How To Turn Your Musical Ideas Into Fully Produced Songs
Many musicians struggle when it comes to conceiving their ideas. Sometimes it's easier to develop your voice and instrumental chops than actually recording a song idea well enough to convey your artistic vision to others.
When starting out as a guitarist, I had this problem. I knew that there were "magic" machines and programs out there that could simplify the process of laying down music, but I didn’t know how to approach figuring out which route to take.
With all of the options out there, it’s easy to get confused while trying to figure out what you really need. Fortunately, having too many options is almost always better than having too few.
This article assumes that you have a computer that’s average or better. A powerful computer gives you much more creative freedom, but the average laptop can still help you to achieve a lot musically. These days, even smartphones can be used effectively for music production.
Music production tools don’t have to be expensive, and can really help you focus on your craft instead of reading textbook sized equipment manuals. This list covers the bare essentials of what you’ll need to start creating professional sounding music in your genre of choice. The first thing you’ll need...
Digital Audio Workstation:
First and foremost, a digital audio workstation, or DAW, is the key to producing music on a computer. DAWs have two main purposes. Primarily, they allow you to sequence MIDI patterns, which makes music creation possible using just a mouse and the pre-loaded drum and instrument sounds. Secondarily, DAWs allow you to record audio tracks and fit them anywhere you’d like along the main MIDI timeline.
The MIDI control is so extensive in most DAWs, you can start making music instantly, even before you record a single performance. Most musicians use a USB MIDI controller keyboard to make recording sequences quicker and to have more precise real-time sound manipulation, such as pitch and modulation control. Also, the piano-style key format is one that most musicians are already familiar with. It is manageable to produce the same quality of music with just a mouse, but it just takes more time.
The DAW I use personally is FL Studio. Formerly known as “Fruity Loops,” FL Studio is an increasingly popular PC music production program. Don’t let the name fool you, it’s a very powerful tool that all musicians should know about from the start. Like with most products, there are diehard fans of FL, and diehard fans of rival brands, who all religiously support their DAW of choice and condemn all others. Sadly, this can make things confusing for someone who just wants to make music and doesn’t care about being in a brand war.
Most major music production programs offer more than enough to meet your needs and supercharge your excitement to make music. The reason I recommend FL Studio is because of it’s lower entry price, and since it’s popular, companies who develop third-party “virtual instrument" plugins go to great lengths to make sure their software works well with FL Studio. FL is only for PC, but if you have a Mac there are a ton of comparable offerings. Most Mac users already know this though. Many musicians even buy Macs solely for the purpose of making music. I have no personal experience with Mac software, but a few musicians I know swear by Apple’s Logic Pro, which is reasonably priced.
There is a learning curve to completely master all of a DAWs features, but it’s also easy to create music in the process of learning the ropes. There are also lots of feature-specific video tutorials on YouTube for most DAWs.
Here's a pretty in-depth video that covers different DAWs:
I remember daydreaming about having an orchestra at my whim to record grand string sections. Despite being an active computer user, I didn’t realize what was available right in front of me. By creating MIDI patterns in your DAW, a host of pre-recorded live instrument sounds (called samples) can be triggered at the right time and in the right key to produce an entirely unique orchestral performance. You can create full songs solely from the sampled instruments in these packages. Just thinking about the possibilities is exciting.
Some argue that this takes the actual musicality out of making music, but most of us aren’t virtuosos in numerous instruments, and probably don’t have a philharmonic orchestra at our disposal either. This really makes adding organic sounding, larger than life instrumentation to your songs easy. I can’t stress enough how extremely useful these “VSTi” add-ons are. Nowadays, even composers like Hans Zimmer use this method before their final scores are recorded live. Another benefit to MIDI sequencing is that you can take that pattern and easily assign it to another instrument sound or even convert it to printable sheet music.
Even though the price of some virtual instrument libraries can be jaw-dropping, there are also many high quality packages available in most musicians’ price ranges. If you’re interested, check out some of the demo orchestral pieces and software from the company Native Instruments.
Even with all of these technological marvels in music production, recording organic sounds like your voice, guitar, and any other instrument you play is still going to be a staple in creating your songs (unless you’re a DJ/Electronic producer). Many people approach recording from an analog perspective. They think that each take has to be performed just right before their song will be listenable. Even now, every time I hit the record button, I still have a bit of paranoia left over from the cassette deck days of trying to painstakingly capture the perfect performance. In the past, the ability to "punch in" and fix mistakes was limited.
Now, the process of recording is more similar to sampling sounds than actually recording a live performance, because you can go back and extensively edit out mistakes since the audio is recorded as data. For some, this is seen as a cardinal sin that takes the dynamics and rawness out of each take. The truth is, though, even the "indiest” of indie records are often produced this way too.
If you have a band that records songs together in one take, it can be a bit tougher and more expensive to capture the complete simultaneous performance. This is where an external sound card (mentioned in next paragraph) and mixer can be extremely useful.
The biggest consideration when figuring out how to record audio into your computer is sound quality. There are two common methods of doing this. The first, and lower quality technique, is to use your computer’s sound card by plugging directly into the mic input (with a mic, electric guitar, etc.). This sometimes requires a ¼ inch to ⅛ inch adapter, which only costs about a dollar, but can be pretty inconvenient to go without.
The second method of recording is to use one of the many forms of external sound cards, like the Mbox, USB microphones, etc. This method makes audio recordings less distorted and improves their fidelity.
Most DAWs usually have good built-in noise editing tools, making the first technique a viable option too. However, if you’re serious about recording music, an external sound card is a great investment. You can even purchase external sound cards for your iOS or Android mobile device, which makes producing music on your phone or tablet a very realistic possibility. It’s a good idea to fully research your sound card purchase before you buy though, because many are non-returnable and can’t be resold after purchase (because their serial numbers are tied to the original buyer).
Once you have your audio files in your DAW and ready to be edited, this is where you’ll probably go from joyous to ecstatic. The built-in samplers that every DAW has allow you to control audio recordings like an instrument with nearly unlimited possibilities. Rearranging vocal progression patterns, making flawless performances out of partial takes, pitch correcting, time stretching, adding effects, etc., are all made very easy by editing this way.
These steps are essential for anyone who wants to take the headache out of materializing the musical ideas in their head. From learning an instrument to promoting your music, there are already enough challenges in the music creation process. Not to mention that many musicians have jobs and other non musical-related responsibilities that make finding time for their passion even tougher.
PC/Mac/mobile recording and producing has given musicians the opportunity to focus more on what they love than having to play "engineer" just to get their art close to where they hear it in their head. Most musicians already know about many of these tools. I knew about Pro Tools even when I first started playing guitar, but I just assumed you needed a supercomputer with lots of expensive software and interfaces to even attempt digital recording. I wish someone had told me about the affordable possibilities available at the time.
I've heard a lot of poets say that they have endless lyrical ideas, but just not the musicality to turn their work into a melodic form. Hopefully this article has given a few ideas to any poets and musicians out there who doubt their own musical creativity. Enjoy your music producing adventure.