If you are an aspiring film or game composer, here are the essential tools for creating film scores and game music using a digital audio workstation.
Note: This article is designed to be a basic overview of the tools and equipment necessary for film and game composing. The list and recommendations are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather are meant to show the basics and most common tools. I welcome your comments and additions below, but we’re looking to avoid a PC vs. MAC and Best DAW debate 😉
If you don’t already have a computer, choosing one can be a daunting task. Choosing the DAW you are going to use first may be a better start, as your selection will influence your computer platform choice. Logic Pro X, a popular DAW used by composers, for example, is only available for the Mac.
Platform choices: PC or Mac?
My take is simple: Use what you know or use what you are most productive on. If you are new to computers, the Mac is perhaps a better choice. If you are familiar with PC and are comfortable installing your own components and drivers etc., stick with PC. If you don’t care or have no bias, pick a Mac. PCs tend to vary in quality and price. Macs tend to be more expensive, but are consistently well engineered and designed.
Remember, computers are tools meant to increase your efficiency and productivity. The more time spent troubleshooting or fine-tuning your system, the less time you are devoting to composing music!
Computer specifications to look for:
- As much RAM as you can afford. 16 GB RAM is a bare, bare minimum. Pros typically use 128 GB or more for using today’s larger sample libraries.
- Fast processor, quad-core or better, i5, i7 or better
- Dual Monitors – 4k 27″ recommended
- SSD drive for system drive
- Dedicated Raid or SSD drive for sample library.
NEW Mac choices for Pro Users:
2019 iMac 8-core, 64 GB+ RAM, 1TB SSD
2020 MacMini 6-core, 64 GB RAM, 1 TB SSD
2019 Mac Pro 8 to 24-core, 128 GB+ RAM, 2 TB SSD
USED Mac choices:
5,1 12-core Mac Pro
Dare I say 2013 6,1 Trash Can 12-core Mac Pro. These older machines can be upgraded to 12-cores and can use NVME SSD drives with a small adapter.
GPU Video Cards: Most composers do not need the max video card. Save your money. The stock GPU in most Macs can drive two 4k displays or one 5k display without too many hiccups even when playing a locked video from a DAW.
RAM Notes; Most Mac users agree that you shouldn’t pay the “Apple Tax” for RAM, the super high-priced cost adding RAM from Apple. Retailers, such as OWC, www.macsales.com, sell Mac RAM typically at 50% or greater discounts than buying directing from Apple.
As a sample library developer, I use both an external SSD and a multi-bay NAS drive with a 2 TB SSD for for my Production Voices piano sample libraries, a few Lacie Four Big connected to an eSATA to Thunderbolt connector for other sample libraries and large NAS drive connected by 10Gbe for additional content, video streaming etc. All my sample drives can read at over 200 MB per second with the SSD drives reading at least twice that speed. The NAS averages well over 300 MB per second and can be used by multiple computers at the same time with no dip in speed!
Projects that have plenty of sample libraries loaded will take a long time to load. The faster your system and sample library drives are, the less time spent waiting for your project to load. I’ve experienced project load times in excess of 5 minutes even on a fast system. This makes it difficult to compare sketches and interrupts the creative process.
Monitors are so inexpensive that it seems silly to not have at least two 4k monitors or larger, if you can afford it. Dual monitors allow you to have a main arrange or edit page open while reserving another monitor for the mixer page, plugins, software instruments etc.
Keyboard and Mouse:
Some like trackpads, others like trackballs, but either way, leave the mouse behind and learn to use a trackpad or trackball. Trackpads and trackballs are just way more programmable and faster at tasks while requiring less surface area to use. Most professional DAW users that I know use either the Kensington Expert Mouse trackball or the Apple Trackpad.
Also, a wireless keyboard is a must as it is easier to move around.
DAW: Digital Audio Workstation
There are plenty of choices for digital audio workstations. As mentioned above, your choice of DAW will influence your computer choice.
DAWs allow you to sequence midi parts, mix audio, host samplers and other virtual instruments. Your DAW will be the central interface for all your composing.
The most common DAWs for composing film music and video game music are:
- Logic Pro X
- Digital Performer
- Pro Tools
If you are on the Mac, your primary choices for DAWs are Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer and Pro Tools. Most Mac-based composers will compose in Logic Pro X and convert stems to Pro Tools for mixing. Digital Performer has a strong following as well.
There are plenty of other DAW options including Ableton, Studio One and so on. Studio One has a free version, for those on a tight budget.
Interesting factoid: Hans Zimmer is a longtime Cubase user.
My recommendation is Apple’s Logic Pro X. At $199 it is perhaps the best bang-for-the-buck of any DAW. Logic Pro X is Mac only, but it has the most included plugins and instruments of any of the other DAWs.
Choose a good midi keyboard controller and supplement with another controller if you play another instrument such as guitar or wind instrument.
This is not the place to go cheap! Consider if you need an 88 key midi controller. If you are a piano player, the Kawai VPC1 is a popular choice. Kontakt users tend to be fond of the Komplete Kontrol S88. Pro composers have built desks around the Doepfer LMK4+.
A midi keyboard with a separate modulation and pitch bend wheel will help. Some sample libraries assign the modulation wheel to filter cutoff or articulations; it is extremely annoying to compose with midi controllers like the Novation or some Roland controllers that have a spring-loaded mod wheel that will not stay at a set position!
Why 88 keys? Keyswitches. Most professional sample libraries, orchestral or otherwise, allow access to different articulations such as staccato, tremolo etc. from dedicated trigger keys called key switches. Keyswitches can sometimes be outside the range of typical 61 note keyboards, making live sequencing difficult. The Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol series of controllers show Kontakt key switches as coloured keys, which many composers find helpful. While I like the controls on the Komplete Kontrol series, the keyboard is not nearly as nice as realistic as the Kawai VPC1.
Orchestral libraries respond well to wind controllers such as the AKAI EWI USB or the Yamaha WX5. The ability to crescendo notes and to dynamically control the nuances of the instruments makes a significant difference in creating realistic sounding scores.
Control surfaces for mixing audio are not necessary, but they are helpful. Once you have sequenced all your music parts, being able to mix the audio on a control surface is way faster than using a mouse. A simple one fader unit such as the Presonus FaderPort will work or move up to a more professional control surface such as the AVID Artist Mix.
All purchases should be considered tools to increase your efficiency and make you more money than your initial investment. Keep this in mind with all your purchases.
Do I need a MIDI interface?
Most midi equipment today has USB ports. A nice powered multiport USB hub is helpful to keep all your USB midi devices on one USB connection. A midi interface is only necessary if you have external hardware synthesizers or samplers. Most composers try to compose entirely in the digital environment of the computer to avoid wiring and the other issues associated with external sound sources.
iConnectivity makes a couple of midi interfaces that allow two computer systems and an iOS device to share the same midi inputs. The iconnect 2+ can also send audio between systems. If you need a midi interface, an iConnectivity is a great choice. PlugRater.com may review the iConnectivity interfaces in the near future.
The selection of monitor speakers is beyond the scope of this post. My general advice is to purchase a good sounding self-powered set of monitors that fit within your price range. Pro users prefer brands such as Genelec and Focal. Popular studio monitors include Adam, KRK, Yamaha and more. Pros monitor in both stereo and 5.1 surround and beyond. It is quite common for pros to have two or more sets of studio monitors; one set for monitoring while creating and another set “average” listening such as Yamaha NS10M or TV speakers.
Headphones are also a viable option. I have a young growing family that takes naps and goes to bed early. For me, headphones are my monitoring choice to keep from waking others up. I have a soft spot for AKG 240 Studio or MKII headphones. When choosing headphones, pick an open or semi-open type if you plan on listening for extended periods of time.
There are plenty of choices for audio interfaces. If you are not recording anything, your built-in audio interface will work just fine; you just may have to monitor on headphones. Most modern Macs can even output high quality 24 BIT 96 kHz audio from the built-in audio ports without the need for an external audio interface.
A popular high-end audio interface is Universal Audio’s Apollo series that includes a UAD processor card inside for running UAD powered plugins. At the January 2014 NAMM show, Universal Audio announced a desktop version of the Apollo that is reasonable priced.
Focusrite also has plenty of choices for USB and Firewire audio interfaces. It’s pretty hard to pick a bad audio interface with the current offerings. Talk to your local music retailer about what audio interface is likely to best suit your needs for sound quality, inputs and price point.
Sample Libraries and instruments
Sample libraries and virtual instruments are where the majority of a film and game composer’s sounds will come from. There are plenty of choices to choose from. We have a few recommendations, but also check out the reviews on PlugRater.com for more a more in-depth look at sample libraries.
Film composers and video game composers will likely need a diverse set of sounds that includes orchestral, ethnic/world, percussion, loops, synthesizer textures and traditional band instruments like drums, bass, guitar and piano.
The two approaches are:
- Specialized sample libraries
- Broad/bundled sounds/samples.
Let’s start with broad sound libraries:
Native Instruments Komplete is a popular bundle of software instruments and samples suitable for just about any style of music. Komplete also includes Kontakt, an industry standard sampler used by third-party developers and contains plenty of sampled sounds including a decent orchestral library.
East West Quantum Leap has the Complete Composers Collection that contains many of their best sample libraries in a bundle at significant savings. These sounds are more film score and game music specific than the Komplete bundle, but the sounds are a great starting point for any composer.
Specialized sample libraries tend to be specific instruments or sounds. These sample libraries can include piano libraries, orchestral libraries, smaller percussion libraries etc. Third-party developers, developers that do not have their own sample player, offer many specialized sample libraries. 8dio, Spitfire, SoundIron, SonicCouture and Orange Tree Samples are examples of third-party sample library developers that create excellent sample libraries.
Look for future PlugRater.com articles on sample libraries with comprehensive reviews.
This may be controversial, but most composers will never need notation software. You will be expected to deliver finished audio works that are mixed and mastered or stereo stems. Stems are stereo audio files of just certain sections of your score such as strings, synths, percussion etc. Most projects just don’t have the time or budget for live orchestra and if they did, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article and your orchestrator would handle all the parts for you. Also, most DAWs have comprehensive score editors that revival some of the best dedicated notation software. Logic, Cubase and Digital Performer can all print parts and extract individual parts of scores.
No system is complete without furniture. Make sure that you have a proper desk or studio furniture to ergonomically place your composing gear. A quality chair is a must. Don’t forget Feng shui! Make sure that your creative environment is suited to creativity!
A basic music composition system may look like this:
- Mac or PC with dual monitors.
- Wireless keyboard with trackball or trackpad.
- DAW such as Logic Pro X.
- Quality 88 key MIDI controller.
- A good set of studio monitors or headphones.
- A few sample libraries that may include Native Instruments Komplete or East West Complete Composers Collection and a few third-party sample libraries.
- A comfortable room, chair, setup and environment for composing!