To make music these days, you need a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation.) There are dozens of different programs that will do the trick, and most of them have horrifyingly high price tags. So to save yourself from the ultimate beginner misake, which is, “Oh my god, I bought this DAW, it cost $700, and I hate it more than doing my taxes,” let’s look at this rationally.
Getting a DAW from my point of view is a process where you’re going to first learn how to use a DAW, and then go shopping for the DAW you’ll be using for the next few years.
How do you learn how to use a DAW without a DAW? Easy. Get a starter DAW. Use it to learn what the basics of music production, then you can shop for a DAW intelligently.
There’s no better starter DAW than Reaper. (Or any DAW that comes bundled for free with software you buy, I guess, but I’m going to assume you’re not buying anything, because this is for Cheap People.)
So why Reaper?
Because Reaper has an extremely generous demo. You get a 60-day full working demo. After that, if you keep using it, you should pay the $60 for the amateur license. (Because nobody likes leeches.)
Download the 32-bit version for now.
Why 32-bit? Because you can run all the plugins that way. Not all plugins are available in 64-bit versions yet, and some older plugins will never be available in 64-bit, due to their age, or because the developer doesn’t want to re-code them. You’ll only need to go 64-bit when you start making monstrously huge tracks. Until then, 32-bit is fine, and yes, 32-bit Reaper will run in your 64-bit OS.
Seriously, Reaper will even run on OS X versions 10.4-10.5 on PPC macs. It’s amazingly flexible.
Now go learn the basics of Reaper. Try Tutorials for Reaper’s YouTube Channel for starters. Or just do a search on YouTube. (This is the cheap guide, after all.) If you happen to have a subscription to Ask Video/MacProVideo.com, they have good tutorials on Reaper, and a ton of other stuff, but it costs money, and this is the Cheap Guide.
You can also read the fine manual.
What About Hardware?
Ah, you need a keyboard, monitors, and a USB audio interface, right? Well, maybe.
Since you’re just starting out, and maybe you’re just seeing if it’s interesting to you, I’d say hold off for a bit. This is a hobby that can get really expensive, fast.
A new crappy MIDI keyboard, runs $100. (Good ones can go over $1,000.) A USB audio interface runs $150 for a cheap one, and a cheap pair of monitor speakers starts at $100, and $100 monitors really suck. Really, really suck.
If you have to get anything, then I’d say it’s okay to a MIDI keyboard, but hold off on the other stuff, unless you need to record live instruments… in which case, why are you going cheap???? Read some other guide.
Cheap MIDI keyboards are all the same, with sloppy action, few controls, and a general cheapness that means they won’t last long. M-Audio makes a good generic crappy MIDI keyboard. If it’s like my old M-Audio keyboard, it’ll mysteriously die after a year or two. Not even my pencil could save it.
For a USB interface, I like my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. It’s a stupid-cheap USB audio interface. It’s not the sexiest or fastest, but it gets the job done for me. I use it with some KRK-6 monitors I got on sale. They’re not great, but they’re good enough. But even those cost around $350 on sale.
At any rate, we’re not aiming to release a record right off the bat, so it’s okay if your gear is on the OEM janky side for now. Improve it as your budget allows.
My Two Iron Rules of Music Production
Before you go shopping, keep these two rules in mind. They will save you a lot of cash, and a lot of headaches down the road.
Rule One: If you can, demo the hell out of everything before you buy it. If you can’t demo it, make sure there’s a good return policy. (At least a month.) If anything feels off or uncomfortable, don’t buy it/return it. That slight discomfort in the keybed you feel? That isn’t ever going away.
Rule Two: Ignore the hype and look at the product carefully. Every single product out there has a slick marketing video with professionally made sample tracks alongside it. Don’t get suckered in. That guy making sweet music with the cool box of lights or whatever random VST? Yeah, he’s a pro. He’s got years of experience, and he probably spent at least a few weeks working with the product in question, and knows it way, way better than you do. Take the hype and dial it down a notch.
I’m not saying some of this stuff isn’t awesome– some of it is! But it’s like a great pair of size 9 yellow shoes. If you’re a size 9, and like yellow, then hot dog! This is for you! But not all of us are size 9, like yellow, or even need another pair of shoes.
So do your research and buy gear carefully, or just do it later, when you have a better idea of what you’re doing. (I recommend the latter, but I understand the former.)
Next, we’ll start looking at free synths and effects plugins! Yay, finally!