Music Production Software Buyer’s Guide
By Ivan Valles
So you’ve decided to substitute a recording studio for your own home studio, and are thinking of making your own recordings at the comfort of your home. Well if so, now is the time to decide what software tools to purchase to compliment with your home recording gear. Personally, I still prefer to use outboard gear and consoles, but budgets in the recording industry have drastically shifted to benefit home recording platforms over bigger traditional studios. With this new trend, thousands of different software tools have become available at very reasonable prices. For this reason, on this occasion, I thought I’d give readers a personal review of specific tools that are out there and some of my impressions on these tools.
Music Recording Software
To start, you need to pick the right software to work on, as some software programs will be more intuitive for you and others will end up frustrating any attempt to ever record some good music. For those of you who are apple users, my personal favorites are Protools by Digidesign and MOTU’s Digital Performer. I believe these two are the most complete and intuitive music production software in the market today. In my opinion, Digital Performer is relatively more complete when it comes to its sequencing and Midi functionality, while Protools tends to be somewhat easier to learn and also comes with a few more options when it comes to tracking and editing audio. For PC users, Protools in my opinion tends to have the advantage over other music production software, but Sonar, Nuendo and Cubase seem to be very good alternatives to it.
External Sequencing and Virtual Instruments
You can have other applications that work parallel to your recording software that will compliment your music with their great banks of hundreds and sometimes thousands of sounds and loops. There are presently too many virtual instruments out there to name them all. As far as a sequencing platform, I’ve found that Reason is in many ways superior to its competitors. There are many keyboards and sounds to choose from, and it has an intuitive interface that works very well for all levels of users, from amateurs to professionals. Another software that PC users can purchase at a similar price is Fruity Loops. I’ve personally messed around with it on several occasions and have gotten really good results from my beat making experience.
Virtual instruments are often used in modern productions to substitute for physical keyboards. Instead of having to purchase several keyboards for your recording studio, now you can purchase a relatively inexpensive keyboard controller of your choice, and if your computer allows it, you can have access to thousands of sounds through the different virtual instruments available that add more functionality to your recording software. Some of the most impressive virtual instruments I’ve stumbled across are: Mach Five (with an extensive library of pianos, loops and other sounds), MX4 and Hybrid (for electronic keyboards), B4 (extremely realistic organ sounds), Akoustik Piano (excellent piano sounds), among others.
Software plug-ins have gradually become more and more popular, as outboard gear can represent a much bigger investment on your production platform, plug-ins can easily and intuitively help enhance your music productions further. They are activated when they are “plugged” into one or more tracks on your recording software.
Compressors take care of leveling peaks in volume generated by the dynamics of the tracks. When applied correctly, compressors can become a very big aid in controlling your mix. Some of the compressors I’m fond of are Smack, Bombfactory’s LA2A and Sony Oxford Dynamics. For the vocals, I’ve particularly seen Reinassance Vox in action and I found it to be one of the best compressors out there for vocals.
Equalizers play an important role when it comes to getting rid of unwanted frequencies in your mixes, as well as enhancing other frequencies to obtain a more pleasurable listening experience. For example, you might find that you’ve recorded a great bass sound, and a great distorted guitar sound as well, but when played together, the bass might get masked by the distorted guitar. A way to solve this masking might be to take out the blocking frequencies in the guitar using an equalizer. If your budget for purchasing equalizers is relatively limited, I recommend you use some of the eq plug-ins that come you’re your recording software. If you have the possibility of spending some extra money on a superior EQ, I recommend Sony Oxford’s EQ. It is the most precise I’ve tried so far. I worked several times at a local studio that has the famous baby oxford console, and I would swear that their eq’s are exactly the same as the plug-in.
Reverbs try to mathematically emulate how a room would react to a specific sound. For instance, if you were to record vocals on a big church you would get a huge chamber sound combined with your original dry vocal. A reverb with a Church preset should emulate this big room sensation. Two of my favorite reverbs are Altiverb by Audioease, and TL Space by Native. Both of these are actually very sophisticated reverbs (called convolution reverbs), in that they are programmed to sample the real room they’re emulating (whether it’s churches, rooms, halls, etc.), and combine it with your dry sound. Once again, if budget is a constraint, use your recording software’s free reverb for this purpose. If it allows for it, I recommend purchasing one of these fantastic reverbs though.
Delays of a signal can be generated with this delay plug-ins. My favorites for this purpose are Echo farm by Line 6 and Echo boy by Sound Toys. These too have taken the word delay to a different level, as you can get very creative by applying different effects to your signal using them.
Vocal Tuning and Correction
There are several music production software tools for helping you with your vocal tracks. I’ve used Antares Microphone Modeler in several studios. This is a very handy tool for those times where the vocals haven’t been recorded with the appropiate microphone. When recording a lot of backing vocals, some of the vocals can tend to be relatively out of sync with the others. For eliminating this undesired problem, one of the best plug-ins available is VocAlign. When it comes to correcting tuning imperfections, Antares Auto-tune and Melodyne by Celemony are the best pitch correction tools I know of.
As I mentioned earlier, these are several music production software tools to help you with your music projects. Most manufacturers offer a trial period as a way of letting you check them out, so this should help you greatly in making your buying decision much easier.