I was the one guy in high school constantly wearing headphones and going to live shows. I played guitar and ran an online radio station with a Winamp plugin, a £20 USB mic and random songs I’d download off Limewire for fun. I obsessively tracked albums I would check out, I picked up DJing on proper equipment in university, wrote some articles for the student mag, jumped on Wired Radio, then a few musician friends of mine suggested I learn Ableton. It’s only after all that I realised “huh…I really like this music thing.”

I started making tracks in late 2016. I had a period of few months where I was obsessively learning about music production that gave me a solid foundational knowledge. I still have a lot to learn and need to release more (label releases incoming!!!), but I documented the steps I did for someone who is a complete beginner like I was at the time to use and hopefully find helpful. If you follow this rough guide of resources to use, you should very quickly get the hang of how to produce songs in Ableton for whatever genre you want to make. I estimate it took me about 50 hours if you were to time everything below.

Step 1 | The Very Basics and “Finishing Discipline”

Start off by getting a Lynda.com trial/account and watch their Essential Training on Ableton. That video teaches you everything you need to know about the core use of Ableton to start making and finishing projects, so grab a bunch of drum kits, sample packs and synth presets for whatever genre of music you want to make and start making stuff. Practice trumps theory and practice makes perfect – it’s 1000x better to learn new production techniques as you’re making songs than learn only the theory and never put it to use.

Alternatively, SadowickProduction’s Ultimate Course is great too, but it doesn’t explain things in as easy to follow structure IMO. Do both if you want to get really in-depth with knowing Ableton’s basics. The sampling tools in Ableton are incredibly powerful, learn them inside and out so you can make every specific sound-based idea that comes to your head quickly and easily.

Unless you force yourself to sit down and finish a song, you’ll never finish a song, and it’s important to finish things so you can reflect on the whole to see how you’ve improved on a song-by-song basis.

When you’re starting to working through projects, aim to finish individual whole ideas rather than many unfinished ones. As with learning any skill, you get better with producing in Ableton the more time you put into it, and you spend more time in it when finishing songs than making endless rough, unfinished ideas. I made tracks before in FL Studio in 2013-2015, but I never got anything done beyond 30 second ideas because I lacked any self-discipline to actually finish things off. If you get a sudden new idea for a track in the middle of a current one, feel free to make a quick new Live Project to note it down, but go back and finish your previous project before you move to other ones. Unless you force yourself to sit down and finish a song, you’ll never finish a song, and it’s important to finish things so you can reflect on the whole to see how you’ve improved on a song-by-song basis. At least that’s what I found for myself.

If you get stuck on how to do something, Google it or look it up on YouTube. Use chatrooms. Go to events, meet fellow producers and ask them for help. Whatever you want to learn, someone has explained how to do it. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things either, a lot of the time it’ll lead to unexpectedly good results. I’m currently sitting on a mad experimental bass track where the main sound is a random brief vocal sample I added to a Simpler with a rising staircase type note pattern, it ended up sounding crazy. Give anything a try, you’ll definitely find some happy accidents on the regular. Swap things out, add random sounds, see what happens.

Step 2 | Understanding Synthesis, VSTs, Drum Racks & Further Ableton Study

After that, check out the New York School of Synthesis’ video series on synthesizers so you understand how synths work and can start to tweak sounds in VSTs to your liking. Pretty much all DAW instruments are synths if they aren’t samplers, so knowing how they work will let you make sounds from scratch. The filtering lessons can be applied to every VST and audio sample in Ableton since they let you change/modulate the sound via the same core functions as synths (envelopes and LFOs), so learning synthesis will additionally let you customize the sound of drum kits and Simpler/Sampler instruments better.

Make abrupt sounds smoother by reducing the attack, draw out notes by extending the release, the tools that the synthesis tutorials teach you to use are incredibly useful for modifying sounds to your liking. Syntorial is an amazing bit of software that both gives you a synth and an interactive tutorial gradually training your ear with what each knob found on most synths does, I’d highly recommend checking it out.

Pretty much all DAW instruments are synths if they aren’t samplers, so knowing how they work will let you make sounds from scratch.

Going further, start searching for how to make genre sounds in specific VSTs to get more familiar with them, or watch videos dedicated to explaining their use like this series. If you want your productions to have a more old-school vibe to them and a warmer, bass-heavy sound, get some analogue synthesizers recreations. Look up the history of synths, start learning about the big manufacturers, find out what your favourite musicians would use on equipboard.com (I always find fan sites offer more detail if you find one that lists your musicians equipment though), then try to get VSTs for them to recreate their sound. Off the top of my head, I’d recommend grabbing virtual recreations of the Moog MiniMoog and Prodigy, Rolands’ Juno 60 and Jupiter-8. If you learn the hardware popular in an era, you’ll know how to make that genre of music in an instant. 90s house? Get a Roland 909 drum kit. Acid? Roland 303 bass. 80s horror vibes? Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. UK garage? Roland M1 organ, you’re 50% there. You get the idea. Generally speaking Roland made everything good for clubby stuff. 

I’d also say you should brush up on your Drum Rack knowledge since good drums make everything sound great. Search for (your favourite producer here) drum kit/sample pack’ to match their sound. For those of you who are hip-hop fans, I’d say chopping up a sample into a drum rack is a great way to get great drums. Drag and drop a sample onto an audio track in Ableton’s Arrangement View (press tab on Windows). Double click on your sample to open it. In the window that then appears below the main Arrangement View, double click anywhere along the top of the sample where you want that to use that specific sound in a drum rack. When you’re done, right click the sample: ‘Slice to new MIDI channel’, choose ‘Warp Markers’, click ok, it’ll make a drum rack with your marked samples loaded on a pad for each mark.

From there, go through the Ableton manual alongside Ableton Live 9 Power to learn new tricks in the software. The books cover similar territory to the video tutorial series you’ve been through with more depth, so skip sections you feel confident with.

Step 3 | The Big Three Effects

Many audio effects exist out there to change sounds further, but there are three main ones used by everyone all the time – compressor, delay and reverb. On Cloud Sine do an excellent job breaking down many built-in Ableton effects, so check out their videos on those three as a starting point. Sidechaining is similarly essential to bring out the different parts of a mix, but since it’s so simple I don’t think it needs further explanation from what you’ve already gone through. If you don’t understand it, definitely watch this video.

Step 4 | Mixing and Mastering

At this point you’ve learned about all the possible instruments that could be used within a DAW, as well as some of the effects. The final stage before a song could be considered done is making sure it is mixed and mastered properly. Watch SadowickProduction’s playlist on using Izotope Ozone 5 as a fast, simple intro on how to get things sounding good at the end of a project.

Mastering in general is a ridiculously complex topic because there are so many different opinions on what works and what doesn’t. You can just brush past it or go really in depth with it, entirely up to you. But one universal tip is make sure that on the master channel you use some kind of plugin that turns the bass frequencies (0-140hz) to mono, the Ozone Imager is good for this. It makes the bass come out evenly no matter what the sound system being used. You can also cut out 0-30hz as well as everything above 20,000hz in the first step in your mastering chain since a) nearly all soundsystems can’t produce anything below 30hz, and b) everything above 20k is not within the human hearing range. Understanding where different sounds lie in the 0-20KHz audible hearing range will also help with EQing and mastering.

Mastering in general is a ridiculously complex topic because there are so many different opinions on what works and what doesn’t.

I’d suggest testing your tracks across several soundsystems too. I now have a 2.1 PC speaker system, cheap studio monitors with a bias towards mid frequencies and not much bass that I later replaced with Yamaha HS7s, a pair of high, studio quality over-ear headphones, and some very good inner-ear headphones. I usually listen to everything I make at least once on them all to see how they sound before being happy with the final output. It always helps me with tweaking the mix balance between the different instruments in my tracks. These days the headphone test is the one that really matters since in my opinion most people probably listen to my tracks via headphones on their phone, so I find if it sounds good there it’ll sound good to your average listener.

Step 5 | Music and Sound Theory (Optional BUT VERY ENCOURAGED)

The Hands-On Music Theory book is a brilliant, focused (150 pages), crystal-clear outline of it that explains music theory in a very practical way. I’m only about a third of the way through and those first 50 pages fundamentally changed the way I think about songs. It made me see there’s sort of a formula on how to make a good track regardless of genre, and music theory can provide shortcuts on what should work if you’re struggling with ideas. It helps you better understand what notes should sound nice together, what chords should complement each other and what arrangement structures should work. It’s just theory, you don’t need it and the book opens saying “you don’t need this”, but I’d highly recommend it.

Conclusion

I’ve learned a good bit since I initially came up with this progression. Flava D single-handily made me change my approach for drums from using the Drum Rack to audio channels per single drum element, dragging and dropping what I want to use only channels in Arrangement View, it gives you a lot more options for manipulation. As time has gone on my mixing and mastering process has actually simplified a lot – I make sure the samples I use in the first place sound crisp and clear, mix everything loud with the elements balanced in a way that I’m happy with, then apply some panning to elements supporting the drums and lead synth to give the mix more depth. I used to over-analyze mastering… These days I keep my chain very simple and the difference to my ears isn’t that noticeable since I now make sure I always use high-quality samples in the first place.

The same can be said for producing in general – keep it simple. If you have a nice melody with good drums and a handful of supporting elements that compliment that melody, combined with a varied, evolving progression throughout your track, congrats, you’ve probably made something great. I hope you’ve found this guide useful, now go make some bangers!

Jack Woodward

Contributor

Jack is active under the moniker CA$TLE. He will have more tracks out in the near future.

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