music with computers
November 5, 2011 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn how to make electronic music. But I need to learn in a way that guides me...very...slowly...and directedly. (Also, as free-of-charge as humanly possible.)

Usually when someone says "I want to learn how to make electronic music" the response is something like, "download X program; knock yourself out!!!" Every time I've tried this it's been really overwhelming! They're very complex. Is there some sort of free online tutorial that will guide me, step by step and concretely, through how to begin making music with some (also preferably free) program? If there's some book I can take out of the library, that's ok too, but I do prefer an online source.

When I say concrete, I mean it literally tells you what to do until you know enough to make your own music. I need this broken down in a way that makes it way less daunting and open-ended.

posted by threeants to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of computer do you have?
posted by wondermouse at 4:22 PM on November 5, 2011

Response by poster: Oops, thanks for asking; a PC.
posted by threeants at 4:24 PM on November 5, 2011

Response by poster: I know how to play a piano and I have a decent grasp of music theory.
posted by threeants at 4:30 PM on November 5, 2011

I like Ableton Live for it's balance of both pro-level features and beginner friendliness. I think it installs with a demo sessions or two that you can explore, and there's a handy help box in the lower left corner that displays explanations of any button/function that you mouseover.

I'm sure there are plenty of Ableton books available, or you can use multi-part beginner video tuts from Ableton or 3rd party. Maybe also get in the habit of reading audio production blogs/mags in your free time like audiotuts, cdm, ...
posted by p3t3 at 5:00 PM on November 5, 2011

YouTube is full of free tutorials if you've got a starting point like what specific software you're looking to learn on. I personally don't know anything about free music-programming software for PC. I use Sonar, which costs money and is also rather complex. Cakewalk has a much cheaper option aimed at beginners called Music Creator 6 (looks like it's $30-something dollars), so you might as well look into that. If you get serious about it, you can look into something more powerful/expensive.
posted by wondermouse at 5:06 PM on November 5, 2011

Firstly, I would normally say, "download X program - knock yourself out!" The program I would recommend for electronic music is FL Studio, which is VERY beginner-friendly. Ableton Live is another good one. (I have always found programs like Reason a bit tricky.) Whatever, you use, the way to learn is by going slowly, step-by-step. You will not be making a finished, professional-sounding song in just a few days to begin with. But creating a relatively simple drum pattern loop is quite easy (about as easy as adding columns and some italics to a Word document, say). Give yourself an hour to just do that and you'll already have learnt a bit about how the software works without overwhelming yourself. Next, try adding a bassline, which'll involve using some of the things you've just learnt as well as working out how to get your keyboard hooked up to the software etc. Real tiny, incremental steps - keep it basic. After that, add a synth part, say - pick a synth in the software, load up a preset and record a basic line. Then stick with those three simple parts and try to make them sound better/madder/more interesting. Work out how you apply effects in the software and try out a few on each track in turn. Some filters, or delay, compression, reverb, whatever. Turn some knobs up to their maximum and back and see what they do. Don't be precious. See what happens when you alter the settings in the synth preset you chose. This is all quite simple stuff, but just doing this you'll learn a lot.

Secondly, I can't really recommend a full online tutorial, because I've never used one. I pretty much started doing very basic stuff, and when I got stuck googled for help for the specific thing I was having trouble with. There are many, many youtube tutorial videos for everything you'll come up against. These can be great, because you can watch what's happening on the tutor's screen and see exactly what they click. But they can be hit and miss, as you've probably already found out - making assumptions about what you know and what your working methods are.

Thirdly, I know you want online help, but I think I should mention a UK magazine that I think is pretty good for this kind of elementary stuff, which is also available in the US - Computer Music. It recently published a special edition for beginners with detailed tutorials on how to make music from scratch. You can order it from the US for about $12. That's nearly the price of a book, I know, but the difference is that it comes with a DVD containing loads of software, effects and sounds that will really help you get started.

Anyway - have fun!
posted by cincinnatus c at 5:07 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, simply knowing that you have a PC is not enough. You need to know what your audio hardware is and what your computer can handle. We can't really make sensible recommendations for you without knowing that - you might get a program and then find it doesn't work tolerably on your computer.

It will also help if you have in mind what sort of electronic music you're looking to make, what genre and if there are any specific artists that have inspired you to do this. Knowing all this will at least help you narrow down what you would need to learn about, just as it was important to know that you can play piano and know some music theory, so you have at least some musical background and would know how to read notes on a screen. Wanting to know how to make electronic music on a computer is in fact a very broad question to ask.

All this seems complicated because it is, though once you get past the initial learning curve it gets easier to teach yourself.

And finally, here's a website that seems like it might help you get started with the basics: How To Make Electronic Music With Computer? Where To Start?
posted by wondermouse at 5:33 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you know absolutely nothing about electronic music and synthesis, start with Reason. The interface is very physical, it made it really easy for me to understand the basics of what was going on. You're not going to make pro quality music with it, but it'll help you understand what you're doing anyway.
posted by empath at 9:13 PM on November 5, 2011

1) Seconding Youtube. Whether you have Reason / FLStudio / Cubase / Logic or whatever it is - all of which are, in their own ways, somewhat complex and intimidating at first - Youtube is a great place to start as it will show you, step by step, how to... do at least some stuff, whether or not it's what you actually want to do. Picking one just at random, based on FLStudio -

2) I found that the best way to learn is... just... to... fiddle. Yes, the first few hours / days there is a very frustrating and steep learning curve whilst you get your head around the most basic basic of making some sort of noise, and being able to save it and start it again (although again: Youtube will be your friend here

But then, when you have *something* - even just a kick drum repeating - can you make it slower? can you change it's pitch? can you add some delay to it? can you add a second piece of percussion? can you add a bassline? can you change the sound of the bassline in a way that's linked the sound the kick drum makes? ... and you're off. You're not going to break anything: press that button. Press the other one. What does it do? Work it out!

You'll most probably need to be prepared to spend months and years until you get to a stage where you can get it to sound like the idea you have in your head; there's just no short cutting that, but it's part of the fun at the same time...
posted by Hartham's Hugging Robots at 1:39 AM on November 6, 2011

It's been years since I really dabbled with electronic music but it used to be a pretty big hobby for me. Fruity Loops is often touted as a good beginner's program, but I don't think it's actually that easy to use. Unless a lot has changed in five years, it relies heavily on menus, obscure settings and about a million different screens.

Switching up to Ableton was a revelation. It has an incredibly intuitive interface, with most of the controls you need spread across two screens. It also has a great selection of tutorials which ease you in to things quickly. Grab the demo and see if it takes your fancy.

It won't teach you everything: it won't show you how to use EQ beyond the very basics, it won't show you how to program a synthesiser, or every setting for every effect - but it'll certainly show you how to lay down beats, samples and notes and string them together into a whole track.

From there, it really is a case of fiddling and experimenting. Turn it into a hobby, don't expect professional results straight away, and try to have fun. That's what'll keep you going.

In time you'll probably want to learn the basics of synthesis, but that can come later. Stick with presets for now, tweak knobs and see what they do. There are no wrong answers. Remember - have fun!
posted by Ted Maul at 2:07 AM on November 7, 2011

How To Get Started In MIDI.
posted by DandyRandy at 11:40 AM on November 7, 2011

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