5 Factors to Take in Consideration Before Buying Music Software

5 Factors to Take in Consideration Before Buying a Digital Audio Workspace

Are there now too many options to choose from when purchasing music software?

Well, as musicians, we can be proud the industry serves us as well as they do. But although the breadth of choice is welcome, and competition helps keep prices down, it means there’s an increasing risk you’ll not make the best choice of software for your particular situation. Each product ranges in price, quality, functionality and user expertise required, so you will need to do your research.

However, before you start researching you’ll need to establish your buying criteria. So what are the main considerations? I’ve listed what I consider to be the top five below:

  1. Budget: $90 up to $10,000
  2. Recording functionality
  3. Computer platform
  4. Add-on compatibility
  5. Ease of upgrade

Buying Decisions

What do you need? Are you going to record more than 8 tracks of audio at one time? Are you going to be working with movies and MIDI devices?

Step One: Many companies like Digidesign and Steinberg offer demo versions of their recording software online. It is a good idea to sit down with someone knowledgeable that you know and have them walk you through it. This will give you first-hand experience with the software which is invaluable.

Step Two: Read the manuals, the reviews, and visit the online forums. Research is important and just reading about what the software can do is not good enough. Reviews and online forums will provide you with real opinions so you can hear about some of the negative aspects and/or limitations.

Step Three: Attend free demo presentations in your area when they are offered. Each software vendor’s website should provide this information.

Step Four: Regardless of what you are considering, check the manufacturer’s website to make sure your current computer meets the requirements needed to properly run the software. Remember, the faster the CPU processing speed of your computer the more options you will have.

Tip: Investing in more than one hard drive to dedicate to audio and video will greatly improve the performance of any music software.

Popular Software

There are many different software programs to choose from once you have identified your needs and your budget. At this point, you have been able to narrow down your selection, which is good because most software will be similar and it will come down to personal preference.

Each system is a full audio recording system with MIDI sequencing capabilities. They all offer the same basic functionality – allowing you to record, mix and master – but they all use different tools to get the job done.

There are always different versions or applications of every software system and they range in price. So if you decide you don’t need all of the latest features, chances are there is an alternative made by that vendor.

Remember, no matter what you choose, there is not a software package that can write the music for you. They are just virtual studios for your computer.

Each software package regardless of individual strengths will include:

  • Audio and MIDI recording and editing capabilities
  • Mixer
  • Effects Processors
  • Virtual sound banks
  • Mastering capabilities

To get a better idea of the low and high-end capabilities of some of the following software below is a chart that identifies how the individual software system features compare.

Music Software Comparison Summary

Features Pro Tools LE Pro Tools HD Cubase LE Cubase SX Logic Audio Cakewalk Sonar
Number of audio tracks 32-128 virtual unlimited 48 unlimited up to 255 virtual unlimited
Number of MIDI tracks 256 unlimited 64 unlimited unlimited unlimited
24-bit/96 kHz recording Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Edit & print music notation no no no Yes Yes No
Audio effects Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
MIDI effects no no no Yes Yes Yes
Control Surface support Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Re-wire capabilities Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Computer Platform Mac & PC Mac & PC Mac & PC Mac & PC MAC PC

Listed below are six most popular and more commonly used music recording software systems on the market. The explanation for Pro Tools is more explicit because it is the industry standard and it will also give you an example of what to expect from all of the others. Beside the other software, individual characteristics are listed where applicable.

1. Pro Tools, by Digidesign

  • has become the industry standard of the Digital Audio Workstation world.
    • powerful functionality
    • overall stability
    • ease of use
  • available for both Mac and PC platforms,
  • runs on proprietary Digidesign hardware
  • can record both audio and MIDI,
  • track counts range from 24 to unlimited.

There are some track limitations depending on the system.

With Pro Tools you have buying options – there is the less expensive two-channel M-box system all the way up to the higher end MIX systems. So depending on your budget, there is something that will suit each individual’s needs.

2. Cubase

Steinberg’s Cubase is probably Pro Tools biggest competitor.

3. Cakewalk SONAR

PC-only. Another serious contender

4. Logic Audio

Mac only. Comprehensive music production software, including music notation support.

5. Digital Performer:

Only Mac compatible and is no longer just known for its MIDI capabilities but as a full audio recording platform. A favorite program for Film and TV Composers

6. Nuendo:

More functionality for video production and audio mastering

Reminder: Each system’s known pros and cons are completely subjective. You buy the system that has the tools you want; it is an entirely personal decision.

What else do you need with your software?

Do you need:

  • to buy hardware to connect to your computer to transform the incoming audio signal into a digital format?
  • more than two inputs or are you going to rely on MIDI sound modules and samplers?
  • a program that can record a large number of tracks?

As mentioned before the compatibility of other programs that can be used in conjunction with your software is important. You can use an insert known as ReWire, this will allow more than one program to communicate and synchronize with another.

Is your software product continually offering upgrades with improved features?

Does it include built-in plug-ins for effects and signal processors, reverb, compressors, or equalization? Is the Software compatible with both VST and RTAS format of plug-ins?

What can audio formats be used during recording and later bounced to a particular format? For example, WAV files, MP3, AIFF, SDII, and Rex etc.

Can you import movie formats (QuickTime or other) to use to compose to film or television projects?

Are the MIDI capabilities basic or more advanced for the fine-tuning of data?

Will the software allow you to

  • record
  • edit
  • arrange
  • mix
  • master
  • create grooves

Does the software include notation capabilities for taking your MIDI scores and printing them to notation paper for reference? You will need this in the event that you need to bring in other musicians to record the real violin solo instead of the sample or sound module you’ve been using that doesn’t seem to cut it?

Finding the Answers

Finding the answers is key. Choosing what recording software to buy for your home studio is no different than buying a car. Figure out what you want, what you are going to use it for and do your research. Next, compare your top three choices and evaluate the pros and cons. Then ask the hard questions to determine the finer details.

Remember: Once you have purchased your software, it will take time to learn how to use it and to be in a position to take advantage of all that it has to offer.

Be patient and have great fun with your music software.