(electronic) music production 101


word count: 1600

approx reading time: 8 mins

the following is a post i wrote on fedi a few months ago, about how to get started with electronic music production. i've done some minor editing and adapted it into a blogpost

do you wanna start doing music production but don't know where to begin? here's a small 101-type-post to give you enough information to get you on your path


first of all, you will need a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). this is where everything happens. it's where you'll write and arrange your song. there's a wide range of options, and people reaaaally like to stress over it and have "fights" over which one's best. the truth is, any of them will work to get you started. once you are more knowledgeable, you can compare options and decide what workflow works best for you

good choices are FL Studio (paid), Ableton (paid), Reaper (winrar-like license). you can easily get the first two for free if you are a bit crafty. i personally use Reaper, but as i said, your choice is not particularly important at this stage. just pick one and jump into it, and watch a couple intro tutorials on how to use it

DAWs have different workflows and it does take some time to adapt between them, but it's not as hard as you might imagine


to actually make sounds, you'll need two things: synthesizers and sample packs. (you could also record you own sounds, but i'll be ignoring that for this post)


synths are usually external plugins, made by 3rd party developers not related to your DAW. there's a few different formats plugins come in, such as VST2, VST3, AU, CLAP. plugins are usually referred to as VSTs by people, even if they're talking about plugins in other formats, since VST is the most common one. most Daws support all plugin formats (except Logic Pro, which only supports AU)

a great free synth is vital. it has a wide range of sound design options: wavetables, frequency modulation (FM), subtractive synthesis. it also includes some great built in effects, such as distortion, chorus, reverb, filters, etc. Vital is a "clone" of another (paid) plugin called Serum, which you'll see in practically every pre-2020 edm tutorial. Serum is also easily acquirable, but it has practically the same features as Vital so personally i wouldn't bother.

sound design is a Big rabbit hole. the best way to get started is to watch youtube tutorials on how to recreate sounds. (search for "flute vital tutorial" or literally anything else)

sample packs

Sample Packs are collections of sounds people have recorded/made. usually they contain drum samples (either synthesized or recorded), melody loops, synth/bass one shots, and just generally any sound the pack creator wanted to include. a great one i recommend for electronic music is [[https://www.dropbox.com/s/dw92d9km8ons7b8/PRINCESS%20GIRLFRIEND%20sample%20pack%20(1).zip?dl=0&file_subpath=%2FPRINCESS+GIRLFRIEND+sample+pack ][Princess Girlfriend]], made by the great [[https://soundcloud.com/traceybrakes ][Tracey Brakes]].

the KSHMR sample packs are also excellent, but they're paid. it includes 808s (bass noises), atmospheric sounds, claps, fx (transitions, risers, other assorted noises), hi hats, kicks, percussive sounds, snares, and some synth one shots.

these are a great way to get started arranging things without worrying about sound designing your own sounds from scratch, which can be a bit of a time sink sometimes. you might see people who are against using samples, who say you should record/synthesize your own sounds from scratch. do not listen to them, they're assholes. samples are very wildly used by everyone, they are a great tool

Splice is a great way to get samples, but it's a paid service. i personally don't use it. reddit's r/Drumkits is also good

having a varied set of sample packs is a good idea, but you don't need to hoard hundreds of GBs


VSTs can also be effects, which are plugins that manipulate existing sound in different ways

for example, a delay takes in a sound and applies an echo to it. reverbs make things sound like they are in a real room. distortions make things louder and crunchier. EQs allow you remove parts of a sound you don't like, and boost others you want to be louder. there's many more categories, but i'll leave discovering them as an exercise. :) they're easier to understand if you can listen/see what they're doing, so i recommend watching a video on the topic

i don't think you should worry too much about downloading new effects when you are starting out. your DAW of choice will have a bunch of great built-in effects, i recommend getting familiar with those before downloading/buying new ones

music theory

another big aspect of music making is midi, which is kinda like sheet music but for computers. you'll write notes down using your DAW's piano roll.

music theory is what explains why certain notes, chords, melodies, sound good and pleasant. you do not need music theory, but i would strongly recommend you learn at least the basics. you'll see people saying it will make your music worse and lifeless. they're wrong. it's a helping hand to understand what options you have when writing melodies and chords, without having to experiment and figure out what sounds good. there's 300+ years of knowledge on this shit! use it, don't redevelop it by yourself with different words, it's going to make communication harder than it needs to be

i want to make clear though: music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. if something sounds good but goes against common music theory practices, go with what sounds good


traditional western music (and therefore midi) is made using 12 notes, which go from A to G#. you should be aware which notes have sharps and which don't


in general, your song will be in a specific key (eg. C Major, G Minor, etc). a key is (with some handwaving) a collection of notes that sounds good together, centered around a root note. when talking about a key, people will usually say the root note followed by the scale type (Major, Minor)

there's some other scales aside from Major and Minor, but you shouldn't worry about them right now

all keys work for writing music, but some people lean towards specific ones for various reasons, such as matching their vocal/instrument range. if you are starting out, you can pick a random key to write your song in. in general, Major keys sound happy, while Minor keys sound sad

your DAW's piano roll should have an option to select a key, which will make it so you can only select notes from that key. this is great cause it means that if you put some random notes down, there's a great chance it will sound decently.


while melodies are "chains" of notes (that is to say, one note after the other), chords are stacks of notes (notes playing at the same time). chords have types, which tell you what the distance between the notes in the stack is. the most common types of chords you'll encounter are major chords and minor chords. both major and minor keys contain major and minor chords, they're not tied together.

chords usually provide the foundation for melodies to sit on. each key has a set of "allowed" chords, which are usually labeled both with roman numerals and by the root note. for example, the key of C Major has Cmaj and Gmaj chords, but there's no Cmin.

the roman numerals tell you what the root note of the chord is, using the root note of your key as a base. so a I chord in C Major is a Cmaj chord, while a iii chord in Fmaj would be an Amin chord. if it's uppercase it refers to a major chord, if it's lowercase it refers to a minor chord. for example, the pop chord progression is I–V–vi–IV, which in the key of C Major would be Cmaj–Gmaj–Amin–Fmaj

chord progressions are series of chords that go one after the other.

mixing & mastering

two words you'll see a lot are mixing and mastering. mixing is "making sure the different sounds in your track play nice with each other". that's to say, make sure the bass isn't covering the drums, make sure all elements are hearable, eq-ing out "bad" frequencies from sounds, making sure stuff isn't clashing, etc. mixing is not really a separate process (at least for me), i usually try to do it as im writing the song.

mastering generally applies to whole albums, and consists of making all the songs fit in together, by making sure the volumes are the same

general advice

i strongly strongly recommend you watch "how to make music like X" where X is an artist you like. unless it's a niche artist, you'll find tutorials on how to make music like them, and it's a good way to learn

general advice: make lots of stuff. don't be discouraged when it sounds bad. it will sound bad, and that's okay. it's about being consistent and trying out a lot of different things

try to finish songs! it's okay if they're not perfect. a bad finished song is 1000x better than a thousand unfinished mediocre things

join a community! find discord servers, make friends, post your work in progress tracks, collaborate with others. this is one of the most important things. the best music tips i've learned were while sitting in discord VCs with friends. you can usually find communities like these by searching for fan discord servers for artists you like. and don't be afraid to ask questions!

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