Have you thought about becoming a music producer? Perhaps you’re trying to pick a career or you just love music and want to get involved in the process. Either way, I want to help. In this FAQ I’ll answer some of your most common inquiries about the path to becoming a music producer.
- Are Most Music Producers Self Taught?
- Do You Need a Degree To Be A Music Producer?
- What Training Do You Need To Produce Music?
- Is It Hard to Become a Music Producer?
- Is Being a Music Producer a Good Career?
- What Do You Need to Become a Music Producer?
- How To Become a Music Producer Without School
Are Most Music Producers Self Taught?
It is fair to say that most music producers do not have a college degree in audio production. It’s hard to find statistics that show the percentage of self-taught vs college-educated producers in the USA, let alone the world. But we can look at the number of degrees awarded per year and make a rough approximation from it.
Music Degree Statistics
According to various statistics about the most common college degrees that get awarded, we find that “music” and “music technology” programs in general see between 1,700 and 25,000 degrees completed each year. That range seems a bit wide, but keep in mind that not all figures differentiate “general music” degrees from ones that specialize in production. Also, it appears that most of these degree holders work in education or other non-production roles.
Music Producer Labor Statistics
Now the US Bureau of Labor Statistics claims there are at least 10,800 people working as Sound Engineers in the USA. But, of course, this data is only collected from a sample of people who work for major labels and studios. Independent, freelance, and hobbyist producers will usually be lumped in freelancer categories of BLS codes. A quick search for music producers on sites on Beatstars, Fiverr, Soundcloud, etc. will yield you thousands upon thousands of results. Beatstars alone claims that they have over 2 million users (i.e. beat producers) on their site.
Suffice to say…there are a lot of independent music producers in the world and it’s likely that most of them have no professional training.
So if you want to produce music by learning the skills yourself, you are surely not alone.
Do You Need a Degree To Be A Music Producer?
You definitely don’t need a degree to produce music, or even to sell your service as a music producer. Experience and a portfolio of work are far more important than a degree. That’s true for most fields of art, such as: writing, painting, graphic design, etc.
Most producers are freelancers or contract workers. Degrees are usually only useful for checking off a requirement box to get a job with a studio as a W2 worker. As an independent worker, your clients are far more concerned with what music you have produced already than what diploma you received.
Or are you only interested in music production so you can mix and master your own tracks? Than a degree is even more useless; especially because most of the skills you need can be learned online from video tutorials, e-books, or web courses that cost far less than a 4-year degree.
What Training Do You Need To Produce Music?
If you don’t need a degree for music production, then exactly what training must you have? I recommend that you learn a basic proficiency in the following topics before you start performing work as a producer:
- Music theory – you don’t need a full knowledge of all theory like an orchestral composer would; you just need to understand melody, harmony, and rhythm.
- Arrangement – this is the skill of putting a bunch of instruments together in a song so they don’t clash with each other.
- Leveling – this is when you even out the volume of each track in an audio project before mixing.
- Mixing – the process of fiddling with EQ, compression, and effects to make a song sound clear and balanced.
- Mastering – the process of fiddling with master channel plugins so your song sounds louder and more balanced.
Each of these topics can be learned through a number of methods:
- YouTube channels like In the Mix or Produce Like A Pro.
- E-books that cover topics of production, mixing, and mastering.
- Online courses – there are a lot of “gurus” on the internet that will sell you their personal courses or tutorials, and there are also many websites like Udemy and Skillshare that sell courses on a variety of topics. I’ve only paid for an online course once and it wasn’t even worth the money. That’s not to say all courses are useless, and it depends on who you get it from.
- Forums where producers of all levels can share their tips and experiences, such as:
Is It Hard to Become a Music Producer?
In short, yes; it’s difficult to become a working producer for a number of reasons. Not because the subjects are difficult to understand really, but because the field requires a lot of time and you’ll have a lot of competition.
With all that in mind, asking is music production is hard to learn needs some relative basis for measuring. Yes, it’s hard compared to a simple skill like cooking scrambled eggs; but it’s a lot easier than studying physics.
Is Being a Music Producer a Good Career?
LOL, not if you want a stable and livable income.
If you love making music and you want to make some side money, then yes: music production can be a good side job. Or, if you land a position with an actual studio and have consistent clientele, then yes: producing for a living can be viable.
You can make an income from music production, but like any freelance work it could be inconsistent work.
What Do You Need to Become a Music Producer?
There are several requirements and tools that you’ll need to be a music producer, both in terms of equipment and knowledge. I will break these down into 3 lists:
- Hardware, and
1. Knowledge Requirements
The knowledge components you need for music production include a basic understanding of:
- Music theory – like I mentioned earlier, you just need to understand a few concepts, like:
- Arrangement – by this, I mean how to place instruments in a mix so they don’t sound crowded
- Mixing and mastering – knowing how to use EQ, compression, and effects on each track in a mix, plus how to level and comp recordings.
- Marketing – whether you release your own songs or produce tracks for other artists, you will need to understand how to promote those tracks without appearing cringey to potential fans.
2. Hardware Requirements
You’ll also need some hardware to get you started, such as a(n):
- MIDI controller – this is basically a mini keyboard that plugs into the computer; it does not make sound on it’s own, but rather it allows you to control digital instruments and software mixing panels.
- Audio interface – this is essentially just an external sound driver; an interface allows you to connect guitars, basses, microphones, synthesizers, and MIDI controllers to your computer. Interfaces also have built-in pre-amps and soundcards, so they provide far better audio quality than your computer can offer on it’s own.
- Audio monitors or headphones – “monitors” in the audio world means speakers, but they are specialty speakers that don’t have any bass boost (because we want to hear a flat and un-colored signal when mixing). If you don’t have room or cannot afford monitors, opt for a pair of good headphones instead. Again, the headphones should not have any frequency boosts on them like consumer-grade pairs usually contain.
- Cheap speakers or earbuds – despite wanting a pair of good monitors or headphones,you’ll also want a set of cheap speakers or earphones for checking your mixes. Most people will hear your tracks through phone speakers or earbuds, so you want to check how each track will sound to them.
3. Software Requirements
Lastly, you’ll need some software to run on a laptop or desktop computer, including a:
- Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) – a software that allows you to record and manipulate audio and MIDI. A DAW is like the Photoshop of the audio world.
- Soft synth – “soft” here means the synthesizer is completely digital, as opposed to a physical or “hard” synth. Ideally, you’re first synth should be capable of creating as many different sounds as possible so you don’t need multiple ones for different genres or projects.
- Mixing plugins – these are apps that run inside your DAW and allow you to modify audio signals. Most DAWs will come with a suite of basic plugins, but you can also download and install third party options. The minimum plugins you’ll need would include a:
- Compressors (I recommend having 2 types of compressors, because they don’t all work in the same way: good picks for beginners would be a VCA (or an Opto) and an FET)
Now, as for specific products to fulfill those hardware and software needs, well—there are a lot of options to choose from. Here are a few recommendations from my own experience and based on what most producers use. Most of these recommendations are budget-level items.
- AKAI products (like the MPK Mini)
- M-Audio (like the Oxygen series; I have the 49-key version and it’s a solid keyboard)
- Nektar Impact LX25+ (this is the mini controller I currently use)
- Focusrite Scarlett series (the Solo is the cheapest version, but if you need extra mic jacks get the 2i2 version)
- M-Audio M-Track Solo
- PreSonus AudioBox
- PreSonuns Eris (these are likely the most popular budget monitors on the market; and yes, I have them as well)
- Sony MDR7506 Closed Back (these are a bit tight and not very comfy for big-eared people like me, but they are practically a studio standard pair)
- Audio-Technica ATH-M30x Closed Back
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 Closed Back
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Open Back (I have these and they are the most comfortable headphones to ever grace my giant hobbit ears)
Digital Audio Workstations
- Cakewalk by Bandlab (I always recommend this one first because I’ve been using Cakewalk DAWs for the last 15 years and it’s now free, but…it does not have as large of a user base so not as many video tutorials are available)
- FL Studio (the most popular DAW on the market; if you want to record vocals or instruments, you need to buy at least the “Producer” version)
- Ableton Live (second most-popular DAW on the market)
- ANA 2 by Sonic Academy (my go-to synth because I like the control interface, and it has a built-in 4-track sampler)
- Vital by Vital Audio (the most popular FREE soft synth)
- Massive by Native Instruments (probably the most well-known soft synth for modern pop/rap production)
- Serum by Xfer
- Omnisphere by Spectrasonics
Mixing Plugin Companies
May not be necessary, as you may like the stock plugins of your DAW. But if you want to expand:
- Waves Audio (they often have sales where you can buy individual plugins for $29.99 each)
- Izotope (they make a very popular mastering plugin called Ozone)
How To Become a Music Producer Without School
The best way to learn music production without attending college is to learn from experience. Start watching YouTube channels or following online courses on the subject; make some of your own songs or tracks to try out the techniques that you learn. Test what works for you and what doesn’t.
Again, for music: experience is more important than a degree. Most people you work with (artists, singers, studios, other producers, etc) will want to see a portfolio of finished tracks. I doubt they’ll ask to see your diploma or accreditation.
And to have a portfolio, you need several songs and/or beats that are worth showing prospective clients or employers. Your first few tracks probably won’t be that good, but that’s okay.
Just finish as many tracks as possible and pick the best ones to showcase.
The best ways to fill out a music portfolio would be to:
- Collaborate with other artists,
- Release your own songs,
- Release a mix tape (this could be full-fledged songs or instrumental beats),
- Submit songs or instrumentals to contests,
- Create “type” beats/tracks (these are instrumentals or songs that emulate the style of specifics artists…preferably artists who are popular enough that others would want a track in their style)
All in all, being a music producer relies more on determination and results than education. Your best bet for finding work and gaining fans (or clients) is just to keep making music.
Music production can be a glamorous and lucrative business…if one of your songs just happens to go viral, at least. Until that happens, the life of a producer is a grind: you learn the basics, practice building ideas into songs/beats, build a portfolio, collaborate, and collect contacts for future projects.
I hope you found this article helpful. If so, then here are a few more guides that may interest you: