If modern-day music production always starts with a computer and a DAW, one should not underestimate the necessity of certain hardware tools which will improve your workflow. The truth is that today, the compactness of computers allows for an almost entirely virtual setup. Nonetheless, most music producers still rely on some inevitable hardware music production equipment for their studio setup.

In spite of these developments, solely drawing notes on a piano roll might be an intuitive process, but you still won’t get the feeling when composing with a real keyboard. Furthermore, listening to mixdowns through your cheap monitors or headphones will be rather counterproductive. Relying on your computer’s sound card for the processing of sounds is probably not the best starting point for any musical process. Being in a noisy, unadapted and untreated environment can also severely impact the final audio quality of your mixdown.

The solutions to the aforementioned problems are to invest in tools which will facilitate your workflow and music writing process. A MIDI keyboard will ease the composition of harmonies and melodies. Professional studio monitors and headphones will allow you to perceive audio frequencies in a more precise way. An audio interface is more than just a box, it is your central audio processing system. Finally, if you are serious about your mixes, you don’t need to have a professional music production studio to deliver pleasing mixdowns. A well-selected set of isolation foam should be more than sufficient.

5 Essential Music Production Equipment

MIDI Keyboard

Functionalities & Added Value Of MIDI Keyboards

Let’s start off by explaining why you should consider buying a MIDI keyboard. It is an extremely useful tool, which is awesome for ideas, well-suited for piano players (or individuals looking to improve their piano playing skills) and will overall enhance the process of musical composition. Melodies will come up naturally, and the correlation your keyboard will have with drum sampling libraries will even allow you to program beats. The whole process will come up as being much more enjoyable.

Some softwares will intricately allow you to assign key commands which are automatically assigned to knobs you can find on certain MIDI keyboards. It will considerably speed up your workflow. Mapping different knobs and faders will be a great starting point to start learning about the whole automation and sound design possibilities you can have with virtual instruments and effects.

If, on the practical side, there is no doubt that you will improve with a MIDI keyboard, there is also the question of music theory. With this device, you will learn and practice music theory in a more natural way than on a piano roll. Another advantage of these keyboards is that they provide instant polyphony, whereas if you use a computer mouse, you won’t instantly hear what notes go well together. It is also a great way to learn, doing things you would never have imagined, making what can be called “happy accidents”.

MIDI Keyboard Sizes & Further Thoughts

For beginners, we wouldn’t recommend going for the MIDI keyboards which have 61 or 88 keys. A smaller size would be much more adapted since you don’t fully understand how scales, intervals or chords really work. In that respect, an Akai MPK mini which is at the same time durable, reliable and easy to set up (with a good price) is a very good option. When starting out, these semi-compact keyboards are the best possible choice. Conversely, products such as the M-Audio products are not that easy to set up. In general, they are not bad gear, but it is probably not what you’re expecting of your first MIDI keyboard.

Buying a MIDI keyboard is an important purchase in our opinion. Some prefer having the tactile option, others prefer drawing notes using their computer screen. In the end, it varies from person to person. In any case, you won’t make a mistake if you add this option to your existing setup. Some days you will feel like using a keyboard to write your melodies. On others (when on the road), it will be less bulky to immediately draw notes on your piano roll.  If there are other products you should probably consider before buying a MIDI keyboard (studio monitors, headphones), the latter will certainly improve your skills on different levels.

Studio Monitors

Studio Monitor: Sound Quality & Features

Most professionals in the field use studio monitors for the mixing process or even to listen to their tracks whilst producing. It has often been argued whether good studio headphones could do the job for mixes and masters. We believe that nothing matches studio monitors for a reference. Professional studio monitors make the whole music production process much more enjoyable and this can significantly improve your workflow. At least when you have both monitors and headphones you can always A/B your mixes and have several sources to check upon.

The monitors that you should be looking for are the ones which have a full-frequency response (covering the entire spectrum). Moreover, the frequency response has to be flat which corresponds to an accurate representation of sound. It may be true that only having those monitors and an untreated room won’t get you very far. Thus, when your room is well treated, no particular frequencies will overshadow the broader picture.

These characteristics are necessary if you want a good monitoring setup. In turn, your mixes will be more compatible with every single sound system when they are mixed on near-field monitors. Features are significantly different from headphones for several reasons. Mixing on monitors provides you with a 180 degrees of separation between left and right. Very often, speakers will only offer a 60-degree setup. Headphones don’t come with a “phantom center”. When mixing with headphones the phantom center, the mono signal is inside your head. With speakers, the spot where two channels produce a mono signal is in front of you. More specifically, there is a physical argument which is in favor of listening to sound in a room. This allows for a more accurate spatial dimension (in, out, right and left). With headphones, this spatial dimension is restricted.

Value & Results

If everything has become more accessible in the contemporary era in terms of music creation, there are also much more responsibilities for the producer. Part of it is mixing. Studio monitors will learn you how to mix, but it will take time to develop a good hearing. There is always the option to go for an engineer to do that job but it is much more rewarding to mix your own tracks and only send them out during the final mastering process. Learning out your DAW is probably much more important in that respect. Since you can always come up with good results if you use headphones. As an example, a lot of music you hear on some youtube channels is not taking into account room treatment or last generation monitors.

Nonetheless, the truth is that monitors will improve your productions and mixdowns. The level of detail on monitors is unprecedented. Even if your room is untreated the quality of your production will increase. They will bring your production skills to a higher level. Once again, if you produce already great-sounding mixes which are limited by the fact that you don’t own quality studio monitors, you should consider buying a pair.

If on the other hand, you are a beginner you should consider several facts:

  • As a beginner, your ears are not trained at listening. Therefore, you probably won’t get the same benefits as someone who is more experienced.
  • Monitors only account for 10 % of rendered sound. You should not expect your monitors to improve the overall sound quality of your mix if it is bad.
  • Music production is not just about mixing. Music theory, arrangement and sound design are other sectors worth looking into.

Studio Headphones

Pros & Cons Of Studio Headphones

As we explained earlier, studio monitors have the advantage to enable you to analyze the stereo field more easily. Nonetheless, often, studios have several pair of monitors because referencing is made much easier in that way. The same can be said for headphones. Headphones can also be used as a reference next to your favorite pair of monitors. Some people prefer to mix on headphones, but no matter how good your headphones sound, our advice would be to always pair them with a good set of studio monitors. Headphones will certainly not provide the best stereo image and their sound won’t be the cleanest but they will give you insight on the subtle details which you can’t notice with your studio monitors.

Cutting to the chase here involves overlooking the Headphones vs. Monitors debate. In the beginning, the only thing you need is to start training your hearing. Any final mix requires testing on multiple sound sources. In that regard, the car stereo test is also good to determine the low-end, mid-range, flat response etc. Once again, your headphones should be flat in their frequency rendering. As a rule of thumb, our ears have the flattest response at 80db SPL. Any studio headphones in that range will produce excellent results. Perceiving the stereo image isn’t as accurate as on studio monitors. Therefore you should look to pan your sounds very carefully if you don’t want to produce disappointing results. Another recommendation would be to set your volume levels carefully with headphones. Mixing at low levels is a great tip. If you hear everything at a low level, your mix is on the right path.

How To Choose The Right Studio Headphones?

Once you have fully understood the ways in which professional headphones can contribute to the mixing process, it is worth considering the criteria which will ultimately allow you to choose the right headphones. First of all of us don’t have the same budget. Therefore you should consider the headphones which maximize audio properties and qualities in your price range. If you are not willing to buy an additional headphone amplifier, it is also something you should note down. Another important question you should ask yourself is the usage you make of your headphones.

The fact that we are all different signifies that what might appear as being an important set of features would be less the case for someone else. As you have certainly already owned headphones for the majority of you, it is very interesting to draw on previous experiences. What sound properties do you appreciate? More highs, fewer lows? If studio headphones are not colored, some will still emphasize bass compared to other ones.

Other considerations should include the durability and resistance of the product, which is important. Reading online forums and reviews (Reddit, Gearslutz) can be useful to understand what other users think about them. But in the end, you should always try before you buy. Moreover, if you are on the road, the cabling design and weight of the headphones should matter. You want something that is portable and convenient. Even if we mentioned forums and online discussions, you should be careful when reading opinions on forums and discussions. They could be erroneous. Our advice would be to consider them in your research, but always create your independent opinion based on your critical assessment after trying the given product.

Audio Interface

Functions of an audio interface

One of the central elements of a studio setup is an audio interface. Its importance can be underscored by the fact that it provides the conversion between digital and analog audio signals. Digital audio is converted from your computer (0100110) into an analog audio signal which goes anywhere from -3.3V to + 3.3 V. This conversion can also be made in the opposite way (from analog to digital). Both of these processes have a specific name: digital-to-audio conversion and audio-to-digital conversion. To perform these functions there are responsible chips that are DAC’s (digital-to-audio conversion) and ADC’s (audio-to-digital conversion). Most audio interfaces have both of these chips.

Important audio interface criteria

These go from more simplistic needs to more complex requirements. An audio interface which is specifically dedicated to studio monitors only needs outputs (DAC’s). If you are looking to record live audio (mics and guitars), you will need an interface with inputs as well. When you are recording a drum kit, for example, a lot of inputs will come in handy. If you want to use an audio interface to record only instruments, you don’t need a very complete audio interface. Microphones require phantom power most of the time. Therefore, you will need this “amplification” to make your mic function correctly. XLR microphones always require phantom power. Line-in instruments such as guitars don’t necessitate phantom power.  Certain brands (Focusrite, Presonus, RME) have built a good reputation over time.

What audio interface accessories do you need?

If the audio interface is the central element, you will need additional balanced cables (TRS & XLR). Monitor speakers are equally important in the set up because they will also need a balanced audio input and should be independent. As mentioned before, you should supply phantom power to the microphones that require it. Some devices provide a stereo output. Most audio interfaces only provide balanced mono inputs. Therefore, you’ll have to split your stereo into mono to make it compatible.

Unique features

The real reason for buying an audio interface is that they are specifically dedicated to the conversion of audio, offering better and faster drivers than a computer sound card, resulting in less latency strong. It is also an advantage to have them since they provide low-noise connectors to your high-quality monitors on the contrary to a regular 3.5 mm stereo jack. Another undeniable quality are the ADC’s on the audio interface which provide for a much less noise audio recording than the built-in mic of your computer. For the recording of live audio, the interface is a must.

Is an audio interface really a must?

An audio interface will not reduce your CPU load by any means. Audio interfaces are only dedicated to DAC and ADC functions. They won’t take care of signal processing or CPU-like functions. It is true that some audio interfaces with DSP capabilities do limit CPU usage but most of the time it’s not the audio processor which is the issue, but more the fact that the user has a laptop and not a powerful desktop computer. Therefore, you should never believe in the false assumptions that this device good make bad music sound instantly good or improve your skills as a music producer. What an audio interface will do is connect your computer to high-quality speakers and record audio signals with much less noise. Hence, audio interfaces are not a necessity but they are a nice upgrade to your studio set-up which will definitely be valuable for your music production in the long term.

Acoustic Treatment

Why do I need acoustic treatment?

All of the previous devices will undeniably give you a good headstart, but they won’t be efficient unless your room is accurately representing sound. Reflections or resonances of any sort will jeopardize the whole music production process since you won’t be able to distinguish frequencies easily, making it almost impossible for you to mix in a precise way. In turn, you can use any monitoring system as long as you are aware of what it is doing to the sound. If you use monitors and your room is untreated, you won’t be able to see what it is doing to the sound. And if the mix does not sound good on your high-end studio monitors, there is a big chance it won’t on any other sound system.

How can I acoustically treat my room?

Sound travels in all directions once it comes out of your studio monitors. It doesn’t simply hit your ears. Depending on the environment, it will bounce off walls, ceiling and floor as well as other objects it may encounter in your room. To prevent these sonic reflections to be erroneous, or listening to music out of phase, you should purchase some acoustic foam, diffusers and a bass trap.

You should know that every room is different and should be considered individually. There are small and large rooms which have furniture or curtains, and which respond differently at different frequencies. The bottom line is that the more surface area you cover, the better your room will be isolated. It is important to start by placing bass traps in the corners of your room to absorb bass frequencies. Behind your monitors and at the first reflection points, it is helpful to use broadband absorption. Treating the ceiling could also improve the mixing results. If you have windows you should consider a thick acoustic theater curtain so that it doesn’t let filter any of the sounds.

Conclusion

As you have seen, a music setup entails very particular music production equipment. It is not the most straightforward process to build an efficient and adapted studio to your needs. However, a MIDI keyboard, studio monitors, studio headphones, an audio interface and acoustic treatment all constitute incremental music production equipment to the elaboration of a basic setup which will improve your working process. All of these devices and products are personal in the sense that some people prefer mixing on headphones over monitors, one person might like a MIDI keyboard and another not, and not everyone likes to mix in a spacious room.

Nonetheless, what all of these products have in common is that they are part of the first tools you should consider when starting out to produce music. Without a DAW (article: What is a DAW?) you are nothing, but an incomplete setup won’t take you any further. If physical tools are a must, one should not underestimate the power of learning. In that respect, music theory (article: music theory) constitutes one (if not the most) important knowledge you can acquire in your path to proficiency.