Here at Production Control we are interested in control surfaces that can be used to get control back from the software we use. But what software should we use? This article attempts to help you decide what the best music production software is best for you, on an Apple Mac computer. I won’t weigh in on the Apple vs Windows debate here, rather just provide you with the different options available if you own an Apple computer.
Right going to cut straight to the point here, the best piece of software for you is the one you know. But if you are here then I am guessing you either new to the game or are looking at what other options are out there. In this article we will:
- Look into the features we might be looking for (using three fictitious artists with unique needs to help us along the way).
- Discuss the different options available and their pricing
- Dive into some of the pros and cons of the different options
- Discover what other artists use
But first let’s get a very basic understanding of what music production software is and what it does. Better known as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) a DAW is a piece of software that runs on your computer (Mac) designed to record, edit and manipulate digital audio. This can include audio files like mp3, wav and midi where the midi information is use by a virtual instrument to produce audio. Once you have the audio in your DAW you can then manipulate it by cutting, copying and adding effects to the audio changing it into something unique. Now we have that out-of-the-way let’s get into it.
What features do I want?
So to help us here we are going to follow three artists and use their requirements as use cases. The idea here is to get you thinking about what features you might need by relating to the artists.
So let’s meet them!
Singer song writer who can sing, play guitar and piano. Holly would like to start recording track of her own to create an online portfolio of her work. She is new to DAWs.
What key features does Holly need?
- since she is new to DAWs then something user-friendly and not to intimidating when opening a new session
- software that can record audio clips of her singing and playing instruments
- export functionality to an online profile
Dan is a trained composer and is starting to take on more and more scoring jobs for film, TV and TV advertising. He has an understanding of DAWs but has not settled on one in particular. He loves the orchestra and wants to make his signature sound one of big symphony orchestras.
What key features does Dan need?
- the ability to import video to match up the music to
- software capable of managing many many tracks for each of the orchestra instruments
- software that conforms to the industry standards (nice to have)
Ted and Tod
Ted and Tod are interested in the creating electronic music. Neither of them are musically trained and they would like to be able to work on projects collaboratively. This does pose a challenge since they live across town from each other. They also like to DJ and would love to bring their own productions to a live show.
What key features do Ted and Tod need?
- the ability to collaborate on projects
- ability to use electronic instruments like synthesizers and drum machines
- options to add effects to the audio signals
- perform productions live
Now that we have meet our artists I hope this has helped you think about what features you might want out of a DAW. Who are you most like out of the three artists above? Are you a combination of them? Are you nothing like them (if you have a set of specific requirements please feel free to leave me a comment in the comments section below and I would be more than happy to help you)?
What are my options for Mac?
Below I listed what I consider the big players to be. Click on the company logo to head to their site for more details. I have also included a few details about each and who from our three artists I think the DAW would be best suited and why.
Please note all prices are approximate and current as at the time of writing. Please check on the company website for updated pricing.
This DAW I would have to place in the Ted and Tom camp. It has a great selection for virtual instrument synthesizers and affects bundled. This combined with the ability to save an entire reason project in one file would make collaboration for Ted and Tom easy. There is an “intro” version of Reason available so they could try it out and when they outgrow the intro version, upgrade to the full version and carry on as per usual.
- Current version: 10
- price: 99/399 USD
- student pricing: 299 USD
- free version: 30 day trial of Reason
Ableton Live Suite
Ableton live would be best suited to Ted and Tod due to its biggest differentiating feature compared to the rest of the DAW listed here. As the name would suggest Ableton Live is just as much a music production DAW as it is a live performance software application. It has a unique session view showing a grid where users can add loops of any kind and trigger them in a live situation. Live’s audio engine is optimized specifically for live performances. This is a DAW that ticks many boxes.
- Current version: 10
- price: 99/499/749 USD
- student pricing: yes – 2699/449 USD
- free version: 30 day trial of Ableton Live Suite
While logic pro could certainly be used by any of our case study artists I think it would be best suited to Holly. Logic Pro has a clean inviting user interface. It is the big brother of Garage Band. It has a good audio editing work flow and as with all Apple products just works!
- current version: X (10)
- price: 299 USD
- student pricing: yes – as part of the Pro Apps Bundle for Education
- free version: no, you could consider Garage Band as a free version
Pro Tools is a big player in the music recording industry. It has bee around for a long time in particular in recording studios. Because of this I would suggest Holly being the best fit for this DAW. When it comes to recording live audio, this is the best. Keeping in mind that this may me a little intimidating for a new comer to DAWs, but there are plenty of tutorials out there so finding with a little determination it is definitely achievable for everyone.
- Current version: 12
- price: 599 USD, subscriptions (1yr, 24.92 USD per month) (1mth, 29.99 USD per month)
- student pricing: subscriptions (1yr, 8.25 USD per month) (1mth, 9.99 USD per month)
- free version: yes Pro Tools First
I would have to give this one to Dan. Cubase is an industry standard when it comes to film and TV scoring. It has all the features you need to get going and produce great work. It also supports surround sound mixing which will be a must for Dan. Cubase has been around for a long time and has plenty of artists backing it as you can see here in the `Meet the Artists` web page. Cubase Pro also works seamlessly with Vienna Ensemble Pro which allows you to set up salve VST machines to power huge arrangements for instruments.
- Current version: 9.5
- price: 90/300/550 USD
- free version: 30 day trial of Cubase Pro
The underdog of the DAW world and very reasonably priced for what you get. There is not a lot you can’t do with Reaper which makes it a very attractive options in particular for those who are starting out. While Ted and Tod are very close runners-up I would have to give this one to Holly. Reaper will tick all the boxes for Holly and be far cheaper than any of the other paid DAWs. There is good support around the project with helpful video tutorials to help get people started.
- Current version: 5.941
- price: 60 USD
- student pricing: no – classroom discount available on request
- free version: 60 day evaluation of Reaper
This one goes to Holly. It is a simple DAW to use, very intuitive and it even has a mobile offering so you can record on the road. This will tick most of the boxes for Holly and best of all it comes free with an Apple Mac computer. While it may not be as feature rich as the other DAWs in this list it is a great starting DAW and if you outgrow it you can move to Logic Pro. The switch is so seamless you can even open you old Garage Band projects in Logic Pro.
- Current version: 10.2
- price: free download from the App Store
Digital Performer is somewhat of a niche DAW that might be viewed as one solely reserved for the professional market but it is still a DAW and does the same as what other DAWs do. That being said it is defiantly targeted at the Film and TV industry so this one goes to Dan. It has a clean interface optimized for productivity.
- Current version: 9
- price: 499 USD – upgrade from competing product 395 USD
- student pricing: none
- free version: 30 day trial for Digital Performer 9
Pros and Cons
For me the pros and cons can be very subjective so I will not dive too deep in them here but I will bring up just a few points that hopefully help inform you and lead you in the direction right for you when choosing the best DAW for you.
I use Ableton Live almost daily, it is the DAW I know the best and I enjoy using it. The one thing that bugs me about it is the audio engine. To be clear it is not bad at all, but when I have compared the same project with the same instruments and effects playing back I see and hear significantly different performance. Host CPU usage is greater in Live along with the audio engine usage resulting in the occasional pop or crack sound. This thing to note here is that if you are going to be using many virtual instruments and effects with live, you will want to get your self a computer to run it on. I have even noted performance differences between Mac and Windows hosts running Live (where Mac performed better).
Reaper gets huge points for the price, plain and simple it is too good to ignore and in my opinion it is a real competitor to the other DAWs.
If you choose Cubase Pro then you will have to get yourself a USB license key. It is not expensive at all however in my opinion it would be annoying to have to carry around and plugin when you want to use the DAW. Especially these days when laptops are coming with fewer and fewer ports. However, if you only ever see yourself using a stationary Computer then this likely will not be an issue.
A great piece of software no doubt, and that is not the issue here, rather the support. There is some concern in the Logic Pro community of Apple dropping support for Logic Pro. I do hope Logic is here to stay.
If you have used any DAW and have feed back please let me know in the comments section below.
What are others using?
I thought it might be inspiring to see different professional using the different DAWs. Hopefully this will give you more inspiration and information into how the DAWs work and which one is right for you.
Here we see Dada Life showing us through a track they produced in Ableton Live. There is an interesting discussion about computer crashes when bouncing the audio that may be of interest to you. Full credit to Future Music for this Video.
With new iMac Pro Christian tests out a huge arrangement pushing the limits of Logic Pro and the Apple computer. He is a big advocate for Logic Pro so if you are interested take a look at his other videos for lots of great informative content. Full credit to Christian for this video
Here Charlie Puth runs us through his track “Attention” using Pro Tools. He gives us some insight into his workflow and how he pulls a track together. Full credit to Rolling Stone for the video.
A short run through of how he used the VocalSynth 2 VST in his track “New Rules”. Here we see how Cubase Pro can be used to manipulate vocals into something new. Credit to Splice for the video.
Deadmau5 getting hands on for the first time with Reaper. There isn’t and commentary by the artist but the audio out of reap is recorded. This is an interesting insight into a professional and how they pick up and use a new tool. Credit to Oskillator for the video.
Working on the TV show Family Guy Walter Murphy walks us through his work flow with Digital Performer and give us insight into the world of scoring for TV. Full credit to Sound on Sound magazine for the video.
So here we go, my opinions for the best music production software on a Mac.
I think that for anyone who is interested in taking their production to a live stage then Ableton Live is the way to go. This is what it is built to do and it differentiates itself in this way. Not only can it do that, but it is also an excellent music production DAW with almost all the features you will even need. So for Ted and Tom I would recommend Ableton Live.
If a lot of your work is going to be recording live audio into you computer then Pro Tools is the one for you. It is an industry standard when it comes to audio recording and really is second to none here. So I am recommending Holly takes this option going forward. The knowledge she will gain from using Pro Tools will put her in a good position if she ever finds herself recording in a professional studio.
Finally, for Dan I would recommend Cubase. It is an industry standard in the world of film scoring and specializes in it with additional technologies available to greatly increase the number of instruments in a single project. It even supports multi channel like 5.1 surround mixing a must in the film industry.
I hope that this article has helped you along your journey of picking the right DAW for you. We have covered the main players available for Mac, discussed their strengths and weaknesses and seen how our artists needs have matched up with the features of the various DAWs.
I am really interested to hear what DAW you choose and why. So leave a comment below about your DAW choice, you never know it might even help someone else make their decision.
Thanks for reading.