You’re a DJ, and not just any DJ, but a DJ who’s been killing it in the local scene. You’re getting all the gigs you could ever want and have a burgeoning fanbase who follows you from club to club, but you want to break out of your town and move on to surrounding areas, maybe even surrounding states (or countries). Problem is, none of those venues have ever heard of you and think you’re just another guy with “DJ” scrawled in front of your name to make yourself look professional. How do you make yourself stand apart? The answer is music production.
However, it’s at this point that another problem presents itself. You have absolutely no idea where to start! There’s tons of different software options out there, not to mention the vast array of effects and instrument plugins, and even once you get all that, how do you even use it? That’s what this little guide is for.
Part 1: The Software
First thing’s first, you need a DAW (digital audio workstation). The DAW is going to be the focal point of everything. Your song will be lined up in there, and all your plugins will work with it. Now, depending on your platform (Mac or PC) you have a few different options:
Ableton Live (PC & Mac)
Live is arguably one of the biggest juggernauts of the dance music scene. In addition to functioning as a music production platform, it can also be used for performance, and in fact Madeon’s brilliant “Pop Culture” live mashup was recorded and performed using Live (along with a Novation Launchpad – that fancy thing with all the pretty lights and buttons). It’s an incredibly capable piece of software and comes with a wide variety of very useful instruments and effects. However, all of that also comes at an incredible price – $449 for Live 9 Standard and $749 for the Suite version.
Logic Pro (Mac)
Up until recently, this was the DAW of choice for brilliant producer BT, and still is for Morgan Page, not to mention several others. Its user interface is arguably more intuitive than that of Live’s, and it comes with quite a few great instruments and effects itself. However, its greatest limiting factor is that you need a Mac to use it…which isn’t a problem for Mac users, but is a problem if you don’t feel like dropping $1500 on a computer just to use Logic. Another major feature missing is its lack of support for VST plugins, which you’ll understand more in future parts of this guide. A license for Logic Pro X will run you $200.
FL Studio (PC)
While Image Line’s FL Studio software has developed a bit of a reputation for being pirated by 14-year-olds with “DJ” in front of their names (despite the fact they’ve never gone near anything closely related to DJ hardware) who write terrible songs, the software is incredibly capable – once you get past the clunky user interface. In fact, this is the software BT left Logic Pro to use. Various big-names use it as well, such as Nicky Romero, Maor Levi, and Porter Robinson. However, it does not have a Mac version. A license for the “Producer Edition” of FL Studio 11 will run you $199 – that’s a whole dollar cheaper than Logic Pro!
Reaper (PC & Mac)
Nobody has heard of Reaper, even though it’s been around for a number of years. Nobody has heard of its simple and attractive user interface, or of its trial that never truly expires, or of how light and fast the software is. The fact of the matter is, Reaper is my personal DAW of choice, and it’s the one we’ll be using for the remainder of this guide. One of the major features of this piece of software is the fact that there’s an option for nearly anything and everything in the settings menu, and it supports WASAPI drivers on Windows 7 and up machines, which means extremely low latency (great for recording stuff live). A license for Reaper 4 will only cost you $60, and you’ll actually be licensed for up to version 5.99 – something none of the others here can brag about. In addition, the trial lasts 60 days, but even after those 60 days, it still allows you to use the software.
And of course, there are many more, like Pro Tools, Cubase, Nuendo, Reason, Sonar…
A word of wisdom: it does not matter what DAW you use. All of them are capable of professional-quality music. What does matter is how well you know how to use it, so once you find one you like, stick with it and use it. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as that is often the best way to learn.
We will be using Reaper for the remainder of this guide because of its ease of use, because its trial lasts so long, and because of the various excellent built-in plugins and effects. However, if you would like to download one of the others and mess around with it, by all means.