I understand how hard it is to get started making electronic music on your computer. Beginners struggle in getting their heads around the seemingly endless questions to answer before even getting started:

  • What equipment do I need?
  • What software should I get?
  • How can I sound like my favorite artists?
  • Do I need to know music theory?
  • Where can I find virtual instruments and sound samples?

Enduring Principles

  • There is no “best” software for recording music.
  • There is a “best for you” and it isn’t always what your friends like or what the magazines and blogs promote.
  • Everyone finds their own “path” through the many tools included in any DAW.
  • Most problems you encounter can be fixed not by buying more equipment, but by learning how to use the tools in your DAW.

Equipment

It’s good to think through what you need to get started, as musical equipment can get very expensive very fast, so don’t go out and try and buy pro sound. People often spend money on things that don’t directly affect their sound in an attempt to avoid learning too much. There are some tools where the budget option works fine, and others where a well placed investment of money will make big difference in your sound.

Recording Physical Instruments and Voice

When you are deciding what physical hardware you need to get started, a little of this choice depends on where your sounds will be coming from.

Do you already play an instrument or sing? If you want to record acoustic instruments and voice, you will need a nice quality microphone.

If you mainly play electric instruments like synthesizers or guitars, you need a way to get that signal into the computer. An audio interface is the tool that converts your analog instrument signals into digital sound inputs to your computer.

This is a good example of where you want to pay for quality. You want enough simultaneous inputs to match your favorite style of recording. If you record multiple musicians playing together live, you will want 8 or more inputs, while home recording hobbyists and solo artists can record one or two inputs (and hence, a cheaper audio interface), by layering multiple takes to complete a song.

Recording Software Instruments

If you want to play “virtual” instruments sounds inside your computer, you’ll likely want a MIDI controller to trigger those sounds.
If you mainly want to remix your favorite recorded music and sounds, you may want a mixing-board style interface with a bunch of knobs and sliders, or a DJ style interface with turntables and a cross fader. You might not need an input device at all.

In TrueSchool’s Studio

I started off as a guitar player and singer, so I already had a bunch of acoustic, electric, and bass guitars that I just needed to plug in to the computer. I invested in a nice used mic and a VoiceLive Play GTX to let me plug my mic and guitars in at the same time. It offers two inputs (mic & guitar) and then plugs right into my computer’s USB. It sounds great and requires no futzing so I can focus on my performances.

As I got more interested in recording virtual instruments (like digital samples of orchestral instruments that I could never afford to buy, much less PLAY), I realized I needed a MIDI keyboard. I got the Korg Taktile 49 which lets me control sounds, mixing, and drums all from one hands-on unit.

To review:

Buy the least equipment you need. Go slowly, and choose quality over quantity. High quality used equipment is the same price as low quality new stuff, so visit your local used music store, shop CraigsList or eBay, and read reviews on tools before you buy.

Software

Beginners in digital audio start off wanting to know “the best” software to use, and often end up spending way too much on software that’s more complex and expensive than they need. Alternately, they buy simple (and underpowered) software that lets you produce generic music quickly without learning the underlying principles of sound recording that you’ll need as you grow as a musician.

The sweet spot is a full-featured DAW that contains the basic building blocks of a home studio, with a user interface that lets you explore different approaches to making music so you can find your own style. It should hide all the complicated “twiddly bits” from beginners, but expose them to intermediate and expert users who want greater customization options.

A DAW is a shorthand name for a piece of software that handles several key tools for recording music.
– sequencer
– audio editing and recording
– music synthesis
– mixer
– host for instrument and effect plugins

In short, all of the features of every DAW recreate the tools studio musicians have had for years, but package them up neatly in an affordable and functional package that works on your computer.

You can think of the DAW as “the heart” of your home studio, and people debate passionately about which one is “the best”. In my experience, even inexpensive and beginner DAWs can produce great recordings, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need a pro level DAW to make pro sounding music. Apple GarageBand is a great free program for the mac that’s excellent for beginner and intermediate home recording. Its simple UI let’s you focus on the music and automates many advanced audio engineering tasks that frighten beginners.

In TrueSchool’s Studio

I have bounced around between different DAWs over the years, finding much to love about Ableton Live, Cockos Reaper, Logic Pro, and many others.

Nowdays, I’ve fallen in love with Renoise and GarageBand as my two favorite tools.

GarageBand is simple and straightforward, with nice virtual instruments and an easy interface for getting great recordings with minimal fuss. It costs $0 if you have a Mac, and it’s extremely capable for producing great sounding home recordings.

Renoise is a hands-on home studio where I can get deep into remixing sounds, mangling beats, and pushing my sonic limits. It lets me go deeper with the sound customization than GarageBand allows, so I use it for pro-level sound sculpting. I’ve come to love its unusual “tracker” interface, which allows me to sequence sounds with incredible speed.