There are various idea of what, really, is music production. The old school definition refers to people like George Martin, Alan Parsons, or Mutt Lange, creative directors who oversee song or album projects.
The contemporary producer is more likely a creator of music perhaps a non-musician who uses technology, more so than instruments, to make compositions, performances or recordings.
The debate is largely irrelevant when you’re standing at entry level. If you’re driven by a desire to make music, then where you’re coming from or where you’re going to will likely take a back seat to learning the craft.
Let’s consider a new producer wannabe, standing in an empty room, without a clue, and let’s go through their options, because there are lots of options these days. Don’t let the glut of equipment choices daunt you, however. There are certain requirements any music creator must meet, and that’s as good a place to start as any.
There are three things needed when creating a piece music:
- Sound generators
- Sound recording
- Sound playback
All of these need a solution to successfully create and share music.
Sound generators may be instruments, but in today’s world, they may be controllers with grids of colored buttons triggering audio loops, drum machines or other synthesizers.
Sound recording once meant microphones connected to a disk cutter or magnetic tape. Now, options are varied, from actual capture of sound via mic and any sort of recording medium, to sequencers that record the data behind a performance, but which create sound by triggering synthesizers each time a file is played.
Sound playback may be a P.A. system in a performance setting, studio monitors when recording, or a digital audio file or compact disk for distribution.
As our wannabe producer searches the Internet from their tablet, trying to determine what equipment they need, it may occur to them that, when they’re playing around with GarageBand or similar app, hey… here’s pretty much everything I need!
They’re correct. These apps, of varying complexity, have sound generators in the form of software synthesizers matched with some sort of performance controller in touch screen form, whether a grid of buttons, piano-style keyboard or other interface. Playback may be through the tablet’s own speakers, earbuds, headphones or connection to additional amplification.
That’s really all there is to it. However, there are some drawbacks, limitations that will emerge as our producer starts to learn and do more. For example, the app may not export audio files in a distributable format. Digital signal processing may not be extensive. Perhaps the audio plug keeps falling out as our wannabe dances on stage.
As versatile as tablets can be, they’re not particularly flexible for the beginner. Later, once they have some skills, revisiting the tablet is a phenomenal idea, particularly as a portable workstation. A better next step is probably…
The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
There are both hardware and software versions of DAWs, and unless our new producer is primarily creating music with voice and instruments, they can probably bypass the hardware variety, at least until their needs lead them in that direction.
The software DAW is a proven way to produce music, with flexibility and versatility, and with enough variation between products that, with a little research, even a newbie can detect a DAW that will work with their as-yet undeveloped style.
For those who work intuitively with loops or perhaps focus on live music performance, DAWs like Ableton Live and Bitwig may fit the bill. Those who build sound in layers may be more drawn to DAWs with a recording studio analog, such as Logic, Nuendo or Sonar. For maximum compatibility in the pro world, learning Pro Tools is never a bad idea.
A system built around a DAW, however, has a number of hardware requirements. These include:
- A computer or laptop compatible with the software
- An audio interface to handle inputs (unless sound sources are all loops or virtual synths in the computer) and outputs to headphones, monitors, etc.
In addition, there are optional add-ons that include piano-style keyboards, grid pads, drum triggers, faders, rotary knobs, and so on. There’s also a whole world of USB controllers that the wannabe can program to do their bidding, using USB connections and MIDI control.
The complexity of a DAW system is far more advanced than sound creation on a tablet, but the ability to compartmentalize, customize, and develop your own workstyles can actually make for an easier learning experience in many cases. A tablet app builds around the capability of your tablet, while a good match in the DAW world builds around the producer.
Here, I’m talking about contemporary DJ-type setups, with synthesizers, turntables both real, digital and virtual, and perhaps a computer or laptop, or perhaps not. A DAW may be used as a performance organizer or perhaps just as a recording medium. While perhaps a computer has a central place in a hybrid system, devices such as the Roland AIRA MX-1 provide an entirely different centerpiece that may be precisely to what our wannabe producer responds best.
Mix-and-match in the music creation game started in the early 1980s with MIDI — Musical Instrument Digital Interface. Mix-and-match capability grew as more devices incorporated USB as a connection method. It’s possible now to build endless variations of workstations based on the way an individual creator makes music.
So, our wannabe producer could easily end up with a system that incorporates a DAW running on a laptop, using DJ and loop controllers including piano-style keyboards connected via USB, with audio controlled and modified wirelessly from a tablet. Hybrid to the Nth degree.
The Endless Journey
So there’s a chance our wannabe is now more confused than at the start of this article. Even experienced producers can have a hard time following all the directions today’s equipment offers, and this is even before considering things like properly modifying a space for effective acoustic response or how to properly use microphones.
Whether you’ve been at the music creation game for five days or five decades, there’s always more to learn. The hardest step about it is the diving in. If it’s your thing, once you start, it’s tough to stop.