Suggestion for music software for a n00b

June 22, 2009 9:44 AM

Looking for good starter software to get me composing some killer tracks for MeMu. :) I'm looking for something I can use to create multi-track songs in mostly traditional notation, where it's entirely midi-inputted from a Kurzweil keyboard, yet has internal libraries and controls that let me finetune the fake instruments to sound passably good. [more inside]

I ran this question by songsmith extraordinaire cortex and he suggested posting to MusicTalk (which I didn't even know existed!).

I've been wanting to start doing some composition again. Often I'll just improvise some random stuff on my (real) piano, and occasionally think "Ooh, that sounds nice!", but I'd like to take the ideas in my head and get them out in a way that lets me build up the layers and then tinker/edit as needed. I tend to come up with little riffs, and in my head I'll be hearing them progress out naturally with other parts come in, building up, etc. What's in my head sounds pretty decent (well, to me) but I'm limited to what I can remember/jot down on paper before the tune mutates beyond remembering, or the fact that, hey, I only have two hands! Garageband also has a 4-track limitation I believe, so that thick sound of 8-10+ lines of music is out of reach.

When I look around, I see programs like Reason that are very powerful for tuning the sound, and seem to have sound libraries that are convincingly real (their piano libraries sound great, and there's nothing worse than MIDI music that sounds flat and fake). However, they seem so powerful as to be... overwhelming. It also looks like they don't have any traditional score notation views, and my fear is that the they are so complex and feature-rich that the barrier to entry to just start making music first, and worry about fine tuning it later, seems really high.

Ideally, I'd like to find a piece of software that lets me jump in and basically create unlimited lines of music concurrently, letting me play out some piano riff and tinker with it in notation, then say "loop that, oh, 24 times" while I layer in new lines, copy/pasting or otherwise building out the 'scaffold' and add in other harmonies and bass lines. I'd be inputting exclusively through my midi keyboard (Kurzweil PC-88) or the software itself, preferably editing a music score and not just blobs of sound waves, but would want the ability to have somewhat convincing sound guitars, bass, etc.

When I'm satisfied with the composition, I want to have the capability- as my experience grows- to really focus on improving the sound quality of the instruments and the mixing. I think that's the area that things like Reason excel, with banks of virtual racks and mixers and sound fonts to get just the right sound.

For what it matters, the type of music I'd be writing would vary highly. It might be some classical or Michael Nyman repetetive bullshit nonsense using chamber instruments one day, and a Muse-inspired sonic wall the next. I'm on a really beefy Mac Pro (8 way, 10GB memory) although I have virtualized 32-bit and 64-bit windows and ubuntu running. Money isn't an objection until we get much past $1000, if the software is a good fit.
posted by hincandenza (10 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Short answer, Fruity Loops. You can do an awful lot in there. It's about like Garage Band meets Audacity. It's a good blend of sequencing and straight recording. I suggest you might try out the demo of FL Studio (that's its new name, I suppose). It'll have to run in fake windows, though, so I don't know if you mind that. Cost, even for the beefiest version, is not bad, peaking at about $300 USD.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 1:26 PM on June 22, 2009

I highly recommend Logic. It is similar to Garageband to a certain extent and it comes with a lot of great sounding instruments and plug-ins to help you get your ideas out of your head and onto the computer fast and easy. There are also some rough templates you can use that make getting started easier.

There is a pro version and an express version. The pro version comes with a lot of other pro apps but the price is around $500 so you can't really beat that. It is compatible with most USB and fire wire audio interfaces and there is a strong support base out there on the web if you have problems or questions.

I was a pro tools evangelist for years and still use it for some heavy duty projects, but I use Logic now almost exclusively.

Ableton Live is also good and it is geared more towards the electronic/techno/live DJ scene, but it doesn't have to be. If you work with a lot of loops it might also be the thing for you. A demo version can be downloaded from the ableton website.

On preview, or Fruity Loops, but the last time I used it was 8 years ago. I'm sure it has improved since them
posted by chillmost at 1:36 PM on June 22, 2009

Logic does look interesting and right now the leading choice- the fact that it has a midi-to-notation interface, as well as the usual edit/fine-tune interfaces, is a big plus. On the downside, it sounds like Logic 8 is still 32-bit (odd, since OSX is happily 64-bit) and is somewhat problematic from the reviews on apple's own site. It doesn't sound like Apple is doing much to improve on or even bug fix Logic.

Reason and Fruity Loops both seem more about manufactured music using recorded riffs, arpeggiations, looping devices- seems more geared towards electronic or similar music. Neither seem to have music notation input formats, and something cortex thought and which is apparently the case, Reason doesn't even support recording live audio!

The only other "DAW" (new word I learned today!) that looks like the kind of "composer's studio" is Cubase, but I don't know anything about that.

Basically, Logic sounds like a good fit, but the bug complaints are surprisingly numerous on their review list, and it sounds like Logic 8 might have too many issues to be worth buying. chillmost, do you have Logic 8, and is it fairly problem free or well-supported by Apple or the user base?
posted by hincandenza at 3:28 PM on June 22, 2009

Fruity Loops works well for recorded tracks, too, and can sometimes be found to be a bit easier for lining up multiple tracks than other software. I don't use it much, I do all of my recording in Reaper and most of my mixing in Audacity, but if you're going to have the computer hold midi thru/in signals, it's definitely great. I don't really work with things that aren't recorded live (just because that's just how we do our own stuff), so our only MIDI devices are decoded directly by a midines, ArduinoBoy, or QSR. If nothing else, anything with a demo is worth trying out. You might also check out Reaper. I'm not sure of its MIDI/sequencing prowess, if any, but it's a very robust recording interface, with plenty of options, it only costs $50 if you actually decide to buy it (totally optional), and it's made by the same guys that made the original (pre-AOL bastardization) WinAmp. It also whips the llama's ass.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 6:03 PM on June 22, 2009

Just wanted to say that while Fruityloops (or FL Studio as it's now known) started out as more of a drum machine/electronic music thing, it evolved into a full studio package many years ago. Most of my music on here is very guitar-based with a lot of acoustic stuff going on, and it was all produced with FL Studio.

You don't input music notation, but you do have a piano roll, which is a pretty similar idea. If you're a notation kinda guy though, I can see how that might not be the right fit for you.
posted by edlundart at 11:43 PM on June 22, 2009

Thanks for the input, guys. Logic looks like the right choice; I've asked a AskMe just for any last opinion, but barring that will swing by the Apple store and pick up a copy of Logic Studio.
posted by hincandenza at 1:40 PM on June 23, 2009

Rock and roll. If you go that route, I'll be curious to hear about your impressions. With the sort of love/hate relationship I've developed with Garageband, I've been wondering if it wouldn't be a bad idea to give Logic a shot myself.
posted by cortex at 4:46 PM on June 23, 2009

I am a long time CuBase user and have found that, outside of some bugginess that crops up from time-to-time, it has served me well both for live recordings as well as general DAW and midi tasks. I got the original version on a special offer for employees of my company for $99 and have just upgraded over time (v2 to v5).

I have a few of their VST instruments including The Grand and, although I wish the piano they sampled hadn't been a darkish sounding Kawaii (all that sampling work down on a Kawaii?! Ka Why?!) the instruments are good.

The scoring feature sucks, though. Sibelius is my answer for that.

A lot of people I know really like Ableton for MIDI music creation/sequencing but prefer Pro Tools for live recordings. Also, if sweetening for video is your thing, I'd probably opt for Pro Tools. The downside to Pro Tools is that it is a nickle and dime you to death system. Everything is an add on and usually an expensive one at that.
posted by bz at 5:09 PM on June 23, 2009

I have to reccomend FruityLoops myself as well. I use, and have tried, a lot of software for various things; Audacity, Audiomulch, Buzz. I've just recently started trying out Reaper (and it's quite good, with it's MIDI/VSTi support). CuBase, Reason, Ableton etc. have always been a bit of overkill for me. But I always come back to FruityLoops.

A lot of people joke about FruityLoops, and I think they must have tried it some years ago when it was not much more than a drum sequencer. It's now a very powerful and intuitive package, that seamlessly blends sequenced and recorded audio. Sometimes I start off sequencing drums and synth in FruityLoops then add recorded audio. Sometimes I bring recorded audio in FruityLoops then spice it up with sequenced tracks. Sometimes I use it as the starting point to generate sounds to bring into other more organic software, like Audiomulch.
posted by Jimbob at 7:51 AM on June 28, 2009

Missed this. but to me it really sounds like Cubase or Logic are the best fit for you. As you are mainly talking about MIDI input methods from a keyboard and Musical Notation.

I use Cubase, as when i tried Logic I found it a bit overwhelming - all the environments and background Setup was confusing. Cubase seemed more straightforward.

Also both of these apps started out as purely Midi Sequencing apps so have a lot more functionality in respect of recording Midi Data / Music Notation and using MIDI to trigger other instruments.

Whereas I find the MIDI aspect of Fruityloops, Ableton, Acid to be sorely lacking and difficult to use in a traditional songwriting context. as they were taked on almost as an afterthought to the core loop playing functionality. So would recommend you steer clear of all of those.

These days everyone talks about Reaper, which is practically free, a lot - but I don't know what the midi is like in Repear. I think its geared more for Digital Audio.
posted by mary8nne at 7:58 AM on July 3, 2009

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