What are the best programs for electronic music production?
August 21, 2011 12:36 PM   Subscribe

What are the best programs for electronic music production?

I am asking this on behalf of a friend who wants to get much more serious into electronic music production. He has made some house music with producers, and is well-versed in music, but is a bit overwhelmed by the options in serious music production software.

Goals include the use of samples, beat creation, and so on. If there is any more information necessary, please let me know... I may have omitted important details as I am unversed in all this. Assume that price is no object, but it'd be nice to know how much things cost and what is considered the best bang for buck, industry standards, etc.

posted by wooh to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a big fan of Reason. Avid Pro Tools is another good suite for music production. GarageBand and Logic Studio are also popular Mac programs within the industry.

Here's a good list to go off of.
posted by samsara at 12:51 PM on August 21, 2011

It's all good, different stuff speaks to different people.

Native Instruments make really good stuff. Suggest you check out Reaktor and Battery. All their stuff sounds good, makes varied sounds, and is very effective to work with.

Ableton Live is good for overall production.

Synths I love: Arturia CS-80V and Arturia Arp 2600V, and G-Force Minimonsta.

Jeskola Buzz is my favorite, most of all, ever. It's ... idiosyncratic. And great. (Here are some famous Buzz users.)
posted by krilli at 1:04 PM on August 21, 2011

(And in the vein of not-quite-software, obtain the following, in this order:
- A good amplifier
- A large monitor
- A good audio interface
- Good speakers)
posted by krilli at 1:05 PM on August 21, 2011

I think Sony's Acid is criminally overlooked as a DAW (MIDI implementation got a lot better pretty recently) and as a creative sandbox. That said, I'm constantly exporting files and putting them into other peoples' Pro Tools projects, so if the idea is ease of sharing projects at multiple studios that might be the way to go.

Is your friend any kind of student? Sony & Avid both offer (very generous!) academic pricing on their software.
posted by mintcake! at 1:21 PM on August 21, 2011

As a house music fan and a semi-pro recording engineer, I can't extol the virtues of Logic enough. It's got a pretty damn good set of mono- and polyphonic synths in it, not to mention every effect he could ever need (and most are pretty pro level). He'll need some sort of DAW anyhow, so I think it's a good "two birds, one stone" since he's just starting out.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 1:35 PM on August 21, 2011

In order to continue the "different answerer, different answer" theme going here, I'd recommend he takes a look at Ableton Live...
posted by benzo8 at 2:36 PM on August 21, 2011

Logic on OSX is considered the best of the best by most producers I know.

I use Ableton because I use it to DJ with, so I understand it.

Reason is good if you're JUST getting started and don't know the first thing about synthesis. The interface really helps you understand how all the pieces relate to each other.

Really, the DAW doesn't matter as much as the VSTs and the VST's you use depend on the genre, but Geist is good for beat creation, and I like Massive and Sylenth for synths..
posted by empath at 3:18 PM on August 21, 2011

Oh, yeah, I should say that it needs to be OSX...which seems like most of these are, just saying :)

Some awesome suggestions, really helpful.

Empath (or anyone): can you go into more detail about how the DAW interacts with the VST, and the role that Logic plays in music creation, versus a VST (such as Geist, Massive, Sylenth, and so on).

Thank you so much
posted by wooh at 3:25 PM on August 21, 2011

Most of my composer and audio engineer friends say Ableton Live for composition and ProTools for production and mastering.
posted by bz at 3:34 PM on August 21, 2011

The overwhelming majority of my friends who produce use either Live or Logic Pro. A handful use ProTools, but this is getting more and more rare.

All of the DAWs mentioned so far are great and have a lot to recommend them, but Logic and Live are the standard, go-to applications.
posted by Tiresias at 4:10 PM on August 21, 2011

A DAW is basically what allows you to record note data and/or sounds, arrange them as you see fit, and then play them back through different VST instruments and effects. The DAW is the "host" for the VSTs. A VST (or AU, if that's your back) makes the sounds. The DAW is more like the score/conductor/mixing booth, while the VSTs are the performers and their effect pedals.

One of the issues with Reason is that it is sort of a closed ecosystem that doesn't support arbitrary softsynths. This means no VSTs at all: it's all contained within Reason itself, so if you want arbitrary VSTs you need to load them in another program and then use a program called ReWire to link them. This was a dealbreaker for me. It might not be if you are happy with the selection it offers -- check out the demo. (Honestly, I also thought it's "fake analog patch bay" GUI was kinda stupid; to each their own.)

Ableton Live is very good for both track creation and DJing, has a wide following, and in my experience was not particularly hard to pick up. It is of about average expense (~$450 for the basic version) without an educational license.

In the more affordable end of the spectrum, I have also worked with FLStudio (surprisingly powerful but Win-only, so would need to be virtualized) and, briefly, with Reaper, which also looks like a good bang/buck ratio and is cross-platform. (However, you may want to get (probably buy) a good drum sampler, since Reaper doesn't come with one -- there are ways to do it without a sampler but I never got into it far enough to figure that out.) Renoise is an alternative from a different composing paradigm (tracker-influenced rather than MIDI-influenced), which is also in the cheaper, cross-platform category. All of these have versions that are < $100.

I know people love Logic but personally it got on my nerves a bit -- I think partly because the sampler that comes with it seemed like trying to swat a fly with a heat-seeking nuke. Maybe I didn't give it enough time. In comparison, I found the sampler that comes with Ableton Live to be much more intuitive.

For completeness's sake, one (or two, really) that I haven't heard yet in this thread: Cubase/Nuendo, two similar pro MIDI-oriented DAWs. Steinberg, the company that created them, also created the VST, so they have a long pedigree. I haven't used either much, but I know people who swear by them. Cubase SX is ~$500, Nuendo ~$2K (!! -- but mostly because of post-production/video features that you won't need).

Notably, one of the nice things about this type of software is that basically everything has a demo. A lot of the differences between DAWs come down to little quirks of UI and which tasks the developers thought were special enough to be made easy. I would get him to download a bunch of demos (Live and Logic for sure; maybe also Reason, Cubase, and/or Pro Tools) and play around to see if anything speaks to him.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:01 PM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow, these answers are extremely useful. I'll check some off tomorrow, but it sounds like he should demo Cubase, Live, Logic and maybe ProTools and see.

On the VST front, Geist, Massive, and Sylenth were mentioned... I'm just curious if anyone has advice on VSTs depending on genre? Let's say you wanted to make drum and bass? How about house? That sort of thing.
posted by wooh at 6:14 PM on August 21, 2011

I guess to clarify, since I am super ignorant of this stuff: what is involved in making a beat? Let's say I want to start from scratch and make a beat... what would be the steps? If there is a tutorial on this that'd be cool too but a high level sense of workflow would be helpful, and how the tools fit into it.
posted by wooh at 6:17 PM on August 21, 2011

Think of the DAW as your audio rack, and the VST's as the instruments. Your DAW is basically your master mixer and all the controls for the VSTs (or AUs, or other types of plugins). DAWs will also come with a bunch of synths built in.

Plugins are either instruments or effects, generally, though most instruments include effects.

There are a couple of ways that synths work, but the most basic is something called subtractive synthesis, which works by generating a basic waveform with an oscillator(osc) and then using filters to shape the sound by removing (or amplifying) frequencies. You can also modify what's called the envelope, which is basically how hard the note hits, how long it sustains when you hold the note, and how long it takes for the sound to die off after the note isn't being held any longer. They'll also have a Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) which adds things like vibrato to the sound.

Almost all the major softsynths work that way, and the differences are in how many oscillators it has, the wave form shapes it supports, the filters, reverbs, delays, compression and so on. If you know what you're doing, you can basically get the same sounds from any synth -- it's all math, and the same numbers make the same sounds for the most part (although there are real differences in how the synths get there that make some of them really good at producing some sounds but not others).

So, there's no 'best' synth for any genre. Just pick one and start learning it. A good way to pick would just be to listen to the presets and see which one is closes to making the sounds you want and go from there.


As far as making a beat goes, I'll just walk you through doing it in ableton. (The demo is free, download it from ableton.com).

Start a new track. Click on the second circle on the left, which shows the built in instruments in the browser window. Under instruments, choose 'impulse'. Grab any drum kit (for example: Vintage Funky Good time) and drag it over to the midi column in the center of the screen.

Double click the row directly under the midi column (which will now say impulse at the top). Then click on the arrow in the row you just clicked on and that will start the midi clip playing for the drums. You haven't entered any notes so you won't hear anything yet, but you'll see a line going across the midi bar at the bottom. Double click on the following squares, which will fill them and start beats playing:

Next to kick: 1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4
Next to snare(or clap, or both): 1.2, 1.4
Next to the hi hat: 1.1.3, 1.2.3,1.3.3,1.4.3 (you might have to zoom into to see numbers for 8th notes).

Congrats, you've made a basic disco beat. Try adding more hats or moving them left or right to make it more interesting.

Next thing you'll want to do is add a bass. Go over to the instrument browser again, and under operator, grab 'dirty' bass and drag it to the middle. Underneath the new column that gets created, double click again, and click the following squares next to D1 on the piano roll (you'll have to drag it up to get to it): 1.1.3, 1.2, 1.2.4, 1.3.3 and 1.4.3 -- it doesn't have to be in those positions, but you can see how moving one of the notes to the left or right gives it some funk, if everything its at the same time, it's boring.

Now you've got a groove. Click and drag one note at a time up or down and see if you can make it even funkier. Since it's in D, You'll want to the note to be in the D scale: D, E, F(or f sharp), G, A, B ♭, and C, most likely.

From there it's just a matter of adding more stuff one layer at a time, but that's where it starts getting complicated, because you have to worry about filtering and panning and compression so that all of your instruments don't step all over each other in the mix. Everything needs its own space in the mix and they can't just walk all over each other.
posted by empath at 7:11 PM on August 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am a long time cubase user and I have always liked it despite some strange behaviors (especially significant lag with MIDI even with the very fastest of win hardware).
posted by bz at 8:14 PM on August 21, 2011

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