When presented with the incredible opportunity to compose an all-original score, I ended up embarking on a career change. The film was "The Loyalist," an award-winning short film about the Revolutionary War. This stunning period piece explores the emergence of espionage and the birth of the Culper Ring in Long Island, New York.
For me, networking and sussing out opportunities always seemed really random, making it hard to know when to cram my toe into the door of opportunity. However, when my partner was in the process of making a film, I immediately asked if I could be involved in the scoring process. The plan went from collaborating with another composer on melody to writing the end credit sheet music, then from composing the opening song in Logic Pro X to doing the entire score; all while building up my own music studio. I am not a gear-head, and like John Snow I knew nothing, so throughout the 5-month process I leaned on my contacts and the internet to kit my music studio. From my personal experience, I’ve compiled a list of 5 basics needed to set yourself up as a media composer or solo artist.
First thing needed, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Some more recognizable names are Ableton Live, Logic Pro X, and Pro Tools. Essentially, these DAWs are software programs that enable live recording, midi, mixing, and overall composing and producing. These programs allow you to bring in melodies, choose instruments, layer and create your personal sound. Now, all DAWs enable you to make music, but differ in features, workflow, and cost, making it essential to establish musical goals and price points before deciding on the best fit. Will you be recording live instruments? Are you composing with midi? Are you remixing for other artists? Depending on your answers, your workflow will vary and impact your final decision.
According to Hans Zimmer’s Master Class, he uses Cubase. Several articles list Skrillex, Diplo and Deadmau5 as users of Ableton Live. I personally use Logic Pro X because, despite the handful of late-night Google searches and yelling at my computer screen, I found it was fairly intuitive and it fit my budget at $199.99. Logic Pro X is one of the more affordable options, plus it’s beginner-friendly, has virtually every editing feature, built-in plugins, and video syncing. Logic Pro X also offers a 10-day free trial, allowing you to test it before deciding. However, recently I started using Pro Tools because it is the industry standard for film composers.
Pro Tools, developed by Avid Technology, is accessible on either Microsoft Windows or macOS. It’s excellent for mixing and editing up to 128 audio tracks, 512 instrument tracks, and 1,024 midi tracks. This program provides editing features like changing tempo, editing notes, trimming clips, fading, or even pitch correcting with Elastic Pitch. It is available via monthly or annual subscriptions or a perpetual license. There is also a cloud feature, making it easier to store, share, and collaborate with other artists. With Avid Cloud Collaboration, you can work with up to 10 others on a single project, which is an excellent feature if you’re composing scores for films.
Your choice of DAW will be foundational to your studio. Although there are free applications out there, such as Audacity and GarageBand, if the end goal is a career, it's worth the investment to get one of the top DAWs.
I can only play the piano, so discovering I could take my piano skills and translate them into any instrument imaginable was incredibly exciting. Thanks to midi technology, melodies and ideas can be captured within DAWs and brought to life with instruments/plugins. Plugins are self-contained programs operating as effects such as compressors and distortion filters, or instruments. These virtual instruments can be sampled, acoustic, synthesized or electronic. Sampled plugins are created from live recordings of musicians, while electronic instruments are computer-synthesized for a completely unique sound.
Diversity and complexity of sounds come from plugins and building out a comprehensive library. From classical orchestral instruments, to alien-sounding whines, to drum loops, there is an abundance of libraries for purchase. All range in quality, price, features, etc., but with so many fun and interesting options out there your music library will most likely be an ongoing expense.
If you want to start slow, Output has a 30-day free trial that delivers new content daily within the plugin. This is a great option to explore what Output has to offer and to get a feel for what can be accomplished with different instruments and effects. Additionally, Output is known for providing incredible instruments with tools that allow you to transform and customize your sound. Output also provides engines, effects and expansion packs in a non-subscription option. These bundles include Portal, Analog Brass and Wind, Analog Strings, Substance, Movement, Exhale, Rev X-Loops, Signal, Rev.
Native Instruments Komplete 12 has an incredible instrument and effect bundle, with over 60 products and 25,000+ sounds. With such a comprehensive bundle, you can create virtually anything. When composing The Loyalist's score, I needed to maintain a sense of historical integrity, so I chose traditional instruments such as pianos, violins, drums, and flutes. Consequently, the main plugins I worked with were Session Strings, Session Horns, Una Corda, and Kontakt Factory Instruments; all contained in the Native Instruments Komplete 11 Unlimited bundle now listed at $449. It was a big purchase, but absolutely indispensable. Plugins are completely essential to a music studio, however, it will be a sliding investment dependent upon music goals, needs, and budget.
#3: MIDI CONTROLLER
When first starting out, I only had a Yamaha keyboard tucked into my apartment. However, for composing I needed a midi controller. Midi (musical instrument digital interface) controllers are hardware that transmits musical information to your DAW; populating colorful rectangles on the screen, rather than an audio wavelength. Midi also allows you to paint notes with your pointer, adjust the length, placement, and velocity.
After much research, I chose the M-Audio Hammer 88-Key USB/Midi Keyboard Controller at $459. I preferred the fully weighted keys because it replicates the feeling of playing a real piano. Also, the velocity-sensitive hammer-action key feature was important because it translates the light or hard touches of playing into soft or loud midi inputs; making the instruments dynamic and expressive. Additionally, I purchased the Nektar NP-2 Universal Piano-Style Metal Foot Switch Pedal so I could manipulate the midi controller keyboard just like I would a real piano.
Although it is not necessary to know music theory, how to read and write music, or even how to play an instrument, it does help. Being a piano player was instrumental to the composition process and it defined my personal workflow. I play the piano in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, so I wanted to hit record and have everything I played be captured as midi notes. Afterward, I would go back and edit, quantize, adjust, etc., making the full-sized keyboard midi controller perfect for me. However, there are different options such as mini keyboards, pad controllers or a hybrid of both. Workflow, style, preference, and budget will all contribute to your choice of controller.
#4: HARD DRIVE
One thing to note, because libraries contain massive amounts of information, you will also need to have a separate hard drive. For example, Komplete 11 required a minimum of 170 GB free disk space and my music projects took up varying MBs of space as well. It’s really important to have a hard drive and a back-up hard drive with optimal capacity and speed. At $69.95 each, I purchased two G-Technology 2TB G-Drive because they are compact, reliable, Microsoft Windows and macOS compatible, and have data transfer speeds up to 130 MB a second. Although drives operating at 7200 RPMs may have shorter lifespans, be noisier, and generate heat, they allow for quicker read and write speeds.
Hard drive folder organization and redundancy is also really important. There are articles on this topic, but for me personally, I save all music files directly on the hard drive, if I haven’t decided on the final name, I name my music with descriptions, making it easily searchable. Then I’ll rename the project and all corresponding files once I’ve decided on a name. When exporting audio files, I use versioning naming conventions and store all with the corresponding original project folder.
Quality hard drives are absolutely essential to your studio set up, and if compromised, could be devastating, so be sure to purchase a high caliber product and a backup.
#5: SPEAKERS & Misc
Once I stacked my two pianos and placed my laptop on a stand, it started to look like a music studio. Since I work with a laptop, I found the Pyle Pro DJ Laptop stand a really affordable and helpful purchase; it’s essentially a small desk or work station. The tripod stand is light-weight, easily adjusts to heights of 29” to 52” enabling you to sit or stand, and has an adjustable workstation tray to angle for ergonomic comfort.
I purchased the M-Audio BX-5 speakers so I could engulf myself in sound. At $149.95 each, they are an affordable set of quality speakers that deliver a frequency response of 56 Hz to 22 kHz with a signal-to-noise ratio of 100 dB. While they are great for home studio recording and mixing, it is important to listen on multiple speaker systems and even cheap earbuds, so you can adjust, optimize, and ensure your mix sounds good on a variety of output sources. Ideally, your song will be playing on the best quality speakers or high-end headphones, but that’s not always reality. Using multiple output sources will allow you to identify potential problem areas, open up your mix, EQ, compress, and etc.; ensuring a clean and powerful song.
Lastly, I was gifted a Big Knob. This is a studio monitor controller that allows you to toggle between two audio sources and two monitor pairs. It’s used to adjust volume easily and more gradually during the mixing process, instead of scrambling for your laptop volume key. Plus, it looks cool.
All of these products were invaluable for scoring and mixing within my workflow. However, everyone’s product list will alter according to style, preferences, and overall project needs. So with this guide and some research, you can start building your dream home studio and begin creating!
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