The answer to this question legitimately doesn’t matter. If you were to ask me “why do you use this”, the answers range between “I could afford it at the time”, “it worked”, and “I learned it first, so I stuck with it”. The circumstances that most people approach music with is that anything they can get their hands on and jam with will make something interesting. Just like sitting down at any piano, guitar, making an instrument out of wood and metal, people make music through any means possible. There are no prerequisites to making music, and what I use probably won’t work for you, because your situation is different.
And yet I still get asked it a lot, so here’s a whole article answering it anyway.
Most people that are able to emulate someone else’s sound approach the situation from a position of privilege. If you have the means to look at someone’s gear or software list and go out to try all of those things immediately, you’re already more well-off than a lot of people just starting music. But if you’re a student, marginalized in some way, without the budget to leap right in, seeing the exact setup of someone who’s been writing music for over a decade can be intimidating. So instead of answering this question straight, I want to give a little history on how I came to the decisions I made and what I’ve used over the years because of the means available to me. Hopefully you can extrapolate this information and use it to make a choice that works best for your circumstances, regardless of where you are in your music-making trajectory.
Digital Audio Workstation
Usually when people say “what software”, they are implying “what DAW do you use”, which is only part of the setup. But let’s start there: what does a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) do for a composer?
First off, if you’re a composer that doesn’t work on a computer, a DAW is probably what your engineer or producer will use to record your parts, ensemble, however you’re playing music. You don’t actually write music directly into a DAW unless you are using digital instruments.
If you do write music on a computer, or play digital instruments, then a DAW is a program that will allow you to record and arrange MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data. It’s like sheet music for your tracks, and you can play it in with a digital MIDI interface, or directly enter it into the DAW in a number of methods depending on the software.
When I was a teenager, the first person I ever asked how to make music was a friend I had in an online roleplaying community. He made MIDI arrangements of Sonic the Hedgehog music & introduced me to a program called Noteworthy Composer. It wasn’t necessarily a DAW, but it was a shareware program that let me create MIDI data through a sheet music interface, which I was familiar with because I’d sung in professional choirs since childhood.
My dad is also a composer & when I was growing up, he had his own music studio in the basement. Like most kids I was a bit of a rebel and wanted to do things my own way, so I didn’t seek out much advice from him and strove to figure things out myself. What he did help out with was buy me a nice MIDI synthesizer that had a bank of great General MIDI sounds, so I could use this relatively cheap software to interface with the keyboard & create music that sounded fairly decent. I couldn’t record it on my computer, so when I wanted to “finalize” a track, I’d take the whole synthesizer down to my dad’s office, email the MIDI file to him, import it into his DAW (Digital Performer), and set up all the instruments again, route them through his outboard FX rig, and record stems to bounce to CD.
Ok so I did learn a bit from my dad, but mostly in a “I want to do this and can’t” sense. I recorded music like this for years, until I got tired of the process and wanted to do it all myself.
For my birthday one year, my dad got me a copy of Cakewalk Pro Audio, which I learned because it was the first time I’d ever had my own DAW that allowed more than just MIDI data. I did my own production work through the last few years of high school, including scoring a few plays, co-writing and recording a musical, winning a couple student composition contests, and most importantly finishing the demo tracks that I submitted to get into a music program at Cornish College of the Arts.
I used Cakewalk all throughout college, upgraded to SONAR when that became a thing, and just kept using every new version of SONAR because it’s what I learned & it was what was easiest for me to keep using. I got plugins here and there from recommendations, heard a lot about other DAWs, but kept at the one I knew.
I started composition for Celeste in SONAR. In fact, one of the reasons why it is a bit hard for me to go back to the track First Steps to make any updates to it is because a few months in, I had to make a hard decision. Cakewalk was not supporting their software well. It kept crashing, making my life miserable. In 2017, they sold the IP to BandLab & effectively discontinued the DAW, so I made the decision to learn something new. (They’ve since relaunched Cakewalk as a free DAW, if you’re interested in checking something out? I’ve never used it, so I can’t recommend, but maybe it’s cool?)
I bought Ableton Live primarily because, as someone recently exploring electronic music production, and with a lot of friends doing the same, I had a lot of exposure to the interface & workflow. I had to spend about two weeks getting used to the new flow, but managed to transfer as much as I could to the new DAW & have used it since. It’s invaluable for the kinds of production tricks I use, even if its compatibility with stem preparation is less streamlined than something like Reaper or Cubase.
But that’s just my story. So many people came up through their own routes & chose their own software based on their circumstances. My best advice is to compare your means against what you can afford, and no matter what you use, it’s possible to make something that sounds great.
Virtual Studio Technology
When you’re asking “what software” and mean “how did you actually make this sound from its inception”, what you mean to ask is what VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins you use. This is where things get even more expensive. A DAW is its own expense but it’s mostly a static thing, it’ll cost you money once and you can keep using it until you want to upgrade to some future version. Virtual instruments, by comparison, can be endless. It’s this constant search for a new sound, something to really define yourself, and it can be overwhelming to the point of choice paralysis.
When I started off, I had General MIDI. Literally, the stock sounds that come with your computer’s sound card, if it even had one. This in most cases was even worse quality stuff than your run of the mill keyboard, but it formed the basis for how I thought about scoring for instruments. I had all your basic orchestral & band instruments, a small assortment of synth sounds, pads, percussion, and that’s it. It was like writing for the world’s most basic SNES sample set. But I grew up loving those soundtracks, so it was the best case scenario for me. I could write things that had a passing resemblance to the games I idolized, and for very little additional cost.
Like I mentioned above, I did get a synthesizer which had a moderately higher quality sample set. It was a Yamaha PSR-530, and I still have it to this day. Absolutely killer synth for MIDI sounds, and I legitimately didn’t know how good I had it at the time. But I used this & its sounds for years, up until I was introduced to a community of prospective orchestral composers.
When I began seeking out professional scoring opportunities, I knew I needed to up my orchestral game, because it was the early 2000’s and everyone in Western game scoring was chasing after the Hans Zimmer aesthetic (and arguably still are, but it’s getting better). My college did not like me using digital instruments. Cornish was pretty purist at the time (2002–2006), and education was structured around writing for live players. So for a long time, I only used SONAR to mix stems that I created in the music scoring software Sibelius. And around that time, Sibelius began a partnership with Garritan Personal Orchestra, or GPO. So I got that library & wrote orchestral music for a while.
I joined the Garritan forums around the same time, because I was really adamant about sounding “more professional” and making my orchestral sound as realistic as possible. It was okay, but I got a lot of really great tips from the community there and some great feedback on my writing.
I largely put music on the back burner when I started working in game testing & design full-time. I got Kontakt (a sample library engine), because it’s the industry standard for most sample libraries that don’t have their own VST interface. When I got the first opportunity to compose an original track for Guild Wars 2, I was still using the Kontakt Factory Library (and still use a lot!) for my orchestral sounds, and didn’t feel confident in them at all, so I sent my MIDI tracks over to Maclaine Diemer (the lead composer on GW2 post-launch) and he set them up with his own orchestral setup to bring my sound in line with his. (It felt oddly familiar, since I’d done that years ago with my dad. I didn’t really put the connection together until writing this, though.)
When I became a bit tired of orchestral writing, I got the synth Massive as an attempt to jump into electronic music production & did a ton of writing with it to really find my footing. I found a great walkthrough by disasterpeace / Rich Vreeland that went into how he created some of his synth sounds, and so I took the knowledge I gained from there and started making my own sounds and writing my own tracks, including Singularity & the hackmud soundtrack. From there, I was hired to write Celeste, and the rest is history. Or rather, the rest is that I actually made money from Celeste enough to afford more than just a barebones assemblage of instruments I felt confident enough to write with.
In present day, I have a large number of sample libraries & synths that I work with on a regular basis. I’ll list them out with the caveat that I worked with mostly factory default settings & literally one synth for years & shipped an award-winning game before I could afford anything else.
- Noire by Native Instruments (Great for both classical & soft piano textures, very well-rounded.)
- Felt Piano by Spitfire Audio (The “Celeste Piano”, and still one of my favorite soft pedal libraries.)
- Massive by Native Instruments (Extremely versatile synth, and super easy to build up sounds from scratch.)
- Massive X by Native Instruments (A good addition to vanilla Massive, but slightly more complex so I tend to modify presets more than build my own.)
- Pigments by Arturia (Really lovely granular synthesis with bonus wavetable synthesis as well, can create some truly bizarre sounds through resampling etc.)
- Spitfire LABS (Free one-off instrument series that can inspire some really interesting ambient textures.)
- Arturia V Collection (I get so much use out of Stage-73, Prophet V3, Mellotron V, and Buchla Easel V, such a great collection of emulated hardware synths.)
- Super Audio Cart by Impact Soundworks (A really great emulation of a good handful of cartridge-based sample sets. My favorites are the SNES samples, since there’s a number of great nostalgic sounds that I’ve used for effect.)
- Ilya Efimov Acoustic Guitar (There’s a ton of guitar libraries out there, but this is one that I’ve gotten the most mileage out of so far.)
- Embertone Recorders (Mostly using these for Chicory, but a good recorder library will go a long way.)
- Kontakt Factory Library (I use so many drums and bass libraries from here, it’s honestly pretty quality out of the box.)
- ERA II Medieval Legends by Best Service (Lots of really great medieval and less common solo instruments in here.)
- BBC Symphonic Orchestra by Spitfire (There’s quirks for sure, but I really love the warmth and closeness of the sound of this library, especially for low strings.)
- Sacconi String Quartet by Spitfire (No solo string samples will sound perfect, but these have been great to have for small ensemble & solo writing.)
- Bernard Hermann Composer Toolkit (A good addition with orchestral textures rather than individual instrument sections.)
- Spitfire Symphonic Woodwinds (Strings are everywhere, but finding good woodwinds is invaluable. These are a good start, but even better: find a great woodwinds player to record!)
- Vocalisa by Impact Soundworks (If you know the “heyyy yah!” part from Confronting Myself, that’s this library. I particularly love Slavic women’s choirs, so this sound is invaluable to me when I can’t hire real singers.)
- Vocaloid 5 by Yamaha (If you heard Oneknowing, you know what I did with the vocaloid software. I’m continuing to experiment & do fun things with it, so look forward to that.)
- Valhalla Room reverb (My go-to, I use this on everything, with a few exceptions.)
- Sausage Fattener by Dada Life (This thing looks real silly, but it’s a great compression limiter that sometimes I just use because it brightens up a track a little bit while eliminating peaks.)
- All the default Ableton plugins (I really don’t use a lot of FX plugins outside of what Ableton comes with on its highest tier package. It’s a great set of effects! I’m mostly indecisive when it comes to getting anything else, so this will expand over time, but honestly? Use what you’ve got. It’s fine.)
Phew okay that’s it
Thanks for reading. Happy music-making 🤍