Music production is simply the process of creating new music, involving everything from creating, recording, editing and mastering sounds.
Knowing where to start with music production basics can be the most difficult part. Whether you’re a songwriter, artist or a producer, there are some essential things you need to know about how to produce your own music and sound great.
The good news is that music production has evolved significantly thanks to modern technology. Historically, you needed a recording studio, instruments and hardware equipment to produce music.
Now, you can produce professional level music all from your computer, with no real instruments required. Of course, having physical instruments and hardware can help, but it is certainly not necessary with today’s music production tools and technology.
From getting started with the right music production tools and equipment, to composing the perfect melody and finding your own unique style, this guide has all the information you need for producing your own music.
We cover tips on how you can improve your music production skills and achieve a better sound.
The 9 basics of music production
Before you start out in music production, or recording and mixing, there are a few essential pieces of equipment and software you’ll need to purchase.
A digital audio workstation (DAW)
The most important thing you’ll need is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This is a piece of software that lets you create, record, process and edit your music. This is essentially where your music is created. The DAW will usually come with a selection of virtual studio technology (VST) instruments, such as software synths. Most producers build up their music production suite with additional third party VST instruments, which can be downloaded and installed on your digital audio workstation.
There are several free DAWs available to test out if you are just getting started, although investing in a paid DAW will provide you with better music production capabilities.
Some of the most popular DAWs using in music production include:
If you plan on recording live audio into your mix, you’ll need to invest in a high-quality mic, preamp, and audio interface.
A high-quality mic will help you record vocals, guitar and other instruments with the best sound quality possible. Using the built-in microphone on your computer or laptop won’t give you a quality sound recording.
It’s also important that the mic is placed correctly so it won’t distort your sound when recording vocals.
If you’re recording an acoustic guitar, be sure to get a pickup as well. The preamp is necessary if you want to record in a professional studio. It increases the volume of your microphone so it doesn’t end up too quiet. Finally, an audio interface helps you record through your computer with higher fidelity recordings.
VST plugins are of software instruments that generate sound. These are controlled in your digital audio workstation (DAW). Most DAWs come with a selection of factory VST plugins as standard, which often include a range of basic instrument sounds such as piano, bass and synths.
There are a range of 3rd party VST plugins available to buy and download - these will give you a more unique and professional sound. There are also many free VST plugins available to download at no cost.
MIDI is one of the most powerful tools in music production. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, which is a process that allows MIDI instruments, computers and other hardware to communicate.
For instance, a MIDI controller keyboard would let you play a VST instrument through your computer, using keys to generate each note. Common types of MIDI controllers include:
- MIDI keyboards
- MIDI sequencers
- MIDI drum machines
The first place to start before producing any music is to have an idea of how you’d like your track to sound.
A good song considers every single element: its rhythm, melody, harmony, beginning, middle, end and textures. A good music production combines these song elements together in a way that’s pleasant, creative and meaningful.
For many music producers or songwriters, starting with a drum loop can be a great way to build on the song’s other elements and layer new sound ideas on top of each other until a final song idea is drafted.
There are several ways to generate new song ideas. Here are some great ways to come up with new song ideas:
- Make moodboard playlists
- Experiment with an instrument
- Experiment with samples
- Build from a drum loop
- Improvise in your DAW
- Write lyrics
- Sing and practice melodies
Of all stages in the music production process, creating instrumental tracks is the most important.
Start by selecting the instruments that you’d like to use in your song. This is important for producing a track for a specific genre, and for designing the overall vibe of your song.
There are plenty of software VST plugins available for creating all types of different sounds, such as soft synths, pads, drums, percussion, as well as authentic instrument sounds such as guitar, violin or bass.
Once you’ve decided which instruments to use in your track, start producing the drum sounds, harmonies and melody.
If you are struggling to find a nice sounding chord progression, try using a chord progression generator.
Don’t worry if your track sounds a little dull at this point. You’ll add texture, movement and effects to your instruments during the editing and mixing stages later on. This step is mostly about defining the core of your track.
The recording process is a very important part of music production. There are a few key things you need to know when it comes to recording your song.
Know the size of your studio space: You’ll need to know how much space you have in your studio before you begin recording. You should also be aware of the different types of equipment in the room and if they will affect your sound quality.
Understand noise pollution: Noise pollution can ruin the quality and clarity of recordings, so it’s important that you record in an area with minimal background noise or far away from traffic and heavy machinery.
Learn about microphone placement: Using microphones is essential for any recording session, but where you place them is just as important. Placing microphones too close to each other will cause interference, so keep that in mind when placing them around the room.
Know how to playback the track and fix errors: When playing back songs in your head and catching any errors, there are a few ways to fix them (like taking out background noise). Be sure to take note of any mistakes during playback so they can be fixed before mixing.
In music production, arrangement is usually the least understood part of the process. The arrangement is what makes the song interesting and maintains a proper flow.
To put it simply, arranging refers to how each sound and track in your music mix is “arranged” within the complete timeline of the song.
Usually, if a song sounds too repetitive, this is usually due to poor arrangement.
Once you’ve created your instrumentals and recorded any vocal elements, it’s time to arrange them in a way that adds flow, build and meaning to the song. For example, music producers will often create buildup by gradually introducing each instrumental track layer by layer. The song’s first verse might include just one guitar and vocal layer, whereas the second verse might add bass and drum layers on top of this.
Additionally, it can be useful to remove instruments once they have played in one particular part of the song instead of keeping it in the mix for the whole song. This can help create memorable portions of the song that encourage people to re-listen.
There is no one size fits all approach to arrangement in music production. Judge this by how the song feels, and whether a section of the song has reached its limits.
Editing is the most creative part of the music production process, and also helps refine the quality of your track.
There are plenty of ways you can edit audio. Sounds can be edited to alter length, pitch, volume, speed, texture, panning, as well as to create additional versions of sounds - such as echo delay loops.
Basic effects include audio delay and reverb, which help add more character and life to your song by enhancing the atmosphere.
In most cases, less is more when it comes to digital editing. It is best to focus on editing as a separate stage in the production process, using editing tools and VST effects after you have created the basic core of your song. This will help make sure that you don’t add too many effects or edits as you produce and arrange each track. If a track sounds good as it is, leave it alone and move on to other tracks in your mix.
Things to consider when editing your song include:
- Are tracks in sync?
- Do tracks sound complete? Would they benefit from some subtle effects?
- Are there any mistakes in the recording that need editing out?
- Is there enough texture to your track?
Why is editing sound important?
Editing sound is important for making your music more authentic and distinct. It is used to remove unwanted sounds, pauses or recording mistakes. Sound editing is also used to draw the listeners attention to desired areas and enhance your song with creative sound effects.
Mixing is the process of blending all the different tracks in a recording together, and is a vital part of music production and sound design. This includes a song’s vocals, instruments and other sound effects. With modern digital technology, it’s easier than ever to create a well-rounded and balanced mix. In fact, there have been so many advancements that even an amateur can make an excellent mix with some practice. Keep in mind that not all music production is created equal.
If you want to get really good at mixing, you need to practice and hone your skills over time.
No matter what kind of mixer you are, there are a few basic techniques you should know: panning and volume balancing.
- Panning - Certain tracks need to be panned off centre depending on what they contribute to the mix (drums could go on the left side and vocals on the right side, for example).
- Volume balancing - This is how loud or soft various tracks are in relation to one another. Mixing isn’t about making everything as loud as possible; it’s about finding a balance between each track so the listener doesn't miss any detail from any part of the song.
Mastering music is the final process in the music production cycle. When the recording and mixing are done, mastering enhances the overall sound and makes sure that all the elements of a song are polished, consistent and perfected.
Not only is mastering important for making your song more pleasing to listen to, it helps prepare your music for distribution.
Audio mastering is an art form, which is why it is so important to know everything you can about it. Learn more about the basics of mastering in this article, or read our guide to mastering music to start making more professional music.
Compression in mastering
Compression in music production is a necessary step for improving the sound of your music and controlling its dynamics.
Compression essentially acts as an automatic gain control that prevents sounds from clipping when they become too loud. This prevents sounds from becoming too loud, distorted and unbalanced in your mix
Levels of compression can be adjusted to affect the volume of certain frequencies within a mix. When you hear someone speaking, you don’t want to hear them go from whispering to shouting all at once. That’s because there’s a natural compression that happens when we speak—we don’t shout at the end of every sentence.
When it comes to audio recording and mixing, compression is crucial for balancing out volumes of different frequencies and preventing any one frequency from taking over a mix.
EQ in mastering
EQ in music production is a crucial component of mixing and mastering. An EQ (equaliser) is an audio mastering tool that allows you to adjust the frequency response of certain sounds by boosting or cutting frequencies at particular points in the spectrum.
EQ is an important tool for helping your mix translate across all different types of speakers, which means it’s an important part of mastering your music.
When it comes to EQ, there are two things you should remember: high and low cuts.
- Low pass filters are used to remove unwanted higher frequencies from your mix that can cause hissing or ringing sounds.
- High pass filters are used to reduce the volume of certain lower frequencies that can cause distortion.
These cuts can also be used to remove feedback in live performances and smooth out various tones. Cutting certain frequency ranges will make more room for other instruments in your mix, while increasing other ranges will give more life and clarity to your song.
EQ is one of the most challenging aspects of mastering, but with our complete guide to EQ in music production, you can start mastering songs like a pro!
Audio saturation in mastering
Audio saturation is a less talked about, but no less important sound editing tool to consider in the mastering stage of music production. Audio saturation is key for making your digital mix sound more naturally processed, used to thicken the mix and make it more pleasing to listen to.
It works by combining compression with subtle harmonic distortion, resulting in a fuller and thicker sound. This can help make digital instruments sound more authentic, and even analog sounding.
Once you’ve finalised and mastered your track, it’s time to bounce and save it.
What does it mean to bounce an audio track?
In music production, “bouncing” is the process of exporting an entire project into a final stereo audio file. Bouncing can also be done on an individual track level, exporting the stems (individual tracks) or plugins in your project into their own audio files, tracks or regions.
As well as bouncing your track, make sure you also save the project file to ensure you don’t lose your production.
Music production is a long process that takes a lot of practice to get right. While there is no one way to produce music, and creativity should always be encouraged, there are some essential steps to follow in order to get the basics right.
From song ideation right through to the final mastering stages, it’s good to get to grips with each step in the process and start by creating some practice tracks. You’ll also need a good setup to produce music - from DAW software, VST plugins, to recording equipment and MIDI controllers.
Once you’ve got the right setup together, and have had some practice with music production basics, it is beneficial to find your own way of doing things - as this can result in more unique sounds.
If you want to improve the quality of your productions, or if you want to learn more about music production in general, all you need is:
1. The willingness to learn
2. A bit of patience
3. A lot of dedication
4. And last but not least, a good ear.