In order to compose and sync your music to a movie, you’re going to need some equipment. Here are the 5 essential pieces of equipment that you’ll need to start film scoring.
It should go without saying that these are only recommendations. If you have access to other equipment that will get the job done, then great! The last thing I want you to do is to go out and spend a load of money on gear!
So what do you actually need? Well, not a lot in reality. You can do all of this with a simple computer system and free software. That said, if you’re more serious about film scoring, you’ll want to get a little studio set up. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, but you’ll need:
- A computer
- A Digital Audio Workstation or “DAW” for short
- Some speakers, which in pro-audio we call “monitors”
- An audio interface (I’ll explain what that does in a moment)
- And, ideally, a MIDI Keyboard
Honestly, that’s it to begin with. You can get dragged into a whole world of equipment and software if you spend too much time online. Before investing your hard earned money into ANY equipment you need to decide if it’s really going to help you.
And I’m talking from experience. I’ve bought so many things in the past that I really didn’t need. Stuff that I bought while I was still getting set up, before I’d actually started composing properly. All because I’d read on some forum that it was essential equipment.
What you should do first is start composing. Then, and only then, you’ll start to find areas in your workflow that you feel could be improved. That is the point where you start buying equipment – to solve a specific problem.
There are plenty of sales people out there trying to convince you that you have a problem that needs solving. Unless you’ve experienced a pain point yourself, don’t fall for it. Don’t buy sample libraries “just because” – buy them when you need a specific sound for a project.
Case and point: I recently moved across the world…twice…and got rid of my MIDI keyboard. Now I’m using my chunky stage piano for MIDI instead. The only problem is that my stage piano doesn’t have a modulation or pitch bend wheel, so now I’m looking for a solution to that. See? I had a problem that I’m going to solve logically. I didn’t try and solve the problem before I encountered it.
Okay, enough trying to save you money. Let’s look at those five things that I said you need.
1. A Computer
I use Logic Pro X, and for Logic you need a Mac. That said, most Digital Audio Workstations have some form of “movie” capabilities – and PC is making a spectacular comeback at the moment.
If you’re currently looking to buy a new system, in order for your system to be as up to date for as long as possible you’ll want to invest your money into getting the most powerful PROCESSOR and as much RAM as you can.
2. A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
As I’ve said, I use Logic Pro X, which is favourite among many composers, including some of the top Hollywood composers. If you’re on PC, Cubase has had some major revamps in the last few years and is now on par, some would argue even better than Logic.
One of the great things about Logic is that it comes with a huge sample library including most of the instruments you’d ever imagine writing for. It’s great for MIDI programming and manipulation and also for audio processing, so it’s a really well-rounded DAW.
3. Studio Monitors
A good set of speakers is super important if you want to make sure your music actually sounds good. If you’re using your computer or laptop speakers to write music, you’re not going to hear a lot of the details and frequencies, particularly bass. That means that if you ever play your movie on DIFFERENT speakers – like your TV that might have a soundbar with subwoofers – then it’s going to be a mess.
Likewise, when it comes to listening to and analysing music, a good set of monitors is going to help you to hear all the details.
You don’t need to spend a fortune. Personally, I have a set of Focal CMS-50 monitors. The Focal monitors aren’t as “harsh” sounding as some other brands, so I find them comfortable for listening on for extended periods of time. I also find that I can get a lot of clarity out of soundtrack music with them.
Other brands to consider include:
- Yamaha’s higher end stuff (the NS-10s are one of the most famous sets of studio monitors)
Most of these brands also make decent monitors at a lower price point. Just be wary when shopping for monitors that you’re looking at monitors designed for studios, and not for home stereos. There are some incredible speakers for home systems that will make any music sound incredible – and that’s the problem! Your monitors aren’t meant to make your music sound great; they’re meant to show you exactly how your music actually sounds.
If at all possible get yourself down to your local music shop and actually listen to different monitors. You might find that you actually hate the sound of some of the highly recommended speakers – so they’re no good for you.
You can get studio headphones too. These are great if you need to work at night, like if you have young kids and work during the day.
Headphones come with a couple of caveats though. Firstly, headphones can be SERIOUSLY bad for your hearing if you aren’t careful. If you spend long hours working with headphones you’ll find that you keep increasing the volume little by little until you don’t realise that you’re working at dangerous levels.
Pete Townshend of the The Who cites studio headphones as the main cause of his tinnitus. Tinnitus is completely irreversible, and horrendous to live with. So BE WARNED!
Secondly, you lose all sense of depth and space with headphones. When it comes to mixing you’ll have a really hard time getting your panning and reverbs correct.
Brands to consider include Focal, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, and AKG. I use AKG-240s, but only because I’ve had them forever and never felt the need to upgrade. They’re a good, reasonably priced set, but if you plan on doing the majority of your work on headphones, there are better ones available.
You’ll need to decide if you want open backed or closed backed headphones. Open backed are generally better for critical listening, but they let in noise from around you. They and also let noise out. If you’re in a noisy environment or if you’ll be working in the same room as someone else, they’re not ideal.
The opposite is true for closed back. They’re less good for critical listening, but block out unwanted outside noise and don’t leak what you’re listening to.
4. Audio Interface
An audio interface is like an upgraded sound card for your computer. They have microphone or line inputs with gain control and often phantom power, headphone and monitor outputs with output control. Some also have MIDI in and out.
Most studio monitors come with balanced line ¾ inch jack inputs which you can’t plug directly into your computer, hence why you need an audio interface. Also, for recording most interfaces have some form of preamp to help prepare your microphone or line signal on the way into your computer, helping you to get a nice crisp, clear recording.
I tend to recommend Focusrite products for Audio Interfaces. I personally use a Scarlett 2i4 interface, but if you have a look on their website you’ll see they have a whole range with various inputs and outputs. I’d avoid their “Solo” model though, as it only has an RCA output, which isn’t really appropriate for studio monitors.
Before you buy an audio interface, think realistically about what you need it to do. Most MIDI keyboards plug in via USB, so do you really need MIDI capabilities? Maybe you do, if you want to free up a USB port.
Likewise, are you ever going to have EIGHT microphones or line ins at once? Probably not in your home studio (unless you’re a drummer!), so why pay extra for all those inputs?
Again, be realistic with what you need.
I have heard rumours that the Focusrite interfaces are a little unstable with the Windows operating system. If you’re running Windows you might want to look at other options such as Presonus, Mackie, M-Audio, and the likes.
5. MIDI Keyboard
You can key in notation using your mouse or trackpad, and you can even use your computer keyboard to play in notes.
You’ll be utterly miserable, but you can.
I’m a huge advocate of learning the keyboard if you want to be a composer. You don’t have to be able to play like Chopin, but being able to play a few chords and play in your melody lines is going to allow you to work SO much faster. Playing in your parts will also give them so much more life than if you input them using a mouse.
This is another area where you’ll need to decide what you’re actually going to use your MIDI controller for. Native Instruments make a series of keyboards called “Komplete Kontrol” – these have knobs and dials and faders and screens and all manner of things to help you control your DAW from your keyboard. I’ve been tempted by them a few times after seeing promo videos, but then I think about my workflow…would I EVER actually touch those dials and faders?
The truth: probably not. It’s simply not how I work.
So again, don’t try and solve problems that you don’t have yet. I’d recommend getting a very basic MIDI Keyboard (make sure it has a modulation and pitch bend wheel) and then, if you feel like you want a more “tactile” approach to controlling other things in your DAW, you can either upgrade the keyboard at a later date or buy a dedicated DAW controller.
But, once again, first you need to figure out your workflow.
M-Audio make a great line of very basic MIDI keyboards called “Keystations.” If you also know that you’ll want a few dials and maybe drum pads to play in drum patterns, they have a series called “Oxygen” that are also great.
In terms of how many keys you want, there are two factors to think about: your playing style and how much space you have!
If you need it to fit on your desk and generally only play single melody lines or one handed chords, you’re best off with a 25 or 49 key. Just be aware that some of the smaller keyboards have “mini” keys that can be fiddly, and don’t always have pitch bend or modulation controls – or they have some alternative solution that isn’t great. But, if you have more space, and maybe already play piano, you’ll want at least 61 keys.
Whenever I play smaller keyboards, I always fall off either end, so I know I’m stuck with 88 keys!
Bear in mind that if you already have a keyboard it may well be capable of being a MIDI controller. A lot of modern keyboards have USB outputs on them, and most keyboards have a MIDI output. A 5 dollar MIDI cable that you can plug straight into your audio interface is a lot cheaper than buying a new keyboard, if you can make do.
And that’s it! The essential equipment for film scoring. Like I said before, only get what you feel you need right now and then only if you encounter problems should you look for solutions. And before you buy a solution, see if you can creatively solve your own problem with stuff you already have, or a clever workaround.
What is your “go to” equipment? Anything that you couldn’t live without? Share in the comments!