The following tools are my best recommendations for growing your music studio and business. While sample instruments and plugins are important (we’ll focus on those next), most young composers blow all of their budget on those first instead of investing in proper music gear and books to prepare their mind. I personally own and have used every product that I endorse. Because these resources have added so much value to me, I have become an affiliate partner with Amazon. Each of the following products can be found on this Amazon List. Thanks for your support!
Books on My Bookshelf
Books are not only the most affordable and accessible items in a music studio; they’re also the most impactful.
Start With Why by Simon Sinek is my top book recommendation for any creative seeking to start a business and build a brand. It has completely changed the way I do business – starting with my WHY instead of my WHO (target audience) or WHAT (products & services). This book is a must-read!
Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook by marketing guru Gary Vaynerchuck is the definitive guide for how to use each social media platform appropriately to maximize marketing results. Even though this book is dated (©2013), Gary’s deep insight into using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, & Tumblr to tell stories through micro-content is timeless and highly applicable to creatives working to establish a consistent and vibrant brand! This book has revolutionized the way I use social media to connect with my audience. I can’t recommend it enough.
The 4-Hour Work-Week by Timothy Ferriss has to be my fastest-read book of all time. I think I read all 400+ pages in just a few days. This gripping book is all about Defining your goals, Eliminating unproductive tasks from your life, Automating systems and outsourcing non-essential work, & Liberating yourself to achieve your dreams (“DEAL”). This book contains hundreds of useful, practical tips and advice from a business legend who lives what he preaches. This book has transformed my understanding that I am a business and not just a composer. This book has helped me exchange busyness for truly productive, meaningful work. Another must-read!
I’ve used The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition to teach new composers the basics of music composition and production for the last several years. Don’t be fooled by this book title! From cover to cover, this book is full of useful charts, tips, and shortcuts for writing great music fast. It teaches multiple methods for writing music, essential music theory, notation skills, scales & modes, advanced rhythms, musical tension & release, repetition & variations, writing outside basic key areas, songwriting, and more! This is essential reading for anyone who hasn’t pursued a formal music degree.
A Composer’s Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips is another amazing book on my bookshelf. As a current working composer for major video game titles, Phillips gives incredible insight into the business of the game industry. She describes how to become a professional composer, how to find work, how to write for every major game genre, and explores the intricacies of working with a development team
If I could only choose one book for mixing, Mike Senior’s Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio is it. This book explores the entire process of setting up a small home studio to maximize usability and to achieve the best possible mix on a budget. Senior then teaches the most efficient mixing workflow practices and how to best use each major plugin within a DAW (reverb, delay, stereo imaging, compression, etc.). This book isn’t wide, but it’s extremely deep.
Tonal Harmony: With An Introduction to Twentieth Century Music is the most widely trusted resource on the planet for teaching students the full range of music theory. This textbook is the source material for almost every high school & college music theory class and should be on the bookshelf of every composer. This book explores the entire history of written music with incredible detail and has visual & audio examples every step of the way. It also has benchmark exercises and review questions to test your skills throughout. While this book is most useful in a classroom setting, I actually bought it in high school and read the entire thing; it was so interesting & useful for me that I was able to pass the AP Music Theory exam (without taking the school class) and skip a music theory course in college. This book remains one of my most trusted resources, especially when I need a refresher on thick harmonic writing.
Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestrationis another massive textbook rich with visual & audio examples widely used in college music programs. More than any other resource, this book teaches the full depth of every classical orchestral instrument – its range, tessitura, best pairings with other orchestral instruments, notable uses in music history, best composition & notation practices, and a host of interesting facts about each instrument group. This book has opened my mind tremendously to the possibilities of the orchestra! It has significantly improved my ability to write more advanced music instead of relying on simple chord progressions & ostinatos. This is another must-have on a composer’s bookshelf!
Music Gear In My Studio
There are thousands of music gear items to choose from on the market. This list contains my top recommendations for composers starting to build their studio.
I’ve recommend the Yamaha P71 Digital Piano to all of my piano students because it’s the most affordable weighted action 88-key keyboard on the market. While it doesn’t boast the bells and whistles of other keyboards (hundreds of instruments sounds, LCD screen, transposition button, etc.), it compensates with a light-weight body for easy portability, loud on-board speakers, and a volume slider. It also has a USB cable port in the back for connecting to your computer and a headphone jack. Note that the included square-shaped sustain pedal in this package is complete garbage (poor response time and very awkward to use). Instead, I recommend the Yamaha FC4 (see review below). Any keyboard stand will do – my budget recommendation is the On Stage Classic Single-X. If you prefer to sit while playing vs. standing, I recommend the budget-friendly foldable On Stage Keyboard Bench (benches are considerably better for your posture and back health than stools or chairs).
Every composer needs a MIDI controller to quickly record music in a DAW and to input data in notation software. My top requirements for any MIDI controller is that it must have semi-weighted keys (the best weight for recording both synths/electronic music & more sensitive instruments like orchestral and piano samples), a modulation wheel, a pitch bend wheel, & transposition up/down buttons. Any other features are bonuses (sliders, faders, drum pads, LCD screen, etc.). My top budget pick is the M-Audio 49-Key Keystation Mk.II. Right at $100, this MIDI controller has all of these key features plus it doubles as an audio keyboard with a volume slider & 1/4” output! All MIDI keyboards have both MIDI & USB outputs, so you can easily connect this controller for all purposes. The reason I recommend the smaller 49-key model (vs. the 61-key & 88-key) is for its small footprint on desks, easy portability, and cheaper price point. I have composed with MIDI controllers of all sizes and have found the 49-key to be the perfect size for composing in all environments due to its 4-octave span (C to C) that can be easily transposed to other keys if needed. If you find that you need to record with a full 88-keys, just record MIDI or audio from your full-size Yamaha P71 Digital Piano (see above review).In my opinion, purchasing an 88-key MIDI controller is a complete waste of money and space – it serves neither purpose (full mobile utility nor heavy-duty). If you must have 5 octaves instead of 4, the 61-key Keystation works well, but isn’t worth the extra $55 and larger footprint to me. Also note that if you purchase the Keystation bundle on Amazon, a copy of Ableton Live Lite is included! If budget isn’t a concern, my favorite MIDI controller is the discontinued M-Audio Axiom 49, but its price is triple that of the Keystation (for good reason due to its included sliders, faders, transports, drum pads, & advanced programming functions) . I find that these additional functions significantly speed up MIDI recording.
The Yamaha FC4 Sustain Pedal is my go-to pedal for all keyboards. I’ve tried all of the cheaper brands and none of them have come close to the same response time and velocity control as this (due to its heavy base). Yes, this is a more expensive pedal, but it’s designed for 10-15 years of heavy use. The cheap pedals wear considerably sooner and bring unnecessary frustration, including frequent polarity glitches and sticky pedals. Trust me on this one.
I never knew what great headphones could sound like until I tried a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-MX50 Headphones. These are the best headphones on the market under $1000 (and these cost 1/5 less)! You won’t believe the crisp clarity and delicate bass-response on these headphones until you try them! Unlike the popular Beats by Dre headphones, the MX50 doesn’t have a mid-range boost. These are flat headphones for mixing. They give you an incredibly accurate representation of your mix (for better or worse) and best of all, they’re noise-cancelling and comfortable! I can wear these headphones for hours without my ears hurting or sweating. You may have noticed me wearing my white MX50’s in my YouTube videos! As an added bonus, these headphones also fold up nicely into a ball shape, come with a travel bag and multiple cord styles (short straight, long straight, & short coiled) – all of which makes traveling super convenient! I take these headphones everywhere. Before the MX50, I used the KRK KNS-8400 headphones for years and thought they were the best headphones at this price point. I now consider those garbage! To me, the MX50 clarity is at least 5 times better!
The RøDE NT1A continues to be the best microphone you can purchase under $1,000 (and it’s 1/4 the cost)! The NT1A’s versatility at this price point is unmatched. Considered to be “the world’s quietest studio microphone”, you can record a gunshot one second then whisper the next and this mic will pick them both up without peaking (provided that you set your mic input level appropriately beforehand). I originally chose this condenser mic because I had heard from several musician friends that I could record any instrument with an extremely delicate response. As a multi-instrumentalist, I have found this to be incredibly true: from acoustic guitar to vocals (talking and singing) to hand percussion to violin to flutes, this mic has never disappointed with solo instrument recordings. I don’t recommend it for group recordings because of its cardioid shape, but that’s the only limitation I’ve found. The included pop-screen, shock mount, XLR cable, & mic carrying bag make this bundle on Amazon a no-brainer for any musician seeking to make a significant improvement in studio recording quality! Note that in order to use this microphone, you will need an audio interface with phantom power (48V). My top recommendations are the Focusrite Scarlett Solo, Scarlett 2i2, & Scarlett 18i20 (choose based on your budget and needs; see reviews below).
In my experience, no other audio interface has the clarity, functionality, and simplicity of the Focusrite Scarlett series, especially at its incredible price point. The pre-amps in every Scarlett interface sound phenomenal and instantly make your recordings sound cleaner; and you can’t ignore the beautiful red design of each box. Each box contains phantom power (48V) access with just the push of a button (necessary to power mics). For starting musicians, I recommend the Scarlett 2i2 model because of its 2 inputs which allows you to leave 2 XLR or 1/4” cables connected (usually one for a vocal mic and one for an instrument like electric guitar, each of which you can conveniently set to a respective input volume level) and 2 outputs which allows you to connect 2 studio monitors for playback (essential for professional mixing). If your budget is tighter or you only plan to use headphones for playback (typical for mobile rigs), the Scarlett Solo should suffice. For musicians seeking optimum control and efficiency at an incredible price, the Scarlett 18i20 is unbeatable. Boasting 18 inputs & 20 outputs, you’ll always have the capacity for an army of instruments and mics handy when creativity strikes. I use the 18i20 so I can leave all of my inputs set to my preferred volume levels for quick access. The 18i20 also includes a convenient visual Input Level Monitor that shows if a particular instrument is too soft or loud, Dim and Mute buttons for instant volume control (useful when switching between mic talkbacks & playback through studio monitors), and 2 headphone inputs – essential for recording music or podcasts with others in a live setting; this allows each musician to have individual volume control. If that’s not enough, each of these audio interfaces is bundled on Amazon with Pro Tools 12 First, Focusrite Creative Pack, Ableton Live Lite, Softube Time and Tone Bundle, Focusrite Red Plug-in Suite, & 2GB of Loopmasters samples!! This is a ridiculously good bundle. Don’t pass it up.
KRK Rockit Studio Monitors are my favorite on the market! There’s a reason why you see these iconic yellow tweeters in almost every music studio on the planet. The Rockit series monitors are heavy-duty (can be turned up to an insanely loud volume level — above 100dB, well beyond a movie theater) with a flat response, perfect for studio mixing. These monitors allow for every possible output format (RCA, TRS, & XLR), so they will work in every studio environment. There are multiple sizes available, but the Rockit 5’s hit the best price point, since they are bundled as a pair. The Rockit 6’s only add one inch to the size, so the added volume & bass boost is unnecessary in my opinion for the additional $100. You can always expand to 2.1 later with a dedicated subwoofer or to 5.1 surround sound with 3 additional Rockit 5’s. With any dedicated studio monitors, you will need an audio interface (see Focusrite Scarlett review above). You will also need to isolate the studio monitors (you will get nasty buzz noises if you sit them on a desk) with stands or acoustic isolation pads. My budget recommendation is to buy 2 pairs of Auralex MoPAD Acoustic Isolation Pads, one pair for each monitor to raise the monitors off of your desk, but still conserve space. I have found these very useful in my small home studio setups.
A few years ago, I developed carpal tunnel symptoms in my wrist – no doubt a result of spending countless hours in front of my computer screen moving my mouse around in circles all day navigating large monitors. I used to consider myself a quick composer…until the pain was so great that I decided to make the switch to a trackball . Dozens of professional composer & producer friends recommended that I try the Kensington Expert Trackball Mouse. After a few days of learning how to use a trackball instead of a traditional mouse, my workflow speed increased significantly…easily double or triple the speed! Best of all, no more wrist pain! This trackball is simple and powerful: the trackball itself is slick and precise. You can adjust the sensitivity to your liking and enjoy precision both flicking your wrist across multiple monitors and while editing fine details. The scroll wheel makes web-browsing and screen-scrolling considerably quicker and the four shortcut buttons can be assigned to any key command or combo, making your favorite transport shortcuts a breeze. The Kensington Trackball comes in either a wired or wireless version. I prefer the wired model because of the cheaper price and it doesn’t require any battery changes. On a side-note: the included wrist cushion is useless. I found that it created more carpal tunnel issues…instead, I encourage picking up this inexpensive massaging ergoBeads wrist cushion!
If you plan to record an electric instrument such as an electric guitar or electric bass, you need an Active Direct Box. My top recommendation is the Behringer Ultra-DI DI100 for its straightforward functionality and incredible price. Simply plug in your 1/4” cable from your instrument into the DI box input and connect the DI box output to your audio interface; the result is a clean recording. Using a DI box protects your instrument and guarantees a fully-charged signal without having to increase your volume or create nasty instrument feedback noise.
Monster Cables are the best instrument cables on the market. Yes, there are cheaper cables available, but they usually break within a year of use or produce annoying hums and buzzes that leak into recordings. Monster has an incredible company policy – their lifetime guarantee promises that if one of their cables ever breaks from normal use, you can walk into any music store that sells their products (Guitar Center, Sam Ash, etc.) or contact Monster directly, and they will replace your broken cable at no charge! I strongly support companies with phenomenal customer service and Monster is well worth supporting.
For Sample Instruments & Plugins recommendations, check out the above video & my blog article 2017 Best Sample Instruments & Plugins: Getting the Most Value for Your $$$.