Hardware and Software for Electronic Music Production: Dubstep
The time has come. You have been DJing your favorite tracks for a couple years now and it finally dawns on you. “Hey I can make a great track too.” Yes you can. All it takes is some motivation, patience, and the right kind of tools to craft that next club destroyer. Well I am here to tell you about the hardware and software solutions that the professionals use to make your favorite music. In this write up I will be focusing on the powerful software solutions that help to make dubstep tracks as well as the hardware that will be useful for managing your projects and opening up your creativity.
WORKFLOW IS SUBJECTIVE
If you are the audience I am trying to reach with this blog then I am just like you. I am someone who wants to start producing all kinds of electronic music from house, dubstep, and trance to electropop, and industrial rock or anything that inspires me at a particular moment. I didn’t know where to begin when picking the right hardware and software so I decided to do a ton of research into what was the best solution for anyone in my same situation. By “a ton” of research I do not mean I did a Google search for 20 minutes and regurgitated what I saw in the first two search pages. I asked friends, colleagues, peers, and music makers that I knew and had them explain to me the best solutions for this (I also did do a ton of Googling). With a little help from my more knowledgeable friends, extensive blog scouring, and reading interviews with today’s biggest electronic music makers, I have a pretty good handle on what you need to craft your next Soundcloud masterpiece.
This list includes things that I found to be the best solutions, but at the end of the day I understand that workflow is purely subjective. Some people swear by Reason and Fruity Loops, and others will tell you that you don’t need any Hardware because everything you need is in the software. These people are not wrong, they just have a way that is comfortable to them for producing electronic music. I like to get my hands on a keyboard, bang out a beat on drum pads, and I like to have endless options for sounds. Here are the things that I think will benefit that type of workflow.
While it would seem to make the most sense to start with software here, some of these hardware packages come with included software that I will be mentioning later. It’s also a good place for you to decide whether or not you want to invest in hardware for your production. I am a huge advocate for MIDI keyboards and control surfaces but in the digital age I understand that many of you can get around that extra purchase and just use the laptop, but it makes more sense to get your hands on a set of keys or drum pads if you really want to experiment with your compositions. So here are a few packages that I would recommend:
I like to have 49 keys as opposed to 25 because I don’t like having to constantly change octaves when I am in the zone and writing melodies and bass lines. Others may disagree and that is fine, you can get away with 25 keys. 49 keys makes more sense to me as a piano player and I would recommend 49 because as you get better at playing chords for your melodies, you will find that 25 keys are only good for the index fingers.
Novation’s Impulse line are great MIDI controllers for getting your hands off the laptop and onto the keyboard. They have line level faders, endless rotary encoders, semi-weighted keys, sustain and expression inputs for pedals, as well as a pitch and modification wheel. While this is standard for most all MIDI keyboards, what makes the Impulse so useful is its Automap feature. Whichever software you are most comfortable with, the Impulse has a preset that will automatically map the functions of the keyboard to the software.
The Novation Impulse comes with Ableton Live Lite which lets you get started with the interface right out of the box. The only problem is that you can’t save your work after the 30 day trial unless you upgrade, but you should be able to figure out in a couple days whether or not this is your software of choice. More to come on Ableton in the next section.
The reason the Novation Launchpad is a piece of hardware you will need is that it works great with Ableton when launching clips during the composition process. This is another one of those instances where the hardware is allowing you to take your hands off the mouse and keyboard and really get into your arrangements. The best part is that it is small and thin which makes it great for travelling. So in theory, you can build all of your elements at home with the Novation Impulse, then take your Novation Launchpad and laptop out on the road and use it as your arrangement tool. Pretty cool stuff.
The fact that you can take the Launchpad from the studio to the stage is what makes it a great piece of hardware and when you couple it with Ableton it makes for one powerful performance setup. If you are familiar with Madeon and some of the remixes and music he has been putting out lately, you will probably notice he uses a Launchpad to launch clips that he has chopped up and arranged in Ableton. A great piece of hardware for the dubstep producer and even more generally the electronic music producer.
AKAI is well known for its APC and MPC controllers and is a staple for a lot of hip hop production and DJ performance. They also had a great run with their line of MPK MIDI controllers from the 61 all the way down to the MPK Mini. Their latest controller the AKAI MAX 49 has a lot of the same features as the MPK line but with some nice improvements on the hardware side of things. We got a chance to see and play this one at Winter NAMM but I have yet to actually get deep into the control side of the MAX 49 because I have not seen one on my desk yet. If it functions like the MPK 49, then you should have great fun using this keyboard in your glitchy, wobbly, production.
The MAX 49 has all the usual suspects. 49 semi-weighted keys with Aftertouch, 12 pads, pitch and mod wheels, and the ability to assign this keyboard to any number of production softwares. You may notice that there are no knobs this time around. That’s because AKAI opted to condense some of the real estate on the MAX 49 and make a lot of those features internal. This is great considering the size and bulk of the MPK line and it allows you to have full customization of the pads, the Numark Strip Search style line level faders which can be used to control FX, and the built in arpeggiator and step sequencer. All of these things can be called up in the menu on the MAX 49 and my guess is this is what makes it a good pair with Ableton.
Because I have not been able to play on the MAX 49, I can’t really tell you with certainty that this is the revolutionary production keyboard that it claims to be. I just know that I have used the MPK line and it really is a great controller for versatile production and helpful for getting your hands off the computer and on to an instrument. So if you are at all timid about dipping your toes into the MAX 49 water, you can’t go wrong with the MPK 49.
So the same logic I spelled out for the Novation Launchpad can be applied here for the APC 40. Its a great tool for launching clips, composing your sequences, and works amazingly well with Ableton in a number of different applications. The reason for mentioning it here is that it has more controls than the Launchpad and if you are someone who does not want to feel limited in the composition, clip arrangement, and sequencing process, then the APC 40 may be a better move for you than the Novation Launchpad. If you are someone who likes to grab a knob for effects control, then coupling this with the MAX 49 is worth it considering those FX controls are on the MAX 49 touch strip.
Much like the Launchpad, the APC 40 was built for controlling the functions in Ableton and comes with a custom version of Ableton Live specific to the APC 40. Having the hardware like faders and knobs may appeal to you more than simply the pads on the Launchpad which is why it is listed here. Clear some desk space though. Having a 49 key controller and an APC 40 will take up some room in your studio.
Native Instruments Maschine (optional)
While Maschine (controller and software) is not essential to what you can accomplish with a MIDI keyboard with drum pads I find it to have the most responsive pads on the market. This is a great option for doing tight drum patterns and getting musical with your hardware. The included Maschine software has tons of great drum kits and you can download expansion packs which opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Use the kick from one kit, the clap from the Dark Pressure expansion, and some hats from the Platinum Bounce Expansion, and before you know it you have your own signature kit.
The reason I would pick Maschine over something like the MPC is that I love the way the Maschine software is laid out, the transport and step sequencing controls are all intuitive, and I just really like Native’s hardware. The MPC Renaissance has yet to come across my desk here at the UniqueSquared offices so until it does, I will always go with Maschine for my drum pattern and clip launching arrangements.
At the end of the day it’s really about getting a MIDI/USB keyboard and some type of solution for launching your clips in Ableton. This is of course the opinion of someone who does not want to spend all of their time with a mouse and keyboard but would rather have control through hardware. If you can stay in the grid and make music that way, I say go for it. There is no right way to do things because the only “right” way is the way that makes your workflow tailored to your needs and gives you a track that you are happy with. These hardware solutions are useless without powerful production software. Lets talk about what you need on your computer.
I must preface this section with a note about computer hardware. It is important that you check the minimum system requirements on the web for the software you are running. Things to take note of are memory or RAM requirements, storage space, and overall CPU power. You want to make sure that you meet all the minimum requirements but it is also a good idea to be running at a greater capacity than the bare minimum. I am not saying you need to go out and by 32 GB of memory, but you do want a computer that is not going to crash the second you load the software. To be able to run a lot of these programs simultaneously, you will need some above average CPU power.
While this may seem like a disclaimer to avoid the inevitable, “but you said this and it didn’t do that,” and while you are half right, it’s also a problem I ran into years ago when trying to run Pro Tools properly. I want to make sure that when you guys are investing money in your studio, that you don’t spend money in the wrong places like I did. With that out of the way, let’s dive in and see what software we need.
It’s no surprise that the software used most by electronic music makers and performers is Ableton. Many DJ’s use it to launch loops during their performance and it works great for that. As a production tool, its real standout feature is the ability to streamline MIDI sequencing, VST instrument integration, and the ability to host an endless amount of effects based on your software plugins and hardware sampling. Ableton really allows you to do it all even if it comes in a package that is sometimes confusing to people. Check out Lonely Paul’s article to get an in-depth look at Ableton and how it stacks up against Maschine. He has a ton of useful information on Ableton and how its workflow is beneficial to the electronic music producer.
For the dubstep producer, Ableton allows you to layer your drums so you get that awesome hard attack. This is not something exclusive to Ableton but that feature is essential when making dubstep and Ableton makes it easy to stack the same kits on top of each other and you can adjust the velocity of each MIDI note and add little touches like effected kicks or hi-hats. Subtle things that you don’t always hear in a track are easily created in Ableton’s MIDI note grid. Ableton has the plugin Operator which is what dubstep producers and fans like to call “the wobble.” It’s filthy, it sounds great, and it is a staple for a lot of dubstep tracks. You will see a plethora of online tutorials that all start with, “ok and I open Operator for that wobble sound.” It has almost become the staple of dubstep online tutorial videos as much as Ableton has become a staple for electronic music production and performance.
Ableton doesn’t need me to champion their software as some of the most notable electronic music producers are using it for their production. The great thing is that if you get Ableton Live LE with a hardware purchase, you can go to the Ableton website and upgrade to Ableton Live Intro (be sure to check the packaged version of Ableton and the terms and conditions on the Ableton website for details). They also have Live and Suite to pick from depending on what you need. Go get Ableton and learn it. Its the way EDM production is being produced today and it’s a great tool for dubstep. I am in the midst of getting familiar with it myself and loving how irritatingly challenging and surprisingly rewarding it is to work with Ableton.
A lot of people will tell you that all you need is Massive and they are not completely wrong here. All of the major players use Massive because it has such a robust interface for getting those super glitchy and wobbly bass sounds. However using just Massive can become very limiting especially when you are trying to get great drum sounds, play with different types of synthesizers, or have a plethora of effects at your disposal. This is why Komplete 8 is worth the money especially when considering the additional softwares like FM8 for more synthesizer tones and Battery 3 for a whole crop of drum and percussion noises. This is not the only reason to splurge on the entire Komplete 8 package. You can use these software solutions for almost every type of production. For instance let’s say you start getting really savvy with all the plug-ins and at that point, what’s to stop you from engineering other people’s tracks? Nothing. So now when your buddy comes over and wants to make a track but has the musical prowess that starts and stops with vocal gesturing and air drumming, you can turn to him and say, “I know what you’re talking about and I know how to do that. Here is my rate…” Then you can use that extra cash to expand your studio, and now you are a working producer. The planets have aligned.
The really great thing about Komplete 8 and Native Instruments in general is that their software packages are constantly being updated with fresh sounds, new tools to craft, and occasionally you will see the GUI change in awesome ways i.e. Traktor 2.5. You can buy additional sounds too like the Abbey Road series kits or things like the Maschine add on packs like Dark Pressure which are fantastic additions to an already extensive library of sounds.
Native Instruments is fully aware of the popularity of these software packages so for a limited time (June 18-June 24 2012) they are offering a discount on the popular Massive, FM8, and Razor. I would imagine that while this deal is limited, we could potentially see more discounts and packages like this from Native Instruments, or maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.
izotope Ozone (optional and highly recommended)
Izotope is a mastering software package that is littered with all kinds of preset mastering options from country, to hip-hop, to rock, to electronica. It also allows for full mastering customization which is great for all you skilled and budding engineers out there. Because it is a software package, all of us can now breathe a sigh of relief for not having to buy the expensive rack mounted compression and equalization hardware for our home studio. There is a big debate out there as to whether or not these software mastering solutions are all that good but a lot of this talk is coming from engineers losing work to those of us who can figure it out at home. I can totally sympathize with them but it’s high time for a lot of these veterans to consider how much more skilled a working engineer would be in this type of software package than any beginner noodling around with the functions in Ozone. For the rest of us, it’s nice to know there is a mastering solution out there that’s not going to cost a fortune.
I wanted to give a little more on this topic of production. Here are just a couple of things to keep in mind during your leap into making your own tracks.
The most important thing to keep telling yourself is that you can do this. Things like Komplete 8 and Ableton seem a bit daunting and intimidating when you first open them and dive straight in. Try sticking to a couple sample packs when you are getting started with Komplete 8. If you start trying to go through every sample to find that perfect wobble bass sound, you will be pulling your hair out and become frustrated very easily. Try to get a solid foundation in Ableton like a drum and bass part. Don’t try to do too much at once either. Make your first few tracks one to two minutes long so you can get a handle on how the software operates and so you can see a track from inception to completion.
Lonely Paul will have some great tutorials on our blog and YouTube channel in the weeks and months to come so check those out if you ever get stuck.
Learn an Instrument
In this day and age (and forgive me if I start to sound like an old fart) kids are just giving up on learning any practical musical skills. It seems that my peers and those younger than me pick up a DJ controller and think that is the only tool they need to be an “artist.” This thinking is what is limiting your full potential to become the artist you eventually want to be. When your parents were buying you lessons for the piano, guitar, violin, or any other instrument you grew to hate because the instructor sucked all the fun out of it, they were actually trying to help you expand your skills.
So now you are older and the technology has advanced so much that you don’t have to be even remotely competent in an instrument and I can totally understand your point of view. While I weep for the future of music, I have to stand on my soapbox and tell you why this is so important. If you ever want to get your tracks to the point where you have people enthralled by your sound, then you need skills in composition, tonality, and dynamics which come from knowing how to play a musical instrument. Anybody can make a dubstep track, but it’s the MUSICIANS who really thrive in the genre. Skrillex was in a band before becoming a dubstep producer, both guys in Nero are classically trained musicians, and Rusko has a degree in Music Performance. Look it up.
I would recommend taking some piano lessons as most of your production will be centered around your MIDI keyboard. The cool thing is that you don’t have to go to some family music training center littered with apathetic kids and high school band members (although I vehemently support these facilities and their employees). You can now go online and watch videos, take online courses, practice scales on your own, and get tips from truly great pianists sometimes for free. Don’t turn into that guy that uses his index finger to make tracks. Get all 10 fingers on that keyboard and really make some magic.
This may sound like lamenting from an already jaded ex-touring drummer, but in fact this has incredibly impactful applications to how you craft your tracks. Part of the problem is that too many producers will only go and watch DJ sets to get ideas. Step outside of your milieu and you will find a whole world of ideas opening up to you. Pay attention to how a band reacts to a crowd, how the dynamic of a song changes based on the stage energy, and how 4 or 5 people can come together under the same musical umbrella in such creative and exciting ways. It’s that synergy of watching a band hit their stride that will really make you want to run home, and figure out how to make that drop even more dramatic than you had ever thought possible.
I am not saying go out and watch a bunch of rock bands (although I truly support live local music no matter where you live) but go watch a funk band, a jazz band, a singer songwriter at a coffee shop, a dueling piano bar, whatever is playing near you and is affordable. The problem with many songwriters and producers in any genre of music is that they listen to what others in the genre are doing and rarely venture out and explore other forms of music. They don’t realize what an invaluable asset this could become when deciding how to craft their music. If you don’t have the time or money to check out bands, then open up your Soundcloud or Spotify to other types of music. You may hate it at first but trust me when I tell you that getting out of your electro comfort zone will really open some creative doors.
This is of course coming from a guy who never thought electronic music had any value. My attitude has changed drastically in the last two years and I am coming around in a big way. Even if I would rather go to a Tool show than a Datsik show.
I open this up to you reader. Post your love, hate, anecdotes, additional hardware/software suggestions, or general advice for those of us wanting to take our production to a higher level. We can all learn more.