Build Your Studio On Any Budget
If you’re just starting out as a film composer, you may be intimidated by the sheer number of options available for setting up your studio workstation, and the price tag involved. Studio gear costs can seem like a huge hurdle to composers who are just starting out.
However, you can build out your studio rig with professional gear no matter your budget – even if that budget is $0!
Read on for options available to you at different DIY price points.
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Option 1: No budget ($0)
If you’re strapped for cash but want to dip your toe in the water, you still can begin composing film scores in a professional software environment.
The cornerstone of any studio is the DAW you use. And while there are free versions of many popular audio software packages, many of them come with limitations, or they’ve been severely watered-down in order to get you to buy the full version. That’s okay if you plan on buying the full version in the future and just want to learn the interface, but if you want a full-featured DAW for free, the most feature-rich program I’ve found is Tracktion T7.
The software gives you many professional features essential to film composers, like virtual instruments, unlimited audio tracks, and – most importantly, synched video playback. It’s no good working in a DAW that can’t play picture along with the audio.
If the bundled plugins don’t fulfill all your needs, a little snooping around online will net you other free resources for samples, effects, and virtual instruments.
This option gets you up and running, but you will be limited to monitoring your audio with whatever headphones or speakers you already own. There’s no audio interface in this option, so recording audio tracks would have to be handled through the microphone or line input of your computer, which isn’t ideal. There’s also no midi controller here, so you’ll be programming notes manually, but it’s still an enormous value for $0!
For more info on composing software, check out my post on the seven best music apps for film composing.
The Easy Upgrade
If you can spare $30, do yourself a favor and add in the Behringer U-phoria UM2. It’s an entry-level USB audio interface that gives you professional input and outputs. Recording and monitoring will be easier, which leads to increasing the overall quality of your music.
Option 2: Entry-Level DIY ($600)
If you’re able to invest a few hundred dollars into your setup, you can grab all the essentials – a great DAW, a high-quality audio interface, reference-quality headphones, and a multi-purpose midi controller.
It’s no secret that my DAW of choice is FL Studio, and that’s what I recommend here. For $300 you get the Signature Bundle, which includes a ton of useful effects, virtual instruments, and the all-important frame-accurate video player plugin. Available for Mac or PC, with lifetime free upgrades.
To monitor your music, this entry-level DIY option has the venerable Sony MDR-7506 headphones for $87. These are trusted by many audio professionals, and I’d actually recommend them at any price point.
Finally, you’ve got room in the budget to really open up your composing possibilities here with a midi controller. Rather than trying to decide between a keyboard, a drum pad, or rotary controllers, why not pick up a device that does all three? The Akai Professional MPK Mini packs all these features in a portable, USB-powered controller for under $100.
Save a Few Bucks
If you’re on a Mac, you could save $100 and opt for Apple Logic Pro X. It is another full-featured DAW, and has a very loyal following among serious music producers. There are some great free resources to get up to speed on working in Logic. And it also opens up surround mixing as a possibility, very cool!
Option 3: Indie Feature ($1800)
In the indie film world, having a couple thousand dollars to invest in gear can feel like luxury. At this price point, you’re able to really set up your studio rig to give you the most flexibility. You’ll be able to more easily write, record, and mix your score at a higher level of fidelity and control.
Consider opting for the industry-leading DAW software, Avid ProTools. Top-tier tools and a track record of musical excellence make this the go-to in most top recording studios. Either subscribe monthly, or buy outright for $599.
Also consider getting MOTU Digital Performer here. For $100 less than ProTools, you’d be working on the same software that Hans Zimmer utilizes!
The audio interface in this option is actually a bundle that will give you a quality i/o box, headphones, and a large-diaphragm condenser microphone for $269. Built around the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, this is great hardware to add to your rig.
So far in these options, you’ve been stuck with headphones for monitoring your music. With this budget, though, you can afford a nice pair of studio monitors that will bring your score to life. A pair of M-Audio BX8 D3 reference monitors have awesome clarity and frequency response to accurately reproduce your score (make sure to buy a pair for under $300).
It’s also time to upgrade the midi input. If you’re like me, midi controllers are great because it lets me actually play, not just program, the music. Having that tactile interface with the DAW is essential for humanizing your virtual instruments. For great expressiveness and a full size keyboard feel, buy a digital piano like the Yamaha P-125 for about $600.
Choosing the Right Option
If you’ve got no money, then the choice is obvious. Download the free tools and dive right in. After you’ve worked on a few projects, consider upgrading to the next level.
Often, you will need to expand your capabilities as new projects come in with new demands. If the production absolutely needs ProTools Ultimate, just make sure you factor that into the rate you’re charging production!.
Upgrades can be incremental, though – an effects plugin here, then a virtual orchestra, maybe a unique midi controller. You can grow your studio rig out over time, increasing your toolset and making your writing process faster.
Use this guide to start down the right path for your own personal budget level. Remember that quality gear is an investment that will be useful for many, many film projects. Thinking long-term like this could lead you to laying out some extra cash now in order to reap the rewards for years.
When an audience listens to the soundtrack to a film, they won’t care what DAW it was produced in, or how expensive your headphones are.
In the end, tools are just that – tools. They don’t make you a better composer – only practice, experience, and constant learning (like reading this blog!) can do that. Good luck!
For further reading on building out your War Rig (what I affectionately call my studio setup), check out my eBook (coming soon!) where I go into more depth about the role and importance of each piece of equipment.