A digital audio sequencer is the core of almost every computer-based recording studio. More than any other type of software, sequencers have made the personal-studio revolution possible. Musicians everywhere can record their music using the same techniques and many of the same tools as top professionals. For the first time in history, if your recordings are disappointing, you can no longer blame your equipment.
Although top-shelf (and top-dollar) programs such as Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Cubase SX, and Sonar Professional Edition can handle anything that multitrack recording software can, many less expensive products are available to anyone with more modest needs and financial resources. Today's musicians are living in an age of unprecedented democratization: if you can afford a computer, you can afford the software needed to produce professional-sounding recordings in any musical style.
EM set out to find low-cost sequencers and what makes them different from their high-price counterparts. For the purposes of this article, we decided that each sequencer must retail for less than $225 to qualify as affordable. Our research uncovered a dozen products from as many manufacturers (see the specifications table for version numbers). Most are exclusively for Windows, perhaps indicating that the majority of entry-level users own PCs. Bremmers Audio Design MultitrackStudio Pro Plus, Cakewalk Home Studio 2 XL, FASoft n-Track Studio, and Image-Line Software FL Studio Producer Edition fall into that category. Digital Sound Planet's Quartz AudioMaster Pro and PG Music's PowerTracks Pro Audio are Windows-only applications as well.
Most of the Windows programs are completely self-contained, but two provide separate applications for handling audio and MIDI chores. Midisoft Studio Ensemble 2003 XP comprises the multitrack sequencer Studio 2003 and AudioPro Wave Editor. MIDI Studio and Audio Studio make up Magix Music Maker 10 Deluxe.
We found two low-cost sequencers exclusively for Mac users: Apple GarageBand and Sagan Metro LX. GarageBand is part of a software suite that also includes nonmusical applications. Two programs — Mackie Tracktion and Steinberg Cubase SE — are available on either computer platform.
What follows is a roundup of each sequencer's main features. We'll start with an overview of all the programs and then provide summaries on some unique aspects of each. The specifications table should help you to compare the programs feature-for-feature. If you're shopping for a low-cost sequencer, this article will help you find one that will best suits your needs.
Some of the greatest differences among sequencers are their individual approaches to the graphical user interface (GUI). A well-designed interface lets you record, arrange, and mix your music quickly and efficiently, with maximum productivity and a minimum number of technical headaches. Because sequencers typically offer many functions and capabilities, having a clear and consistent GUI is essential, so that users can have a pleasant and productive hands-on experience.
Generally speaking, one advantage of low-cost sequencers is that they can be simpler to operate than their high-end brethren because they don't offer such a bewildering array of options. Still, any sequencer needs to provide the basics, which include the means to navigate your way around the sequencer and the project being recorded; to record, play back, and edit MIDI and audio tracks; to import data; to host effects and instrument plug-ins; and to get finished recordings out into the real world.
Other than FL Studio (formerly known as Fruityloops), MultitrackStudio, and Studio 2003, all the programs featured in this article present the traditional track view as their primary user interface. Track names are shown on the left side of the main window, with a data area to the right. Alongside the track names are usually buttons or some other means to select MIDI channels, audio inputs and outputs, and related track parameters. The track view is familiar to almost anyone who has used a sequencer. It's also an intuitive way to orient yourself within a program.
FIG. 1: FL Studio''s Step Sequencer lets you program soft synths and samplers using familiar techniques that were originally developed in the ''70s for programming drum machines.
FL Studio users spend most of their time in the Step Sequencer, a gridlike interface that has horizontal rows of buttons representing 16th-note steps and vertical rows of instruments such as soft synths, sample players, and the like (see Fig. 1). Step sequencing is not a technique you'd use if you want to record your music in real time, however, so FL Studio has the most to offer users who enjoy building tracks note by note. MultitrackStudio uses a variation on the track view, but its data area is hidden by default and appears below the track header when displayed. Studio 2003 shows all tracks only in the Score view; to edit audio tracks, you must open the Wave view, which doesn't display MIDI tracks.
One of PowerTracks' most powerful features lets you toggle a track between audio and MIDI at any point, and GarageBand lets you convert the MIDI data in Apple Loops to audio data. When you assign a MIDI track to a soft synth or the built-in sampler, MultitrackStudio will display notes as generic waveshapes that can be edited or as a rendered waveform view that cannot be edited, but neither option actually commits the track to an audio file. In all the other programs discussed here, tracks are fixed as either audio or MIDI. Although most sequencers let you resize individual tracks, n-Track and PowerTracks have alternate track views that display configuration information, but they don't show actual audio or MIDI data.
Home Studio, MIDI Studio, PowerTracks, and Studio 2003 have a Go To option that lets you quickly view any portion of your project — a handy navigation feature. n-Track has a feature that allows you to simultaneously change the vertical and horizontal ranges that are displayed.
All of the programs except GarageBand and MIDI Studio support markers, a useful feature for locating points in your recording — for example, the start of a verse or chorus, a voice-over's punch-in point, or the boundaries of a phrase that needs effects. In FL Studio, markers always appear at the start of a song, and you must drag them to the position that you want. Half the programs have a dedicated Markers window (AudioMaster calls them Cues) for setting and editing markers. In PowerTracks, the markers appear only in the Bars window, not the main Track view. You also can't move them around with the mouse. n-Track has a variety of marker options, including the ability to display a pop-up time-indicator window a few beats before a marker is reached as a song is playing.
A piano-roll view or its equivalent is the main area for entering and editing individual notes in Home Studio, Metro, MIDI Studio, MultitrackStudio, and n-Track. In FL Studio, the Piano Roll view is an alternative to the Step Sequencer window and is used to enter specific pitches for a synth, among other things. Most of the other programs have graphic editors that use piano-roll displays in separate windows that you open for each track.
n-Track has a great feature that allows you to define any range of notes as a pattern, and then use the mouse to draw the pattern repeatedly. Home Studio's Pattern Brush performs a similar function, and the program comes with several dozen preset patterns to use as defaults.
Eight of the 12 sequencers let you see your music as standard notation. If printed music is one of the primary reasons you use music software, you'll want to investigate those programs more closely. The printing options in PowerTracks and Studio 2003 offer the most flexibility. GarageBand and MultitrackStudio are the only ones that display notation but don't let you print musical scores.
Seven programs have editable event lists, which can make a significant difference if you like to tweak the tiniest details of MIDI performances. All except GarageBand and Multitrack Studio have a dedicated mixer display, and even those provide almost identical functionality in other windows.
The programs discussed in this article have a variety of other work areas. Home Studio's has Synth Rack, a dedicated soft-instrument display; PowerTracks has Piano-Keyboard and Guitar-Fretboard windows, both of which show notes currently being played; n-Track has Big Time screen, which can use many common video formats as the display increments; and FL Studio has a Browser screen, in which you can preview and select loops. GarageBand's Musical Typing window lets you play software instruments and enter note data with your computer keyboard, and its Loop Browser lets you search for and audition Apple Loops.
Cubase's Pool is used for organizing audio and video resources and various windows for routing and controlling VST instruments and effects. Likewise, AudioMaster offers the Navigator, which lets you browse audio and MIDI assets and display audio file metadata. It also has a unique Karaoke view. MIDI Studio's HyperDraw view gives you graphic editing of controllers within individual sequences. The Object Editor in Audio Studio allows you to assign plug-ins and other mix parameters to individual audio objects. Metro features Rhythm Explorer, an algorithmic assistant for generating percussion and other parts, as well as a Jukebox window that can play and batch convert various audio formats. Cubase, Home Studio, Metro, n-Track, and Tracktion allow you to trigger and view video clips while a song is playing.
Though digital audio is becoming evermore the raison d'être of music software, the 12 programs in our roundup offer a respectable range of MIDI options. Although none of them come close to what you'd find in a top-of-the-line sequencer, even the least expensive of today's sequencers runs rings around its predigital-audio ancestors in terms of MIDI capabilities. Nonetheless, GarageBand is unusual in that it can't trigger external MIDI instruments; it can trigger only Audio Units (AU) plug-ins and included software instruments.
All of the sequencers allow you to load a Standard MIDI File (SMF) and to record from an external MIDI controller. You can step record in eight programs, and several of them have a range of punch options. MIDI timing resolution determines how accurately a sequencer captures a MIDI performance; the more parts per quarter note (ppqn), the better the resolution. In the sequencers covered here, MIDI timing extends from a low of 96 ppqn in AudioMaster to a high of 3,840 ppqn in PowerTracks. If you're working with sound for picture, synchronization features are essential. More than half can generate or slave to MTC or SMPTE, and they can display time code in a variety of formats. GarageBand, Home Studio, Cubase SE, Metro LX, and FL Studio don't support time-code synchronization.
All of the programs include basic editing functions such as cut, copy, and paste, and all provide one or more types of quantization. n-Track has a flexible quantize option that allows you to snap to common note durations as well as to a value of any arbitrary number of ticks. Several sequencers allow you to transpose, slide, or change the length of MIDI events. Cubase and PowerTracks include the option to eliminate overlapping notes.
Most of the programs let you get creative with MIDI data by performing some nifty tricks. Cubase, Home Studio, FL Studio, and Metro each have an arpeggiator with adjustable parameters. To loosen up stiff rhythm tracks, Metro and MultitrackStudio have Humanize processes in their gig bags. FL Studio adds flam and strum effects, which come in handy when you're creating drum and guitar parts.
Some programs give you tools for generating random MIDI events, for creating new MIDI events based on existing data, or for changing one form of MIDI data to another. For example, FL Studio's Randomizer lets you determine whether it generates many hundreds of new notes or just a few. MIDI Studio has a sophisticated Transform window that enables logical processing, allowing you to alter the pitch, length, Velocity, order, speed, and other properties of selected data.
All of the programs in our roundup allow you to record, cut, copy, paste, and play back multiple tracks of audio. Beyond those functions, the range of features varies widely. If you want high-quality recordings and don't mind consuming hard-disk space, all but two support 24-bit audio resolution and 96 kHz sampling rates. Although it's somewhat unlikely that low-budget sequencer users own big-budget audio rigs, a few even support 192 kHz (hardware permitting). All except GarageBand and Studio Ensemble can handle sampling-rate conversion. All the Windows programs support MME (except FL Studio), WDM, and ASIO drivers, and all the Mac programs support Core Audio.
All but Studio 2003 can import or export audio files in formats other than WAV, which is great if you want to use audio from sources such as your MP3 collection or custom-format sample libraries. Studio 2003's audio capabilities are limited — it can import and export only WAV files and does not feature any of the routing, automation, looping, and output capabilities of the other programs.
It's easy to adjust an audio clip's length in most of these sequencers: just click on and drag its beginning or end to the desired length. You can also click on and drag a clip to a new location in every audio program except AudioPro. All of the programs except for AudioMaster and MultitrackStudio allow you to loop entire audio tracks or defined regions.
Most of the programs let you bounce multiple tracks to a new track directly from the main track interface, and most can automatically create a new audio file containing the bounced tracks. PowerTracks also has a nifty feature that lets you automatically create a new disk file from the output of a DXi, and FL Studio can automatically insert any recording you make of its output directly back into its Playlist.
Busing and routing options give you the most flexibility for getting your signals from here to there — from a group of channels to a single stereo reverb plug-in, for example. Such features are standard in most of the programs, though they're implemented in many different ways. n-Track supports the most aux channels (32), and PowerTracks supports the fewest (2). GarageBand doesn't have any auxes at all, though it does have a master bus that can serve the same purpose. If you've never used aux channels, though, you probably won't miss them. Not surprisingly, none of the low-cost sequencers offer explicit surround support — a surround mixer, for example — but if you have a multichannel audio interface and use ASIO drivers or Core Audio, you can send a signal to as many channels as your hardware allows. The next version of n-Track, which we've seen in beta, will include a surround (5.1, 7.1, and above) mixer.
Part of the fun of mixing with a sequencer is using automation to control changes — fade up here, add reverb there, and so on. You can record mixer automation in all of the programs except GarageBand and MultitrackStudio, and most (including GarageBand) let you draw volume and pan curves onscreen. MultitrackStudio offers graphic volume editing using its Automated Fader plug-in.
Most entry-level programs differ from top-of-the-line software in the number and types of included effects. Although some of these programs come up quite a bit short, a few are downright bountiful. Fortunately, all of them except Studio 2003 support either AU, DirectX, or VST effects, and half support two plug-in formats. (In theory, plug-in support makes your audio-processing arsenal unlimited.) Several also have native real-time or destructive audio effects. Studio 2003 has no audio effects other than those built into your sound card.
FL Studio stands out for its large number of audio effects. Among its many unique offerings are the Fruity Waveshaper, Fruity Scratcher, and Time Stretcher, the last of which offers five distinct methods for time stretching and pitch shifting. Cubase SE comes with a bundle of 22 VST effects, such as QuadraFuzz, StepFilter, and Tranceformer. It has so many, in fact, that you could go a long time without needing any additional plug-ins. PowerTracks Pro also rates highly in this area with nearly 20 of its own bundled effects. Its Generate Audio Harmonies option is worth a special mention: it can create a single new harmony part and use notes from a MIDI track as the starting pitches for multiple new harmony parts.
FIG. 2: Several plug-ins that work only with Mackie Tracktion 2, as well as standard VST plug-ins, are included in its software bundle. Originally developed by Acuma Labs for Mackie''s d8b digital mixing console, Final Mix is a stereo mastering processor that furnishes a soft-clip limiter, 3-band compression, and two 6-band parametric equalizers.
GarageBand has a respectable stable of effects, including some nice guitar-amp simulations, the gender-bending Vocal Transformer, Enhance Tuning (for correcting pitch), and Enhance Timing (for quantizing audio). Tracktion has an extensive bundle of freeware VST effects from Maxim Digital Audio (MDA), as well as IK Multimedia's AmpliTube LE modeled guitar amp. Tracktion also comes with Final Mix, a rather sophisticated stereo mastering processor that works only with that program (see Fig. 2). For taking projects all the way to completion, Final Mix gives Tracktion tangible advantages that might cost considerably more using similar plug-ins. Mackie promises to deliver several additional Tracktion-exclusive plug-ins soon.
MultitrackStudio's Convolutor is one of the least-expensive tools that uses impulse responses, and its Band Effect splits a signal path into three frequency ranges for multiband processing. AudioMaster's 20 effects include a pseudo-surround process that can create some interesting results. MIDI Studio includes Digital Factory, a sophisticated suite of offline processes such as pitch shifting, time compression and expansion, and more. Audio Studio offers noise reduction, time stretching, and even a vocoder. Only three of the sequencers don't have time-stretching capabilities: Metro LX, MultitrackStudio, and Studio Ensemble 2003.
All of the programs have some form of EQ, and all but Home Studio and Studio 2003 include dynamics processors. Most give you at least a handful of effects presets, and all but Studio 2003 let you save your own custom settings. Several let you draw effects automation curves, and a few support effects-send automation either by using graphic envelopes or by recording changes made on the mixer (turning aux send knobs, for example). Some programs offer a Freeze option: the program creates temporary files on disk containing rendered audio that has been processed by effects, conserving CPU resources. If you need to make additional changes later, you can return a frozen track to its normal state. ReWire support, which lets you sync your sequencer with other programs and route audio from compatible software instruments, is available in most of the sequencers covered in this article.
Instruments and Content
Most of the software in our roundup has instrument plug-ins, sample loops, and other content in addition to the main application; Metro LX is the only exception. Any musician would be happy to use the software-based synthesizers, samplers, or drum machines that ship with several programs. Home Studio, for example, includes the DXi synths Virtual Sound Canvas and DreamStation. Tracktion includes IK Multimedia's versatile sample-playback synth SampleTank SE and LinPlug's virtual drum machine RM IV. Both plug-ins also supply a substantial amount of content. Oddly, Tracktion has a built-in sampler that doesn't have any content, as well as a handful of synth plug-ins from Big Tick, reFX, and LinPlug. Cubase SE comes with the VB-1 bass synth, LM-7 drum machine, and Universal Sound Module. MIDI Studio's arsenal of soft synths includes the 16-voice FMX1 FM synthesizer and Robota virtual analog drum machine. MultitrackStudio comes with a built-in sampler (with only one patch) that can import SF2 and GIG files.
You'll get numerous audio loops and MIDI tracks with PowerTracks Pro, and FL Studio includes a large number of sample files, loops (registered users can download nearly 2 GB's worth), and soft instruments (in its own proprietary format). Among FL Studio's instruments are a text-to-speech synthesizer with 20 different personalities and a variety of analog-modeled synths. Because GarageBand 2 doesn't play external instruments, it has a good variety of software instruments, along with an impressive collection of presets. GarageBand's collection of audio loops (more than 1 GB's worth) is also nothing to sneeze at, and you can expand it with optional Jam Packs and third-party Apple Loops. Studio 2003 ships with 54 MB of short audio clips.
Read All About It
No matter how easy it is to use a software program, good documentation will often determine how efficiently you explore its features. Printed manuals are useful, but you can more easily search manuals that are displayed on your computer screen. Cubase and Tracktion supply manuals in printed and PDF formats, and Metro has a PDF startup guide. Most of Metro's documentation consists of searchable HTML files and detailed online reference. Although GarageBand furnishes only help files (which are also searchable), Apple's Web site offers plenty of GarageBand support pages in 14 languages, and you can download several brief PDF manuals. Music Studio (MIDI Studio and Audio Studio) has a 95-page printed manual, a 626-page PDF manual, and searchable HTML files.
Home Studio and FL Studio include a getting-started guide and searchable online help, and PowerTracks includes a complete user's guide and searchable online help. AudioMaster, MultitrackStudio, n-Track, and Studio 2003 have only searchable online help. (You can download a PDF manual for n-Track from the company's Web site.) There are video tutorials at the FL Studio and PowerTracks Pro Web sites and on Music Studio's install disc, and the manufacturers of all the programs except for Studio 2003 run online user forums. Though you won't base your buying decision on which sequencer has the best documentation, what's the advantage of having a program that's easy to use if the manufacturer doesn't make it easy for you to learn how to use it?
Apple Computer GarageBand 2.0.2 (Mac, $79)
GarageBand is just one of five applications bundled together in Apple's creativity suite iLife '05, which also includes iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and iDVD. Designed to appeal to musicians and nonmusicians alike, GarageBand combines MIDI sequencing, multitrack audio recording, loop arranging, detailed track editing, soft synths and samplers, and effects processing. It can display standard music notation in real time. Considering its status as a low-cost, beginner-level program, GarageBand is surprisingly deep. Although it's the only sequencer in our roundup that can't play hardware-based MIDI instruments (without third-party software, anyway), its loop-sequencing capabilities and its collection of software instruments are thoroughly professional.
FIG. 3: Apple GarageBand 2.0.2 features an uncomplicated single-window interface for recording audio, arranging loops, and tracking software instruments. Its wealth of pro-level features belies its entry-level orientation.
GarageBand presents most of its user interface in a single window, with controls for each track on the left, a timeline that displays track data on the right, a control strip across the center, and when you reveal it, an area for editing tracks or browsing loops at the bottom (see Fig. 3). Adding a track opens a dialog box in which you select either a Real Instrument or a Software Instrument from a long list of each. A Real Instrument is an audio track with preset effects that are optimized for a particular instrument or instruments such as acoustic piano, modern rock bass, string ensemble, or modern female vocals. You can also select an audio track with no effects. If you select a guitar track, you can chose from a list of amp-simulation presets borrowed from Apple Logic 7. In fact, most of GarageBand's technology was originally developed either for Logic or for Apple Soundtrack.
Choosing a Software Instrument creates a MIDI track that's preconfigured with a soft synth or sampled instrument. GarageBand's list of available instruments is extensive, and the multisamples are top-notch, with samples for every note and as many as ten Velocity layers. The soft synths use modeling techniques to emulate a nice variety of classic and modern electronic timbres.
For either type of track — audio or MIDI — you can open an information panel that gives you access to effects-processing parameters. GarageBand's host of effects is much more comprehensive than you might expect in a low-price sequencer. It also handles AU instruments and effects extremely well. To place an AU instrument on a track, you must first create a Software Instrument track and then replace the GarageBand instrument with an instrument plug-in.
You have complete control over each track's level and panning, and you can automate them by manipulating a graphic line with breakpoints. In addition to controlling master volume the same way, GarageBand 2.0.2 lets you transpose any portion or an entire song by using breakpoints to vary the master pitch.
What's in Your Garage?
In addition to audio and MIDI recording, GarageBand is adept at loop sequencing. It has done more than any other program to establish Apple Loops as a bona fide standard. Apple Loops are beat-sliced MIDI and AIFF files imprinted with metadata that contains keywords and information about tempo and key signature, making it possible to search for loops in GarageBand's Browser and to pitch-shift and time-stretch music to make it fit your composition.
More than 1,000 Apple Loops are included with GarageBand, and you can add thousands more with optional Apple GarageBand Jam Packs (which also include additional instruments and effects presets) and with third-party libraries. GarageBand can convert its audio and MIDI tracks to Apple Loops, and it can import SMFs and audio files from other formats and convert them to Apple Loops.
You'll need a fairly powerful, up-to-date Mac to run GarageBand, especially if you want to make the most of Apple Loops. Even then, its instability has been known to cause inexplicable crashes. While its lack of MIDI outputs will be a deal-breaker for some musicians, it is ideal for anyone who wants to explore the world of virtual instruments and sampled loops, and the price is right.
Bremmers Audio Design MultitrackStudio Pro Plus 220.127.116.11 (Win, $119 download or $139 boxed)
It took me a while to wrap my brain around MultitrackStudio's interface, but once I did I found some nicely implemented features. If your habits run toward recording and mixing without a lot of detailed editing, you'll feel right at home. MultitrackStudio supports high-resolution audio, has unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, and accepts VST and DirectX plug-ins.
FIG. 4: MultitrackStudio Pro Plus makes recording and mixing MIDI and audio efficient. Three insert effects are available per track, each of which can chain up to six effects courtesy of the Multi Effect.
The lack of a mixer view is deceptive: MultitrackStudio is one big mixer, and all of its routing options are available from its main screen (see Fig. 4). Routing is straightforward and powerful, allowing you to send any track to any number of effects returns and assign it to one of any number of groups. Every audio track, effects return, and group has three effects slots. For more processing possibilities, you can assign any or all of the effects slots to the Multi Effect plug-in, which in turn gives you six effects slots. That's a total of 18 insert effects per track, each of which could conceivably hold another Multi Effect. Presets can recall plug-in parameters and entire plug-in chains.
The Stereo Effect gives you separate signal paths for a track's left and right channels, letting you process them independently. A convolution effect is included, and you can download a free set of Classic Reverb impulse responses that include examples from a Hammond spring reverb and the EMT 140 and 250.
It's common for sequencers to integrate audio and MIDI tracks for a smooth workflow, but at times MultitrackStudio blurs the line even further than usual. By default, MIDI tracks have a single effects slot, and you use that to assign the track to a physical MIDI port. If you use the slot to assign the track to a VSTi or DXi virtual instrument, however, you automatically get two additional effects slots, allowing you to process the soft synth's output with additional plug-ins; thus a MIDI track becomes an audio track as well. The included sampler supports both SoundFont and GIG formats, opening the door to oodles of sample libraries that range from cute and cheap to powerful and steep.
I was somewhat less taken with MultitrackStudio's editing features. You can open any audio or MIDI track to reveal its edit view, from which you can do basic cut, copy, and paste operations. Audio crossfades are automatic but not editable, and you must click on a button to undo an operation because pressing Control + z doesn't do anything. Basic logical MIDI functions include such standards as Quantize, Transpose, and Humanize. One interesting edit feature is the Multi Track Editor, which applies all edits to every track that has an open Edit view. You can use it to chop out or repeat entire sections across multiple tracks.
I don't know why each MIDI track is stored as a separate SMF, but it doesn't impede your work. Nice touches include one-click setup of an alternate record take in a new track and the ability to split incoming MIDI notes into two keyboard zones and rechannel and transpose them. For recording and mixing without a lot of editing, MultitrackStudio delivers the goods.
Cakewalk Home Studio 2.2 (Win, $149)
Although it may not have a modern interface, Home Studio is a solid and stable performer that would be suitable for many common music projects. Its simple and intuitive organization belies a host of powerful production tools, and its long PC heritage (it's built on Cakewalk Sonar 2 technology) ensures that it will integrate well into your workflow.
FIG. 5: Home Studio''s heritage, Cakewalk Sonar 2.0, ensures the stability of the program and brings the user into an extensive family of desktop musicians.
Home Studio is the model of a classic sequencer. Its Track Properties view appears along the left of the screen, and the area for managing data (audio, MIDI, and controllers, for example) appears to the right (see Fig. 5). There's also an Explorer-style window at the bottom of the screen for locating the files that you need in a project. Numerous aspects of the program can be customized, from picking the location to store audio files and choosing interface color schemes to performing various tweaks to your audio hardware. You can also configure key commands for controlling the program from a computer keyboard or a MIDI controller.
Most of the MIDI activity occurs in the Piano Roll view, where you'll find a keyboard display along the left edge of the screen (unless you're working with a drum track, which shows drum names) and a pane at the bottom for entering and editing controller data. Surprisingly, program changes cannot be entered in this window. Right-clicking on an existing note gives you access to numerous details about the note — Velocity, duration, start time, and so on — and it's easy to fine-tune events to your liking. Just as easily, you can highlight a large number of notes and drag, copy, or delete them as needed. In fact, editing is just about as simple as it gets.
For large-scale editing such as moving big chunks of data around in the Track View, Home Studio doesn't distinguish between audio and MIDI. Just click on and drag whatever range of events you want, or draw pan, volume, or effects automation directly on the screen. Home Studio also supports automatic crossfades, which it uses when two audio clips overlap.
Home Studio doesn't offer many options for more detailed audio editing; you'll need an external audio application, which you can link to Home Studio, and the name of that program will appear in the Tool menu. You'll probably spend some time in the Loop Construction window, however, where you can tweak settings to better enable Home Studio to perform its looping functions. Looping is enabled simply by clicking on and dragging an audio clip to the desired length.
The Console View provides access to busing and routing options. There you can configure track and master effects and as many as 16 aux buses, and you can use Home Studio's considerable automation features. Nearly every control in the program can be automated, and it's easy to group multiple controls or take snapshots of specific settings for recall.
Home Studio ships with a Getting Started manual and not much more (aside from the two soft synths), but the online help is extensive. The Cakewalk forum is also a great place for help with the program, and you can rest assured that owning Home Studio will put you in a large family of users who will no doubt help you on your way.
FIG. 6: Quartz AudioMaster''s interface should be familiar to anyone who has used a sequencer before. Its feature set includes plenty of audio and MIDI tracks along with an interesting Spacialization window.
Digital Sound Planet Quartz AudioMaster Professional 4.6 (Win, $132.90 download or $265.90 boxed)
Quartz AudioMaster might not look impressive, but under the hood it has lots to offer. Supporting 128 MIDI tracks, 128 audio tracks, 8 aux buses, and as many as 16 stereo inputs and outputs, AudioMaster has enough power to meet the needs of almost any project. It comes with a variety of audio effects and supports VST and DirectX plug-ins.
AudioMaster's interface is plain but functional, and it should feel familiar to anyone who has ever worked with a sequencer (see Fig. 6). It supports customizable key commands for most functions, and it ships with Cakewalk and Cubase key-command templates. AudioMaster presents MIDI and audio data as uninformative empty rectangles, however, which sets it back several years compared with its peers. You can perform basic cut-and-paste editing in the main track view, but more detailed editing takes place in dedicated audio and MIDI windows.
You can do a lot of sequencing and recording in AudioMaster, and if you use GS- or XG-compatible synthesizers, you'll appreciate its direct support of their effects capabilities. Its inability to load virtual instruments, however, may prove frustrating.
AudioMaster's unassuming mixer doesn't reveal its full potential until you click on six separate buttons to show its auxes, dynamics, EQ, groups, inputs, and gain/polarity controls. At that point the program becomes quite impressive, bearing resemblance to a large-format console. Adding insert effects is as simple as clicking on the DSP button and choosing VST, DirectX, or built-in processing from a dialog box. Once you've closed the dialog box, there's no visual indication of whether any plug-ins exist on a track.
One of Quartz AudioMaster's standout features is an intriguing Spacialization view that allows you to graphically adjust pan and level of multiple tracks by dragging them closer to or farther from the user's position and left or right within a little room. Despite its name, it doesn't actually involve any psychoacoustic DSP, but it makes visualizing placement a breeze. The Surround processor uses perceptual manipulation, and although it's no substitute for true surround panning, it is nevertheless an interesting sonic tweak.
If you're into karaoke, AudioMaster can import and export special karaoke MIDI files (KAR) and display lyrics in a dedicated window. As a navigational aid, the window can display cues (markers) during playback. In addition, AudioMaster can serve as a master or a slave when synchronizing to external sequencers.
Although its software has a lot to offer, Digital Sound Planet's main focus is on serving as a Web site for online musical collaboration. In fact, the site provides a freeware version of Quartz specifically intended for collaboration. Be aware, however, that the company's support is not up to snuff. Despite our best efforts, EM was unable to make direct contact with the company to request a proper review copy of Quartz AudioMaster in time for this roundup. We ended up using the evaluation version, which doesn't let you save projects. If you like what AudioMaster has to offer, don't look for much hand-holding from the manufacturer.
FASoft n-Track Studio 4.05 (Win, $49 or $75 with 24-bit file support)
n-Track Studio is a versatile program that would be a good choice for basic and complex audio and MIDI projects. It has a highly modular interface — the various windows can be easily resized and moved around the screen — and it supports a large number of configurable options. The program's audio-editing features are extensive, and its support for common protocols, such as ReWire and DX and VST instruments and effects, allow it to be the centerpiece of a modern music-production studio.
FIG. 7: n-Track Studio is a modern program that includes good-sounding audio effects, extensive MIDI features, and a highly customizable interface.
n-Track opens to a blank slate onto which you can insert any number of audio or MIDI tracks (see Fig. 7). The program uses the standard arrangement of vertically arranged tracks, with data shown along a horizontal timeline to the right. You can toggle the display of configurable level meters on a per-track basis directly in the tracks area, which is also where you enable the Freeze function. (Freeze renders a track and its effects to disk, and then reloads it onto the same track.)
To begin a mixing or mastering project, you might use the file Import option, which lets you choose one or more WAV or OGG files and pick a time offset to place them anywhere in the project. Like Home Studio, n-Track supports clips, which are chunks of data that you can move around on the timeline. Its auto-fade feature supports logarithmic and linear curves, and it can apply effects on a clip-by-clip basis. Be careful when removing a track from a project, because the first option you'll see when prompted is to delete the actual file off your hard drive.
n-Track's included effects aren't numerous, but they sound very good and have parameters that you can update while a track is playing. The reverb, for example, has ten parameters (predelay, length, room size, damping, and others), and as with the other effects, you can apply reverb to only the left or right channel of a stereo file. Input and output meters appear on the effects' dialog boxes, and you can save as many of your own presets as needed.
MIDI features are ample. n-Track's Piano Roll view has an option to display only the type of events you want, and you can select what type of event will be entered when you click on the Place icon. By Control + clicking on that icon, you can designate the note properties (Velocity and length) for new notes that you enter. In the Events List, you can alter multiple notes at once — transposing all notes in a measure, for example — and filter out types of events that you don't want displayed.
n-Track has a number of smart and helpful features that make common tasks easier. For example, you can snap the cursor to the beginning or end of a clip (as opposed to simply snapping the clip to the cursor position), and you can toggle the display of audio tracks as waveforms or as simple text listings. n-Track also lets you choose whether many of its audio-editing functions result in nondestructive or destructive changes. In some cases (time stretching, for example), you can create a new file reflecting the changes or make changes to an existing file. It also has a handy option that displays a list of all WAV files used in a project, and its built-in CD burning feature is well integrated.
n-Track is available only as a download, and its documentation exists only as online help. (A PDF manual is available as a separate download.) A short, getting-started tutorial is included in the help file, and the indexing is thorough. The users forum appears to be very active, with many thousands of replies to nearly 2,000 individual topics, and the program is updated and enhanced on a regular basis. You'll certainly be in good company if you choose n-Track for your studio.
Image-Line FL Studio Producer Edition 5.02 (Win, $149)
FL Studio offers a slightly different approach to sequencing, using a step sequencer for its main composition interface. Individual layers of the sequencer are called channels, though they serve as what most other programs call tracks. On FL Studio's mixer, you'll find tracks, as opposed to what most programs call channels. But terminology aside, this software is a music-production powerhouse and has capabilities that extend far beyond the techno and electronica styles you might associate it with.
More than any other program in this roundup, FL Studio deserves the name workstation. It includes an audio editor, a robust mixer, numerous internal effects and soft synths, sampler players, and more. But that's just for starters: you'll also find a vast number of tools for manipulating MIDI data, such as the note-randomizing and chord-building functions in the Piano Roll; powerful enveloping tools, including the ability to create highly complex curves using LFO generators; and a variety of recording and automation features.
Step Right Up
When you first start FL Studio, the step sequencer displays four channels, each containing a sample player (see Fig. 8). Click on the button for any of the channels (Kick, Clap, HiHat, and Snare), and a Channel Settings window will open. That window brings you to the primary work areas for the type of channel that you're using; for example, sampler settings include a page to enable looping, time-stretching or pitch-shifting a sample; for replacing the existing sample with a new file; and for applying a variety of effects to the sample. At the bottom of the page is a waveform display in which you can access the Tempo Detection and Wave Editor features.
FIG. 8: On all counts, FL Studio is not your average sequencer. Its many recording, editing, and playback features merit it the name workstation.
The default number of steps per pattern is 16, but you can easily change that (to a maximum of 64). Tempo settings range from 10 to 999 bpm in 1/1,000ths of a beat increments. Projects can run more than just the length of a single pattern. In fact, you can have an unlimited number of patterns playing as many as 999 times in sequence, and even loop that if needed. You can build complex formal designs in the Playlist window, in which you can determine when and how often patterns play. There are several tools for entering pattern triggers (such as a paintbrush and pencil), and you can customize the window (color schemes and zoom levels, for example) to your liking.
FL Studio has you covered for many common production tasks. It offers presets for everything from mixer configurations and randomized note timings to effects settings. The content is also worth a special mention. Dozens of individual samples, drum loops, and even complete multitrack projects will get you jump started, demonstrating the many facets of the program. The excellent online video tutorials cover aspects of the program ranging from beginning to advanced, and the online help system is extremely thorough.
FL Studio was a big, pleasant surprise for me in this roundup. The program crashed several times, however, during the review period. It crashed once when I adjusted polyphony while a sequence was looping (the problem was not repeatable). But the range of music making that you can do with FL Studio is vast. If you're looking for a program that is not your average sequencer, give it a try.
Mackie Tracktion 2 (Mac/Win, $199)
Tracktion was first bundled with Spike, Mackie's turnkey recording system (reviewed in the January 2005 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com). Since then, Tracktion has been upgraded to version 2, which includes more plug-ins and enhancements such as external sync, Broadcast WAV file import, new automation features, and support for 64-bit processing and Mackie control surfaces.
Like GarageBand, Tracktion has a simplified user interface with most functions always at your fingertips. By default, pop-up help appears whenever you hold your cursor over an object for more than two seconds. Tracktion has only three windows, each of which can be selected by clicking on the appropriate tab: Projects, Settings, and the currently open project. The Projects window shows project files and their resources, which may include MIDI files, audio samples, and recorded or imported audio files. In the Settings window, you can enable and disable audio and MIDI devices, specify the sampling rate and latency buffer, edit key commands, and indicate user preferences (such as the number of undo levels).
FIG. 9: Although Mackie Tracktion 2''s GUI takes some getting used to, it ensures fast and easy operation once you''ve learned your way around. No commands appear in the Menu bar—not even File or Edit menus.
In the open project's window, inputs are on the left, and data is in the middle, with processors and outputs on the right (see Fig. 9). At the bottom center is the Properties panel, which lets you access the parameters of any object that you select. If you select a MIDI input, you can change MIDI channels, turn on input quantization, and so on. If you select an audio input, you can specify parameters such as file format and bit depth.
Tracktion's unique graphical approach extends to plug-ins and other effects, which are called Filters. By default, each track has filters for volume, panning, and a level meter. You can insert an additional filter in series with the others by clicking on and dragging it from the New Filter icon and then selecting it from a list. Filters include instrument plug-ins as well. The GUIs of most plug-ins appear in their own windows, just as you'd expect, but most of them look almost out of place in Tracktion's flat, 2-D landscape. If you want, you can lock them in place on top of the sequencer's GUI.
One of the first things I noticed about Tracktion was its complete lack of commands in the Menu bar — there isn't a File menu, an Edit menu, and any of the standard Mac or Windows GUI features. Buttons, sliders, and text fields are used for most tasks, and virtually nothing is hidden. Although there isn't an event-list editor, when you click on a note in the track display, you can edit its properties in the Properties panel's MIDI Event window.
If you aren't thrilled with Tracktion's appearance, you can customize the colors of just about everything onscreen. Tracktion can fill the screen no matter what size your monitor is, or you can scale it to make additional room for plug-ins or ReWire-synchronized applications.
Tracktion's user interface is so nonstandard that it could take a while for you to begin performing basic tasks, but it all falls into place once you grasp its GUI. The same traits that might be disorienting at first translate into speed and ease of use after you learn your way around. Because Tracktion's appearance is so unusual, it might be easiest to learn if you're unfamiliar with other sequencers.
Magix Music Studio 10 Deluxe (Win, $79.99)
Magix Music Studio is another case of split personalities, consisting of MIDI Studio and Audio Studio. One look at MIDI Studio and you'll know that Magix collaborated with Emagic — the resemblance to Logic is unmistakable (see Fig. 10). If you felt abandoned when Apple bought Emagic and discontinued Logic for Windows, you might want to give Magix MIDI Studio a try. Although it doesn't include the same soft synths that have made the most recent versions of Logic such a great package, it does include some worthy instruments of its own. The interface, terminology, and functionality that you knew and loved (except for the Environment) is there, right down to the fonts and track icons.
FIG. 10: Magix Music Studio''s MIDI Studio application is an offshoot of Emagic Logic, featuring the same views, terms, and signal flow.
If you're less familiar with Logic, here's the rundown: MIDI Studio is a powerful sequencer that supports audio tracks and soft synths. You insert a soft synth on an Audio Instrument track, which holds mix parameters for the synth and its MIDI performance data — a powerful and convenient implementation. You can create and edit MIDI controllers in the HyperDraw view and process them in the Transform window. There is standard piano-roll editing in the Matrix Edit view, and a Drum Edit view and Event List are also among the edit windows. As many as 90 different Screensets can recall specific combinations of views with a keystroke.
MIDI Studio's audio features are extensive, including nondestructive clip editing in the Audio Window and sample-accurate editing in the Sample Editor. There are a number of useful effects, ranging from EQ and compression to reverb, and DirectX effects are supported. Music Studio was upgraded to version 10 just as we were finishing this roundup, and new to MIDI Studio is ReWire support, allowing integration with such staples as Propellerhead Reason and Cakewalk Project5. The one major audio limitation is MIDI Studio's 16-bit, 48 kHz maximum resolution.
The Better Half
Audio Studio's lineage is as impressive as that of its fraternal twin: it owes a great deal to Magix's pro-audio software Samplitude, a well-respected (if underutilized) DAW. Audio Studio doesn't have MIDI support, but it does come with several pattern-based soft synths, ranging from a virtual live drummer and an old-school drum machine to a vocoder (see Fig. 11).
FIG. 11: The audio portion of Magix Music Studio is called Audio Studio, and it features a powerful combination of pattern-based soft synths, high-quality effects, and multitrack audio recording and editing.
One of Audio Studio's most interesting new features is the addition of Elastic Audio Easy pitch manipulation. With a graphical interface resembling that of the most famous pitch-correction programs, the Elastic Audio Easy editor does credible manual and automatic pitch correction and manual audio transposition. Although I doubt Elastic Audio Easy will supplant its more-famous peers any time soon, I was able to use it to retune and harmonize vocals discretely, as well as create the infamous Cher effect without so much as a glance at the manual.
My favorite discovery, however, was Audio Studio's CD-creation features. It can burn a disc-at-once Red Book CD directly from a project without having to bounce it first — you simply add track markers and burn away. You also have complete control over the placement of Index 0, also known as the “pregap.” It took exactly ten seconds for me to create a “hidden” track in the pause between tracks 1 and 2, something that many dedicated CD-burning programs don't allow. CD Text and subindices are also easy to create.
Unlike MIDI Studio, Audio Studio supports 24-bit audio and features a 32-bit floating-point audio engine. If the MIDI features of MIDI Studio and the audio features of Audio Studio were combined in a single program, Music Studio would be a formidable DAW. As two separate applications, it's still a formidable bargain.
Midisoft Studio Ensemble 2003 (Win, $84.95)
Studio Ensemble 2003 is actually a pair of applications. Studio 2003 XP (see Fig. 12) does most of the heavy lifting, and AudioPro Wave Editor lets you edit and process audio clips. Such a division of labor is similar to using an external audio editor with Cakewalk Home Studio, but Studio 2003 XP's audio support is far more limited than Home Studio's. Furthermore, the two applications are not tightly integrated: you must save your changes to a file in AudioPro and then reimport it into Studio 2003.
FIG. 12: Studio 2003 XP''s strength is in its notation features. It has basic audio recording capabilities, but it does not support plug-ins or complex audio editing.
Studio 2003 approaches sequencing from a traditional music-notation perspective and allows much more manipulation of the printed page than most sequencers, especially those in its price range. Complex meters, ornaments, dynamics, rehearsal markings, articulations, bowings, chord symbols, chord fingerings, odd clefs, and more are available from a point-and-click palette. Most of those symbols, however, do not affect playback.
A standard piano-roll view allows you to enter and edit MIDI parts. As in the score editor, you must select a note value from the palette and then click on the spot where you want to insert a note. Once a note has been inserted, you can use the mouse in Selection mode to relocate it or change its duration. A Controllers pane below the Notes pane allows simple graphic editing of tempo, continuous controllers, pitch bend, Channel Pressure, and more. You can edit Velocity by right-clicking on a note and then editing the value in a dialog box.
You can combine audio clips with the MIDI tracks or even record audio parts in Studio 2003, but you can't display audio and MIDI side by side. You can drag audio clips across eight audio tracks, but even simple copy and paste operations are unavailable. Interestingly, each audio track has a Frequency control that actually changes the track's playback speed. It's not a time-stretching feature because pitch changes with the speed.
Riding the Wave
Studio Ensemble's audio editor AudioPro supports a variety of basic file-based audio processes (see Fig. 13). You can easily reverse all or part of a file, trim to selection, and change the DC offset (although the program doesn't give you a method for measuring the existing offset). With only one level of undo, however, a degree of caution is in order. AudioPro has EQ, normalization, and automatic pop and hiss reduction. All processes with user parameters are controlled by text values within a single dialog box. Echo, chorus, flange, and fades are possible, but reverb isn't available. AudioPro doesn't offer any provision for auditioning effects.
FIG. 13: AudioPro Wave Editor expands Studio Ensemble 2003''s audio capabilities by adding waveform editing, normalization, simple noise reduction, and other DSP processes.
If printing musical scores is your primary purpose in selecting sequencing software, Studio 2003 may be your cup of tea. Don't expect to create CD-ready tracks, however, because it's not that kind of a program. It allows you to track a scratch vocal over your MIDI-performed score, and for some folks, that will be sufficient.
Studio 2003 and AudioPro crashed a few times during my testing — the programs would lock up, requiring the three-finger salute. Midisoft has an update that is said to fix some bugs, but when I downloaded it and ran the updater, it refused to install because the folder to which the original CD installed the software was not the same folder in which the updater wanted to find it. The updater didn't give me the option to install it in a different folder.
FIG. 14: PowerTracks Pro Audio includes features that will appeal to guitar and keyboard players alike. Its drum window is also among the more unusual interfaces that you''ll find.
PG Music PowerTracks Pro Audio 10 PowerPAK (Win, $69)
PowerTracks Pro Audio 10 is at the low end of the price continuum, yet it offers a good balance of audio and MIDI features. In fact, it may be the best bargain in the bunch. (An even lower-price version, for $49, is comparable in features but comes with less additional context.) For starters, it has some nifty setup options, such as the ability to choose any DXi synth on your system as the default sound engine. There are some unique interface elements — for example, the drum window shows actual pictures of the drums in the General MIDI drum set (see Fig. 14). You can play the drums by clicking on their pictures or by using keyboard shortcuts, and you can record drum hits as you play them.
PowerTracks Pro's audio-editing features range from the commonplace to the unusual. Among the former are reverb, echo, chorus, EQ, pitch shift, and flange (though surprisingly, there's no normalize option); and among the latter are the ability to merge multiple, separate audio clips on a track into one continuous clip; the ability to split a stereo track into two mono tracks; and the Auto-Harmonize feature, which is based on TC Electronic's algorithms. In addition to creating a single harmony track at some interval from an existing track or using the notes in a MIDI track as starting notes for new parts, PowerTracks Pro can generate harmony parts based on any chord symbols that you have placed into your song.
In the MIDI arena, Power-Tracks Pro has a number of features that can assist you in your music making. It lets you fill a track with a preexisting note/rhythmic pattern, which is great for making drum tracks quickly. It can also rechannel MIDI data or substitute one type of controller data for another. Its Data Filter lets you isolate specific types or ranges of data (only notes between C4 and C5, for example) for selection prior to editing, and it offers many ways to fine-tune your music, including transposing, sliding, or changing the length of notes.
PowerTracks has the page-layout and printing options of a good notation program, but the note-entry functions are well below that level. To enter a note in the notation window, you must either choose a note duration from a drop-down menu or let the program automatically determine what note value you want based on where in the measure you click. Entering dotted notes and tuplets isn't as easy as it could be, and there's support for only a few time signatures. Nevertheless, the printouts look great, and the engraver spacing and other professional features make the notation option a big bonus.
Guitar players will appreciate PowerTracks Pro's offerings. A configurable fretboard display shows notes as they're being played, which can be useful for figuring out fingerings. A Guitar-Cleanup window lets you adjust the timing of individual channels of data received from a MIDI guitar. The tuner plug-in can track the frequency of an incoming signal and show how sharp or flat the notes are. The tuner can also generate a variety of tones.
PowerTracks Pro has numerous other features that I haven't mentioned due to space constraints. Its printed manual, though not exhaustive, is more than adequate, and I didn't experience any glitches or crashes during many hours of using the program.
Sagan Metro LX 6.3 (Mac, $134.99)
The history of Metro is long and convoluted. Developed by Jeremy Sagan, Metro began life in 1989 as Dr. T's MIDI-only Mac sequencer Beyond. Macromedia acquired Beyond and changed its name to Metro, pairing it with the audio program Deck. Soon thereafter, a company called OSC gave Metro audio-recording capabilities and eventually sold it to Cakewalk. It has now grown into a family of digital audio sequencers from Sagan Technology.
Metro has been around for a while, gradually migrating from Macintosh System 6 to Mac OS X. Metro's capabilities have grown to the point that it has become a mature sequencer able to hold its own against any other in its price range. Several versions are currently available, ranging from the beginner-level Metro SE ($69.99) to the full-blown multitrack audio workstation Metro G4 Altivec ($329.99). Like the other versions, Metro LX is available only as a download.
FIG. 15: Metro LX, from Sagan Technology, is a mature entry-level sequencer with such a wide range of creative capabilities that you might not ever outgrow it.
Metro's GUI presents three main windows that are always open by default: the Tracks, Graphic Editor, and Transport windows (see Fig. 15). Any track selected in the Tracks window appears in the Graphic Editor, which can display as many as 16 tracks simultaneously. The Graphic Editor displays MIDI notes in piano-roll notation with stems indicating Velocity, but you can also show data such as Aftertouch, pitch bend, and MIDI Control Change messages by pressing a single key. Double-clicking on any note opens a dialog box that lets you quickly modify pitch, Velocity, location, and duration. A box of Selection Tools appears at the top of the window for performing various edits. Audio tracks are displayed as graphic waveforms.
Most commands are available in the menu bar, and you can access convenient pop-up menus in every window. Inserting any plug-in is as simple as selecting one from a pop-up menu. You can also select only a portion of an audio track and process it offline with any audio-effects plug-in. Working with instruments plug-ins is just as fast and intuitive. I did experience a few crashes while inserting plug-ins, but when I wrote Sagan for a solution, I received an immediate response. Metro LX lets you use only four instrument plug-ins at a time, making it inappropriate for anyone who uses lots of soft synths. If you have ReWire-compatible instrument applications, though, you can use ReWire to connect them to Metro.
In a Metro file, a recording can be divided into Sections — multitrack chunks with user-defined durations that appear in the Sections window. Inserting a Section into a single track in another Section creates a SubSection. That allows you to easily reuse motifs, multitrack drum parts, multipart vocal harmonies, and entire sections of songs. Each Section can have a different time signature, but only one Metro file can be open at a time.
Metro LX goes a bit deeper than most of the software surveyed here, offering functionality that you might expect from top-shelf sequencers. The online manual is detailed, but it's also very text-based and could use a few more diagrams to help orient new users. Metro's enthusiastic and well-established user base maintains a lively discussion forum on Sagan's Web site. For recording, editing, and processing audio and MIDI, Metro LX qualifies as one of the more capable sequencers in its price range.
Steinberg Cubase SE 1.0.7 (Mac/Win, $149)
Cubase SE takes its place near the bottom of a fine product line that includes Cubase LE, which is bundled for free with products from several manufacturers other than Steinberg; the midlevel Cubase SL3; and Cubase SX3, one of the top-ranking pro sequencers available. Cubase SE offers many of the same features as SL3 and SX3, with a consistent user interface that ensures a smooth transition if you ever decide to upgrade. SE's support for VST instruments is limited to 16, which should be plenty for most users on a budget. Other minor limitations are that SE supports only 64 channels of ReWire (versus the 256 channels supported by SL3 and SX3), and that it has only one level of undo. Although you can edit sequences in music notation, SE lacks the advanced score-printing functionality of SX3. Those issues aside, Steinberg's budget-price version is nonetheless a real bargain.
Cubase's layout and logical organization make it relatively simple to learn and operate — it's all about workflow. Most of the action takes place in the Project window, which gives you a graphical overview and makes it easy to find your way around (see Fig. 16). The Inspector displays information about your audio and MIDI tracks. The Track List provides the means to view and change individual track settings such as the track name, monitor and record enable, automation read and write enable, and mute and solo status.
FIG. 16: Designed for comfort and speed, Cubase SE is an easy-to-grasp audio and MIDI sequencer with impressive functionality and outstanding bang for the buck.
The Project window's Event display shows recorded track data as either a simplified MIDI piano roll or an audio waveform. Double-clicking on that data opens either the Key Editor, where you can draw, move, delete, transpose, quantize, and change the length or Velocity of MIDI data; or the Sample Editor, in which you can move, delete, scrub, loop, normalize, reverse, and otherwise transform a selected portion of audio data. The Audio Editor is also where you calculate and manipulate Hitpoints, which gives Cubase the ability to beat-slice audio to more easily vary the tempo of some sounds without affecting pitch.
Cubase has lots of features indicating that it's built for speed. The Devices window contains nothing but buttons that quickly open other windows. You'll seldom need to open the Mixer window, because you can access all its settings in the Track List or the Inspector. Nor do you need to open the Audio Editor if you want to perform an audio process on an entire clip, such as shifting pitch, stretching time, or imposing an envelope or a fade. You can change the height and width of displayed data using sliders in the corner of the Event display or the Edit window. Cubase also lets you open as many sequence files as your computer can handle and copy and paste between them.
VST Is a Reason to Be
Steinberg invented the Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plug-in format. If a plug-in doesn't work perfectly with Cubase, it isn't truly VST compatible. Cubase SE also provides access to Steinberg's VST System Link, which allows you to network multiple computers over digital audio connections.
Cubase displays details about installed instrument and effects plug-ins in the Plug-In Information window, which shows the number of ins and outs, the number of included presets, and other pertinent data. You can use that window to enable or disable plug-ins at will — a real convenience when you're trying to conserve resources or track down a problem. In addition, automation and ReWire features are especially well implemented. Lots of thoughtful features and professional touches make Cubase SE a polished program that can take you a long way in the world of computer-based recording.
Onward and Upward
At some point in your quest to make better music, you may want to upgrade to one of the premium programs for audio and MIDI sequencing. Several sequencers in this roundup are part of a family of applications, and purchasing any of those gives you access to an upgrade path. For $99, for example, you can upgrade Home Studio to Home Studio XL and receive a DXi sampler, additional audio effects, and several sample libraries. If you've purchased FL Studio Producer Edition online, you can upgrade to FL Studio XXL for $150 and receive a number of additional soft synths, a video player, and a SoundFont player.
Steinberg will upgrade Cubase SE to Cubase SL3 for $299.99 (a $200 savings) or to Cubase SX3 for $549.99 (a $250 savings). For $194.99, upgrading Metro LX to the full version of Metro will buy you many more tracks, 32-bit recording, time- and pitch-shifting, full plug-in automation, and lots of other desirable features. Compared with GarageBand, Apple's Logic Express 7 (Mac, $299) and Logic Pro 7 (Mac, $999) offer greatly increased functionality and many additional plug-ins. Apple doesn't offer upgrade pricing, however, if you want to move up from GarageBand to either version of Logic.
Why Pay More?
Clearly, musicians don't have to spend a fortune to gain impressive multitrack recording and MIDI sequencing power. Most of the programs featured in this roundup offer more tracks than any multitrack tape machine, with audio quality and MIDI resolution that matches or exceeds the needs of all but the most demanding users. Several include an extensive collection of software instruments and effects, and some supply additional content in the form of audio loops and clips.
The recording capabilities of most low-cost sequencers go beyond anything that even the most expensive sequencers could do a few years ago. In a commercial recording environment, recordists need all the sequencing power that modern technology has to offer to stay competitive. With a low-cost sequencer, however, you don't need to waste your time and money on features you may never use. If you don't need all the bells and whistles offered by a pro-level sequencer, you might find everything you need and save yourself a bundle.
Associate Editor Dennis Miller lives in the suburbs of Boston. Associate editor Geary Yelton lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Brian Smithers is Course Director of Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park and teaches music technology at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. Their combined electronic music experience adds up to nearly a century.
To view the Low Cost Sequencer Specifications Table click here
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