Music Production Software For Beginners
Looking for the right music production software to get started?
While we may not be living in a world full of hoverboards and flying cars; we are living in the digital age.
Computers and the internet have revolutionized just about every aspect of our lives. Not but 20 years ago, if someone asked you who was the third Shogun of Feudal Japan, you would have to consult an encyclopedia or I guess Encarta (20 years ago was the 90s folks, getting old is weird).
Now you can ask your phone and it will tell you in about 2 seconds along with a joke.
Likewise, if I didn’t already know it to be the case, the concept of having hundreds of instruments and thousands of ways of manipulating them readily accessible to the general public would sound like science fiction.
Almost overnight everyone is a budding music producer of varying levels of skill. Combine the ubiquity of software and controllers with the free mass distribution platform that is YouTube and you have a world in which the music industry will never be the same again.
If you have any working knowledge of music production, please feel free to skip this section. Let’s get all the technical mumbo jumbo out of the way so you’ll know what I’m saying later.
DAWs or digital audio workstations are what the vast majority of music producers use to craft, edit and mix their music.
Typically, these DAWs work through plugins or Virtual Studio Technology (VSTs). These plugins populate the DAW with different sounds like drum kicks or prerecorded vocals and everything in between.
It’s not just one sound for each instrument or synth. It’s every note of that instrument or synth, making the possible combinations of composition very nearly endless.
Sounds are also obtained via MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, which is a fancy way of saying, playing an instrument into a computer. Once the sounds are in the DAW they are sequenced, or put into the order the producer thinks sounds best.
Now that the melody and/or beat is created or produced it can be mixed down or tuned to the exact specifications of the producer. This could be anything from changing tempo, to changing the pitch, to countless other things.
Sampling is much as it sounds; it is taking a piece of a composition that already exists and manipulating it to fit and loop (repeat) into your work.
That was the quick and dirty explanation, there is so much more to it than that, it isn’t funny. But, it should help you to understand what I’m talking about going forward
Just because you have the equipment doesn’t mean you have the talent though. In a lot of ways many of the music production software manufacturers are selling a fantasy just as much as they are selling a product.
The perception is that if you can make just one hit you’ll make it to the big leagues. What’s so nefarious about this fantasy is that at its core… it’s completely true.
In a lot of cases all that separates obscurity from stardom is luck. If you have the talent this software is an indispensable tool through which to siphon it.
On the other hand though, if you don’t have that talent, then it really is just a tool. It’s not going to make you dope.
But look at me making assumptions, maybe you aren’t looking to be the next Timberland, maybe you just need a couple kicks and snares to spit to. DAWs are more than equipped to handle that.
My point is: you are the biggest variable.
So the question becomes, where do you start?
There is no shortage of different software out there. Everyone is different, but the core considerations tend to be price, features and ease of use.
Best Beat Making Software for Beginners
Let’s face it, if you’re looking at a list like this you probably have no idea how to make a beat or what you’re looking for in beat making software (or maybe you do, I’m not psychic).
At its core it isn’t very complicated.
Put together loops that sound good, or if you’re feeling fancy, string together some notes that sound good and make the loops yourself.
Pretty much all beat making software allows you to do that, so it’s important to remember that words like ‘Best’ are highly subjective and your mileage may vary.
The best thing to do is to cross-reference what you’re looking for with the specs of the top programs on the market. This list will help you do that. But before we travel down that road, there is a very important detour that beginners should check out.
Free Music Production Software
It may seem strange to see free software choices on a list of bests, but these programs get pretty pricy (especially the better ones, which are what the rest of this list is going to be populated with) and it would be best to see if you even have an aptitude for beat making before you throw away hundreds of dollars finding out that you don’t.
With that in mind, here are some of the best free options out there to get your feet wet with:
Audacity: As in yes, I have the audacity to put Audacity on this list. To call Audacity bare bones would be an understatement. In pretty much every practical way audacity is more of a music editor than a beat maker.
So you may be wondering, why is it on the list?
Because this list, confusing as it may in retrospect be, is also a part of the beat making for beginners list and Audacity is a great place to learn the ropes.
It’s easy to download, it comes on every operating system and its many, MANY limitations make it easy to navigate and pick up quickly.
I’m not saying get married to the thing, but it’s a great program to cut your teeth on before moving up to the bigger, though equally free leagues.
Linux Multimedia Studio (LMMS): LMMS provides the skeleton of all the other more expensive programs. For those on their first foray into beat making it contains the ability to map out notes to create melodies and loops.
It’s a great place to familiars yourself with quantization volume control, pitch and tempo before moving on to the fancier programs. It even contains basic sampling features.
The freeness starts to show when you start looking to branch out of basic piano and synth sounds. The biggest weakness of free software is the lack of specialized controllers.
Point and click beat making just can’t hold a candle to the ease convenience and speed of having the hardware
While you can’t beat the price, if you are serious about making music you will soon exhaust the features and be ready to move on to the big leagues.
Apple Garage Band: It doesn’t really get easier than this. From your first glance you aren’t bombarded by the options, colors, waves, levels and all around busyness that you will soon come to recognize and appreciate from fuller programs.
This is a simple loop plug and chug program that is a great confidence booster for people just starting out. As you get more versed it also has a bunch of instruments you can bang out note by note as well.
The rub though is that it is, as the name would imply, a Mac exclusive…sorry pc users.
Stagelight: Remember how I just said it doesn’t really get easier than Apple Garage Band? Well, Stagelight does its best to make a liar out of me. It does fail in this task however.
It looks simple, but that streamline design comes at the cost of readily accessible features. For beginners this isn’t much of a problem.
You can fire it up and be on your way to creatively strung loops in no time. But as you begin to advance and look for ways to improve and distinguish your work, the cracks in Stagelight with start to show.
Music Production Software Free Download Full Version
For those of you who don’t like to crawl before you can walk, there are free trials that will allow you to use the software you are likely to be using soon anyway.
If you are coming into beat making cold than free trials will bombard you with features you’ve probably never heard of and more options than you’ll know what to do with and it’ll be awesome.
All but all the reputable programs offer free trials.
They know that if you really have the beat making bug, then a taste is all it’ll take to get you hooked. I say try them all and see which one you prefer.
Why not? They’re free.
Considering all of that, let’s get back on that road and take a look at the best software for beginners to actually invest in.
FL Studios: (Not compatible on Mac, if you have one feel free to skip this entry) Truth be told, Frooty Loops makes this list more because of brand recognition than because of the quality of the product.
FL is the OG of the production game, but in recent years newer better programs have come on the scene and surpassed it in pretty much every way.
Don’t let any of that suggest that FL Studios isn’t a great program to cut your teeth on though. It has all the pieces necessary to get you started.
A wealth of instruments and effects. Because of its popularity you’ll have no trouble finding online tutorials on You-tube to get you going right from the start, curbing what can be lengthy learning curve.
Unfortunately, despite the name, it lacks actual premade loops which can be helpful for people learning song arrangements and at $199 it costs more than most of its competitors.
Hate to see it happen to a progenitor of the field, but FL Studios probably shouldn’t be your first choice.
Cubase Elements: Now that all the advice and sentimentality is out of the way we can get down to the nitty-gritty of beat making software and where better to start than Cubase Elements.
Top Ten Reviews.com lists Cubase 8 as the best software of 2015 and for very good reason. For $99 you get easy to use software with thousands of loops and dozens of plugins.
Chord pads and a vastly improved render feature make it vast improvement from its predecessor.
What makes it most appealing to beginners is the straight forward interface making it easy to navigate the expansive features.
Maschine: Then there’s maschine. Maschine is going to be a huge investment. For beginners it would be akin to throwing yourself into the deep end of the pool.
But once you get comfortable you’ll be happy to be there. Combined with hardware like the MK2 and the MK2 Mikro, Maschine 2.0 can take you from a novice to a hit maker in no time.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. In most instances you have to purchase the hardware and the software together and that is going to run you about $599.
The installation process is not intuitive and can be tricky. You have to send your plugins to a specific place that is not the default location, and if you don’t know that during installation your software probably won’t work properly.
And finally, the user services are lackluster at best. Now if I’m still telling you it’s your best bet after all of that, you know it’s has to be something special.
The sheer number of plugins can seem never ending. Native Instruments puts out new updates and packs regularly. If you get their Komplete 8 however, it will be quite a while before you are even thinking about more plugins.
Some of the biggest names in music right now depend on Native Instruments plugins (more on that later).
Steinberg Sequel 3: The dark horse of this race, Sequel is one of those programs you have to be looking for to even know it exists.
If you do somehow stumble upon it (which I suppose you just did) you’ll find that it is one of the simplest, beginner friendly pieces of software on the market.
When it comes to simplicity in DAWs what you want to see is a bunch of blocks of instruments and sounds with different color corresponding to a bunch of blocks of notes and waves of the same color.
This allows you to quickly discern which sound is which and makes it easier for you to map it out accordingly. Those features are surrounded by options like tempo, gain, pitch nothing fancy.
On top of all that is play/pause, fast forward, rewind and stop. That is a direct description of Sequel. If you need much more than that, then it’s time to start moving up in the world.
The only problem is that if you need much more than that, then it’s time to start moving up in the world. (It also doesn’t support any VSTs before VST 3, but I didn’t want to mess up the symmetrical thing I had going there.)
Something I can’t reiterate enough, don’t let advertising gas you up! Beat making is art just like drawing, singing and ice sculpture.
Don’t go out there and spend hundreds of dollars because a company tells you that you could make beats like Dre or Timberland. To be clear, I’m not telling you that you can’t. I’m just saying test the waters first.
Do you have beats or ideas in your head already? The software isn’t going to supply the talent. You have to bring that to the table yourself.
The Best Music Production Software
When you’ve decided that you’re ready to invest and you’ve moved on past that beginner stage, it’s time to start looking for the best programs to fit your needs.
There is a false perception that online music software is limited to making beats. In reality beat making is merely the tip of the iceberg. In fact, most modern music and almost all popular modern music is made using production software.
Beyond that, even musical compositions made with live instruments are usually mixed down and processed through some kind of program. In this regard, determining which software is best for your personal use depends on what kind of music you are looking to create.
We live in a time where popular music has skewed more towards hip hop. That is why most programs seem to follow that trend. In reality production software can make pretty much whatever kind of music you can.
This brings us to the discussion of how to determine the best software to use. The reality of production software is that all of the widely accessible options do largely the same things.
They allow for various methods of recording music, produce music through virtual instruments, effects, prerecorded vocals etc. and edit the tracks once you have them. The major differences usually come down to ascetics.
What that means is that there really isn’t a one true best software choice, but there are definitely programs that are better than others and that is what we are going to be looking at on this list.
Maschine: In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big fan of Maschine. It is a personal bias as Maschine is what I use. For that reason it is the software and equally importantly the hardware that I am the most familiar with.
The sound library is deep and includes samples of live instruments that can be truncated to suit your needs and create a much less synthetic sound.
I have the basic Maschine 2.3 set up, but if you are willing to shell out the cash for the host of expansions, that deep library expands exponentially.
The cavalcade of features can seem initially overwhelming. But the interface is pretty intuitive. Without any actual training I was producing and sampling instantly, and mixing within a few weeks. However, all the negatives listed above still apply.
Ableton: Everyone uses Ableton. Everyone. It is far and away the most popular DAW among up and coming producers and established producers alike. It’s not hard to see why though. It has pretty much everything you could need.
The built in tutorial seems like a no brainer, but is a feature you won’t find in many other programs. Despite that though, Ableton’s ‘cards on the table’ feature placement combined with its Windows 95 matte gray skin make it a full on sensory overload.
I have no doubt that once you are familiar with the program that its clutter will become a boon, but at first glance it gives you a bit of a headache. It comes with thousands of sounds to mix and match. It is the Live Suite upgrade however, that really shines.
Depending on your needs, the less synthetic sounds make Ableton optimal for a wide variety of genre productions. Ableton is not for beginners, but when you’re ready for it, it is a monster for sure.
Logic Pro: Being a Mac exclusive is one of the few downsides of this extremely popular software. Logic is another favorite of the production community and also for good reason.
The library is gigantic. The interface is intuitive and easy to use. Not for nothing, but the layout and skin is pretty sexy too. I mean, its apple…what do you really expect.
The integration with the iPad is just a cool cherry on top of a fully loaded sundae. It’s also Garageband’s big brother, so if you were using that the transition really couldn’t be any smoother.
It’s a great program and a shame its Mac exclusive.
Professional Beat Making Software
Ever wonder what Diplo or Deadmau5 or Skrillex use to produce their music?
Most of their music could be made on any number of the programs that I’ve already listed above. But it is a fun exercise to see what the best in their fields use when they have access to literally anything they want.
Deadmau5: Deadmau5 has been said to use several DAWs including Pro Tools, Ableton Live and Bitwig
Flume: Ableton populated with Sylenth and Native Instruments plugins and the Maschine MK2 for hardware·
Netsky: Ableton populated with Omnisphere, Sylenth, Real Guitar, Razor and B4 plugins·
Disclosure: Pretty much sticks to Logic·
Wolfgang Gartner: Another Ableton user with Waves Kramer Tape
Dada Life: More fans of Ableton with a plugin they actually made themselves called Sausage Fattener along with Razor and Sylenth. Sausage Fattener only comes with two nobs, fatness and color to provide what they call a simple but greasy sound.·
Kink: A new one to me, Jeskola Buzz comes free online in an x86 version and an ‘experimental’ x64 version. The best part about both is that they’re free to download.·
Sharooz: One for Cubase with the Native Instruments Komplete set for synths
Camo and Krooked: I’m happy to see someone using FL Studios on this list because as we’ve established, I appreciate the nostalgia. They load it with FM8, Kontakt, NuGen Stereoizer and Fab Filter pro-q for their synths.
Kill Paris: And we’re back to Ableton…
Hardwell: Another Logic user populated with Sylenth, Virus TI and Nexus plugins. He also uses BazziSM to create his own custom kicks.
Diplo: Yet another from camp Ableton, rocking with the NI plugins Komplete and Massive
Martin Garrix: FL Studios with Ozone, Nexus, Massive and Sylenth plugins
Flosstradamus: Never ones to discriminate, Flosstradamus use both Ableton and Logic
Skrillex: Ableton with the Native Instruments plugins
Bass Kleph: Ableton
Nicky Romeo: Logic getting it with NI plugins
Chocolate Puma: Logic·
Avici: FL Studios·
Calvin Harris: Logic filled with the NI plugins
David Guetta: Logic
So what does all of this tell us?
People love Ableton, a lot of them. Moreover, even more people love the Native Instruments plugins.
What that tells us is that the most popular music producers in the world are using the same software readily accessible to everyone else.
Not to gloat but this lends credence to my talent theory. These programs are as good or bad as the sounds you put in them.
Some of these people have been as innovative as to create their own methods of making and manipulating synths.
Conversely, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is a different barrier separating the top producers of the day from the up and coming producers of tomorrow and that barrier is hardware.
A lot of these producers have state of the art monitors, speakers and soundcards and that’s before even mentioning the controllers, boxes, keyboards and soundboards.
To get some of the setups these people have you would need to spend thousands of dollars. Just for fun, let’s take a look at how much one of these setups would run you.
Tannoy Reveal 6D Active Monitor: $472.31
Moog Little Fatty Stage II: $1,395.00
Roland Juno-106: $1095
Korg MS20: $499.99
RME Fireface UCX: $1,349.00
Giving you a grand total of $4811.30
I’m not going to tell you that you need all of that because that really isn’t the case. But the fact of the matter is that it makes the whole process so much and easier and fluid.
It changes the experience almost 100%. Having actual keys to play, having speaks so good that even the smallest detail leaps out at you; the right hardware can take you from little league to the majors.
While depending on how you’ve got it, 5 grand might be out of your current price range, the beauty of these set ups is that they fit in pretty much all living situations.
Gone are the days when producers had to hold up in giant studios only they had access to, in front of giant soundboards.
Despite the fancy names and the bells and whistles, most hardware boils down to a laptop for your software, keyboards, pads, speakers and mics. The only real difference between famous producers and talented unknown producers is exposure.
Best Music Making Software on a Budget
After that episode of lifestyles of the rich and the famous we just went through it seems like the best way to take this whole thing home would be with the most realistic software choices for those of us still trying to get to that level.
While in most cases the hardware is going to run you much more than the software, a lot of the popular plugins are upwards of $500.
For that very reason, Maschine and Native Instruments Komplete are not going to be on this list because it is high at its base price and they get you coming and going thereafter.
These are the programs that will get the job done without you having to get another job yourself.
To be clear, unless your needs don’t require much, these programs are just to hold you over until you can afford the better ones.
Acid Music Studio: This $59.99 program is more or less a stripped down version of Sony’s Acid Pro series. It comes with over 3000 audio samples and an unlimited number of tracks.
For that price what you’re getting isn’t too bad. It really isn’t pretty, but it will get the job done. (Windows only)
Reaper: $60 and a whole lot prettier than Acid. The Cockos software is actually kind of a steal at 60 bucks for home use, as the commercial license goes for $225 and is the exact same program.
One of the few registered complaints is that there are perhaps so many features that it can get confusing if you don’t know what you are doing. That sounds a lot like a champagne problem to me.
That said, if you don’t feel you need all the extras then paying anything for something you don’t want or need is too much.
Mixcraft: Another one only for windows. Acoustica’s Mixcraft is sheer elegance in its simplicity. The $74.99 price tag doesn’t hurt either.
Its streamlined spreadsheet appearance makes it easy to handle and navigate, while its functionality and wealth of content make sampling and looping as straightforward as it is varied.
Mixcraft is even compatible with Acid and Garageband, if your budget somehow allows for diversification.
The bad news is that once the learner becomes the master there is no immediate upgrade. That means you’ll likely be dropping a couple hundred on some premium software eventually anyway. But if you make it to that stage, you’ll probably want to.
If you have the time and the patience you can be making monster tracks for literally no money at all. If you do have some disposable income you can be making monster tracks with a little less patience without breaking the bank.
The moral of the story, when it comes to music making you get out what you put in, whether that is time, money, patience and or (especially) passion.
All this software and hardware are just tools. The music is you.