A PC based home studio (part III)

Part III: Chosing Software

Sometimes I will refer to previous articles since I don't want to repeat myself too much.

In part II of this series I tried to help you chosing hardware for a PC based home studio. I couldn't give you a simple list with things to buy, since the things you actually buy and use depend on what you want to do with the setup. Remember the questions in part I? Before you *start* to build your setup, you need to know your requirements. Having only the vague idea of "I want to record my music with the PC" won't get you very far.

Maybe you still feel a little helpless because I didn't give you a comprehensive list of what you need. The problem is, there's no "one-size-fits-all"-solution. Since I don't know your budget nor your intentions I can't possibly give detailed instruction - while some people would be happy with my idea of a PC based home studio, others would find my selection of hardware and software completely useless for their purposes.

Now, I'd like to suggest the following: first, read this article about chosing software. Then, with your requirements in mind, you'll maybe have some idea of where to start and what to do. If you want, post what you have decided or what idea you have of a setup, and we'll discuss it. If you're still lost, post your requirements and budget limits here on the forum, and together we'll try to work out a solution. Maybe we'll end up with some "common" examples for different sets of similar requirements, which can work as a guideline for others. You can of course send me an email, too, but I'd like to have a public discussion about all this, so that others can profit, too.

Now on to the software decision:

First of all, I hope you didn't plan to spend your whole budget on hardware. You'll need software, too, and that will cost a bit of money, too. If you have worked with "conventional" recording systems before (tape recorders or analog 8-tracks for example), maybe you simply forgot about software. This is what happened to me, at least - I bought a nice set of hardware (PC, soundcard, monitors, mixer, synthesizer) but no software at first. The software that came together with my soundcard didn't fit my needs, something that I could have noticed earlier if I'd thought about it...

And please, don't use pirated audio software. Those programs are not made for the mass market, the developers need to sell copies to carry on developing. What's more, you won't get any technical support from the software manufacturers if you don't own a registered copy. And since the learning curves for those programs are quite steep, maybe you'll need this support at some point. Of course, I can prevent nobody from using cracked software - but don't tell me I haven't tried :-)

All the prices I give here in this article are list prices I have found on the internet. They're not street prices, which may be a little or quite a lot lower. They may actually be untrue, too, because I don't follow them prices every week. Go check the big retailers for prices!

The programs I mention here are not the only programs available in their field, but they are pretty well known and their manufacturers have been around for a while, so they won't probably shut their offices next week.

Audio software that's interesting for us can be divided into four categories:

  1. Multitrack audio software
  2. Multitrack audio AND midi software
  3. Stereo wave editors (non-multitrack)
  4. Plugins and add-on-modules

1. Multitrack audio software

This is software that does work as a multitrack digital audio working environment, that means it includes recording functionality, a way to mix your tracks in software and add FX to them. Most of these packages come with some basic effects, and almost all have the possibilities to work with 3rd party software FX modules (see category 4 below).

Some of these packages include some basic MIDI features, but I wouldn't recommend them for doing extended MIDI recording. Remember question 6 from part I? If you want to work with synthesizers or keyboards or other MIDI devices *and* want to control&program them from your PC, these programs are not for you. If on the other hand you only want to record audio, they may be the right thing. If you have an external midi sequencer (be it a hardware sequencer or maybe an old Atari ST), you can syncronize it to your audio program - most of these programs have the possibility to sync to midi or act as a midi sync master. CHeck this in detail before you decide, as I don't know the exact features of the programs I mention.

"What are you talking about?!" - If you're a bit confused about what's the differences between MIDI and audio recording, please wait for one of the next articles in which I will explain this.

If you know that you don't need MIDI in your software, here are some audio-only programs. All those support multi-I/O soundcards and the use of realtime FX plugins:

2. Multitrack audio AND midi software

If you have a keyboard or a synthesizer, or if you plan to buy one, these are for you. The programs here do not only offer harddisk-recording of a varying number of tracks (from 16 to 128, depending on your budget), they also offer midi recording/sequencing within the same program. And they offer the complete integration of midi and audio into one project, which makes them especially interesting not only as recording tools, but as composition/songwriting tools as well. You can do everything from the programming of the first few beats of the groove track to the mixdown of the complete composition (after you recorded it) with *one* program. The big ones here are the most powerful programs of the ones I introduce, but therefore are the hardest to learn in the beginning. But when you've mastered them, you'll discover how much fun creating music on a PC can be.

You can easily upgrade inside the Cubase line for the difference between program prices. Cubase is also available for the MAC.

Logic is only available for the MAC now.

3. Stereo wave editors (non-multitrack)

Why would you need a stereo wave editor (that is a program which is made to edit stereo and mono wave files)? Well, after you mixed down your latest song, you'll want to edit it (cut the silence at the beginning and the end, apply a fade out etc.) to fit it on a CD. Or you want to do some in-depth audio editing of a single track that most of the multitrack programs won't be able to. Or you want to apply mastering FX like a mastering compressor or equalizer. Or you want to edit a loop and then load it into your sampler. So when your multitrack program is your recording and maybe composing tool, the stereo wave editor is your editing and mastering tool.

4. Plugins and add-on-modules

What is an effects plugin?
An effects plugin is a software module that does calculate some kind of audio effect in this case. A reverb or an equalizer for example. This modules cannot run as a program of their own, they need to be called by another (host-)application. Now this host application sends its audio data to the plugin, the plugin calculates the effect and sends the resulting audio data back to the host application. All of this in realtime. So such a plugin works a lot like a traditional hardware effect, except the following: you need no cables, you can save your patches on your host pc either as separate files or with the project you work on, and you can have more than one instance of the effect running at the same time if your PC is powerful enough. And the plugins are most of the time a lot cheaper than their hardware pendants. You can imagine that complex FX like a lush reverb or a 31band eq need quite a bit of cpu power. But PCs have gotten pretty powerful in these days, so you can have a very impressive virtual FX rack running.

Most of the abovementioned multitrack packages come with a selection on those plugin modules right out of the box. But there's a lot of 3rd party developers who make plugins that work with the above host applications. So there must be some kind of standard for the software interface, right? Now, there are two standards for host-processor-based plugins (that are plugins which rely on your PC's processor for calculating FX): DirectX and VST.

DirectX is a pretty misleading name, because it has nothing to do with those game-accelerating packages that used to screw up your Windows installation in the old days. Instead, what we use for audio was (also misleading) called ActiveMovie before Microsoft decided to call it DirectX, too. What's usually needed to run those DirectX-plugins is a package called DXMedia (you can download this from microsoft, but most host applications who need this make sure that they include it themselves). DirectX is the most common standard for plugins, if a host application supports real time plugs, it will support DirectX most of the time.

VST means Virtual Studio Technology and is a standard developed by Steinberg first for their Cubase product line. Steinberg realized early that they could only benefit from a big supply of 3rd party plugins, to they encouraged developers to make their own plugins. The VST interface needs less cpu resources, so VST plugins are usually a bit faster (meaning they use less CPU) than DirectX plugins.

If you start your studio, I'd suggest you get to know the plugins that came with your software before you decide to *buy* new ones. There's one more thing to those plugin things, that makes them so especially interesting: Freeware /Shareware plugins. Steinberg very early released a SDK (source developers kit) so that everyone who was interested had detailed instructions on how to make their own plugins. MS released something like this, too, but the VST standard seems to be substantially easier to program. This resulted in a great number of FREEWARE plugins available on the internet, most of them using the VST interface. Imagine - a FREE FX plugin. Did you ever get a hardware FX for free from somebody you don't even know, let alone the manufacturer? The internet is really a great place.

The quality of the free plugins vary, but they're usually small to download, easy to install, and fun to play around with. Maybe you understand now why I find it so important that a software supports VST plugins. There is a kind of software adapter available which makes VST plugins available to DirectX-programs, but unfortunately this adapter (by fxpansion) is *not* free and it eats precious cpu cycles, too.

I could (and will, I think) write another whole article on the subject of plugins someday, including some links to the most interesting plugins that are available. One link I will give you right now:


The author of this site, Jezar, has programmed a freeware reverb, called Freeverb. Not only this, he has also made the source code of the reverb available to the public domain. What's even more, this free reverb sounds great. It sounds as good as most hardware reverb units you can get. It sounds as good as the best of software reverbs I know (TC Native Reverb by TC works, the plugin division of TC electronics, and Waves TrueVerb by the renowned plugin makers from Waves). And it's free. Free software is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

Update: the site seems to be defunct for quite a while now. I hope Jezar gets back online soon!

Conclusion & recommendations

As you see, the choice of software is almost as puzzling as the choice of hardware. There are lots of programs available, many are very powerful indeed. So what do you need? Well, you can never have enough software, but like with GAS for hardware, this gets expensive quick. So before you buy a program, do the following:

Why so much hassle? Because with most software you have no get-your-money-back-during-the-first-30-days-warranty. That's bad but that's the way it is. So you gotta make sure you buy the right program the fist time.

Having said that, I'll give you a few recommendations based on my own (biased of course) opinions.

If you have a tight budget:

Each of the three programs here costs less than $100.

If you have $$$ to spend and want top-line-software:

About those "guitar" packages

I'm a bit sceptical about those. For my taste, they stripped too many features for the money they want for the software. And the guitar-specific things they throw in are not worth it. A virtual tuner - you can download that as a VST plugin from the 'net (ask me for the address, have to look it up). For writing tablature or translating midi to tablature you can take Powertab (forgot the www adress, since my Cubase does the same thing). A virtual amp sim software? With everybody having either a real amp around or a pod which you can use for other purposes, too? Sorry, but viewed in this light I find the "Guitar" packages rather unattractive. But maybe the reduced choice of options make this packages easier to learn, maybe that attracts especially guitarists (or so they think). I would like those two packages better if they were substantially cheaper. $99 for a virtual 8 track ("Guitar Tracks 2") is outrageous. And I think Guitar Studio is overpriced, too. But all this is only my not-so-humble opinion.

About CD writing software (an aftertought)

If you don't have a stereo wave editor that can write CDRs, and if you want to have a generic CD-Writing program that's easy to use, yet powerful, I'd recommend WinOnCD. It's a handy program that works reliably with most CD writers and can do pretty much anything with a CDR. Nero isn't half bad either.

Now, this was a long article. I hope I didn't bore you too much.

The next article will come, but I don't know the topic right now.
It will be either "An introduction to MIDI" or "Basics of digital audio recording and the difference to analog audio recording" - I haven't decided yet. Tell you what - cast a vote. You have to be quick though, cause I'll start writing soon :-)


stay tuned for Part IV!

The next part will be:

Back to Part IIc

Part IV

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All this stuff is (c) 2000-2002 Tammo Trueper.

The trademarks I have mentioned all belong to their respective owners.

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