How to Start Making Music (Without Knowing a Lick of Theory)

Is that…it?”

I remember saying this out loud the first time I went to see an electronic music artist perform live.

This was before EDM was a thing and the likes of David Guetta and Hardwell were household names. I had grown up on a steady diet of rock ‘n’ roll. For me, making music was directly linked to technical artistry – years spent practicing scales and learning guitar licks.

Yet what I saw that day was a single guy with a laptop and a turntable dominate the stage. There seemed to be no technical wizardry involved; if you knew how to operate a laptop, you could, in theory, make music.

Of course, I know better today. There is a lot of technical skill required in making professional electronic music. But the truth remains that anyone can start making this music even if they’ve had zero lessons in music theory.

If you’ve ever looked at your EDM artists and thought “I want to do that”, then this article is for you. I’ll share all the resources and tools you need to start making music even if you don’t know a thing about music theory.

1. A Good DAW

 

A DAW, or ‘Digital Audio Workstation’, is the bread and butter of electronic musicians. This is the marble as well as the chisel with which you sculpt your masterpieces. A good DAW will be your closest companion in your music-making journey, so choosing wisely at the start is a must.

Your biggest concern at this stage should be picking between ease of use and features. Tools that are easy to use often lack the features you need to become a serious musician. Feature-rich tools, on the other hand, are often too expensive and too complicated for casual users.

I’ve found that for most beginners, choosing from one of the following three yields best results:

  • Ableton Live
  • Apple Logic Pro
  • FL Studio

Among these, FL Studio is arguably the easiest to use but also the least feature-rich. It is certainly the cheapest – the basic edition starts at just $99.

Apple Logic Pro is what professional producers use. It bears Apple’s trademark quality and design. It also works seamlessly on Mac computers. But it is also expensive and, of late, has been ignored by Apple in terms of development.

This brings me to my recommended DAW – Ableton Live. Ableton is what most top music producers use. It is certainly expensive, but it has a good balance of ease of use and features.

Perhaps most importantly, most training and tutorial courses online use Ableton Live. This makes it much, much easier to learn how to make music.

While we’re talking about DAWs, do note that you’ll likely use a ton of plugins as you evolve as a musician. This includes synths like Massive and Serum, mastering tools, transient shapers, etc. Most of these plugins are compatible with every DAW. Some older DAWs, however, might not work with the latest synths.

Keep this in mind when you choose a DAW. It is generally a better idea to go with a popular DAW since it will have guaranteed support for major plugins.

 

2. A MIDI Keyboard

 

Look:

You don’t really need a MIDI keyboard. But if you want to be a good musician, you want one in your music room.

A MIDI keyboard is essentially a piano. Except it doesn’t produce any sound of its own. It simply gives you a familiar interface – that of the piano keys – to help you control your software instruments.

A good MIDI keyboard makes the act of producing music infinitely more intuitive. It also gives you an easy way to understand the basics of music theory. Without a MIDI keyboard, you have to use your mouse to enter notes into the DAW.

This works, but it is non-intuitive and more importantly for beginners, non-educational.

So which MID keyboards should you choose? I recommend picking something cheap but with a decent set of keys. Go for a minimum of 49-keys. Anything smaller than that and you’ll struggle to play complex melodies.

Focus on the key quality. You want keys that feel like a traditional piano’s (i.e. weighted keys). Use this guide to help pick out MIDI keyboards. Some of the best brands in this category are Akai, Novation, and M-Audio.

 

3. Studio Headphones or Studio Monitors

 

You obviously need a way to listen to the music that you’re creating.

But your ordinary headphones won’t help you much.

Why? Because ordinary headphones are designed for amplifying certain frequencies, typically those in the bass and treble ranges. This is what sounds “good”.

As a musician, however, you want to hear everything, including the “dull” mid-frequencies. You also want accuracy in your bass and treble reproduction.

Ordinary headphones, since they emphasize the highs and lows, give you an inaccurate idea of what the music sounds like. Use them and you’ll find that your bass is a little too loud and your trebles a bit too sharp.

The solution is to use a pair of studio headphones or studio monitors.

Studio headphones are designed precisely for music production. They have a “flat” frequency response, i.e. they de-emphasize every frequency. The bass, mids, trebles are all flat. Thus, you get a much more accurate idea of the sound – a crucial factor in music production.

If you’re in the market for studio headphones, you can’t go wrong with models from Sennheiser, AKG and Audio Technica. Expect to pay at least around $100. A good pair of Sennheiser HD280 – a beginner-level studio headphones – will last you for years.

 

4. An Audio Interface

 

You have your MIDI keyboard, your DAW, and your studio headphones.

Time to start making music, right?

There’s just one more thing: you need an audio interface.

An audio interface is essentially a dedicated external sound card. It does two things:

  • It makes it possible to connect MIDI keyboards, guitars, and headphones to the computer.
  • It creates a low-latency, superfast connection between the instruments and the computer

The second part is key. If you don’t have an audio interface, you’ll have a slow connection between your instruments and the computer. Press a key and you’ll hear it play after a short delay. Record a guitar and there will be a tiny lapse in timing.

This can make music production a massive chore. A tiny delay takes your tracks off-time, killing it before you even start creating it.

Then there’s the added factor of connections. Computers don’t have MIDI ports. You’ll have to buy a complicated (and slow) adapter to connect your MIDI keyboard to the computer.

An audio interface gives you a built-in MIDI port with a fast connection to the computer.

There’s also the added advantage that the audio interface amplifies the sound signal. So you get better audio quality and are able to hear all those tiny frequencies you might otherwise miss.

If you’re in the market for an audio interface, I suggest picking up something from Focusrite. Their Scarlett series has all the features you’d want in a beginner audio interface without the hefty price tag.

 

5. A Fast Computer

It goes without saying that you need a computer to make electronic music.

But not any computer will do. If you have a clunky old Celeron with 1GB of RAM, you’ll struggle to get started.

Music production is a computationally heavy activity. You need a lot of raw processing power and tons of RAM. You’ll also need a lot of storage space to keep all those samples and downloaded tracks.

Here’s what I recommend at the bare minimum:

  • An Intel i5 or i7 processor (or equivalent from AMD)
  • At least 8GB of RAM
  • At least 500GB of storage space

Although you can choose a desktop, I recommend picking up a laptop instead. You will sacrifice some speed, but the ability to make music on the go is well worth it. Most musicians use Macs but you can use Windows as well without any issues (though Logic Pro works only on Macs).

 

6. Music Lessons

Finally, once you’ve gathered all the equipment, you’ll need a way to learn how to make music.

It used to be that learning how to make music meant going to an expensive production school. These schools – and plenty of them still exist – could range from a few hundred dollars for a short crash course to thousands of dollars for full-fledged degrees.

Thankfully, you don’t have to invest that much to learn how to make music. Thanks to YouTube, there are countless free resources to start making music right away.

For absolute beginners, I’d recommend the “Get started making music” website from Ableton. This will teach you the fundamentals of music production without even using a DAW.

Once you understand the basics of beats, rhythms, and synths, head over to YouTube. Search for “[Your DAW] beginner tutorials”. You’ll likely find hundreds of videos, so learn away!

 

Making music can be one of the most rewarding hobbies you’ll ever take up. Thanks to all the new technology today, it is also cheap and easy to get started. Use this guide to start your music journey today!

Ryan Harrell is a producer, DJ, and guitarist. He also helps musicians market their music better. He blogs about music and marketing at MIDINation.com.

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