An Overview Of Music Production Software
Software has changed production forever – for the better! Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment for a studio, you now only have to spend a few hundred on software to accomplish many of the same tasks.
In this section we’ll introduce you to the variety of music production software available.
Your New Favorite Piece of Software: The DAW
The digital audio workstation (DAW) is where you’ll spend 99% of your time as a producer. This amazingly powerful software is where you create, edit, and record your music.
The DAW is single-handedly responsible for replacing most of the expensive hardware that used to be found in studios and is quite literally the best thing ever to happen to music production. All that hardware was incredibly expensive, took up a lot of room, and required an insane amount of knowledge to set-up and operate in a studio.
When programmers realized they could replicate hardware’s effects in music production software, the DAW was born. Expensive hardware got compressed down into a simple and cheap computer program, opening production to anyone who wanted to learn.
There are a bunch of great DAWs on the market, including FL Studio, Cubase, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and more. Here’s a picture of FL Studio:
A word of caution when buying DAWs: It’s common for each brand to have a number of editions with a range of features. Even as a new producer, we don’t necessarily recommend you pick the cheapest edition as the feature set can be overly limiting. You want to ensure you purchase a DAW that won’t restrict you in a month or two, otherwise you’re throwing money out the window. Be sure to do your research.
Extend Your DAW’s Capabilities with Virtual Instruments and Plugins
A DAW is immensely powerful but it isn’t a perfect all-in-one solution. Out of the box there are typically two big problems with DAWs:
- The virtual instruments they come with tend to be minimal and low quality.
- There are a limited number of stylistic effects you can apply to your songs.
To solve the first problem producers purchase premium quality virtual instruments. To solve the second they use plugins. These are add-ons that extend your DAW’s capabilities.
Virtual instruments are software synthesizers (also called softsynths or synths) that create digital audio.
Synthesizers are incredibly powerful. Thanks to the magic (well, science) of sound design, producers are able to not just reproduce instruments like the piano and drums, they can also make completely new sounds. This is why EDM and hip-hop sound so interesting – in many songs the sounds you hear have literally never been created before.
Cheaper synthesizers, like the ones built into your DAW, tend to not sound as great as the ones you pay extra for. After producing for a few months you’ll likely want to purchase some virtual instruments to enhance the quality of your music.
This is what a synthesizer looks like:
Plugins substantially enhance the capabilities of your DAW and let you do awesome things to your music.
What kinds of things can you do with plugins? Well, synthesizers are technically plugins so you can most certainly create sounds with them. You can also add echos, increase the bass, chop vocal samples, limit the maximum volume of a song, edit recordings, and much, much more.
Your DAW can do some of this right out of the box, but purchased plugins tend to be more powerful and will let you produce even better music. Often they’re the best way to get the job done. For example, the plugin Gross Beat by Image Line (pictured below) was designed to manipulate time and volume in your song, making it easy to create some really interesting effects.
As a new producer you don’t have to buy virtual instruments or plugins right away. You have a lot to learn about your DAW and it will take a few weeks or months of consistent use before you start to brush up against any limitations.
In the early days it’s likely that your bass drum will sound weak and your lead instruments will overpower the rest of your song. Your vocals will sound muddy and everything will just be a little off. You’ll be tempted to blame your DAW.
You will be partially right to do so, but producing great music requires more than just great sounds and effects. Music production software is a bit complicated. To master it you need to learn all sorts of things, including mixing and mastering, side-chaining, knowing what kind of bass sounds good with the lead you’re using, and much more.
The best advice we can give you is to get the basics down before you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on plugins and synths. When you run into limitations with your DAW, as opposed to limitations with your ability, that’s when it’s time to spend some money.
Music production software is amazing, but a modern studio does still require some hardware. Let’s go to the final chapter of this guide to learn about the hardware you need to produce music.