“I’m not very technical!”
A Tech Problem?
It’s the cry of many, including many teachers I work with. Luckily, I’m pretty good with technology and have usually embraced it early on.
But today, there are so many options available for creating music using software. You can use an app on your phone, your tablet, a PC or Mac. Plus there are various kinds of software with different approaches. Which one is right for you?
The Power Of Teaching With Customized Music
As a music teacher, I find it impossible to not put on my composer or arranger hat. There are so many pieces that my students would love to play if they could just understand the notation. I have even created an alternate system of notation called Musicolor Notation™ that relies on colors and direct labelling to ease the learning curve of reading music. But, once we’re using the standard notation, I still need to make alterations quite often. For this, I find it faster (and more legible) if I use some software to produce the printed sheet. It also has the benefit of being replicable for more students and teachers.
I have spent thousands if not hundreds of thousands of hours sitting in front of my screen to create music with so many kinds of software over the years.
Which Is Right For You?
So in this article, I’d like to clarify the kinds of music creation software and hopefully guide you to the one that is right for you.
When people talk about creating music using a computer, it can mean a few different things: composing music or producing music, or both. In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of the types of software used in creating music. There’s another category of software for editing sound and music, but I’ll leave that for another article.
The Three Mindsets of Music Creation Software
There are two mindsets of using software to help in the creation of music:
1) Producer mindset, in that you are capturing recorded music – a song or demo for perfecting or even as a final mix.
2) Composer’s mindset, where you are capturing written notation – sketching out ideas on electronic score paper and then printing out sheet music to try out with live musicians.
3) DJ mindset, where you are combining pre-made selections, samples or bits of music to create a final seamless soundtrack. This has only become possible with the arrival of super-powerful and affordable computers and hard drives. Beat-matching (aka tempo matching) is what this software is all about and enables a DJ to smoothly combine two songs even at different tempos or keys. This is more of a subset of the Producer mindset.
The worlds have started to merge and collide with faster computers. The difference is in their original design and can affect your workflow.
One has a composer’s mindset, starting with notes on a page, ideas written down, phrases manipulated by inversion, transposition, etc. This is more like a word processor for a composer, getting the ideas down in written notation. The software for this began as a way to quickly output easily affordable high quality sheet music. It is called music engraving or notation software and began in the 1980’s when personal computers started to arrive. Before this, only major music publishers could afford to print sheet music using mechanical and plate engraving and then moving to lithographic printing presses.
As modern computers have begun to get faster with larger hard drives, some of these software packages are now able to record high quality scores using sampled instruments. As a result you can easily start a composition, hear it back with samples and even output to a full high resolution mix. Today there are a few options in this camp.
Modern Engraving/Notation Software and Apps
- Finale – It’s robust, deep, and professional, but expensive
- Finale Notepad – I found this one fun, but limited
- MuseScore – Open source and completely free – looks promising
- Sibelius – It’s more user friendly than Finale (in my humble opinion) and similarly pricey, but it’s the one I use most
- Noteflight – This one is accessible online through your web browser! It’s great and allows you to share compositions online and even host your entire studio. I bought it for all my students.
- PreSonus Notion – This looks super cool and is featured in an Apple commercial. It will take some time for me to really learn this, but I do have it on my iPad now.
- Dorico – this is new software created by the team who originally developed Sibelius, now working for Steinberg, the people who make Cubase (see below).
The other mindset is from the producer’s view, recording music without much thought about the written notation. It’s all about capturing the sounds and editing and thinking along the lines of a music producer or even a movie director/editor. It’s all happening “in the mix.”
Back in the day, 1980’s, there was music sequencing software, and it all began with Atari home computers. Basically, it was a way of composing music by programming a sequence of notes and chords to play via electronic instruments that were connected via MIDI. The music sequencer was a big part of early electronic music and all rap and hip/hop. It was available as software computer programs and then dedicated sequencer machines.
Early Atari home computer with a midi keyboard setup. Image from Wikipedia
Over time, the sequencer was able to not only control instruments, but also record digital audio along with the sequence of notes. Today, the sequencer is now part of a full digital audio workstation (DAW) and these are both available as computer software programs you install as well as dedicated machines with sequencing and recording abilities built right in.
A peculiar thing I noticed was that so many of these software companies originate from a small area of Germany. When I was a guest speaker at a film festival in Frankfurt, I asked my hosts: “why is all this software and why are all the great composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) from Germany?”
(They surmised that it could be the language. German is so precise with so many ways to say very specific things – much more than other languages! If language is the operating system of the mind, then maybe we should all learn German?)
Top DAWs on the market now
- Logic Pro X (Apple) – It used to be called Emagic Logic and this is the one I use and love – Here’s a recent project I created for a theater production using Logic.
- Cubase (Steinberg) – I started on this in the 90s and it remains a leading DAW
- MOTU Digital Performer – It is very popular and has great features, but I was already on LogicPro
- GarageBand – This is free from Apple and it’s amazing that you can use it on an iPhone!
- Reason – There are many fans of this, but I’m not a fan of the interface
- Pro Tools – This one started as a sound editing package and now has sequencing
Fun fact: I started college at NYU in 1983 and attended the first ever MIDI conference sponsored by Yamaha. They were showing off a hot new item, the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer with full MIDI capabilities!
The groundbreaking Yamaha DX7
The modern DAW (digital audio workstation) even has the ability to notate sheet music. However, because of the mindset/paradigm of this software interface, it is not an ideal solution for creating sheet music. It can be a great way to record high quality backing tracks for your students to practice along with at home or make recordings as part of your songwriting class.
Most DJ software will not allow you to export music notation. But, you can create some really cool sounding stuff.
- Ableton Live – this really blurs the line between linear and non-linear composing. You can actually do both, but it’s definitely built from a non-linear DJ perspective. You can do things with this that are impossible to notate – and that’s the point. It’s like a sonic blender that makes it all work.
- ACID – old school software started in 1998 by Sonic Foundry, then merged into Sony. Now has been sold to Magix. I never liked the interface so didn’t really do much with it.
- Fruity Loops is now FL2 – it’s a full on DAW now, but started as DJ software.
- Traktor – From Native Instruments – there’s a more performance oriented one called Maschine too – amazing stuff! Expensive but super reliable.
- DJPro – an iPhone/iPad DJ software that connects to your Spotify account – not really for composing at all – but loads of fun
- iMaschine 2 – My son has spent hours creating tracks on this iPhone app. It is amazing and only $6.
Depending on the project will depend on what I use.
For working with live musicians, I will usually use Sibelius to create notation and perhaps export rough idea audio files as MP3s. For film, television, advertising and theater, I can use either LogicPro, or a combination of Sibelius to LogicPro. With things that require more non-linear thinking, Ableton Live is amazing. If you are doing sound design, you can just do it in Q-Lab, software designed for theater and live sound design.
As a teacher, I find it super powerful to be able to fire up Sibelius and write out a quick simplified notation for my students. Sometimes, just removing a note from a chord or making a left hand part a single bass note instead of a chord enables the student to make it through and retain all the enthusiasm and excitement music should have!
Which software do you use?
Please share in the comments below.