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I'm interested in getting into producing electronic music (EDM, house, whatever I end up digging at the time), but I've recently run into a roadblock: money.

Potential costs include:

  • Computer
  • DAW
  • Keyboard/Synth
  • VSTs
  • High quality sample packs
  • Purchasing existing music for samples and inspiration

What are some good ways of cutting costs without sacrificing quality/effort?

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Isn't it also true that many of the early 80s synth pop bands built some of their own gear using cheap spare parts, following instructions in magazines? I'm sure I saw an interview with someone (one of the Depeche Mode founders I think?) reminiscing about spending weekends scouring junk yards for parts that he'd read could be used as valves in the analog synth he was building. Where there's a will, there's a way. –  user568458 Apr 29 at 14:51
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@DrMayhem "Why equipment is so expensive" might not be very relevant to music practice and performance, but "what are some good ways of cutting costs without sacrificing quality/effort" is. The later is what the answers focus on. This information is not only relevant, but very useful. Costs, the actual numbers, are not opinion based. There is a very relevant, objective, side of this subject; and that side was the one being explored. –  JCPedroza Apr 29 at 18:04
    
@DrMayhem Fair enough. The first half was mainly just setting up the context for why I'm looking for good quality but low expense options. I do feel that this aspect is extremely relevant to musical practice/performance. –  Pat Lillis Apr 29 at 18:13
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That edit really clarifies the topic, as per JCPedroza's comments, so I have reopened, and cleared out the obsolete comments here –  Dr Mayhem Apr 29 at 18:30
    
As a DAW, LMMS might be a good place to start. It's a little limited, but it works well enough, and it's free. –  Cheezey Apr 30 at 23:21

10 Answers 10

up vote 19 down vote accepted

It doesn't need to be expensive.

Computer: You don't need an expensive system, and chances are that the one you are using right now is more than enough. I have used a 2GB RAM, 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo system for production (including mixing). The more powerful your system is, the bigger your real-time toolbox is: more channels, more effects, more programs, etc. This is awesome, but you can get around the limits of a cheap system by using techniques like freezing tracks, that is nothing more than recording a track with all its processes, to free that memory for something else. You might never need to do that as a beginner, though.

Audio Synthesis Environments: We have Reaktor and Max/MSP as the commercial alternatives, both at $400 USD. Both are great, but we also have free alternatives that are as good: Pure Data (from the creator of Max/MSP, both are very similar), SuperCollider, Csound. There are other less reliable, but equally fun, alternatives like Jeskola Buzz.

DAW: I'll be honest with you here. Free DAWs suck. Stay away from them. Unless there has been a new DAW or update that I'm not aware of, forget about free DAWs. Bugs everywhere, crashes, sessions lost, patches lost, incompatibility issues, memory leaks, the list goes on and on. You don't want these in your life.

The good news here is that you can still get a decent DAW for free or cheap! Reaper is a good DAW that is not technically free, but you can use it without paying for it for indefinite time, thanks to its lay-back demo mode limitations. You can also pay for it, and the cheapest license (that includes the full program, there is no small version of Reaper) is at $60 USD.

There are other two DAWs I want to mention here, because they shine for their quality-price ratio. Renoise and Logic Pro.

Other famous, awesome, expensive DAWs have cheap, limited (as in limited capabilities), versions, like Reason, Cubase, and Ableton Live.

The barrier gets a little higher when talking about non-linear DAWs, but you still have cheap options. Ableton Live has a cheap intro version at $100 USD, but it is very limiting. The complete version of Ableton Live is very expensive (worth every penny in my opinion, but don't buy it unless you know what you are doing). Bitwig Studio is another alternative that is around 50% cheaper than the complete version of Ableton Live, without the limitations of the intro version.

Plugins (VST, AU, AAX, etc): Your DAW will already include many tools. If you want to go beyond that, the free plugins community is huge. There are so many free plugins that you'll struggle to find the good quality ones. My suggestion here is to experiment with what you can find (who knows what undiscovered gems you could find?) but also use forums and lists to guide your search. There are well-known free synths/fx/whatever that have proven to be great and solid in the eyes and ears of many people.

One famous example is Synth1 (don't judge it by its ugly GUI). One good place to start your search in is KVR Audio.

High quality sample packs: Make those samples yourself! Make your kicks, your snares, your hats: you'll find in sound design a new dimension of expressiveness, carving exactly what you want, as opposed to what you could find. (Biased opinion alert here, big fan of sound design).

I know sometimes samples can be useful or necessary, depending on what you have in mind. Internet has you covered on this one too. Google-fu will lead you to a huge array of sample options, of all the quality range. Use your ears to filter out the low quality stuff, noise being the most common offender.

Keyboard and/or other controllers: You don't need it. You'll have other means of control. You don't want to make choices regarding hardware controllers until you know where you are going, and that's not happening on the first weeks. Why? Because on this subject you get what you payed for. Cheap hardware will tend to fail and suck more than expensive hardware. There is no shortcut here.

There are some exceptions, but they are rare. Some I can think of: Behringer B-Control Rotary BCR2000 (rotary controls), Korg nanoKEY2 (keyboardish), Korg microKEY25 (keyboard). Don't buy hardware until you need it though, that means that you understand why and how you will implement it in your production or execution. You might end up with things that you will never use. It's very common with electronic music beginners, since there are so many shiny toys out there.

Hardware synths: Stay away from these until you know what you are doing (which again, won't happen in the first weeks). You have more than enough to play with in your software synths, enough to learn everything about all types of synthesis. Hardware synths are very expensive.

I won't say that you don't need them, since there are dynamics that are still very hard or impossible to replicate in software, so you might go for a specific timbre of a specific synth, but I will say that you don't need them now that you are still struggling with the basics. Forget about them for now.

Let me know if you can think of another expense we can cut to include it on the list.

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Great answer! It can't be stressed enough that the important thing is to get started with what is available, in order to find out what fits your individual style. Or to find out that this area wasn't as interesting as it first seemed. –  Meaningful Username Apr 29 at 10:34
    
Reaper is a free DAW that is amazing. It has never crashed for me :) –  Kyle Sevenoaks Apr 29 at 12:18
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@KyleSevenoaks Reaper is awesome! It is technically not free, though. The trial is supposed to be limited. It is not advertised as a free DAW, and it was never intended to be a free DAW. I did include it in my answer as a free alternative, but it is a commercial software (if that makes sense). The free DAWs I'm referring to are the ones that are not commercial, free only. –  JCPedroza Apr 29 at 12:23
    
Aha, I must have missed it. I agree the advertised-as-free DAWs are useless. –  Kyle Sevenoaks Apr 29 at 12:29
    
+1 for free DAWs suck. –  dwjohnston Apr 30 at 0:43

Computer: If the computer you asked this question on belongs to you, is less than about 2 years old and is not an i3, Pentium or Celeron, it should be fine. Older Athlon X2 or Intel Core 2 Duo/Quad machines are passable, but edging toward obsolete for modern DAWs, especially when you'll be using a lot of VST plugins as with EDM. A Celeron, Pentium or other budget PC marketed to casual users for browsing and e-mail won't have the clocks for the real-time parallel processing a DAW needs.

If you really need a new computer, you should be able to get a laptop from Best Buy, or the guts for a new one from NewEgg or TigerDirect, that will be more than enough for DAW work. Look for a CPU in about the $200 range (that'll be newer i5s, older i7s or AMD FX-8xxx), at least 8GB RAM, at least 1TB HDD (and consider investing in an external HDD and/or cloud storage; audio takes a lot of storage), and if you can still get Windows 7 pre-loaded, IMO that's better than Windows 8/8.1 for audio work (a lot of audio drivers and VSTs aren't stable on Win8 yet). You can get a computer with the specs I just gave for well under a grand, especially if you're swapping out the guts of an existing mid-tower (if all you're doing is replacing CPU/RAM/Mobo and adding some HDDs, the tab can be less than $500 for a screaming rig).

The computer above will be all you'll need for quite some time running a DAW, and won't be half-bad for gaming and other processor-intensive uses either. And this is if your current computer will just not cut it; if your computer was marketed as a gaming rig anywhere in the last 4-5 years it should be fine for DAW work. You don't need a MBP, nor a $3000 gaming rig.

DAW: Reaper is free to use indefinitely (the trial is ostensibly 60 days, but they don't lock down or neuter the software after that), and when your conscience (or the nag screen) gets the best of you it's $60 for a personal non-commercial license. It's a very good DAW too, with a very lightweight framework leaving more "sandbox" for the plugins, and a hardcore and fast-growing following in small project studios where it's compared favorably to the popular expensive monoliths like Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, SONAR and Ableton.

Keyboard: What you'll want for DAW use is a "MIDI Controller" keyboard, as opposed to a "Digital Piano", "Stage Piano/Keyboard" or "MIDI Workstation", all of which have features you don't need or don't do things you'll want. MIDI controllers are available anywhere between $100 and $1000, with really good ones in the $250-$500 range if you don't mind a "synth-action" keybed and less than 88 keys. Check out the Novation Impulse, Akai MPK and M-Audio Axiom lines, which all come in frame sizes ranging from 25 to 61 keys, and also include pad triggers and assignable fader, knob and button controls for mouseless control of basic DAW and plugin functions. If you're a piano player and really want that same feel, there are a few controllers with 88-key "hammer-weighted" keybeds like the M-Audio Oxygen 88, but those cost more especially if you want the pads and other assignable controls. You might look in the used market for a Roland Fantom or Yamaha Motif workstation; these retail for between $1000-$4000, but sell used for half that or less, and would be the last keyboard you'd ever need.

VSTs: Reaper comes with the basics for free: compression/limiting, gating/ducking, EQ, reverb, even pitch correction and a synthesizer and sampler. If you want more, there are a bunch of quality freeware VSTs available online.

Sample Libraries/Virtual Instruments: Usually a notable subclass of VSTs, sample libraries controlled by a MIDI-compliant software engine basically give you a computer-based version of what you'd have in a $1600 workstation (and sometimes much more). Kontakt is dominant, nearly ubiquitous; the full version is a bit spendy at $400, but there's a free version, Kontakt Player, that's bundled with third-party patch libraries (most still pay-to-play unfortunately), and also available separately with a few freeware libraries like NI's own Factory Selection. The big downside of staying free is that you can only use sample libraries not specifically marked for Kontakt Player for 15 minutes at a time; for unlimited use of most of the freeware NKI libraries available for Kontakt, you need the full version.

All is not lost, however. To get your feet wet, I recommend staying old-school by using SoundFonts. These are an older library standard developed by Creative Labs for their SoundBlaster cards, and picked up by Yamaha, Roland and others as an easy way to load and transfer samples between equipment. There is a free VST available from Cubase, SFZ, which plays any of the massive number of SoundFont files available for free online. Sinfonia is a common go-to SoundFont for orchestral-type instruments, and Chorium is also a popular one still used today.

There are also freeware synth VSTs. Synth1 and Crystal are two tools practically every home recordist has in their arsenal; Synth1 is an excellent virtual analog synth, has a lot of excellent sounds in it reminiscent of the trance heyday of the late '90s, early '00s. Crystal is a sampler, with free patch libraries available from a number of sources.

Existing Music: YouTube is free.

Other things you may need that you didn't list:

Microphone: Vocals aren't a requisite for EDM, but they're common. You'll also probably want some sort of recording setup for sampling. An AT2020 is available for around $50 and it's an excellent place to start for a studio mic. You can also get the Sterling SP30 and SP50 as a set for $60, though this is starting to venture into a really hit-or-miss pricepoint. The MXL990 and 991 are also a common entry-level studio condenser set, of much better quality, for about $120.

Audio Interface: If you want to use pro-audio microphones, you'll need an audio interface to get the signals into the computer; the average consumer-grade sound card mic and line inputs don't support these types of sources. There are plenty of great products in the $150-$200 range. I have the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 and like its simplicity (USB-powered, no control software) and flexibility (2 inputs for XLR or 1/4" TS/TRS, 4 outputs either TRS or RCA, DIN I/O for older MIDI devices, and very flexible "direct monitoring" capabilities). Its microphone gain leaves a bit to be desired for low-output dynamic microphones, and high-Z inputs peak easily, but it's fine for condenser mics and line-in sources. Other good choices include the Scarlett 2i2, Presonus AudioBox, Steinberg UR22, and Mackie Onyx Blackjack.

Good listening equipment: When you're building your mixes, you'll need equipment that faithfully reproduces what you're listening to, so when you apply an EQ or set the relative level of any two channels, the resulting sound you hear is not colored by a natural response curve of "hi-fi" systems (even expensive consumer brands like Beats Audio or JBL) that emphasize bass and high mids, or cheap computer speakers with totally unpredictable response ranges. Studio reference headphones and near-field monitors are designed for flat, extended response curves, so you hear everything in your mix, and the amount of each frequency is accurate. This generally isn't as pleasing to the ear as a hi-fi system's response, but that's for a good reason; if it sounds good in studio monitors, it'll sound good through almost anything else.

Reference-quality gear is spendy; monitoring headphones typically run from $100 to $300 (I got my ATH-M45s on sale for half price at $50) and "near-field monitors" with flat response curves and good bass response, designed to be placed in an equilateral triangle with your head about 1m on a side, start at about $250 per speaker. For now, you can use a hi-fi shelf system to listen at your workstation, and you should also take the mix around to any other audio system you have access to, from your iPod and cheapie ear buds to your home theater, your car stereo, any pro audio system you or a friend might have for DJing, etc etc. If it sounds good through all of these, then it's good to go.

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Firstly - you need to recognize that actually - you're pretty privileged to live in this day and age of electronic music. Creating electronic music is far cheaper and more accessible than it ever used to be! ie. You can create electronic music with the computer you already own, I recommend a pair of decent speakers (more below), and a DAW.

This is far cheaper than what you would have previously needed, a mixer, speakers, hardware synth, sequencer etc.

What you actually need to get started

Computer - Presumably, you already own one. You really don't need a high spec computer to get started. Remember people were creating music on computers 10 years ago, and their specs were far less than what you can get for second-hand for $200 today.

When you start out, you're probably not going to be pushing your computer as hard as when you've got a lot of experience anyway.

If you do encounter performance issues, then you can start bouncing your tracks down to improve performance.

DAW - Arguably the biggest barrier to entry, the likes of Ableton costs in the $500 range.

One option here is trying to pick up a Ableton Lite license, which are often given away with hardware.

A lot of people here are recommending using free DAWs like Reaper. I don't necessarily recommend this path. If Reaper works for you, then great, but IMO some DAWs like Ableton or FL Studio are much easier and better to work with, so you might as well use it from the get go. (Analogously, one can always use Open Office for writing and spreadsheets, but if you're using it everyday, I would definitely recommend using Microsoft Office, it's a far superior product).

Some kind of speakers or headphones - Anything to output sound with, some headphones that you already own, or some home speakers. However, I recommend upgrading these ASAP.

So that's all you actually need to start making sound.

After that

The first thing I'd recommend is DECENT SPEAKERS.

This actually is kind of necessary.

You can learn your DAW without decent speakers, but actually getting your sound right, you really need some decent speakers to hear what you're doing. I recommend buying something like the KRK Rokits, (or comparable speakers) for your entry level. These are decent speakers, and they last, you won't need to replace them.

I definitely recommend buying speakers before you buy any other gear, like MIDI controllers, sound cards, or VSTs.

Once you've got your computer, DAW, and decent speakers, then you really are sorted to make some decent music. There are plenty of free VSTs and samples you can use. If you're using the Ableton, the native VSTs are AWESOME.

As far as a midi controller goes - it's not strictly necessary to make music, but it kind of depends on your workflow, some people work better with hardware than others.

Midi controller - Ok, maybe you want some knobs to play around with. You don't need some full package to play around with straight away, all you need is some knobs. You should be able to buy a second hand MIDI controller for pretty cheap, or maybe pick up one of the Korg Nano series, they're cheap.

VSTs - Not necessary. Use the ones that come with your DAW, and there are plenty of free ones.

Audio interface - Really not necessary to start. Your onboard sound should be fine to work with.

Bottom line:

All you need to get started making decent music is a computer, DAW, and decent speakers.

Definitely prioritise speakers ahead of any MIDI controllers or VSTs.

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If you're up for using Linux, check out Ardour.

It is an open source DAW, and costs 1$ or more (whatever you want to pay), so I guess it technically doesn't fall into the "those garbage free programs" category. ;-) It has been used by professional musicians and wannabes like me for years, and I'm very happy with the results.

Just go check it out...

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Actually, I currently have my computer partitioned with Ubuntu and Windows. And I do like the sound of $1! Would you say Ardour is worth taking the time to learn, even with the other suggested options (e.g. reaper) available? –  Pat Lillis Apr 30 at 18:49
    
Absolutely. I found it very intuitive, even coming from my non-professional background. From what I hear though, there are a number of people who have found it very easy to transition from ProTools to Ardour, so I'm guessing the interface is similar. –  TimH Apr 30 at 21:42

I have to say that I agree with others in that you can get started for very little money. As others have said, REAPER is good (though not free, it is fully functioning and unrestricted for your trial use, then only $60 for a personal use license if you decide to buy). I have also found that there are several good forums for virtual software instruments that often have great posts about free instruments and synths. Although I have several really good paid VST instruments, I find myself often using Crystal and Synth1, both of which are free. I use them because they can sound REALLY good. They are both great creative tools that often help me turn noodling around on the keyboard into something I really like and can build a song around.

I saw a few videos of some good musicians playing very cheap instruments (a drummer and a guitarist). The instruments were in bad shape, but the skill of those musicians still resulted in some pretty great sounding music. I realized that it's not really the tools you use, so much as it is the skill you have and develop in yourself. You don't need expensive tools, you just need to go and make your music.

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Well, if you're into commercial production within the music industry, it's pretty expensive. A hobby artist does not need expensive equipment at all.

Your focus should be on creating the music, not the bit rate of your sample packs, save that for a re-mix/re-master, let the quality evolve.

There are plenty of free resources to play with:

You could even do everything in a browser: (!!)

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See Matt's comment above. There are free DAWs and there are also DAWs that don't cost $750. If you're on a Mac, Logic Pro X is excellent and only costs $200. If you're on a windows, Fruity Loops is $99 for the starter edition which is fully featured, and should be more than sufficient for electronic music. Some of the higher models of Fruity loops also have the ability to record audio if that's something that your electronic music requires.

You also do not need a top of the line computer. If the computer that you're on is too weak, and you need a new one, go for a Windows PC. I've used both Windows and Macs and I cannot say that Macs are superior. So anyone who tells you that you 'need' a Mac, is misleading you. You only need a Mac if you're going to opt for Logic Pro X, which again is a fantastic program. PCs are cheaper, and for the price of a low end Mac you can get a much stronger PC. You can get a a very decent PC that is worthy of recording and producing music for $700.

Keyboard synth, you can get a used keyboard for much less than $500. I suggest an 88 key keyboard. Look at Craigslist or ebay.

VST's can be had for much less than $300 again. If you buy Logic Pro X it comes with a pretty decent collection of VSTs. So you're getting a DAW + very functional and decent VSTs for $200. Fruity Loops also comes with VST's. Again you're getting a DAW + functional VSTs for $99-$300, depending on which choice you go with.

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+1 for comment about Mac. Totally not needed. –  dwjohnston Apr 30 at 0:40
    
I don't think you even need to spend $700 on a computer for producing music. I started using Ableton on Windows XP with a single core P4, with maybe 4GB RAM, and it was fine. Eventually it started having performance issues, but you could just bounce the audio down. You'd pick that computer up for $100 these days. –  dwjohnston Apr 30 at 0:42

If you start out with trackers, there are free options. Renoise is commercial, but is used by e.g. Venetian Snares. That shows it can produce quite good results... There is a trial version of Renoise, but there are also other free trackers, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracker_%28music_software%29.

I would say electronic music is easier to work yourself up in, starting from 0, and still getting quite good results, compared to most other styles.

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Expensive compared to what? If you looked at learning sax, guitar, piano etc., and bought new, as you appear determined to do, you would shell out a load of money with those.Especially electric guitar, because you would feel you need a decent amp., then effects, et al.

When you learned to ride a bike, you hopefully didn't go and buy a $3000 racing road bike, so why spend loads on this?

Buying pre-used may have some disadvantages in that it may be pre-abused. However, if you find someone who knows what he's up to, he will help with the selection.The gear may be not top spec. or bang up-to-date, but it will get you started. The computer doesn't need to be all singing all dancing, as long as it's powerful enough to do its job.Even a brand new one will be out of date too soon. Let someone else take the drop in value! There are free packages out there.There are pieces of equipment that 'doting dad' has bought for 'spoilt child' that are languishing, waiting for you to buy.

Once into it, even if you bought new, you'd realise that some of the stuff is not what you need, but you won't know till you get started. Good luck in your search !

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  • Computer: You're using one right now. You don't need a fancy new computer to make music.
  • DAW: There are many free DAWs. REAPer is free if you don't mind a nag screen, Audacity is free and open source.
  • Keyboard/Synth: You can get an entry keyboard for $100 that will work fine.
  • VSTs: There are many free VSTs available from plenty of websites.
  • Samples: Free on many sites as well.

You don't need top of the line equipment to get started. Making music has always been a "DIY" activity, and many great musicians and producers have created amazing material with just the gear that was lying around.

Personally, I got started using free or dirt cheap, second hand products, and you upgrade as you go along, getting gear that you know that you'll need and use and will make your life easier. And you won't know what you'll need and use unless you cut your teeth using what you've got on hand.

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I agree wholeheartedly. –  MrTheBard Apr 29 at 11:54
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I would argue that you don't need an external keyboard at all to start out. I spent at least a year making music with just a laptop, before gradually moving on to more serious equipment and more demanding software. –  Theodoros Chatzigiannakis Apr 29 at 12:16
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On the other hand, you can get an M-Audio Keyrig 49 (what I use) on ebay for ~$50. It's not fancy, but it's small, and 49 keys is a good amount. IMO having a keyboard is incredibly useful in composition. –  Dan Apr 29 at 12:55
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I'm just learning as well. I got audacity and a virtual keyboard. I'm buying old obscure records from second hand and used record shops that are no longer covered by copyrights looking for samples and inspiration. I'm going to check out reaper, from these posts, it seems to be good entry level software. –  stephenbayer Apr 29 at 15:56
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Renoise is also worth a mention alongside REAPER. Free if you don't mind (very liberal) demo-mode restrictions, can use both VSTs and samples, and can be "played" with the PC keyboard if you don't have a MIDI controller. –  OrbWeaver Apr 29 at 16:27

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