Composer's Toolbox

Recording, mixing, mastering, and more

Hi All,

Here is a look at some tools I am currently using as part of my “audio toolbox”, and some tools I am looking at myself.  These tools sum up some of the better parts of my home studio, and are my go-to resources when recording, mixing, mastering, and more.

Recording, mixing, mastering, and more


I am currently reading a couple of books, and one that is slowly becoming a staple in my library is a book on recording, mixing, mastering, and everything audio.

Modern Recording Techniques, 8th Edition

As I leaf through the chapters, I realize how valuable this book is on a wide array of topics.  I honestly have not found a clearer explanation of how a microphone works, and the instrument-specific breakdowns on miking are really useful.  This book is more than a textbook; anyone can use it as a field reference as well as a self-teaching tool.

Beginners and intermediate users in the audio world aren’t the only ones who benefit from this text.  It serves as a good refresher for those at the more advanced level of audio engineering.  I specifically acquired this book to shore up my “foundation” and expand my level of technique, so I can produce better-quality audio and take on more advanced audio gigs.

My next video will showcase more of my audio skills, in recording spoken word and electric guitar, and in processing, editing, mixing, and mastering.  That will all be synchronized with video, too!  Here is the post with a sneak-peek.  Here is another preview image:

It is my hope that the book will allow me to increase the depth of my mixes, the quality of my mastering, and my versatility when recording outside of the studio.

Another book I considered acquiring, but will not for now (I like to take it one book at a time), is:

Mastering Audio: the art and the science, third edition

Many reviewers seem to be disappointed that this book does not tackle mastering in a separate way, but is rather a more inclusive “start with good sound, end with good sound” approach.  (After all, you can’t really turn tin into gold.)  Just read the description, and I don’t think you will be fooled into believing this book will tell you everything about mastering as a separate technique.  Rather, it seems that it will give you insight on mastering audio through the mastery of audio production, so you have good skills, habits, and ultimately, results.

A book that I would also eventually like to buy is:

Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio

I really want to utilize my space to the best of its ability, and produce the highest quality material I can given my living situation.  As you can see, my studio setup is pretty small, which leads us into the next section, “gear”.


I manage to achieve my results through intense scrutiny and a variety of checks and balances, but I really need to think more on soundproofing, desk setup, and room control.  I am lucky that I have my good speakers and good audio interface, but I will eventually need to upgrade my setup to achieve better results.


Apple computers, while declining in “hype”, are still an industry standard for audio production.  I use mine to run external hard drives, an audio interface, USB devices, my iLok, an external monitor, and more.

My computer is a 2014 MacBook Pro:

It runs like new each time I use it.  Whether multitasking in iMovie, Finale, Firefox, and Logic, or playing a video game for fun, I have only rarely been able to overload it.  It can handle all the latest updates, and has very few glitches, if any.  I also run Windows 8.1 on it for even more gaming (yes, I am a nerd).

My 2007 MacBook Pro still works, but cannot run the massively demanding programs that I now run.  My wife still uses that 2007 model when computer troubles hit, and it works great when we need it to.


I also use a variety of software:

This is my go-to DAW (digital audio workstation).  I use it mostly to do the following things, but also perform other actions:

  1. Record, primarily
    1. Electric guitar (direct in through my amp or multi-effects pedal)
    2. Electric guitar (recorded via microphone on my amp)
    3. Acoustic guitar (recorded via 2 SM57 microphones, see below)
    4. Spoken word (recorded via cheap large-condenser microphone, or one of my 2 SM58s, see below)
    5. Singing (for sound creation or mocking up vocal parts for actual singers; via SM58, see below)
    6. Banjo and other stringed instruments
    7. Other instruments outside of my studio (eg. piano)
  2. Input MIDI
    1. Built-in software instruments (eg. piano samples, Alchemy, etc.)
    2. New software instruments created through Sculpture and synthesizers
    3. Sample libraries (I use East/West for orchestral samples in scoring to picture and in creating orchestral mockups)
  3. Edit (adjust levels, clean up audio, apply effects, transform the audio and MIDI)
    1. Humanize the MIDI – adjust volume, velocities, placements, simultinaeties
    2. Strip silence (spoken word) and noise gate (primarily electric guitar)
    3. Automating levels and effect balances
    4. Busing effects
    5. Adding effects via plugins
    6. Adding compression and reverb
    7. Reversing audio
    8. Fading in and out
    9. Splicing and joining audio
    10. Removing pops and clicks by editing formants
    11. (The list goes on and on)
  4. Composing, editing, and mixing
    1. Composing
    2. Revising
    3. Re-recording
    4. Re-mixing
    5. Scoring to picture
  5. Mastering
    1. Using plugin banks directly and busing signals for EQ, compression, limiting, reverb, delay, frequency distribution, etc.
  1. Creating sketches
    1. Piano reductions/sketches
    2. Basic orchestrations
    3. Arrays of motives and other ideas
    4. Textual instructions or thoughts
    5. Planning form
    6. General concept
  2. Composing
    1. Writing process
    2. Orchestrating
    3. Reducing
    4. Instrumentation
    5. Setting text
    6. Indeterminate/improvisational/graphic notation
    7. Merging acoustic instruments and electronic media
    8. Program notes
    9. Technical notes
  3. Editing/revising
    1. Adding elements and sections
    2. Removing elements and sections
    3. Transforming elements
    4. Changing constructs and visions
    5. Realigning constructs and visions
    6. Elongating and shortening the work as a whole
    7. Changing elements based on performer needs, requests, and personnel changes
  4. Exporting to MIDI file (for Logic)
  5. Exporting to audio file (as a mock-up)
  6. Engraving
    1. Aligning elements
    2. Avoiding collisions
    3. Adjusting kerning
    4. Making things clear
    5. Adjusting size
    6. Adding elements that facilitate rehearsal
    7. Making parts
    8. Preparations for printing
    9. Making PDFs
  7. Exporting to XML (for Dorico engraving if needed/desired)
  1. Editing audio
    1. Applying effects
    2. Splicing audio
    3. Fading in and out
    4. Transforming and transferring spectra
    5. Viewing audio more deeply visually
    6. Quickly normalizing audio
    7. Quickly reversing audio
    8. Exporting presets
  2. Performing more complex and experimental procedures
    1. Editing audio as an image
    2. Exporting image filters
  1. Composing
  2. Editing/Revising
  3. Engraving
  4. Exporting to XML (for Finale if needed/desired)
  1. Creating interactive audio
  2. Creating interactive visual material
  3. Merging audio and visual material
  1. Quickly reducing audio noise
  2. Quickly splicing audio
  1. Importing video and images
  2. Applying effects
  3. Splicing
  4. Adding and removing audio
  5. Rearranging order and creating form
  6. Adding titles and transitions


Yamaha HS5 Powered Studio Monitor – Review

Mackie Onyx Blackjack – Review

I also have a lot of cheap mics, good mics, stands, cables, and guitar pedals.  My go-to mics for quick recording are ones that everyone should have:

Shure SM57
The go-to instrumental (and sometimes vocal) mic of the modern popular music industry.  From stadium rock to blues to pop, this mic has done it all.  It is also notably nearly-indestructible.  I trusted my students with my SM57s because of its heavy-duty construction.

Shure SM58

The go-to vocal (and in some cases, instrumental) mic for many artists for decades.  There are now versions with extra features such as an on-off switch that add value to the mic, but at its core it is a workhorse that I rely on for quick vocal takes and live performance.

I also have a trusty field recorder, the Zoom H4n, which has been the cornerstone of many recordings and projects involving field recordings.  There is now a pro version of it, but my (older) version still amazes me.  My favorite experiences with it have been recording birdsong at 5:00am, recording a rushing brook in the middle of a wintry night, and recording crickets on a summer evening.  I have also recorded my colleagues’ concerts, my students’ concerts, and premieres of my works.  This device, while a versatile field recorder, can also power two external microphones (including those requiring Phantom power) and serve as an audio interface.

Zoom H4n PRO

Skills – listening

Overall, despite the books, setup, and gear, one really has to be a good listener.  Ensuring that one can identify which frequency bands need accentuating or attenuating, correcting tuning and pitch, recording things in rhythm, listening for the effects of different mic placements, removing room noise (or not capturing it in the first place!), leveling, and so many aspects of audio are best determined by one’s ears.  That is why in audio circles there are not too many strict directives on how you must perform a specific technique; techniques are recipes, but you have to “taste” the mix by listening to it and letting your ears define what you do.  Do not let a rule tell you something different from what you are hearing.  Set your goals and work until your music sounds like the goal, even if it means disobeying strict instructions for executing techniques.

Take a read of my posts on listening:

Why is Listening So Important?

How much listening do you do per day?

Active Listening

To sum it all up

My studio setup is pretty bare-bones.  This basic setup is how I achieve my results, and anyone with these tools should be able to produce the music they wish.  We are in an age where information (books, podcasts, YouTube videos), gear (hardware and software), and education (listening, playing an instrument, singing, composing, learning theory) are much more accessible than ever before.  If you want to make your own music, now is the time to do so.

Happy composing, performing, recording, editing, mixing, mastering, synchronizing, and making audio (and video),