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If you’re just getting into beat making, whether your tastes lean toward Hip Hop, EDM, Pop, or other, the massive number of choices and opinions out there can make you want to quit before you even get started. In truth, music production is much easier and more affordable now than it used to be, but there’s still quite a bit to learn on the subject. Here’s a guide to some of the essentials.
Buying the right computer is crucial to building your production studio. When selecting your machine, you want to make sure you’re giving yourself enough power to suit your needs, without straining your resources. In general, you should aim for a processor that has the fastest single-core performance that you can reasonably afford, with at least 4 physical cores. A good rule of thumb is a CPU benchmark score of 7,000 or above for desktops, and 6,000 or above for laptops. For RAM, 8-16GB is more than enough for most users.
To ensure stable performance at higher track counts, you’ll want at least a 7200 rpm magnetic hard drive, or preferably, a solid-state drive (SSD). An SSD will give you a dramatic improvement in boot and load times, especially handy when working with virtual instrument patches that have large amounts of samples. No matter which type of drive you go with, make sure your system disk has at least 512GB of storage for holding the OS, your programs, and maybe some smaller sample libraries. I recommend using a second 1 TB+ drive for storing your project files, but more on that later.
Here are some laptops I recommend.
Good: Marketed as a gaming notebook but great for music, as well, the ASUS 15.6" GL552VW features a 2.6 GHz Intel® Core™ i7-6700HQ quad-core processor and 1TB 7200 rpm hard drive, packing a lot of power and a ton of storage, at an affordable price.
Great: The Acer 15.6" Predator 15 Notebook is an excellent choice, and the best value of the bunch, featuring the same fast quad-core i7 as the ASUS above, but it has a 256GB SSD for storing your programs, and a 1TB drive for your project files and samples.
Mac: If you’re of the Mac persuasion, you can’t go wrong with the Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro Laptop Computer with Retina Display & Force Touch Trackpad (Mid 2015). It features a 2.8 GHz quad-core i7, with a 512 GB SSD.
Some people will tell you that all Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) “pretty much do the same thing.” It’s pretty much true, in the sense that you can make any style of music you want with any of these programs, but each one of them has its own workflow and its own set of strengths and weaknesses, which may make some musical tasks easier to accomplish in one program versus another. If you want to get into remixing, mashups, and/or performing live, Ableton Live is a great choice. Its powerful audio manipulation features make time-stretching and syncing audio a cinch, and its unique Session View workflow makes live improvisation possible, without the constraints of a timeline. If you’re looking to do a lot of intricate drum programming for styles like Hip Hop or Trap, FL Studio and Reason are both solid choices. Reason and FL have advanced, yet straightforward step sequencers that are great for composing complex drum patterns without breaking a sweat. They also come with loads of drum samples and stock software instruments, giving you a lot of bang for the buck. If you’re interested in recording live instruments and vocals in addition to making beats, Cubase and Pro Tools are two well-rounded, tried-and-true options. Both programs offer strong multi-track audio recording, editing, and mixing features, with powerful MIDI sequencing to boot.
If a more hands-on approach strikes your fancy, a hardware/software hybrid workstation will allow you to make beats without ever needing to touch the mouse or the keyboard. The Native Instruments Maschine series offers a groove production system for Mac and Windows that combines a drum-machine style controller, and dedicated sequencing software to provide a tactile production experience. Equipped with 16 multi-colored backlit trigger pads and a built-in display, all of Maschine’s functions can be accessed directly from the controller, allowing for fluid music making. Like the Maschine, the MPC Studio and MPC Touch from Akai Professional include a 16 drum-pad control surface with integrated software. They feature the same legendary MPC workflow made famous by the company’s classic hardware drum machines, such as the MPC60, MPC3000, and MPC2000xl. Both the Maschine and MPC can be used as a stand-alone production workstation, or as a plug-in within a DAW, like Pro Tools, or FL Studio. Both systems also ship with enormous content libraries, giving you loads of drum and instrument sounds right out of the box.
If you're planning to go with Ableton Live, and also like the idea of dedicated hardware, check out the Push 2, a customized controller designed specifically for Live.
An essential tool for composing chord progressions, bass lines, and melodies, a keyboard controller is a must-have. One popular option, the Novation Launchkey MK2, features pre-mapped control templates for many popular DAWs. Available in 25-, 49-, and 61-key versions, the Launchkey also has 16 velocity-sensitive, RGB backlit trigger pads that can be used to trigger loops, samples, and more. It’s USB bus powered and is compatible with Macs, PCs, and iPads.
The M-Audio Oxygen IV also comes in 25-, 49-, and 61-key models, features 8 drum pads, plus an array of assignable knobs and faders. Like the Launchkey, Oxygen IV offers out-of-the-box integration with many DAWs, including Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Logic, and Cubase.
While all of the above DAWs come with plenty of sounds with which to get started, there are some aftermarket software instruments and plug-ins that have become mainstays in many producers’ tool kits. Native Instruments KOMPLETE is one instrument bundle that definitely qualifies as “essential” for legions of beat makers across all genres. With classic instruments like MASSIVE, KONTAKT, REAKTOR, and BATTERY, KOMPLETE 11 includes 87 instruments and effects and 18,000 sounds, totaling more than 500GB of data (ULTIMATE edition).
The Waves Gold Plug-Ins Bundle comes with 35 processor plug-ins for mixing and mastering your tracks. Plug-ins like the H-Delay Hybrid Delay, the L1 Ultramaximizer, and the C4 Multi-band Compressor can help take your mixes to new dimensions.
Why use a second hard drive? There are several reasons. First, project files can become quite large, and can bog your system down if they’re recorded to the system disk. Second, having your project files stored on a second drive will keep them safe in the event of a system failure due to a corrupted OS. Third, some audio programs, such as Pro Tools, work more efficiently if your project files live on a separate disk than the program itself. Fourth, it’s a quick and easy way to pass session files back and forth to another producer with whom you’re working. More valuable information on the subject can be found in the B&H Explora article, Save Your Music: The Basics of Hard Drives for Audio, and some external drives I recommend can be found here.
I hope this guide makes building your production studio a bit easier. Please feel free to let us know your thoughts in the Comments section, below.