I tried to learn how to make lo-fi music — Part 2
Last year, I wrote about how I tried to learn to make lo-fi music as someone who didn’t know anything about music production. You can read about it here. I ended up buying a MIDI controller and set out to discover how to use virtual instruments and other resources to make better low-quality songs.
Between a full-time job and college (I’m in my 30s, but still an undergrad), messing with things 30 minutes at a time in the free time, I believe I succeeded in that. I’m still pretty much an amateur and still do a lot of things by “feeling”, but I have a better grasp of how things work now. So, here’s how things went in the following 8 months after my first article.
Having bought the Arturia MiniLab MkII, I also received a license for Ableton Live Lite, Arturia’s Analog Lab, and a piano from UVI. Analog Lab has a lot of preset synthesizers that sound great — at least for me, as it seems people on the internet still debate how good they actually are — so I immediately upgrade it for a version with over 7,000 presets. Analog Lab doesn’t give you access to the synths themselves (that’s a package that costs way more), but it’s possible to edit a few parameters. Considering that it has pianos and organs too, it seems a nice start for an amateur.
By the time the MIDI controller arrived, I had tested almost all of the big DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) available. Reaper was really light and fast, and considering the low price in case I wanted to buy it, it was my first choice to “try to use seriously”. If I liked it, I would buy it. This is the song I made with it:
I learned how to properly use automation to slightly detune (and retune) the instruments over time. It worked pretty well, I think. The quality of the mastering is passable, for me at least, but I was getting the hang of the mixing and how to cascade effects. However, using Reaper was getting more difficult over time. The software really is light and fast, and the interface is pretty great when dealing with the tracks and all, but every time I wanted to add an effect, change an instrument, or use automation, there was a lot of menu-diving. Whenever I stopped working on tracks for a few days due to other responsibilities, I would forget how to do basic stuff when getting back. I really wanted to like Reaper but, as a beginner, the software was way too complicated for me.
Keep in mind that it is possible to overhaul everything in Reaper and make it work as you want, but the time spent on that would be time that I don’t spend learning music, so I bailed. The lack of clarification with the Reaper plugins also didn’t work so great for me too, and I spent a lot of time looking for free plugins online that could make things I should have been able to do with what Reaper already offers.
In the end, I got the impression that, if you want to only use MIDI, Reaper works best if you already have a lot of plugins and know what you are doing. Otherwise, it’s pretty great if you just want to record audio and instruments.
After a few weeks testing other DAWs (again), I decided to stay with Ableton Live. However, by this time my demo license had already expired, so I used the Lite version that came with the MIDI controller. It has way less stuff, but everything that‘s there works fine and it’s easy to understand. I almost didn’t have to use external plugins, except when looking for a specific effect that Live Lite doesn’t have, like the tape/lo-fi effect that iZotope Vinyl creates. Funny enough, Session View, which seems to be Live’s biggest selling point, never really clicked for me, but Arrangement View works like a charm.
It was somewhat hard to work with its MIDI editor at first because, unlike Reaper, the maximum level of zoom out is defined by the size of the MIDI clip itself. It took a while to understand how to disable the loop feature and resize the clip itself but, after that, it was smooth sailing. This is the result:
I’m not using a lot of instruments because Ableton Live Lite limits you to 16 tracks, but it is enough to make simple music. I think I’m getting better at balancing the instruments, and I usually just try to equalize things better when mastering. Keep in mind that I’m no audio engineer and don’t have training any training, I just try to make it sound pleasant to my ears, hoping it works well in the end.
Since I’m still not very good at making beats and find hard to create interesting ones without a step-sequencer (FL Studio is great at this), I tried to create a song without any beat in it. At the time I had just discovered the Spitfire Labs, a free collection of sampled instruments, and downloaded everything. Thanks to it, I was able to give some color to the song, and it seems to have worked pretty great. It turned out like this:
Around this time I bought my first plugin too, the Sketch Cassette, since the iZotope Vinyl wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted. I know there’s a lot of tape emulation plugins out there, some of them are really good, but they are all expensive. This one was just 20 bucks. In the future, I might try the u-he Satin or the RC-20 Retro Color (which isn’t really a tape emulator but gives a similar result). For now, the Sketch Cassette does everything I need.
In the next song, I tried using more of Arturia’s Analog Lab. There are some cool effects there, and I really liked one that tries to mimic rain. Together with a synth and a piano, it mixed really great with the song.
There’s automation on the rain effect, making it gradually change sides on the headphones. The idea was to make it sound like wind changing directions. That’s the first time I tried to use stereo audio to create a different effect within the music. It is definitely something I’ll try to use more in the future, but with instruments too instead of just effects.
The last song I made has more of a synthwave-like synth. It is the longest of all the songs created so far, which made me fear that it would be too tiring to listen to. Somehow, it sounds fine, and it mixes well with the background noise, resulting in a great song to listen to while working — which is the reason I got interested in creating music in the first place.
Here’s how it sounds:
There’s a horn there, from Native Instruments free pack Komplete Start. At first, it wasn’t clear how it would fit in with the rest, but after some trial and error, it ended up sounding cool with the piano and synth. I have trouble coming up with melodies because I’m more used to playing rhythm than lead with instruments. Composing a few loops for horn ended being a good way to train this, but it’s definitely something I need to improve in the future to avoid making the songs sound stale or repetitive.
In the end, I think the songs got better along the way. They definitely sound more balanced, the effects were refined, and they don’t seem like just loops repeating themselves. Of course, I’m still miles away from anything made by professionals, but as a hobby and music exercise, things seem to be improving. The next step would be to buy a full DAW and use everything it has to offer, but I’ll have to hold on that for a while since a complete version of Ableton Live costs more than 500 Euros, and that’s a lot of money right now.
Of course, there are cheaper alternatives like Reaper, but as someone who still doesn’t know what he’s doing, menu-diving takes a lot of time that’s cut out from the time making music. There’s also Logic Pro, which is more affordable at 200 Euros. The workflow seems closer to Reaper, but with a lot less of menu fumbling, which seems great, and it has as many resources as Ableton Live — and for less than half of the price. However, it requires an Apple device, something I don’t have, and I don’t intend to buy a thousand-Euro computer just to make music as a hobby.
I don’t even consider buying FL Studio, even though it costs 189 Euros at the Producer Edition and doesn’t charge for upgrades, because the workflow is completely alien to me. It might be worthy to try to mess with it again, given the great price and all, but the way tracks and loops interact with each other is very different from every other DAW and somewhat confusing.
For now, though, I’ll try to learn a bit of sound design, since I bought Arturia Pigments for less than half of its price. I don’t have any interest in electronic music — which most of the presets in almost every synth focus on — so learning to create a sound from scratch would be really useful, especially if I can emulate other instruments. Then, when I have enough money (or a Hackintosh, who knows), I’ll buy a full DAW and get back into making music.
Maybe I’ll even try to make “serious” music. We’ll see about that.