I will write a few articles on our simple home studio set up – software, equipment, etc. Do not take these too seriously. For one, our studio is the end result of a long line of experiments, not all of which were successful. We bought a lot of equipment and software without too much information and we now know that there is better and cheaper gear out there. Also, you may be looking for a completely different kind of experience. Either way, here is a review of our software.
Recording software is a must if you want to record a complete song at home and on a personal computer. We use CoolEdit Pro and ProTools LE, but there is a lot of software out there and most of it works similarly. It allows you to take a sound signal input coming into a soundcard and record it into sound files, produce these files, and then mix them into a single song.
Why CoolEdit Pro? I have not seen many people use this one. The main reason I like it is that it is very well designed and consequently very easy to understand. Here are some of its features: CoolEdit Pro 2.0 works independently of the soundcard and all recording, mixing, and other processing is digital and done in the computer processor. Basically all you need is any soundcard with inputs. CoolEdit has a lot of flexibility for mixing, including simple stuff such as adjusting volume and pan, and more complex things such as compressing, reverberating, adding echoes, delays, equalizers, and other filters. The main advantage of CoolEdit is that, again, it is very well designed and requires little learning. We have rarely looked into its help manual, which, by the way, is also good.
Using CoolEdit does have some disadvantages. For example, there is no MIDI editing that we can find. This could be important if you want to "program" musical pieces for instruments that you do not own or do not know how to play. I cannot play piano very well, but I have sometimes created complex MIDI piano tracks using other software. Again, CoolEdit Pro is easy to use and does a good job for recording a complete song. CoolEdit Pro works only on Windows and a few years back was being sold by Syntrillium Software for around $400. Since then Syntrillium Software was bought Adobe and the product now sells as Adobe Audition. I have seen Adobe Audition 2.0 for around $350. Differences between the original CoolEdit and Adobe Audition include the added ability to integrate with video, a master mix console, and surround sound support. I cannot figure out the current level of support for MIDI editing.
ProTools LE is very similar and does essentially the same things: recording to separate tracks, producing, and mixing. ProTools also does its job nicely. The one big difference as far as I can tell is that this software is designed to work only with the hardware with which it is sold. Ours came with Digidesign’s MBox and we use it on a Mac Titanium Powerbook running OS X 10. It looks like ProTools does all of its digital processing in the soundcard, which is good as that is what the soundcard is designed for and as the computer processor is then free to perform other tasks. There are different versions of the software sold with different hardware and prices vary greatly. The new MBox 2 now goes for about $500 and you can get the Digi002 Factory with ProTools LE, for example, for $2,500. If you go for Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel Systems you will be spending about $14,000. ProTools claims to be the industry standard and enjoys endorsements from professional recording artists and studios. An advantage of ProTools is that if you can spend the money you will get quality. ProTools has good quality professional equipment, but our studio is at the bottom end of the price range. We were not interested in spending lavish sums on equipment.
A disadvantage of ProTools LE for us is that it is not very intuitive. We still cannot figure out how some of its pieces work. The effects section of ProTools LE, for example, is complete, but I have not had good experience working with it. Maybe if you want good ProTools effects they will come at an additional price.
There is a lot of other software out there. At the top end of the "cheap" software is Steinberg Nuendo ($800) and Cakewalk (in very many versions, but let's say $400). Both of those seem to be very good and more extensive than what we use. I was impressed by Nuendo as it has good MIDI capabilities, loop creation, and effects. At the other end of the spectrum is probably something like Garage Band, which comes in the latest version of Mac OS X. It offers basic editing capabilities as well as a number of loops and effects. While most of these samples and effects are marginally useful to a conventional band, they are free and upgrades can be downloaded from Apple’s website.
With so much software out there the question becomes what a good strategy for purchasing one is. The general strategy should be: Get a trial version and experiment. Recording software has too many features to describe in one place and different people are looking for different things. You may be looking for MIDI support, video integration, good sound processing effects (e.g., compression, reverb), effects that will work in runtime, large amount of tracks, recording at high sampling rates, software that is not too heavy and will work on small computers with not too much memory requirements, software that is independent of the hardware, DirectX effects VST plug-ins, and many, many other things.
If I was to start anew I would probably go for Nuendo, but let me first try to put together a list of the software features that I would be interested in (in addition to price, of course).
- I want software that is independent of the soundcard. I have already switched through several soundcards. If I was to choose ProTools LE I would have pretty much been restricted me to the MBox. I do not like the quality of sound coming out of the headphone output on the MBox and that makes mixing and mastering on the MBox difficult.
- I would like a good help manual. Even intuitive software like CoolEdit Pro would require some learning.
- I would like enough tracks to work with, but in general I have rarely gone over 50.
- I would want to have good sound processing effects, and mostly a good reverb, but I have recently learned, through some experimentation, that none of these software applications will give me that. At the end of the day I have found a different solution for that.
- I would like an application that is not too memory and computationally intensive. Music processing generally is and every little bit helps, especially when we originally started recording music on an old 300MHz Compaq.
- I would be interested in recording at sampling rates higher than 44.1 KHz and at bit resolution higher than 16-bit, but that is not very important. Our music will end up on 44.1 KHz, 16-bit CD anyway, we do not do much production processing anyway, and down sampling for CD purposes is probably more destructive than just recording at the right sampling rate.
- I would like good MIDI support, including not only recording and playback, but also editing. But I already designed a separate MIDI application that does that.
- I would like DirectX plug-ins, just in case, but so far I have not used any in CoolEdit Pro.
- Finally, I would want to know that the software I am purchasing will continue to be supported. Transferring a recording session from one piece of software to another is always time consuming and sometimes difficult.
One thing we still have not found in software is a good reverb. Adding reverb to our sound is about all of the producing that we do. I have designed digital reverbs before and I know how much they mangle the sound. Our first album uses a lot of the CoolEdit reverbs, but nowadays I have gone to using the reverbs on my PODxt. If we wanted to spend money we may actually go for a separate reverb hardware unit. People swear by the Lexicon and Native Instruments reverbs, but I have not gotten around to testing those. I did buy a Lexicon soundcard recently, and the result of this experiment is an up-and-coming project.
All the software that I am describing here by the way is designed to do mostly one thing: Record a complete song. There is a lot of other music software that does other different things. There are sound effects sold as DirectX or VST plug-ins and most of the applications described above can pull those in for use in your recording sessions. There is software that allows good processing of a single sound file, but does not have any multi track capabilities. There is also a lot of software that allows to order and loop sound samples to build a song or a track.
I do not anticipate expanding the number of software applications that we use for song recording. After all, I would rather spend my time playing and recording, then installing software and learning everything about it. If I was to purchase more though, I would probably get a trial version and experiment.