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Easier Alternatives To Flagship Music Apps

PC Musician
By Martin Walker

Demo version of SONAR 4 Producer Edition.Demo version of SONAR 4 Producer Edition.

Flagship sequencer apps are so packed with features that it could almost be a full-time job learning the package of your choice. If your needs are simpler, why not make it easy on yourself and investigate one of many options that are more entry-level or cut-down, yet still remarkably capable?

Way back in 1991 I bought my first PC, featuring an Intel 8086 8MHz processor, and used it to host a very early pre-Windows MIDI sequencer that ran directly from DOS (Disk Operating System). Even at that humble stage, Cakewalk Professional (the sequencer in question) still managed to provide me with up to 256 MIDI tracks and offered a wide range of editing functions from drop-down menus.

Later, the more sophisticated Cakewalk Professional for Windows was released, Steinberg produced a Windows version of their popular Cubase application (originally released for the Atari ST platform), and Emagic launched a Windows PC version of their famous Logic sequencer. All went on to add audio features to their applications when PCs were finally fast enough to run multiple audio tracks, so we got to grips with these new functions, as we did with real-time plug-in effects when they first appeared, and then software synthesizers, software samplers, and so on.

Today, many PC musicians (even novices) think that they absolutely have to run flagship MIDI + Audio sequencers such as Cubase SX and Sonar 4, and this means that their very first music application provides unlimited numbers of MIDI and audio tracks, huge soft-synth bundles, real-time plug-in collections, soft samplers, sample editing, automation, support for surround sound, MIDI controllers, synchronisation for multiple PCs and video...

The list of features goes on and on, and (hardly surprisingly) many musicians new to PC sequencing feel overwhelmed. But do they really need to buy the flagship version of a particular sequencer? Many professionals will undoubtedly benefit from vast arrays of features such as those just mentioned, but in many other cases I don't think so — the entry-level versions of the leading packages are still surprisingly capable, yet far less expensive. What's more, there are also lots of other very capable but less complex applications that support MIDI or audio or both, and that may not only save you money, but also let you get on with making music.

If you're interested in buying a PC music application but don't know where to start, this feature should help you to narrow down your requirements and avoid making expensive mistakes. Once you have a better idea of what's appropriate to your writing style, you'll find that nearly every developer mentioned here has demo versions of their applications available for free download, so you can see how you get on with their particular approach before bringing out your credit card.

Sound Quality

Do budget audio applications provide lower audio quality or less reliable results? Concern about this question may make some musicians wary of relying on anything other than the flagship versions of well-known audio apps. However, if we ignore the occasional bugs that can creep into any programming code, from entry-level to flagship version, there's no inherent reason for a cheap audio application to sound any different than one costing thousands of pounds.

Over the years lots of musicians and engineers have had strong opinions on this subject, and some have even gone to the trouble of mixing the same set of tracks through different DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), digital mixers and analogue desks, to see if they could really hear any differences. Lynn Fuston of Mercenary Audio even created a two-CD set of his carefully orchestrated results, recorded across 25 formats (www.mercenary.com/3dauawdawsum.html).

Some people buying these CDs couldn't hear any differences at all between audio recorded with different systems, while others who could declared them almost vanishingly small, even when monitoring through a good set of speakers in acoustically treated rooms. Moreover, those that claimed to reliably detect track differences couldn't agree about which one sounded better. I think we can conclude that simple level changes and mixing together of multiple audio tracks is fairly benign, whether carried out digitally or in the analogue domain, and that even budget audio applications shouldn't compromise this.

Software quality is far more important when more complex treatments are involved, however. EQ, reverb and other effects can easily sound harsh and unnatural if not well programmed. Fortunately, most PC host applications now support plug-ins in either VST or DX formats, so a budget host still needn't compromise your audio quality as long as you choose your plug-ins carefully and don't automatically assume that any bundled ones are up to scratch.

Flagship Or Entry-level?

Steinberg's Cubase is one of the most popular MIDI + Audio sequencing applications for PC users. The vast majority of forum posts I see asking for advice on how to use it relate to the flagship SX version, even when — judging from the type of question being asked — the user is obviously a beginner.

With a recommended retail price of £570, Cubase SX 3 is not intended to be a beginner's product (indeed, it may not be surprising that many forum users assume that anyone asking really basic questions about SX must be running an illegal 'cracked' version). Even if you can afford flagship prices, why not consider Cubase SL 3 instead, at a comparatively modest £280, or the entry-level Cubase SE at only £110 (typically selling on the street at under £90). Do you really lose that much by buying these lower-priced versions?

Well, in essence, Cubase SL loses the score layout/printing and surround-mixing functions of SX, while generally offering lower numbers of inputs, outputs and effects options. Scoring features are generally used by a minority of users who are classically trained or demoing orchestral work, and surround is still irrelevant to the majority of musicians, despite the fact that most of the major packages have added support for it. Moreover, how many times will you need more than the eight effects sends or five effects inserts per audio channel, 32 VST Instruments and 128 physical inputs and outputs of SL? Both versions support an unlimited number of MIDI and audio tracks at up to 32-bit resolution, and I suspect that the majority of Cubase SX users would scarcely notice the difference if they switched to Cubase SL.

Although Cubase SE loses rather more functions, such as the Logical Editor (how many SX owners have ever used this?) and support for 32-bit files, and it lacks the VST Instrument Freeze function, even this entry-level version supports up to 48 audio tracks plus unlimited MIDI tracks, as well as 16 VST Instruments. Of course, there are lots of other, smaller, differences, but I feel that a significant number of musicians still wouldn't find themselves too restricted. (A full PDF-format Feature Comparison Chart of all Cubase versions can be downloaded at www.steinberg.net. Follow the links for Cubase SL and then click on 'Additional Data' in the Helpful Links section.)

Some musicians buying an audio interface may not have to buy a Steinberg MIDI + Audio sequencer at all, since one of Steinberg's OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) entry-level products may be bundled with it. Emu and Terratec, for instance, have bundled Cubasis with their soundcard range in the past. I suspect that the new Cubase LE (OEM) version will take over from this in due course, with a feature set very similar to Cubase SE, except for a maximum of 64 MIDI tracks, about half the number of the various plug-in and VST Instrument slots, and the loss of MIDI insert plug-ins altogether. In my opinion, this is the only member of the family that would soon restrict most musicians, to encourage them to upgrade (see box, below).

Look familiar? No, it's not Cakewalk's £399 Sonar Producer Edition, but their Home Studio 2004, at just £79. Based on Sonar version 2, and with a huge list of features, it sells by the shed-load to those who know a bargain when they see one.Look familiar? No, it's not Cakewalk's £399 Sonar Producer Edition, but their Home Studio 2004, at just £79. Based on Sonar version 2, and with a huge list of features, it sells by the shed-load to those who know a bargain when they see one.

Cakewalk's Sonar range is also very popular with PC musicians, some of whom find it quicker and easier to use than Cubase. There are two versions: Producer Edition for £399 and Studio Edition for £199 — and, once again, there are quite a few differences between them, which you can study more closely in tabular form at www.cakewalk.com/Products/SONAR/studio.asp.

As with the Steinberg range, only the flagship Sonar Producer Edition supports surround, and is therefore bundled with various extra surround plug-ins, but it also offers POW-r dithering, Prosoniq M-PEX timestretching, a video thumbnail track to make scoring to video easier, an enhanced mixing console, and various extra bundled plug-ins such as the Lexicon Pantheon reverb (although the Studio Edition still includes the Pantheon LE 'lite' version) and Sonitus effects suite. So if you're not interested in surround sound or video, it's largely a choice of whether you want to pay more for the extra bundled plug-ins or save yourself £200.

If you have more modest requirements, Cakewalk's Home Studio range has quietly attracted many thousands of users, and won quite a few awards in the process. Not many people realise that the latest Home Studio 2004 Euro version, at just £79, is a thinly disguised version of Sonar 2, and therefore still extremely capable. Like its more expensive brothers, it supports an unlimited number of audio and MIDI tracks, DX and VST Instruments and plug-ins, but it doesn't have the new 'gapless' audio engine that lets you (for instance) insert plug-ins without interrupting the audio stream, the more flexible bussing arrangements, or the configurable Console View.

However, if you can live with these omissions, you certainly save a lot of money. It's not even much extra to splash out on the Home Studio XL version at £109, with additional tools, loops and plug-in bundle. If, on the other hand, you're really strapped for cash, Cakewalk's Music Creator 2 costs just £39, and while you have to buy a separate VST/DX Adapter if you want to add VST plug-in and VSTi support to its integral DX and DXi functions, it's a very cheap way to get into the Cakewalk range, and you can still upgrade all the way to Sonar Producer Edition later, if you wish.

I've deliberately concentrated on the Steinberg and Cakewalk ranges in this section, as these tend to be the first port of call for so many PC musicians. However, there are other MIDI + Audio product ranges, such as those from Samplitude and Magix, to consider.

Upgrade Paths

Some musicians may be wary of buying entry-level music software in case they later have to abandon it as their capabilities and aspirations grow. Fortunately, most developers fall over themselves to make it easy to upgrade from one product in their range to another, more expensive, one. For instance, you can nearly always move from a playback-only to the full version of sampling products, or from an entry-level to an intermediate or flagship version of the same product. Sometimes you may even be able to take advantage of 'crossgrade' offers to move from one product to a similar one in a rival manufacturer's range.

To find out about all the options available, visit the web site of the appropriate UK distributor of each range. For instance, Arbiter Music Technology (www.arbitermt.co.uk, +44 (0)20 8202 1199) handle Arturia and Steinberg in the UK, while Et Cetera (www.etcetera.co.uk, +44 (0)870 873 8731) handle the extensive Cakewalk range, the Band-In-A-Box range, and the FL Studio (formerly Fruity Loops) range, and M Audio (+44 (0)1923 204010) handle Ableton's Live! and Propellerheads' Reason. If you prefer, you can visit the developer's web site instead. In many cases you can download upgrades, although those without broadband access could find download times very high for some products, particularly if they come bundled with sample libraries and the like.

The Software Studio

If you don't have MIDI hardware, or acoustic/electric instruments, you may prefer the all-in-one approach of one of the soft-synth studio workstations — a single application that contains a virtual version of everything you might find in an electronic music studio, including synthesizers, sample players, drum machines, effects, a sequencer to record and play back the notes, and an audio mixer to mix them all together, so you can produce complete songs without having to buy anything else.

The most famous example is undoubtedly Propellerheads' Reason, just coming up to version 3 (version 2.5 was reviewed in SOS December 2003), but there are others with a similar self-contained approach, including Arturia's Storm and Cakewalk's Project 5. Reason 2.5 retails at £300, but is very highly regarded by many musicians for its versatility. Reason makes it easy to get tunes started and can produce superb-sounding tracks in the right hands, although it does lack an audio input for adding vocals. M Audio soundcards are also bundled with Reason Adapted, a limited version of Reason 1.0 with a special upgrade offer.

Cakewalk's Project 5 is somewhat cheaper, at £149, while still offering a wide range of built-in instruments and effects, and it also supports both DX and VST formats, so you can load in loads of other instruments and plug-ins from third-party developers to expand your palette. Like Reason, Project 5 is capable of achieving excellent sonic results, but it's rather different, in that it features only versatile pattern-based rather than linear sequencing, and in that it supports ' Acid-ised' Loops (more later on Acid).

If you want the kind of self-contained music-making environment that many musicians find far simpler to comprehend than a traditional MIDI + Audio sequencer application, a soft-synth studio workstation (such as Arturia's £130 Storm 3, shown here) may prove suitable.If you want the kind of self-contained music-making environment that many musicians find far simpler to comprehend than a traditional MIDI + Audio sequencer application, a soft-synth studio workstation (such as Arturia's £130 Storm 3, shown here) may prove suitable.

Arturia's Storm has plenty of fans and also provides great value with its own distinctive set of 14 sound generators and 10 effects for just £130. In its latest incarnation it also features a very comprehensive MIDI sequencer, although it can be more processor-hungry than Reason and Project 5.

FL Studio (formerly Fruity Loops), from Image Line, is another virtual studio with a quick and easy pattern-based sequencer (plus a more traditional piano-roll editor for those who prefer that), sample playback and a large bundle of soft synths and plug-ins. The original Fruity Loops range was famed for its streamlined approach to dance music production but didn't support audio recording and playback. FL Studio added these features, and, while still not comparable with a full audio sequencer, the program now offers facilities for adding a few vocal or live instrument tracks to your songs.If you're more interested in a pattern-based approach to music making than in traditional recording techniques, take a look at loop products such as FL Studio.If you're more interested in a pattern-based approach to music making than in traditional recording techniques, take a look at loop products such as FL Studio.

Each of these four applications offers its own twist on the software studio concept, and a different collection of modules. They can all be run as stand-alone applications, but if you get more ambitious and want to take things further they can also be seamlessly integrated into a host application such as Cubase or Sonar, e ither as DX or VST instruments, or via Rewire technology .

Song Compatibility

If you're just deciding which music app to buy and are concerned about being able to easily move from one package to another later on, sticking with the same product range is the safest option. Even if the song format differs slightly from product to product, the chances are that the flagship application will offer dedicated import functions so that you can convert song files from older and lowlier versions without losing any data en route. For instance, Cubase SX lets you import songs, arrangements and parts from the much older Cubase VST, MIDI files, or OMF (Open Media Framework) files (more on the last in a moment).

In fact, most applications that support MIDI data will let you optionally import and export this in Standard MIDI file format, even when you're moving between two completely different products. You may be able to include initial volume and panning data, and sometimes automation data for such things as filter sweeps, volume changes and pan movements during the song, although these may go astray. What you will nearly always lose is routings and information about which soft synths and patches have been used and which patch you've chosen. Note these down so that you can re-create them in the new package, or run the same song side-by-side in both packages if possible, so you can tweak settings in the new package to match those in the old.

Audio data tends to be more problematic. OMF is a platform-independent file format that lets you export and import a song's audio information with its audio files, so that it can be reassembled in the destination application, along with some fades and volume settings. However, you still have to be careful about audio file formats (see the Q&A section of SOS December 2004), and by far the safest approach is to use whatever facilities you have in the old package to convert each audio track into one long part lasting the entire length of the song. Save these as individual WAV files, and then you'll be able to easily load them into any other multitrack package and be sure that they all line up perfectly.

Like MIDI routings, audio ones will need to be re-created, as will software mixer settings, including channel levels, plug-in effects and automation data. If you find this prospect daunting, just think of it as a chance to remix the song. I've done this many times in the past when switching applications, and nearly always ended up with a better end result!

Mainly Audio

If you're less interested in synth-based music, there are quite a few approaches to making music with audio tracks, ranging from the simpler 'software multitrack tape recorder', through loop and pattern-based audio sequencing, to the more advanced forms of audio pitch/tempo manipulation.

If you've come from a traditional Portastudio or reel-to-reel recording background and your main requirement isn't for pitch-shifting or timestretching of existing audio recordings, you might find Raw Material Software's Tracktion (now exclusively distributed by Mackie and reviewed in SOS April 2003) a great way to get started. Offering a clean, intuitive and clutter-free interface, it features an unlimited number of audio tracks, has decent effects, and supports VST plug-ins if you want to add more. VST Instruments can also be used with it. Tracktion has basic MIDI features for those who need them, and a really easy Help system that almost makes a manual redundant. Its unique user interface may not appeal to everyone, but as a download-only product for just £50 it's well worth looking at.With a simple-to-use interface and genuinely helpful Help system, Mackie's Tracktion is yet another approach to MIDI + Audio sequencing that won't break the bank at £50.With a simple-to-use interface and genuinely helpful Help system, Mackie's Tracktion is yet another approach to MIDI + Audio sequencing that won't break the bank at £50.

The forthcoming Tracktion 2 (expected a couple of months after I write this) adds more than 100 new features, including 192kHz support, a greatly enhanced MIDI section and a suite of name-brand plug-ins, instruments and loops. It will no longer be a downloadable product, but will instead be boxed and retail at $199 (about £106). This is still remarkable value for money, and of course version 1 users will be able to take advantage of an upgrade.

Another option that's very popular for audio-only recording and editing is Adobe's Audition 1.5 (formerly Cool Edit Pro). It supports Direct X plug-ins, as well as bundling quite a few of its own, and is stable and straightforward to use, but it doesn't support soft synths or MIDI. However, it's regarded by many as an unsung hero for quick, efficient multitrack audio recording on the PC, and costs about £250.

Loop-based Apps

If you're more interested in loop-based music using samples, there's another selection of applications to consider. The humble 'tracker', revolving around a step-based sequencer and a clutch of samples, is one option for PC users on a very low (or even non-existent) budget. Although trackers originated on the Commodore Amiga platform in 1987, various ones have now been ported to or developed for the PC, as I discussed in SOS July 2004 as part of my PC Music Freeware Roundup.

Although probably owing its origins to the tracker genre, Sony's Acid Pro loop-based music production tool is rather more sophisticated and was considered nothing short of revolutionary when it first appeared in 1998. Currently at version five, it lets you analyse sampled loops and intelligently timestretch them to fit into whatever tempo you want to use in your song. It's particularly popular in the United States.

Acid Pro 5 is the flagship version, at £299, and now supports up to 24-bit/192kHz files, VST Instruments, VST and DX plug-ins and 5.1 surround mixing. Like most soft-synth studios, it can also act as a Rewire device, slaved to a suitable host application. None of these options are available in the £85 Acid Studio Music 5 (samples are restricted to 16-bit/48kHz), although of course you could still use this entry-level app as a notepad and export the final audio files into a MIDI + Audio sequencer. (For full details of the differences between the members of the Acid family, visit http://mediasoftware.sonypictures.com/products/acidfamily.asp and click on the ' Acid Product Family Comparison' link.) Version 5 also provides basic MIDI editing functions, but its soft-synth functions are hampered by the lack of low-latency ASIO driver support.

Described by some musicians as responding more like an instrument than a sequencer, another audio application that will certainly appeal to musicians who perform live is Ableton's Live 4. This is written from the ground up to allow composition, recording, remixing, improvising and editing of musical ideas in real time. It can process multiple audio clips and loops regardless of their pitch and tempo, and does so while the music continues to play back, and you can also change tempo and pitch independently. Its main limitation for some may be its restricted MIDI editing functions.

Although Live is not an entry-level product, at £299 it's still considerably cheaper than a flagship MIDI + Audio sequencer and quite a few musicians have found it a significantly more productive writing environment. Also, as with Reason, a limited Live Delta version is bundled with M Audio interfaces. Once tried, this encourages many people to upgrade to the full version.

Mostly MIDI

Those who already have hardware MIDI synths and still feel more comfortable working in the way they used to on the Atari ST may prefer to stick with a MIDI-only environment. I also know of other musicians who already have very capable audio applications with limited MIDI editing functions, and who would like to expand the latter without resorting to buying a fully-fledged MIDI + Audio sequencer. One package both types of person might like to look at is Powertracks Pro Audio 9 from PG Music. As its name suggests, this program offers plenty of audio features, as well as DXi and DX plug-in support, but what's really notable is its extensive range of MIDI functions and its low price. Powertracks Pro costs just £34.99 ($49 in the US) but offers a wide variety of MIDI editing windows, including Tracks, Bars, Tempo Map, Standard Notation, Event List, Piano Roll, Drum Grid, SysEx, Piano Keyboard and Guitar Fretboard, Lyrics and a Mixer. Currently at version 9, it has a very stable and user-friendly interface and (not surprisingly) lots of enthusiastic users.

If you only want MIDI functions, Voyetra's Record Producer MIDI is surprisingly capable for its $24.95 price, even including MIDI effects and SysEx editing in its feature list.If you only want MIDI functions, Voyetra's Record Producer MIDI is surprisingly capable for its $24.95 price, even including MIDI effects and SysEx editing in its feature list.

Another budget offering concentrating solely on MIDI functions is Voyetra's Record Producer MIDI (www.voyetra.com/site/ products/rp/rpmidi.asp). With Track, Piano Roll and MIDI Event editor windows, a Notation view, a Conductor view for tempo and time signature changes, a SysEx View for managing patch banks and the like, and a MIDI Mixer — plus lots of extras, including MIDI effects — this should provide more than enough capability for many MIDI musicians, at an absolutely bargain price of just $24.95.

If easy-to-use accompaniment software that can quickly turn your ideas into arrangements, generate solos, or help you learn different styles of music appeals to you, Band-In-A-Box may be a more appropriate solution than a traditional MIDI + Audio sequencer package.If easy-to-use accompaniment software that can quickly turn your ideas into arrangements, generate solos, or help you learn different styles of music appeals to you, Band-In-A-Box may be a more appropriate solution than a traditional MIDI + Audio sequencer package.

A rather different approach is taken by Band-In-A-Box, once again from PG Music. This program was specifically written by Dr Peter Gannon after he became frustrated by how difficult it was to use many music software applications. It was originally launched in 1989 as an 'intelligent automatic accompaniment program' and can take an initial musical idea to a working song in a very short period of time. All you have to do is type in the chords, pick a musical style from the hundreds available and click the Play button. Band-In-A Box then generates a complete arrangement consisting of drums, bass, piano, guitar and strings (although you can specify other instruments if you wish).

More recent enhancements include the ability to record an audio track, so that you can add vocals or acoustic instruments; the Soloist and Guitarist, for generating professional-quality solos; and the Melodist, for creating new songs from scratch. The Stylemaker lets you edit and create new styles, and lyric and notation editors make the program even more versatile — especially at just £77.

Final Thoughts

If you remain unsure about whether or not to buy a 'more expensive' version of a particular product, remember that in most cases you won't have any difficulty upgrading later on if you decide you need more advanced features. However, one thing to bear in mind is that any product with 'Lite' or LE (Light Edition) in its name is generally an introductory version (typically bundled with hardware such as an audio interface), so hang on to any discount coupon you get in the same box for an upgrade to the full version. You may need to take advantage of it quite soon.

Finally, don't forget that users of the PC platform also have access to a vast selection of shareware and freeware music applications (some of which I discussed in SOS July and October 2004). Whatever you decide is most suitable for you, the most important thing is to end up with software that encourages you to create music, rather than making you frustrated. Good luck!

Published April 2005