Top 10 Best Music Making and Production Apps

So, you want to make some music?  Well, it used to be that one needed a recording studio or at least a multi-track tape recorder.  These days, with the advent of hardware digital multitrack recorders, and computers becoming more powerful and sophisticated audio programs being written all the time, anyone can make music.

So how do you pick an audio program?  Well, first off, I’m not going to recommend any programs here because your needs might be different than mine and there are just too many programs for me to single one out anyway.

 Instead, I’ll list some criteria below that should help you decide what features you need in a program.

The Top 10 Best Music Making and Production Apps

1) Computer Platform.  

This is probably the most important choice you have to make when selecting a music production app.  What computer platform will it run on?   Windows or Mac?  If you don’t have access to both platforms then choose one or the other rather than to find something that runs on both.  

That will greatly narrow your choices, but not necessarily eliminate them altogether if the program is free to try out anyway.  Some are available for both platforms, but often at different prices or with limited functionality on one platform vs another.

2) Audio Input Capabilities.

 What types of audio inputs can you use?  Your computer probably has a microphone input if it’s fairly new.  Does it have line-level ¼ inch inputs?   USB microphone inputs are currently popular and inexpensive for this purpose since they connect directly to the computer without additional hardware (and many computers don’t even need an audio interface! ).

If the audio device you buy doesn’t come with its own power supply then you’ll need to run it off the computer’s +12v DC power supply (most power supplies come with at least one free connector).

3) Audio Output Capabilities .

 Just as important as input is output since you need to be able to hear what you’re recording or playing back.  Does it have line level ¼ inch outputs? If so, how many?  Do they go through the main audio mixer in your program or do they bypass the mixer and go directly to your sound card for monitoring?

Then there are headphone out jacks which can be very handy but aren’t essential if you don’t mind using a system speaker for monitoring.

4) MIDI/Slave Connections .

 MIDI is the acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface.  It’s a digital communication protocol used between electronic musical instruments, computers and music synthesizers.  

USB MIDI is becoming more common on computer sound cards (look for the icon in your computer’s system tray to see if you have it). If you want to be able to record MIDI directly into your music production software then your audio interface should include this feature.

5) Audio Editing Capabilities .  Some programs let you edit audio like Audacity does (but not as sophisticated). Audio editing capability can be very helpful in removing noise or other unwanted artifacts from recordings, but make sure it’s included in the price of the program because some are very limited when it comes to editing capabilities unless you’re willing to spend even more money.

6) Virtual Instruments .  Does the program come with any virtual instruments? If it does, then this feature alone should make you seriously consider that program unless it’s lacking other features you need for your productions (like sound output capabilities or MIDI support).  

Even if you already have a good collection of virtual instruments on your computer, most programs don’t include really good ones so check out what they give you in the package before dismissing them.

 Cubase has an excellent version of Steinberg’s HALion One virtual instrument included at no extra charge which is especially nice because HALion One isn’t available separately for Mac OS X yet.

7) Audio Track Mixer .   Some programs mix audio tracks together before they are sent to your sound card.

 This is useful if you have many tracks playing at once, but it can also eat up your computer’s resources if you’re recording or playing back lots of audio tracks at the same time.

If this feature is important to you then choose a program which has an external mixer option so that you can control what’s mixed where yourself instead of leaving it up to the software.

8) Audio Waveform Editing .

  You’ll definitely want some sort of waveform editing capability in your music production program whether it comes with its own display options or requires you to paint one by hand using MIDI note data as Cubase 5 does (which I don’t recommend because it’s very tedious).

 Many programs now include a variety of sophisticated graphic editing options that let you control how the waveform looks.  

Cubase’s WaveLab LE also includes a full-featured audio editor as well as some additional effects and MIDI tools which make it quite an impressive package at a very attractive price.

9) Additional Effects .  

A great feature to have in any music production software is the ability to add plug-in effects from within the program itself .  Most popular programs allow this but there are differences.  You can never go wrong with Audacity since it comes with a huge assortment of built-in effects including everything you need for most basic productions.

You can use Audacity record into or edit your final production in with its built-in tools, but you can’t use it to record MIDI data if you want to keep the effects.  With some programs like Ableton Live there is no internal effect processing so everything *must* be done using plug-in effects.

 Some of these program will let you use their included internal effects on any file type even if they don’t support that file type natively (which is nice) while others are more picky about what kinds of files they’ll let you work with after the initial import process.

10) Price .  

Of course price is an important consideration for anyone setting out to buy anything.  As a rule of thumb, make sure the software has all the features you need at a price you can afford before buying it.  

Neglecting any one of the issues listed above could result in an otherwise unusable program which is frustrating if you’ve spent good money for it (and even worse if they charge lots of money for upgrades to additional features like MetaSynth does).

 Be especially wary of programs that try to sneak extra charges into their packages by adding on modules once you start using them.

Now that you’re armed with some background information, here are my picks for the top ten best music production and/or editing software applications – rated from best to worst:

10) Apple Garage Band 1 .  

Garage Band just barely made the list because it’s a very basic program without many built-in features.  However, since it comes free with every Macintosh computer you will definitely want to check it out if you own a Mac.

 It’s fairly easy to use and there are lots of great third party sounds and loops available for download from the user community so try not to dismiss it completely just because it comes bundled with your computer.

9) Ableton Live 8 .  

This is a very popular software release which produces a professional sound while still being fairly easy to use.  Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find any information about its inclusion in Apple’s Logic Pro 9 package so at this time I cannot recommend you upgrade from version 7 or earlier unless you’re already using as your main music production application (in which case you probably already know about this).  

8) Waves Gold .

 This is one of the more expensive audio production suites out there but it has lots of great features like built-in audio processing effects and excellent sound quality.  However, I have to say that I’ve never found any Waves plug-ins that lived up to their price tag so unless the software also came with a large assortment of third party sounds or loops I would not recommend getting it just for the sake of using their effects.

7) Apple Logic Pro 9 .

One of my favorite Mac programs, Logic Pro 9’s collection of plug-ins are top notch – both in terms of quality and quantity. It also comes with its own set of MIDI editing and sequencing tools which makes it stand out from the pack.  I highly recommend upgrading from earlier versions.

6) Steinberg Cubase 7 .

Another Mac program with good build-in sound effects and excellent mixing options, as well as a fairly large selection of third party sounds and loops available for download. It also comes with its own set of built-in automation features which is helpful if you don’t already own another program that supports this feature (like I do).

5) Audio Damage Modular V2 .  

This is an unusual entry – ACID Music Studio does not let you use its internal effects on any file types except those that come bundled with the software so most people would probably count it out, but I think it’s worth mentioning since you can use any VST instrument or effect with the program.  

If you’re just slightly adventurous Modular V2 might be what you are looking for, especially if you already own or have access to a few interesting third party sounds.

4) Apple ACID Pro 7 .  

This is another great Mac-only piece of software with lots of built-in sound effects and extensive automation features.  It also comes with its own set of MIDI editing and sequencing tools which makes it stand out from the pack even more than Logic Pro 9 does.

The only reason this isn’t ranked higher is because it’s much newer than the other programs listed here.

3) Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10 .  

I have to agree with most of the other movie-making oriented video editors that I’ve read online – Vegas Movie Studio is an awesome entry level video editor that also happens to function fairly well as a music production application.

 It can do basic MIDI sequencing and has a few solid sound effects included with it but comes without any third party sounds or loops.

  2) Apple Garage Band 3 .  Ahh, Garage Band, my old friend!  Garage Band is another one of those programs that might be very limited in its functionality compared to dedicated music production software but what it lacks in features it makes up for tenfold when you consider how easy it is to use on a Windows or Mac computer.  

Garage Band has lots of built-in sound effects, supports third party VST instruments and instruments/effects bundles, lets you save your compositions in multiple file types (*including* MP3) so that they can easily be transferred to an mp3 player or uploaded to the internet, and includes a selection of loops for use with any instrument.

 It also comes with its own set of MIDI sequencing tools which is great if you don’t already own another program that supports this feature (like I do).

1) Apple GarageBand 2 .

The older version of their entry level music production software just can’t be beat as far as I’m concerned, but it’s still missing some features such as automation controls and full keyboard support (you must use a mouse to change the pitch and volume of notes).  

Other than that it’s still very usable on Windows or Mac computers, has lots of built-in sound effects, supports third party VST instruments and instruments/effects bundles, lets you save your compositions in multiple file types (*including* MP3).

so that they can easily be transferred to an mp3 player or uploaded to the internet, and includes a selection of loops for use with any instrument.

It also comes with its own set of MIDI sequencing tools which is great if you don’t already own another program that supports this feature (like I do).

On top of all that GarageBand 3 adds some new features including the ability to record multiple tracks simultaneously, the ability to edit multiple tracks simultaneously, and some updated graphics.

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