My Minimum Viable Studio Setup
To start off as a media composer can be quite difficult. Getting your initial Startup cost and funds together, finding and acquiring clients, building a network of musicians and other composers and of course building your first setup can all be daunting tasks.
To make life a little easier for you, I put together a list of the minimum viable setup, that I used when I first started composing music. Even though that was a very long time ago, the basic principles still apply to build an MVS (Minimum viable setup) today.
My first desk was an IKEA kitchen countertop with height adjustable legs, that were screwed into the bottom of the board. Far away from ideal, but it worked and I did use this particular desk for a couple of years. Considering, that for a while, I actually used an actual door as a desk, the countertop solution was amazing. All a matter of perspective.
Think about your desk as the command station. There you will sit and work most of the time. It should be a desk, that you enjoy and one that is functional.
The main functional implication the desk should have is the right height. Think either of a desk, that you can put a keyboard on top on or, as you can see below, high enough to fit a Master Keyboard including a stand under it.
Maaaaaan. A chair is so important. I wouldn’t go with just any kitchen chair or one from the dinner table. Go and invest in a decent office chair that fits your body. Sit in it in the store, try it out.
My first chair was a cheap but very comfortable and ergonomic office chair from an office liquidation. I like having armrests although I see a lot of colleagues using chairs without them.
Master-Keyboard (and Keyboard-Stand)
My starter keyboard was an Alesis synth, from which I also used the very (at least in my ears now) crappy sounds from time to time. But it had the essential mod wheel and semi-weighted keys; and Midi. So, good enough for starting out. Now I use a Doepfer LMK 2. I like that one very much for playing pianos or strings. For playing any fast percussion stuff though, I use an M-audio keyboard with unweighted keys.
I’d say any keyboard with a Mod-Wheel will do.
For some composers, semi-weighted keys are the thing. I prefer fully weighted keys that feel much more like a real, analog piano.
My first DAW was Cubase Elements (I think it was called that) and I upgraded soon after to Cubase VST 3.5. on PC. Anyway, when I worked at my first job as a composer, the production company used Logic in their studios. So I had to switch and soon was much more versatile in Logic than I ever was in Cubase. Watching over the shoulders of my colleagues and getting good, practical, hands-on training was invaluable.
But, basically, any professional DAW is good and offers all the important features. I use Logic now for over 16 years. And it just works for me.
And as a starting point, the 199 USD investment is totally worth it.
Yes, I am a Mac user and proud of it. It is just so much more intuitive and the OS is super stable. My first machine actually was a Windows PC. Back then, I didn’t know better 🤓
I had custom custom-built quite a powerful system and worked with it for a couple of years. But with Logic, also the Mac came in my life. First a 17″ MacBook Pro in 2004. Then a Mac G5. Now I have a 2012 Mac Pro. I’d recommend going with a 2012 Mac Pro. Much more affordable than the new generation of Mac Pro’s and you can stack it up modular, step by step, with as many drives and as much RAM as you need.
I started out with a Persons AudioBox USB then a Digidesign M-Box (as a dongle for ProTools) and was quite happy with it. Until I invested big time in a UAD Apollo, their first version of it. The difference in sound quality was astonishing. I will forever be thankful for the switch. This is just to say, invest a bit more in the interface. Don’t buy the cheapest one around, do a bit of research and get one that fits your needs for inputs, outputs and maybe MIDI capabilities.
Your monitors are only as good as you know how to mix on them. When you have a very cheap pair of basic PC loudspeakers, but you know how they sound and translate to the “real world” they are just as good as $5000 midfield monitors (okay I am exaggerating). But you don’t have to start out with a super expensive system, just because you liked the sound in the last big recording studio you went to or one of the mix engineer wizards mixes on them. Get e decent pair of monitor speakers, learn how they sound and apply the learnings on the next mix.
Native Instruments Kontakt
When I started composing music for media there were still Akai S6000s around. And a lot of them. There was no software sampler other than EXS in Logic, and even more important, finding decent sounding orchestral libraries was just not possible. All the good sounding stuff was still sampled by the studios and composers themselves, while or after recording for a project with an orchestra. They just booked one follow up session and recorded samples.
Nowadays things are so much easier and cost-effective. If you are at all interested in cinematic composing today, then there is no way around Kontakt.
All the top-notch libraries and developers use Native Instruments Kontakt as their development platform. So, when you want a decent sounding “in-the-box” orchestra sound, you need Kontakt.
Some of the plugin developers let you use the free Kontakt Player to load their libraries, but most libraries I use are developed for the paid version of Kontakt.
My first libraries were, Atmosphere & Stylus by Spectrasonics, ProjectSAM’s Orchestral Brass and (if I remember correctly) Garritan Personal Orchestra. I am not even sure anymore.
Today obviously the selection is as wide as it can get. There are so many pristine, extraordinary sounding libraries out there, that the right choice is not an easy one. When looking for a library, listen to the examples and watch the tutorials and walkthroughs.
This isn’t by any means a complete comprehensive list of things you might need in your studio. It will serve you well as a starting point when considering becoming a media composer and go further from there.
What does your setup look like now and what changes are you going to make after this post? Just shoot me an email with any questions you have.