Tips for teens making music with technology

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For teens who are making music, there’s a lot of technology to explore. Audio and music technology covers a wide range from writing music, recording music, and using “synth” (artificial) sounds with software or hardware.

Getting started

Most musicians don’t get into music tech by reading books and memorizing audio terms. It usually happens because you want to create or make something and need tools to do it.  Learning music technology is hands-on almost like learning a new a musical instrument. Luckily, there’s a lot of entry-level audio products and music software that can make it easier to do.

Technology can help you be creative but it can also keep you from being creative. If the tools are so difficult you can’t create anything (or it takes you multiple trips to the music store to get everything you need), it’s going to be hard to stay interested or motivated. So, my goal is it try to make it as simple as possible to get started so you can start creating.

Try lots of software

Audio software is a bit like clothes. There’s different styles and what one person likes may not be what someone else does. Some software is better than others depending what you’re trying to do (make beats, record music, write music with synth instruments). Software generally has demos, too, so you can try out for a period of time for free before buying.

Expert tip: Only try one demo at a time. There’s a learning curve to every piece of software and that’ll give you the best chance to try it out before moving on to something else.

Software suggestions

Apple’s Garage Band is ideal for the very beginner. You can learn basic recording, editing, and working with very basic synth instruments. You can use it on a Mac or there’s an app version of it, too.

Reason Intro 10

For writing songs, Propellerhead Reason is one of my favorites (I use it for some of my own work). It come with drum kits and loops, synth sounds, sound processing/effects, and you can record, also. One of my favorite features in Reason is it can change tempos and pitch during playback (even with recorded audio – which a lot of professional software doesn’t do). This is great if you’re just sketching out a song idea and want to try different speeds, drum beats, etc. The samples it comes with are very good quality. It comes with a 30-day demo which is generous for what you can do in that time.

Ableton Live is a popular choice for electronic music (synths, loops, and beats). It also comes with sounds, effects, and loops. You can perform live with it or collaborate with other musicians using the software. Ableton also has a 30-day demo then a very affordable intro version. It’s not the easiest option for a beginner and may have more of a learning curve than Garage Band or Reason.

Cubase Elements

There are many advanced/professional software options on the market from Avid’s Pro Tools (the industry standard for audio production), Apple’s Logic (which is similar in design to Garage Band but more advanced features), or Steinberg’s Cubase (which has an entry level version) or Nuendo. I wouldn’t jump into these until you have a good grasp on audio software basics (like how to route an audio signal, how to record a track, what different types of effects and processing do).

If you’re overwhelmed by software  it’s going to be really hard to be creative. So, learn how to create first then upgrade when you have a need for it. Otherwise, you might just be paying for features that you won’t use anytime soon.

Expert tip: Don’t steal software. The people who work at music software companies usually aren’t major/rich corporations. They’re usually musicians and computer programmers who love what they do and want to make great products for other musicians to use. Who knows – you might get to work for them someday.

Get a good pair of headphones

Headphones aren’t just good for privacy but will improve the quality of your mixes (mixing is the process of playing all your tracks together and adjusting sounds and levels). I would skip earbuds and go for a headphone that covers your ears (which is much more comfortable when you’re working for a couple hours at a time).

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Headphones

You can get a quality pair of professional headphones between $80-150. Popular professional brands are Sony, AKG, and Audio Technica. My favorite headphones in this price range are Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones. I use these in my work all the time.

While Beats headphones are very popular for listening, professionals tend not to use them. Beats intentionally have low frequencies (and very high frequencies) boosted so the sound is “colored” and not neutral. What this means is you might adjust your instruments, samples, and such to sound balanced in your Beats headphones but when you listen anywhere else (other headphones or speakers) the bass won’t be balanced. That’s why it’s ideal to work on headphones and speakers that are as flat/neutral as possible.

Expert tip: No matter whether you’re on headphones or speakers, it’s really important to learn about sound safety and what can cause hearing damage. Take lots of breaks. Be aware of how loud you’re listening. If your ears are ringing, you’re listening too loud.

Get a basic keyboard (piano)

Synth samples allow you to perform instruments that you don’t play or can’t record easily. For example, if you sing and play guitar but want to add bass to a song (but don’t own one), you could perform the bass part with your piano and have it sound like a bass. Piano and drums are common instruments played synth but you can find samples of everything from strings to banjos to didgeridoos. A keyboard also allows you to play around with software-based modular synths (if you’re interested in that). You can come up with some really crazy and unique sounds that way.

Two features to look for:

  • USB connection. This is going to be the easiest way to connect to a computer. It’s literally “plug and play” – you plug it in and should be recognized by your computer
  • Touch-sensitive keys (may also be called “velocity-sensitive”). This means if you push the key lightly, the synth instrument will sound softer (or a heavier touch will give a louder sound).
Novation Launchkey Mini MK2 with accessories

A nice option for getting started is a mini-keyboard (unless you’re planning to play like a traditional piano and need more octaves). Some keyboards have extra features like drum pads (so you can play drum parts) and pitch/modulation wheels (to play around with sounds). A keyboard like the Novation LAUNCHKEY MINI MK2 has all these features plus comes with headphones and software (Ableton Lite).

Expert tip: Take a little time to look through the manual. Not all manuals are written well so if you don’t understand, it may not be you. Try searching Youtube for videos. Someone else might be able to explain it more clearly.

A basic microphone

Professional microphones range from hundreds to thousands of dollars and require additional hardware to work with a computer. For a beginner, I would look for a USB condenser mic which includes all of the electronics necessary. There’s a lot of USB mic options under $100 which are fine for learning and getting started. Look for one that’s “plug and play” so all you’ll have to do is plug it in. There’s a couple drawbacks to USB mics, though:

  • Most USB mics only come with a desk stand. This is fine for speaking (like for a podcast) but it’s not a good mic position for
    singing or recording an instrument.
  • You could buy a “shock mount” and a mic stand (to have more flexibility with mic placement) but that may cost as much as the mic.

But, again, if the goal is to learn to use a mic without getting too caught up in technology or spending a lot of money, a USB mic is perfect for that.

Blue Microphones Snowball Mac with pop filter
Blue Microphones Yeti with accessories

Blue’s Snowball mic is a good entry-level option under $60 (USD). The advantage of spending over $100 is sound quality gets a lot better. One USB mic I do like (over $100) is Blue Microphone’s Yeti. You can get it in a bundle with a pop filter and headphones for the same cost as the mic. Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone with Studio Headphones and Knox Pop Filter

Expert tip: Buy what you can afford (or borrow it!) and get something better when you’re ready for it. If you were learning a musical instrument (like violin or guitar), you probably wouldn’t start with a high-end instrument. As you get better, you’ll learn what you like and don’t like or what tools would help you do your work better.