I really should be doing more detailed how-to posts. Ah, well. At least I can go into a little bit of detail of the tools this particular budget designer uses.
Software need not be pricey. There are a number of good options in free, shareware, and very good deals -- especially now, with prices of such things as virtual instruments continuing to crash through the basement.
I can only be specific in regards to Mac software, though. I was given a Mac years ago as partial payment for a house-painting job. I went direct from CP/M to the Mac OS and never looked back. Sure, Mac stuff tends to be expensive, and the philosophy is towards a sealed system. The latter works to the advantage of an artist who just wants to do art instead of struggling with endless driver issues. But basically, if I want to go through the effort of learning a third operating system, it isn't going to be another product of a massive conglomerate. It would probably be Linux.
The laptop I bring to theaters these days is an old Ti Powerbook. G4 chip, street price down to about $200 now. I've put considerably more into mine, with maxed-out RAM, a 160-gig HD, and a high-speed drive that can burn double-sided DVDs. When I rent it out, I list the replacement value at $600. Trouble is, I will have to move on soon; there's more and more software I want to run that requires an Intel chip.
The main sound design tool is the hard disc itself. Several libraries of sound effects, including the entire BBC collection, and useful sounds I created myself over many past shows. Plus, several dozen CD's worth of period music (1920's jazz, big-band, Renaissance and other Early Music, 50's pop, etc.) are imported at full CD quality but still scannable via iTunes. No...I don't do mp3s or other compressed formats unless I have to (such as, emailing a clip to someone).
The Powerbook has audio I/O on a minijack so all I need is an adapter cable to play sounds out through the house system, or to do a simple spot recording. Since most of my recording work is on condenser mics, though, I usually need a Firewire interface or similar hooked up for that. I also compose the old-fashioned way, with a keyboard...but a 49-key M-Audio Ozone will fit in the gig bag just fine. I can, and have, literally composed a bit of underscore while sitting in the theater.
The primary composition tool for music and sound effects is CuBase. In fact, CuBase SE. I haven't quite bothered to cough up the bucks for the full version. I have near-infinite tracks of audio, and a whole suite of free-ware VST plug-ins. CuBase is like a cheaper version of Pro Tools. Or it could just be that like C, the syntax is common between many different packages. It offers the basic mixing of audio and MIDI tracks, and the ability to add plug-ins to both.
For many effects, what I do is audition a bunch of possible sounds, copy them into a temporary folder, then drag the lot of them into CuBase. Chop them, time-stretch them, equalize, add effects and of course layer and cross-fade between multiple sounds to create the final effect.
The most useful VST plug-ins are the MDA set. Completely free. I also found several other cool ones to mess with via some of the big forums out there that track and list freeware and shareware plug-ins, like KVR. (Actually.. MOSTLY KVR! If they don't list it, it probably doesn't exist.)
Another useful little tool is Audacity, the completely free multi-platform recording and sound editing tool. I've used a lot of editing utilities over the past, but Audacity is just perfect for file conversion and basic trimming and normalizing.
On the musical side, there are a surprising number of cool virtual instruments also out there for free. I make a certain use out of a budget shareware sampler called V-samp as well, which with work can make use of various free libraries packaged for Kontact and the like. It may take a bit of editing, however!
Although I spent many hours putting together virtual instruments in V-samp from various cheap sample CDs, I really use it more for things that are not exactly musical. Such as the playable steam train I constructed from chopped-up snippets from several library effects. The playable train allows me to perform on a keyboard a steam train of any speed, and speed up or slow down arbitrarily as dictated by the needs of the script -- say, to perform the sound of a train arriving over the last bar of music in an early scene of "Birdie" and pulling into the station.
Often the instrument I create may be as simple as a single telephone sample. But that allows me to "ring" to tempo, to humanize the sound, and to put it into a CueBase sequence along with audio clips to make the final sound picture.
Since it is all MIDI, I can run V-samp from connected keyboard or hot button, thus making instant play-back of spot cues in actual performance. But mostly I stick that sort of thing into Qlab.
Although there are some truly lovely virtual instruments for free (particularly software synthesizers)...one of my stalwarts being Da Hornet, and a silly favorite I have been unable to come up with an actual job for yet, Delay Lama...I make much use out of a couple of libraries that were a great bargain then (but now, bigger libraries have now dropped to fire-sale prices that are even lower than that). Garritan Personal Orchestra, for one.
GPO is pretty much the ONLY library you need for doing straight orchestral work. I mean, sure, you can always add more, and always improve. I just mean if all you have is GPO, you are covered for pretty much everything but ethnic instruments and choir. GPO also has a programming technique I truly love; key velocity is tied to attack, not volume. Volume and timbre (aka the difference between a forte performance and a pianissimo passage) are controlled by the keyboard's modulation wheel. This allows you to perform diminuendo or sforzondo just like the real orchestral instrument or section would -- and for virtuosic solo passages, it allows you wonderful nuancing of the dynamics as you play.
(Truth be told, I've found it easier to go back and overdub the modulation wheel accents!) And, of course, CC7 messages (aka volume knob) are still there for setting the orchestral balance. It makes for very lively sound that better echos what a real orchestra does.
I also use Garritan's "Jazz and Big Band" library, which improves the selection of woodwinds (especially sax) and adds jazz guitar, bass, and drums -- including of course brush kit. The latter is the only disappointment, as Gary didn't come with something equally as clever to allow you to enter a proper stir pattern. Instead you have to tinker around with loops.
I also picked up cheap (and it is cheaper now!) the Sonik Synth package from IK. Not as user-friendly as it could be, and the instruments are surprisingly sparse with samples, but it still gives you playable options in the more pop stalwarts...electric and synth basses, pads, and a good selection of sitars and dumbuks and so on to add that ethnic seasoning.
Which, for theater use, is extremely important! I have gotten lots of mileage through the years of a really shoddy sample set I made myself from a bargain-basement shawm (that I could barely play, at that).
One of these days, I'll get Kontakt, and do better sample manipulations.
The virtual instruments also have their place in straight sound design. For "How to Succeed in Business" I made both the elevator "ding" and the "lightbulb" sound of Finch getting one of his Ideas out of GPO instruments. Marimba and Vibraphone, I think. I made a train bell from one of that same set, and church bells from some of my V-samp collection of Tubular Bells (Tubular Bells, man!)
Plus don't forget you can add a little base drum or electric bass to fatten an impact sound (like a gun, or a punch). Or use some etheric pads straight, as part of an atmospheric background effect.
The freeware MIDI tools I use most often are MidiPipe and Midi Monitor.
The latter is great for when you want a proper hex dump of a MIDI stream (say, if you are trying to figure out the syntax of the MSC being spat out by a lighting console). The former is a great all-purpose tool for monitoring, massaging, re-routing, even creating MIDI messages. I've used it to create an automatic trill applied to a keyboard performance fed into a Kontakt LE mandolin patch. That was used live in performance.
Of course the Arduino IDE and the avr-gcc toolchain get involved in most of my MIDI manipulations, as those tools are how I get into my AVR chips to change what they are doing. But those are for other blog entries.
On the show playback side, Qlab dominates. I am still using version 1, with however full licenses (advanced audio and MIDI capabilities). Qlab is tops for a linear sequence, and works pretty well for certain triggered events (using either a hotkey on the computer or a MIDI input). A trick on the latter; set up a sound file as an infinite loop, and tie a STOP cue to a MIDI NoteOff event. Then the sound will play for as long as the button on the MIDI source is held down.
A last little note. This is a list of stuff that's cheap. Good for a starving artist. Sure, there are fancier tools out there. Some of them might even be worth the price tag (but you always have to balance...will you actually USE those features in a production environment).
The other thing you could be tempted to say is "Why are you using this stuff when you could just download a cracked copy of (fill in name of high-end software here)?"
The reason is respect for intellectual property. Mine, as much as anyone's. I sell what I create. I have clients to whom I can represent that I have full rights to the materials I provide (and the tools I use to create them). If it turns out I don't, I effectively lose the rights to my work, but more importantly, I lose the trust of my client as my client stands to lose a lot of money in legal fees.
It isn't worth it. Besides, by sticking with shareware tools and paying the registration for those, I support the shareware movement; I support the creation of software that truly is customer-oriented, not marketing driven. Shareware is software built for love and supported because it works. It will usually be more streamlined, take less system overhead, have less unexpected lock-ups and crashes, and it won't keep you and your work in hock to a company that is only interested in making you buy the next upgrade, and the next.
And when all you want to do is make the music (or the sound), and not fiddle around with endless installations and tricky registration systems, that is truly a no-brainer.