Music Production Software Overview


Since digital recording took over from tape and world-class audio became possible from the average home computer, music production exploded, emerging from creators and in places not possible even 20 years ago. The boom drove demand for new equipment and music production software that served the home recording market in both function and affordability, a trend that continues to this day.

First to emerge was the digital audio workstation (DAW) in both hardware and software form. Since a home computer provides the essential hardware components, development momentum stayed on the side of DAW software. There are easily a dozen major players producing music making software, and in turn, these take two general forms, though as time passes, major overlaps occur. Still, any music creator can find audio recording software that fits both needs and work styles.

The Recording Studio Analogy

As the concept of audio recording software took hold, the obvious model was the analog recording studio. For music production software to be effective, it was surmised that it must contain the functions available from a typical recording studio. That was the path that first started DAW development. Pro Tools emerged initially as the leader in this regard. Hardware development paralleled the software, providing professional studios with systems through which they could transition from tape to hard drive.

To this day, many DAW platforms retain the use of a virtual transport system in which the controls resemble those on analog tape recorders. In addition, anyone familiar with an analog mixer will probably find something similar in console strip views inside DAW software. One advantage that digital audio processing has is a virtually unrestricted signal flow. Analog, on the other hand, is primarily linear. Engineers experienced with analog audio may have difficulty with the non-linear aspects of digital, so a user interface that looks like familiar equipment often bridges the gap.

The Performance-Based DAW

Since the development of music making software dates to the late 1980s, there are generations of music creators who aren’t tied to the recording studio paradigm. For them, the software itself becomes the basis for music creation. There’s no need to translate from an earlier technology.

Freed from the need to re-create a virtual studio environment, and drawing from sampling and loop creation perhaps best exploited in hip hop and other urban music, developers looked at DAW software in terms of performance as well as recording. Instead of simply capturing audio, music making tools play a large role in the performance-based DAW.

The originator and still most prominent software of this type is Live, from the developer Ableton. While able to record tracks and create mixes, Live’s ability to store and arrange loops in time and pitch-synced projects while also permitting improvisational triggering ability takes DAW software worlds away from a recording studio model. This also propelled the development of hardware that extends the DAW controls outside the computer and converts into non-traditional music making instruments.

Leading DAW Software Titles

Avid Pro Tools

Pro Tools DAW Screenshot

Pro Tools DAW Screenshot

The use of Pro Tools grew so extensive in the 1990s and early 2000s that any audio recording software picked up the nickname “pro tools” in much the way any brand of tissue becomes “Kleenex.” Adopted by professional studios staying on top of the state of the art, Pro Tools soon revealed the collaborative opportunities that digital music files offered through file swapping.

Pro Tools remains a leading platform at the professional level. Top level hardware and extender cards feed demanding pro studio needs, but generally provide an entry level price that’s out of range for many home studio music markers.

Pros

  • handles large mix consoles
  • supports complex routing
  • lots of hardware extensions

Cons

  • might require some additional hardware equipment

Apple Logic Pro X

Logic Pro Screenshot

Logic Pro Screenshot

Originally developed around the same time as Pro Tools, Notator Logic came under the Apple umbrella in the early 2000s. Today Logic Pro X remains a key OS X DAW. Its digital architecture supplies Apple’s consumer-level GarageBand with its programming power.

GarageBand, in both its OS X and iOS versions, revolutionized music making software by introducing multitrack recording to many iPhone and iPad owners who never knew they could create music without the ability to play an instrument. GarageBand incorporates many performance DAW capabilities.

Pros

  • clean and simple interface
  • Logic Pro: good balance in MIDI, synth and in recording, audio editing
  • GarageBand is free

Cons

  • workflow customization
  • Mac only

Ableton Live

Ableton Screenshot

Ableton Screenshot

Version 9, recently released, is touted by users as a solid advance of an already innovative platform. Any time you see a DJ performing with a grid of multicolored buttons, there’s a good chance that they’re using Live. The grid pad started as a device to trigger elements of a musical performance using Live.

Since most of these pads use MIDI control codes, it’s a relatively simple process to program the pads to work with nearly any DAW that speaks MIDI. Depending on the size and the maker, controllers range from under $100 to over $1,000, so creators at every budget level can get on the performance DAW bandwagon.

Pros

  • clean and simple interface
  • nice integration of effects and instruments
  • plugin capabilities

Cons

  • some audio tweaking capability

Cubase/Nuendo

Cubase 8.5 Screenshot

Cubase 8.5 Screenshot

The earliest computer music making software manipulated MIDI messages. The software didn’t deal with audio. Instead, it stored the MIDI information that triggered synthesizers and sound modules. Cubase got its start as a MIDI sequencer. Nuendo originated as a post-production package, made by the same company, and these two cross-pollinated. While both still market in their respective niches, Cubase added digital audio recording to its bag of tricks.

Cubase originated Virtual Studio Technology, or VST, upon which effects and virtual synthesizers rely for interaction with DAW software. Steinberg, the developer of both Cubase and Nuendo, works closely with Yamaha. The companies frequently join forces and cross-promote software and hardware.

Pros

  • can handle pro-level audio and mixing work
  • nice creative workflow
  • second to none plugin capabilities

Cons

  • somewhat expensive

Other Major DAW Players

Two relative newcomers to the DAW scene are PreSonus Studio One and Bitwig Studio. Studio One uses a virtual studio philosophy, while Bitwig Studio leans toward the performance DAW direction. Since PreSonus has a strong presence in studio hardware, that direction seems natural. So is the case with Bitwig, since it’s staffed by many former Ableton developers. Yet each product crosses over into the other’s camp, with interface flexibility that permits either approach.

FL Studio started out as Fruity Loops. As the name suggests, this meant an early grounding in loop-based music making.

Cakewalk’s Sonar originated as a MIDI sequencer, added audio and today provides a strong analog studio platform.

Propellerhead’s Reason has a visual interface all its own. It retains performance playability while providing a different spin to the virtual studio idea.

Deciding on a DAW Platform

Choosing the right software for your music creation activities depends on whether you’re aiming for stage or studio. Beyond that, workflow generally chooses the best platform. The best DAW software? There really isn’t one, until you identify which one is the best for you.

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