Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bargain Software For Music Production (Part Two)

This is the conclusion of my article on music creation software. For convenience I have divided such applications into four categories, the first three of which I discussed in part one. Here I will continue my hunt for programmes that are full-featured and cheap enough to keep ceramic piggies off the endangered species list.

Again I will limit my discussion to Windows applications and provide prices in rounded euros, as listed at one particular online vendor (for consistency). Besides multitrack recorders from the major manufacturers Steinberg and Cakewalk, I will look at some lesser-known alternatives.

Cubase At The Starting Line

To get a grip on the Steinberg range I have distilled for your edification this coparison table. At the top of the line, for those that need full scoring, surround sound, and interaction with other professional gear, we have Cubase SX (€690). But I am assuming that this is both too rich for your budget and leaves you paying for features you will never use. Cubase SL (€350) saves a good chunk of change without forsaking anything important in the way of features. Cubase SE (€130) is further slimmed, but may for our purposes lie at a good point on the price to features curve.

Let's see what we get, and determine if the compromises are worth it.

Cubase SE has unlimited MIDI tracks; support for 24-bit/96 KHz audio (32-bit internal); plugin compensation; Rewire support; the full palette of editors except for logical, inplace, and volume envelope; audio tempo matching, pitch shifting and time stretching. It is limited to a total of 48 audio tracks but gives you 8 physical I/O channels, 8 groups, 8 sends, and 16 virtual instruments. If that's not enough you can always bounce down, like we used to in the, ahem, "olden days". But most likely you will run out of juice in your hardware before you reach these limits.

For those counting, you get 14 MIDI effects, 24 audio effects, and 3 virtual instruments bundled with the product. This says nothing about the usefulness or quality of these plugins. Besides, you can always scour the net for freeware alternatives, and in a future article I'll be so bold as to recommend some. Still, real value is added by being able to buy a product that has most of the tools you need in the box.

What doesn't it have? Well, there's no dedicated FX returns, so you'll have to consume some of your regular channels for that purpose. There's also no surround sound support, no multi-processor support, no scoring, no MIDI device editing, no spectral analysis, no audio file statistics and no audio/time warp1. Automation and undo levels are limited. There are few opportunities to customise the interface compared with the flagship product.

Finally, there is no freezing of VST instrument tracks, which is a shame since it is precisely in a beginner setup with less powerful hardware that this feature is the most useful.

You can save even more money by purchasing the entry-level Cubase LE or its predecessor Cubasis. But don't. These bottom-feeding products will soon frustrate you. If you happen to get these bundled in with some hardware try them out for long enough to see how they limit you, and then upgrade based on your new-found knowledge.

It's A Cakewalk

Let's look at the competition. From top to bottom of the Cakewalk range we have Sonar Producer Edition (€555), Studio Edition (€311), Home Studio XL (€144) and Home Studio (€88). To confuse the nomenclature these have various version numbers tacked on, but I have omitted these as they change frequently.

Cheaper even than Cubase SE, what can Sonar Home Studio do for you?

Features again include 24-bit/192 kHz audio (32-bit internal), unlimited MIDI tracks, DXi and VSTi instruments and ReWire support. Home Studio improves the situation by offering 64 audio tracks, ACID loop support, unlimited undo, and something called a "loop construction view". Notable at this price point is the inclusion of music notation (editing, printing). Included are 3 virtual instruments, 9 MIDI effects and 15 audio effects.

On a strictly feature comparison basis, this looks like a better deal. But of course there are other factors, which get debated endlessly on some boards and newsgroups. Sonar has the best and friendliest tech support. Cubase has the best VST compatibility. On it goes, back and forth.

By the way, Home Studio XL doesn't add features, but instead gives you three extra instruments (including a sampler) and a reverb plugin. These are useful tools unless you have alternatives to hand. Notable by absence in the Home Studio line is pitch shifting, time stretching, track freezing, track folders and clip editing. The top-level product also has convolution reverb, dithering and so on.

The Path Less traveled

The third major product line is much less well known. In fact you can cruise many retail sites and message boards without ever hearing of Magix. This is a German firm who makes the high-end Sequoia editor. Below this is their Samplitude line: Pro (€965), Classic (€485) and Master (€300). The last is for two-channel editing only, so you might be forgiven for thinking that this company has priced their products completely out of the home market.

But not so fast. It turns out that Magix has a completely different line of software for home use, but this is not available at pro audio dealers. Instead it's relegated to the shelves of software stores, if such beasts even exist any more.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that this is one of the more confusing product lines in the history of computing2. The software is forever changing names and version numbers. Even if we ignore the "Music Maker" products and focus on the more capable "Music Studio" we must fathom the following state of affairs.

On the American and Canadian sites the product is billed as MAGIX Music Studio 10 Deluxe. On the UK site it is the higher-numbered MAGIX Music Studio 11 Deluxe. On the German site we have what looks like the same thing, but renamed MAGIX Music Studio 2006 Deluxe. Next week it may be a whole new set of names. (And isn't it a bit silly to tack "deluxe" onto the end of everything. What if I want to buy the "non luxe" version? Out of luck you say? Bah!)

No matter what you call it, the first thing to realise is that this is indeed a stripped down version of Samplitude, software which many experts (and little old me) view as being the ultimate in multitrack recorders. I've written more about it elsewhere on the blog, so let me restrict myself here to two reasons.

First, Samplitude simply sounds better. You might think that all audio software ultimately sounds the same but you'd be wrong. Here the channel strip, summing, built-in effects and master sections produce professional results.

Second, Samplitude has completely non-destructive object editing. You may be used to having one track per instrument with a plethora of edit opportunities on each track. Samplitude takes this one step further in allowing any number of objects per track, each with the same vista of editing possibilities. For complex song layouts, soundtrack work, etc. this is superb3. Now I can't think of working any other way.

Believe it or not, Music Studio gives you the same workflow, the same great sound, and a good subset of features for a bargain basement price (€70 direct). Sound too good to be true? Read on.

The Nitty And The Gritty

Like the other titles under consideration there is support for 24-bit audio (32-bit internal), ASIO drivers, ReWire, VSTi and DirectX plugins, unlimited MIDI tracks, 64 audio tracks, 8 stereo I/O channels and complete undo. Unlike others there's at least 26 effects including tube amp and tape simulations, no fewer than 19 virtual instruments and 5 different MIDI editors.

Music Studio doesn't stop there. Not only is there easy tempo and pitch adjustment, but a feature they call "Elastic Audio" which is essentially like Melodyne. You can freely move notes up and down a scale and snap parts into tune. There's a version of SampleTank 2 included for easy sample playback. Need beat detection? Video playback? Surround panning? Want to clone the sound curve of your favourite song onto your own recording? Need a vocoder? A multiband compressor? Want to burn CDs directly from the same interface? Need to remove noise, zap hiss, fix clips or otherwise restore audio? Want to tune your guitar? Tap out a tempo by hand? Like to look at various plots of your audio?

Yes, you can do it all. Even track freezing, which is one of those killer features that turns your lowly Pentium 4 into a quadruple Xeon system.

Oh, and for no good reason other than they could, they threw in three extra products: Print Studio (for CD covers and inlays), Music Manager (manage your collection of MP3s and WAVs) and Photo Manager (which truly has no reason for being here).

The only significant downside is that the MIDI editing is in a separate application, one based on Logic Audio. Though you can run them side-by-side it's less convenient. This could upset your workflow if you do a lot of MIDI editing alongside you audio tracks.

So why buy Samplitude at all? Well, some audio pros are complaining about just that. With the new version of Music Studio it's become less compelling to spend ten times the money on anything else. Though you will need to if you require additional hardware support, extended sync features, integrated MIDI, POW-r dithering, as many as 999 tracks, folder tracks, adjustable effect sequences, the Vintage Effects suite and a brilliant convolution reverb.

Unfortunately there is neither a demo download nor an electronic manual for this version of Music Studio. So you just have to buy it to try it.


Though the search for the best bargain recording software is effectively over, I should mention for completeness other products I've looked at.

Powertracks Pro ($49 direct) is now up to version 10 but still looks positively archaic, a remnant from the times of shareware advertised in the backs of music mags. As an example of its slow evolution, it has only just gained support for ASIO drivers. n-Track Studio ($75 direct for 24-bit version) supports all the usual tehnologies but cannot compare to the MAGIX feature set. There are several other similar shareware programmes floating around.

In a different league is Mackie's Tracktion (€144), worth a peek for its unusual single-panel UI design. Some find this easier to use than other interfaces. I would have to agree that it is... for the first few hours. Tracktion leaves a good first impression with reviewers and hobbyists. However the inflexible layout soon gets in the way of serious work or larger projects. There have been some compromises recently (resizable window, per-track inputs) that indicate the designers may be aware of this.

I have not used Adobe Audition ($349 direct) since it was CoolEdit, a great programme for two-track audio. Audition is a professional programme with a strong feature set. Strengths appear to be automation, spectral displays, video support and audio restoration. It used to be more of an off-line rather than online editor, but I don't know how much that has changed. In any case it is priced outside the range we are considering here.

OK, it's time to stop reading. Pick a product and make some music.


1 Exactly what this is and how it compares to pitch shifting and time stretching (which Cubase SE does have) I do not know.

2 Actually, I remember the Oracle product line as being infinitely confusing, requiring that you hire a consultant just to purchase the product. But I'd better stick to discussing audio software.

3 The only thing missing from Samplitude is scoring, which it does not do at all.



Antrophe said...

Nice post, decent guide to music software. There's two you left out I think, these being Sony Acid and NI Reaktor. Acid is great for chopping and changing beats, for editing breaks and that sort of thing with no real fussy production hassle, just straght to it, equally good for lifting samples. Reaktor on the other hand is a beast of a machine, to get a sense of what is possible with it check out the video and interview with Planet Mu's Tim Exile which I blogged over here

robin said...

I have a paragraph on ACID in the first part of my article.

As for Reaktor, it is a brilliant piece of software which I own and use for much of my music. However, it is not in the category of multitrack editors I am considering here. Furthermore, it is outside the price range under discussion. I do hope to write about it at a later date.

Anonymous said...

i'm a powertracks user, and ive used many other of the packages you mention.
in my opinion you havent spent the time in working with this package that is used by lots of studios
to even start to appreciate it.
otherwise you would understand the huge value for money it gives you.
i would choose it over anything else including pro tools.
forgetting the fact you didnt even notice the detailed midi features and clever stuff in the piano roll.
or the fact if i'm a midi guitarist
i have a guitar display.
you didnt even mention some of the clever audio features like the massive number of fx plug ins included in the package.
or the included for free real time analyser which is very usefull for recording engineers.
many of the packages you mention use dongles which are a pain in the rear. powertracks doesnt.
as to the archaic comment.
i value the display as it is because it doesnt chew up pc resources like some audio software. thus powertracks can work on brain dead lousy pc's and power monsters.
you forgot to mention also a very definite powertracks positive.
the thing runs day in and out solidly and never crashes on me.
the feature range is massive.
and from your review its obvious you never really looked at in detail.
as to asio. windows kernel audio is so good now with wdm drivers,
i dont bother with asio.

sign me.
a recording engineer whose been around the recording block more than a few times .
i give a very low rating on your review.

robin said...

Anonymous: I recognise that everyone has a favourite application and I thank you for writing in to defend yours. I would be happy if these articles turned into a discussion or debate as I do not think there is always one correct answer. That's why my final line was "Pick a product and make some music."

Any of the software I mentioned will do. I didn't bother including totally crap products! I hope you can see that by including Powertracks I am promoting it more than 99% of reviewers. It also looks like I am completely disparaging n-Track Studio, whereas in fact I actually paid for some time ago. So I must have thought it was good for something!

I had no room to go into its feature set, so I'm glad you took the time to add some details. The guitar view, which I should have at least mentioned, is especially notable.

For me the lack of ASIO (until version ten!) was a knock on the head. If you have not needed it then fine, but many pro and semi-pro cards simply require that driver to get down to sub-10ms latencies. WDM is a relatively new kid on the block.

georgeagain1 said...


I would like too know more about this program, powertracks. I've been going through Magix Studio and found that it's really heavy on my processor. However this shouldn't be a problem for too long as I'm upgrading my memory on my computer soon. As for powertracks, I have a lot of questions from an engineer's view point. What does it include for editing? The writer above said it has an RTA. This got my attention along with the easy part on the porcessor. Does it have a built-in noise generator? How about a 1k slate? What about compression? Does it have RMS and peak modes? How about effects? what type of EQ does it have? One thing I've noticed with Magix Studio 7 is when you go too edit a single track with EQ, the first thing that pops up is a
graphice EQ ... What's this all about? I haven't ever used a graphice EQ for anything other than
tunning the room I'm in, NOT THE INSTRUMENTS! Why did they give this option and not parametric I have no clue. Now back to my questions on powertracks. How many tracks can you load in at once 8,16,24,32 or more? Can you mix in realtime? Does it have it's own multi Channel mixer in realtime?

Magix Studio seems too be very professional. But it can be heavy on a systems processor. Someone plase let me know about the features of powertracks if possible.



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