My Process & Tools
So...how do you do it?
I sometimes have producers, composers and musicians ask which tools I use, how I use them and which ones are worth investing in - so the point of what's below is to answer those questions in one place.
We all want a formula and an algorythm to make incredible music, but the truth is that everyone's setup will look different - unique to you. Here's an inside look into some of my favorite tools:
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
My primary writing environment is Logic Pro. I grew up on FL Studio and Ableton Live, but both of those programs were too unstable, narrow and inconsistent to trust with anything that was more than a 40 track arrangement. Logic is the best marriage of audio and MIDI partnership I've found, and the new release (X) is 64-bit, allowing me to work more openly with Kontakt, Omnisphere, Trilian, PLAY and other memory-intensive plugins. Some of my friends use Cubase and ProTools, but I've not found either of those programs to be intuitive or cost-effective.
About half of the pads, synths and textures you hear are from Spectrasonics flagship power synth called Omnisphere. I've built a close relationship with that instrument (and its extension libraries like the Moog Tribute Expansion) since its release in 2008...to the extent that I have most of the patch names memorized and I know exactly which key words to search for when I need a specific type of emotion communicated. However, I rarely leave any of Omnisphere's patches in their natural form - specifically since 250-350Hz needs to be ducked a bit on many of their analog synth patches to avoid cluttering the mix. What I often do is set up a series of busses in Logic, each with their own personalities. One bus might have a low pass filter combined with 3-4 different delays and reverbs. Another might have punchy compression and saturation with dance-style reverbs and delays. Regardless of which bus I decide to run the synth through, I run Omnisphere's patches through one of them while I'm working out melodies so I can carefully fit each layer into the prior one. Delay and reverb changes everything for me because of the way I set up my signal chain (see screenshot below - I've got the high frequencies passed out and I've followed some gentle compression with Reverb and two independent insertions of my favorite delay). I am ridiculously meticulous about what tones I allow into my songs, which is why I write less content than other composers, but I am absolutely indebted to Eric and his team at Spectrasonics for providing such a powerful cinematic tool. It's more than worth its weight in gold.
Trilian, Omnisphere Moog Tribute Library
8DIO Adagio Strings (the divisis, ensembles & ambiences on 8Dio are killer), Vienna Symphonic Library (Special Edition 1 + 2 and Appassionata Strings), Spitfire Albion, Spitfire Solo Strings
Spitfire Albion, EastWest SILK
Spitfire Hans Zimmer 01, UVI Electrosuite, Stylus RMX, Stormdrum 2, NI Battery, Konkrete, Loads of one-shots from various sample libraries over the last decade
Ethnic & Other
Sonic Couture Balinese Gamelan, Sonic Couture Geosonics, East West SILK, Voices of Passion and literally everything 8DIO has to offer
I work on a Mac Pro tower that was built before Jesus walked the earth - I'm upgrading as soon as the new Pro releases. My studio interface is the Universal Audio Apollo Quad (thunderbolt capable with the new Pro) and my mobile interface is the Apogee Duet (USB). My monitoring system is made by a French company called Focal - I use the SM-9 monitors (the most accurate nearfield and midfield monitoring system I've ever used in my life), and I control them with the Dangrous Music D-Box (analog summing). I recently got an API luncbox to sit on my studio desk with twin SSL 611 EQ's and an API 2500 master buss compressor. My primary MIDI controllers are the Axiom 49 and Native Instruments Maschine (for sound manipulation and drum programming). My go-to mics are the Mojave Audio 201 fet's (matched pair) but my old AKG perception series large condenser diaphragms are still trustworthy - just a bit dry. Everything runs into a patchbay (porting to my A-Designs Pacifica preamp or Vintech 273 preamp) the UA Apollo before being processed.
Piano: I have a Yamaha P22 upright that I use for all of my in-house piano recording. I formerly relied on Synthogy ivory, but most composers find it insulting to the human ear in comparison with a real piano - far too much midrange in the samples...and such a lack of realism with hammer action and sustain resonation. The P22 was a gift from my grandparents years ago, and I absolutely love the intimate tone it's got. I'd love to eventually get a Steinway B grand, but I am content with what I've got.
DSI Prophet 12: (Dave Smith Instruments) - I bought this based on the reccomendation from my Sweetwater rep, Jason Koons. It's insane...that's all I can say. You'll hear it all over the Finding Home score (released Dec 11, 2013) and SEASONS Chapter 1 (March 1, 2014).
Guitar: I hire friends of mine who play guitar. They've got their own pedalboards and instruments that each have a specific personality.
Strings: 95% of the strings you hear in my music are actually real - but I'm never the one playing them. I've got gifted friends in places all over the world that work with me on different tracks. I never say "I need cello, so let's just hire a cellist..." I often think about the personality of the song and then decide which musician matches it - which musician will serve the track best. That way I'm tying their soul into the song rather than recording a dry performance from someone who may just want a paycheck. You can hear the difference for sure. What I typically do is print the MIDI information into sheet notation in Logic and work with the musician to add all the notes and markings before we record. I recently met Steve Smith in Seattle, WA who opened up his soundstage to me. We can do 54-100 piece orchestras at 1/5th the cost of LA or London and it's the same level of quality...just without the inflation.
Vocals: Most of the voices you hear in my music are my friends. I use my own voice at times, often times tripling every vocal line (independent takes for left, right & center) and I have a very specific system of busses and sends I use to get them to sit correctly. I also know a few girls who are absolutely unreal with their voices - they totally understand cinematic vibe...and I work with them as often as possible. You'll hear from them on Seasons: Chapter 1.
Compression, EQ, Delay & Reverb
Hardware: SSL 611 EQ's (pair), API 527 Compressors (pair), Maag EQ2 (pair)
Universal Audio: SSL Collection, Lexicon 224, 1176 Collection, Studer A800 Tape Machine, Moog Filters, Transient Designer, Shadow Hills Compression, Ampex Collection, Ocean Way Studios, etc...these are ALL killer, but adding UA plugins (even the ones that run on the Apollo) to your mix adds latency that progressively grows with each insertion of a plugin (if you're using the Firewire buss). UA doesn't tell you that for obvious reasons - they market it as "Zero Latency" but that's only for people who use their Console application...which does composers no good. Hoping to see a speed increase with Thunderbolt 2 on the new Mac Pro Release this Fall.
Waves: Renassisance MAXX Bundle, Maseriati Collection
Other: Sonnox Oxford Inflator, Ozone 5 Multiband Compressor, Slate Digital Limiter, Soundtoys (everything they make is worth it), Trash 2, Stutter Edit
Parting Words of Advice
Layer Everything: The art form I specialize in isn't just writing the music you hear - it's intricately wrapping each of the layers around one another - like a meticulous game of audible tetris. Each melody I want you to hear will have 8-10 different versions of itself layered beneath the prominent pronunciation(s). One of Hans Zimmer's guys told me to do this 4-5 years ago...to tuck alternate versions of melodies deep beneath the primary ones in the mix to add space and depth. What you're hearing is never one thing. Ever. And that's what I have fun with...creating instrument tones that are hard to identify.
Learn To Discern What Sounds Bad: My encouragement to any composer or musician is to learn what sounds bad, and then don't do that. I am not an expert in composing or songwriting, but I do know when I wrote something that sounds average, terrible or copycat. I learned how to discern this by sending my music to people who will be honest with me - people who are not worried about offending me. In addition, I listen to a wide variety of music on The Music Bed and Spotify that broaden my musical vocabulary. Listening to how other people in other genres mix and record pushes me outside of my comfort zone. Release less content that's better.
Collaborate: Music is best when joined with other personalities. I often find that asking musicians I work with their opinion is invaluable. Working cross-culturally is also easier since Dropbox came on the scene, too...so distance is no longer an issue. Find musicians you respect, and reach out to them to ask if you can work on a track together. Setup a shared Dropbox folder and throw some textures, pads, melodies, etc in there to get the process started. You can even put a project file in there if your plugins and DAW are the same.
Don't Promote Yourself: Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips (Prov 27:2). Spend lots of time refining your work, then refine it again. After that, release it (and by all means use your social networks to push it), but never try to convince someone that your work is awesome. Self-promotion is poison to the heart and the market is already saturated with it. I follow Jesus - and his words are life-giving...specifically the ones about his ability to provide for us, which releases me of the burden to think I've got to control everything myself. And I like his command to humble ourselves before God so he then has the opportunity to exalt us on his timing. Give your art away for free often. And welcome all criticism and feedback with humility - wounds from friends can be trusted. The best friends in my life are the ones who are the least impressed with me.