A Quick Guide to Indie Instrumentation with Recommendations
If you’re a songwriter or beat producer who loves indie music, but you lack experience in music composition, you may not understand what kind of instruments are used for getting those signature “indie” sounds.
I’m here to demystify the tones of common indie genres and artists. Understanding the instrumentation found in your favorite genres will help you as a songwriter by:
- Informing you on which instruments you may benefit from learning, and
- Teaching you how to compose and arrange those instruments—even virtual versions of them in your DAW—for more realistic-sounding recordings
What is Indie Music?
Indie music is a very big genre, encompassing a number of styles and aesthetics. Technically, indie means any kind of music created by independent musicians outside of the major labels. However, indie has come to also mean a specific sound found in certain genres, regardless of their label status. Some indie artists have reached mainstream success and been signed to major labels but still retain or personify an indie music aesthetic. Although they get blended and hard to pin down, here are some of the most popular indie styles or sub-genres:
- Post-Punk Revival
- Bedroom Pop
- Lo-Fi Chillhop
- Cloud Rap or Alternative Hip Hop
- Twee Pop or Midwest Emo
- Seattle Sound or 90s Indie
Common Indie Rock & Pop Instruments
Despite the wide variety of sub-genres or styles, indie music is pretty simple in instrument selection. I would put indie on a spectrum with rock on one end, rap on the other, and pop laying in the middle.
Towards this end of the spectrum, artists tend to use traditional rock band instruments: electric guitar, electric bass guitar, analog drum kit, and synthesizer/digital piano.
- Classic guitars win out in this genre, with the most common ones being Stratocasters, Telecasters, 335s, Les Pauls, and Jazzmasters. A traditional single-coil sound can get you the tone of most indie bands.
- Acoustic guitars are also commonplace for a more intimate sound on select tracks, but they are not as frequently seen as electric guitars.
- Bass guitars used in Indie tend to be a Jazz Bass or a Rickenbacker, but a P-Bass or a Bronco can get very similar tones to the Jazz Bass. Synth basses are less common. 808 basses are almost unheard of on this side of the spectrum.
- Analog drums are far more common on the rock end. Even if you don’t play drums yourself, using an analog sample VST—rather than an 808-based electronic kit—will get you the sound.
This style is usually lighter than rock or rap and more flexible in its instrumentation. Artists vary from guitar-based to synth-based harmonies, and drums tend to be loops with analog or digital kits. Piano gets more prominence here, as well as digital bass tones.
- Guitars are still commonly used, and still tend to be classic shapes like Stratocasters and 335s. Acoustic guitars are plentiful, especially among the “singer-songwriter” types whose musical focus is towards melody and storytelling rather than expansive arrangements.
- Pianos and Synthesizers are more likely to be used to fill out chords and bass. Expect to hear ambient pads or reverb-soaked electric piano emulations.
- Digital bass becomes more common in pop as we edge away from traditional rock bank formats, as most indie pop artists are solo musicians who add the bass parts in during production, or “in the box” (that means electronically within the DAW itself rather than using analog equipment that must be recorded first). Bass lines are more likely to be snappy retro grooves played on synthesized slap bass presets, compressed digital piano notes, or fat droning square waves.
- Digital drums are likely to be programmed in the DAW like bass parts, but many indie pop artists still work with analog samples to get a more traditional rhythm tone. Electronic sample kits are common, but follow simpler patterns than rap would—especially in regards to the hi-hats.
This end of the spectrum relies far more on digital instrumentation rather than analog recordings in-studio. That is, most alternative hip hop and rap is arranged and produced in-the-box. Bass, kick, and snare is far more prominent.
- Guitars and pianos may be used for looped hooks or riffs. Filters are a popular way of automating tone variations in these instruments, using plugins such as the infamous Gross Beat.
- Synth pads often play harmonic fills, but chord harmonies are not as full or present in rap as they would be in pop.
- Bass in a rap song is front and center, even in indie rap styles. Unlike pop bass, I tend to hear more analog basslines (or at least VST emulations of analog bass guitars). Droning basses are also popular, and 808 kick basses are almost de facto in cloud rap or emo rap.
- Drum kits are usually digital and compiled from sample kits. Collecting drum samples seems as common a hobby among beat producers as collecting Pokemon cards or stamps. Expect snappy, in your face snares and hi-hats playing patterns impossible for the average drummer to physically play.
Analog vs Digital Instruments
If you’re a bedroom musician looking to make indie music, the question will definitely come up: should you learn how to play all these instruments yourself or rely on digital versions for your tracks?
This answer comes down to three factors:
- Preference: do you write parts more easily when you have an instrument physically in your hand or does electronic composition work for you?
- Money & Space: do you have the money to spend on all those instruments? And the room in your recording space to fit them all?
- Time: do you have the time to learn all of those instruments and record them part by part?
For the average bedroom artist or indie producer, it’s a mixed bag. Digital instruments will streamline your workflow and likely save you time. But knowing how to play at least one or two instruments will massively improve your compositional skills and make the music sound more authentic.
Digital instruments that are programmed into the DAW right from the piano roll will not sound as dynamic or fluid as actual hands playing the parts. Also, some VSTs just don’t sound realistic for certain instruments; one of the hardest analog instruments to digitally emulate is the guitar. If you only learn one instrument, I would recommend either:
- Guitar if want the sounds of guitars in your songs, because synthesized guitar sounds are usually obvious and unpleasant; or
- Piano if you don’t plan on using guitar tones extensively, because knowing your way around the keys will help you in composing MIDI parts for any virtual instrument.
VSTs and Synths for Indie Music
When it comes to indie production, digital alternatives can be a lifeboat for those of us who make music on our personal computers. If you need some recommendations on VSTs or synths to use for your tracks, allow me to provide some based on my own experiences. Keep in mind, you’ll probably want a MIDI controller to get the most out of any VST or software synthesizer in this list. Any basic MIDI keys will do, like the M-Audio Oxygen or the Nektar Impact (both of which I have used).
If you want an analog piano sound in your songs, try one of these:
- (Free) Soft Piano for LABS sampler by Spitfire Audio
- (Free) Tape Piano for LABS
- (Free) Claustrophobic Piano by Christian Henson (works on Kontakt Player or Decent Sampler)
While synth basslines can work in many subgenres of indie pop, the sounds of a sampled bass guitar can also go a long way. Here are a few VST options for your perusal:
- (Free) Bass Guitar for LABS
- (Free) Ample Bass P Lite by Ample Sound (a sampled P-bass with a few articulations)
- ($99) Scarbee Rickenbacker Bass by Native Instruments (works with free Kontakt player)
- ($0-349) MODO Bass by IK Multimedia. This is a synth that models multiple different models of bass guitars (P-Bass, Rick, MM, etc). They do offer a basic P-bass model as a free download, and each individual model bass can be had for $69. There are different tiers of features and models available in packages as well, with the full package retailing at $349. While it gets pricier than most VSTs I recommend, this has the best bass guitars sounds with the most variety of tones that I could find.
With indie rock, a lot can be done with just a basic analog drum kit VST (i.e. a virtual instrument sampled from an actual live kit and mapped to MIDI). Below are a few budget kits you can try:
- (Free) SI Drum Kit in Cakewalk by Bandlab (this VST is bundled with Cakewalk, which is a DAW, but once you install the Drum Kit you can use it in any DAW you like)
- (Free) Drums for LABS
- ($99) Abbey Road Vintage Drummer by Native Instruments
If you want to add some strings to your music for swells, or to build up the sonic wall of sound in your mix, here are a few string sample libraries you can consider:
- (Free) BBC Symphony Orchestra Discover by Spitfire Audio (this is actually a stripped down version of a full orchestra, not just the strings section; it comes with legato and spiccato, pizzicato, and tremolo patches for the strings)
- (Free) Strings and Strings 2 for LABS
- ($99) Aeria Lite Edition by Audio Imperia (one of the best budget strings libraries with multiple articulations and dynamic layers; works with the free Kontakt Player)
Most soft synths can provide replications of piano, strings, bass, 808s, as well as original synthesizer leads and pads. A few free and cheap options you can check out are:
- (Free) Vital by Vital Audio
- (Free) Helm by Matt Tytel (also the guy who made Vital)
- (Free) Dexed by Digital Suburban
- ($149) Massive by Native Instruments
- ($165) ANA 2 by Sonic Academy
- ($189) Serum by Xfer Records
Budget Analog Instruments for Indie Music
Some of us prefer to have an actual instrument in our hands rather than rely on a multitude of synths to finagle. In some cases, an analog instrument will just sound more natural and provide a better tone than even the most extensive VSTs (which is why I didn’t provide any guitar synth recommendations, I’ve never found one that sounded as good as the real thing.
Thankfully, imported guitars and basses in the budget prices ranges have improved dramatically in quality (especially compared to when I started playing). If you are looking to learn guitar or bass, here are a few value models that work well for indie tones and genres.
Several of the models listed below are available at Thomann Music (some of them exclusively). If you use my affiliate link to make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
- Squier Bullet Stratocaster, hard tail (that means no tremolo; a hard tail will be easier to use if you’re a total beginner) in SSS or HSS variety.
- The Squier Classic Vibe 60s series, honestly anything from that series should be a decent buy—especially if you can find a deal on one used.
- Harley Benton HB-35 Plus (this is a 335 copy that in my opinion is way more bang-for-buck than an Epiphone)
- Harley Benton ST-62 or Fusion III (I use an ST-20 but that’s because the selection is much more limited for left-handers; if I played right-handed, I would have gotten an ST-62 for the better stock tuning machines and AlNiCo pickups)
- Taylor GS Mini (perhaps one of the most popular guitar models right now; it’s small but it’s still got tone)
- Harley Benton CLA-15M (seriously, this is an OM model with solid top, back, and sides and it cost less than half what my solid wood imported Martin model did…and it has a solid wood fretboard too, which is more than I can say for the Martin import models *sigh*
- Martin DJR-10 Dreadnought Junior (this is a scaled down dreadnought, the quintessential model that Martin created; they go for good prices used)
- Yamaha FG830 (if you prefer a full-sized budget dreadnought; the top is solid spruce, back and sides are laminate…it is to be expected in this price range)
- Epiphone Dove Pro (if you want a dreadnought but you also want some style; also a solid spruce top)
- Breedlove ECO Discovery S Concert (a concert model with a solid mahogany top, which will have a warmer tone than a spruce top)
If you are a smaller person and prefer an instrument with a more comfortable feel for small hands, check out my article all about that topic.
- Harley Benton JB-20 (it’s a standard jazz bass, but cheaper than a Squier of the same build)
- Squier Bronco Bass (they don’t look like much, but the Bronco is good no-frills workhorse with it’s little pickup that could)
- Harley Benton PJ-74 (want a P-Bass instead? Here’s a cheap one with a J-bass pickup, too)
- Squier Affinity Jazz Bass (the P-Bass model should work well, too; it’s a matter of tone preference)
- Ibanez Talman Bass (if you can get past the funky design, the Talman is a pretty decent P-bass alternative)
To summarize, Indie is a musical style with a large web of subgenres that often intermingle. Depending on how modern or vintage your want to sound, you may opt for any combination of analog rock instruments (like electric guitars and bass) or digital synth software (like 808s and virtual instruments).
Other Articles for Your Consideration
If you found this guide helpful, here are a few more articles you may consider reading: