There are countless programs available for making music on a computer. However, a few have emerged as top players, and those are the ones we'll focus on here. All of these programs basically do the same thing — allow you to record MIDI and audio and to arrange and mix music, all on a computer system. The only differences are how they go about the task.
Digidesign: Pro Tools
No other name is as synonymous with studio recording as Pro Tools. Until a few years ago, the only system you could get was its expensive TDM system, which went for well over $10,000. In 1998, Digidesign introduced Pro Tools digi001 and entered the home studio market. Currently, Digidesign markets three home studio products — the Mbox, a two-channel USB interface; the digi002, an eighteen-channel Firewire interface plus motorized control surface, and the digi002 rack, an eighteen-input Firewire interface. All Pro Tool systems ship with the same version of Pro Tools LE software, which is capable of playing back thirty-two audio tracks and unlimited MIDI tracks. One of the biggest things Pro Tools has going for it is compatibility: Anything created on a Pro Tools home system can be taken to a larger professional version. This is great when you want to share your ideas or get expert mixing and mastering. As discussed earlier, Pro Tools is proprietary so you can run its software only with Digidesign hardware. As a music tool, it's a mature product that works on both Mac and PC equally well. It's also completely portable because the current versions work on USB and Firewire formats — great for laptop use.
It's set up simply with two windows — the mix and edit windows. The edit window shows you all your audio and MIDI data track by track, while the mix window shows the virtual mixing board and access to all your plug-in effects. A nice selection of audio effects is included with the package. You can always extend the system by adding RTAS plug-ins.
FIGURE 6-1 gives you a look at what Pro Tools looks like in action.
In the 1990s, Steinberg introduced Cubase VST, an integrated virtual studio for music making. It has grown over the years and remains a very popular choice on both the PC and Mac platforms. It can run with any computer audio interface you choose. Like all programs of this type, MIDI and audio are grouped together. Cubase is a fully featured studio capable of anything you throw at it. There are a large number of plug-ins available for Cubase in the VST format. Steinberg also includes a nice set of VST audio effect plug-ins to get you started.
Cubase is also a very capable MIDI editor. This is because Cubase started its life as a MIDI sequencer and added audio capabilities later. Because of its clean format and ease of use, Cubase remains a very popular application. It is also completely cross-platform, running identically on both Mac and PC; a feat matched only by Pro Tools. Cubase comes in three flavors: SX, SL, and SE. Each version is more powerful than the next. Cubase SX is their top-of-the line application. FIGURE 6-2 shows what the current version of Cubase, Cubase SX, looks like in action. Full automation is also included.
Steinberg Cubase SX
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU): Digital Performer
On the Mac platform (sorry PC users), MOTU Digital Performer is a favorite among musicians. Originally a MIDI sequencer that added audio capabilities, Digital Performer (or DP, as users call it) is another robust and powerful audio and MIDI tool. It has a clean interface with great audio effects and powerful MIDI editing. You can find Digital Performer in many composing and film-scoring studios around the world. The latest version of Digital Performer extends its power by adopting the Audio Units plug-in standard, greatly increasing the number of available plug-in effects. Of course, you get a nice starter set of audio effects from MOTU. Take a look at Digital Performer in action in FIGURE 6-3.
MOTU Digital Performer
Emagic: Logic Pro
Logic, like many other programs, started its life as a MIDI sequencer and added audio later. Logic is currently produced only for the Mac platform, but it was at one time cross-platform. Logic is a very different program from the others covered so far. It is by far the most configurable and programmable software available for music making. It's almost a programming language wrapped in a music application. Don't let that put you off, though, because Logic is intuitive for basic MIDI and audio recording, and users who get into the underlying layers will find great power and flexibility. Logic sports many different windows and views for editing information. It boasts some of the best MIDI editing around. It also includes score editing to view your MIDI as music notation.
Emagic Logic Pro
Logic is a very popular program that is starting to show up in more and more professional studios due to its powerful mix of audio and MIDI adaptability to any situation. It's also one of the most fully featured virtual instruments and sampler hosts available. For more on virtual instruments and samplers, refer to Chapter 17 for a full description. Logic comes in two versions: Logic Express and Logic Pro. Logic Express is the basic version and Logic Pro is the flagship application. What you gain with the Pro version are more plug-in effects, more tracks, and generally more features. FIGURE 6-4 is a shot of Logic in action.
Sonar is an immensely popular workstation made only for PCs. Cakewalk has been making music programs for years and one thread that runs through each of its products is ease of use. On the PC side, it's one of the most popular home studio products out there. A clean, uncluttered interface makes the connection between user and musician seamless and fun. Excelling at both MIDI and audio, Sonar is one of the best PC applications available, and it has a wide, loyal user base. You also get automation, a generous selection of plug-in effects, and a wide variety of MIDI editing techniques.
On a computer, how many audio and MIDI tracks will I have?
Since these programs rely on your computer, it's hard to answer that! For MIDI, you'll get more than you can ever use. With a fast, modern computer you can get more than thirty-two audio tracks. Using effects will reduce the number of tracks you can use. This also can vary depending on the particular program you are using.
Which One Is for You?
The popular software products discussed in this section do the same basic job — they all allow you to manipulate MIDI alongside audio in a nonlinear manner. They differ only in presentation and organization. You owe it to yourself to look into each product. You'll find many demos are available online as well as at your local music store. Get some hands-on experience with the software before you purchase it. Ask around; ask friends. Online, there are dedicated support forums for each product. Read the entries and look into all the details. Buying a program is a major commitment, so do your homework.
If you plan to collaborate with other musicians you know, or other people in your band, it would pay for you all to have the same system. (And if you buy the same system as someone you know owns, you might just be able to get a little tutorial from that person as well!) If you have aspirations of becoming a professional studio owner or attending engineering school, see what the current standard is — for most, it's still Pro Tools. Whatever you decide to get, you'll learn and do well with it!