I'm what teachers kindly call a visual learner. I fall asleep in lectures. If you give me an instruction manual, I’ll never read it. I'm also not great with computers, but as a musician living and working in an electronic era, I know I need to make technology work for me. Nowhere is a successful merger of human and machine more essential than in the studio. If you have a good relationship with your digital audio workstation (DAW), your creative process is smooth and intuitive. Pick the wrong one, and you’ll be struggling with glitches, crashes, and confusion.
I’ve been a recording musician for 25 years, and I’ve worked on all kinds of platforms: reel-to-reel, four-track cassette, self-contained hard disc recorder, and numerous DAW setups. But the software I’ve been using (I won’t embarrass the makers by naming the app or listing its many sins) has been driving me nuts. Exasperated, I decided to upgrade to a new DAW, so I downloaded free versions of Ableton Live 9, Propellerhead's Reason, and FL Studio to my Windows 7 laptop.
I wanted something intuitive, something I could use even if I threw away the manual. I spent an hour playing with each one to determine the quality of the sounds and the ease of use. For the benefit of recording artists everywhere, here are my findings, with scores graded A through F. Keep in mind that these are first impressions – and that first impressions can mean a lot. In art, making snap judgments can be a good thing.
1. Propellerhead's Reason
I started with Propellerhead’s Reason, which took about 22 minutes to download, install, and register using my Facebook account. During the download, the website treated me to a short video that dropped a few useful hints for using the interface. I was asked to reset my password and was prompted to download plugins for the application. I declined, just wanting to get started at this point. The interface was plain and unattractive with several windows crowding my monitor. I had a difficult time getting a beat started, but within a few moments, I had figured out how to record drum tracks live by tapping the middle row of my laptop’s keyboard. Not surprisingly, my playing was unsteady, so I sped up the tempo to hide my mistakes.
More voices are added by dragging and dropping different devices from the browser window. The chosen devices appear on a virtual rack, and it’s easy to scroll through them. Reason offers many ways to tweak its canned beats and patterns; it seems better suited to that process than to creating beats from scratch. As with most Windows software, hover over any virtual button on the screen and an explanation blurb appears, usually three words or less. These blurbs, combined with common sense, let me navigate Reason with only occasional visits to the help menu.
In addition, the onboard sounds and effects processing were excellent; it was hard to make anything sound bad. However, the tracks I’d created appeared as a narrow strip with the individual drum hits as tiny dots. I couldn’t figure out any way to edit or move these hits on a small scale. A larger display showing the waveform of the track would make me happier, but I couldn’t argue with those sounds!
Producer's grade: B
This rig can make wonderful noises without much trouble, but the verdict is still out on the editing functions.
2. Ableton Live 9
Ableton Live 9 was a faster download, an easier signup process, and a more attractive onscreen product. I was making beats less than 20 minutes after I clicked the download button.
Live has a different approach to the learning-curve issue: hover over a button and a tutorial window in the lower left corner offers a detailed explanation for that button’s function. On the right is a scrollable table of contents for the manual, making it fairly easy to find help topics and get past problems. However, I had to go there often to make anything happen at all. I followed the instructions for recording beats live using my laptop’s keyboard. Nothing happened; either the instructions were incomplete or I misunderstood them. Fortunately, I discovered "draw mode," allowing me to place the beats for each drum directly in the measure. This felt like a better alternative for an artist creating unique songs rather than working with preset beats.
Once I created a beat, it looped automatically, allowing me to add effects and different voices. These were easily accessed by dragging them to the instrument channels on my mixer, and all of them sounded terrific. I created a beat by substituting marimbas for my drums, then added additional percussion and sat jamming out at my desk. Manipulating effects and locating different voices proved easy, but trying to add a third instrument was not intuitive; the app only appeared to support two onboard recording tracks, plus two acoustic tracks from my laptop’s external microphone. I didn't solve this problem during the hour, but the sounds I created were enjoyable and much of the process was effortless.
Producer's grade: A-minus
When I write and record, I don’t want to have to think. I still had to do a little thinking and figuring, but I bet I’d be an expert fast.
3. FL Studio
I tested FL Studio last. It was actually the first app I attempted to download, but the download failed. I decided to come back and try it again after my sessions with the first two apps. This time everything went well.
I was up and running with the software in less than 15 minutes, but that’s where things stopped being easy. I spent the first five minutes or so staring at a monolithic, mostly dark-grey display trying to figure out how to make sound happen. Pressing F1 gets you a comprehensive manual, but this can’t be open at the same time as the app itself, so there’s no way to refer back and forth while you’re troubleshooting. This app’s clean and simple interface offered few clues to help me get started. Finally, I succeeded in creating a percussion loop and adding a simple synthesizer riff. Then I began playing with effects to see what weird sounds I could generate.
Using effects plugins, I was able to create a wineglass-shattering screech that wouldn’t stop. This noise drove my wife to a different floor of the house as I struggled with the controls. Erasing the notes from the loop didn’t help – the squeal continued. Finally I found the volume for the synth track and turned it all the way down. Peace!
I ended my trial hour a few minutes early, too frustrated to continue. While it has many adherents, FL Studio seems dense and counterintuitive to me. There’s a lot of functionality here, but a thorough reading of the manual would be necessary before doing real work. Also, my sessions with Live and Reason produced cool-sounding beats that had me reaching for my lyric notebook to write, but all I made with FL Studio was noise.
Producer's grade: C-minus
I found the interface pretty impenetrable. This software is made for somebody whose brain is wired to the opposite polarity from mine.
Ultimately, one thing was clear: all of these apps have enough power to do just about anything, given the time to learn. However, based on a one-hour trial, I would equip my studio with Ableton Live 9.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.