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 X. 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...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 & Agitado 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 (REFX)
Ethnic & Other
Sonic Couture Balinese Gamelan, Sonic Couture Geosonics, East West SILK, Voices of Passion and literally everything 8DIO has to offer
My Mac Pro has more memory than I do...loaded it with 64GB RAM and a 12 core processor - then attached a Promise R6 Thunderbolt 2 RAID system for sample transfer. My rack interface is the Universal Audio Apollo Quad. 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 use A-Designs and Vintech preamps with a 500 series rack from API with twin SSL 611 EQ's, twin API 527s and twin Maag EQ2s. My primary MIDI controller is actually my DSI Prophet 12 synth. My go-to mics are the Mojave Audio 201 fet's (matched pair) and the Royer SF-24. Everything runs into the Universal Audio Console Application (porting to my A-Designs Pacifica preamp or Vintech 273 preamp) and then the UA Apollo before being printed to Logic.
Piano: Yamaha P22 - a gift from my grandparents years ago, and I absolutely love the intimate tone it's 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. A wild animal.
Guitar: I hire friends of mine who play guitar. They've got their own pedalboards and instruments that each have a specific personality, but I do my own post verbs and delays. I pretty much only capture their tone and then re-amp.
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 who 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 hire an orchestrator friend of mine to prep the parts for each musician. I find it's best to record lots of soloists with a variety of mic positions to get acquainted with how to engineer audio - and to do this before working with sections of musicians in larger rooms. Start small. Start with soloists. Use samples to build lower body, but never for the final product.
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 women who are absolutely unreal with their voices - they totally understand cinematic vibe...and I work with them as often as possible. Letting them improv is their true strength.
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 like myself no good.
Other: All things Sonnox, Soundtoys, Izotope and Eventide
Parting Words of Advice
Layer Everything: The art form I specialize in isn't 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). A good friend told me to do this...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: Self-promotion is poison to the heart. I follow a simple principle - that all of our promotion originating in God is sustained by God. All of the promotion originating in me has to be sustained by me. I have contemplated removing all videos and company logos from my website which are there to convince you that I am a "big deal" - and I want to remove them because I'm watching every young guy in my life replicate the same stupid self-promotion I've got going on. "Oh look who uses my music!" Yeah? Well nobody gives a shit...really. The machine we are getting caught in says that if you namedrop enough, tweet enough or work hard enough, you're gauranteed notariety. As young men, we want to be seen and heard. Maybe you want validation from someone you respect and look up to. Or maybe you are trying to impress a client in hopes that they'd hire you. Or tweet about you. The way to combat this is to spend time away from social media and the internet so that you can create music which is birthed in quiet rather than comparison. Music birthed in depth does the talking for you so that you don't have to receive all your validation from SoundCloud. By all means, share your work, but then look at what is happening inside of your heart and learn how to be honest about it. Many young men I am observing think they are going deep in this process of denying self...they are, in reality, not even close to beginning. How do I know? Because young men are blind to pride, and I am one of them. The only thing that sets me apart is that other men in my life see and identify my motives and communicate with me about how flawed they are...and they are relentless. They see through me and they walk with me through the process of learning to get outside of myself. But they never allow me to decide when I am "over" the bend in my heart toward promoting self. Let us 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.