picture of me~somasis/notes

music making tools

an overview of the software and hardware I use for making music

I make music. I think that even makes me a musician™. So, I thought I’d make a post about the tools I use to make music. Occasionally I’m asked, and usually it means I have to go retracing the steps I took to get a hold of the things I use, so it might be worth it to write down these things for the future.

Just for the record: there’s obviously no sponsorship here, this is my genuine thoughts on the things I use. I’m not trying to shill for any company, and if I were, there’d be a disclaimer. That said…​ I’d always be down for free hardware and software in exchange for an honest review. But this isn’t that.

First off, as of writing this I produce music on Arch Linux. People find tend to find this surprising when I tell them I don’t produce on Windows or macOS, so I figure it’s the first thing I should get out the way.

I don’t actually use Linux-specific tools, though it’d be nice if audio producing on Linux could catch up to the standards of software that’s on Windows and macOS. I almost exclusively use tools made for Windows, running under WINE. It works surprisingly well, though sometimes tools can be a bit more unstable than they might be on Windows. Sometimes, things even run faster than on Windows.

digital audio workstations

I exclusively use FL Studio. I’ve been producing with it since 2013. I only really have felt proficient in it since 2018, though. Always learning something new (this is a sign it does too much).

There’s probably more efficient software I could be using, or some DAW that matches up more with the kind of music I make, but over the years I’ve grown to enjoy using FL quite a lot, and despite how bloated it is, it gets the job done and doesn’t try to be too overbearing, or end up confusing me.

Prior to FL Studio (so, 2012-2013), I played around Renoise some, as I had heard some of my favorite breakcore artists at the time (namely Venetian Snares) were heavy users of it and trackers like it. However, I found the interface too confusing and haven’t ever bothered to go back and reevaluate it. Apparently it is quite good for music that can use a lot of manual sequencing though, like breakcore.

hardware

I don’t use hardware unless it’s really necessary (no money). Most of the hardware I do have was gifted to me.

I think these are seen as meme headphones or whatever nowadays by lots of people, but they’re very popular for good reason. These are easily the most affordable, well-built, and just plain good for the price headphones you could possibly get for music production. The frequency response is tuned very flat, I listen to and mix all my music on these headphones, I’m very happy with them.

I will say, and I think this is a technique issue of mine more than an issue with the headphones, I think I have a tendency to mix my bass a bit too loud sometimes. I don’t do enough car tests, don’t test on lower-quality/more common headphones enough, but perhaps the bass on these headphones could be a bit louder. I genuinely can’t tell if it’s a technique issue or an issue with the frequency response not being as flat as it sounds to me.

Bottom line: these are the best mixing and mastering headphones you’ll get for 99$ dollars. Audio Technica AT2020 Cardioid Condenser Microphone:: I use it for recording vocals. I also use it as a room microphone, for when I’m in calls with people nowadays. It’s really just for vocals, but it’s a great general-purpose microphone.

+ The part that is worth cringing over though is that I don’t use any sort of pop filter, any sort of windguard, anything like that. I mostly rely on the silence of my room, recording late into the early morning.

+ I do a lot of editing to the things I record to clean up the raw audio, which is how I get by being this sloppy. Don’t be like me.

Behringer XENYX 302USB

I use this with the aforementioned microphone for recording vocals. I also use it for digitally recording in vinyl records that I have. It is old and not a great mixer. It is just what I have.

I think I’ve heard that Behringer’s been getting a lot of criticism lately, but I haven’t kept up.

YAMAHA PSR-E333 Portable Keyboard
I don’t use it much, but if I ever feel like doing some MIDI keyboard stuff live, it’s there. Please watch the introduction video on its product page. It’s adorable.

Lastly, and don’t get grossed out by this, but almost all of my songs as of the past two years have used my phone’s sound recorder app for vocals in some way. Sometimes I have ideas when I’m in the shower and I have to get them out or I’ll die.

software

I use lots of software. For plugins, I tend to prefer ones that do one thing well, which is usually how I like my software in general. One thing well, and not particularly heavy in resource usage, which means that I can chain them pretty heavily and without much trouble. I enjoy chaining plugins to get the sounds I want, rather than just plugins that have a magic knob on them that makes the sound, as it allows for more fine-grained and particular control of what’s actually done to the audio.

I have a tendency to call my music shoegaze at times; this workflow is part of why I call it that. It somewhat resembles the way that shoegaze artists use lots and lots of guitar pedals.

Generally, I use lots of freeware plugins for getting the job done. There are a few tools which are not free, but mainly because they’re so good that the free stuff doesn’t really compare, yet.

Assume everything is free unless I say otherwise.

general purpose

  • Default (non-free) FL Studio plugins. They do one thing well for the most part and they’re relatively high quality.
    Graham Yeadon’s GVST plugins
    They’re free, they’re a great selection of various effects. Chorus, delays, gates, pitch correction (this was how I found it originally), just a really good set.
  • mda-vst is a (probably somewhat well known) set of open-source (formerly closed source) plugins. They’re definitely getting a bit old, and I don’t use them as much as I used to, but in a pinch I use SubSynth for adding some sub to vocals or drums that might need them. Additionally, it has a good Shepard tone generator, a nice stereo splitter, and the degrade plugin is nice (though it has a really irritating issue of possibly corrupting your DAW’s runtime memory if you start more than one instance of it, ouch).
  • TAL software's free plugins are neat, though I notice they use a bit more CPU than it really seems like they should be using.

audio editing

I use audio editing tools quite a lot, and there’s only really two things I use to do it.

  • I use Edison, a non-free FL Studio plugin for most of my editing work. It integrates really nice with FL’s workflow, and I like it.
  • For audio restoration, I use iZotope RX. It is paid, and it seems unlikely any free software solution is going to match it any time soon. I use it sometimes for cleaning up poorly recorded vocals, for cleaning up vinyl recordings, and for weirder types of audio manipulation in general. Hilariously overpriced.

mixing, mastering

The line between distortion and mixing can be pretty fuzzy at times, so these go for both.

  • I use Maximus, a non-free default FL Studio plugin on the master track of all my songs. Some people say not to use a master limiter, I do because it actually makes clipping more obvious to my ears.
  • FL Studio versions 12.3.1 and up have a nice Transient Processor plugin that can be nice for making vocals and drums more snappy sometimes.
  • The Crosstalk2 plugin, by Sleepy-Time DSP. It tries to emulate the crosstalk effect that can happen with analog recordings. It’s probably snake oil–I use it anyway because it makes the tracks sound worse. In more concrete analysis, it does seem to add a nice high end to things, and I at least think that makes it sound a little better. It’s definitely a subtle change, though.
  • CHOW Tape Model is a really excellent, free software plugin based on a physical model of an analog tape machine, originally based on the Sony TC-260. It’s really nice and underrated, I’ve been using it a lot as of late quite happily. I used it on elk knob, the leaves were turning and I think it really helped to give it a nice, analog sound.

vocal manipulation

  • I use NewTone, another (non-free) default FL plugin, for pitch tweaking. I use this on my vocals often, though mostly because I haven’t gotten good enough at singing to hold all the notes I want to hold as stable as I would like. It’s good though.
  • Graham Yeadon’s GSnap plugin. I started using this when I first started doing vocals, but I don’t use it that much nowadays, mostly because my own singing technique has improved enough that it’s not really necessary anymore.
  • Graham Yeadon’s GForm plugin. A cool vocal pitch and formant shifter, I’ve used it quite a lot. If you use it lightly and don’t mix it to be the main output on a vocal track, it can help to bring out some of the higher or lower qualities of your voice in a way that is hard to emulate when actually singing.

distortion, pitch and time manipulation, glitching, degradation

  • Destroy FX’s plugins. Scrubby is a nice plugin for time and pitch manipulation, and just in general for creating glitchy sounds. Transverb is also pretty cool. Actually, all of their plugins are pretty cool. Just check them all out.
  • Magnus' plugins. Ambience is a nice reverb plugin, I also quite like the fact that it has a hold button, to actually hold the wet signal, and prevent the reverb from decaying further until you deactivate the button. Really cool function, I wish more reverb plugins had that.
  • Bram’s plugins. Bouncy is a pretty cool plugin, but my favorites are Crazy Ivan, which is another sort of pitch shifter/time manipulation/distortion plugin, SupaTrigga, which is a sort of automatic beat slicer.
  • LameVST is an open-source plugin that does MP3 compression as an effect. I don’t use it often, and it causes a significant delay on playback, both realtime and on rendering tracks, but it can be cool to use sometimes.

synthesizers

  • Lots of non-free default FL studio plugins. I don’t care. 3xOsc is God’s synthesizer. I also really like using Fruity DX10.

sampling

My music is very sample-heavy. Manipulating samples is much more fun than synthesizing, to me. Something that surprises some people is that I generally do not use sample packs. For the most part, everything I sample is something that I got myself in some form.


That’s basically everything I can think to mention right now. Hopefully, this provides some insight into how I work on things without giving the secret sauce away…​ :)


edit 2020-12-07: Added the headphones I use and a note signifying that this isn’t a sponsorship of any sort, just in case it comes off like that.