Part 1: Sequencers and software studios.
Sequencers or software studios are the heart and soul of your computer music making set-up. If you learn how to use a sequencer well your music creation will become an efficient and effortless process. All of the packages we discuss below come packed with features and allow you to do pretty much anything you can musically imagine, but the best are almost ‘transparent’ in their actions, letting you get on with the business of making music with minimum fuss. They therefore act a bit like instruments themselves and you master them by getting to know their features and short cuts, almost like a musician gets to know their instrument.
Sequencers are also known as ‘host applications’ in that they can host other virtual instruments and effects produced by other companies. Many have a lot of instruments included when you buy them but it’s always good to have the flexibility to grow so you can build the ultimate virtual studio set-up around a sequencer that you are comfortable with.
So which sequencer or software studio should you go for?
Before we can answer that you need to decide what kind of a musician you are and what sort of music you want to make. Are you just starting out and want to create tunes by throwing some loops and other sounds together? If so check out the Best Entry Level category (below) and Ableton Live (also below). Do you want to add a lot of your own virtual instruments? If so you might like one of the more traditional package that let you add as many of these as you like depending on the power of the computer you are using. Are you a more high end user who wants to master existing audio or write music for films? If so check out some of the pro alternatives we’ve listed.
In short we’ve detailed all of the sequencers Dolphin Music sell under different buyer categories and also the platforms they run on so you can make your choice right here, right now. Pretty much every sequencer will have at least one way of doing what you want it to do and many have lots (stand up SONAR!) so that you can work with them in a way that suits you. But also remember to try out any software demos that you can to make sure that you are comfortable with them – these could be packages that stay with you for your entire musical life!
Let’s take a look at the different sorts of soft sequencer starting out with the more traditional and perhaps better-known packages…
Best across the board
Steinberg Cubase (Mac & PC)
If you’re new to music making you may already have heard about Cubase as it has dominated computer music for the last couple of decades going right back to its version 1 days on the Atari. Like all of the traditional software packages you build up your music track by track (the tracks appearing horizontally on the left hand side of the display) using tape control buttons to play and record notes. Your music is recorded in each track in real time minutes and seconds or musical bars and beats travelling from left to right. You end up with a grid of blocks that represent your song as an arrangement. Cubase has tonnes of editing features, software instruments and effects included so you can make music with the software alone although eventually you will want to expand by adding extra virtual instruments and possibly extra audio editing software. Cubase is the daddy of all sequencers and available for Mac and PC. We offer the complete Cubase range from SE (at £99 inc VAT) right up to Cubase SX (£499). There are educational discounts and extra bundles too such as Studiocase which is a ‘best of Steinberg’ featuring SE plus a lot of extra virtual instruments for just £179.
You can read about the full range of Steinberg sequencer packages here.
Best Mac software
Apple’s serious music package may only run under OSX but it has a great heritage and a huge fan base around the world. It’s arguably smoother running than Cubase as it has been optimised for Macs only so no compromise has been made getting it working on two platforms. Feature wise it possibly excels over Cubase although there are just as many people that will tell you that it suffers in terms of ease of use. Certainly if you are a beginner, Logic may be daunting but once you get into it you will need very little more especially if you opt for the full-blown Apple Logic Pro bundle (£639) that contains possibly the best suite of music software out there including synths, samplers, guitar amps and effects. If that outlay is just too much, you may want to get a taste of Logic for less with Apple Logic Express (£179) which has less instruments but still includes a couple of neat synths and effects to get you going.
You can read about the full range of Apple/Emagic products here.
Best PC flexibility
Cakewalk SONAR is one of the most popular brands of music software for the PC. It is packed with features and is possibly one of the most flexible pieces of software going. If you pick a feature, it seems there are half a dozen ways of utilising it so once you get your head around this you can really customise the software to your own working methods. Cakewalk don’t believe in doing things in small numbers, it seems, and there is a huge range of SONAR applications and bundles offered here at Dolphin. The most important is the bread and butter SONAR Studio edition (£209) which features unlimited recording tracks, a groove synths and sampler plus effects. The top of the range SONAR Producer Edition (£329) adds surround and convolution effects, a groove box and some quite amazing synths.
You can read more about the full range of SONAR products here.
Not just the high end anymore…
Pro Tools M-Powered
When computer musicians talk about quality they will undoubtedly mention ProTools as it has been the industry standard in most pro studios for recording and mixing audio. Digidesign’s Pro Tools was, until last year, really just for the serious music maker but now M-Audio produce Pro Tools M-Powered which, for just £199, allows you to process up to 32 channels of audio. It does require some M-Audio hardware but we sell bundles for all sorts of production set-ups including the Audiophile 2496 Pro Tools system which, at £279, is the cheapest way of getting into Pro Tools. Then there’s the 1814FW system (£539) which is ideal for mobile recording and the top spec Professional system (£839) which contains the 1814 and M-Audio Octane.
You can read about the full range of M-Audio M-Powered bundles here.
But if you want high end…
You can, of course, step up to more fully-endowed Pro Tools systems of which Dolphin do several packages. The Digidesign Digi 002 rack (£769) is a superb hardware interface with the better-featured Pro Tools LE software and there’s even a better value bundle-version (£999) featuring an incredible selection of effects. At the real high end you might want to consider the Digi 002 Factory control surface (£1529) which is an interface and controller for your software and comes with the same bundle of great software.
See all Digidesign products at Dolphin here
Best loop-based software
Ableton Live (Mac & PC)
Ableton’s Live (£235) set the world on fire when it was released just a few years ago. It completely throws the sequencer rule book out of the window by composing in a more loop-based way. But as the software effectively puts everything into time for you, you can throw pretty much everything at the grid arrangement to produce songs, and there’s even a more traditional arrangement view should you wish to use it. The software comes with a whole slew of sounds, synths and effects and has also been used by DJs as well as musicians. We do several bundles and upgrade offers including one with Wavelab Essential which is an excellent way of increasing your audio editing power for minimal outlay.
See all Ableton bundles at Dolphin here.
Propellerheads Reason (Mac & PC)
Propellerheads Reason (£239, Mac and PC) is arguably the mostly widely-used piece of music software in the world and started off the careers of many a musician. It comprises a virtual rack which is full of synths, samplers, drum machines and other instruments and effects, but its beauty is in how all of these can easily connect and play so you will literally be making sweet music in minutes. It’s all the hardware you could ever want in software!
We also offer extra sounds and Reason bundles here
Best entry-level software (PC)
It’s perhaps a bit unfair including this as Mackie’s Tracktion (£109) software is hardly beginner in terms of power but its price puts it right up there as one of the most affordable packages you can buy and it is very easy to use. The developers programmed it to be as simple and as clear as possible so that pretty much all you need to see is on one screen (unlike some other packages where endless options and menus require the use of two screens!). There’s less in the way of instrumentation than in other packages but what you do get is logical and powerful.
Sony’s Acid software is another cheap way of producing music very quickly. It is now at Acid Pro v5 (£199) but is still essentially the same loop-based software that has found fans across the world. Using audio loops you can build up songs track by track with the software keeping time. The latest version allows includes effects and allows expansion via VST instruments and also has sophisticated 5.1 mixing features.
Cakewalk’s Home Studio (£79) is the entry level software from the SONAR family and features a surprisingly powerful array of tools including three instruments, 24 effects, 64 tracks of recording and the ability to add extra VST instruments.
Other professional performers
Digital Performer (£369, Mac) is arguably more packed with features than Cubase but has a much smaller following in the UK. It features unlimited tracks and Undos and is aimed at anyone from loop-based musicians just starting out in music right up to full-on video producers. For the price it represents great value but doesn’t include nearly as many extras as Apple’s Logic bundle although that retails for twice the price.
Steinberg’s Nuendo (£750, Mac & PC) is the German company’s hi-end software aimed at the Pro Tools market and it comes absolutely loaded with features. It’s based around the Cubase interface so users of that software should find it easy to navigate although with more and more video add-ons at every update this really is a package aimed at multimedia producers.
Finally Notation software is also very well represented here at Dolphin. It starts in price from as little as £69 for Sion Quickscore Elite (PC) which enables you to create all sorts of notation with lyrics within your sequencer. Coda Finale (£299, Mac and PC) is very well regarded and one of the most powerful notation packages you can buy with a hugely flexible approach. But perhaps the daddy of notation software is Sibelius (£449, Mac and PC) which has extensive education features and enables you to write to video.
You can see all the notation software we sell here at Dolphin here
The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones
- Part 1, Sequencers and software studios.
- Part 2, Section 1: Virtual Acoustic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 2: Virtual Electronic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 3: Virtual effects
- Part 3, Section 1: MIDI Keyboards
- Part 3, Section 2: MIDI Controllers
- Part 4, Sound Cards & Audio Interfaces
- Part 5, Monitors
- Part 6, Extra Power