NSB Production FAQ 2009
Basics - Computer / DAW / Plugs / Soundcard / Controller / Monitors
First of all, you will need a computer. Broadly speaking, you don't need an uber-powerful machine - as a bare minimum, you should aim to have a dual core with at least 2 gig of RAM and a decent amount of hard drive space – although you can probably get buy with a single core and 3 gig of RAM, you may find yourself struggling for power when things get intricate. It is also worth investing in a good quality monitor, as you are going to be spending a lot (and I mean a lot) of time staring at it.
At this point it would make sense to address the age old question - PC or Mac? The reality of the situation is that both have their merits, and both can be used to create music. Macs are arguably more user friendly and reliable, but they cost more. PCs are more widely used and you get extra bang for your buck performance wise, but they are more prone to viruses and hardware failure.
One thing worth remembering is that if you decide to go down the PC route for your production machine, then make sure you are well protected against viruses - or even better, do not connect it to the internet at all. Serious producers usually have two computers; one for production and one for pr0n.
So - now you have a computer, you will need some music software. This can be divided into two main categories; DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and plugins (also known as VSTs, or Virtual Studio Technology). The DAW is the host program, and (as the name might suggest) plugins run within them. Common types of plugin include soft synths, samplers, drum machines and effects.
Much like the question of PC or Mac, you have the question of which DAW to use. And much like the question of PC or Mac, users will argue into they are blue in the face as to which is the best. Popular ones include Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Cubase, Sonar, and Fruity Loops. Again, they all have their merits and they can all be used to create music. I won't go into detail on each one for the simple reason that I haven't used them all and so am not well qualified to comment - the best bet is to find demo versions and try them out for yourself, as it really does boil down to personal taste. Personally, I favour Ableton Live as it is designed to be intuitive and useable. If you are getting started with music production, and given that you reading this then you probably are, it is as good a place to start as any.
Next up, you will need some plugins to use with your DAW. Now, the tendency amongst people that are new to production is to download hundreds and hundreds of plugins, install them all and then spend months (if not years) faffing about trying to get to grips with them. I would recommend not doing this. The best thing to do is to stick with the plugins that come bundled with your DAW, as they will be perfectly good enough to be going on with. Depending on which DAW you choose, you may need to get a decent all round synth - preferably one that has some juicy presets for you to fiddle with. Again, I won't go into too much detail here as I haven't used all of them, but popular ones include Albino 3, Massive, z3ta+, Predator and the Korg Legacy collection.
OK, so you have a nice shiny new PC and you have the software to go with it. Next up, you will need a soundcard. Now, obviously PCs come with soundcards already installed - so as this is aimed at beginners, we won't spend too long on this subject. Essentially, you only really need a posh soundcard if you plan on running any audio into the computer - if you plan on keeping it all PC based (or 'in the box') then you can easily get away with using the on board sound. You may wish to get a cheap USB soundcard as it will give a nice loud and clear output, but don't feel inadequate if you skip this step.
Next, we will look at controllers. These are what you will need to control the synths and whatnot that you will be using. As a beginner you will struggle to make music without one, as it is a lot more intuitive to bash at the keys and wiggle the knobs until a nice sound emerges, not to mention a boatload more fun. You can pick up a decent controller for under a hundred quid, so get on it. Decent brands include Novation, M-Audio and Edirol.
Finally for this section, we will talk about monitors and headphones. The idea of monitors is that they accurately reproduce the sound that you are creating, so that it will translate well onto other systems. Regular headphones and hifi systems emphasise the bass and top end to make the music sound more exciting, so if create music on them you will find that when it is played on other systems it is either bass heavy or bass light, neither of which are desirable. I would say that as a beginner you don't really need them, they will only become important when you are cranking out finished tracks and wanting people to run them inna club - so we will return to this topic in more depth in the next section. If you are a beginner, then feel free to use the same speakers as you are using for music playback, they will do for now.
Ok, that's the basics out of the way. Hopefully, that should give you a good idea of what you need to get started. In the next section, Tools, we will return to a few of the topics outlined here in more depth...