Best jump-in-and-go software for n00b composer on a Mac?
June 23, 2009 11:49 AM   Subscribe

Looking for good composition software on Mac. No actual recorded tracks- it'd be all Kurzweil PC-88 inputted MIDI. Must-haves include fairly easy ability to just jump in and start composin', a music score notation interface, very realistic quality of the instruments (i.e., that my midi inputted keyboard can still sound like a darn good bass guitar), and decent ability to refine the sound quality. [more inside]

I ran this question by songsmith extraordinaire cortex and the Music Talk group, and figured- what the heck, lets ask the teeming hordes one last time before I run out and spend $500+.

I've been wanting to start doing some composition again. Often I'll just improvise some random stuff on my (real) piano, and occasionally think "Ooh, that sounds nice!", and then my brain will start looping that, building up, adding in parts. I can't really control that- it just plays without me being able to stop it, but it gets too many instruments coming in to really manage currently. I'd like to take the ideas in my head and get them out in a way that lets me build up the layers quickly while I can remember and control them, and then tinker/edit as needed.

My basic needs as noted in the main question are:
  • Relatively easy learning curve to at least start crafting music
  • Notation interface, among others
  • Good quality sound fonts for fake instruments
  • Good post-processing when I mature my skillset, to refine and polish the sound to be passably good for MeMu posting
I currently have a Mac Pro 8-way with tons of RAM and a Kurzweil PC-88 with a midi-to-USB connector. I don't like the built-in sounds (the keyboard's probably 10 years old, but sturdy, weighted, full-size) so it'd be strictly a far quicker interface for playing than clicking on a score sheet with my mouse. For what it matters, the type of music I'd be writing would vary highly. It might be some classical or Michael Nyman repetitive bullshit nonsense using chamber instruments one day, and a Muse-inspired sonic wall the next.

From my asking of cortex and then the Music Talk group, it sounds like Logic Studio/Pro is the clear winner at present, largely because of it's notation interface along with competitive editing/sound manipulation features. A notation interface would at least initially be my preferred way of creating music, although with the option to then used to make decent sound adjustments/mixing/spatial creation so that the music doesn't sound like crap (I mean, beyond of course my not-a-lent-assclown compositions being teh suck).

I'm all ready to run down the street to the Apple store on my lunch break and buy Logic Studio- unless someone has an even better suggestion- but my concerns are this:

1) The reviews by users on Apple's own site suggest that Logic 8 (which is still 32-bit) is sluggish, buggy, and not well supported by Apple like previous release. People seem to prefer Logic 7!

2) How does it sound, really? I mean, I won't be a cortex inputting yukele strumming from an actual instrument; everything I use- guitar, bass, violin, piano, drums- will be entirely in software starting from MIDI. My only previous experience with MIDI years ago is "it sounds like total shit". I'm hoping the technology has improved significantly, if not perfectly. :)
posted by hincandenza to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I use Logic Pro 8 on a daily basis and I believe it is exactly the software you need. There is an Express version, but I don't know the extent of its MIDI features. There is a learning curve, but I find it way less confusing than earlier version (most of the time you're in the same window now). Also, nothing sluggish here, and I'm (just) on an Imac 1.83 with 2gig of ram. If this is a long-term investment go for it. Great souding instruments, awesome synths, and tons of drums. The plugins are also very powerful. The notation section is great, and there is also Hyper Editor, once you start diving into it!
posted by ddaavviidd at 12:06 PM on June 23, 2009

Best answer: You're really asking about two different things: sequencers and Audio Unit- (AU) or VST-format software instruments.

Logic Pro is a sequencer — you play on your keyboard, and Logic can record its MIDI output. You can then edit that MIDI sequence and play it back through software instruments and effects plug-ins.

Other sequencers include Ableton Live and Digidesign ProTools. If you want a compositional tool, consider looking into Sibelius.

Logic Studio bundles Logic Pro with software instruments ("soft synths") and some other stuff. You can and will, however, find many other companies selling software instruments.

Native Instruments Kontakt is a soft synth with many excellent-sounding instruments, and a demo is available for you to try out with your sequencer.

You'll do well to try demos of various packages. It will help you figure out what you'll be comfortable using, as well as learn how it sounds with your rig.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:17 PM on June 23, 2009

Just as an alternative, in my college digital music class, we used Digital Performer as a sequencer, which was easy (and powerful) as all heck, along with a Nord Modulator (modulators being what you can use to make up your own instrument sounds).
posted by General Malaise at 12:55 PM on June 23, 2009

Best answer: I recommend you pick up Logic Express 8... the people who are on message boards talking about the superiority of 7 are nerds (like me) who have longstanding workflows based on arcane aspects of the Logic 7 interface. You won't have that problem.

I switch between Logic 7 and 8 depending on the studio I'm in and 8 is perfectly fine; I've never encountered a bug with it.

Since you seem to plan on using alot of real-world instrument samples, consider that Logic 8 also comes with basic modeling synths that cover e-pianos, percussive stringed instruments (harpsichords, clavinets, etc) and organs, plus a solid basic sample library of strings, drums and so on.
posted by Spacelegoman at 12:59 PM on June 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback folks. It seems like basically, Logic will work well for me as a one-stop sequencer and soft synth setup to get a pretty decent sound while composing in a way that "makes sense to me"... but over time it may very well be the case that I might find that I'll be exploring other packages to get richer/better sounds. Which I'm okay with- I just don't want to start out with something that'll sound like crap; I'll worry about absolutely perfect studio mastering when I'm working on the sophomore follow up to my multi-platinum album. :)

Thanks again! I'll be sure to submit my first magnum opus to MeMu when it's complete! ;)
posted by hincandenza at 1:53 PM on June 23, 2009

A phenomenal reason to try Logic Express: if you like it and decide you want to upgrade to the full Logic Studio Pro package, the price of Logic Express plus the upgrade is the same as if you'd just bought the full Logic Studio.
posted by 2oh1 at 3:17 PM on June 23, 2009


Don't you have GarageBand as part of your Mac package???

It will do most of what you want, including MIDI recording, notation interface (including drag-n-drop editing of what has been played), multi-track recording, software instruments are included, many many of them... It does live instrument recording if you have the inputs, as well as looping...

Why spend money for Logic when you have GarageBand pre-installed?
posted by hippybear at 3:46 PM on June 23, 2009

(I should add, even if you don't have it already, iLife is under $100, and Logic is many times that... If you're really a n00b and want to play, I'd start with GarageBand before I spent real money on Logic.)
posted by hippybear at 3:48 PM on June 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback, hippybear- I appreciate that you're looking out for me. :) I replied to your memail as well- I did play with Garage Band but found it lacking in the included instruments (even with that 1GB download to get the additional instruments) and the apparent 4-track limit. If I'm mistaken about the 4-track limit, or there's some way to improve the sound, then maybe GB is fine.

But eh, maybe my purchase of logic will do some small part to stimulate the economy. :)
posted by hincandenza at 7:33 PM on June 23, 2009

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