Buying Guide:Computer Recording (Part 4 - What are your software needs?) Buying Guide

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


Welcome! This is the fourth installment in a five-part series  exploring computer-based recording and putting together an effective  rig. The purpose of this guide is to help musicians turn their home  computer into a recording workstation with the least confusion and fuss  possible. There are five questions we will address:


  1. What do you want to record?
  2. What does your computer already have?
  3. What audio capabilities and hardware do you need?
  4. What are your software needs?
  5. How do you set it up?


We'll wade through the various computer recording interfaces,  software, and tools out there and help you discover which setup best  fits your needs.

4. What are your software needs?


Audio recording and production software can be broken down into four  basic categories: multitracking, sequencers, virtual instruments and  effects, and mastering. In determining what software you need to get  started recording, you'll need to look at each of these categories and  determine how much functionality you'll need from each one. You may  decide you can live without mastering software, or even without virtual  instruments or effects if you like the analog versions you already have.  It's all about what you need to accomplish and how you want to  accomplish it.


Often audio recording and composing programs can perform many  different functions. The audio tracking/recording software you buy may  also have sequencing abilities and include some effects. The sequencing  software you buy will probably have some MIDI tones, soft synths,  virtual instruments, or effects included that can operate as plug-ins  for your tracking software. Other programs will have tracking,  sequencing, and mastering all in one. One thing all software has in  common, though, is the capability to use up a lot of your computer's  resources, such as hard drive space and RAM. As stated in Part 3 [link],  give your computer lots of both of these, and everything should be  fine.


The hardware interface you purchase may come with some recording  software, which is sometimes even designed for use with the interface.  Most manufacturers ship tracking/sequencing applications, and they may  be all you need. A few companies go above and beyond the call of duty by  giving their customers a variety of programs with their interfaces.  These are usually limited editions that offer most of the functionality  of the full version and are a great way to try it out without the  financial investment. Plus, you can often upgrade to the full version at  a discounted price. If an interface isn't what you need, though, you  shouldn't buy it just for the software. Buy hardware and software based  only on their individual merits. Lots of audio software companies  produce applications intended for computer recording novices as well as  any number of niche recording categories, so there is something that  will work for you.


The type of software you select should be determined by how you  intend to use it. As with the other installments of Getting Started With  Computer Recording [link]. We've been roughly subdividing all musicians  interested in computer recording into three categories:


  1. Those who are mostly recording by themselves
  2. Those who are recording with a few other people or sources
  3. Those who are recording multiple people and sources for  professional-level music productions


Multitracking and sequencing software


Multitracking software is the most common application used for  recording audio on your computer. All modern multitracking software is  very powerful when compared to analog recorders and includes lots of  functions for producing high-quality music quickly and efficiently. Such  a wide selection and variety of audio software are available today  you're sure to find one that works in a way you like.


When choosing recording software make sure your computer can handle  it. Don't choose subpar recording software to avoid upgrading your  hardware. Remember, the point is to get the software that makes  recording easy for you and gives you the functionality you need. Try to  think ahead about the things you may want to do with your recordings  too. For example, if you and your bandmates want to collaborate, but the  software you buy isn't compatible with the software they use, that's a  significant problem. There are basically two flavors of audio recording  and production software: multitracking and sequencing. Digital Audio  Workstation (DAW) software combines those two functions into one  application.


Applications like Adobe Audition,  Cakewalk GuitarTracks  Pro, Sony Vegas,  and Bias  Deck are audio-only multitracking software. As covered in Part 3  [link to part 3] your computer audio interface converts your music into  data your computer recognizes as audio. All modern multitrack software  has recording capabilities like your old analog recorder but with tools  that give you options not available with traditional recording methods.  These may range from built-in effects like compression and EQ to  sky-high track counts and flexible mixing, editing, and arranging tools.


Software focused on MIDI and audio loop sequencing, such as  Propellerhead Reason,  Sony ACIDAbleton Live,  Image-Line FL  Studio, and Cakewalk Project5 offer convenience and flexibility in creating original material. Many  of them operate by looping prerecorded bits of audio called samples and  letting you arrange those loops however you want. Others come with sound  sources for your MIDI tracks such as drum machines and virtual synths  and instruments, making it easy to record a MIDI track and then quickly  apply different tones to get the sounds you want. MIDI sequencing  applications are also fantastic for putting together backing tracks  without much fuss and producing dance music, hip-hop tracks, soundtrack  scores, and other professional-sounding electronic music.


Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software like Apple LogicDigidesign Pro  Tools, Steinberg Cubase,  Magix Samplitude,  Cakewalk Sonar,  Mackie Tracktion,  and MOTU Digital  Performer offer powerful, all-in-one music production. DAWs are  designed to give you more control over your audio than you ever thought  possible. You can pull together your audio and MIDI tracks to create  either the ultimate multitrack mayhem or masterpiece. They also give you  tons of creative tools like flexible mixing and routing options,  software instruments, virtual effects, and automation. Of course, you  don't have to use those features unless you want to. Many people happily  use only certain features of their DAW software, but it's always nice  to have options.


While musicians in groups A and B will find that most multitrack or  sequencing software covers their needs, people in group C should  probably focus on recording software with lots of functionality. That  doesn't mean you have to buy the biggest and most expensive applications  you can find, but double-check all the functions before you buy  anything and think long-term about the types of projects you'll be  working on. For example, will you need surround sound for multimedia  production or beat-sync and tempo-matching functions that make it easy  to make electronic music?


Mastering software


Mastering software like Sony Sound  Forge, Steinberg WaveLabBias  Peak and SoundSoap,  IK Multimedia TRackS,  and Waves Restoration,  are a slightly different breed of audio-only software. Mostly these are  2-track audio applications you use after mixdown for final treatment  before CD production. Their features give your music the polish it needs  to sound consistent on home stereos, car radios, boomboxes, portable CD  players, etc. They all offer compression, EQ, limiting, and other  processing tools that are more powerful and offer more control than  standard multitrack software. Some of these applications, such as Sony Sound  Forge, Steinberg WaveLab,  and Bias  Peak, offer tools for CD production as well.


Final production and mastering on your projects can be tricky but  thankfully nearly all modern mastering software makes this process a lot  easier. Whether you find yourself in group A, B, or C, you should  simply use the mastering software that fits your needs and budget if you  plan on mastering at all. Many professionals leave the mastering to  specialized studios to get their music ready for CD duplication. Your  recording software may include some mastering functions and you might be  able to achieve the level of audio production quality you want with  mastering plug-ins.


Plug-ins and virtual hardware


These are a whole 'nother breed of audio application. They're helper  programs you can use with your recording software for extra  capabilities, like instrument sounds, EQ, compression, and effects.  Plug-ins are like the options you get with your new car. Heated seats,  leather interior, and a sun roof make your car much nicer to drive, as  software plug-ins make your recording software more functional and fun.  Not only do they potentially give you more power over your audio, they  often offer lots more control over the effect or instrument. For  instance, the compressor your recording software came with might only  have three settings, but a plug-in may offer you 30, or even hundreds!


Virtual hardware applications are software emulations of hardware  processors and instruments--often synthesizers--put directly on your  computer for convenience. As a neat bonus, they often include interfaces  designed to operate much like real hardware with buttons you can push,  knobs you can turn, and faders you can slide with your mouse. They work  just like regular plug-ins; they just happen to have cool interfaces and  sound really familiar to those of us accustomed to using physical  hardware. For example, you may not care for the compressor that came  with your recording software. With plug-ins you can not only select a  new one, you might even be able to get a software version of a treasured  vintage studio compressor for pennies on the dollar. No matter what,  all plug-ins--virtual hardware or not--divide up roughly into two  categories: instrument or effect.


Software instruments


Software, or virtual instruments are pretty much what their name  implies. There are two different types: software synthesizers and  sample-based instruments. Software synthesizers, commonly called soft  synths, usually operate similarly to a physical synth, only on your  computer. Sample-based or virtual instruments are sampler programs with  an interface that allows you to play, arrange, and manipulate  high-quality sound samples.


Both can sometimes operate in standalone mode, meaning you can play  them just by launching the program, and as a plug-in, which allows you  to use it within recording software like Apple Logic,  Digidesign Pro  Tools, Steinberg Cubase,  or Cakewalk Sonar for expanded music-making capabilities. Some recording software even  comes with a selection of soft synths and instruments. Software  instruments use sound libraries that can be upgraded with bigger and  better sounds, or you can even make your own samples to play.


Soft synths range from simple and straightforward to expert level  applications that allow extreme programming depth and power. This  category includes applications like Novation V-Station  Soft Synth; Native Instruments Reaktor and Absynth;  GForce Minimonsta and impOSCar;  and the Arturia Minimoog  V and CS-80V.


While most virtual instruments are designed to play specific set of  sounds, like the Fxpansion BFD  Drum Module or Steinberg Virtual  Guitarist, some of them, like TASCAM Gigastudio,  will play nearly any sound. IK Multimedia SampleTank,  Steinberg HALion,  and Native Instruments Intakt and Kompakt are some other soft instrument/sample player applications. And of  course, there are applications like Steinberg's Hypersonic  Virtual Synth Workstation or MOTU Symphonic  Instrument that are both a soft synth and a virtual instrument.


Virtual effects


Virtual effects are a lot like virtual instruments. They are software  versions of effects that often can be used either as a standalone  program or as a plug-in. Mostly, though, you'll be using them as  plug-ins in your recording software to process audio and MIDI tracks, so  make sure you buy virtual effects that are compatible with the DAW  software you use. There are virtual effects for everything from pitch  correction to tricked-out versions of the oldest effect known to man:  reverb. You can check out the entire list of virtual effects Musician's  Friend carries right  here.


The same rule for choosing soft synths and virtual instruments and  effects applies to groups A, B, and C: make sure it works well and you  like it--that's it. These are all programs designed to add flavor and  color to your projects, and if you don't like their flavor or color, you  shouldn't be using them. There are no "right" ones to choose; use the  ones that sound good to your ears.


Plug-ins and virtual hardware, just like other types of recording  software, can use a lot of your computer's resources. It's best to have  lots of hard drive space and lots of RAM. You also have to make sure the  plug-in or virtual hardware will play nice with the recording program  you're using. All plug-ins use one or more of the following formats:  VST, DX, RTAS, MAS, TDM, AU, and ReWire. Each of these designations  means the plug-in uses a special protocol to work correctly with a  certain piece of recording software. Here's a rundown of the software  that will work with these formats.


If you see this...It means this...And will work with this...
AU (Audio Units)Developed by Apple and integrated into the operating  system for advanced audio performanceApple's Logic Express, Logic Pro, and GarageBand;  MOTU's Digital Performer; Ableton's Live
DX (Direct X)Based on video game programming rules developed by  MicrosoftCakewalk's Sonar, Guitar Tracks, and Project5; Sony's  ACID; Image-Line's FL Studio; Adobe Audition
MAS (MOTU Audio System)Developed by Mark Of The UnicornMOTU's Digital Performer
RTAS (Real Time Audio Suite)Developed by DigidesignDigidesign's Pro Tools LE, Pro Tools M-Powered, and  Pro Tools HD
TDM (Time Division Multiplexing)A powerful protocol developed by Digidesign for use  with their HD digital audio systemsDigidesign's Pro Tools HD
VST (Virtual Studio Technology)A universal platform for plug-ins developed by  SteinbergSteinberg's Cubase; Mackie's Tracktion; Bias' Deck;  Cakewalk's Sonar, Guitar Tracks, and Project5; Image-Line's FL Studio;  Ableton's Live; Adobe Audition; Magix's Samplitude


Another term you'll hear tossed around in relation to plug-ins is  ReWire. ReWire isn't actually a plug-in protocol. It's a technology  developed by Propellerhead and Steinberg to allow you to pipe audio from  one program into another one fairly seamlessly. It allows you to use  many applications similarly to a plug-in. It's so powerful you can use  one whole sequencer as a plug-in for another one. And it's such a cool  idea and so easy to use it's taken off like wildfire: nearly all major  platforms and applications support ReWire. Check the specifications for  your software to ensure compatibility.