What do you use when Garageband isn't doing the job?
October 22, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

I make music. I use almost exclusively electronic instruments. I'm on OS X. I need to graduate from Garageband, but to what?

I've gotten pretty far with good old Garageband, and I have a lot of affection for the software. However, there are things I want to do that I can't do with it. Here are some of them:
  • Software MIDI sequencer playback of external devices. Software synths are great, but I'm pretty married to some of the sounds I get out of my Roland. I'm a shitty instrumentalist, so I have to sequence all of my melodies or they sound terrible. So what I want to be able to do is record MIDI notes, adjust the timing in the software, then play back the properly quantized melody while simultaneously recording the resulting audio back onto my computer. This loop constitutes the bulk of my music workflow, so the easier it is, the better.
  • A lot of sequencers seem to assume that you want to be in 4/4 all the time, subdividing everything into units of 4. In my case, this assumption is incorrect. I love triplets and shuffle time and odd time signatures, and would really like a sequencer that makes dealing with them easy, or at least not actively difficult.
  • I don't use samples or loops very much at all.
I played around with Logic Pro a couple of years ago, and found it just completely opaque. However, there's been at least one new version since then, so maybe it's gotten better. And it's only like $199 now, which seems like a pretty okay deal. It's the obvious upgrade path from Garageband.

Ableton Live seems to be ubiquitous. Perhaps for good reasons?

A friend of mine swears by the Maschine with its control surface, but I'm reluctant to have to find a place for yet another music gizmo. But if it's really that awesome...

While the term "composer" seems totally ridiculous and grandiose for the noodling around that I do, it is nonetheless more apt than any other term I can think of. DJ tools are wasted on me. What I need is something that helps me 1) put notes together the way I want them, 2) plays back those notes on whatever MIDI instrument I tell it to, and 3) records the resulting audio.

So what's my best bet?
posted by Sokka shot first to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I used Logic Pro 8 (the version you probably used) and 9 (the current version). I also found version 8 frustratingly opaque, but I find version 9 much easier to use. There are fine-grained options for quantizing and otherwise adjusting the timing of MIDI notes. You're free to specify your time signature, including multiple different odd time signatures within a song. You can customize the time signature for the whole song, or for specific parts of a song down to the exact measure. And each measure is very finely divided into smaller units (depending on how much you zoom in). 4/4 is just the default, not a restriction.

(However, I've only done the basic 2-step MIDI recording that you're not interested in, i.e. playing an M-Audio MIDI controller into Logic, and then using Logic as the synthesizer. I haven't tried the 3-step process you're describing, so I'll let others speak to that.)
posted by John Cohen at 11:26 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Either Logic Pro or Ableton Live will do what you want. Of the two, Live's learning curve has always been less steep, certainly. It is very good at sequencing loops and samples, but it has grown over the past decade to do a lot of other stuff, too. You can try out a demo and see if it works for you.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:29 AM on October 22, 2012

Listen to Reason!
posted by bensherman at 11:31 AM on October 22, 2012

Seconding Reason. It's pretty smoking hot right now - Propellerheads has spent the last few years getting it into a competitive position vs Ableton etc, and if you are an electronic music guy it will be right up your alley.
posted by Aquaman at 11:43 AM on October 22, 2012

Best answer: I have been using Ableton Live since 2001. I love it. You can do some really amazing and complicated stuff with effects racks.

However, Maschine allows a much more instrument-like interaction with the computer. Once you familiarize yourself with how to use the box, you don't really need the monitor at all. It really feels like you are playing an instrument rather than playing an instrument into a computer.

I found things like auditioning instruments, recording little ditties, and adjusting settings/effects waaaaay easier using the Maschine's physical interface than mousing around in Ableton's software.

That said, I generally use Maschine inside of Ableton live, because I prefer recording with other musicians in Ableton.

I also know some folks who have a Maschine yet mouse around the Maschine software and just use the pads on the Maschine, and complain about how complicated the interface is. They are "doing it wrong," IMO.
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:49 AM on October 22, 2012

Reaper is great and cheap. Ableton can do what you want also. Ableton has a less expensive version called "Intro" with limited channels, send/receive busses, etc. which is probably enough for you, especially if you have all the softsynths and effects you want.
posted by mkb at 11:51 AM on October 22, 2012

What you're looking for is called a DAW. Probably the best fits for you in terms of established software are Logic, Cubase, Ableton Live, and Reaper (a relative bargain for non-"pro" users at ~$60, but still very competitive with the others in terms of functionality).

Reason is cool but unless something has changed recently, you cannot use it to send MIDI to external equipment, which makes it a no-go for you.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:51 AM on October 22, 2012

Reason comes with a lot of good stuff, and it has to because it doesn't support AU and VST plugins. That rules out a lot of possibilities that are available in Ableton Live and all the other DAWs.
posted by chrchr at 11:52 AM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can always demo a few programs!
posted by victory_laser at 12:14 PM on October 22, 2012

Best answer: I use Logic. It has a great array of software instrument plug-ins, audio and MIDI and loops are well-integrated. It really is a great package. That said, I've been spending a lot of time composing on my iPad. Although the software isn't nearly as easy to use as Logic, it's fun.
While not a substitute for a real DAW, Sunvox, the multi-platform modular "tracker" is a very interesting piece of software and if it fits your style of working and thinking, it is really a helluva thing. It's free for OS X so you should try it out. Like Logic, it is deep and takes some time and effort to figure out but the figuring-out often produces unexpected and pleasing results.
posted by Jode at 12:14 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds to me like Ableton Live is going to be way more up your alley than other DAWs (I can't speak for Maschine, I've never used it). I've been using both Logic and Live for a while, and I use Logic when something needs to be exceedingly well-mastered and I use Live for everything else. Live's session view makes the DAW a part of the writing process in a way that you can't really replicate elsewhere, so it becomes much easier to just open it up and build a tune from scratch. With other DAWs, I always feel like I should already have a good idea of what I want before I start them up.
posted by invitapriore at 12:54 PM on October 22, 2012

Based on your post, I would suggest that you do NOT consider Ableton Live, as it is designed around the idea of composing/performing with loops, which you say you're not really interested in. Yes, that's not a definitive statement, YES, I own and love Live, but I suspect it's not going to be your cup of tea.

Logic is a logical evolutionary step up from GarageBand, and as far as price/performance, it's the one to beat.

But I will make yet another suggestion to you, something no one has yet mentioned: MOTU Digital Performer 8. A really great DAW, many years of being battle-tested, and amazingly robust set of bundled effects and instruments, and like Live, it supports both AU plugins (as do all good DAWs, with the exception of Reason), and VSTs (as does Live), opening the doors to lots of other instruments and effects.

And you might also want to look at Metro, which I haven't used in years, but there's a demo download version worth consideration.
posted by dbiedny at 1:13 PM on October 22, 2012

Most of these sequencers are significant enough pieces of software that it really pays off to get a good book on them and read about how to use that particular sequencer. In other words, some of this stuff is just that complicated that it is unavoidably opaque at first.
posted by krilli at 5:04 PM on October 22, 2012

I would avoid a DAW, or Live or Reason. Your requirements above are quantization (adjust timing of MIDI notes) and triggering external MIDI modules. You should try KeyKit, which is a MIDI composition environment. It has a great number of tools that can be connected to do various things, but more importantly, is very easy to use and figure out immediately. You can capture notes, do step sequencing, adjust timing, and do every sort of manipulation on MIDI notes. KeyKit can easily route MIDI data from, to, and between all the ports you have, and it has tools for algorithmic or stochastic composition. It has tools for building rhythms in arbitrary time signatures, and it can write standard MIDI files. The GUI is very minimal, especially compared to Garage Band, but it is sufficient to the task....I use it all the time, both in studio and live. Completely cross platform, too!
posted by ergomatic at 6:07 PM on October 22, 2012

I’m going to second Digital Performer. It’s going to cost a bit, and there’s going to be a learning curve, but that’s going to be true with whatever you move up to. Any of the bigger DAW’s are going to be an investment of money and time.

Logic is the most obtuse DAW I’ve used, and I’ve spent some time with nearly all of them. It is cheap though, and very powerful, just frustrating.

Prosonus Studio One is kind of a new player that some people are liking. It has lite versions that are a little cheaper. I haven’t spent any real time with it though.
posted by bongo_x at 11:23 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: At this point I'm torn between Logic (obvious upgrade path from Garageband, instruments and effects I know I like) and Ableton (most everybody seems to love it), so I've downloaded the demo of the latter and we'll see how things go. And it seems like there are lots of fallback options if I just totally hate those.

Thanks for the advice, everybody!
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:57 PM on October 23, 2012

Response by poster: I suppose it's worth following up for posterity's sake: I downloaded the Ableton demo, and after a day of going "wtf is this spreadsheet nonsense" I finally grokked it in fullness; what an amazing piece of software. I ultimately sprung for the whole Suite and did so happily.

Not only does it do exactly what I described above with aplomb, I like its internal workflow so much I think I'm going to wind up ditching my keyboard and going softsynth-only.
posted by Sokka shot first at 8:08 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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