Why Use Audio Production Software?
The top performers in our review are Mixcraft 7, the Gold Award winner; Magix Music Maker Premium 2016, the Silver Award winner; and Cubase Elements 8, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these nine audio production programs.
The best audio production software provides all the musical tools you need to create music with or without the use of live instrumentation. Audio production software is a useful tool for any musician, producer or engineer to make unique compositions, but it can also be a platform to edit and master that music. This software can be the first step in turning your home into a studio.
Two things you'll notice about our lineup of products: They are all introductory versions of audio production programs, and GarageBand, Logic Pro X and Pro Tools are not present. GarageBand is downloadable through the App Store on Mac computers, and we considered it too basic and limiting for consideration. Logic Pro X is professional-grade recording software that doesn't have an introductory version. Pro Tools has made Pro Tools First a free – but extremely limited – version of the music software. The standard edition of Pro Tools is considered the industry standard for professional audio production, but it costs far more than the introductory versions we reviewed.
These introductory versions offer a great place to start and are only a fraction of the cost of their professional counterparts. They have more than enough tools to help you make your own music. Often, the major difference between introductory and professional versions is the number of sound they include. By sounds, we mean plugins such as virtual instruments and effects. As far as tracking (recording) capabilities are concerned, many of the introductory programs support unlimited MIDI and audio tracks per session, but some, such as Ableton Live Intro, are more restrictive. Unlimited recording capabilities are ideal. For additional information, visit our learning center articles on audio production software.
Audio Production Software: The Basics
Those who are brand new to the world of music production should become familiar with some important terms. The programs in our lineup are often referred to as Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs for short. Below is a short list of terms you should become familiar with to fully grasp some of the concepts discussed throughout the reviews.
Plugins is another term you'll see throughout our reviews. In plain English, plugins are the effects and virtual instruments in a DAW. The importance of plugins cannot be overstated. They are the lifeblood of music software. Compressors, equalizers, effects and virtual instruments are all plugins. All of these tools shape the way your music sounds.
Plugins come in a variety of different formats. You'll see plugin compatibility labeled VST, AAX, AU and so on. The more plugin formats the DAW is compatible with, the more plugins you can add down the road.
MIDI is another important term. It stands for musical instrument digital interface. A virtual instrument is considered a MIDI instrument, and a MIDI controller is often used to play a MIDI instrument. MIDI controllers will vastly help you navigate the software and compose music. They come in many variations, but the most common are keyboards. We highly recommend purchasing a MIDI controller to accompany your music creation software.
What Hardware Do You Need?
To experience all the benefits of music software, you need an audio interface. This device allows you to plug your instruments in so you can record them using your software. If you want to record a physical instrument such as a guitar or drum set, you'll need an audio interface. These vary greatly in price, but an entry-level, single-input audio interface will cost around $30.
A MIDI controller is essential for playing and controlling MIDI instruments within the software. Many DAWs give you an option to use your keyboard to navigate the virtual instruments, but it is never intuitive or easy to do so. MIDI controllers also range widely in price, but you can find a decent entry-level MIDI controller for roughly $50.
Monitors or headphones are necessary for music playback. Computer or laptop speakers aren't sufficient for mixing music. A decent set of monitors or headphones have a flat EQ, meaning they don't add any extra equalization to music, which is important for accurate mixing.
Audio Production Software: Our Evaluation
Software that offers an extensive loop library and multiple virtual instruments and plugins enables musical creativity to flourish. Audio software should also provide ample recording capabilities that are nonrestrictive and easy to use. We used the following criteria to evaluate the best music production software:
Audio production software should have a number of virtual instruments, effects (plugins) and loops for you to create music with. These features give you the tools you need to create music from scratch without anything other than the software (and preferably a MIDI controller).
Plugins, such as guitar emulators, allow you to plug your guitar straight into the recording interface and use the guitar tones from revered amplifiers such as Fender, MESA/Boogie and Marshall. Plugins open up many production avenues.
Entry-level software may come with some plugins, but there is always room to expand your collection. You should look for audio production software that is compatible with multiple plugin formats. The more formats your software is compatible with, the more plugins you can add.
The best production software tools include a multiband equalizer so you can fine-tune your recordings to sound as good as possible. Pitch correction and time stretching can be helpful tools to fix audio blemishes without having to re-record anything.
The more insert and send effects you can apply to an audio track, the more options you will have to achieve the right tone and texture for your recordings. A mastering suite is also a nice bonus if you want to boost your mixed audio to radio-quality volume.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Our Verdict and Recommendations
One important thing to understand is that any of the DAWs in our review will work just great. They all record music, but each has its unique quirks. What's important is finding a DAW that feels most comfortable to you. The majority of the audio production programs we reviewed offer trial periods, so try them out and see what feels best to you. That being said, here are the best introductory audio production programs in our side-by-side comparison.
Mixcraft 7 is our Top Ten Reviews Gold Award winner. This audio production software has unlimited recording capabilities, a giant loop library that is continually growing and many virtual instruments and plugins. The software has done a lot to go from a footnote in the audio production software world to a solid DAW. In this introductory version, you can automate track volume and panning, do comp recording and even use the performance window for live performances. Mixcraft is a unique DAW that has few limitations, even in the entry-level version.
Magix Music Maker Premium 2016 is our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award winner. This is one of the simplest DAWs in our comparison to make music in. This audio production program has over 6,500 loops and sounds that are ready to be dragged and dropped into the arrangement window to create unique compositions. The 17 virtual instruments sound great. Only being able to insert two sends and effects per channel is a little restrictive, but most entry-level programs have some restrictive functionality. Regardless, this program is great for dipping your toes into the audio production world.
Cubase Elements 8 is one of the more recognizable names in the recording world and also our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner. Elements 8 offers only three virtual instruments, but there are thousands of presets between the three of them. There are also 4,377 loops inside of the media bay at your disposal. The audio production software also allows you to export your finished song straight from Cubase to SoundCloud. Cubase Elements 8 is a great place to discover the recording capabilities of the Cubase family.
Reaper is our budget pick. Reaper is a rare audio production program that doesn’t limit the number of audio and MIDI tracks you can add to a single project, barely takes up any hard disk space on your computer and costs under $100. This is a good program if you are looking to record external instruments. It doesn't have a loop library, but it's open-sourced, meaning it is compatible with many different plugin formats. This is an inexpensive way to get a good DAW on your computer.
You don't need to book studio time when you have a recording studio in your home. Combined with the right hardware components, audio production software can help you make good-sounding recordings with only a small investment.