How to Make Music on a Computer The Last Guide You’ll Need


So you’ve got a desktop or a laptop, and you want to learn how to use it to make music? Great!

Today I will guide you through the whole process and show you precisely what you need to do so that you can start making music on your computer.

This is what you need to start making music on your computer:

  • A computer (a desktop or a laptop)
  • Headphones
  • Speakers
  • A DAW
  • A VST instrument (optional)
  • An external audio interface (optional)
  • Studio monitors (optional)
  • A microphone (optional)
  • A microphone stand (optional)
  • A midi controller (optional)
  • Cables (optional)
  • Music samples

Are you ready? Let’s explore the details!

Contents hide

An Overview of the Gear and Tools You Need to Make Music on a Computer

We are going to start with an overview, the big picture. These are the tools you will need to make music on your computer, some of them you already have:

  • A computer (a desktop or a laptop)
  • Headphones
  • Speakers
  • A DAW
  • A VST instrument (optional)
  • An external audio interface (optional)
  • Studio monitors (optional)
  • A microphone (optional)
  • A microphone stand (optional)
  • A midi controller (optional)
  • Cables (optional)
  • Music samples

A quick note: I wrote this article mainly for the electronic music producer, but the information I present applies to all music genres.

Tools You Already Have for Making Music on a Computer

  • A computer
  • Headphones
  • Speakers

Minimum Desctop and Laptop requirements for music-making

Most modern computers will have sufficient horsepower for music production and recording. 

  • For both Mac and Windows, you need at least 20 GB of free space available and at least 4 GB of RAM. 
  • The newer the CPU, the better. You can work with an i5, but use an i7 if possible. 

At the start, most of you will be using your build in soundcard, which is good enough for small projects. But you will likely want to upgrade once you get the chance.

How many Hard drives do I need for music production?

  • You need a minimum of 2 hard drives. 
  • When it comes to music recording and production, there is a lot to consider, choosing the right hard drives is a crucial step you must not skip. 
  • Some hard drives can cause more harm than good and can significantly slow down your system.

Click here to learn how to produce music faster by using the correct hard drives! 

How to Record Your Voice on a Computer

Keep in mind that if you want to record your voice using an XLR microphone or if you want to record an instrument (such as a guitar), you will need an external audio interface

However, if it’s just your voice you want to record, you could use an inexpensive USB microphone that you can directly plug into your computers USB port. We will talk about the best microphones mater in this article.

Headphones

For starters, any set of headphones will do as long as they work.

And if you wish to buy a pair here are my recommendations:

1. Best budget all-around headphone: Audio-Technica ATH-M20x.

2. Best mid-range all-around headphone: Audio Technica ATH-M50X.

3. Best budget headphones for music production and mixing: Samson SR850.

4. Best Premium headphones for music production and mixing: AKG K702.

If you don’t know which headphones to get, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x will be the best all-around option for most of you!

The Audio-Technica ATH-M20x and ATH-M50X Headphones

When I say “all-around headphones,” I mean headphones that you can use for music production, mixing, recording and everyday music listening. I am talking here about the ATH-M20x and the ATH-M50X.

The Samson SR850 and the Akg K702 Headphones

The Samson SR850 and the AKG 702 are not suitable for recording vocals because there open back design will allow sound to escape that you will hear in your recordings.

Also, the AKG 702 needs a powerful preamp. A pre amp is a type of amplifier that makes the audio signal stronger before sending it into the headphone. The 702’s need that, if you use them with your phone, you will probably get a low volume.

Most external audio interfaces come with pre-built preamps. And all the interfaces I recommend in this article come with a pre-build preamplifier. Some have better amps than others but Audient is the King! The Audient iD series has one of the best preamps currently in the market.

Do I Need Speakers for Making Music? 

Speakers (AKA Studio Monitors) are essential for every music producer. But for now, just use your laptops built-in speakers or anything else that you have readily available. 

That said, the quality of your laptop speakers probably won’t be that great, however, don’t get discouraged by the bad sound. Yes, most laptop speakers and small computer speakers deliver poor audio quality, but for now, its all we need.

Lets now transition to the tools and gear you could acquire. 

The Tools You Need to Obtain to Make Music on Your Computer

Okay, so you already have a computer, a set of headphones and a a pair of speakers. I will now show you the software and hardware tools you need to make music.

Please note that only one of the items I listed is mandatory and that is the DAW. Purchasing the rest is not necessary however I highly recommend you invest in a midi keyboard and a proper studio monitors.

The midi keyboard will level up your creativity and the studio monitors will help you produce better music because of the level of detail they uncover. Plus good studio monitors sound awesome. 🙂

  • A DAW
  • A VST instrument (optional)
  • An external audio interface (optional)
  • Studio monitors (optional)
  • A microphone (optional)
  • A microphone stand (optional)
  • A midi controller (optional)
  • Cables (optional)
  • Music samples (optional)

Note that you dont have to spend the extra cash since some of the gear/software I included is entirely optional. Please don’t spend money on things you won’t use. 

That said, you might find that you need all the gear and software I listed, and that’s fine too. If you decide yo purchase something from this list to help you out, I have included a link for each item.

The DAW

A DAW, otherwise known as a Digital Audio Workstation, is the heart of your home studio. 

And if you dot know what a Digital Audio Workstation is: A DAW is a software that allows you to record edit and produce your music. 

There are a lot of options to choose from, I will show you both the best free and the best-paid ones.

The Best FREE DAW’s

  • Audacity and LMMS (for windows users)
  • GarageBand (for mac users)

For Windows Users

1) For PC, you will need two pieces f software, the Audacity recording software and LMMS to produce your song(Click the links to visit their official pages). 

LMMS is a professional DAW that Will cover most of your needs, it is free however, it comes with certain limitations such as it is not able to record audio. Therefore you will have to separately record audio into Audacity that you could then transfer into LMMS.

There are also some other free options available such as Protools Lite, that does record audio, but it’s limited to 16 tracks. This means that you cant use more than 16 audio and MIDI tracks in one project. 

Sixteen tracks may seem a lot to you, but trust me, it’s not!

To give you an idea, my average project has 60 tracks(!).

For MAC Users

2) If you’re using a MAC you will need Garageband to record and produce your song. (Click the links to visit their official page).

Both LMMS and Garageband are fine if you want to stick with the free option.

Best Paid DAW’s $$ For Both MAC and Windows

  1. Ableton Live 10 Standard (or Suite)
  2. FL Studio Producer Edition (or Signature or All Bundle)
  • What I use: Ableton Live 10 Suite

Look, if you decide you want a better software with pro features and if you have the budget, you can always upgrade to a paid DAW. 

Again there are a lot of different options here. The ones I recommend come with alot of added features such as extra or unlimed tracks per project, more virtual instruments (VST) , and a alrger sample library.

  • The Paid DAW I Recommend

When it comes to paid DAW’s I recommend you get either  FL studio producer edition or Ableton Live 10 standard. These will DAW’s are great for beginners plus they work on both Mac and Windows computers.

I use Ableton Live 10 Suite, but you might find it a bit too expensive, which is completely understandable. 

Okay its time for the fun stuff! Next we have VST’s.

Best VST’s (Virtual Instruments)

What I use: Serum, Avenger, Sylenth1, Nexus 2, Omnisphere 2, East West.

What is a VST?

Here is how Wikipedia describes what a VST is: “Virtual Studio Technology (VST) is an audio plug-in software interface that integrates software synthesizer and effects in digital audio workstations.”

Also, with VST’s, there are many options to choose from. There are literally hundreds (if not thousands) VST’s available; these include not only synthesizers but also Fx’s such as reverb, delay, chorus, distortion, and more.

Do I need to Buy a VST, or can I use the Free Ones?

All the DAW’s I recommended come with free preinstalled FX’s that you can use; these will be more than enough for most of you.

The DAW’s also come with free preinstalled virtual synthesizers. A virtual synthesizer is the same as a hardware synthesizer. 

  • I already recommended two paid and one free virtual synthesizers that I believe are best for you. 
  • Again at this stage it is not necessary to get the paid ones. However, if you want to use what the pros use then purchase either Serum or Sylenth1.

Here is a demonstration of the FREE Synth1 factory sounds

The Best-Paid VST Synthesizers

Both Serum and Sylenth1 can be used for a variety of genres such as house, EDM, trap, R&B, trans, pop, and more.

Also, what both Serum and Sylenth1 offer are mostly electronic sounds and not organic instrument sounds, making them perfect for electronic producers. 

If you want to recreate “real” instruments such as violins, guitars, cellos, you will need other types of VST’s such as Omnisphere or the East West collection. However, these types of VST’s are rather expensive, and I don’t advise you to purchase them right now.

This is a showcase of Serum’s Factory sounds

This is a demonstration of Sylenth1 factory sounds

The Best External Audio Interfaces

What Is an Audio Interface?

  1. An audio interface (AKA audio card) is a piece of hardware that helps you record your voice and other instruments that can’t be connected via USB to your computer.
  2. Also, a good audio interface allows you to work with larger projects that contain “heavy” VST’s and a lot of tracks. 
  3. Lastly, a good audio interface decreases latency.

What Is Latency in Audio Recording?

Latency is the delay between the time the audio enters the computer and hear through the speakers. 

We experience latency when record we record from an external source such as a microphone. In most cases, we don’t experience latency when we are producing music and using virtual instruments.

For now, your computers build in an audio interface is probably all you need. For most of you, it will be enough to get started.

However, if you’re soundcard is really old, or if you wish to use a non-USB microphone and instruments, then you need an external audio interface.

Let ‘s now talk a bit more about audio interfaces, shall we?

NOTE: I took the following information from my recommended gear page. If you wish to visit the full page, please click here.

The Best Budget and Hi-End Audio Interfaces

Professional music studios use high-end and rather expensive audio interfaces. But when it comes to a home studio setup, there are some truly affordable options that will deliver outstanding professional results without breaking the bank!

If you have a tight budget and you wish to spend not more than $100 for an audio interface, your best option is the BEHRINGER U-Phoria. 

However, if you wish to spend at least double and that you please keep reading.

  • After extensive research and comparisons, I discovered that the Audient iD4 is arguably the best hi-end audio interface you can buy for about $200!

  • Then the iD14  is the best interface for about $300.

  • And their bigger brother the Audient iD22  is the best audio interface you can buy for about $500. 

The Audient series are great mainly due to their excellent Class-A mic preamps and supreme build quality!

5 Features to look in a quality Audio Interface

1) Compatibility 

You want to make sure that the audio interface is compatible with your OS (Windows, Linux, or Mac). Nowadays, most interfaces are cross-platform compatible. 

That means there will run on most popular operating systems even being class-compliant (not in need of drivers or third party software for them to function correctly.

2) Connectivity 

The second thing to look in an interface is connectivity. You want to be sure that you can connect on the unit on your pc or mac without issues. Have a look to discover if your pc has FireWire 400/800, USB2, USB3, or Thunderbolt options available.

3) Latency 

While it’s completely normal to have some latency while recording, high latency rates may signal that something isn’t configured right or that you need to upgrade a piece of hardware.

In general, latency can be as much a function of use, the computer itself, as well as the interface, therefore, I wouldn’t think about it too much at this stage. Furthermore, my experience is that a good-low-latency audio interface makes a significant difference even on older computers.

4) Sound Quality

The most important factor that determines sound quality is the A/D converter. An A/D converter is a system that converts an analog signal to a digital format, and the better the converter is the better the sound quality will be.

5) Ins & Outs 

Most producers I tend to overdo this one. When I bought my second interface, I opted for 9 inputs and 2 outputs. This was completely unnecessary since I was neither planning on recording 9 instruments at once nor recording a full drum set. 

I’ve seen many professionals that rely on just one or two inputs; however, this depends upon your specific needs as a musician.

Audio Interface Inputs You Should Consider

99% of beginners will need just an XLR and/or a Jack input; you can ignore the rest of the inputs. I simply mention them for the ones that need more connections.

  • XLR inputs: Great for connecting microphones.
  • Phantom powered XLR inputs: Phantom power is necessary for connecting condenser microphones.
  • JACK or Instrument (hi-Z) inputs (For connecting most instruments)
  • Digital I/O: You can perform a number of tasks using digital inputs & outputs. Such as connecting compatible studio gear without having to pass again the analog-to-digital conversion stages resulting in a better signal.

For instance, if supported, you could connect an ADAT light pipe I/O to your audio interface and expand your system with 8-channel mic preamps. Digital I/O is not necessary (I rarely use them), but it’s a nice option to have available.

Let’s now move on to the studio monitors. 🙂

Best Studio Monitors 

Acquiring studio monitors (speakers) is entirely optional; even Skrillex says that he often produces his music just using headphones.

Studio monitors are necessary when you want to mix and master your tracks, it is also recommended to use the studio monitors because listening to music from headphones for long periods of time is not that goed for your hearing.

The Best Budget Studio Monitors

If you’re a tight budget, use headphones, and whatever speakers you currently have, you’ll be fine. But if you can invest at least $170 or more and by pair of studio monitors, you will thank me later! If you want the budget option go for the PreSonus Eris E4.5 (reviewed below).

NOTE 1: You need an audio interface to connect the monitors, it is not possible to connect them on your build in audio interface!

NOTE 2: I took the following information from my recommended gear page. If you wish to visit the full page, please click right here.

These Are the Top 4 Studio Monitors to Consider

1) Best Small Size Monitor: Yamaha HS5

The HS series offers the best bang for your buck, and they are great for both beginners and experienced musicians. I guarantee these monitors will surprise you with their surgical precision. These are the best 5-inch monitors you can buy and is what I currently use.

2) Best Big Size Monitor Yamaha HS7: 

Same as their little brother only with a deeper low end, these 7-inch monitors are a solid choice and the best you can buy at this price range. Buy them If you must hear the sub frequencies while mixing or producing.

3) Second Best Small or Big Size Monitors: KRK Rokit G4 Series

This is your alternate optionIf, for some reason, you don’t enjoy the Yamaha HS series, have a look at the Krk Rookit monitors. They are very popular, especially among music producers. Just pick your preferred monitor size. That said, I still recommend the Yamahas. Period.

4) Best Monitors for Tight Budgets: Presonus Eris E4.5

This is your budget option. If you’re on a tight budget, these 4.5-inch monitors are your best choice.

Next we have microphones.

Microphones

  • Best budget USB microphone: CAD Audio U37

  • Best budget condenser microphone: Neewer NW-800 microphone

When to Buy a Microphone

  • Consider purchasing a microphone if you wish to record your vocals or other external sounds. 
  • There are two types of microphones you can use, USB microphones and non-USB microphones. 

If you want to save a few bucks purchase a USB microphone, these are cheaper and don’t require an external audio interface.

Microphones that don’t use USB will need a cable that connects them to an audio interface. and most microphones use an XLR cable. 

 The Neewer NW-800 microphone why is it so cheap?

The Neewer NW-800 microphone is an oddity! It is not common for dirt cheap microphone to have such supreme audio quality! Trust me when I say this is your best option when it comes to budget microphones.

Here is a video that demostrates the quality of this mic

Buy A Microphone Stand (optional)

NEEWER Microphone Desk Stand

Amazon Basics Microphone Stand

If you decide to buy a microphone, you will also need a microphone stand. Keep in mind that the CAD U37 comes with its own stand.

That said, for the Newer, you should buy the NEEWER microphone desk stand, and for the Audiotechnica, you’ll need something like the AmazonBasics microphone stand. Both stands are cheap and good.

Buy a Midi Controller (optional)

  • A midi controller can upgrade your workflow; I always feel more creative when I use my midi keyboard. 
  • You can choose from a lot pf Midi devices such as: Drum machines, midi keyboards midi guitar controllers, sequencers, electronic drums controllers and more.

A midi controller doesn’t have to be fancy; a simple midi keyboard will do the trick.

Do I Really Need a Midi Controller?

A midi controller is not necessary. Most DAW’s give you the option to use your computer’s keyboard as a piano keyboard. Meaning that you can play notes and form chords using only the keyboard that comes with your computer.

The Limitation of Using a QWERTY Keyboard to Make Music

  • Using your computers QWERTY keyboard comes with some limitations. 
  • The most important limitation is that computer keyboards are not velocity-sensitive, meaning that everything you play will have the same dynamic.

The difference in dynamics is what gives emotion in music. Loud played notes create different emotions than soft, played notes.

  • If you use your computer’s keyboard to write music, you will likely need to go inside the DAW and manually adjust the velocity of each note you played. 
  • This is a fairly easy task to do! There are a ton of videos online that show you how to do use a DAW. Just type in Google “how to change the velocity in XX (insert the DAW of your choice).

A Personal Note on Midi Controllers

  • On a personal note, I find that I don’t use my midi keyboard and drum machine so much anymore, this has to do that I’m very comfortable drawing note with the mouse inside the DAW. 
  • I also have years of experience that makes it easier for me to create music that way. What I also do is I often grab the guitar to figure out a chord progression. 
  • However, I find that it’s important for beginners to unleash their creativity.
  •  Even if you don’t know anything about playing piano or music theory, simply hitting the white and black keys can translate to something beautiful.
  • You don’t have to focus on creating a song while randomly hitting the keys instead do that to train your brain to make music.

The Midi Keyboard Checklist

Some things to consider when purchasing a midi keyboard are:

  • The Budget

Buy something that is within your budget but not the cheap crap that is out there. If you like, choose one of the midi keyboards I recommended, these are perfect for you.

  • The Number of Keys

Experienced piano players enjoy keyboards in the 61 or 88 keys range but if you are like the rest of us, 25 or 49 keys will be sufficient. Dont buy something above 49 keys, you will likely waist money, even 25 keys will be enough for now;

  • Other Extra Functions

Knobs, faders, aftertouch, midi in, midi out, performance pads and weighted keys. These are all extras that you likely won’t use that often at least not in the very beginning.

There is nothing wrong with choosing a keyboard without all the bells and whistles. That said, some of the models I recommend do come with some of these features. As you progress, you will probably want to try them out. (as I did back in the day) 🙂

Cables (optional)

What you also probably need is cables to connect everything together. There are two types of cables for transmitting audio 

  1. Balanced cables, and 
  2. Unbalanced cables.

What Are Balanced and Unbalanced Cables?

Unbalanced cables are cables that can be recognized by the one plastic sleeve that is located close to the tip. These types of connectors we call TS connectors. Look at the picture for more information.

Balanced cables can be recognized by the two plastic sleeves that are again located close to the tip. These types of connectors we call TRS connectors. Also, XLR connectors are balanced, the same as the TRS ones.

  • If you decided to purchase an external audio interface and a pair of studio monitors, then you will need a set balanced cable to connect the monitors with each other. 
  • Some audio interfaces, as well as some studio monitors, can be used with just one of the two connectors (either TRS or XLR). 
  • Also, using TS connectors is always an option, but I don’t recommend it. 
  • The problem with unbalanced cables (TS) is that they are more receptive to noise and therefore, they are better used for short distances. 
  • Unbalanced cables have only one signal conductor and a ground wire But balanced cables carry two copies of the same audio signal and a ground wire. This makes balanced cables louder (about 6dB) and less receptive to noise.

Where Does the Noise Come from in Audio Cables?

Mainly noise interferences come from radio and electrical devices. These include computer screens, non-led lightning, dimmers but also the signal of your phone and electrical sockets.

As I already mentioned using balanced cables (thus either TRS or XLR) will help you minimize most noise interferences.

Other Types of Cables

There also exist other types of cables such as RCA or Speakon, which we are going to cover in another article.

How to Connect Everything Together and Start Making Music

Okay so let’s recap, the HARDWARE you need to make music on your computer is:

  • A desktop or a laptop.
  • A set of headphones.
  • A pair of Hi-fi speakers.
  • An external audio interface (optional)
  • A pair of studio monitors (optional)
  • A microphone (optional)
  • A microphone stand (optional)
  • A midi controller (optional)
  • Cables (optional)

If you went for the computer-headphones-Hi fi speakers set up, you likely don’t need any of my guidance since you already know how to connect everything together.

If you have other types of gear that you need to connect, then please keep reading.

I will now show you how to connect the rest of the gear together.

Computer<- external audio interface <- studio monitors, microphone, midi controller.

1) First you’re going to connect your external audio interface to your Computer, you will do this using a USB cable.

2) Second, you will connect your studio monitors to the audio interface. 

You will do this using either XLR or TRS cables. NOTE: some balanced cables have on the one end a TRS connector in the other and an XLR connector.

3) Then you will connect your microphone to your audio interface using an XLR cable. If you have a USB microphone, simply plug it in into your computer’s USB port.

4) Lastly, connect the midi controller via USB on your computer. 

NOTE: Some Midi controllers have wireless midi that connects to your computer through a special USB stick. However, wireless Midi is not that common.

  • Once everything is connected, make sure that all the equipment is turned on. 
  • Then look at the back of the studio monitors and adjust the volume accordingly. I often leave the volume in the middle (at 12 o’clock).
  • It could be that your external audio interface needs extra AC power to work properly. In case you will then need a wall adapter to drive the sound card.

I forgot to mention is that studio monitors also need external power to work. The ones you bought probably came with two power cables, connect them to the back of the studio monitors.

Some studio monitors such as the Yamaha S5, S7, and S8 have extra features such as EQ filters. These filters are there to cut or boost specific frequencies. There is no one “best” setting to use here. If you don’t know how to adjust them, simply put everything in the middle.

Music samples

Now that everything is connected and all the software is installed, you’re ready to make some music! 

T the last piece of the puzzle is music samples. Every modern music producer uses music samples; you can either create your own samples by through sampling, that is taking small snippets of sound from other songs. 

You can alsi use sound design software to create from scratch your sounds. Typically I don’t recommend using sound design for beginners because it is a very tedious process.

The most popular option by far is buying samples online.

Buying samples can be done through sample sites. These sites offer access to millions of samples, simply choose the sample pack that you’re interested in and hit the buy button. Alternatively, there are some sites such as Splice that offer access to samples through a monthly subscription service.

The best free music sample website

LANDR

SAMPLESWAP

Both LANDR and SAMPLESWAP offer free samples and royalty-free songs. These are great free options.

The Best Paid Music Sample Websites

  1. Splice Sounds
  2. Cymatics
  3. Vengeance Sound
  4. Loopmasters

Cymatics VS Vengeance VS Loopmasters

All of the above options are great, and I’ve used them all over the years!

But if I had to choose between Cymatics Vengeance and Loopmasters I would go for Vengeance

They may be a bit more expensive, but the samples Vengeance offers are of very high quality and suit my style of production. That said, I would recommend you try all three and decide for yourself.

But Why Is Splice Sounds so Good?

Last but not least we have Splice Sounds. 

Splice is a unique company. They offer millions of samples for a monthly subscription. I believe this is the best bang for your buck since you can access their site for about $8 or $9 per month and get 300 samples.

  • The difference between Splice and the rest is that with Splice, you don’t have to buy the whole sample pack; instead, you can browse and pick and chose the sounds you like. 
  • I love this option because which I often see is that just a few of most sample pack’s sounds are really great. With Splice I buy only the samples I need for my projects.

In the past, before I knew about Splice, I used to buy whole sample packs just to get that one sound I was after; now these days are long gone. A big thank you to Splice!

How Should I Use a DAW?

This is a good question! Each DAW has its own unique workflow but uses the same steps.

Here is an overview of common music production steps:

  1. Create a project inside your DAW
  2. Set the tempo
  3. Create a beat
  4. Create a chord progression
  5. Create the melody
  6. Write the lyrics
  7. Record your vocals

 I have collected a few videos that will get you started with the most popular DAW’s.

This brings us to the end of this post, but not the end of our journey. 🙂 Click here to read my latest music articles.

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