A low cost guide to making music with your Mac, part two

Joshua Ellis
J. Ellis|06.03.08

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Joshua Ellis
June 3rd, 2008
In this article: music
A low cost guide to making music with your Mac, part two

Last time, I looked at hardware audio interfaces for getting sound into your Mac. But now that you've got it coming in, what do you do with it?

You need a DAW, or digital audio workstation. DAWs are to audio what Photoshop is to image processing: they allow you to layer, mix and manipulate your sound into something resembling music. Most DAWs also allow you to incorporate MIDI sequencing to drive your hardware or software synths.

DAWs vary in terms of feature set and usability. At the high end, recording audio is a highly technical process, and many DAWs look like the control panels for nuclear submarines. But don't be discouraged if it all doesn't make sense at first -- as you learn the underlying concepts behind recording digital audio, all those little buttons and windows will become second nature.

There are a lot of different DAWs out there, but we'll take a look at a few of the Mac offerings here. These are the main contenders in the field, along with a couple of interesting also-rans.

Digidesign Pro Tools 7.4 ($239 - $12995)

Pro Tools is the industry standard in digital audio recording and has been since the mid-1990s. Every professional recording studio on the planet has a Pro Tools hardware/software rig of some kind, since so many professional music makers use it.

However, I'm not a big fan of Pro Tools, despite its ubiquity and power. For one thing, it's tied inextricably to Digidesign and M-Audio hardware, and simply won't run with any other kind of interface or even your Mac's sound card. This makes things difficult if you decide to upgrade or get rid of your hardware: your recorded tracks can't be edited without a Digidesign or M-Audio interface attached.

Also, Pro Tools doesn't work with widely-used audio plugin formats like Cubase's VST and Apple's AudioUnit; instead, they use their own RTAS and TDM formats, which aren't recognized by any other DAW. If you wanted to recreate your tracks on stage using a tool like Ableton Live, for example, you'd have to purchase VST or AudioUnit versions of the plugins you've used.

Finally, Pro Tools is really designed to integrate into a professional studio, and it has a lot of overhead and features that won't appeal -- or in some cases, make any sense -- to home users, who aren't syncing their onboard word clock to SMPTE for scoring film, for example. (Huh?)

For these reasons, I really can't recommend Pro Tools for home users, who can't afford to buy multiple interfaces and versions of plugins. It just doesn't offer enough unique benefits to weigh against the tradeoffs.

Apple GarageBand (Apple, $79 or free with a new Mac)
GarageBand is one of the very few starter DAWs out there. As such, it's a perfectly respectable way to make basic recordings and MIDI tracks. And hey, it came with your computer.

But GarageBand is limited in a lot of ways. It doesn't have advanced MIDI capabilities and the workflow is pretty simplified. It also doesn't have much in the way of real mastering capability -- a must if you want to actually release your music to the world.

If you're a GarageBand user, you probably ought to consider upgrading to Logic.

Apple Logic 8 (Studio: $499, Express: $199)
Logic, of course, is Apple's own entry in the professional DAW space. In terms of power and flexibility, version 8 approaches and in some ways surpasses Pro Tools. The Studio bundle includes useful tools like MainStage, for bringing your tracks to the live stage, and Soundtrack 2 for film and video audio post-production. The Express version is comparatively limited, but it still has more functionality than GarageBand, and it's perfectly useful for artists who aren't doing a lot of complicated studio wizardry.

Best of all, Logic can open your GarageBand tracks and Apple Loops, so if you've been making music with GB and have decided to move upward and onward, it's a snap.

Unfortunately, Logic can only natively use AudioUnit plugins, though as with Pro Tools you can get "bridge" plugins that let you use VST. And it can be a bit tricky for inexperienced users, though it's gotten progressively more user friendly over the past few releases.

Steinberg Cubase 4 ($799.95)
Cubase is a mature and well-respected cross-platform DAW that's the original home of the VST plugin standard. In my experience, it falls somewhere in between Logic and Pro Tools in terms of both usability and power, though I haven't used it in several years.

Mackie Tracktion ($129.99)
Tracktion is a less well-known offering from audio hardware maker Mackie, but I used it for a couple of years and I really like it. Like Ableton Live (see below), it uses a single-screen interface that's stripped down to make things as simple as possible. Despite this, Tracktion doesn't sacrifice capability or quality. If you're on a budget, it's definitely worth checking out.

Ardour (free)
Ardour is a free DAW that runs on Mac and Linux that seeks to replicate and extend the functionality of expensive professional DAWs. I've never used it, myself, but I hear good things about it, and it's free, so you have nothing to lose by downloading it and trying it out.

Ableton Live 7 ($499.99)
Live is my favorite music app of all time. It's a unique combination of a DAW and a live performance tool, and it's one of the most unique music apps ever made. You can record audio into Live, loop it, manipulate it and mangle it, all in real time.

While all of the apps I've mentioned are professional tools for making music, Live is the only app that actually makes music-making fun. Because everything is designed for the stage rather than post-production, Live feels more like an instrument than an application.

While it doesn't have a lot of the hyper-advanced recording features of some of our other entries, it's worth checking out the demo, just to see an alternative approach to making digital music. And if you're an electronic artist who'd like to move from the bedroom to the nightclub, Live is genuinely indispensable.

All of these apps support 24-bit audio recording, and -- with the exception of GarageBand -- advanced MIDI control, allowing you to use a MIDI mixer interface to control on-screen faders and knobs. Most of them also support mixing and output to 5.1 surround sound; I'm not sure how useful that will be to home users, but it might come in handy when doing sound effects for that indie movie you've been producing in your basement.

Of course, these aren't the only DAWs out there. Got a favorite I haven't mentioned? Let us know in the comments.

Next time we'll look at some plugins and software synths that will make your music-making experience a lot easier!
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