Cost and complexity of making electronic music

Piano Laptop

The Composing and Producing Electronic Music course is finally over. I learned a lot over the past 12 weeks on topics like sound design, harmony, song composition and sound mixing. It was a great experience.

However, this is what concerns me. I found that making music is:

  1. Terribly expensive
  2. Terribly unproductive

It may make perfect sense for someone aiming to make professional recordings. But what about someone for whom it is just a hobby? It looks like we can’t even start doing anything without spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on MIDI controllers, DAWs and plugins. All that stuff is expensive and it looks like there is no other option.

In 1997 when I started playing with digital audio, I had a Yamaha sound card that had few hundreds instrument samples in it and a software that allowed me to tweak the parameters of every single one of them. I paid $200 for it. It had samples of real pianos, guitars, organs, you name it, as well as built-in subtractive and FM synthesizers.

If I want to get anything like that now, what are my options? $500 NI Komplete? If anything, in these 15 years it got more expensive. For one of my projects I needed a sound of a steel guitar. I discovered that it was not easy to get. Kontakt is awesome but it is expensive. It comes with 50 Gb of samples. I wanted something that had a couple of hundreds multisampled instruments in maybe 5-6 Gb for the quarter of that price. And I couldn’t find it. That choice had to be available 10 years ago, now it just disappeared.

Is there an option to even start doing good music on the cheap?

Then comes complexity. It is uncommon for an EDM artist to spend hundreds of hours on a 5-minute song. On something that will be enjoyed for 5 minutes. Of all the arts this must be one of the most unproductive. During the course we learned to program drums, write bass lines, layer, synths, etc. What looks odd to me that for each new song we have to do all that from the scratch – we need to put all these tiny little pieces together bit by bit. There seem to be no way to reuse, to build on top of what’s already done. Again, this may be fine for someone doing EDM full time. But if I have a couple of hours here and there, it looks like I need to give up without even trying.

There are some entry-level DAWs such as Garage Band and Cubase LE. But my impression is they are just stripped-down versions of the fully-functional DAWS. They don’t make anything easier. If anything, they actually make music making harder because they maintain the same attitude as the fully-functional DAWs but remove critical pieces of functionality. What’s the point paying $100 less for a DAW that is not capable of running VSTs? That is not a kind of “simplification” I’d like to get. And all the modern fully-functional DAWs grew into multi-headed hydras. Compare Cakewalk 10 years ago and now. I know some people who tried to do anything in Ableton Live and immediately felt intimidated by its complexity.

I don’t like where it is all going. I reckon that electronic music will benefit by bringing more people into it, by making producing EDM more accessible. Everyone can be an artist, but not everyone needs to be a professional artist. However, I see exactly the opposite. Computers became cheaper and more accessible, but over the last 10 years the complexity and cost of making electronic music skyrocketed. And I don’t think that is right.

If tomorrow one of my friends wants to get into EDM and asks me how, what should I say: “Don’t bother. If you are not prepared to spend big bucks, then leave your job and make music full time, it’s not even worth trying?” It is ridiculous. But is looks like that because all the software and the process that software enforces are tailored for professional producers.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t have to be like that.

Let’s take photography. It used to be complex to make photos. Now everyone can do it. Professinal use Photoshop for photos processing. And it suits them. I’m not a professional and I use Picasa. Instead of hundreds of sliders like in Photoshop, Picasa has button “adjust photo automatically”. Which works for me 90% of times.

Now, if I want to make music, I have no alternative but to use a DAW equivalent of Photoshop with all its cost and complexity. Why my DAW doesn’t have “make sound awesome” button? You say it’s impossible? I don’t think so. For example, professional mastering plugin iZotope Ozone retails for $250 in its basic configuration. Although it has tens of sliders and knobs, a pretty common way to use it is to start with a preset and then made tiny adjustments. So why not make it simpler - drop all the knobs and sliders and leave just 20 presets. Then sell in for the quarter of the price. It will make it accessible to a lot more people, and will be enough for 80% of them. Making something simple does not mean making it less sophisticated. Think iPhone. It is a masterpiece of sophistication in a beautifully simple form.

I think a current state of music making art is wrong, and it is due for a change. Everyone should be able to make music. And all the software should make it more accessible to everyone, not just for a bunch of professional music producers. The message that should be out there is that making music is simple, and it is fun. But at the moment it is neither of those.

I don’t know why. Maybe because software companies just aren’t interested. Maybe it is beneficial for them in some way to create an aura of music making as something accessible only to chosen ones. It is wrong. It needs to change.

Who knows, may be one day it will be my job to change that. Everything is possible in this world.

My new track - Chaos Engine

It is a scientific fact that the amount of entropy in the universe increases all the time. One day it may break the hell lose on our world, leading to a new Big Bang.

Entropy is the Engine of Chaos, and this is its song of destruction.

Download the track

Composing and producing electronic music: week 2

The assigmnent for week 2 of Composing and Producing Electronic Music was to make a drum groove for a Drum’n Bass track. Here’s how I did it.

I started with recreating Amen Break in FL Studio.

First of all, I found that I am not good at playing drums. After I “played” it I had to heavily edit it in the piano roll to match the groove. Next time when I do my own complex groove from scratch, it will make sense for me to draw the groove on paper first, then play it and edit.

Here’s the 100% quantized groove:

100% quantized groove

Then I dropped the original Amen Break groove into Slicex, which automatically sliced it. Oops, made a mistake here: before slicing the loop should have re-detected it tempo or manually set it to 138.

Slicing in Slicex

Then dumped into piano roll as groove template.

Groove template in piano roll

After that I quantized my drum’s piano roll based on the groove template:

Quantizing based on groove template

And here’s the final Amen Break in MIDI:

Amen Break in MIDI

You can see the waveform of the original Amen Break in the background. It is helpful for matching velocities.

The drums sounded ok, but I wasn’t satisfied with the riding cymbals. It seemed like somebody was kicking the bottom of the can. I ripped them off this midi track. Then I found the cymbal sound I liked in my library and recreated the cymbals using the Step Sequencer.

Then applied 50% swing:

Applying 50% swing

I also adjusted the cymbal’s pitch to match the original Amen Break:

Adjusting the cymbal’s pitch

Then I added an orchestral hit into the same step sequencer. And again, adjusted its pitch.

Here’s final Amen Break in MIDI:

Just to add a little variety I found a DnB an appropriate drum kit in Drumaxx and used it for the drums track. Then I laid the sub kick I did in Massive over it. Audio editing is frustrating in FL, so to the limited available time I decided to do away with it this time.

As for mixing, I assigned all the drums to the same mixer track and used the level knobs on the pattern tracks to adjust relative volumes of the tracks:

Adjusting relative volumes of tracks

As far as I can see, FL does not have a concept of a mixer bus. Instead output of each mixer track can be directed to an input of one or more of other mixer tracks. And vice versa, any track can take input from multiple other tracks (hence serve as a submix track).

In the screenshot below I created a “Drums” track (1) to serve as a submix of all the drums tracks (2-7).

Mixing drum tracks

The circled pictograms on the screenshot above indicate that the output of Dummaxx track 2 is directed to the input of Drums track 1. And the output of “Drums” track is routed to Master:

Routing drum tracks to master

FL puts a limiter into the master track by default, and I left it there with the default settings. As a result, the drums sound compressed but I reckon it’s actually better that way.


Here’s the end result:

That’s all for this assignment. If I had more time, I would program 1 or more different drum patterns a switched them after 8 or 16 bars.