In need of a hobby to learn while in quarantine, I've turned to music production. I've been meaning to become musically versed for a while, but seeing as I have neither the space or cash to hoard Actual Instruments, I thought I'd try diving into something with instruments both free and virtual: music production.

Here's what I wish I had explained to me at the beginning of that journey, in one place — hopefully this'll make getting into it a lot easier for you than it was for me. It'll go over music production tools, what they do, and a little into what I've used so far.

Please bear in mind, I'm completely new to music. And blogging. Feedback is definitely welcome!

Music Production Tools

Simply put, music production is the process of making music, whether it's using recorded live instruments, simulating them, or arranging samples of what actual instruments sound like.

To do that, you'll need something to make and edit recordings, and instruments to play. I'll explain some tools fulfilling those roles, with sane explanations of what they do:

DAW - Digital Audio Workstation

The piece of software that lets you create music, by recording inputs such as instruments or MIDI controllers, and arranging or editing the tracks you've recorded:

A screenshot of Reaper, a DAW

There are a lot of options here - Reaper, Ableton Live, Studio One, and others are some of the more popular options out there. I ended up going for Reaper, as it runs on Linux natively, and has both a 2-month free trial and a personal license afterwards costing only $60 (which, for a DAW, is insanely cheap). Which one you choose right now doesn't matter nearly as much as being able to get started making something; you'll be able to freely switch later, if you use trials.

At the time of writing, the amazing folks behind Reaper have been kind enough to offer a temporary free license to anyone socially distancing or working from home, through the end of June 2020. Now's definitely a good time to try!

MIDI Controller

A MIDI controller is essentially an instrument that tells a computer how you're playing it — which notes, how intensely, etc. They don't make any sound themselves, but you can plug that information into virtual instruments to make it sound like all sorts of things! Violin? Can do. Drums? No problem. It's a bit like an instrument chameleon.

My Arturia MiniLab Mk2 - A MIDI controller

They can have keys, drum pads, and dials, wheels or strips you can use to change parameters of virtual instruments. Pretty damn awesome. At the low end, they can be found for about £40, but far more hover at £70 or above; at the time of writing, my MiniLab Mk2 is ~£81 on Amazon.

If you have an actual instrument, or a mic, those can be used too! I just chose a MIDI controller because it's so flexible.

VST Plugins

These are plugins for DAWs that allow them to either simulate instruments from MIDI input, or apply effects to tracks. These are what you'll want to find if you want virtual instruments for a MIDI controller.

The instruments take MIDI input, and output sound! In the screenshot below, playing on my MIDI controller will sound like a string quartet:

The Spitfire LABS VST running inside Reaper

VSTs can be 32-bit or 64-bit, and often run on Windows and macOS. They can also be released as a standalone program that doesn't need to be run from inside a DAW.

Amazing Free VSTs I've used so far

  • Spitfire LABS
    • An absolutely stunning array of free virtual instruments, ranging from jazzy electric piano, to drums and cello. Cannot recommend this one enough.
    • You'll need to register an account for this one, and download a piece of software. This gets a bit tricky on Linux, but I'll go over that in a dedicated post.
  • 4Front Piano
    • Just a great upright piano sound
  • Ample Bass P Lite II
    • A neat bass guitar sound

I'll try to update the list when I find or use awesome new stuff! There are certainly far more experienced creators than I who give far broader reviews of excellent free VSTs.

Anyway, that's my understanding of music production thus far! I hope it's helped, and I may update the post to smooth out any kinks after posting.

The next post will go into how to get a music production workflow up and running on Linux.