Sound Designer’s Kit

A list of hardware, software and resources that are useful for a sound designer to have access to. These are my personal preferences, and what works for me may not work for you, so use this as a starting point to explore the options.

Hardware

There was a time when you needed thousands of pounds worth of equipment to make the simplest sound design. Fortunately, now you can achieve 95% of things with a computer and a few extra bits. Your design work will involve you working in rehearsal rooms, theatres, hotel rooms, all over the place. Whilst some people like to have a studio base, it’s important that your main rig is portable. A laptop will form the heart of your studio. Avoid cheap PC laptops as the build quality and audio performance is often severely compromised. An Apple MacBook Pro is well-built, and capable of running both Mac OS X and Windows, giving you the best of both worlds. They're not cheap, but your livelihood and reputation will depend on this object so avoid skimping on this, if possible. You can get a discount on buying Apple products via the ASD, or if you’re a student, you can usually get an educational discount too.

Sound card - Whether you need one of these is debatable and will depend how much recording you do. If you have a good location recorder you may prefer to record onto that. I don't tend to take a sound card around with me.
A good pair of headphones - I use Beyer DT770 which sound great and are useful for recording as they cut out a lot of outside noise. Sennheiser HD25's are also very popular. It's useful to keep a cheap pair of ear-bud headphones in your bag for the day when you forget your headphones. (Increasingly recently, I've been carrying around a pair of Bose QC35 headphones instead of the above, because whilst they aren't necessarily the best headphones in the world, the noise cancellation is brilliant, and generally means I can listen to them at a lower volume than other headphones, which is better for your hearing, and means I can work on the train, etc).
A bendy USB light - like this one. Use with a USB hub to avoid putting too much stress on the ports of your computer.
MIDI controller - A 2 or 3-octave keyboard is useful for playing with sounds in the studio or in the rehearsal room. I use a Novation LaunchKey Mini, as it’s light and portable, has keys, buttons and dials to get nicely hands-on. It also comes with a free copy of Ableton Live Lite.
Portable hard drive - Seagate Backup Plus 5TB portable hard drive

Backups

Make a plan for when (not if) your computer breaks down or is stolen. Over the past 10 years my laptop has been stolen (twice), had the internal drive fail (once), power supply fail (three times), screen smashed (twice), ports stop working (twice), almost always during a production week. Use a service like Dropbox Plus, which automatically backs up 1TB of your hard drive whenever you are online. Have a credit card in case you need to buy a new computer in a hurry. If you buy a new computer, keep the old one as a backup.

Studio rig

I have very little equipment at home - just a sound-card (which acts as a mixing desk - MOTU and RME cards are good for this), two speakers and back-up hard drives.

Monitoring - You can get some really good monitor speakers on eBay. A pair of Genelec 1030’s or Dynaudio BM5’s are a good investment. Avoid anything that has less than a 6” LF driver and don’t buy “DJ” speakers! A sub-bass speaker is worthwhile, but not essential, to hear the low end stuff you can play around with in a theatre.

Location recording kit

This is the area where you really get what you pay for.

The Zoom H5 unit is reasonably good quality, feature built-in mic’s and XLR inputs with phantom power. But the mic’s distort in wind easily - Rycote make a mini windjammer that fits over the unit. Add an external microphone, like the Rode NT4 with a Rycote NT4 Mini Windjammer, to get pretty good results.

If you can afford it, a Sound Devices MixPre3, 6, or 10-T is a great investment, allowing super low-noise location or studio recordings. They double up as a USB sound card too.

Software

Whether you use a Mac or a Windows machine is purely down to individual preference of software, and you can do well with either. Choose the software that lets you create as efficiently as possible - it's better to know a few applications inside out than to have a large complex set-up which you barely know how to use. Most designers use Mac’s - the theatre standard software for playback is Figure 53's QLab, which is Mac-only, and whilst your computer won't be used to run the show, you will need to program it.

DAW software

DAW Software allows you to create and edit a montage of sound files, and probably where you'll create most of your design. These are all very powerful software packages, and they run plug-Ins to provide extra features. The world is largely split into those who use Pro Tools and those who don't. Pro Tools is designed as a high-end editing package and is very good at that, however it's not necessarily the best software to "create" with. 

Pro Tools was primarily designed for editing audio, thus the MIDI features are useable but not advanced. The line-up of their software packages varies on a regular basis, but there is usually a light version to get started with. The plug-ins for Pro Tools are often more expensive than for other systems and freeware/shareware plug-ins are rarer. Pro Tools is notoriously temperamental (particularly on PC), and once a stable system has been achieved, it is best not to update the operating system or install other programs until advised by the developer to do so, which can take a while. Pr Tools has now largely moved over to a subscription model of payment and upgrades, which does make it quite expensive.

Alternatives to Pro Tools include Logic, Nuendo, Cubase, Digital Performer, Sound Forge, Vegas, Audition, Reaper; with most packages available for both Mac and Windows

Apple's Logic Pro and Steinberg's Cubase both started as music sequencers but now have very powerful audio editing facilities. Both come with a very powerful set of built-in effects and instrument plug-ins and allow the use of AU or VST plug-ins of which there are many commercial, freeware and shareware plug-ins available. They allow you to use virtually any sound card, MIDI interface or control surface you can buy and are generally very stable. I've used Apple Logic Pro to create all my designs since I began, and is, relatively, incredibly cheap to purchase.

Effects Plug-ins provide commonplace effects such as reverb or compression, whilst others produce wild and whacky effects. Most DAW's come with a suite of built-in plug-ins which cover most of the basic types. The plug-in’s I use most ofter are TDR Lab’s Proximity (for making stuff sound further away), Audio Ease’s Speakerphone, Sound Tools Crystalliser and Waves LoAir.

Instrument Plug-ins - There are a huge range of "soft synths": sound modules that run from within your DAW software, each specialising in different types of sounds and musical instruments. You can choose from off-the-shelf sets of common musical instruments to synth's that let you design a sound from scratch. "Virtual samplers" let you array your own sounds in a simliar fashion to a traditional sampler. Spectrasonics Omnisphere is a popular instrument for theatre work.

Ableton Live is a popular addition to your main DAW software, which lets you trigger audio files & loops from the QWERTY keyboard and a host of MIDI controllers. It is a very flexible performance tool.

Sound Effects

Record your own Sound Effects

There are lots of websites dedicated to this art, and a lot can be learned from cinema foley artists. 

Most sound effects are sold as libraries of sounds, though some companies offer them individually. There are General libraries, which tend to be be big and expensive, but cover a huge array of different effects. These are expensive investments but once you start turning over a few shows these work out cheaper than buying individual effects. Sound Ideas have a large selection of general libraries (watch out for the older libraries though); Pro Sound Effects have bundled a few libraries together to form their freelancer-tailored Hybrid Library.

There are an increasing number of specialist sound effect library manufacturers, of which many are distributed via www.asoundeffect.com. These are great ways of getting a bunch of sound effects relating to exactly what you’re after.

You may come across individual sound effect CD’s in record shops, or on iTunes. They're tempting to buy, but are often low quality and are rarely provided copyright free. Unless you actually database all the tracks they are a nightmare to organise.

Currently though, Soundly offers great access to sound effects - it is a piece of software (Mac and PC) that comes with a starter pack of sound effects, with the software allowing you to search through those sounds quickly and efficiently. You can add more sounds to the database software, and purchase sound effect packs via the software, or subscribe for $14.99 per month on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Alternatively, SoundMiner HD is a very useful tool to database and search for sound effects, although it doesn’t come with any sound effects.

What I Use:

Mobile studio:

  • Apple MacBook Pro 15” 16Gb RAM, 2TB SSD

  • Logic Studio Pro

  • Ableton Live

  • Omnisphere

  • Speakerphone

  • Twisted Wave

  • Parallells Desktop software to run Windows, primarily for DME/MRX Designer

  • Seagate Backup Plus 5TB portable hard drive

  • Beyer DT770 headphones / Bose QC35 headphones

Location Recording:

  • Sound Devices MixPre 10T multi-track recorder

  • Sennheiser MKH30 and MKH50 misc as a MS pair in a Rycote windshield

  • Neumann KU100 binaural head

  • Sennheiser Ambeo microphone

  • Zoom H5

Home Studio:

  • Genelec 1030 speakers with 1092 sub

  • Multiple hard drives for backups and archives

  • RME Fireface sound card

Rehearsal Rig:

  • Apple Mac Mini runing Ableton Live and QLab

  • Behringer BCF2000 control surface & Novation Launchpad for Live

  • Yamaha QL1 mixer

  • 2x QSC K12.2 speakers