When I first became interested in making electronic music the cost of the equipment that you needed was prohibitively expensive and I mean EXPENSIVE! You could easily spend the same amount of money that you could buy a house with, seriously! Prices did eventually fall a little but I still ended up spending about the same amount of money that could have paid for a car!
Today though, you are in luck. You can actually use freeware applications on your computer and not pay anything at all. If you want to spend money you’ll be glad to hear that it will go a long way in the world of music technology today, you can get some brilliant gear that will do far more than the stuff of yesteryear and at some very reasonable prices.
If you don’t want to spend any money this is one of the best free applications available
Propellerhead Rebirth RB-338
This application used to be commercially available but after being discontinued Propellerheads have given you this great piece of software. It’s free and available to download on the Rebirth Museum website. The rebirth simulates the Roland classics the TR808 and TR909 drum machines and two TB303 basslines, all running live together. Not only do they all look good but they sound good to. It doesn’t take too much figuring out how to use this all either and it will run on a fairly basic computer. I’d recommend everyone to download and try out this fully functioning simulation. There is literally so much that you can do with it you don’t have to just use it for dance music!
There’s lots of other free software available if you want you can build a whole studio on your computer without having to buy anything but if you are serious about making electronic music you’re probably going to be spending a lot of time doing it. I know it’s not unusual for me to spend as long producing electronic music as most people spend at work during a week!
Investing some money
The main item of you music creation is likely to be the digital audio workstation or DAW. This has evolved from the music sequencers that became available almost as soon as home computers did. I originally had a Sinclair Spectrum and the XRI systems Micon MIDI sequencer and a Yamaha CX5M running the DMS sequencer before moving over to the Atari ST where I started using Hybrid Arts EZ-Track and then Steinberg Pro 24, which became Cubase.
I must have spent thousands of hours over the years learning how to use these sequencers/DAW’s. That’s why I now advocate buying one rather than using a free one. By all means download a free one to try it out and get to know how they operate but you might find that you spend a lot of time trying to learn how to use it and that’s time you could spend learning to use a better product.
Some of the Daw’s that are available are brilliant and are well worth the initial outlay in terms of what they are able to do and how much time you will save by learning to use one with all the little tricks and time saving functions that they have.
All of the major ones have had years of development and updates so you honestly won’t buy a bad product but you need to get something that’s suitable for you and your needs.
The first DAW I began using on a Windows PC was Cubase. As I had migrated from an Atari ST running Steinberg Pro 24 it was a natural progression. Having the ability to record audio alongside the MIDI sequencing was pretty much what dreams were made of back in the days of sequencers running on computers. VST instruments and effects made your PC pretty much a whole recording studio. Anyone going down the route of Cubase won’t be disappointed. I created lots of my stuff on the PC running Cubase and it wasn’t the fact that it had any deficiencies that made me change, rather more of the fact of what else was coming along.
I mentioned Propellerheads at the beginning, as they produced the brilliant and now free Rebirth RB-303 which simulated drum machines and basslines live. I suppose it wasn’t any great stretch of the imagination to see the natural progression was to build a virtual studio on The PC. That’s basically what they have done with Reason. It’s a midi sequencer, so you can record your parts but then you can pull a virtual synthesiser from the rack to play the part you’ve just created. Imagine being able to pull equipment from a rack and connect it up with virtual patch cables and that’s what Reason is. It has been updated and improved many times over the years into something which is pretty unbelievable to be honest. I am still amazed at what you can do with it. You have various synthesizers, drum machines, samples mixers and effects. Just about anything that you could want.
If you check out the various websites there are plenty of examples of complete songs that have been put together totally with Reason. Some of the criticism that have been thrown at it are that it doesn’t handle audio recording. It never really intended to, it wasn’t what they had in mind for it. If that’s your problem with it, you can run Propellerhead Record alongside it for all the audio recording and functions you could ever want. Some people have also questioned how professional it is? Well I for one don’t really understand this one, it’s as though professionals look down on it why? I don’t get it. Is it too easy to use, should it be made more complicated and harder to pick up? It was certainly professional enough for Liam Howlett to use for his Prodigy stuff.
About the same time people were starting to mention Ableton, I had a look at it but wasn’t initial blown away by it if I’m honest. I wasn’t totally at ease with how it did things, in retrospect that was probably being set in my ways with being brought up on traditional MIDI sequencers and the way they had all progressed along similar lines and I was sure that Cubase was just about perfect but more people kept talking about it so I thought I would persevere and I’m glad I did.
I am now a proper Ableton convert, once you get your head around using “clips” it makes the business of arranging a whole new ball game. You can try out things really quickly and swap things around on the go. Starting and stopping bits and pieces becomes second nature and it’s almost as though the arrangement becomes “live” it’s as though Ableton Live is an instrument itself.
I run Ableton alongside Reason and I find that gives me everything I need to do and in the easiest way possible.
A MIDI controller is pretty much an essential item. I first bought a MIDI controller that just had control knobs as I had keyboard that connected up through the MIDI interface. I missed having control knobs so the controller was pretty much just for that however I have since replaced it with the M-Audio Oxygen 25 – 3rd Generation MIDI Controller which has a keyboard and control knobs and buttons.
A decent soundcard meant expensive a few years ago, and a decent soundcard is essential if you want to make music on your computer. I can remember spending a fair amount on a card years ago. It depends on what you want to do but for me there are a few requirements that fill the list.
I didn’t realise just how important this feature would be, basically if you are using softsynths and VST plugins, you don’t want any latency issues and it’s the delay between when you press the key and when you hear the sound. It makes real time recording almost impossible. There are ways to work around it like using a different sound from an external source and only using the VST plugins on playback but you’d be far better not to have to encounter the problem in the first place.
Zero latency is almost impossible to achieve but if you can get it down to a few milliseconds that’s what’s generally meant by no latency. There is also a driver available called ASIO4ALL that you can download for free that can produce very low latency if you’re stuck with say a laptop that you can’t do much about. I tried it a bit in the past with some variable results but it may be just what you’re looking for.
Proper audio inputs
The inputs you get on a standard soundcard are not really up to the job of connecting microphones and external synthesizers and sound producing equipment. If you get a soundcard with an XLR input for connecting microphones and ¼” sockets for connecting synthesizers it will make things a lot easier.
Digital inputs and outputs
Not as important but still very useful to have. Invaluable to me when it came to trying to get audio data from a Roland VS1680 into Cubase.
You can make do just using your HiFi speakers as indeed I did for a long time, I didn’t really see the point of buying more speakers when I already had a decent pair, there always seemed something more exciting that was waiting for my cash but I did finally get round to getting some and in terms of my music hardware it’s probably one of the best investments I have made. I eventually decided to get the Alesis 520’s they are self-powered and so connect straight to my pc and they really do sound magnificent!