Music Production For Beginners – Part 1
by Jonathan Cates

In days where powerful production tools are at your fingertips with a few clicks of a mouse, and marketing yourself to millions of people worldwide is just as easy, its important to have a brief guide for beginners. Stepping you through the process from beginning to end and hopefully helping you jump over the hurdles a lot of us blundered through in the early days of computer music.

This guide is not something that will teach you style, because if you don’t already have your own style or ideas you aren’t ready to write music. Also, I understand there is a constant debate between the idea of digital vs. analog in any genre you are interested in perusing. And yes, the best possible scenario would be for you to be surrounded in millions of dollars worth of vintage tube pre-amps and compressors. But once again, you have to take it step by step. And I’m assuming you’re sitting there surfing around to find out how to make a start for yourself. You have zero money to put into the project, zero income, and you’re probably behind on most of your bills so you’d better learn quickly before they shut off your internet.

That’s ok. Starting from this point gives you a very raw perspective on life that can make for some pretty damn good music. It’s that passion, that will to survive that will make your music stand out when others’ just blend in. And I feel very lucky that you at least have access to a computer to read this article.

Since all I started with was a desktop computer, this is a purely digital approach, and I’ll also just assume that if you do get rich and famous you’ll buy yourself a proper studio…And though I DO NOT endorse stealing the hard work of others through or, OR the damage some of the files you download could do to your computer; you have to be educated somehow. And I don’t know anyone that can afford to go out and buy the necessary tools to produce music without even trying them out. I suggest demo versions of the software I mention in this article FIRST. If that doesn’t work for what you’re wanting to do, and you happen to pirate some software, I highly suggest buying the software the second you see any money for any of your work. The support you get will blow you away, and the updates will make your entire setup run smoother.

1. Software
When I started I knew nothing about what software to use or how to get it to make a sound. I used Google to find freeware I could download that claimed to be a Multi-Tracker. Which is:

– Multi-Tracker- a program that layers one sound over another on a time line. (example: One Track is drums, the other is guitar, and another is vocals, etc etc) The best of which are Apple’s Logic Studio, Ableton Live, Cubase, Propellerhead’s Reason/Record, and DigiDesign’s Pro Tools.

Instead of guessing which one to pick just to find out it doesn’t do what you want, I suggest either Reason/Record or Ableton Live for beginners. They have the easiest to understand interfaces, as well as the depth that is needed for advanced producers.

Once you have your software, spend some time with Youtube. There are tons of tutorial videos that will get you through the first main steps of these programs once they are installed… Like how to get the sound to work, and getting the sounds you want to use onto the screen. There are a million ways of doing this depending on the software you picked, so you will have to spend a few days (weeks) getting comfortable with where things are. All of which are available on Youtube for free.

You may want to use some audio editing software like Peak, Wavelab or SoundForge for making changes to things you want to import (movie clips, a song you want to remix, etc)

Keep yourself really organized and have a ROOT directory on your desktop named “My Music” or something like that.. And within that, start a new folder for every new song or project where you save everything from sound files to project files. It makes it easier to manage because most software won’t know how to find a sound if you’ve moved it (or the folder it’s in!). Keep your folder system consistent and you won’t ever lose anything. It’s the worst to have a project lose half its sounds because you moved a folder, and you cant remember where you put it. Keep everything together, and keep your folders named things that will be easily browse-able. The date is a good place to start. —-“2009-11-25 Song for Amber” works great.

Don’t expect one idea to be the end all be all of tracks. Any of the software you find has a steep learning curve and your quest for answers may take you in stylistic directions you didn’t expect. Go with it. Never resist it. And always remain focused on the NEXT sound, because any and all mixing can be done later. Just use the software to guide how your music will sound at first. You can’t start out programming all your own patches and sounds. You need to get comfortable with how everything works before you can make that tune you’re looking to make. Give yourself some learning time and don’t get frustrated if the program isn’t doing what you want. Every question you have can be answered online on either Google or YouTube.

You should be able to find things like drum sounds and loops in the preset folders of your software. If you cannot find a sound you are looking for try Their search engine can lead you to amazing things!

2. Sequencing
This can get tricky because you have to have some sort of understanding of basic music theory.
—Most popular styles use 4/4 timing. This means there are 4 beats repeated over and over. And the Quarter Note = 1 beat. A simple way to think about this is techno or house music:


Almost every kind of main stream music deals with these numbers so this is what Im going to teach you…get to know them:

4, 8, 16, 32,and 64

This is the amount of beats your loop will go before it repeats. If it is not one of these numbers then it will sound wrong. Some people like to stylistically do wrong numbers, and some people use it as an excuse not to do their homework. So I suggest getting a firm grasp on the theory before going on any off – grid adventures. Its easier to spot a wrong loop when its short than when its long. Make sure you have counted or felt it out. Most drum machines have 16 pads at the bottom. Think of it as 1 loop. They are 16th note pads and they usually are in 4 groups of 4.
You select a drum sound you want to use and load it into the first channel (any wav or aif sound will work). You can usually control where the sample starts and where it ends…and if it fades-out or cuts off… again consult YouTube for the specifics of your software…

Light up the pads where you want to hear the sample in the loop.

If “A” is a lit up pad and “o” is a dark pad then:

A o o o |A o o o|A o o o|A o o o …would be 1/4 notes This is used for that house music kick drum. The A’s are BOOM…BOOM…BOOM…BOOM…1…2…3…4…

The o’s are all the spaces between the quarters. Think of them as:


They are all the contrasting steps that make your rhythm interesting to listen to when you’re sequencing drums. Since most drum machines can handle doing more than one sound at a time, you have a totally clean 16th pad loop when you load a new sound into the next channel. Select back and forth between your channels to edit each rhythm.
If you can keep your overlaps down to 1 or 2 playing at a time while not repeating any one sound for more than 3 pads in a row, you usually come up with something halfway decent.

The main sounds that are standard to most rhythms are:

Kick = Boom
HiHat = Tsss
Snare = Chuk!

With these 3 main elements you can build a beat that will drive a dancefloor for hours or back up a band all night. It wont be terribly interesting without other stuff going on, but it is the foundation of drum programming.

Lets see if I can break this down with sound words, BOOM – Tsss – Chuk! – BOOM – Tsss – BOOM – Chuk! – Tsss

If you don’t get it, try saying the above phrase over and over and you will find the rhythm. If this were programmed into the 16th note pads, you would have 3 channels. Kick, HiHat and Snare. It would look something like this:

Kick- A o o o|o o A o|o o A o|o o o o
HiHat- o o A o|o o o o|A o o o|o o A o
Snare-o o o o|A o o o|o o o o|A o o o

I know its kind of a difficult thing to get used to, but just play around and you’ll find yourself feeling comfortable in no time. The most difficult thing about this entire process if FINDING the count of 1. Where do you START counting your loop when someone just randomly starts the music? You have to be able to identify it or your brain will get lost in a mix of 3 sounds not making any sense when programming.. I suggest finding the 1 in your favorite music.. Its usually right where the CRASH cymbal comes in so use that as a reference. If you get lost, wait for another cymbal and start counting 4s..1…2…3…4…1…2…3…4…

I have seen it take people years to grasp this concept, and it is essential that you do. You really have to know what to listen for because it is the punch of your phrase. Things will sound frustratingly different than they’re supposed to when you stop your loop and restart it if this is off. Learn this first before trying too, if you haven’t already.

Next week I’ll have the third and forth chapters “Beat Style, and Mixing&Fx” available on the Busy-Media Blog

About the Author:

Jonathan Cates currently operates which provides affordable media solutions for print and web projects. Come by for a free quote on any project or to check out the blog for tips on DIY promotions and breaking technology news.

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