Music Production 101 – Equipment and Software

Whether you make music on your own, or you are a music fan, the following music production insights will help you to understand the creation process of a relaxdaily song/ instrumental, which should be pretty representative to how a lot of today’s (not only electronic) music is created.

by Michael Fesser (relaxdaily)

“How do you produce music?” – a visitor on my webpage asked.
“Well, this is a broad topic, what do you want to know exactly?” – I answered back via gmail.
“Could you briefly go over equipment, software, your production process and the time taken?” – was the response.
“Sure, if you got a few minutes, I’ll try to summarize what I use and how I use it to make music.”

I tell most people, that I use a keyboard, a guitar and a recording PC to make it happen. Plus a vision and some time. While this is true, it is a very simplified truth. The following is how it really works, whether I create a soothing relaxdaily instrumental, or a ear-catching pop track:

Equipment and software (skip to the production process, if you’re not interested in learning about my setup):

I’m a keyboard guy. Probably because my first experience with an instrument was hitting some keys on a piano. I use a Korg Triton for getting the notes into my PC. I don’t use the sounds from the Triton, I only trigger virtual instruments in the PC with it. It took me some time to save up money for this keyboard/ workstation when I was a kid. I wanted to make some hit records on it, to be honest, but that never happened. Now it serves as a midi keyboard only. One can use any midi / master / usb keyboard instead, but I myself don’t have fun with the too cheap ones, because of mostly badly responsive keys. Though, I use a funny, little AKAI LPK25 while travelling, and at home it lies just right in front of me to prelisten sounds and to record simple melodies with it.

The sounds I use are generated within virtual software instruments (VSTi) on my PC. For the relaxdaily project I use the Spectrasonics stuff a lot. You can hear e.g. Spectrasonics Omnisphere in every relaxdaily tune. Also I like their Stylus RMX, which I use sparingly for some soft percussion and  grooves. Most of the time I don’t play these grooves by hand, I use the ones that come with Stylus RMX. What matters here most is, that you select the right loop, which can mean browsing and listening for half an hour or so through the sound library. I also use some stuff from Native Instruments: Battery3 for loading and playing  drum samples (e.g. kick drums, snare drums, percussion sounds…) and Kontakt for pianos, e-pianos and classical instruments. Sometimes I use Rob Papen’s Predator, when I’m after some electronic touch. The above are already 90% of my sound sources for the relaxdaily project. Maybe I’ll add more sounds in the future, but for now (2012) this is it.

Guitars: I use a cheap acoustic guitar – though very rarely, partly because it doesn’t sound that good when recorded,  and partly because I’m a not so good guitar player. When I feel the need for an electric guitar line, there’s a borrowed Gibson waiting right behind me. The electric guitar signal goes into a DI box, into a self soldered preamp (Seventh Circle Audio) into an analog/digital converter (RME TDIF-1) into the PC’s recording card (RME HDSP 9652), into the recording software, where it hits a sound generator, in my case Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig.

My main recording software (DAW) today is Reaper. For the non-musician: This is where all parts of the the whole music project come together. You record  the keyboard, the guitar, real drums (if you do rock music or record a band) right into this program. You can place samples (previously recorded snippets from your library, which can be all kinds of sounds) all over the timeline. Also plugins (additional software that communicates with the main DAW software) like the above mentioned virtual instruments and effects (for sound shaping), can be applied here. You can mix volumes of the individual tracks (e.g. piano, strings, drums) and automate stuff like volumes, amount of effects, etc. to make the resulting song sound interesting.

For me Reaper is the coolest DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software out there, because it lets me create fast and freely. Other music programs would be e.g. Digidesign ProTools and Apple Logic (both are used by many professionals around the world, who receive and deliver tracks within the music business on a daily basis) and Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live, Cakewalk Sonar and Propellerheads Reason, which comes with many onboard sounds and effects, but is a rather “closed eco system“ – but still very cool.

For (sound-shaping) effects I use the Reaper built-in equalizer (ReaEQ) and compressor (ReaComp), and the reverb, that comes with Guitar Rig  (Reflector); the free Stereo Tool from Flux, and some other, mostly free plugins like the ADT by Vacuumsound. For making the whole track loud enough, I use the phenomenal Elephant Limiter by Voxengo. I usually mix my sounds while I’m creating. Means, when I find a sound that I want to use, I mostly apply some effects like equalization to it directly. Of course a separate mixdown session, after recording and arranging of the whole song can help, but I already feel while I record how I want e.g. a pad, or a guitar track to sound (e.g. less bass, more or less stereo width, a special room, etc.). The above plugins are probably more than 90% of stuff that I use on the separate tracks to make it sound like I want it to sound. As you see, it’s not that much.

When I began to make music on computers, I thought I would need all the shiny (and expensive) plugin libraries to make my tracks sound as good as the ones that we can hear e.g. on the radio. The truth is, the longer I’m doing this music creation thing (I started DAW recording in 2000), the better my output sounds, while I use less and less plugins and software.

The PC that calculates all the magic behind the scenes is the first in my life that I really like to work with. I learned early on, that for my production style (having a lot of tracks going on in a project; having all the sounds and effects rendered by the PC live, while keeping the system’s latency at low levels– the time the system needs to play back the sound, after you hit the key on the keyboard, which should be rather not noticeable) I need a lot of processing power. When I started making music on PCs back in 2000 it was a “pain in the ass” process. I never really felt that the machine and I were one system. This only happened around 2010/11 with Windows 7 64bit (finally enough RAM addressable), solid state drives (finally, no more waiting until a sound loads – OK, it still takes a sec, but this is ten times faster than before), and multi core CPUs. Today  I’m a happy creator. My personal machine is a Digital AudionetworkX (Berlin) configured Audio PC with a 6 core 4gHz overclocked Intel i7 CPU, 750 Gig of fast SSD for the system and the samples of the virtual instruments, an additional fast HDD for recorded files (e.g. microphone signals; guitar), and 24gig of RAM. Generally I’m not obsessed too much with specs of a product, but with my recording PC it’s different. Really, for the first time ever, I don’t feel limited by the machine while creating.
A side effect is, that there are no more excuses. If the song doesn’t sound good, it’s me who sucks.

My listening system consists of a pair of Equator Q10 speakers (for pure fun and pleasure while creating) and some Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones (for accuracy while mixing, since my listening room is not a perfect sounding one). I feel the need for not too small speakers, but that’s a personal thing, I guess. For mixing pop for example, one can get superb results with smaller speakers.

Read on: Music Production 101 – Process and Time Investment