Gearing Up For Composing

Since deciding to become a mini Hans Zimmer, I’ve realised that it’s not exactly that cheap. I’ve always been a big believer in buying good quality products – in theory they last longer, and you’re able to give yourself a wee bit of a competitive advantage.

But where do you begin? That was the question I faced a few weeks ago. How do you become a composer in today’s digital world – what will set you apart from the thousands of other wannabe composers out there?

Well obviously you need hardware and software, but what about a “studio”?

A PLACE TO CALL WORK

Working from home is always useful – there’s no need for extra rent, you have (in theory) fewer distractions, and you can make  yourself more comfortable. But realistically, it’s not what I’d recommend. As someone who worked from home for a few years, I quickly became a bit of a recluse, with serious cabin fever. By the time the end of the day came around, I was ready to get out of the house – and my friends coming home from work just wanted to relax at home.

Having a place to call work is a much better idea. It enables you to separate work from home and vice versa. Getting up in the morning is more routine, and once you’re at “work”, you actually do work. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a sound setup at home – sometimes it’s nice to be able to mess around with song ideas or record something that’s in your head, but at the end of the day, I think it’s healthier to have an office to work from.

The other thing that having an office away from home does, is enable you to interact with other people. Even if you’ve got your own tiny studio, you’ll interact with people on the way to work, or in your building and you’ll have greater opportunities to connect on a work related level – especially if you find a studio in a building filled with creative businesses.

You could even do one better – find a space to rent inside a film studio. Renting a desk or a room inside an office or studio is a lot cheaper than renting a standalone office (no matter how small it is). And if you rent a space in a place filled with creatives there’s more chance of getting work. I call it collaborative symbiosis.

Esentially, they could advertise themselves as a film and sound studio, even though they only do film – having you in the office means they can outsource to you. In the same way, you could offer a sound and film service – having the film guys in the office means you could potentially outsource to them. Everybody wins.

And that’s kinda what I’ve done. While I’m not with other creatives, I’ve got myself a setup working with a company that’s involved in web design and app development. Since I actually studied Information Systems at Uni, it’s a potential collaborative symbiosis, and of course, I’m not paying ridiculous rent, while the office is three times the size I would have been able to afford on my own.

SOUND HARDWARE

SPEAKERS OR HEADPHONES?

Given that I’m working in a shared office space, there were a couple of reason why I couldn’t get speakers. The first is that the room isn’t set up with acoustic treatments, and the other of course, is that I can’t be pumping music while others are working!

My solution, which I’m rather happy about anyway, was to go with a decent pair of headphones. Of course, mastering peeps will tell you why high-end speakers are far better for getting things like Balance and EQ right, I don’t care much for them. I’ve worked with some really great high-end speakers, but to me nothing is better than having headphones on where the sound is quite literally millimetres away from your ears. Of course, if you need to work in a 5.1 surround sound environment, you’ll have to get setup with some decent exterior speakers, but I haven’t found the need just yet, and my pair of AKG K 271 MKII headphones are unbelievably awesome.

 

EXTERNAL AUDIO INTERFACE

The next thing you need is a good external audio interface to process the sound and ensure that you get decent low-latency when you’re recording. In the end, I chose the Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 DSP firewire audio interface. My headphones plug neatly into it, and I’ve got a dedicated volume control at my fingertips, as opposed to using the mouse to change volume.

It has something called VRM (Virtual Reference Monitoring) which aims to create a “virtual” studio environment for you when mastering. You can read more about it here.

POWERFUL COMPUTER

Of course none of this really matters if you don’t have a computer to well, compute. I work with film too, so it’s lucky that film is more demanding than sound and as a result I have a beast of a PC to work on.

I prefer using windows based machines – Mac’s are expensive and at the price point I can afford, aren’t nearly powerful enough for my needs. The important parts of the machine I built for myself are as follows:

Motherboard: Intel X58
Processor: Core i7 3.4Ghz Quad Core with Hyperthreading
Hard Disks: 2 x 160 GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD (Solid State) running in a RAID o striped environment, and 2x Seagate SV35 3GB SATA HDD’s.
Memory: 16GB
GPU: Asus Nvidia GTX570 Direct CU II
Scratch Disk: Intel x25 SSD

 

It’s ridiculously powerful for a price no Mac could ever compete with. The point being that it serves my needs well and I’m quite happy working in Windows 7 – but we’ll get to software in a mo.

KEYBOARD MIDI CONTROLLER

The most important weapon in a composers arsenal – the MIDI Controller. It’s all good and well having this other equipment, but if you have no way of instructing the PC as to what sounds you’d like to make, they may as well not be there.

If you’re not familiar with how modern composing is done, let me take a moment to explain. Virtual Studio Technology Instruments, or VSTi’s, are essentially real instruments, recorded in such a way that you’re able to play a note on a digital keyboard and have the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) play the corresponding note in an instrument of your choice, such as a violin or cello.

It literally enables you to play every single instrument in your composition, without ever picking up an instrument or having to learn how to use them all. In a sense it gives you full control of exactly how you’d like the music to sound.

Of course, if you’re Hans Zimmer and the like, you’ll have that translated into sheet music and have a real orchestra play the piece, but we’re getting so close to the real thing with VSTi’s that you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the real orchestra and a really good virtual one.

And when it comes to hardware, as I said earlier, I believe in buying quality. Of course, good keyboards are expensive – in this case I found a happy medium. I searched long and hard looking for a fully weighted piano which gives the same play feeling as a traditional piano – something very important to me. Cheaper keyboards often have a pathetic springy action to them and if you’re working day in and day out on that keyboard, it’s best to have one that actually feels comfortable to play!

So I got the StudioLogic Fatar VMK 161 Plus –  a fully weighted, velocity and aftertouch sensitive MIDI Controller. It looks a bit 80’s, but is beautiful to play – certainly at that price point.

You’ll also need to get a pedal while you’re at it, but they aren’t that expensive and it doesn’t really matter which one you get.

SOUND SOFTWARE

So now that the basic hardware is taken care of, it’s time to look at the software, since after all, without it, you won’t be able to record anything.

CUBASE / NUENDO

First up is the DAW or Digital Audio Workstation – this is the main engine for you. You’ll work in this application recording and editing, adding effects, capturing your MIDI, and mastering your music.
There are a few choices out there for you when it comes to a DAW, but it seems to me that Cubase is a pretty fantastic option. They all have their pro’s and con’s, but Cubase is nicely cross-platform compatible and there are loads of plugins that work great with it. Nuendo is also made by Steinberg and is essentially the same as Cubase, but is really geared towards film scoring since it seems to support video extremely well. I haven’t done much research on it, simply because it’s 3x the price of Cubase, and Cubase seems more than enough for my needs. To give you an idea, Hans Zimmer uses Nuendo.

Cubase isn’t that cheap either, though if you live in the States, it’s way cheaper than most places and of course you can’t expect to write epic music without a decent DAW.

VSTi’s

So you’ve got the hardware, and the DAW software. What else do you need to start composing?

You need to get your hands on some virtual instruments. This has been a rather tricky part of the process for me, simply because it’s the most important for me. Your music will only sound as good as the virtual instrument is, and there are loads to choose from.

The simplest on the list is Miroslav’s Philharmonik Orchestra. It’s a pretty decent collection of virtual instruments, and while it’s certainly not amazing, it’s extremely useful at the price of around 170 Euros.

Of course, for me, the sounds just aren’t what I would hope for – some are better than others, but overall, there isn’t much of the realistic slide effects and so forth that you’ll get from, say a violin.

One option that’s rather decent is Native Instrument’s Komplete 8. The reason for this, is that it has a kind of MIDI engine called Kontakt, which some virtual instruments require in order to run. So the idea is that Kontakt plugs in to Cubase and the VSTi’s plug in to Kontakt. Furthermore, Komplete comes bundled with it’s own massive library of VSTi’s as well as two fantastic syth engines, namely, Massive, and Absynth, both of which are epic. I just ordered my copy of Komplete 8 from Amazon.

East West Quantum Leap is another fantastic company that makes VSTi’s – so many of them that I get lost on their pretty old-school looking website. Loads of well-known composers use their products and you don’t need Kontakt to run them as far as I’m aware. Their VSTi’s are definitely a cut about Miroslav’s Philharmonik and Komplete 8.

At this point though, I’m still deciding whether to get EWQL VSTi’s or the new-kid-on-the-block 8Dio’s VSTi’s. To me 8Dio’s stuff sounds absolutely amazing and I’m itching to get hold of a few instruments, but they come at a steep price. EWQL in comparison isn’t as expensive. In short, I think I’ll probably end up with a few VSTi’s from both companies.

At the end of the day, the bigger your library of VSTi’s, the better the music you’ll be able to produce, and so it can’t hurt having a bunch of them. For me though, I feel 8Dio is producing superior instruments because their mission is to have their instruments incorporate the kinds of sounds that make them feel more “human”, which of course, are the human error elements and the emotion that is translated when a violinist plays a piece of music.

As a result, you get a truly realistic virtual instrument, not a perfect one, and that’s why I want them.

LEARNING TO USE ALL THIS

Do you need to go to sound engineering school to be a digital composer? Do you need to have studied music at the school of fancy-pants to write amazing music? No, but it probably helps.

To put things into perspective, Hans Zimmer didn’t study music, and he didn’t study sound engineering – his raw passion and underlying talent was enough to get him to where he is today – arguably the world’s best film composer.

Of course knowledge helps – so if you happen to have a degree in sound engineering or studied music, you’ll have a decent head start. But it’s not the be all and end all.

I never studied sound engineering or music, and yet here I am pursuing a career in film composition. So what does that mean? Well it means you have to be passionate and of course, practice. A lot.

The other thing you’ll need to do, is find youtube lessons that teach you everything you would have learnt at sound engineering school, only in a quarter of the time.

Honestly, there is so much information out there, you just have to find it, and suck it up.

MAKING A NAME FOR YOURSELF

Of course even if you have all this equipment and a talent for writing music, the next thing you have to do is make sure people employ you. You can’t write music with an empty stomach!

So how do you go about this? I’ll tell you when I’ve figure it out! Joking aside though, you have to write. A portfolio is something that is absolutely necessary in this game. People need to hear what you’ve done before, otherwise they won’t trust that you can do the job at hand.

That means writing for “fake” films – no I’m not suggesting you fake that you’ve writing music for fictitious films, but rather that you write as if you were writing for a specific film. Pick out Saving Private Ryan, and write music for a few of the scenes, and don’t stop until you’ve covered all the genre’s. I’m only at the very beginning stages of doing this, but I’m doing it!

Then have a decent website made up for yourself that can showcase your portfolio. Get on Twitter and Facebook, write Blog posts like this and share your knowledge throughout your trials and tribulations and successes.

Email people, phone people, connect with people in the industry, but most importantly, believe in yourself. And don’t stop until you win that Oscar.

Oh, one last thing – good luck!

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  • Ryan

    Thanks Andrew! A very well written article and listened to your entire library of songs while reading it. You are very talented. Fantastic compositions! Thanks so much for sharing. :-)

    • Thanks so much Ryan! Also glad you found it useful :)

  • Str8todamoney

    Thanks for all this great advice. I too am working on building my portfolio. I have no experience in scoring any films but i am working on some scenes I cut from Man of steel, Gladiator and also Tron to mix my electronic music talent in there also. I do however need to work on different moods of music.

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