DJs have always had music production capabilities. However, with the rise the DJ/Producers like DJ Snake, Skrillex, Dillon Francis and Diplo, DJs are spending more time in the studio and upping their production game. Here is an introduction article on how to get started.
Buying equipment is the area where most beginners are tempted to buy the shiniest things. Shiny things are good, but it’s best to start small first, and build up. Purchase a relatively decent laptop or MacBook (i5 CPU & SSD), but one that won’t break the bank. Honestly, I started producing on MacBook Airs and old business laptops and couldn’t tell much of a difference when I upgraded. Start small and build big when you are ready.
An audio interface is what you connect your laptop and audio monitors into so that digital signal can be converted into HQ sound. It is like a bridge between your laptop and audio monitors. DJs may be familiar with using audio interfaces when connecting SL3 Scratch Live or Traktor Scratch from your turntables to your laptop.
A MIDI controller is essentially like what a Xbox controller is to an Xbox. It enables you to easily write and create music in comparison to using purely a laptop. Skrillex and most other producers are able to rely entirely on his laptop to produce a rough track. But it helps to have a MIDI controller to do the hard work.
Audio monitors are speakers, but designed specifically for producing clear & balanced sound levels. This is different from PA speakers, where loudness and bass are priority for live performance. Audio monitors are made only for in the studio, and shouldn’t be used at events. For the bedroom producer, a pair of properly placed 6 inch audio monitors is more than enough.
Whether you want to record vocals or not, it’s a good idea to have recording equipment like a basic microphone. There are many around for all purposes and budgets. If you’re just starting off, the Shure SM58 or SM57 are general all rounder types of mics. If you’re wanting to record a particular sort of sound and require a particular mic, research comparison videos online. You will get to listen to the nuances of each mic.
A DAW is a Digital Audio Workstation. It is essentially a program that lets you write & record music. The popular DAWs are Logic, Ableton, Protools, Fruity Loops & Reason. There is a whole world of discussion on which DAW is better etc, but all in all they are all relatively similar.
I personally use Ableton, because it can pretty much do everything (producing, mixing & mastering and performance) and has the power to do high level production. Ableton also have a MIDI Controller called the Ableton Push, which makes production more interactive rather than like programming a computer.
A good tip is to actually start with GarageBand (if you have a Mac), which is a light & free version of Logic. Once you feel comfortable with GarageBand, you can upgrade to Logic on the App Store.
For Windows, Fruity Loops and Ableton have free trials to use before upgrading.
Plugins are add-on extension programs for your DAW that can design high quality sounds. Flume for instance, uses a plugin called Sylenth, whilst Skrillex uses Massive & Serum. For plugins, I would recommend downloading the trial versions, which basically have all the capabilities of the full but bar a few features.
Having basic music theory is not essential, but very helpful in analysing and creating interesting music. Learn the basic scales like major, minor, dominant, minor 7th etc. Then learn the chords and basic chord progressions. And then progress onto modes (scales with a starting note different from the root). It is tedious at first, but you will appreciate when you can analyse and read music quickly and incorporate it into your own work. You will then notice that Disclosure’s track “Latch” is essentially C in the mode of Dorian. And using C Dorian creates the tension and suspense that made that track popular.
Sound design is the art of creating sounds. It could be as simple as adding more gain to a kick. Or as complex as designing an unique metallic bass growl for your dubstep track. You can design sounds using plugins or just native controls in your DAW. Ableton have great native synth plugins like Operator that can do most of the things Massive and Serum can do.
Arrangement is understanding the structure of music. As well as developing an effective workflow so you have the most efficient process of turning your inspiration into tracks. Modern music have an Intro, Verse, Bridge and maybe an Outro. These are labelled as A, B, C & D sections of a song. Arrangement also helps you separate elements such as the drums, bass lines, synths & vocals. Understanding how many bars each section contains really helps the creative process and ensures that your track is appropriately structured.
Mixing & Mastering are the final parts of the process for producing music. Mixing is essentially making sure all your channels and instruments sound well together. It’s ensuring that the track’s mix completes the purpose the artist intended it to be. Mixing can get really subjective, but it’s also technical. Mastering is the final piece of the puzzle. Once the track has been mixed, a mastering engineer will ensure that the track will be competitive and timeless with the tracks in the similar genre. Most of times the engineer will balance out the low end and ensure that the track will be optimal for the platform it will be played on e.g. Spotify, Apple Music, Radio and live.
So now you understand the elements of music, it’s time to actually record tracks. Recording tracks can mean actually recording live audio, or just writing audio in. Using the elements of music, you will now be able to create tracks that are structured, interesting, unique and sonically pleasing.
This was a basic overview of how to produce music, more detail will be in later articles. Now go set up that studio and start producing!