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First of all, I hope this is the right place to ask this question.

My desire is to make electronic music; what I have in mind is something between glitch, IDM and ambient. In the last 1-2 years I've been using a few DAWs in my spare time, namely FL Studio and Live. I've also been using a few VST instruments such as NI Massive, Battery and others. I've always "learned" things by playing around with stuff and I've never taken any class nor read any book so far. Again, this has always been something to do in my spare time for fun, so I didn't really care about that.

Lately I've been thinking to get serious about this. The problem is that I feel that my approach won't really get me anywhere. I've always been creating my sounds by randomly twiddling knobs: sometimes I do get interesting results, sometimes not, but the thing is that I don't know how stuff really works. I know nothing about how to create sound. I can manipulate knobs in a VST until I get what I have in mind, or an approximation of it or at least something that sounds good to me, but I don't know how I've done it. I also have little idea of what it means to master a track, for example. I don't know what equipment I need to make music properly (I do have a pair of decent studio headphones, though). I feel like I don't know the basics. I don't know what a compressor is and why I should use it. I may be able to enable a reverb and manipulate knobs until I get the desired results, but I still don't know what I've done.

I realized all this is going to limit my possibilities a lot. Also, I think this random approach is probably not a good learning method at least when it comes to the basics. Plus I'm the kind of guy that really wants to know how something works.

The question is: where do I start? I don't even know what to search for. Do I need a sound design book? Would learning Max/MSP be a good idea? From what I know you get to create everything from "scratch" when working in such an environment, and I know that there's lots of Max documentation around. I don't have the time for a class but I do have time and money for reading books, buying needed equipment, learning on my own and practicing.

Edit: Also, and I know this is an age old debate: should I switch to hardware instead? The thing with software is that there are unlimited possibilities (aside from the fact that you don't have something tangible to work with). And, I do want to learn how stuff works, but I also want to be creative, so I need to find a compromise between these two things. Hardware would also lead to another problem though: I have no idea what to buy.

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migrated from Feb 10 '14 at 12:20

This question came from our site for engineers, producers, editors, and enthusiasts spanning the fields of video, and media creation.

While the specific resources that will show up in answers are no doubt going to be good and useful, it sounds to me like you're getting overwhelmed trying to do it all on your own, without any perspective. What I think you really need are people to talk with, and ask casual or more exploratory questions. Try dropping by this site's chat room maybe! – Warrior Bob Jun 7 '11 at 14:37
This question would be more in-scope on the music site. – neilfein Jun 9 '11 at 20:08
@Neil I think it straddles both horses pretty well, to be honest. – Rein Henrichs Jun 10 '11 at 0:41
@Rein - Yeah, thinking about it, I think you're right. Also, the electronics part of this would scare off some of the folk there. There's no reason there can't be another version of this there if the OP wants, of course. – neilfein Jun 10 '11 at 5:30
@neilfein: all the more reason to move it there ;P. Music.SE needs all the diversity it can squeeze into its little collective mind. Avp.SE doesn't really benefit from this question. Of course, on music.SE it would be shut down in minutes, for the reason Bob mentioned. – naught101 Sep 25 '12 at 8:34
up vote 63 down vote accepted

As a amateur electronic music producer who spent eight years in a non-goal directed "playground" approach to music production, I can tell you that the last year of goal-directed practice has been more fruitful than the other eight put together.

Let's talk about some basic principles of music creation and how they apply to electronic music in particular. Then let's talk about a path you might want follow to build the skills that will allow you to develop your own talents and creative voice.

First, do your research. Find electronic music that inspires you and study it. In doing so, focus on the following:

  • Musical form: There is less material for this in the electronic music world as compared to rock, jazz or classical. Nevertheless, you can learn by example. Take tracks that you particularly enjoy and plot out the forms.

    Most western music (and especially electronic music) subdivides into groups of (groups of) 2. Look for groups of 4, 8, 16 or 32 measures that form a section and try to label the sections appropriately. Learn the basic high-level structural patterns of the music you want to make. For instance, a common pattern might be: 16 bar intro, 32 bar first "verse", 16 bar breakdown, 32 bar second "verse", 16 bar outro.

  • Orchestration and Composition: Just as the major sections of an orchestra (violins, woodwinds, etc) have their idiomatic uses in classical music, the types of electronic music you want to make will have their own idiomatic elements. These may be a certain type of bass or drum sound, etc. For instance, Drum and Bass has a very strong idiomatic use of a certain kind of drum sound (sampled drum breaks).

Second, learn the concepts:

  • Sound design: The sounds you use in electronic music will (usually) not come from traditional instruments. Creating these sounds will require skill in sound design. This means that you should practice it as a skill. Learn about synthesis techniques (subtractive, additive, FM, etc) and practice them by trying to create or recreate sounds. Learn about the sampling, recording, midi programming, and etc. Learn about the use of FX and so on. Learn your sound creation tools. There are lots of great resources on synthesis and other aspects of sound design.

  • Mix: You will need to learn how to create a good mixdown that places individual elements appropriately on the sonic stage (levels, frequency spectrum, panning, etc) to create a full, rich sound. This means understanding the basics of EQ and compression and understanding how to use them to provide separation between elements so that their frequencies don't clash, how to listen to and meter your tracks and so on.

Third, practice:

  • Try to recreate sounds that you like that hear in other tracks.
  • Redo your mixdowns to improve headroom, separation, etc.

    Practice will improve your ability to turn ideas into reality. If you hear the most amazing sounds in your head but you can't actually make them, it doesn't really matter.

Fourth, ship:

  • Finish your tracks. Release them somewhere public (soundcloud is great). Get feedback. Use that feedback to improve.

Fifth, innovate:

  • Draw on your well-developed skills and your deep immersion into the idiom of the music you love to develop your own style. Personal style does not develop in a vacuum; it develops from the synthesis of your manifold influences. It requires a level of skill sufficient to realize the possibilities and express them.

    As Picasso said, great artists steal. If you want to fully realize your potential and develop your own "voice" or "style", you will need to master the basics. No innovative musician starts out by innovating. They start out by copying. They learn the trade. Once you have mastered the skills and learned from the artists that you respect, you will be able to develop your own musical style.

    In other words, if you want to break the rules you need to know them first.

Penultimately: Do all of these things together. Do not spend a month learning synthesis without shipping a tune. You have to realize your investment in skill development early and often to make it stick.

Finally: Don't do them alone. There are communities of like-minded musicians out there. Find them.

Oh, and as to your software vs. hardware question: if you want to learn, go with software. Whatever benefits you get from hardware in terms of sound quality are greatly outweighed (for you, right now) by the ease of use of software.

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Wicked good answer. – Ian C. Jun 10 '11 at 0:49
Wow, I didn't expect such a great and inspiring answer. Thanks! I agree especially with point four, 'ship' (and I believe it is an essential step for most other activities as well). As for the learning part (sound design and mixing), can you recommend any reliable resources (a book would be best)? Don't want to sound lazy not doing my own research, I just want to avoid making mistakes especially now that I'm starting. – pt2ph8 Jun 10 '11 at 12:23
Synthesizer - Wikipedia is a decent place to start. Sound on Sound is a print and online magazine with great resources. They also publish books like Basic Mixing Techniques and Basic Effects and Processors. Computer Music Magazine is another good resource. – Rein Henrichs Jun 10 '11 at 19:56
A few more resources: Sound Synthesis and Sampling, Music Theory for Computer Musicians, Composition for Computer Musicians. If you have more questions, please ask me in chat. – Rein Henrichs Jun 10 '11 at 19:59
Computer Music Tutorial is expensive but amazing. Definitive, even. Welsh's Synthesizer Cookbook is an undiscovered treasure. – Rein Henrichs Jun 10 '11 at 20:01

While I find the first answer very comprehensive and accurate, I would like to present a wider perspective.

Electronic music is not so far removed from any other music that you should not consider the traditions of musical training.

How much have you developed your musical talent? Consider your knowledge of music theory and history (western and other cultures), solo and ensemble performance experience (listening and playing), improvisational skills, study of acoustics, understanding of compositional forms (western and other cultures), composition.

Is your goal to perform electronic music or compose electronic music or both?

Either path you need to 'add' from my list above the following: software skills (varies on how far you want to hack some code or just understand an existing program), understanding basic electronics (like know the difference between an oscillator and a filter, or deeper if you want to build your own music chips), an understanding of how technology has driven the development of electronic music as well as how electronic music has driven the technology from a historical perspective.

Significant pioneering efforts in electronic music:

"Father of Electronic Music", Edgar Varèse, produced likely the first real electronic piece "Ecuatorial" for two fingerboard Theremins, bass singer, winds and percussion in the early 1930s:

Musique concrète (1940s) was an early attempt that used mics and magnetic tape to record sounds and then have the composer re-cut the tape to create a different sound or play it backwards, or make loops, and on and on.

"Forbidden Planet" (1956) was the first feature film to use an all electronic music score composed and performed by Louis and Bebe Barron.

Voltage Controlled Synthesizers (1962): Don Buchla (1962) and Robert Moog (1964) both began the road to synthesizers where composers had analog tools to build sounds based on fundamental devices. (Voltage controlled Oscillators, Amplifiers, Filters, Noise Generators...).

FM synthesis algorithm (1967): Standford University research Professor John M. Chowning discovers the FM synthesis algorithm in 1967.

Analog Polyphonic Synthesizer (1975): Tom Oberheim creates a multi voice keyboard synth. A user interface for electronic music that follows the tradition of a keyboard.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) (1982): First MIDI specification is released. A means of "encoding, storing, synchronizing, and transmitting the musical performance and control data of electronic musical instruments".

First commercially successful digital synthesizer (1983): Yamaha DX7 breaks new ground by being the first affordable digital synthesizer based on FM synthesis as developed and licensed by Standford Professor John M. Chowning.

[I might add some more to this later] we have anything from "Ringo in a box" (programmable drum machines) to full blown DAWs.

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Link to video broken? – hydroparadise Apr 15 '12 at 20:51

I think the first answer is an excellent philosophical approach to getting started. I'll try to be a bit more specific in hopes to fill in a few gaps.

Studio set up: Get a great sound card. Your audio going in and audio coming out of your computer can't lie to you. If you're not hearing things correctly, you won't be producing correctly. I recommend looking into the Apogee one. Their bigger brothers are the standard for major studios and they use the same conversion technology. They even have a preamp that is pretty incredible for it's price.

If you can't afford great monitors (event opals, Adam AX8 or Yamaha NS10's) or just can't bang out 4/4 beats out-loud, get a really great set of set of earphones. They're not ideal but I've heard some super talented engineers work exclusively with headphones and still sound amazing. It's all a matter of getting used to what things should sound like in them. Referencing your favorite mixes in them is a must.

Software: I recommend Ableton for beginners. It's a great program and it's workflow and stock plugins are all fantastic. There are ton of easy tutorials on youtube. I recommend just starting with the basics and keep it simple. The more complicated stuff will come in time.

Music Theory and Melodies This is a life long pursuit really but an easy way to start playing with chords and progressions is to use the circle of fifths. Look up "Camelot Harmonic Mixing chart" This is chart is a life saver in term of getting started quickly. I also recommend a fantastic little ipad app called "music tool." It's a scale picker that shows you every possible note and chord in the scale. Really handy visual tool.

Otherwise, Ableton has a tool called "scaler" that will allow you to pick a scale and keep every single note you play in key of your song. It's so easy it should almost be illegal!

If you buy samples (we sell them along with Ableton and Logic templates) I recommend Mixed In Key. This software will organize all your samples by key. Have a song you're working in A minor? Just sort your samples by A minor or a complimentary key. That's one of our special little ninja secrets!

Engineering & Mixing:

This subject is also a life-long pursuit so I'll keep it high level.

1) Reference your mix. Pick a mix you love and keep trying to emulate it. That is the best way to learn. You'll get frustrated to a point where you'll start searching for answers. That is where the learning comes in.

2) Compression is your friend. Learn the compressor. In fact, If I had only one tool to mix with, I'd pick the compressor (don't tell my mistress, distortion!) . Don't forget makeup gain. Once you compress, make the gain back up. That is where the magic is.

3) Garbage in - Garbage out. This is probably the most important concept. One that just hit me after years of struggling. If it doesn't sound good when you create it, 98% of the time, you can't get it to sound good in the mix. This is the secret for most engineers and why in the analog world, they have engineers dedicated to recording AND to mixing. The recording stage must capture the best possible sound so the mix engineer doesn't have to attempt voodoo. I think the first gentleman nailed it with the sound design statement.

There are a lot of great sites to learn from like: or Pointblankonline

We happen to sell creative tools like Logic Templates, Ableton Templates, samples, midi files and also offer tutorials to producers and engineers. Once you pick up some gear, stop by and check us out at

God speed young Jedi!

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Since this is a bit older thread and pricing has changed somewhat, I'll just add that I recommend Logic as a place to start vs. Ableton (I use both). Ableton is great, but aside from the very limited "Intro" version ($99), it has less to learn with. Logic comes with every type of synthesizer and sampler you can imagine (from analogue modeling to FM to exotic tools like Sculpture) and a suite of effects that it has long been known for since its inception. Logic has some 15+ instruments including an AI-based drummer. Ableton has 3 instruments. Logic is $200 all-inclusive, Ableton is $450/$750. – rcd Feb 17 '15 at 1:40

My answer would be something along the lines of the first answer you got given but I would also like to recommend the D.Ramirez tutorials for dealing with electronic music workflow. They are freely available on youtube at

He deals with a lot of mixing issues and it might help you get some of the "approach" to making electronic music without telling you what style to be.

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There are a lot of elements that go into creating electronic music of any modern style of music. This includes:

  • Writing
  • Recording
  • Learning Software
  • Mixing
  • Mastering

Within all of these there is a ton of knowledge and experience that you need to acquire before you are able to produce something that people other than yourself will think is great music. There are schools for music production that will teach you a lot of these things but in no way guarantee you'll become a good producer. (Most people in these programs become engineers)

Unfortunately, questions about what setup to use or about what methodology you should use for writing and producing are generally not taught anywhere.

Fortunately for people wanting to learn modern musical genres and how to produce, we're moving to a time where individuals can act as private tutors and mentors as you develop your skills as a music producer. I would have killed for a service similar to when I was first starting out and it's exactly why I created it.

No matter what you want to get good at in life, the value of a great teacher or mentor cannot be underestimated. My advice is to find the right teacher or mentor and learn everything you can from them.

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I made my first electronic music using audiotool.

I really dislike site politics (copyright, search box doesn't work, etc,etc), but the platform is great!

It has a full flash studio with mixers, generators (many), basses, samples (MANY MANY), timelines, cables, nice design, full web application, very nice software.

Make your music! Sure there are other free ways too! DJ Traktor is a good live tool, you can mix samples and other nice tricks.

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Hi and welcome to avp.StackExchange. I think you're trying to suggest that site as a tool, but your answer reads kind of like an advertisement, especially for your own music. Could you edit it so that it more directly answers the question? Feel free to discuss your own/everyone else's music in our chatroom though! – Warrior Bob Sep 27 '11 at 1:34
ok. thanks. really no ad. I used the site, and it's a way to answer the question. – H_7 Sep 28 '11 at 1:16
Thanks! It works much better now. – Warrior Bob Sep 28 '11 at 14:57

I completely agree that a random approach is un useful and the music production field is very complex. And before you are able to get into mastering a strong mixing experience and ears training is really needed. Not only... great converters, a treated listening environment, good monitor and again, a good couple of ears but...

Everyone has started somewhere and a guided approach could make the difference and save time and money.

Today, cheap technology allows you to but a starter studio set up for something about $1000 but, it will sound for $1000. I want to say that if you begin, i don't know if your are fine to spend a lot of money but as someone said in another answer, garbage in- garbage out. the risk is that you spend a lot of time and efforts in trying to obtain something that simply you can't.

Anyway, if this would help you, here you can find an online course I've created where I explain how to use one of my fav. DAW to create electronic music from A to Z. Unfortunately I will not talk about mastering but with the course you'll learn how to:

Create a House song from A to Z Configure the Audio Card in Cubase Build the Groove in the Display Window Mix your song using the Mixer How to Use Automations Record and Correct your Recordings Equalisation and Effects Use the Media Bay Mixing Tip and Tricks Manage MIDI and Virtual Instrument Export and Optimise Your Songs Certificate of Completion and you will be also entitled to Download 300++ FREE Samples.

If you want to know more about it, please have a look here: [Learn Electronic Music][]

disclaimer: I'm the owner of the course. And finally, the best suggestion is:

Compare, practice and enjoy!

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