Before the year 2000, music was generally made in a recording studio with gear costing tens of thousands of dollars. You’d book time with the studio manager, hire a recording engineer, hire a mixing engineer, and then send the finished mix to a mastering engineer at another studio. It took a lot of time, effort, patience, and money.
This meant that the only way you could come up with a professional result was to spend a lot – or to get signed to a record label that would lend you the production costs upfront.
You’d then need to find a way to promote and distribute your track, which meant dealing with publishers, PR managers, replication facilities and lawyers.
Maybe a small indie label would sign you and do all that work for you while you waited years for any royalties to roll in. Or maybe you’d catch the attention of a radio DJ who would play your track at 3am on a Tuesday (if you were lucky).
In the past, you waited for someone to pick you and your music. You waited for someone who would be gracious enough (and had deep enough pockets) to give you permission to be creative.
The internet changed all of that.
You don’t have to wait for a record label, publisher, promotions firm, or local radio DJ to pick your song any more. If you want to become a DJ/producer today, you just have to pick yourself.
In this four-part series we’ll explore how dance music is created today to give you the confidence to try it for yourself.
Today we’ll start with how and why nowadays, tracks are being made at home instead of at top-shelf recording studios that cost more than your house.
Why in 2018, your bedroom is your recording studio
1. Almost all dance music is made on a computer
The majority of dance and club music is increasingly being made in a bedroom studio using a laptop with digital audio workstation software like Ableton, FL Studio, Reason or Logic. This is because the last 10 years has seen a dramatic increase in power and quality when it comes to recording and processing music “in the box” without the need for expensive hardware gear like mixing consoles, effects, and even professional speaker monitors. It’s common to see DJ/producers using a cheap pair of “prosumer” monitors like the KRK Rokits or the Adam Audio T5Vs in their home studios, for instance, alongside a pair of headphones as a way of cross-referencing their mix, because the quality for these pieces of gear have shot up while their cost continues to slide down.
Midi keyboards and controllers are also ubiquitous in DJ/producer studios because they allow you to take control of software synthesisers – synthesisers that sound as good as their analogue counterparts but for a fraction of the cost. Affordable synth and hardware suites like Arturia’s AnalogLab, which combines a KeyLab keyboard controller with the AnalogLab software, gives you access to thousands of sounds from vintage analogue gear that would previously have been way out of reach for bedroom producers.
Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol series is another hardware / software bundle that combines a wide palette of traditional sounds and contemporary synthesis for modern producers in an attractive package.
DAW-specific controllers like the Ableton Push 2 and the just-released Akai Pro Fire (for FL Studio) have also helped to make made digital audio workstations the new recording studio environment, giving DJ/producers unprecedented hands-on control over their DAWs without spending an arm and a leg (or taking out a loan, as was standard back in the days of opening a recording studio business).
Audio interfaces have also developed an inverse relationship to price and power: affordable devices like the Universal Audio Apollo Arrow put world-class inputs and outputs at your fingertips, and in this case the device opens you to Universal Audio’s library of industry-grade hardware emulations.
For those who really want to work with analogue synths, affordable desktop hardware like the Korg Volca series, Teenage Engineer OP-1, and the Novation Circuit are powerful, and a far cry from the prohibitive cost of synths of yesteryear.
The cost of setting up your own bedroom studio has got so low that you’re even likely to spend more buying next year’s flagship iPhone than getting the gear and software needed to make music today.
2. You’ve got instant access to the sounds used in dance music
There were two gatekeepers to music recording and production in the past. The first one was price: If you wanted to get that synth patch, that guitar sound, that thundering kick drum, you needed to buy the right piece of gear. The same went for mixing consoles, EQs, compressors and other special processing.
The second gatekeeper was secrecy: Drum sounds, samples, custom synth patches… producers and beat makers kept all their sounds close to their chests because back then, the sounds you used were currency. The vinyl you sampled that vicious drum fill from was currency. The time you spent tweaking that snare drum for weeks just to get it to sit right in your production was currency.
Rapper and producer Eminem was notorious for keeping his ZIP disks filled with sounds and loops under lock and key because he knew that they were a huge part of his “sound” and credibility.
The internet did away with both of these gatekeepers. Online loop and sample libraries like Loopmasters, Splice and Sounds.com get you authentic sounds sampled straight from these instruments for pennies. Some of them are even played by acclaimed studio musicians – it’s like hiring a thousand-dollar piano or bass player to record you a few loops of him or her playing, all for the price of a cup of coffee.
Sharing is encouraged – you only need to look at YouTube to find hundreds of thousands of videos made by other bedroom producers showing you how to get a particular sound, or how to program a soft synth to get a nice bass patch, or even how to use a hardware drum machine if you want to do the sampling yourself.
Add to these the fact that an overwhelming number of songs in dance music charts use just a handful of sounds to create a huge chunk of the production, and that these sounds are often found in their raw forms in sample libraries just begging to be tweaked, and you’ve got another compelling reason why laptops connected to the internet have become the new recording studios.
3. Collaborating and combining complementary skill sets is the new normal
Think of the internet as a massive directory of services and people who you can work with and who fill in the gaps in your skill set as a producer. Maybe you’re great at coming up with melodies and rhymes, but you’re not really into making beats and programming drums. It’s easier than ever to hit up another producer on SoundCloud or Facebook to ask for a “collab”.
For example, it’s common for rappers to work with beatmakers, allowing them to focus on what they do best – writing and rapping – and leaving the beat alchemy to the specialists. This helps rappers to be prolific artists, which is especially important as attention spans and release windows shrink. Plus, it’s not uncommon to see two or more producers working together on a tune. even if they haven’t met each other in real life.
Video conferencing tools like Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and Skype have made real-time brainstorming and artistic collaboration a reality, while group chats like WhatsApp and Slack have made being part of a producer or artist collective easier than ever. Cloud storage like Dropbox and Google Drive make even the largest of file transfers possible, so you can work with anyone anywhere in the world long as you’ve got an internet connection.
You can even work with mixing and mastering engineers in the biggest and best studios to give your productions a professional sheen at much lower rates than if you were to attend the session in person. If you’re on a really tight budget, you can use a mastering service like LANDR to give your tunes that final bit of polish – all for the price of an avo toast.
4. Promotion and distribution costs are either free or inching closer to zero
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are awesome platforms for keeping in touch with friends and family, but it’s also marketing and promotions tool that you can use to shout about your music for free. In the past, you had to have a physical copy of your music which you hand out or mail to friends and relatives just so they can hear what you’ve made. Today, you can just send them a link to your tune and they can listen to it instantly.
Making money thanks to people listening to your music (and not necessarily buying it) has also become a reality thanks to streaming sites like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal as well as aggregators like Tunecore, CD Baby and Distrokid that make it possible to get your releases up on them. Even mastering service LANDR has started offering distribution to Beatport for as little as US$1 per track.
5. You’re only limited by your ability to push through to the end
Like a lot of things in this internet age, your biggest obstacles are your ability to remain focused and to have the patience to stick it out until you’ve finished your first tune. Getting started is always the toughest part of any endeavour – Chinese philosopher Laozi said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Another hurdle you’ll have to jump is figuring out how to research and reconcile different (even opposing) ideas and teachings when it comes to making music.
The internet is a huge place, and everyone teaching how to produce music will have his or her own tricks, hacks and routines, and the more time you spend reading and watching tutorials, the more you’ll begin to realise that there is a lot of confusing and conflicting information. Yes there’s lots of information out there, but the onus is on you to figure out which ideas you’d like to add to your toolkit, which in itself can be a daunting task given just how massive a subject production (and music in general) really is.
The most liberating thing about producing music today is that it’s entirely up to you: It used to cost thousands of dollars just to produce a single track – not including the budget needed to press it to a physical medium and get it on radio and MTV. Now all the tools, sounds and knowledge that you need in order to complete your first production are within reach of anyone with a computer, and for a fraction of the cost.
The internet has flattened industries and it has levelled the playing field in favour of the bedroom producer who has a passion and desire to put out something into the world. The only question is: Are you going to do something about it, or not?
Want to get started? Our Dance Music Formula course has helped hundreds of people just like you to go from zero to finishing and releasing commercial-quality dance music. Click here to find out more.
Read the other parts in this series
Do you produce your own music? If you do, how did you get started? If not, what’s stopping you? Let us know your story in the comments.