Computer & Music Software
This one’s pretty obvious - unless you’re planning on doing things “old school” with analog mixers and tape, you’ll need a computer and a Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW for short). Some of the more popular DAWs are Ableton Live, Logic Pro X, Pro Tools, and Reason.
For a more in-depth look at DAWs, check out our blog post 4 Experts Answer What They Love About Their DAW
Mac vs PC: Which operating system is best for making music?
It’s pretty common to see Macs used in studios and there are plenty of opinions around why they are better suited for audio. The fact of the matter is that they are usually more expensive than their PC counterparts, so use what you can afford and what you are comfortable with.
The good news is that you don’t need a top-of-the-line Mac to handle most audio production needs until you start getting into large sessions with huge processing requirements. Additionally, if you won't need your computer for live performances you can get by with an Apple desktop for just over $1,000, while similarly equipped laptops are much pricier.
Most DAWs are cross-platform (meaning you can run them on either Windows or Mac), but there are some exceptions. Notably, Apple’s Logic X only runs on Mac, and up until recently FL Studio was a PC-only DAW. Operating systems are really a personal preference, but if you plan on working professionally in studios or with other producers you should get familiar with Macs (and Pro Tools for that matter!).
Speakers & Headphones
You’ll need speakers or headphones - preferably both. The type of speakers used in studios, usually called “monitors,” are designed differently than the consumer-grade speakers that you would buy off the shelf for listening to music or watching TV.
Consumer-grade speakers are designed to make audio sound “good,” whereas studio monitors are designed to make audio sound “accurate.” When you’re making critical decisions in the studio and you are using speakers that inherently make things sound “better,” you’ll rely too much on the enhancing characteristics of those speakers to make your mix sound better as well.
This is fine if your music exists in a bubble and you will only ever listen to it on your own speakers. If you actually want other people to hear your music, they will be using their own speakers and your music will need to sound as good as possible across all kinds of listening systems.
Headphones are great to have around for a number of reasons. For one, they allow you to work after hours if you have neighbors who can hear your studio monitors. Another reason is that they can provide a different perspective when you’re sound designing, mixing, or mastering. Just try not to rely on them exclusively for final mixing decisions.
Also, headphones are a must-have if you plan on doing any overdub-style recording where you will need your performer to play along with the backing track.
The audio interface connects your computer (and DAW) to your speakers and headphones (via the ‘outputs’) as well as microphones and other external audio sources (via the ‘inputs’).
These small boxes plug into your computer using USB, thunderbolt, or (less common nowadays) firewire.
There’s an important process happening here called analog-to-digital (AD) or digital-to-analog (DA) conversion - depending on which ‘direction’ the audio is heading. In other words, it’s taking digital audio in the form of 1’s and 0’s and converting it into an analog signal that your magnetic speakers can work with - or going the other direction, it’s taking an analog signal from a microphone and converting it into digital audio so your DAW can understand it.
Most audio interfaces will have varying amounts of “in” and “out” channels of audio. The number of inputs determines how many simultaneous signals you can receive and record at once. For example, two inputs would allow you to record two microphones - say, for an acoustic guitar and a vocalist. If you wanted to record a full band performing live together, you would need a lot more inputs.
The outputs feed your speakers - you need a pairs of outputs to feed a pair of speakers (i.e., a standard stereo configuration).
Interfaces with more than two outputs allow you to send discretely different signals to different sets up of speakers or headphones - useful when tracking multiple musicians who all require a different mix for recording.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a technology developed in the 1980s by Dave Smith (see: An Evening with Dave Smith at Pyramind) to connect keyboard controllers and sequencers with sound modules and synthesizers. Since your computer’s DAW has software synths and virtual instruments built-in, a MIDI Controller (like a keyboard) allows you play those instruments by sending note data like pitch (what note you’re playing), on/off status (when you’re playing it), and velocity (how hard you’re playing it).
MIDI Keyboards are different from a traditional keyboard, synthesizer, or digital piano because they aren’t capable of creating audio on their own.
There are also plenty of MIDI controllers that aren’t keyboards - they often have playable “drum” pads that are useful for triggering non-pitched drum samples, or they have things like knobs and sliders that allow you to physically manipulate virtual parameters on an instrument.
Some of the more popular MIDI controllers on the market provide a combination of keys, drum pads, knobs, sliders, and more.
If you are planning on doing any sort of audio recording, you’ll need at least one microphone. Most people are familiar with what a microphone does, but there’s a wide range of styles and they all provide different sonic characteristics.
Dynamic, condenser, or ribbon?
One of the broadest categories a microphone will fall into is design type and there are three main varieties - dynamic, condenser, and (less common) ribbon. Dynamic microphones can be plugged into just about any input and they will work, whereas condenser microphones need a power source. Since they draw their power through the same cable the audio is routed through (called an XLR cable), we call this “Phantom Power.”
If you accidentally turn on phantom power while a dynamic microphone is plugged in, it’s unlikely anything bad will happen. However, ribbon microphones are likely to get damaged if they receive phantom power, so be careful with this.
Broadly speaking, condenser microphones tend to provide more detail in the upper-frequency spectrum and are useful for delicate signals (ie., the human voice or a piano). Dynamic mics are ruggedly built and can handle the intense SPL levels (volume) coming off of extremely loud sources like a snare drum or a guitar mic. Ribbon mics tend to be relatively fragile like condensers so they are useful on softer sounds and they are famous for the “warmth.”
Getting started with music production can feel a bit overwhelming with all of the workflow and gear options that are out there. Our best recommendation is to set a budget and make a list of your priorities so you buy your must-have items first. Music technology continues to get better and the amount of affordable products continues to grow, so there’s no need to break the bank and buy the most expensive options just to get started.