I have a background in classical music, so I decided it would be easy for me to learn to produce music digitally. That overconfidence was quickly destroyed when I started researching. I got lost in a sea of software. Some websites claimed production only requires laptop and a portable controller. Others recommended loads of expensive tech tools.
And then came the branding – some people swore by Ableton. Others seemed to do okay with GarageBand. And I came across other names, like Traktor and Serato. And then what about looping? And cueing? And decks? I gave up before I even began.
There’s so much you can do to create music through technology. But it depends on your ultimate purpose, and the amount of time and experience you have. To help, here’s a quick rundown of some favorite software tools for making music.
Synthesizers help to convert sound through an amplifier. You can warp music and sounds to create a more electronic timbre, or just imitate other existing instruments. A lot of music production tends to rely on synthesizers, which came into fashion in pop music in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Moog Filtatron is a virtual audio filter and effects machine. You can run your sound through the Moog filter and experiment with modulation, delay and overdrive. After you’re done, they make file sharing and recording easy. Moog are famous synth experts, and this app is cheaper than the real thing. The Waldorf Nave is serious synthesizer business. This app for iOS includes two wavetable oscillators and more than 500 presets from acclaimed sound designers. Despite those intimidating-sounding credentials, this app is actually easy to use whether you’re a beginner or an advanced music maker. The Korg iElectribe is a synth with a 16-step sequencer, so you can build your track. You can also create different effects, like a reverb or chorus effect.
There are a million and a half apps and websites devoted to music production, so I won’t delve into all of them. For a high budget, you can pour money into state-of-the-art digital audio workstations (DAWs).
Garage Band is the classic tool that people turn to because it has a low barrier to entry. With its recording studio and collection of instrument sounds, you can play along with a band or orchestra by filling in their parts. You can record up to 32 tracks, and it’s a relatively simple interface. Never a bad place to start!
Steinberg offers Cubasis, a scaled-down version of its desktop DAW. You can use an unlimited audio/MIDI track feature, and mixer with FX, audio loops built in and more. This is like a very souped up version of GarageBand, and it’s more expensive, but won’t set you back as much as the desktop version.
Propellerhead Figure has an easy interface and is aimed towards musicians who want to quickly create music. Their app store listing says you can ‘create an addictive beat before the next bus stop.’ It’s a light version of their popular DAW, Reason. You can also share with other users if you’re looking for help in remixing or development.
If you’re looking for an easy-to-use tool to import your paper sheet music to the computer, Sheet Music Scanner can turn a PDF or photo into a MusicXML or MIDI file. It also has an audio playback function for individuals looking to hear music they see on the sheet. You just have to take a picture with your phone or tablet.
There is no real centralised network for musicians who want to collaborate. However, if you want to work on a project with other musicians, you’ve got options. Maybe you’d like to jam with others, or need to ask a teacher a quick question. Online collaboration tools make these things possible.
You can find spontaneous jam partners as easily as an online date or meetup. For example, ejamming allows you to play with live musicians anywhere in the world. You can join their community easily, and get as much extra rehearsal time as you need. Ohm studio also serves as a real-time collaboration platform, so that you can record your part on a track and upload it for your band, or source your partial track for input from the project members.
Grooveboxes and Drum Machines
Many apps will allow you to program percussion and drum loops, which are an essential foundation for building tracks. To practice your rhythm and build up a tune from the ground up, grooveboxes and drum machine apps are a great place to start.
The Drumjam by Sonosaurus was created in partnership with renowned professional drummer Pete Lockett. He recorded several live drum beats at various tempos, and incorporated several interesting percussive instruments like cowbell, ghatam, bongos and a surdu. You can use the app to manipulate reverb, pitch bend and distortion effects of your beats. Elastic Drums is similarly set up to use an interactive drum kit. You have several different synth channels and percussion synth engines to create a variety of sounds.
For every music producer, no matter your skill level, there is also Sheet Music Scanner. You can scan and play back music from printed sheet music, and export it to the file of your choosing, including MusicXML and MIDI. It’s as simple as taking a picture with your phone, then getting started.