A Guide to Inexpensive Music Production for Beginners (early 2020)
Preface: A lot has changed since early 2018. Propellerheads is now Reason Studios and Reason is now a VST (and they killed Rewire - a software protocol they invented with Steinberg).
Almost everyone I know, at some point in time, has had the urge to make music.
Whether they wanted to be in a punk band, on top of the pops, a classical concert pianist, a jazz musician, or a world famous dj - everyone wants to try it once.
The following is a simple guide for those who want to record their music but don't really have a clue as to how to begin.
I'm going to skip explaining the simple stuff like "What's a DAW?" or "Why do I need an audio interface?" and get to the basic ingredients needed to create great music (but please see the footnote links below if you need help).
The criteria for this list is pretty simple - the absolute minimum technology required for a group of people (one to four) to record music into an average laptop computer and get good results.
I've included current prices for each item and links to each at B&H (and a few others), but other good choices are Sweetwater and Amazon.
Full disclosure - I am not affiliated with B&H, Sweetwater, Amazon, or any of the other vendors listed in any way.
If you're reading this you probably already have one (or you're on your phone).
Your choices are macOS or a PC running Windows.
Macs are now really expensive but "everything just works" while PCs are cheap but can be a little fiddly.
If you currently have either one and like it, use it. If not switch.
If cost is an issue (for Mac) I'd checkout used or refurbished machines.
As for new, I'd probably go with a mac mini. The base model (3.6GHz Quad-Core Processor 128GB Storage) is more than powerful enough for your production needs, although the storage is minimal, so get an external drive. I'd upgrade the ram and SSD or buy the 3.0GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5. You could also get away with a MacBook Air but the RAM and SSD are minimal, and upgrading both with cost more than a comprable mini or Macbook.
Macs have become so expensive that I'd really look into PC. I know windows kind of sucks, but if you're in the U.S. and have access to MicroCenter their home brand "Power Spec" is an incredible deal.
As for mobile I'd stay away from doing anything on an iPad or Chrome book, they just do not have anything beyond the basics.
Software for Linux has definitely improved - Audacity, Reaper, Ardour, and Bitwig all support Linux. Unfortunately Ableton Live, Reason, FL Studio are macOS or Windows only.
Do you like creamy or crunchy peanut butter?
The Stones or The Beatles?
Cats vs Dogs?* see below
All DAWs do the same thing, but the workflow in each is different. This is, without a doubt, the subject people love to argue about most.
It's also the most boring topic imaginable. Use what you like and be done with it.
With that said there are some guidelines when choosing a DAW that will help you determine which one is best for you.
First, even though it's the industry standard avoid Pro Tools. If you're reading this you're here to get started. If you need to move from one studio to another - all with Pro Tools support - you've made it! congrats...
Second, most of the DAWs in this list have a free version. If you don't know which DAW is for you try the free version and find out.
Third, the only DAW in this list that's OSX specific is Logic. FL Studio is now available for macOS, which is nice.
Here are your basic choices:
If you make electronic music this is your best bet. Coupled with a midi controller like a Launchpad, Push, padKontrol, etc. this really can't be beat.
If you're into film scoring, recording a band, or need really complex midi editing for clasical music this is a great choice.
Those who love it, LOVE it.
This is sort of Ableton lite, but for some people the interface just "clicks" and they never look back.
If you're into film scoring, recording a band, or need really complex midi editing and you're on macOS this is a great choice.
It's free (with a nag screen after 30 days), fast, stable, has a great support community, and I can't believe it exists. It will kill Pro Tools at some point, it's also available for Linux.
If you want to spend zero on your DAW this is your best choice.
It can also be VERY complex (as complex as you make it), but it's also highly customizable.
Reason basically started out as a stand alone player with midi recording and a huge sound bank. Through the years it's become a full fledged DAW with recording capabilities, VST ( >version10), and proprietary rack extensions and it's still kept the thing that made it the best - stability. If you're a song writer first and don't really care about the tech aspects of making music, or you're coming from analogue gear and really care about cords and racks, etc. this is probably the best place to start.
One thing to note, if you've used Reason for a long time Propellerheads is now "Reason Studios" and they killed ReWire. Yep, the technology that the Props developed with Steinberg is gone, so all of your old sessions won't work.
Those who love it, LOVE it.
* For those of you who want to mix and match DAWs with other software such as Reason or even several DAWs with other DAWs in the list above checkout Rewire
If you're just starting out and you don't have a lot of money or you're making music without the need for a microphone (basically you're not recording anything "outside the box") you can skip this section.
But...audio interfaces will improve your music making 10 fold, just for their speed and sound alone. If you are recording live music you basically can't do it properly without one.
Audio interfaces can connect to your computer in 4 different ways - usb, firewire, PCIe and Thunderbolt.
PCIe is basically only for towers, Firewire is on its way out, and Thunderbolt is new and expensive, so...
Get a usb 2.0 interface
For singer/song writers who just want to record themselves or someone who just wants to make beats a simple $50-$80 audio interface is fine, but the second you want to get more complex those options are a dead end.
You'll need an interface that can handle more than three inputs
The requirements here are 4 inputs (2 XLR, 2 line in) with 2 pre amps and one classic 5 pin midi in/out.
This allows for the following:
The choices for usb 2.0 interfaces seem to have dwindled in the past few years to only a few.
Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 USB Audio Interface (2nd Generation) $199.00
MOTU M4 4x4 USB Type-C Audio Interface - please note this is a USB C interface, nice if you've got a newer computer, but it won't work with your old USB 2.0 connection.
Steinberg UR44 Audio Interface 4.0 $299.00
Steinberg UR242 $199.00
Behringer U-PHORIA UMC404HD $99.00
The price point is amazing. It's got 4 ins, midi in, and apparently the pres are good. I haven't heard it, but certain readers demanded I put it on the list, so here it is.
There are many less expensive options but they will always have fewer inputs and/or missing features - no balanced outputs (RCA only) which won't work if (or when) you have monitors, lower preamp gain, inability to mix high and low impedence sources, etc. (see below).
There are two types of headphones - closed and open back. As you could probably infer closed headphones are...closed, meaning the physical enclosure around your ear lets very little sound escape and gives you a "stereo in your head" sound, while open headphones are...open, and let more sound escape which leads to a more natural sound.
Closed headphones are good for:
Open headphones are good for:
Note: I produce electronic music and prefer open backed headphones. I've known classical musicians that love closed, and metalheads who prefer open, it's totally up to you (and try them on before buying - ear shapes and headphone fit are weird, and it really makes a difference in terms of comfort).
AKG K 240 Studio Professional Semi-Open Stereo Headphones $79.00
Based on the k240 monitors which were the defacto standard in the 70s in most recording studios. They're also inexpensive.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones (Black) $149.00
There's also the less expensive version, which work just fine - the ath-30x $69.00
Polsen HPS-A40 Headphones with 3-Level Bass Adjustment $99.99
These are the go to for electronic music producers.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Circumaural Closed-Back Monitor Headphones $99.95
These are good, but different from the Audio Technicas.
Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphone $99.00
These are popular with live djs because they're foldable and easily used with one ear only.
Even if you're strictly a singer songwriter, live band, or acapella group you're going to want a midi keyboard and/or drum pads at some point.
To make this matter more complicated there are all in ones that have both keys and pads and different numbers of sliders, knobs, and other bells and whistles.
There are way too many keyboard and drum pad options to explain all of the differences and those differences are the leading cause of GAS, but the following are the issues you need to consider.
The first thing is the number of keys, but the minimum for normal people is 49. If you know your way around keyboards and know you'll need a full piano or that you'll only be writing simple melodies or bass lines by all means get 88 keys or only 25 mini keys, but 49 keys are the sweet spot in the middle.
The physical keys usually come in one of three flavors - synth, semi weighted and hammer action.
Synth keys are usually light to the touch and easily triggered, hammer action (weighted) are more like a traditional piano, and semi weighted fall somewhere in between.
For most people synth keys are fine, for serious piano players hammer action keys are a must. Semi weighted keys vary greatly depending on brand.
Unless you've used midi keyboards before go to a real, physical shop and play the different types of keys before you buy a keyboard.
The most basic keyboard should have pitch bend and modulation wheels (or joystick), octive transpose buttons (to move up and down octives), and a sustain input.
The two extra features that can be rather important are transport buttons (ff, rwd, play, record), and a classic 5 pin midi input, but they aren't strictly necessary.
Here's a basic and inexpensive 49 key midi keyboard(usb only):
Nektar Technology GX49 $119.99
This is probably the best inexpensive full sized 49 key keyboard you can get. They keys are good but the integration with every major DAW is incredible. Your use of a mouse will decrease substantially, leaving you to focus on the music.
Akai Professional LPK25 - USB Laptop Performance Keyboard $56.99
It may look like a toy but it's tiny and perfect for mobile song writing, and it's got an arpeggiator.
Drum pads come in two flavors - simple trigger or velocity sensitive.
Trigger pads are really just on/off switches whereas velocity sensitive pads react to how hard or soft the pads are hit.
Both are integral to making music and the most popular are:
Novation Launchpad X Grid Controller for Ableton Live $169.99
The Launch Pad is tightly coupled with Ableton Live and is used to trigger loops in Live's session view. If you're an electronic musician you'll use one of these at some point.
Akai Professional MPD218 USB Pad Controller $99.00
Akai made its name in the late 80s and 90s with the MPC and they've since made the transition to midi drum pads. They have a zillion different models, some with and without sampling capabities and varying bells and whistles. The pads on most Akai drum pads are velocity sensitive.
For 8 or 16 simple, inexpensive, velocity sensitive drum pads:
Korg nanoPAD2 - Slim-Line USB MIDI Controller (Black) $64.99
Akai Professional LPD8 - USB-MIDI Pad Controller $69.00
There are too many to list, here are a few:
Nektar Technology Impact LX49+ $176.69
Like it's smaller sibling the Impact LX49+ has great keys, a smallish footprint, and incredible integration with most major DAWS. The drum pads are quite sensitive and this rivals much more expensive competitors (such as the Akai).
Akai Professional MPK 249 - Performance Keyboard Controller $399.00
It's got a huge footprint, it's expensive, and it's pretty much the top of the line (the keys really are good).
M-Audio Oxygen 49 IV - USB MIDI Keyboard Controller $169.00
Basic, but it has everything you need.
Novation Impulse 49 - USB-MIDI Keyboard $299.00
This is probably the best all in one, although it's getting long in the tooth and the Nektar LX49+ is much less expensive.
Novation Launchkey MK2 49-Key Controller $149.00
Tightly coupled with Ableton Live.
Akai Professional MPK mini MKII - Compact Keyboard and Pad Controller (Black) $119.00
A compact all in one with velocity sensitive pads, transport, octave shift, arpeggiator, pitch bend and transpose joystick, but only 25 mini keys. This is a best seller due to its price and compact footprint.
Novation Launchkey Mini MK2 25-Key USB MIDI Controller $79.99
A compact all in one that's tightly coupled with Ableton Live with 25 mini keys and various bells and whistles.
There are basically two kinds of microphones - condenser and dynamic.
Condenser mics record low and mid frequency instruments well, such as drums and electric guitar cabinets.
Dynamic mics record high frequency instruments well, like acoustic guitar, pianos, cymbals and vocals.
But for a beginner there's really only one mic you need...
Get an SM57
Shure SM57-LC Microphone $99.00
The SM57 was introduced in 1965 and it's been the go to mic for every US president since (it also rivals the Nokia 3310 and the Toyota Hilux as one of the most indestructible products ever made).
Yes there are better mics, but like monitors they cost thousand of dollars and if you're just starting out, they aren't worth it.
If you must have an inexpensive mic for vocals a good choice is:
Audio-Technica AT2020 - Cardioid Condenser Microphone $99.00
It's basic and captures vocals well, but an SM57 can too (the SM58 is even better).
Monitors are like watches, they can cost anywhere from $30 to $30k.
There are really too many choices in terms of monitors and it's second only behind a choice of DAWs in the "boring argument" argument category.
If you're strapped for cash get a good pair of headphones, just make sure to test your creations on every set of speakers you can get your hands on (monitors, hi-fi speakers, your car...etc.)
Experienced music producers inisit on having a good set of monitors, and they're right. If, however, you don't want to spend the money on monitors that's fine - get a good set of headphones first (or use a set of passive speakers you already have).
The best inexpensive monitors:
JBL LSR305 5" Two-Way Powered Studio Monitor $149.00 each
These are probably the best overall.
KRK Rokit 5 G3 - 50W 5" Two-Way Active Studio Monitor (Single, Black) $155.00 each
These have a bass boost (hip-hop and electronic producers seems to like them)
Yamaha HS5s $199.00 each
These are based on the NS-10M monitors which were released in 1978 and became a studio staple. People either love them or hate them, but if you can make your music sound good on these it will sound good on your phone, laptop, in your car, etc.
Monoprice 5-inch Powered Studio Monitor Speakers (pair) $139.99 pair
I haven't heard these, but I'm curious. Currently out of 63 reviews 57 are 5 stars and for the price they seem to be a great deal.
Like headphones, this one is up to you.
For most people the size of monitors is sort of like the porridge in The Story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears - 3" are too small, 8" are too big, and 5" are just right.
If you're going to record vocalists definitely get a pop shield and a mic stand. Sibilance is real (and a real pain) and a vocalist holding a mic in a studio is a bad idea.
When you buy a usb hub (and you will) get a usb 3.0 powered hub for your studio (also backward compatible with usb 2.0). A bus powered hub is fine while you're on the road, but with lots of power hungry usb accessories in your studio, powered is the way to go.
At some point you'll also want a stand alone wav/aiff editor for quick edits. Audacity is free, easy to use, and cross platform.
Things to Keep in Mind
Of all the things to avoid when producing music, the big one is skimping on gear. You don't need $3000 monitors or $1000 headphones, but if you take a look at each item in the categories above they're all about the same price - audio interfaces are around $200 - $250, headphones hover around $100-$150, etc.
The $70 you'd save on a $30 usb mic compared to a $100 SM57 is nothing compared to the quality you'll lose by doing so.
All music gear manufacturers are competing with one another and their prices are usually about the same because the raw materials to make their stuff is roughly the same.
Second, there's a ton of snobbery that gets thrown around between music producers, the most common of which is something like, "You use [fill in a name] to make music? That's not a real [fill in the thing], you should use [fill in a different name]".
It's complete bullshit. If you love FL Studio for making beats, use it. If you only have a cheap midi keyboard and no audio interface but you're passionate about writing and recording, do it and upgrade when you can.
Third, don't get GAS. If you really think your gear is holding you back there's some terrible news you won't want to hear...
It's not the gear - it's you.
So, work on being a better producer/song writier/beat maker, etc. but don't blame it on the gear.
The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix recorded most of their stuff on 4 track tape machines.
Not including a computer and assuming the DAW of choice is Reaper, the grand total for all of this stuff is around $750-$1000, or $450-$750 if you don't get monitors.
So, for less than (or about) a grand you can have a studio that's a million times more powerful than Abbey Road Studios in the late 60s.
Hopefully this was helpful. If I made any errors or you think something should be added, reply in the comments.
Active vs Passive Speakers
High and Low Impedance Signals (skip the math and just read the "The Low vs. High Difference" section)
XLR vs RCA
What is MIDI?