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jbadams

How to choose music and audio software

22 posts in this topic

Note: I'm asking some pretty broad questions in this topic, and some of them are also fairly open to opinion.  In the past we've tried to provide extensive lists of possible software packages, but they were ultimately pretty useless, providing an extensive list with no real guidance on making a choice.  I'm hoping that if we get some detailed answers from a variety of different people that this topic might be a valuable resource on how beginners might make their own properly informed decision when choosing software.

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There's a lot of music/audio editing/creation software out there, with a whole range of different features, different pricing structures, etc. and it can be pretty confusing for a beginner to find and choose a good package.

 

 

Obviously a big part of making the right choice is finding a package with the features you personally require, at a price you can afford, and which you feel comfortable working with, and a great way to do that is to try out the demo versions of different packages until you find one which meets your needs...

 

...but how do you narrow down the selections?

 

What features should every software package offer?  Are there any features so important that it's not worth considering a package that doesn't offer them?  What are the killer features you personally look for, or which lead you to choose the software you currently use?

 

Are there any features that would be considered important to the majority of composers but which a beginner might not think to look for?

 

Is there any particular process you follow when trying out demo versions of software to make sure you've tested thoroughly, or do you just play around with them?

 

Lastly, what software do you personally use, and why did you choose it?  Are there any areas you feel are lacking in your current set up, or is there anything you're really wanting to add to it?  Would you recommend the same software to others?  //EDIT:  I realise these questions in particular are very subjective, but I think the answers would really be of interest to beginners -- as such I'd love to hear everyone's opinions, but would just ask that everyone try to respect the opinions of others as well and try to avoid any holy wars or petty arguments.

 

 

Thanks in advance for your time! smile.png 

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To clarify your aims a bit more, what sort of music do you intend to be writing?


I'm actually not, this topic is purely for the benefit of future beginners -- it's actually a bit of an experiment, and it may or may not work out, but I'm hoping that if a variety of people respond offering different perspectives and their own preferences this might be a valuable resource to help future beginners choose their software.

Thanks so much for the detailed response!
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The best advice I can offer is to try out a few DAWs (almost all of them offer some kind of demo/trial period at no cost). See which one(s) seem to click more than others. As stated above there's a learning curve with any of them but it's like different brands of cars. All of them basically do the same thing although the names and steps may differ (sometimes only slightly). My point is learn one and you can more easily pick up others.

 

In my own experience, I started on Cakewalk's Sonar and played around with it exclusively for five years. Then I added in Reason and those were my only two DAWs for the next five years in my home studio. Due to a work studio setup, I had to learn Pro Tools and Logic (as well as Mac). Now my home studio runs Logic, Reason and Pro Tools (although I rarely use it now). And while the stance that all DAWs are pretty much equal do note that some platforms such as Reaper, come with very little bundled instruments so you'd need to have a decent 3rd party collection to produce music.

 

Edit: Also beware that some don't work with video post production. Reason's a good example and it also doesn't support 3rd party libraries like Native Instruments or East West. Instead they have their own format called Refills which they support. So take a look at what kinds of things you might want to do and see which DAWs support that.

Edited by nsmadsen
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Personally, I'd have to agree with the idea that you should focus more on what features your DAW has.

 

However, I will add this: it is important to note, especially if you're torn between two or more DAW's after doing your homework on them, that you make sure that you want a particular DAW over the others, given how expensive the best ones are. I have made the mistake of impulse buying a few times when it comes to music software and sounds, and I don't want others to make that same mistake.

Edited by PythonBlue
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I must disagree with the concept, that choosing the right DAW is crucial; it's the external tools that you use within the DAW really matter.
The thing I really pay attention to, is how stable the DAW is when handling 3rd party tools. And this brings me to my second point. Some workstations, like Logic, have big sound libraries. While I agree that those libraries might do the trick in some cases, you shouldn't really rely that much on them. If we're all aiming to be professionals, then our works must sound top notch. That might be just my conservative point of view, but I think, that realistic instruments can't be pulled of with a daw's native libraries. My point is, that you shouldn't look for a DAW that has the biggest library. Instead focus on a DAW that can handle 3rd party instruments with ease.

For instance, I really love Cubase 5, but I often found its lack of stability with some VSTs very troublesome.

Kristoff Edited by Kristoff K.
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The thing I really pay attention to, is how stable the DAW is when handling 3rd party tools.

By 3rd party tools, do you just mean external samples/VSTs/instruments, or are there other tools/plug-ins to be considered?  Is in common to need to use external plug-ins, or do some DAWs include all needed functionality out of the box?

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I am a relative newbie and from my experience so far (I own FL Studio) you can always find a place for a new plugin. I use vsts for instruments, effects and midi control-- a lot of the plugins I use are freeware. VST is a very common format for plugins, and I would expect vst1/2 with 32bit support in any capable DAW. There are also 64bit plugins and vst3, but I haven't had much success with those yet, or even encountered situations where there wasn't a vst1/2 32bit version (your DAW needs to have support for 64 bit plugins to use them, either natively or via a bridge).

 

When I was on the market for a DAW, I had no previous experience on the topic. I did have a copy of some old/light version of Sonar which I tried for about 2 seconds before I was convinced that I didn't want anything to do with that. Although of course I would recommend people to try demos before they buy, I personally didn't want to clutter my PC with crap and couldn't commit myself to fairly evaluating any time limited trial versions. It was quite realistic that I could go a month without trying and lose the chance. My decision came down to researching other peoples experiences and trying to gain a perspective of what a DAW is and what to expect for my budget. FL studio seemed to get mentioned a lot, with comments that there were beginner friendly aspects to it and I saw that there was some decent youtube videos I could learn from. Ultimately the lifetime free updates sealed it for me, since I personally like the comfort of knowing the product I chose would get better even if I didn't like some aspect of it. Reaper was a close second for me.

 

When I started out I convinced myself that because I wanted to compose music electronically, that would mean I would be be satisfied with a quality synth. I researched and found many called Zebra2 the best synth and so I bought it and did use it in many of my early work (I am a hobbiest, by the way-- so 'work' is used loosely), but I found out that what I really wanted the most, 90% of the time, was to be able to replicate the intricate sounds of real instruments. Only recently I've been using samples and even soundfonts, but I do make use of a variety of synths too. In hindsight I did get ahead of myself buying Zebra-- as a beginner, 'programming' synths is not as fun to me as I imagined :P

 

 

I can't comment on all DAWs, but I do believe in the general case most people will be using plugins to extend their DAWs functionality. It's like buying an operating system, sure it may come with paint and sure some people will paint a master piece with it, but you will have to buy photoshop or go ahead and download free alternatives like paint.net/gimp etc if you want quality results in good time and lower effort.

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The thing I really pay attention to, is how stable the DAW is when handling 3rd party tools.

By 3rd party tools, do you just mean external samples/VSTs/instruments, or are there other tools/plug-ins to be considered? Is in common to need to use external plug-ins, or do some DAWs include all needed functionality out of the box?
I meant VSTs and samples. However now, that you mentioned it, there is also a function in many DAWs called Rewire. What it basically does, is connect other DAWs to your current one. Quite common to see a Reason rewired to some other DAW, like Cubase for instance.

And yes, most of the time, external tools are required for real pro sounds. I know DAWs like Cubase or Logic love to brag about how well supplied are their libraries... but let's be straight - they have their limits. And believe me when I say, you really can hear when some instruments sound artificial.

Kristoff Edited by Kristoff K.
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Anyone else?

 

There's some great information in the answers so far, but are there any alternative points of view or is there anything anyone would expand on?

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For basic sound recording, my advice is typically that you can't go wrong with Reaper when you're first starting. By the time you find it lacking, you should have the experience and skill to move up to whatever more advanced platform has the features you want and to decide what that platform is.

Sequencing, though, is a game I'm not familiar with.
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So many options and opinions on this. Personally I think Reaper is immense for a beginner - cheap, light on CPU and very, very deep. The one negative is the lack of a score editor, but that said the scoring functions in Cubase and Logic (the pack leaders here) are still pretty basic compared with Sibelius. I use Reaper at home and Logic/Cubase at work.

 

The other software I use is Renoise - it's a tracker in the vein of the programs that videogame music used to be written on, is very geeky-looking, versatile and interacts well with Reaper. Once you've figured it out it is excellent for getting into the flow of composition and putting ideas down quickly. There are also some great modulation devices that work very intuitively with any parameter. Its capabilities as a sampler are also excellent. It's kind of half-way between a sampler and a DAW.

 

The bundled effects with Renoise and Reaper are pretty good, but I've fleshed mine out with Korg's MDE-X as part of the Legacy Collection pack, which is an excellent multi-fx vst. 

 

Instruments for both programs are non-existent. That is a whole different ball game. Kontakt, Absynth, FM8, Superior Drummer, RealGuitar, RealLPC are essential in my opinion, but I have spent £1000s on other vst synths and kontakt libraries in the pursuit of other sounds.

 

For my needs my home setup is perfect while my work setup is annoying due to outdated computers and my growing hatred of Cubase.

Lacking from basically any setup is my dream of an integrated score, MIDI and audio program. I know Cubase/Logic/Digital Performer have score functions and I have used these but found them extremely irritating to use and work with, and ended up back in the piano roll/arrange window. They seem to be more focused on the creation of scores after the fact of their composition using MIDI, and the use of tools is stuck in the 90's.

 

 

But really I think the two most important things to bear in mind are:

1 - If you have friends that make music, what software do they use? Use that, then they can help you as you learn the software.

2 - Choose one DAW and stick with it, do not waste time and money on other programs if you feel your DAW is holding you back. It isn't, you just need to plough through whatever barrier you are encountering and figure out a more creative way to approach the problem.

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So many options and opinions on this. Personally I think Reaper is immense for a beginner - cheap, light on CPU and very, very deep. The one negative is the lack of a score editor, but that said the scoring functions in Cubase and Logic (the pack leaders here) are still pretty basic compared with Sibelius. I use Reaper at home and Logic/Cubase at work.

 

The other software I use is Renoise - it's a tracker in the vein of the programs that videogame music used to be written on, is very geeky-looking, versatile and interacts well with Reaper. Once you've figured it out it is excellent for getting into the flow of composition and putting ideas down quickly. There are also some great modulation devices that work very intuitively with any parameter. Its capabilities as a sampler are also excellent. It's kind of half-way between a sampler and a DAW.

 

The bundled effects with Renoise and Reaper are pretty good, but I've fleshed mine out with Korg's MDE-X as part of the Legacy Collection pack, which is an excellent multi-fx vst. 

 

Instruments for both programs are non-existent. That is a whole different ball game. Kontakt, Absynth, FM8, Superior Drummer, RealGuitar, RealLPC are essential in my opinion, but I have spent £1000s on other vst synths and kontakt libraries in the pursuit of other sounds.

 

For my needs my home setup is perfect while my work setup is annoying due to outdated computers and my growing hatred of Cubase.

Lacking from basically any setup is my dream of an integrated score, MIDI and audio program. I know Cubase/Logic/Digital Performer have score functions and I have used these but found them extremely irritating to use and work with, and ended up back in the piano roll/arrange window. They seem to be more focused on the creation of scores after the fact of their composition using MIDI, and the use of tools is stuck in the 90's.

 

 

But really I think the two most important things to bear in mind are:

1 - If you have friends that make music, what software do they use? Use that, then they can help you as you learn the software.

2 - Choose one DAW and stick with it, do not waste time and money on other programs if you feel your DAW is holding you back. It isn't, you just need to plough through whatever barrier you are encountering and figure out a more creative way to approach the problem.

I initially learned how to compose at school using notation on Sibelius, so when I started creating digital music I got Logic because of it's  score editor.  It didn't take me very long to get fed up with it and purchase Sibelius.  I agree...Logic's score editor is very basic when compared dedicated scoring programs like Sibelius and Finale.  However, now I use Sibelius and Logic side by side.  I score my projects in Sibelius and then export the midi over to Logic, where I apply the samples and then shape and edit the sound.  I wonder how many other people do something similar.  I know most composers here play the music in right from the keyboard, but when it comes to orchestral composition it's so much easier for me to compose visually with the score.  

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I usually just play everything. I used Finale for years - infact I even got a part time job transcribing or digitizing pieces for professors while at school. That greatly sped up my Finale workflow but I haven't really used it since graduating. I totally get the scoring visually point and often will open up the staff view in Logic just to review or make fine edits on what I've done.

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You can also rewire sibelius, with MIDIYoke/MIDIOX routing MIDI back to the host... this is an option I have tried but setting and changing MIDI channels as required on Sibelius is a total nightmare. They really ought to see the value in making this easy - older versions used to have this capability!

Edited by JackMusic
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I must disagree with the concept, that choosing the right DAW is crucial; it's the external tools that you use within the DAW really matter.
The thing I really pay attention to, is how stable the DAW is when handling 3rd party tools. And this brings me to my second point. Some workstations, like Logic, have big sound libraries. While I agree that those libraries might do the trick in some cases, you shouldn't really rely that much on them. If we're all aiming to be professionals, then our works must sound top notch. That might be just my conservative point of view, but I think, that realistic instruments can't be pulled of with a daw's native libraries. My point is, that you shouldn't look for a DAW that has the biggest library. Instead focus on a DAW that can handle 3rd party instruments with ease.

For instance, I really love Cubase 5, but I often found its lack of stability with some VSTs very troublesome.

Can you tell which VST plugins and other software have caused you trouble? They should be a good starting point for DAW evaluation.

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I must disagree with the concept, that choosing the right DAW is crucial;

Each DAW offers a fundamentally different workflow. That's a very big part of the equation.
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To all what is said above, which I second mostly, I would like to add batch/script processing. It is useful  a lot especially when it comes to jobs with tons of recording hours and lots of files to take care of. It also releases you from doing those boring and repetitive things and let's you to have a while with a warm cup of coffie :).

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I would like to add batch/script processing.

 

For batch processing, I use an audio editor like Peak (which sadly has now gone out of business) or Soundforge (mainly the PC version, the Mac version leaves a LOT to be desired in my opinion).

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I use Reason 6 and I LOVE it.  I don't think there is any sure fire way to pick your first DAW though, because it took me years of using an old cracked version (okay I know, I'm going to hell) to make me fully appreciate what the program could do, and how to achieve efficient workflow within it.  In other words, I bought it because it was the DAW  I was already most familiar with.  I've noticed a lot of people I know tend to stick to what they know as well. 

 

Perhaps a better way would be to look at each DAW's fundamental weakness.  Reason's would likely be the lack of VST support, though the new Rack Extensions have more than compensated for this in my opinion. 

 

All that aside, I hear Ableton is great.

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Agreed with the last post. Certain DAWs are better for certain types of music and audio task so I think you can go from there and then use experience to guide you. eg.

  • FL Studio - great for loop and sequence based music. Good for electronic instruments and genres. Poor for audio tracking and editing work, and virtually no score/notation capability at all.
  • Sonar - good for tracked audio, ok with MIDI, passable for score and notation. Poor with sequences, ok with loops. No real direct audio manipulation capability.
  • Reaper - good for tracked audio. passable with MIDI. No score or notation, no sequence support.
  • Ableton Live - great for loops and sequences. No score, no notation. Poor audio tracking support.

Basically, it's just a case of looking at what is in GeneralQuery's list, and matching that to the specs of each DAW.

 

Personally I'm considering moving to Cubase as Sonar's limitations are causing me many problems, but it took me years of using Sonar to come up against the limitations. You always lose something with every move though - before I used Sonar I used to use tracker/sequencer programs like FastTracker and they have a workflow speed for certain types of music that most DAWs (except FL Studio, and maybe Ableton Live) can't match. For this reason, if your output has to be diverse then I think it always helps to be fluent with more than one DAW.

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Forgot to mention one that I have seen around... 'Overture' is the closest thing to a score-based MIDI editor, I have seen this used in conjunction with Reaper. Seems to offer minute control over MIDI data and a nice articulations implementation that other score editors don't have. But development has been dead or hidden for years and the interface is stuck in the 90's.

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Forgot to mention one that I have seen around... 'Overture' is the closest thing to a score-based MIDI editor, I have seen this used in conjunction with Reaper. Seems to offer minute control over MIDI data and a nice articulations implementation that other score editors don't have. But development has been dead or hidden for years and the interface is stuck in the 90's.

 

Another one which seems to try to incorporate score and midi control is Notion but I haven't used although I'm looking at trying it out

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