Sound Designer’s Kit
A list of suggested hardware, software and resources that would be useful for a sound designer to have, or have access to.
As a sound designer you are going to need a range of equipment and resources to carry out your work. As the needs of a show can change very quickly, you rarely have time to source equipment as the need arises, so you need most of this kit at your disposal. This all adds up to a lot of money.
The lists are far from definitive and setting up is a very personal thing. What works for me may not work for you, but hopefully this will provided a starting point to explore the options available to you.
There was a time when you had to have many thousands of pounds worth of equipment to make the simplest sound design. Fortunately now you can do 90% of the work for a show on a laptop computer with a few accessories.
Most of your design work is going to take place in the rehearsal room or theatre, and as often as not in a hotel room as many shows open all over the world. So it's handy to have a studio base, but your main rig needs to be portable.
A laptop will form the heart of your studio, but it is best to avoid cheap PC laptops as the build quality and audio performance is often severely compromised. An Apple MacBook Pro is a good option as they are sturdy and well-built, and are capable of running Windows at the same speed using Bootcamp, giving you the best of both worlds. They're not cheap, but your livelihood and reputation is going to depend on this object so it's not an area to skimp on. You can get a discount on buying Apple products via the ASD, which in itself can cover the cost of membership.
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).
A bendy USB light (Kensington) - Use with a USB hub to avoid putting too much stress on the ports of your computer.
MIDI keyboard - A 2 or 3-octave keyboard is useful for playing with sounds in the studio or in the rehearsal room.
Portable hard drive - Seagate Backup Plus 5TB portable hard drive
Mixing desk - A small Mackie desk will suffice for most things. Or you may want to look at a second hand Yamaha 01v96 for more complex tasks. Or you maybe able to get by with a multi-channel sound card instead like a MOTU which can act as a mixing desk but without taking up so much space.
Monitoring - A decent pair of pro monitor speakers will be one of the best things you buy, and the rule of thumb is the bigger the better but DO NOT BUY "DJ" SPEAKERS! A consumer amp is often fine for listening at close range. Dynaudio BM5's are pretty good. A sub-bass speaker is worth investing in to hear the low end stuff you can play around with in a theatre. You can often pick up older model Genelec's on eBay for a good price.
The Backup plan
First day of tech: 'My hard-drive has just died & I've lost everything. It's going to take 2 weeks to get my computer fixed & I need to recreate all the sound cues from scratch. I might be able to give you 4 or 5 SQ's by first night...' is not going to go down well. 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), etc, almost always during a production week. Do weekly backups onto a hard-disc or a web server (Dropbox 1Tb option is a good option).
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 repaired one as a backup.
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. But an external microphone, like the Rode NT4 with a Rycote NT4 Mini Windjammer, will give better 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, and it can double up as a USB sound card too.
Whether you use a Mac or a Windows machine is purely down to individual preference of software, and you can do well with either. I use both: creating a design on a Mac, and using a PC for programming & sometimes for running show control software. Mac's can run Windows software too, via Parallel's or Bootcamp. Choose the software that lets you create as efficiently as possible - it's better to know a few packages inside out than to have a large complex set-up which you barely know how to use. That said, 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 likely need to program it.
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.
Alternatives to Pro Tools include Logic, Nuendo, Cubase, Digital Performer, Sound Forge, Vegas, Audition, Reaper, with most packages available for either Mac or 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 (the industry standard) 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 since being bought by Apple is incredibly cheap to purchase.
Effects Plug-ins provide commonplace effects such as reverb or compression, whilst others produce wild and whacky effects. Logc, Cubase, Nuendo etc use "VST" or "AudioUnit" format plug-ins, of which there are hundreds of commercial and freeware plug-ins available. Waves and Sound Toys are popular. Most DAW's come with a suite of built-in plug-ins which cover most of the basic types.
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 piece of software to have in 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.
Credit card - You don't want to run out of money mid-way through a production week, or on tour.
Maglite & spare bulbs - I have Neutral Density gel in mine so it can be used during a performance without attracting the attention of the audience.
An infinite supply of fine-point Sharpies & White PVC tape
Whirlwind Q Box for testing audio lines
Record your own Sound Effects
There are lots of websites dedicated to this art, and a lot can be learned from cinema foley artists.
CD SFX Libraries
Boxsets of SFX CD's such as the Sound Ideas 6000 series (which has 40 CD's in the starter pack, and a further 70 CD's to add on) are expensive but once shows start turning over prove the cheapest option. The manufacturer's websites often sell them at reduced prices, particularly www.soundideas.com which has different special offers on a regular basis. There are an increasing number of specialist sound effect library manufacturers, of which many are distributed via www.asoundeffect.com. Other options include the freelancer-tailored Hybrid Library from Pro Sound Effects.
Online SFX Libraries
These are very useful for those elusive sound effects that aren't in your library
Individual SFX CD's from Record Shops
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 use.
SoundMiner HD is a very useful and relatively inexpensive tool to database and search for sound effects
Apple's iTunes Music, AmazonMP3, LastFM, Spotify, Emusic & other services offer a great way of experimenting with various music ideas until you settle on something. The Amazon websites provide access to a wide range of music. Using Google will let you find obscure music appreciation sites and mail order specialists. Your local music library is a good place to look for older & deleted recordings- the Barbican Library in London is particularly good and offers a listen-before-you-loan service. Musical instrument shops often have a larger and more diverse selection of classical, folk, easy listening and music from the early 20th century than most mainstream record shops.
What I Use:
- Apple MacBook Pro 15” 16Gb RAM, 2TB SSD
- Logic Studio Pro
- Ableton Live
- Twisted Wave
- Parallells Desktop software to run Windows, primarily for DME Designer
- Seagate Backup Plus 5TB portable hard drive
- Beyer DT770 headphones / Bose QC35 headphones
- 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
- Genelec 1030 speakers with 1092 sub
- Multiple hard drives for backups and archives
- Apple Mac Mini acting as a server for remote access to hard-drives
- Motu Traveler sound card
- Apple Mac Mini runing Ableton Live and QLab
- Behringer BCF2000 control surface & Novation Launchpad for Live
- Yamaha QL1 mixer
- 2x EM Acoustics EMS121 speakers
- Yamaha P3500 amplifier