A conversation that I think I’ve had more times than I care to remember is about computers and equipment selection.
I’ve found it extremely useful to read other reviews of products and the rationale behind equipment selection. But, the reviews and recommendations I respect the most come from those who are also composers, have similar studios, or have similar requirements. Learning about new products from sales material is great if you want to learn about features, but these often don’t represent how they actually work in the real world. We often see features missing across DAW’s and programmable features much more complicated than described in the marketing material.
I think that if you buy anything for your studio based solely on a few reviews and on marketing material, then you’re going to waste money. I’ve found from my own experience that it’s essential to thoroughly research what you’re buying, how that fits into your studio and your workflow. I’ve made many mistakes when making upgrades and selecting equipment because I’ve not focused on (or not stuck to) price, how it fits into my studio/workflow, but most importantly, what all my needs were.
As my workload and the type of work I do has developed, so have the computers and studio equipment I use. If you’re a composer or an aspiring composer, I hope that you find this article useful.
If you’re interested in the sound libraries used for T and Film composing and Effects and Plugins used for TV and Film Composing I use, I’ve written articles that detail these. In this article, I share how my studio is set up, what equipment I have and how it’s interconnected.
As I compose music for TV, film, games and commercials, I would describe my studio as a writing studio. A majority of things that I have, like sythns, for example, are software-based. I do some recording of instruments in-house, but this is mainly guitar, bass, and vocals. For more extensive recordings/projects, I hire studios and work with a variety of musicians.
The illustration shows the general setup of the studio
The computer computers
For many composers, whether that’s in a second bedroom or a large dedicated studio, a computer is the thing that runs your DAW, stores effects and sample libraries, and is used to record audio. Therefore, ensuring that you have a reliable and robust computer is essential.
While I do run multiple computers, I do run a computer setup that is based upon on as few machines as possible. Maintaining and managing lots of computers takes time, and when something goes wrong during a project, it can be very costly, both financially and in time.
My first computer was an LCII, and I’ve been using Apple computers for as long as I can remember, so all my machines are OSX based. Building a new Windows-based computer is generally cheaper than an Apple computer, but I’ve bought all my computers through eBay, and then made the upgrades to RAM and storage afterwards. I guess I like OSX and I’m happy with spending on the extras. Plus, macs tend to hold a lot of their value better, and if I should I ever decide to replace them, I would be able to recoup some of the investment back.
The central computer is a Mac Pro 5.1 with the following specifications:
- 2 x 3.33 GHz 6-core Intel Xeon
- 128GB Memory
- 1 x 8TB SATA hard drive
- 1 x 12TB SATA hard drive as a backup drive
- 2 x 2TB SSD hard drive – setup as RAID that runs the plugins and effects
- ATi Radeon RX 580 Graphics
Attached to this I have an Apple thunderbolt display which I use as the mix window and a 32″ 4k display as the main display.
My main computer runs all:
- Effects & Plugins
- Cubase Pro 10
- Kontakt 6
- All synths
Slave / Vienna computer
I run a machine which runs all my sample libraries through Vienna Ensemble Pro. VEP enables you to slave off instances of Kontakt through an ethernet network. Essentially, allowing you to run vast amounts of virtual instruments at once.
The slave computer is a Mac Pro 5.1 with the following specifications:
- 2 x 3.33 GHz 6-core Intel Xeon
- 128GB Memory
- 2 x 2TB SSD hard drive – setup as RAID for samples libraries
- 2 x 2TB SSD hard drive – setup as RAID for the OS
- ATi Radeon RX 580 Graphics
I don’t have a monitor attached to this computer, and I run screen sharing through OSX to control this computer.
I have a third computer that runs the video, which is a standard mid-2013 13′ Macbook Pro with 8GB memory and 512GB hard drive.
I use VideoSlave and connect this computer through LAN. I’ve set up a basic network through the MIDI Network Manager, and have a Thunderbolt (Hub) display and a 32′ TV connected.
Some of the video files I work to are very large in file size, and having a dedicated computer that runs all the video takes the pressure off the main machine.
The manufacturers of Video Slave, Non-Lethal-Applications provide comprehensive setup instructions. It took me about 30 minutes to have everything setup. Now, the only thing that I need to remember is to match the fps settings in Cubase to the video in Video Slave.
I run an app developed from Steinberg that controls some functions in Cubase. It’s beneficial to have a variety of buttons on a touch screen, and it speeds up my workflow considerably.
One downside to using iC Pro is that you can only add buttons for the functions that Steinberg provide within the app. Having said this, I have found iC Pro to be a fantastic app, and if you’re willing to spend time on an ongoing basis to refine your custom buttons, it’s well worth it.
Communication between the app and Cubase is wireless and requires your computer and iOS device to be on the same Wi-Fi network. If your studio workflow means that you are sometimes both the engineer and the performing artist, being able to trigger recording and playback while sat in front of your instrument (rather than your computer) makes life a heck of a lot easier.
- Fadermaster Pro – This is a great controller for things like expression, dynamics, and volume. As well as controlling a wide variety of other faders in the synths. I think that there are loads of different products available, but I picked this up on eBay for about £70 – which is an absolute bargain, considering the huge price tag new. This did take some effort and time setting up, but well worth the effort. I think every well-known composer has one of these in their studio
- Akai MPD 232 – I use this for the drum pads. I think this was a bit more than needed and although it’s excellent, I use it for about 1% of what it’s can actually do. There is some setup required to ensure the mapping is correct across all the libraries, but the effort is worth it.
- M-Audio Oxygen 88 – This is a very nice keyboard. The keys feel great and have good weight and action. As this is on a stand that I pull out from under the desk when I need it, I haven’t programmed any of the faders or buttons. But, you can assign any of them to CC controls or specific controls in software packages. Like with the Fadermaster it was a gem I found on eBay, and I think I paid around £60 for it on a collection only deal.
I like to have a relatively clutter-free working environment; it helps me think and work better. I find that by having a more organised working environment, I have a better workflow, and things are much happier for me if I’m not continually tripping over cables.
I’ve got a few carefully selected rackmount items:
- Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 – I’ve written an article about this, and I go into a bit more detail. But, this was another great find on eBay at about £80, and I wanted a decent Firewire interface. This has never failed or had any issues ever. I think it sounds fantastic and has very low latency. The number of inputs is perfect, and it has two headphone outputs which are ideal for when I have musicians in the studio to record.
- Line 6 XT Pro – This is an OK multi-effects guitar processor. I wanted something rackmount that I could plug in and play. You can create bespoke patches, and I’ve found it great for working out ideas. In the future, I would like to invest in separate guitar pedals, but I think once I start that process, it would be hard to stop.
- Bass V-Amp – I think that I will be replacing this with a Line 6 XP Pro Bass effects unit, or something similar. I purchased this to be able to plug in the bass guitar and play about with ideas quickly. The V-Amp was a purchase I made on eBay, and while I paid about £40 for it and it does pay its way in some respect. I don’t think that the sound quality is good enough to have on actual client projects. I’ve found that I replace anything I record with effects in Cubase.
- Behringer Virtualizer – It is on the budget end of effect processors, but it does provide some exciting results.
- Focusrite Platinum Penta Compressor – This is a nice to use on vocals and guitar.
- Behringer Pro XL Compressor – When compared to other compressors this would be considered a budget compressor, but it’s been ideal for my uses and to be honest I think it sounds great. By having two channels means that I can compress in stereo.
- Behringer 1/4 jack patch bay – I think that these a fantastic patch bays. I have everything linked through this and linking to my mixing desk. As an example, I’ve found the being able to combine the Line 6, with the virtualizer has provided some interesting options for effects.
I used the Eurorack MX2642A. I have inputs on the patch bay directly to 8 input channels on the desk that I bus off to inputs on the Saffire Pro 40. This allows me to add any EQ and ensure that I get the best signal possible into Cubase.
I run four main outputs from the desk:
- Saffire Pro 40 – This is the main mix output
- Mac outputs – I have audio from things like iTunes and the system sounds come through here
- iPad – I sometimes use the iPad to watch videos and to get inspiration during projects
- MacBook Pro – This is the control for the dialogue. Being able to turn this up and down quickly during a discussion and while composing is very useful.
I have a pair of Mackie MR8’s. I think that they are a little too large for the size of the space I have. But like most of the equipment in the studio, I got a deal on them that made them a very compelling solution.
I’ve found the MK8’s to be exactly what you would want from a pair of monitors.
The bass is well-rounded and strong without going over-the-top.
The midrange is also pretty well-tuned, there are a few bumps in the frequency curve but this isn’t anything too drastic. The mids, in general, are very flat, and the high-end is crisp and clean.
The quoted frequency range on the speakers is quoted at 35Hz – 20kHz, and the high-end certainly seems to extend high enough for mixing. Vocals and percussion were clean and crisp, without delving into the inaccurate territory.