You can quickly make music using presets, loop libraries, sample packs, etc. But you’re not necessarily comfortable with this approach and are unsure about whether or not it’s “cheating.”
There is a lot of disagreement and strong opinion about whether or not you can really take credit for your original music if you’re not also programming your own sounds. Some electronic musicians are also highly skilled synthesizer programmers and/or sample manipulators, and they talk with pride about how the first thing they do when they get a new piece of equipment is erase all of the presets. Often, the underlying philosophy behind this approach to composition emphasizes sound as the principal parameter of the music. Many musicians who focus intensely on sound design also work with a fairly restricted harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic palette. For them, it is timbre choices that largely define their artistic signature. This is common in, for example, minimal techno and some experimental styles.
On the other end of the spectrum are electronic musicians who have no interest in sound design and instead create their music entirely by assembling existing loops and samples. For these musicians, the focus is generally more on harmony, melody, and rhythm, and less on timbre. This is not to suggest that the sounds are arbitrarily chosen or used without care, but rather that there may be a range of acceptable sounds for a particular song part, and that the notes are given more compositional attention than the sounds. This is common in, for example, trance and some house music. In an abstract sense, this is also common in more conventional genres such as classical music or rock. In these genres, the available selection of instruments (and thus the essential palette of sounds) is generally a defining characteristic of the genre, and the composition is then largely about using those instruments in the service of melody, harmony, rhythm, and form.
Which approach is the right one? Perhaps neither. Consider, instead, a middle ground between the two that can maximize musical productivity while minimizing the feeling that you’re not taking enough ownership of your music.
Instead of approaching sound design as an all-or-nothing endeavor, use presets, samples, and loops as the point of departure for each song part, but with the implicit understanding that you will devote some part of your music-making time to fine-tuning the sounds to suit your particular taste and needs. Purists may always start from a synthesizer’s default preset, but this feels like an unnecessary and time-consuming restriction. It means starting from the same state of controls, regardless of intended musical context, and then gradually tuning the sound “outwards” to gain distance from the default. Instead, consider beginning the writing process by using a preset that is at least in the same family as the instrument you’re writing for. If you’re working on a bass line, for example, explore your synthesizer’s bass presets—guilt free. Once you’ve found one that’s as close as possible to the sound you imagine in your head, work on the other parameters of the part: the melody, rhythm, etc. Then, after you have some music underway, come back to the sound again and begin tweaking it so that it takes on your own unique signature.
For musicians with absolutely no sound design experience, this may sound like an intimidating process. But once you learn just the very basics of synthesizer theory, you’ll find that this knowledge can be applied to almost any synthesizer. For example, filters and basic ADSR envelope controls can be found on almost any hardware or software synth or sampler. And by using nothing more than these parameters— this is usually no more than six total controls—you can come up with a huge range of variations from a given preset.
Commit at least enough of your music-making time to sound design so that you can be proud of the sounds you use. For the truly discerning electronic musician, it’s unlikely that any preset will ever be the perfect choice for their particular musical context. But it might be close. From there, you may need only a few tweaks before you’ve found something that is uniquely your own.