30 years of traditional music didn’t prepare me for 30 days of EDM.
I started playing music in the late ’70s when my dad brought home a guitar from Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Yeah, I said it, Sears, Roebuck, and Company, and if that doesn’t qualify my 70’s statement, nothing will.
Back to the music: In the early 80’s I was focused on learning everything that the ’80s could offer to a small-town kid who had amassed a collection of 3 guitars, a TS-808 and a couple of tube amps. The Scorpions were the rage, and Loverboy and Divo were bringing in a new generation of sound with analog and digital synths. It’s shocking how relevant these groups would be to my EDM adventure as we fast-forward to 2020.
In the mid-’80s (1985–1986), I was in California playing in a cover band, and we could bust it out with the best of them. As I jumped around from band to band and pulling other musicians together, my skills were moved to the keyboard and the most basic drummer. By basic, I mean, I could keep a basic four on the floor beat and occasionally pull of Nazareth’s ‘Hair of the Dog.’ I spent hours learning Toto and Journey riffs on the keys and as many hours learning Dire Straight and Van Halen riffs on the guitar. I was also attending college and teaching guitar lessons for gas money to get me to the gigs we had lined up on Friday and Saturday nights.
Fast forward to the year 2020, a trip to Guitar Center, and I am sitting at my desk with a new set of tools. A Mackbook Pro, Ableton Live 10, Novation launchpad Mini, Novation Launchkey 49, and a Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 interface. Pair that all up with a dozen virtual instruments (VSTs) and a steep learning curve, and you have a good recipe for an old guy learning new tricks.
Let me set a little context for you about why I’m writing about learning EDM. I started listening to EDM in late 2016 as my millennial children were listening to most of the new stuff coming out on the scene. I began to hear DJ names like Tiesto, Daft Punk, David Guetta, and Avvici more often than band names around the house. I have to admit that at first listen; this seemed like trivial music with only a slight deviation to the once-loved sounds of Divo or a-ha’s “Take On Me.” I would soon learn that I couldn’t have been more mistaken about my thoughts.
As I started to listen more carefully, and my EDM vocabulary grew, I began to understand the sub-genres of the music. Dubstep, electro, hardcore, future house, future bass, hip hop, acid techno, etc. The list is vast and more extensive than any other primary genre I have seen.
I would eventually settle into loving artists like Marshmello, Zedd, Avicii, Mike Perry, Gryffin, Seven Lions, Mark Sixma, and other similar artists.
As a self-taught musician, I learned how to play guitar by ear, so recreating a song that listen to was often the fastest path for me to learning. I quickly realized that EDM music is not as simple as picking up a guitar and learning how to play the chords or the riff. It is very textured, based on strong chord theory, and has a lot of small but incredibly essential nuance sounds embedded within the tracks. Don’t even get me started noise, sidechaining, LFOs, and FX groups!
GETTING STARTED / SETTING UP
As I mentioned earlier, to start producing EDM music, you may need a few items as your starter dough. Below you will find what I’m currently using.
Software: I choose to use Ableton Live Standard as my digital audio workstation (DAW). I was familiar with Garage Band and had used it for years. However, in my research, I found that the majority of producers use either Logic or Ableton Live. I figured I might someday want to collaborate with other artists, and the odds of finding someone who was using Ableton would be more likely than someone using Garage Band.
Keyboard: I picked up a Novation LaunchKey 49 Keyboard. There are a ton of great keyboards on the market, but Novation seemed to have a sweet spot of both price and compatibility to my newly selected DAW. Launchkey came with Ableton Live Lite, which is what I started with but quickly found so many limitations that I felt I should upgrade to standard at a minimum.
Launchpad Mini: I do not think you must buy the launchpad mini to get started unless you plan to focus on live shows vs. sessions. For me, I felt the majority of my work would be coming out of a typical session setup, and my odds of doing a live show would be limited if at all. I did purchase the unit and have used it for a few sequences, but it’s not critical to my producing at this point because I can run my sequences with my mouse.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2: The 2i2 is a two-port digital interface that allows a and analog instrument like a guitar or a mic to interface directly to your computer and into your DAW. I knew if I didn’t have the ability to connect my guitar, I would feel naked. Beyond that, I found that the Scarlett also works well as a headphone amp for my Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO 80 ohm studio headphones.
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro Headphones: I LOVE Bose audio. I own QC 15’s, QC 35’s, SoundLink mini, and I fly with A20s. However, I quickly discovered that. A) you don’t want to mix with anything over Bluetooth due to the lag. B) It would be best if you had something to give you a flat response across your frequencies. I picked up my DT 770’s on Amazon for a killer deal of only $125 new in the box with prime shipping. They are typical $179, but they had a 24-hour flash sale. I suggest you drop them on your wish list, and if they go on sale, Amazon will send you an email. That is how it worked for me, anyway.
VSTs: Virtual Studio Instruments are software instruments that allow your DAW to have sounds like synthesizers or amps without the need to have the physical hardware. So if you plugged an electric guitar (analog) into the 2i2 (Digital Interface) and run it through a (VST AMP) you could sound like you are playing through a 1980’s Marshall Plexi Amp while recording in your DAW <Big Breath!>. There are 1000’s of VST’s on the market, I wish I were joking about that, but I’m not. This part of the setup had to be one of the most painful areas to dive into. With hardware, it’s pretty straight forward. You read reviews, find compatibility with the vendor’s specs, and you make a choice. With Virtual instruments, there are so many things to consider. How will it sound, what is the support from the company, can it be upgraded, does it support add-on packs, can I use it in my music, the list goes on and on.
I decided to start with the basics, or so I thought. I purchased two of the most well-known plug-ins (also a VST) that many EDM producers use. Serum and Sylenth1. You can buy Serum and Sylenth1 directly, or you can rent to own. Your decision will likely depend on your budget. I choose to rent-to-own because for only $9.00 per month I could test out the full functionality. If I decided after 60 days it wouldn’t work for me, I would only be out $18, and I could move on. I’m still evaluating, but I’m reasonably confident at this point that both are useful instruments and will work for my style of music.
SAMPLES: It became evident within my first week of building tracks that while I can play music and make chords, melody, and bass lines. There was something critical missing. I started watching a lot of YouTube videos and specifically Alex Rome videos. Alex spoke to me in a way that connected. He runs an online EDM style Bootcamp, which I plan to attend as soon as a spot opens up. Alex discussed why the basic triad or bass line doesn’t hold up under EDM expectations and how you have to add samples of atmosphere, noise, and other essential nuances to the music. He also has a good selection of videos that focus on how to decompose a particular artist’s style, like the Chainsmokers or Mike Perry. This style of listening and recreate works well for me as an audible and visual learner.
Enter Splice.com. Splice is a place where you can pay monthly to get credits that allow you to download samples (wav files), midi tracks, vocal tracks, packs of sounds, and presets (preset sounds for SERUM as an example — a Mog sound with stepper). Be warned; you can get lost in this musical treasure chest of goodness.
First Reproduction: My first reproduction was Dua Lipa’s new rules. I followed along with IllFactor at Beats Academy to build out the song. IllFactor has some excellent tutorials and does a great job of helping you understand each step of the song. I did have to stop the video and study the notes in the midi scores to get things dialed in. I do wish that he would also supply the music notations to make it a bit cleaner, but it’s not hard to stop the video and look at the notes.
My recreation from the tutorial of Beats Academy
I am about 30 days into the efforts of producing EDM music. I have learned a lot, but it is clear to me that I have an epic journey ahead of me before I produce anything worth sharing outside of my friends and family.
I look forward to sharing my experiences with anyone who wants to follow along. I would expect you will hear my music and my style along this journey in 2020.
Who knows, maybe I’ll even get something on Spotify and get a few listens along the way.
Resources that I have found in the first part of my journey.