by Native Instruments

Getting started with electronic music? Here are some tips and tricks

We walk you through the fundamentals you'll need as you begin your electronic music journey.

If you’re a fan of techno, hip-hop, or EDM, you may be interested in learning how to make these types of music on your own – but knowing where to begin can be confusing. From just listening to music, it is often less obvious how electronic sounds are created compared with more familiar, traditional instruments. Or maybe you’ve seen images of artists’ studios, and you feel a bit bewildered by the racks of machines and tangled spaghetti of cables? Well, this is understandable. Electronic music and sound design definitely involves some nerdy technical understanding, but this doesn’t mean it’s not accessible to everyone. In fact, modern technology has made it easier than ever to get started making beats or composing symphonies, with powerful, professional software that runs on your standard laptop or desktop computer. This article aims to set out some entry-level information and offer pointers for those interested in dipping a toe into the world of production but unsure how to get started.

Electronic music is, as the term implies, music created using electronic or digital instruments. As such, it refers mostly to styles of music developed in the last 50 years or so, since the widespread adoption of computers and the invention of synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers. These technologies immediately impacted how musicians worked, leading to new musical forms, studio techniques, and exciting, futuristic electronic sound effects. A practically infinite web of genres and sub-genres has manifested as a result, and the terminology can be confusing and ambiguous even for experienced music heads, but there are a few key pillars of electronic music that have stood the test of time and remain hugely influential to this day.

The first is house and techno. Though these genres have distinct sounds and audiences, both emerged as evolutions of disco music, and they share fundamental properties. With formulaic arrangements centered around a steady, pulsing 4/4 kick drum, house usually brings a more groovy, soulful energy, while techno is harder, faster, and sounds more mechanical. That said, a specific boundary point between the two is impossible to define; there is a lot of overlap, and DJs often play a blend of both within a set. House and techno are some of the most widely heard electronic sounds, dominating nightclubs all over the world, as well as increasingly bleeding into mainstream pop music.

The recent upswing in the popularity of electronic music is epitomized by the EDM scene, which has exploded in recent years, especially in the United States. Following the same format as house and techno, EDM tracks typically feature a stripped back arrangement that exaggerates the main elements such as the 4/4 kick and a prominent, catchy bass or lead line. The genre also borrows the huge build-ups and climaxes heard in a lot of dubstep bangers, and the intense effect of big, heavy drops has found international success. EDM DJs perform for stadium audiences and the music itself contains some of the accessible traits of pop, with certain tracks hitting the charts and enjoying regular radio play. You won’t find the most complex or underground sounds here; rather, for a lot of listeners, EDM is the gateway into other forms of dance music. Though the term EDM, which just stands for ‘electronic dance music’, was originally an umbrella term for all dance music, more recently it has crystallized into a genre in its own right, with many producers specifically interested in learning how to make EDM music in the vein of Deadmau5, Martin Garrix, and Avicii.

Another major strand of music using electronic sound and instruments is hip-hop. The genre has its own history and culture, and the arrangement of beats and choice of sounds are quite different from dance music, though the beats are also played in clubs and considered ‘party music’ suitable for dancing. Trap is a sub-genre of hip-hop that has gained immense popularity in recent years and crossed over into the pop world. Characterized by thumping 808 drums, rapid-fire hi-hats, and lyrical content relating to drugs, bling, and sexual escapades, it seems to nod to gangsta rap, presenting it in a modern form for a new generation. In contrast, lofi beats are laid-back and atmospheric, often containing jazzy chords, with vinyl crackle or grainy tape recordings giving the music an analog quality. While early hip-hop records were lofi by necessity, due to limitations of the equipment used, these days many producers are interested in how to make lofi music with some added vintage charm. It’s a fairly recent trend, gaining a following primarily online, and often used as mood music to put on in the background and accompany everyday life.

Of course, there are many more styles and genres, spanning drum and bass, IDM, and electronica, and indeed part of the joy of music is in discovering these infinite, interconnected variants, each with their own devoted fanbases. Moreover, it is exciting to see how the lines between electric and acoustic are becoming blurred; modern technology aids in recording and processing traditional rock and pop styles, while acoustic sounds can be sampled and integrated into electronic music. Even classical and orchestral music, which you would think of as entirely acoustic, increasingly makes use of sampled instruments. Software samplers like the KONTAKT collections offer a staggering range and quality of instruments. These modern tools allow you to realistically recreate the timbre and dynamics of live instrumentation, so these days a lot of orchestral scores are composed and recorded electronically; you can take the exact tone of a world-revered performer and easily thread it into your music.

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Tools and Knowledge: How to Start Making Electronic Music

The accessibility of electronic music production is truly amazing; with a standard computer, you already have almost everything you need to get started. Let’s run through the essential tools for how to make music electronically. First and foremost, is a DAW, or ‘digital audio workstation’. DAWs are powerful software that will be the control center of your project, where all the different parts are recorded and arranged. There are a few different DAWs considered industry standards, with different interfaces and each with strengths and weaknesses over the others, but the fundamentals are the same. Which one works for you is very subjective and depends on how you work. Fortunately, many DAWs offer free trials or ‘light’ versions which you can experiment with for a while to see how you get on.

DAWs typically come with a selection of virtual instruments and effects plug-ins included, as well as sample libraries of recorded sounds. These options can be bolstered with sound libraries such as EXPANSIONS, with products specializing in a wide array of music styles. In addition, you can expand your sound with third-party software samplers and synthesizers, which are usually compatible and fully integrated with the main DAWs. If you’re wondering what the difference is, a sampler triggers snippets of pre-recorded audio, while a synth generates sound signals from scratch using oscillators. That said, the interface and editing controls are generally similar for both, with shared components such as envelopes, filters, effects, and LFOs for manipulating and customizing sounds.

Your set-up will obviously need some kind of audio output, namely speakers or headphones. In either case, what you should look for is a flat response so that you can hear what is being played as accurately as possible. Purpose-built monitoring speakers will be much more suitable than a standard hifi, while studio headphones similarly aim to reproduce the cleanest sound, not necessarily the ‘best’ aesthetically. While you could use the headphone output on your computer, and this is sufficient at least initially, investing in a USB audio interface will allow you to record and hear your work at a significantly higher quality, as well as offering more flexibility concerning inputs and outputs.

Many experienced producers favor hardware over software, citing the ability to produce deeper, richer, and more unique electronic sound effects. Lots of vintage analog gear has particular quirks and unpredictable fluctuations that add character to the music, and are difficult to reproduce in the clean, digital conditions of a computer. On top of this, incorporating traditional, ‘real’ instruments, either as samples or recorded live, and combining acoustic and electronic sounds can make your music more expressive and personal. However, there is definitely something to be said for gaining a deeper knowledge of what you already have to hand, instead of collecting too much gear and thinking that next piece of hardware or software will be the answer to your creative block… though we’re probably all guilty of this at one time or another.

Acclaimed British producer and DJ Andrew Weatherall referenced the “double-edged sword” inherent in the democratization of art and, specifically, the ease and accessibility of how to produce electronic music. As greater numbers of people get their hands on the tools and learn how to make music, exponentially more tracks get released every day with a risk of market saturation. There has never been more great music available, but conversely, it is harder to get noticed and rise above the rest. Rather than being cynical, we can simply see this as a new challenge, a motivation to keep working harder to improve, continue learning about the process, and innovate more unconventional sounds.

As well as having the right equipment, having a degree of musical knowledge comes as a prerequisite too, although you have a lot of freedom here in choosing which approach to take. It’s just a question of how you work and learn best; some prefer to just dive in and start making noises, learning by doing, while for others it makes more sense to research the theory first and then apply it. You can approach electronic music production from the perspective of classical music theory, or set off with zero music education at all. Whatever your situation, a basic understanding of scales and chords will come in handy, a sense of why some notes clash together while others complement each other. Incorporating a MIDI keyboard or controller can help here as a visual and hands-on aid.

On the other hand, many successful electronic musicians are not formally trained, and learning how to create electronic music is a discipline in itself that brings together songwriter and composer, live performer, and sound engineer into one composite role. There is no definitive answer to how to make music, and it is typically a combination of theory and trial and error. Inspiration often strikes by happy accident, but doing a bit of homework can save you time and make your workflow more efficient right from the outset. The internet offers a wealth of resources, from walkthroughs and video tutorials to specific technical questions discussed on forums. Creating music is a constant learning process that comes with a chance of failure, even for pros at the top of their game. Remember that failure is always a teachable moment, an opportunity to learn and improve. Patience is key; the process can be frustrating, but try to minimize distractions, set yourself regular time to practice, and have faith that the pride and satisfaction in having created something is one of the best feelings in the world.

When sketching out and arranging musical ideas, it can be helpful to follow the formulas of different genres. As an educational exercise, try dropping a track you like into your DAW, then using it as a reference and recreating exactly what you hear. Train your ears and brain to deconstruct the music and distinguish the different elements and details, how the track creates impact as well as the similarities and patterns across the genre. You will find that the same main ingredients of drum beat (kick, snare, hi-hats, etc.), bass line, hook or lead, and chords and textures can be assembled in endless different combinations. Alternatively, ignore the precedent set by other artists and blaze your own trail instead! Originality always triumphs over being derivative.

Once you’ve created something that you’re at least half happy with, sharing it with friends or online and getting some constructive criticism can be really helpful. Even if you aren’t completely satisfied with your work, get in the habit of trying to finish projects anyway. Coming up with the initial idea is usually the easy part of how to make an electronic music beat; the grind comes in having the discipline to see the track through to completion, staying motivated, and not allowing it to fizzle out to nothing. Remember, artists are almost always overly critical of their own work and never completely satisfied, so it is important to learn when further tinkering would be ineffective, when to tie something off, put your tools down and say, okay, it’s done.

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