The term “music producer” often gets used to describe…a lot of things. But at its most basic level, a music producer is the creative and technical leader of a music project.
Sounds like a fun gig, right? It can be! But there are a few things you should know as you start pursuing a career in producing music. What skills do you need to have to stand out from the competition? What’s the bare minimum list of equipment that you need to work with top-notch musicians and bring their ideas to life?
To give you the tools you need to learn how to start producing music, we put together this guide to walk you through the nitty-gritty.
What Does a Music Producer Do?
Music producers captain all aspects of a project. When an artist wants feedback on the structure of a song, they turn to the producer. When a musician wants a section of a tune to sound like it was recorded in a bathtub, they turn to the producer. When a band is unsure if a bridge should be longer or shorter (or cut altogether), well…you know where we’re going.
To do all of these roles well, there are two categories of skills that music producers should have.
- Expert-level knowledge of music production technologies. Music producers have the same ability to use a digital audio workstation (DAW), sound libraries, and plugins that a talented audio engineer brings to the table.
- Creative and analytical music abilities. Artists rely on their music producers to be sounding boards for their projects. That means you should know at least the basics of music theory, including the basics of building major and minor chords. You should also have a critical ear and be able to offer suggestions based on trends in the music industry as well as what the artist is hoping to achieve.
We’ll explore the gear you’ll need as you learn how to start producing music later on in this guide. For now, let’s talk about your ability to critique, analyze, and craft songs.
Music theory is often a minefield for artists, especially those who are learning how to get into producing music. Successful bands often admit (with some amount of shame) that they don’t know the theory behind the songs that made them famous. And that’s completely understandable. Students begin learning theory as early as middle school, and there are endless avenues to explore even for experts.
We could hand you a college-level textbook on music theory and wish you good luck. But for the sake of being more helpful, here are a few things to focus on, especially if you’re getting started:
- How do you construct a major or a minor scale on a piano?
- How do you build a triad (three-note chord)? And what are the basics of chord progressions?
- What are the most common time and key signatures of the songs that you want to produce?
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What Do You Need to Produce Music?
OK, let’s talk gear. Now, you could easily walk into a shop and spend tens of thousands of dollars without blinking, but I would not suggest this, to say the least.
For those of you who are just getting started, here’s a shopping list of the bare essentials.
- A computer
- An audio interface
- Music producing software, such as a digital audio workstation (DAW)
- A MIDI keyboard
- Studio headphones
Yeah, that’s it. What’s more important for aspiring music producers than purchasing gear is to master the gear at their disposal. Before you dive in, take a second to ask yourself a few questions.
- What is your budget for purchasing gear? Once you figure out how much money you can spend, you’ll have a better idea of what type of gear that you’ll need to master.
- What audio interface and DAW are you using? While it’s not a bad idea to know your way around multiple DAWs and audio interfaces, don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to learn all of them at once. Start by learning the ins and outs of the tech that you know you’ll be using.
- What types of music do you want to produce? Your gear list will ultimately be dictated by the genres and styles of music that you think you’ll produce. A music producer who focuses on metal will have far different requirements than one who’s learning how to start producing electronic music.
Computer or Laptop
You could easily spend thousands of dollars on a high-end laptop for music producing. And if your budget allows that, don’t let me stop you. But if you’re just getting started producing music, you can do more than just “get by” with a computer that costs much less.
A Mac desktop or laptop for music producing that includes its new M1 processor is a good choice. Early reviews suggest that it can handle most tasks, including demanding apps such as DAWs. Whether you opt for a Mac or a Windows computer, do your best to look for the following specifications:
- At least 8 GB of RAM, but preferably a minimum of 16 GB
- A solid-state hard drive of at least 256 GB.
- If you opt for a non-M1 computer, at least a quad-core processor
Your audio interface allows you to connect microphones and instrument cables to your computer. Some options would make you look like you’re ready to produce the next Grammy-winning record—but in many cases, they’re overkill. Artists often accomplish incredible results with just a few pieces of equipment—including just one audio interface.
Digital Audio Workstation
Want to add effects to an artist’s existing track? Think some of the volume sliders need to be adjusted? That’s where music-producing software such as a digital audio workstation (DAW) comes into the picture.
We put together a comprehensive list of our favorite DAW options. Some are free, while others are a bit more expensive. No matter what your budget is, you should be able to find something that will enable you to get great results.
A MIDI keyboard looks a lot like a real piano—but it doesn’t have any built-in sounds.
Instead, it connects to your computer via USB and works almost like a video game controller. Your MIDI controller enables you to utilize the instrument sounds and other effects that are built into your DAW. For example, if you can’t hire a drummer, you can use a MIDI keyboard to create a drum track using the percussion sounds in your DAW.
MIDI keyboards are usually inexpensive. Some of the most popular options, including this one from M-Audio, can be had for under $100.
Sorry, but those old headphones that you picked up at the grocery store aren’t going to cut it as you figure out how to get into producing music.
The folks at MusicRadar explain that studio headphones are among the most frequently used pieces of gear by music producers all over the world. “They’re essential for assessing the stereo image, low-end and fine detail within a mix,” they continue. “Like studio monitors, getting the right pair of studio headphones is a very personal choice.”
To help you narrow down your choices, be on the lookout for popular brands such as Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Sony. Not only are they known for creating high-quality studio headphones, but they also offer options at different price points, some as low as $60.
How to Produce Music Yourself
Music producers are involved in all facets of the songwriting and recording process. The five most common (and important) stages include the following:
To give you a better understanding of the music producer’s role in each stage, let’s explore each one in more detail.
A music producer isn’t responsible for writing a song for an artist—but they do play a critical role in the songwriting process.
Artists tend to act on a fit of inspiration that’s not fully fleshed out. The producer serves as a sounding board to help the musician figure out some of the bigger details of the project. They also often ask some really tough questions. Maybe the musician wrote the song as a country song, but it actually works as a dance track. Perhaps the bridge section sounds better as a chorus.
Producers are often the cause of some uncomfortable conversations that musicians would rather not have. But that’s ultimately what you’re there to do—and the answers that come from some of those tough questions are what separate good songs from great ones.
I won’t lie—I’m a songwriter (sometimes), but I’m not a particularly creative one. I lean on typical song structure: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Outro. It’s a crowd-pleaser and it’s comfortable. If you’re lucky enough to work with a music producer, though, you’ll be forced to step outside of your comfort zone and think differently about how you arrange a song.
Music producers use their critical ear to identify areas in which an arrangement could be tweaked. Perhaps a verse is too long. Maybe a chord progression is so basic that it puts the listener to sleep. Or your bridge is ruining the flow of the entire song. It’s your job as the producer to listen for ways that an artist’s arrangement could be improved.
Knowing the ins and outs of your DAW isn’t the only role that a music producer plays while recording a song.
Check out this old video of Pharrell working with Justin Timberlake. Sure, Pharrell is turning all kinds of knobs and making all sorts of adjustments in the DAW. But he’s also urging Timberlake to get back into the vocal booth “one more time” because the takes aren’t up to snuff.
In addition to using your critical ear to arrange the song, it’s the music producer’s job to push the performer not to settle for recordings that are “fine.” This is a skill that you’ll need to refine over time. But if you can spend time with artists consistently, you’ll learn the difference between an instrumental or vocal recording that isn’t up to par and one that will blow people away.
What is the most important aspect of producing music? I’ve met several fairly successful artists who say that the magic really begins when a producer mixes a song.
The term “mixing” is actually a fairly literal one in music production. The music producer literally mixes (or blends) all of the recorded tracks together into something that sounds less like a group of musicians playing together and more like, well, a song you’d hear on the radio. Not only are they thinking of ways to get each instrument and vocalist’s volume to the right level, but they’re also charged with identifying and applying the right sound effects to make the song stand out.
I’ve mixed a few songs, though I’m not a professional, and some mixes were better than others. But when I mixed songs in the past, I’d experiment with things such as reverb on vocal tracks, gating drums, and the volume levels of each track. And then I’d get into the weeds of each part again. Where can I add an echo that’s tasteful without sounding distracting? Where should the piano be louder than a guitar? Learning a DAW takes time, but once you know your way around it, the mixing process can be a lot of fun.
When folks learn how to get started producing music, the term “mastering” usually pops up. And if you’re anything like I was when I started, you might have no clue what that means. Let’s walk through a quick example to illustrate how important mastering is to music production.
Your current mix might sound amazing on a car stereo, but are you certain that listeners will enjoy it when they’re using a pair of cheap headphones from the local drug store? In the mastering stage, an engineer uses a variety of tools to ensure that your song sounds professional on a variety of platforms. While some music producers know the ins and outs of mastering a song, many tend to outsource this to audio engineers that specialize in mastering tracks.
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