Where do I start?

Where do I start?

May 29th 2012

whereto.jpgYou want to start making dance tracks with your computer, but what do you need? We’ll discuss the software and plugins you’ll need to take those first steps. Remember to check out our glossary for an in depth explanation of many of the terms used in this article.



The days of needing a room full of expensive hardware to make great music are long gone, and for the beginner a home PC or MAC is the perfect platform for making music. While optimising your computer specifically for making music is beyond the scope of this article there are plenty of tutorials out there on the net such as this guide to Windows XP audio from our favourite magazine Computer Music .

You’ll also need a USB MIDI keyboard to trigger samples and play note data into your computer. You may already have a MIDI compatible keyboard at home, many digital piano’s have MIDI output sockets, in which case all you’ll need is a USB MIDI interface for your computer to connect them together. Our figure below shows an Alesis USB controller keyboard and an M-Audio USB MIDI interface, with 5 pin MIDI sockets visible.









One of the the first choices you’ll need to make is your music sequencer software. Music sequencer programs host virtual instruments and effects, record and play back note data, allow you to edit this data, import other audio sounds from file, and allow you to arrange this data into your musical composition. This program will be the hub of your tune making!

There are a few points to consider when choosing a sequencer such as your computer operating system (I.E Windows/ OS X / Linux), the features you’ll need and your budget. Most sequencer software companies will provide ‘lite’ versions of their flagship products which can be updated to the full version later on, these are useful options for beginners who won’t instantly need the most advanced functions. Many USB MIDI keyboards come bundled with these ‘lite’ versions so look out for freebies! There are often demo versions available too, so there’s no need to spend money without making an informed choice. There are of course also shareware and freeware alternatives to the main sequencer brands.

The main contenders in the sequencer market are
Cubase, Logic,
Sonar & Ableton Live. Most sequencers are laid out in a similar fashion: a main window will hold your arrangement in a linear time line with various other windows detailing items like audio mixers and plugins. Our graphic below shows a tune laid out on Apple Logic.


Ableton Live
provides a more innovative method of producing, where users can build up loops and then arrange them ‘live’ while recording their performance into an editable track. For electronic musicians who want to take their sounds out to a club and perform live this program is now indispensable. The software allows the musician to assign almost any input device (we’ve used a USB game controller to trigger sounds before!) to any on-screen control allowing for limitless performance possibilities.

Below you can see some of the free trance synth loops from DMS loaded as ‘clips’ into Ableton Live, with some drum loops to accompany them. 

Most sequencer software ships with a suite of built in audio effect plugins and software synthesisers , these will help you generate an manipulate your sounds from inside your sequencer software. Your sequencer will also be able to ‘host’ third party plugins and synths (common formats for these are VST and Audio Unit). check out KVR-VST‘s searchable plugin database for information on VST’s as well as links to freeware plugins. You can see REFX Vanguard Below.


Audio samples are a staple of making electronic music and you’ll find tons of them both free and commercial on the net (including some on DMS – check out our free stuff section!). While most sequencers provide basic audio editing facilities you may rapidly out grow them, stand-alone audio editors can provide a much more detailed look at your samples and provide better processing prior to use in your music. Some of the leader sample editors are Audition Soundforge and Peak. There are plenty of freeware and shareware alternatives to these, such as Audacity. Below you can see an audio file loaded into Adobe Audition. 


 We’ve talked a little about samples but how can you use then in your compositions? You can either import (or ‘drag n drop’ in most cases) samples directly into your sequencers arrangement or use a sampler, which will allow you to trigger the sample from your MIDI keyboard. We’re a big fan of the EXS24 sampler that comes with Apple Logic, others include Native Instruments Kontakt and Steinberg Halion. You’ll find some samplers are tailored specifically for triggering drum samples, such as Native Instruments Battery. Below you can see the Simpler plugin from Ableton Live. We love the easy to use functions on this no-nonsense sampler! Check out our Wav sample packs for some sampler fodder!


Sampled drum loops are great for getting your drum sound right first off and Recycle! is one of the best (and the original) loop manipulators out there. Recycle! works by detecting the beats or notes of a sampled audio loop and cutting the file into slices based on this. The program then allows you to export these slices into your software sampler or sequencer for editing. Since the loop is now cut up into it’s component slices you’ll be able to re-arrange them in your sequencer – this technique is especially powerful for sampled drums. Our short video below shows us messing around with a sampled 140 BPM drum loop in Recycle! and then exporting it into Logic 8 for editing into a 180 BPM Drum & Bass loop! 


Hopefully this will have wet your appetite for some music making! Remember there’s a wealth of information both in print magazines such as Future Music & Computer Music as well as on the net. The article database on Sound On Sound is also a goldmine for more experienced users. Remember to check out our other short tutorials for some more information on music technology basics!


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