Here is the equipment I'm currently using. Scroll down for more thoughts about making a living as a composer...
Below is a pic of my current setup, after the move to an iMac w/ external data & backup:
THOUGHTS FOR ASPIRING COMPOSERS:
PART 1: AN ARGUMENT FOR MUSIC EDUCATION
Although the equipment above is what I use to write, it is obviously not the only way to compose music. Many composers use pencil and staff paper, a piano, or their primary instrument/voice as tools. Formal study (college/university degree in theory/composition) can be a wonderful introduction into the world of composing music, but I often make the argument that earning a degree in MUSIC EDUCATION is a fantastic and practical path to learning composition. I'll continue my rationale below, but first...
RANT: Historically, studying music took a wholistic approach, designed to develop well-rounded musicianship. Students learned to perform, conduct, compose, arrange, theorize, instruct, critique, etc. It is the (relatively) recent idea of specialization that has fractured musicianship into sub-disciplines, designed to maximize skills in one of these areas (music education, performance, theory/comp, therapy, etc). Today, when student musicians apply to colleges and universities, they are usually asked to commit to one of these "majors" or areas of concentration, in order to prepare the student for work in that particular field. The result of this model is that we are producing musicians who are very good at one musical discipline, and very inexperienced in the others, and, consequently, they tend to identify with the singular description of that specialization, instead of the wholistic identity of "musician," i.e., "I'm a composer," or "I'm a choral conductor," or "I'm a band director," and so on. Additionally, humans like to put people in boxes, or label them with a single descriptor, which compounds the issue, and in my opinion, discourages musicians to explore every area of their musical interest. This is a shame, because, as I'm about to explain, these disciplines are not as separate or fractured as the academic system makes them out to be.
So why do I advocate studying music education as a path to becoming a composer?
1. INSTRUMENTAL METHODS CLASSES
Music Education (specifically instrumental) is an incredibly deep, immersive course of study in orchestration. At nearly every major college/university, all instrumental music education majors will take methods courses in every family of instruments. Woodwinds, Brass, Percussion, Strings, Voice, and often Electronics. These methods courses teach you to understand and play the instrument at a basic level, and simultaneously teach you the strengths, weaknesses, advantages and limitations of each. You also learn the challenges of playing the instrument, and what might be appropriate for a beginning player versus an intermediate, advanced or professional player. Nothing beats getting your hands (and mouth or whatever) on the actual instruments. You also can learn so much about timbre, tone production, special techniques/effects, etc., without having to rent instruments and take private lessons. Gold mine. Also, it's fun to learn how to play instruments, period. The knowledge gained here will pay infinite dividends.
2. PERFORMANCE ENSEMBLES
Music Education majors are usually required to perform in many diverse ensembles, from concert band to jazz ensemble, choral ensembles, marching band, studio classes, chamber groups, etc., exposing you to a wide variety of ensembles and the incredible literature written for them, teaching you how performing as an individual in such an ensemble works. This knowledge easily translates to orchestration and voicing (if you're paying attention to more than your part) and, more importantly, you are getting a masterclass everyday as you watch the conductor dissect the music and rehearse the ensemble. These ensembles also offer you the opportunity to observe other musicians do the things they do very well. Take notes. Most importantly, you will be exposed to fantastic literature for the ensemble in which you are performing. You will be developing your taste, your preferences, and hearing the music from inside the ensemble, not just from recordings or concerts. This is HUGE. I discovered Holst when First Suite was put on my music stand as a kid. Fall in love with finding new music, anywhere you can get it, especially in live situations, like ensemble rehearsals.
3. BUILDING YOUR NETWORK
Music Education is a collaborative, communal experience. You will build lasting relationships with musician friends who will go on to be music directors and conductors. This is possibly the greatest advantage of a music education degree that an aspiring composer can take away, as these will likely be the people who program your music down the road. There is so much music being written and published, having a personal connection to the directors who are selecting music makes a huge difference. People like to work with their friends. Make friends. Be cool, be kind. Nobody wants to work with jerks.
4. SIDE (or main) INCOME
Music Education degrees are designed to get you a job teaching music. As you may have figured out, jobs are important, and a job teaching music, either in private lessons, studio classes, or large ensembles in a school setting can provide a very decent living in most places. Very few composers make their entire living solely on income from commissions & music sales. Even with all of the various streams of income from composing (listen to "The Portfolio Composer" podcast immediately), most composers bring in some of their living income from other sources, within the music field or not. Public school teaching jobs don't pay incredibly well, but the health insurance is usually very good, and it is a very consistent income, affording you some free time to work on your craft. You need to support yourself, and teaching can pay the bills.
5. BUILT-IN SCORE STUDY
Particularly if you end up teaching large ensembles in schools, score study can be invaluable not only to your students, but to you as you learn about orchestration and voicing. A by-product of score study in preparation for rehearsal is that you notice things like doublings, melodies & countermelodies, harmonic structure & support, form, timbral combinations, inherent balance issues, on and on. Reverse engineering great compositions is part of any degree in composition, so you might as well get paid to do it as a band or orchestra director. It will make you a better teacher, conductor, and composer.
6. ACCESS TO AN ENSEMBLE
Be careful here, as you never want to "use" your students in ANY way... but it is often very appropriate to put new music in front of your school band or orchestra for sight reading practice. As the director, you have the option to read your own compositions with your ensemble, to get realistic feedback about how well something works (or doesn't). Again, you need to be judicious with this, and only do it if it's appropriate and about the students in your ensemble first, never at the expense of more important curricular goals or use of rehearsal time. After a concert is a great time to do this. When I was a HS band director, I made a point to never sight read or program more than one of my pieces per year (and some may have even felt that was too much). On the other hand, a director who is also a composer/arranger can be invaluable to a program, providing the students with myriad opportunities to be creative in class, develop their own musical ideas, etc. Take a balanced approach and keep the big picture in mind of course, but its worth pointing out how convenient it is.
This is a touchy subject, but I'll try to state my biased opinion as simply as I can: You can be composer with a music education degree. You can not be a teacher (in a public school, in most states) with a degree in composition. A degree in music education can lead directly to a job as a music educator more so than a degree in composition can immediately lead to earning a living from composing. That being said, under no circumstances should you get a music education degree if you absolutely don't want to teach! If the only thing you want to do in the world is compose, and go to graduate school to compose more, then by all means, explore that path. The same goes for a degree in performance, you can't teach with it, but you can get a gig with an ed degree and chops. Again, these are just my opinions, don't @ me.
8. BUILT-IN INDUSTRY CONNECTION
As a music educator, you are automatically connected to the industry. You are invited to conferences, masterclasses, clinics, etc. You receive magazines and newsletter from music publishers and other composers, you are connected to institutions of higher learning (both from graduate degrees and from interacting on behalf of your students), and it's part of your everyday life. You're connected to an incredible group of music educators who love making and teaching music, to students who will evangelize your works (if they like them/you!) and to a community whose entire purpose is to connect with each other through the wonderful gift of making music together. Composing is largely a solitary thing, alone with a computer, piano or staff paper, and having a "day job" that keeps you connected to real people is a nice balance. Also, kids are wonderful, kids in music are the best. They inspire.
There are obviously many, many ways to express yourself through music, and I'm not discouraging anyone from doing it their own way. I've found that my career as a music educator and conductor have fostered and supported my career as a composer, and vice versa. As I said earlier, the wholistic approach to musicianship is ancient, and while not everyone MUST develop every area of interest, I'm certain that there are benefits to doing so.
PART 2: TAKE ACTION
You could sit here reading about being a composer, or you could be composing music. Only the latter will make you a composer, so get on it. You don't need permission, or a degree, or anyone's approval. You don't even need expensive equipment, computers, instruments, etc. Depending on what you're writing, you don't even need other people to perform it. Just start. Here's how:
1. START SMALL
It's probably (absolutely) a poor choice to let your excitement or ambition convince you to attempt an entire symphony as your first opus. Even the greatest composers in the history of the world started small, writing for piano or their primary instrument only. If you play a monophonic instrument like clarinet or trumpet, try writing something for one or two clarinets or trumpets. Then go a a trio, then a quartet or quintet. Then try changing the voicing, clarinet & alto sax, or flute & oboe. Beg your friends who play those instruments to read the (short!) piece. LISTEN TO THEIR FEEDBACK and don't blow them off. Even if you have access to a large ensemble, be careful about jumping right into a big, long, full ensemble work. If it goes terribly, it can be really disheartening, so it's better to start small, have little successes and failures, and grow from there. Walk before you run, run before you jump hurdles. SPOILER: Your first works will likely not be amazing... that's just how it works. Don't be discouraged, your skills will catch up with your taste eventually.
2. TRY EVERYTHING
For a long time, I thought that scoring film would be the most amazing, life-affirming career possible. After actually scoring films, and realizing the incredible complexity, restrictions, heartbreaks, and frustrations that can accompany the thrill, I realized that writing for concert ensembles was much more satisfying for me. It's OK to try things and change your mind. But you have to try them first, otherwise it's all conjecture. Don't say no to an opportunity just because it isn't exactly what you think you want to do forever.
3. STEAL EVERYTHING (most of it is free anyway)
We live in an age where nearly EVERY piece of information is available, for free, with an internet connection. With enough time and discipline, you can exhaustively research Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Tempo, Texture, Timbre, Dynamics & Form, and still have barely scratched the surface. You can listen to ensembles of every possible combination, performing music of unimaginable variety. You can reach out across the planet without leaving your home or public library, to communicate with other musicians, teachers, performers, etc. to learn, collaborate, do commerce and so on. There really is no obstacle but the time that you make for it, and the determination you have. Yes, it is wonderful to be lucky enough to afford a formal education (and there is a huge piece about class and privilege that I'm not addressing here), but my point is that most of the excuses for not living out your dreams are in your head.
4. GO FOR THE "NO"
My Dad always told me to ask for a better price on something because "all they can say is no." This has always been great advice in many areas of my life, including my career as a composer. When you're reaching out to friends, colleagues or even musicians that you don't know personally, remember to be courteous, respectful, and simply offer what you have. If they're interested, they will respond, but be prepared to hear "NO" a lot, or more likely, nothing at all. Musicians are busy people, and there is a great deal of music out there already, so don't take it too personally. It might not be a good fit for their ensemble, their current programming choices, their budget, or their taste. Make absolutely certain that you have some kind of audio preview (even a midi mockup) and score to share with them, or you won't be taken seriously at all. This is where the personal relationships can really have value, as it is much more likely that someone who knows you from social/academic circles will take your email or call and respond positively. This is not always true, and don't be offended if your friends aren't into your music, it's not personal. Composers sometimes have a hard time with this (we're pretty thin-skinned as a demographic...) as do most artists. Remember, all they can say is no, or nothing at all, and that's OK.
5. GET A MENTOR (or fifty)
While it's true that every shred of human knowledge is available on the internet, there's nothing like another human being who can give advice, feedback, encouragement, congratulations, consolations, and so on. I'm always amazed when I think about the wonderful music educators, directors, and friends who gave me a chance and told me they believed in me when they absolutely didn't have to. People who care about you can give necessary feedback in a constructive way, without crushing you. They can also open doors for you by giving your work a "stamp of approval" or serving as an advocate, either by programming your works or encouraging other to do so. They can give you fresh ears on music that you're too close to. Most importantly, they are the people with whom you will share music making, which is exactly why you're into this in the first place. Don't be afraid to ask someone to take a look and listen to your work. It can be scary, especially if you respect them tremendously, but it's worth it. This is also true in the area of music publishing and business. Other composers have been absolutely invaluable to me as I began to self publish my catalog, work with distributors, negotiate commissions, etc. Again, all they can say is no.
6. DON'T GIVE UP (but do take breaks)
Making a living as a composer is a long-term investment and a life-long pursuit. I often remind my self that many of the composers I admire wrote their best work in their 60's and 70's. Not everything you write will be amazing, and you don't have to release everything you write. Try not to compare your music or your career to others, every one of us has a unique voice and different path. Big projects take time, be patient. Also, fast music is written very slowly, don't be discouraged by how much longer it takes to write a million notes versus a thousand. Sometimes you need to step back and take some time away from the project, or work on something else entirely. This is also why it's nice to have a different "day job," so that you're able to walk away from the project without the threat of foreclosure or starvation looming.
PART 3: WRITING/ENGRAVING PROCESS
Every composer works differently, and many composers have many different processes. Here is what I usually do:
1. Sketch. This is sometimes done on the piano, but almost always it's me singing into my iPhone voice recorder. I have dozens of little voice memos of ideas, and I'll keep adding ideas as they come. This way I can get it down as fast as I can sing it.
2. I'll mockup the sketch ideas in Logic X. This is also where I edit and shape the form, and sometimes come up with the actual structure or the work. Often this mockup process will be 99% exactly the orchestration and voicing in the final work. The main reason I love working in Logic is because of the sample libraries that I use (listed above), and how accurately they represent what it will actually sound like. Much of it is trial and error, and I love the discovery of timbral combinations I stumble upon in this process.
3. Transcribe, note for note, from Logic to Sibelius. Sibelius is where I have built my templates for scores & parts, and from there I export PDFs, assemble with Preview, and send to the print house (Subito does an amazing job) or directly to musicians as digital delivery. I'll also send the PDFs to my proof reading team, where they will inevitably find errors, and I'll make edits before sending to distributors like JWPepper, Stanton's or Midwest Sheet Music.
Here is a YouTube video I made about this process: