Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Bargain Software For Music Production (Part One)

I am often asked by those starting out in computer recording what the best multitrack audio software is. Actually, I am not asked as often as I think I should. I know that this is because most people simply obtain a crack of the latest and greatest top-of-the-line product from Steinberg or Cakewalk. Besides the ethical concerns, this often makes little practical sense. A beginner will be overwhelmed at the options available, and will spend far too much time learning the software as opposed to getting down to the core task of making music.

Being a friendly sort, I will help remedy this situation by offering some advice and a summary of the field gathered from hours of research of the most painstaking kind. (Eg: I asked some friends what they thought. Just kidding!) In the first part of this article I present the guidelines for selection, a list of products in various categories, and some general tips and orientation. In the second part (coming soon to a blog near you... meaning this one) I will pick out the best affordable multitrack software. With the money you save you can take me out for dinner. Deal?

My own experience is not exhaustive. Though I have kept up with the range of available products I don't continuously try out every new version. That's because I am not a product reviewer or gear slut. Instead I have a life. (Joke!) I long ago found out what works for me and tend to stick to that, though I do keep abreast of product literature and the general buzz in the community. Over the years I have bought several shareware products as well as commercial titles like ACID and Samplitude. My history goes back to the early MIDI sequencers running on Atari computers -- yikes!

To limit the scope I will be looking only at products that will run in Windows XP. There are some excellent Mac-only applications. Indeed, music production is one area where OS and platform differences are strong. But in fairness I could do little more than name drop Digital Performer and Logic Audio. And now that's done I'll go back to Windows-land.

I suppose in passing I should say a word about ProTools, and that word is "forget it"1. Despite the availability of some entry-point systems this product is a poor deal overall. It requires significant investment to match much-cheaper alternatives in term of features and (especially) performance. Then it requires even greater infusions of cash to buy dedicated hardware, plugins, and so on... just so the big boys will let you play in their sand box. Also, despite the fact it is an industry standard, I simply don't think it's as good as some of the more accessible products. Me, I prefer the beach.

Unfortunately I will also have to omit Open Source and free solutions, since they simply aren't up to the feature sets, robustness, and usefulness of the commercial products. A couple years ago there was literally nothing available. Now matters have improved with the likes of Audacity, which is fine for basic two-channel editing. Maybe in another year there will be something I can recommend for multitrack work. I would like that.

In order to keep selling products, software companies have been tapping into ever-more esoteric features. Marketing departments demand that flagship products must keep advancing and we must keep wanting their goods. Sometimes these are new and useful (like track freezing). Other times they are of interest to only a handful of users, generally those at the professional end of the scale (for example, surround sound mixing). If you are one of those people then you are likely reading this article only to feel superior. Don't you have work to do?

So the goal is to find cheap multitrack audio solutions that are capable enough to get the job done. But we don't want some flea-bitten software that will get in your way. Some decisions you will have to make for yourself, since I do not know what music you make and what tasks are your priority.

I have divided the programmes into four main categories. For consistency I've rounded off all prices in euro, as listed at my favourite online vendor.

Loop-oriented tools are best for music created on the desktop, especially rearranging pre-existing collections of beat-oriented music. I bought ACID Pro (€270) before it was owned by Sony, as it was by far the best way to do loops for some time, almost magical in its ease-of use. The predatory upgrade policy soon pushed me away, as did the fact that other products soon adopted the strengths of looping without the limitations of this software family. Besides, in the long term the audio quality was not good enough: bad bus summing.

Ableton Live (€445) presents a smart way of working, allowing you to divide a song up into parts and patterns which can be swapped around dynamically. This is perfect for live work (as you may guess from the name) where you want a degree of control over song structure. It is DJ-oriented, but too expensive to consider an entry-level product. In fact I am surprised that Ableton doesn't market this below €200, since their target users are not exactly flush with cash.

A second category is that of trackers, software derived from the world of built-in computer samples. This realm is best represented by FL Studio (€90-290), a grown-up version of Fruity Loops. This can be a quick and easy way of banging out electro tunes, but in my opinion is simply not flexible enough for most types of music.

A far more robust category of audio tools are the virtual studios. These are designed for all-in-one song creation, and come complete with instrument and effect racks in a consistent environment. These are primarily targeted at the dance and electronica market. They can also be handy for live performance. Complete with MIDI editing, sequencers, and the like, it might be difficult for the uninitiated to determine the difference between these and full-blown multitrack recorders.

But the difference is this: virtual studios do not record audio streams and are limited in communicating MIDI with other applications. These are monolithic applications designed to be used as instruments in their own right.

Consider Propellerhead's Reason (€390), Cakewalk Project (€270) or Arturia Storm (€140). I must say I like the looks of Project, though for the purposes of this review it is too expensive. It can integrate plugin instruments of practically any format, has looping compatible with ACID, and a GrooveMatrix that looks suspiciously like Ableton Live. That's a lot of bang for the buck.

In the final category we have the "traditional" MIDI plus audio multitrack recorders, optimised for interfacing with real instruments and physical gear. These are perfect for any genre of music and have rich feature sets engulfing most if not all of the previous categories. They can also cost a lot more.

So join me in the conclusion of this article for some bargain hunting.

1 I am aware that is a "phrase" and not a "word".


1 comment:

robin said...

I have enhanced the software categories with boldface and rewritten some portions for clarity. That's just me being picky.

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