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Opinions Needed: Best composition software on the market

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I'd like to pose a question to the community.


What do you believe is the best Composition Software on the market and why? (and for what type of computer)


I apologise if this question has been asked previously.


Thank you for your response.

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Hi Bren and welcome to the forum! :wave:


There are many different softwares for creating music on a computer, in which case the whole system may be called a digital audio workstation (DAW).


I really am not familiar with the Linux offerings. In our modern world that pretty much leaves PC and Mac. There's no clear-cut advantage of one over the other and deciding between the two becomes more of a personal preference thing.


Some software is geared towards recording audio. ProTools (PT) is probably the best known in this category because it is more or less "the" industry standard now. You create sound by playing/singing and record it, one thing at a time, and then play back everything at once. (This is called multitracking.) PT is available for both PC and Mac. On the low side of the price range is Audacity which is a free download (again for both PC/Mac).


Other softwares emphasize creating music from data. You don't have to be able to play an instrument in this case, you just tell (program) the computer that you want an "oboe" sound to play the A above middle C for a certain amount of time, for example. This kind of music data is called MIDI, for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. MIDI can be entered by clicking with a mouse or through a MIDI controller (typically a piano-style keyboard). Logic has a reputation for being very good for this kind of work as well as being very difficult to learn. (It is Mac-only.) There are other good softwares in this category -- maybe called MIDI sequencing -- but I'm not the right person to answer this question.


Most softwares can do both audio recording/multitracking and sequencing; it's just a matter of their strengths and weaknesses. Digital Performer is an example that I've used in the past (also Mac-only). [There are plenty of PC programs but I have no experience with them.]


Finale falls into the MIDI sequencing category but it is worth pointing out because it is very strong in terms of standard music notation. That is, you enter and display music with staves, notes, rests, etc. (There are other options but if you're going to get Finale standard notation is probably the reason why.) Again, other softwares offer this feature but not to the extent that Finale goes. If you currently compose music with staff paper and pencil, or if you plan on printing your own sheet music, this is a good choice. As with other sequencers you can enter MIDI via a controller, too.


Just a note about MIDI. If you burn a CD with MIDI data it will not play in your CD player. The data has to be combined with a sound module in order to produce audio, sounds we can hear. A MIDI sequencer with a sound module can create an audio file that you can burn to CD. Popular sound modules today incorporate sample libraries to simulate actual instruments being played, such as piano, violin, oboe, drums, etc. The realism of these libraries is typically reflected in the price, although it seems that the best "virtual orchestra" today is built from the best parts of the best libraries, and it can be very expensive to acquire all the best libraries.


With digital audio and software like PT it is possible to fix mistakes to a certain degree. If a note is slightly out-of-time, for example, you can move it to be exactly in-time. If you record "dry" signals -- direct in without effects -- you have more flexibility in adding effects later. For example, you can add a flange effect and adjust the parameters until you are satisfied, or even try chorus instead. Changes like these made with the software are said to be done in the box (ITB). If you record a "wet" signal of your guitar through a flange pedal you won't be able to change the pedal settings of the recording.


With MIDI you have much more flexibility. If you change your mind and decide that you'd rather have a flute instead of an oboe it's just a click away (assuming your sample library contains both instruments). Fixing notes is much easier in MIDI, IMO. Change the pitch, the timing, the length of the note, etc. You can add effects to MIDI tracks ITB, too.


So, what kind of instruments do you play (if any), what kind of music do you wish to compose (orchestral, pop), and what do you want to do with your music (give to friends, score films, etc.)?

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Thanks for the welcome and the information.


I play the keyboard and clarinet.


As for the music I'll be composing, it nearly always ends up being orchestral (even when I don't want it to be) and helping my brother with his Techno tracks.


The music is for myself and my friends.


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Hey, that sounds great!


For orchestral and techno stuff and a keyboard I'd definitely go with a MIDI sequencer. Even my wife's 1980s Casio has a MIDI interface, so most likely your keyboard has one, too.


You'll probably need a digital audio interface, too. At a bare minimum you need a MIDI-to-USB adapter (unless your keyboard has a USB port that can send MIDI to a computer). I have the adapter; they are very affordable. If you think you might want to record audio at some point -- either the actual sounds produced by your keyboard, your clarinet, etc. -- get an interface with at least one microphone input and preamp. You can worry about microphones later, but you'll probably save money in the long run getting both MIDI and audio in one interface instead of having to buy two. (Most units come with two mic interfaces which gives you the additional flexibility of being able to record in stereo.)


An important part of audio interfaces is their digital to analog converters (DACs). There are two numbers associated with these. One describes how frequently measurements are made; this is the sample rate and is usually given in hertz (Hz or samples per second) or kilohertz (kHz or thousands of samples per second). For example, a standard CD player only uses 44.1 kHz sample rate to produce sound. This would be a minimum for recording and I believe all products on the market now can do at least this much. Pro studios get better results by oversampling -- recording at higher rates -- and then downsampling to 44.1 kHz when it's time to "print" (create) a CD.


The other number is the bit depth. This is similar to the number of divisions on a ruler. A ruler with marks only every inch allows you to measure things to the nearest inch, but one with more marks every 1/16th of an inch allows you to measure things more precisely. The minimum again is the CD standard of 16 bits, and again studios use higher bit depths until the final CD is printed.


Since you're only recording for yourself and friends, you can save a few bucks and go with a minimum 44.1 kHz/16 bit interface. Keep in mind, though, that if you want better quality later you'll have to buy a new interface.


Like I said before the kind of computer is up to you. However, new Macs come bundled with iLife software which includes GarageBand. I use this and for the simple stuff I do I haven't run into any real shortcomings yet. There's not enough instruments in the included sample library for orchestral compositions, but you can buy a JamPack which has gotten decent reviews as far as performance for the price. If you do find GarageBand limiting -- and you probably will -- the JamPack is still compatible with Logic Express and Logic Pro. But GarageBand is great for getting your feet wet because it's so easy to use.


If you want a "portable recording studio" you can get a laptop. If that's not a priority you can save some cash by getting a deskstop. Just try to get one that is quiet since the cooling fans can be quite noisy and get picked up by the mic. Macs are good about this but I think some PC manufacturers have started to catch on now, too.


Now I took a digital music class about a year or two ago. At that time the technology to render a full orchestra from a sample library would take three or four computers working together and cost more money than the average person would care to invest. I'd be interested to see how that has changed with the advent of dual- and quad-core technologies. If a high-end quad-core can replace those four separate computers, get one of these. Otherwise a more affordable entry level computer is fine and when you run out of bandwidth you can just add another. [if you're talking small ensemble stuff -- string quartet -- the entry level PC is more than enough.]


And that brings us back to software. As far as I know you're going to need to buy a DAW and one or more sample libraries. Even though ProTools is a standard DAW, I would not suggest it for your application unless your keyboard has a great patch for every sound you'd ever want (including timpanis, etc.). In that case you'd want to record audio only and skip the MIDI. Logic is regarded as one of the best for MIDI work, but it isn't easy to learn (so I've heard) and its popularity has declined since it was bought by Apple and the PC version was dropped. In my own limited experience with DAWs -- GarageBand, Digital Performer and Finale -- they all handled MIDI well. Of these three DP was probably the best all around, Finale had the best standard notation support, and GB was the easiest to learn. (There are other DAWs available for PC only but I haven't used any of them.)


Finally there is the sample library. Like I said, the libraries that come bundled with DAWs are usually pretty limited. The only one I've ever used is the Garritan Personal Orchestra, which I understand is a good package but not quite up to the quality the pros use. For better recommendations you may want to consult the Keyboard Corner (KC) forum.


You will want to search the KC forum for more information. Since the search feature here is a little frustrating to use, you can open a new browser window, go to google.com and then search for site:musicplayer.com whatever. Once you've done a little research you may want to post a question on KC, but the wide-open question you posted here would probably not go over well.


If you have an Apple store nearby you should go check out GarageBand. At least the store by me has a computer set up with a MIDI keyboard. I doubt they have Logic running, but who knows? I haven't been to GuitarCenter in a while but they may have something you can try, too, if you can put up with the salespeople there. :rolleyes:

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Oh, a couple of other important things I left out!


Very briefly, there are three phases to recording: (1) tracking (the actual recording), (2) mixing (combining the various tracks), and (3) mastering (adjusting mixdowns, especially when combining them on the same CD). [You may want to get a book on home recording.]


If you do plan to record audio you'll want to acoustically treat your "studio" room as much as possible. It's really hard to get a good recording in a 10x10 room with bare walls, for example. There's a lot of great information on this topic on Ethan Winer's forum here. You can't make up for a bad room by getting the best DAW, mic, etc. (If you're going the MIDI route this obviously isn't a problem for tracking.)


For tracking you'll want a decent pair of headphones. The Project Studio forum is the place to look for recommendations here. [At least I remember a good discussion on the archived Phil O'Keefe version.]


For mixing and mastering you'll want the best playback system you can afford. You don't want to use your headphones for this! You also want this to be in an acoustically treated room, if possible.


Since this is for yourself and friends it's possible to get by with shortcuts here, but at least be aware of what you're giving up. You could get by with walkman-style headphones and PC speakers, for example, but that may adversely affect the sound quality.


Tracking is probably the most crucial step. Think of it like taking a photo. It's pretty easy to take a snapshot with a cell phone these days, but the quality of the photo is usually pretty crappy. You could spend an incredible amount of time and effort in Photoshop editing such a snapshot, but in the end it probably would not look near as good if you had used a pro photographer's $10,000 digital camera in the first place. The pro's photo might need very little if any touchups in Photoshop. The analogy to Photoshop is the DAW during the mixing process.


Of course, even the pro's camera is not foolproof; you still have to know how to use the thing. ;)


If you have a decent home stereo you can use that for mixing, but a pro monitor system will be better (and much more expensive). Again this should be in a treated room. This goes whether you record audio or MIDI.


Don't even ask me about mastering. Given my limited equipment and lack of experience this is something I feel better leaving to the pros. You may skip this step considering your audience. If you do take your mixed tracks to a pro for mastering keep in mind that they can't perform miracles and it will be a "garbage in/garbage out" job for them. You'll get better results if you let them handle the mixing, too, but you'll still be limited by your tracking abilities. Which again is why tracking is the most crucial step. [And if you do go to a pro studio they'll probably be running ProTools, so your life will be easier if you use PT, too.]


VERY IMPORTANT! I know I've made this sound very complex and maybe even hopeless for someone on a limited budget, but with your goals it doesn't have to be that way. There are plenty of satisfied do-it-yourselfers (DIYers) out there. It really can be almost as easy as using a cassette recorder: just press "record" and start playing. Track a few parts, give them a simple mix, and print a CD to give to your friends. The improvement in sound quality by using a DAW instead of a boombox cassette recorder with built-in mics is huge. As you get more into it you may want to improve your recording technique and then a lot of these fine points will make more sense. You may even find yourself wanting to re-record earlier projects in order to improve the quality. Or not. It's up to you. But also remember that the time you spend learning how to be a studio engineer takes away from your songwriting and playing your instruments.


And so finally, my recommendation would be to get a system that is easy to learn so you don't have to spend much time with it before you start printing CDs. You don't really need $100,000 worth of studio gear or an experienced studio engineer at this point, even though you want the "best [system] on the market". Keep your focus on the music, unless your true calling is as a studio engineer. [There are pro musicians on KC that create and sell commercial music, and they DIY, so this is possible. In my own experience, though, it's been almost 3 years since I started a part-time DIY project and I still don't have 10 songs ready for a CD yet!]

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  • 3 weeks later...

Not sure exactly what you mean by "Composition Software." Do you mean something that will help in trying out and "morphing" musical ideas into completed compositions, or do you mean what Ric was referring to, a large set of tools and instrument sounds that you would use as an "artist's palette" for orchestrating your already written compositions?


For 10 years I've been using PGMusic's Band-in-a-Box for the former and MakeMusic's Finale for the latter, but I just set up my first DAW rig with Ableton Live Lite and PGMusic's PowerTracks for entry level audio/MIDI recording (in addition to the two aforementioned programs).


So what are your compositional goals?

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