Which Music Production Software Should I Buy?

I must admit that that the question posed by the title of this blog is a bit misleading – designed to get those looking for the answer to read on. In fact, there will be no definitive lists, top 5 bestest mega things etc. The short answer to this question is: it doesn’t matter.

I felt compelled to write this blog post after reading an article on music theory, which was littered left, right, and centre with adverts for throwaway controllers, esoteric synth modules and plugins that claim to sound bigger, fatter, wider than anything preceding it. The fact is that these are all distractions designed to get you to part with your money, and to occupy your mind with excitement rather than creativity. The technology doesn’t matter one jot, music creation is about ideas and the realisation of those ideas, regardless of the platform or equipment used.

I too am guilty of daydreaming about how buying a modular synth setup, drum machine, vintage Arp, will make the music I write 10 fold better, but this simply isn’t the case. Music is about rhythm, syncopation, groove/swing, dynamics, melody, harmony, tension and release, the invoking of emotion – it all adds up to create a visceral human response. Nowhere in that last sentence was any technology mentioned, because all of the above can be achieved on an acoustic guitar, within a string quartet, on a synthesiser – anything!

It’s important to remember that great music was written before Dave Smith announced the Prophet 6, before Maschine Studio was released, before Sylenth was the mainstay of EDM production. I’ll give you 2 examples of where creativity came first – probably for the main part due to a lack of financial means, but nevertheless necessity breeds invention!

Example 1: The Eurythmics – the recording of their “Sweet Dreams” album

Extract taken from “Musician” magazine 1983:

Their “studio” was a dingy, v-shaped warehouse attic. No acoustical tiles, no drum booth, no double-sealed glass window; they played and sang in the same room with their tape deck and mixing board, which were a TEAC half-inch 8-track and a cheap, used Soundcraft, respectively. For microphones, they had two Beyers, which they used to record everything – Annie’s voice, trumpets, percussion, the piano – and for outboard processing gear they had a handful of old effects boxes, a space echo, and one (count it, one) spring reverb. They made the Sweet Dreams album with that. Go and listen to it. It sounds like it was recorded in the finest of two-hundred-dollar-an-hour rooms, instead of a place most people would barely credit with demo capability. Raw talent and no pressure from the time clock are two reasonable explanations for that disparity, but at the heart of the record’s sonic success is a different attitude about recording. No more “fix it in the mix.” Instead it was get the sound right, no matter how long it took, and then record it flat. And if it didn’t sound right later, scrub it and do it again. Having fun counted, too. That’s something Annie and Dave learned from Conny Plank, back when they’d been working on In The Garden.
This is how Dave remembers it: “Conny and his partner Holger took me aside one day to show me what they were doing-all these weird, obscure experiments. They’d make rhythm tracks out of tape loops of pinball machine counters, and add a bass drum even though they couldn’t play drums, and then they’d play some kind of scratchy violin part all the way through and I’d say, ‘what the hell, that sounds terrible.’ But they’d never use it like that. They’d kind of switch it in and out, and then run it through a space echo, and phase it. ..and it would sound really great. Compared to that, everything I’d ever done in a band seemed boring.

(On the recording of the album) There’s lots of stuff you’d guess was synthesizer that isn’t. That string sound in “The Walk”? A Farfisa Combo. Compact through the spring reverb. The clinking counterpoint in the chorus of “Sweet Dreams”? Milk bottles pitched to the right notes by filling them with different levels of water. And the weird, rattling feedback along with the train noise in “The City Never Sleeps” is just that: feedback, To get the environment they wanted, Dave and Annie bought subway tickets and stood on the platform, recording the trains going by with a little Walkman-Iike tape machine. When they got back they found they didn’t have any open tracks left on the Teac, so to get the trains into the song, they added them directly into the 2-track master during mixdown. The clicking of the wheels caught Dave’s ear. To him it sounded a little like guitar feedback. So he grabbed his Gretch Country Gentleman, plugged it in, held it in front of the monitor speakers so it would pick up on the clicking and start feeding back for real… and he submixed that in, too.


Example 2: DJ Shadow – the creation of “Endtroducing”

Widely regarded as the first album to be comprised entirely of samples – no crazy expensive synthesiser hardware to be found here. The main piece of kit used by Shadow during the making of this was an Akai MPC60 mk2. The off-the-shelf specs of this unit boasted a 750kb sampling memory (enough for 13 seconds of audio) – songs created had to be stored to floppy disk (720kb storage at the time) before the machine was powered down, otherwise all work would be lost. Compare that with today’s alternative: Native Instruments’ Maschine. Sample memory size depends on your computer’s hard disk size, but most likely will run into gigabytes (1.5 hours of CD quality sound per GB), nice big easy to navigate interface, and most importantly, a wealth of sounds and samples provided as standard.

Have a look at this snippet from the 2000 hip hop documentary, “Scratch” which shows where Shadow sourced all the sounds used on the Endtroducing record:

And here’s some footage from his home studio where his groundbreaking album was created:


Both these example show that the artists in question made use of whatever they could get their hands on. Both display a DIY approach – no massive studios involved, no big mixing consoles.

Fast forward to the present day, and we have unprecedented power at our fingertips for a tiny fraction of the price of what used to constitute a bare-minimum recording setup. For less than £200 (providing you already have some sort of computer hardware) you can buy yourself a DAW. Whether that is Logic, Reason, Ableton Live, or one of the other myriad of options available, you will have at your disposal as part of the software package: a sequencer, a mixer, effect devices and processors, samplers, instruments and a wealth of audio content to get you started. In short, a complete recording studio allowing you to imagine, create, edit and mix down a professional sounding piece of music from start to finish. For less that £200.

“Which music production software should I buy?’ is a question I’m asked time and time again. The analogy I always use is the one of buying a new car: would you get a BMW, Audi, VW, or Merc? They all do the same thing, but ultimately one just ‘feels’ right for you. Generally software manufacturers provide a demo version of their products – take each for a test drive and see which one fits best.

I’ll admit that music production can be a sterile process without some hands on, tactile element. If this is the case for you then some sort of MIDI controller/control surface would be a good investment. Don’t be drawn in by the latest and greatest all-singing all-dancing number. They all work on the same protocol – MIDI! MIDI has been around since 1983, and doesn’t look to be going anywhere just yet. The only thing I would say is that in recent years controller keyboard manufacturers have kindly included a USB connection facility which allows the transfer of MIDI data to the computer, and often will power the unit straight from the USB bus, negating the need for a separate MIDI interface and mains power unit. I’d go out on a limb and say that any controller keyboard made after around 2005 will have USB connectivity, so this would be the only stipulation for me when buying a controller – make sure it’s newer than 2005! Other than that, think about what it is you’d like to achieve with your controller. Just playing notes? Controlling parameters? Triggering ideas? There’s a key/button/encoder combination to suit all needs, you just need to decide what you’re going to be doing with them.

“Which music production software should I buy?” – a valid question. In today’s DAW world with almost limitless possibility, why would you need hardware? Well, those limitless possibilities can sometimes be a little overwhelming. Where do you start when anything is possible? This is why I like using hardware – it has a specific function, and is by definition limiting. Sometimes being limited allows for inspiration because you’re not always second guessing yourself: “well maybe I could do X/Y/Z and make it better”. A synthesiser is a synthesiser and all it does is synthesise sound. Investing in a hardware sound source is relatively expensive compared with purchasing software (or if you’re that way inclined downloading hacked versions for free, something we wouldn’t recommend one jot), but what it will force you to do, is to make sure you get the most out of the device: you’ve invested good money in it after all. It gives you a reliable start point for inspiration. Rather than sifting through 1001 software instruments looking for ‘the sound’, you have a physical device to sit and tweak, you don’t have to have your computer on for it to produce a sound. You are limited to the capabilities of that device, so it will encourage you to experiment and push the device to it’s limits. Finally, buying yourself an esoteric bit of kit will sonically set you apart from every man and his dog in possession of a copy of “Massive”.

Take for example Daniel Avery’s album, “Drone Logic”. The majority of sounds you hear on that album are created using just a Korg Mono/Poly synth. The Mono/Poly had no 5-pin MIDI implementation and no patch storage – once the knobs are turned, the sound is gone. Sounds from the synth were recorded in to the computer and manipulated in his chosen DAW to build the tracks. This makes it very difficult to fundamentally edit the timbre of a sound once it’s been recorded in, and therefore promotes a different workflow where you are less inclined to revisit source sounds because they’re a pain in the neck to recreate! This could potentially allow you to finished a track quicker, again, because you’re not always second guessing: once it’s down, it’s down.

To summarise, drum beats can be made from samples provided, from drum machines, from sampled records, from a recording you’ve made of other unrelated sound objects. Synth lines can be played in from your hardware synth, can be sampled from records, can be triggered in your DAW. Vocals can be recorded on a £20 microphone in your bedroom or in Abbey Road studios. It really doesn’t matter if you have the latest, greatest hardware, or are doing everything on an old PC laptop, as long as the ideas and vibe are there.