Join 10K+ Subscribers

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Join over 10,000 artists who already receive my weekly newsletter featuring short, actionable pieces of experience to improve your compositions/productions; no algorithms - straight to your inbox.

How to make music with computers...

Jun 01, 2024


I make a living in two primary ways.

  1. Playing a pipe organ.

  2. Making/releasing music with a computer.

But I have exactly zero formal training in music production, recording, mixing, all of that stuff I do for a living now...

The goal of this newsletter is to help you avoid some of the mistakes I made while teaching myself, and... there were a lot of them.

Here are 7 things I've learned about making music with a computer the hard way. So, hopefully you can learn them the....not hard way.

I went to school for piano and organ performance. I also studied composition, but definitely wasn't using a computer to write music at that time.

At this point, I had a severe case of the snobbies and no interest in "computer music." I thought it must be really easy to make and take no skill, because what little I had heard (EDM) I didn't find all that interesting.

Then, a tale as old as time itself, I started to develop a more serious interest in writing to picture. Having little to no idea how that was done, I was disappointed to learn that it was mostly with

So I bought a computer and some sample libraries. I also got a cheap MIDI keyboard and a copy of Cubase. Then, I made some of the worst-sounding productions you've ever heard.

This trial and error period lasted two years. I released no music during it. But, during that time, I learned a lot about what did and didn't matter for making music in the box.


1) MIDI isn't a substitute for notation.


As a long-time pianist, you'd think MIDI roll (aka PIANO roll) would be easy for me to read. Unfortunately, for those of us who came up reading notation...not so much.

I love how visual MIDI is when you're looking at it in a DAW, but I've found it isn't precise enough for me to be able to see things like bad doublings or weak harmonic progressions.

It's great for changing things on the fly though, so what it lacks in precision, it makes up for in flexibility.

This could very well be familiarity bias, but when I'm working out the bones of a piece, I still prefer traditional notation. I can identify issues much more quickly without having to zoom in and search for them.


2) MIDI and audio are different.


This is the kind of question that will get you laughed off of online forums filled with "professionals" who never finish music. But we're going to address it because I know I'm not the only one.

My entry point into the world of recording and producing was a DAW. I definitely didn't know anything about recording stuff with a microphone, and I couldn't afford any hardware synths, so I dove head first into the world of plugins and sample libraries.

Everything I was doing was based around MIDI. I looked at the tracks and saw MIDI notes and heard sounds associated with them. It was all the same to me.

But it turns out that MIDI and audio are two separate entities. MIDI is simply a series of messages that tell things when to happen and what to do.

That means that a MIDI controller isn't a synth, but it can tell a synth what to do and when to do it. However, the MIDI itself nor its controllers are making any sound. They produce no audio.

That's why when you buy a synth it has audio jacks in addition to MIDI ports. You can use it to send and receive MIDI messages, but to hear what the synth itself is doing, you'll need some trusty TRS cables.


3) You don't have to have the best equipment or plugins.


So, I didn't have the finest gear. I didn't even have the finest plugins or libraries. But I did think I needed them, and I did waste a lot of money on third-party plugin suites that pretty much did the same stuff as the stock plugins in my DAW.

If I had taken the time to learn basics like compression and EQ first, I would've realized I didn't need 20 different compressors that did the same thing but all looked slightly different thanks to clever packaging.


4) You don't have to have the latest libraries (just a few inspiring ones)


As for samples, yes, you need something to work with. Especially if you aren't recording your own live sounds or only using synths.

You still don't need the finest new string library from whichever company is doing the best marketing at the moment though.

What you do need are a few inspiring sound sources that you can learn to use in your own unique ways.

Limitations are your friend in this case, and many others.

When I wrote my first EP, Of Past & Present, I was so bad at recording a real piano, I ended up scrapping most of it. Instead, I used a Kontakt piano called "The Giant" that had come in one of those fancy suites I thought would make me a pro producer.

What I found most interesting were the extended techniques in that library (hitting the side of the piano, string plucks, etc.)

That inspired me to record some similar sounds of my own. Those sounds, combined with the ones from The Giant, made up most of the percussion on that EP. That limitation helped unify a group of tracks that mostly saw me stabbing in the dark trying to figure out what "my sound" would be.

I also hired a friend of mine to play cello over the samples, and having just one live player in the mix REALLY helped breathe life into that entire project. There's probably an important lesson in there somewhere too....


5) Make it easier on yourself to turn on the computer and start making music.


The best way to ensure we actually WANT to repeat any task is to remove as much friction from starting as possible.

One of my biggest early mistakes was not setting up a repeatable system inside my DAW. We often call this a template.

I still don't like to have an elaborate template with all my stuff loaded in and ready to go at once. That's too overwhelming and causes me to reach for the same stuff over and over.

My base template just gives me my favorite fx sends, a sampled version of my piano for sketching ideas, and an audio track so I can drag in samples or record something quickly.

Depending on how well you know your DAW, you might find setting up a few pre-routed buses or groups to be helpful.

Your computer isn't really an instrument - it's a sandbox.

You have to set up the tools that inspire you in an inspiring way in order to get the most inspiration out of it.

I've found this to be an ever-evolving process, so it's okay if this is constantly changing.


6) Learn where your plugins and software are installed.


Your computer will die one day; this will save you countless hours and strife.

This is a quick but REALLY important one. Learn a little about file structure. You know, where your software and libraries are installed, where your plugin folders actually are, that kind of thing.

I was so excited to get started, I just started installing stuff. Bad idea. This led to many duplicates of plugins in various locations, so I wasn't even sure what was doing what. My stuff was all over the place across several hard drives.

If you stick with this long enough, your machine will break eventually, and if you're as careless as I was it could take your will to live with it.


7) An instrument is still your greatest tool as a composer/producer.


Computers are wonderful. They've allowed me to make a career out of writing, recording, producing, and releasing my own music. Without them, I wouldn't be here in front of you right now.

But while they're incredible tools, they won't replace a traditional instrument when it comes to ideation.

Traditional instruments are limited in the most wonderful ways that force us to dig deep rather than skim across the surface.

My greatest tool as a musician is my piano, because I've spent enough time with it to discover the endless depth of its limitations. It forces me to think about the notes themselves and how they work together. AKA: HARMONY


P.S. Harmony is how notes relate to each other, and it's the foundation of everything we do as composers, song-writers, and producers.

Harmony affects our chord progressions, melodies, and arrangements as a whole, causing them to either feel cliche and predictable, or erratic and confusing.

This is a common issue I'm discovering as I work with more composers 1-on-1, so I'm strongly considering building my next course to dig deeper in the essential topic of harmony.

If you'd like for me to build this resource for you, join this WAITLIST.

If there's enough interest, I'll build it this summer and offer early access to those on the waitlist.

Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

1. Composition Concepts for Artists - an in-depth look at the process of composition with step-by-step examples SHOWING how and WHY I make decisions. You'll learn to take an initial idea and DEVELOP it into a finished project.

2. Understanding Synthesis - learn to design your own sounds starting with the basics of subtractive synthesis and progressing to more advanced sound design  with semi-modular and various forms of digital synthesis.

3. YouTube Membership - monthly livestreams featuring music making and sound design in real time. Q&As and exclusive videos only available to channel members.

4. One to One Coaching (coming soon) - work with me on YOUR own music. I'll help you take your track from idea to finished product, so you'll come out with a polished track or EP and any knowledge gained from walking through the process with me.