future, hoping it will solve the bad driver problems and bad support I get now with the E-MU card. That way it'll also allow me to upgrade or expand the interface with the additional MOTU devices if needed.
Coming up next...
A good listening environment starts with good speakers and good headphones, so in the next part of this series of articles I will shed some light on monitor speakers and headphones showing you everything you need to know to get the best out of your music. If you have any questions regarding this article then feel free to post them in a comment below and I'll answer them as soon as possible. In the meantime feel free to check out the VIP area on this website for some great additional downloads for Ableton Live
I have been making music for over 10 years, have had releases on several different record labels and I have a love for everything that involves using my creativity. I spend my days as a musician, graphic designer and wannabe photographer who likes to roam the streets of his hometown, especially during the night. Maybe I'm nocturnal, who knows? One thing I know for sure, I do whatever I want to do.
For help with a project, email at contact[at]artfx-studios.com for more information about the possibilities. We offer our skills in music production, sound design and graphic design for reasonable prices.