This post is part of the series Multitrack Equipment, your guide to creating the best multitrack recording setup for your budget.
The software you chose to run you recordings on will greatly affect how easy it will be to control the layering of takes and editing them together, overdubbing and mixing. The ideal piece of software will be a stable multitrack recording, with decent mixing and plugin capabilities.
Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Pyramix, Nuendo, Sonar and Reaper are the main competitors in this event, but since this post is in the Sessions on a Shoestring thread Pyramix and Nuendo are too pricey for what we’re trying to achieve here, so for the moment we shall exclude them but will definitely be revisiting them at a later date. So, let’s have a look at the rest of them and find one that fits the bill.
Probably the most well known of all of these, and is used across the professional industry, as well as in a large percentage of home studios. It is famed for its excellent implementation of mixing and automation, as well a very nicely designed layering system for overdubbing/re-recording new takes making it simple and intuitive to use.
The immediate downside to buying Pro Tools is that it is relatively expensive, a new fully functional system will set you back around £450 and that doesn’t come with an interface. If you want an Avid interface too then expect to pay a considerably more. Avid have recently made Pro Tools compatible with interfaces other than their own, which is great because that makes it much more accessible to home users. If you don’t want to buy an Avid interface, you don’t have to – you can choose one that suits your budget and recording requirements.
I frequently use Pro Tools to mix because I really like the way the automation works, the plugins and virtual instruments really are good (despite only being able to use costly RTAS ones), and now that automatic delay compensation is built in, mixing in Pro Tools is a pleasure. The biggest shortcoming of the automation in Pro Tools is that you can’t use ‘trim automation’ unless you have an HD rig, which is hugely frustrating. Trim is a very useful tool which allows you to tweak and adjust existing automation with a fader, rather than completely overwriting it.
In short, Pro Tools is great if you can afford an HD rig or if you’re not to worried about perfecting your automated mixes on a ‘native’ system. However, before you buy make sure you check all the compatibility charts from Avid here - or you won’t get any help if Pro Tools doesn’t run smoothly on your unverified computer setup.
Logic is exclusively available on mac OS so if you run windows, forget it. On the plus side Logic does have a relatively intuitive feel to it, and is often found in rehearsal studios simply because of its usability and relatively low cost from around the £165 mark upwards . Mixing is straight forwards, automation is quite easy to get the hang of and you can get into very fine detail if you want to. Editing between takes can get a bit fiddly as you continually end up layering more and more takes together which leaves you with a screen full of clips for just one channel edit. I personally prefer a simpler approach using a compilation of all the clips from different takes in one continuous line, much easier to follow in my eyes. There’s plenty more info on Logic here for interested mac users.
To be honest I have less experience operating Cubase as on the occasion when I have, I found it to be very clunky to use, and not very good in terms of actually layering multiple takes and channels etc. It is usually found in schools and similar places that do a small amount of recording, but honestly the rest of the competition have advanced far ahead. Prices for the current version 6 are from £250 for the ‘artist edition’ (smallest and only windows 7 / mac OS X10.6 compatible), so save your self some cash and get the version 5 edition for £126 if you really do want it.
Although an entry level package is cheap, Sonar like Cubase isn’t found very often in the professional music industry. That may be enough to put you off it straight away, for instance if you are planning to get your album professionally mastered you’ll want to record it something compatible with the production house. The software has a definite bias towards MIDI recording and the use of virtual instruments rather recording than physical ones, which comes over in Cakewalk’s overview. The fact is that it’s not really seen to be versatile and stable enough to consider running in a professional environment. Sonar has come a long way in the last couple of version releases, but again like Cubase it’s not enough to take on the big boys of Logic and Pro Tools. If recording MIDI is your thing then by all means look into it though. Once you’ve got through the bewildering number of releases, versions, cross-grades and updates that are available, you will find an competitively priced ‘Essential’ edition from £73 here.
At last we come to the lesser known of the bunch, Reaper. It is the software I would suggest every time to anyone looking to do multitrack recording on a budget, not least because of the tiny price tag of $40. The vst plugins available are superb, and include pitch-shift/time-stretch, convolution reverb and autotune plugins (which elsewhere cost a bomb!). It will run compressed audio formats as well as the standard wavs etc, and is compatible with almost any audio or MIDI interface under the sun. In short this does everything that you need it to, could not be more highly recommended. It’s not quite as pretty and polished looking as Pro Tools, but the value for money out weighs that by a mile. Even if you are already comfortable with your existing software, just go and try it, most of your existing plugins on your computer should just import themselves. The only slight downside to Reaper that I can find is that the menus (File, Edit, View etc) do seem a bit overwhelming when you first look at them as there are a lot of actions available, but you really do get used to that very quickly. If you’re not sure, then go and download the appropriate installer and take advantage of the 30 day free and unrestricted demo period. There is no cut down, ‘native’, ‘essential’ or ‘LE’ version, it’s all there in one package. Impressively no other audio software provider that I’ve come across can beat that, and best of all the download is a tiny 5-10MB (depending on your OS) and the installation takes literally a few short seconds. More info on Reaper here.
[image via Cubosh]