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I want to write electronic music but I don't know what I'm doing.
October 27, 2012 7:10 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to get into electronic music production but I don't know what I'm doing. What is the best way to get started?

I have all these ideas in my head, but as someone new to electronic music, I have a hard time transferring them to my computer. I feel like I waste my time trying to find sounds. I want to spend more time writing music and creating beats, less time fiddling with software knobs to perfect a kick/snare/hi-hat/blip/synth. I know this is part of the process, but I feel like I am spending more time than necessary, and it becomes less fun and I give up. Are there libraries that musicians use? What is a good workflow? Should I become comfortable with softsynths? Should i be slicing and chopping up records to create my own samples? What's the best way to get started?

I might be diving into something without the necessary background. How do I get that background?

Since it may be relevant, I have Ableton Live Suite on a Mac and an Axiom 49 MIDI controller.

Examples of the type of stuff I am looking to write:
A.M. Architect - Gave Me Love
The Album Leaf - Red-Eye
Aether - Caparra
posted by alligatorman to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I had these problems. What I did to get around them was to create a default template in my sequencer that had basic instruments loaded (a drumkit, something for pad sounds, some strings and something for lead), but basically 'bread and butter sounds'. Then I would try to get my ideas down using these as a sketch pad. After that I would leave it for a while and then come back and audition different sounds for each part whilst looping the sequence - that usually gave me new ideas on how songs could progress. After that I would start arranging the bits I'd done and then start fleshing it out a bit more with different sounds/effects and so on.

I used softsynths all the time and never bothered much with sampling as it took up too much time and I found myself getting to involved in the 'micromanagement' of sounds rather than writing anything interesting.

Hope that gives you some ideas.
posted by mukade at 8:07 PM on October 27, 2012

Just as a perhaps not-yet-considered idea, have you thought about working with a collaborator? Someone who is more into sounds & production, who would be happy to leave the songwriting up to you, while he perfects the sound?
posted by ShutterBun at 8:12 PM on October 27, 2012

There are all different estimates for how much time it takes to become proficient making music. I've heard 10,000 hours; 10 years; 2 hours a day... I consistently feel like i'm discovering new things. I spend at least an hour a day working towards greater understanding, whether it's sound design, revisiting older ideas, working on new material, or just playing an instrument. And I still throw out 80% of what I make. So: don't get frustrated. This stuff takes time.

The boring answer is: you need to figure out what works for you. Some people prefer to start with a melody. Others come up with chord changes first and then work out the melody and drum parts over the top of that.

I usually start with a beat, come up with chord changes, and then start trying to figure out a melody. Figure out a drum kit and synth that you like to work with, and then just start with those two elements. One good thing about working with MIDI - you can always change out sounds later.
posted by dubold at 3:47 AM on October 28, 2012

As with mukade above, personally I think it's a definitely good idea to separate out the different aspects of the work flow - sound design, constructing melody and bass loops, constructing rhythm loops, chord sequences (if any), sequencing / composition, production, mastering - and spend more time focusing on what you enjoy, and what inspires you. What worked for me was to trial a whole load of soft synths until I knew which ones I liked the most (and which of those would be the most flexible), create a template using them, and basically start with the same basic sounds each time. Then once I've got a melody down, I'll go back and start tweaking all the instruments, adding bass and rhythm parts accordingly. (If I was going to use samples, I'd probably only use one or two loops and drop them in first thing, essentially inspiring the melodic content). Obviously with this approach there will be a lot of time when the track doesn't "sound right" or polished enough, but better to have a hook first than a load of great sounds but no tune. With the "construction kit" ready, I'll do a rough sequence, tweak various of the composition, and only then will I start adding effects, EQing, levels, etc to individual instruments and the whole mix.

Now, in terms of the type of music you've linked to, I'd say that it is all melody driven and so will work with that kind of work flow. But there's lot in the production of them that's reliant on effects that you would only apply fairly late on - various tape emulation, compression effects, valve-type saturation etc. So for a large part of the composition process, it's not going to sound quite right, it's not going to have the atmosphere that's such an essential part of this type of sound. Don't be too worried about the final "sound" while working on the melodic core, but equally, don't be too afraid to ditch ideas that aren't working before you spend too much time on sound design and production.
posted by iivix at 5:02 AM on October 28, 2012

For me, it's always been about playing with the tools, experimenting, differentiating, enhancing that which pleases, eliminating that which annoys, messing about until something interesting emerges. If frustration hits, I change the channel and work on something else. If I have a particular musical idea I'm working with, I grab whatever sounds are handy and make rudimentary accompaniment tracks to be tweaked or replaced as the piece progresses. It's an unending process of successive approximation and optimization. And it better be fun because it can take a long time.
posted by Jode at 6:41 AM on October 28, 2012

There is absolutely no question that regardless of how streamlined your workflow gets, or how good you get at composing faster and faster in terms of harmonic content - making kickass sounds that are truly interesting, and then applying them to your tunes takes a LOT of time. It's kind of like sculpting, and while everyone does it at a different speed, if it's gonna be really good, even with the best tools, it will take longer than I think a lot of people would like. You could start with just a basic template as above poster mentions, just so you kind of sketch out what you are thinking, like making a demo. See what it is you like about what you've made, and what you don't. Another thing that may help is: not everyone needs schooling to make music, but for me, composition does not come naturally. I needed to learn how different scales and chords relate to each other to really understand how to make interesting harmonic content (although a crapton of electronic music producing people don't care about interesting harmonic content, and only about the sounds themselves). There's no right or wrong way to construct your stuff, but you can find all kinds of stuff online now for free that I didn't have in ze pre-interwebs days.

So back in terms of how long stuff takes, for my ramble...I could be wrong, but I swear I read an article a while ago that said for Depeche Mode's record "Ultra", unlike what they usually do, after Martin Gore and the guys wrote all those songs, they hired some electronic music producing guys to actually arrange the entire record for them. I don't necessarily blame them for doing so.... likewise, imho, the reason the last two or so NIN records are not anywhere near as good as the first 3 or 4, is because Trent slaved over those earlier records for 4 years at a shot, and often had a couple of guys in his studio area just plain hunting for sounds or making wack experimental loops for him at the same time. Amon Tobin, another guy who ultra-meticulously crafts electronic musics, I have no clue how long it takes him to manipulate all those samples he uses. Crazy.

I don't say any of this to discourage you... while there is something to be said for not being ultra-perfectionist about your compositions, I think there is a happy medium that one can strike after you figure out what that is for yourself. Also, I think the world needs more people taking 4 years to make a record and less people who just slap it out in a month. : )
posted by bitterkitten at 8:32 AM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't even start with trying to make what you have in your head. Just start with using presets and trying to find songs, if that makes sense. It's going to take years of practice and learning before your able to hear a song in your head and just reproduce those sounds. It's a lot easier to just play around with the synths you have and turn them into a song. Plus you'll learn a lot in the process.

Also, search on YouTube for tutorials. There are a lot of videos out there that explain how to make particular genres or sounds.
posted by empath at 10:26 AM on October 28, 2012

Thanks for the great replies. I have a lot of work ahead of me, and after reading these responses, I haven't been more excited.
posted by alligatorman at 11:51 PM on October 28, 2012

There's a fascinating video (or set of videos) documenting how Fred Falke works his magic in the studio (on Ableton Live), about 90 minutes's worth. Available on finer torrent sites. Search for "Fred Falke 243"
posted by holterbarbour at 9:56 PM on November 11, 2012

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