Music software for the uninitiated
July 27, 2010 2:47 PM   Subscribe

Posting for the boyfriend: What software program will allow me to create beautiful music with just a keyboard?

I'm not super tech-savvy, but I'm not super tech-stupid, either, and I'm capable and willing to learn this stuff.

A little background: I played piano as a kid and had a natural talent for it. I learned to play mostly by ear, which hampered my ability to learn to read music, but when high school rolled around I lost motivation to practice, my parents lost motivation to pay for lessons as a result, and I fell out of it. I've barely touched a piano in almost 2 decades, and I feel like I've lost almost all of the technique, hand placement skills, theory, etc.

SO: I have friends who have music software programs that they use to record live instruments and mix and stuff, but I'm not going to be doing much with instruments (at least for a while) outside of a keyboard. How much of a limitation will that be in creating music?

Should I start with a cheap "starter" program for my current 5-year-old computer (a sony vaio media edition with duo centrino processor and windows xp) and play around with that on a cheap keyboard first, and then work my way up later? Or would it be more rewarding and time-efficient to just buy a more expansive program upfront and begin the long learning curve with something that will be more stimulating and allow more variation in sound (but would be much more expensive)?

What programs do you guys like, and what kind of computer will I need to support this stuff (my current laptop is about 5 years old, and I hear Macs are better for this sort of thing)? What sort of keyboard would you recommend? I'm really tempted to get a full-size weighted pressure-sensitive one on which I can also play around with piano pieces on my own... is that the sort of thing one can reasonably obtain used to save money? Any other "must-have" equipment that will make this process easier or just more rewarding? I'm willing to invest some money in this because I feel like I need a creative outlet, a personal growth kinda hobby, something that will facilitate "flow" in my life. Any recommendations on equipment from inexpensive to pricier would be welcome, with the focus being on the best software program.

Also, recommendations for relearning piano on my own would be much appreciated. Hand placement, finger position and crossing, etc etc. Feel free to contact me directly at Thanks much, everybody.
posted by odayoday to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you're getting a Mac anyway (and they are generally better for this sort of thing), it comes with a free program called Garageband which, despite its simple interface, is actually not too shabby--certainly good enough to qualify as "starter", and you could treat it like a stepping stone to Apple's Logic (which is neither free nor cheap).

For about $100-200, you could get a full-length, fully-weighted keyboard midi controller. I've enjoyed the Axiom series from M-Audio, but there are lots out there. A midi controller is probably what you're looking for. Basically, your keyboard would only play when hooked up to a computer running a program with "software instruments", but it sounds like that's what you want.
posted by Beardman at 2:54 PM on July 27, 2010

Also, strictly speaking, garageband isn't free. It comes with a new mac and is part of the iLife suite.

I point you to the above websites because both are great resources.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:57 PM on July 27, 2010

Propellerhead's Reason is a great package if you really want to feel like you've got a rack of synth gear. At $300 it's a lot cheaper than an actual rack of synth gear, too.
posted by kindall at 3:05 PM on July 27, 2010

Garageband will do just fine.

You can create a fully-produced electronic music track from scratch on Pro Tools using nothing but the mouse and the qwerty keyboard.
posted by The World Famous at 3:15 PM on July 27, 2010

You want Acid Xpress, and Musagi, and maybe Modplug Tracker.

All of which are free!

Keyboard-wise, I recommend one of these (ZOMG referral link!). I just got one for my wife last week and she's enjoying using it with Acid Xpress.
posted by luvcraft at 3:56 PM on July 27, 2010

Seconding GarageBand, if you're going to be using a Mac. It's surprisingly powerful, but easy to use. And yes, you can play using the keyboard.
posted by Mwongozi at 4:32 PM on July 27, 2010

Logic Express is a good halfway point between Garage Band, if it doesn't do enough, and the full Logic suite.

Start with Garage Band, which has some surprisingly good software keyboards, but is very limited for mixing, especially automation, move up to Logic Express if you need more, them go for the full version if things take off. There's an upgrade path from Express to the Logic Studio suite, I think.

A cheap USB controller keyboard will work fine. I've got the M-Audio and it works great. Music stores stock these, and the sales staff should be able to help you out there and show you how it works, if they're worth their salt.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:39 PM on July 27, 2010

Another vote for GarageBand, coupled with a reasonable USB keyboard. We have an old M-Audio Keystation49e and it does just fine.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:40 PM on July 27, 2010

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