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PC Recording Studios: Determining Your Software Needs

Before you go out and buy a recording program, take a few minutes to clarify what you need and want in a program. Doing so can save you a ton of hassle because not all programs are made alike — each program offers different features and has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your needs and how they relate to a program's available features can keep you from getting the wrong program and having to learn a whole new program that does meet your needs.

Here are some things to consider before buying any software:

  • Setting your budget: Recording software runs from free to over a thousand dollars. That's quite a range, so narrowing down your budget to, say, around $100 can weed out a lot of options. When setting your budget, think about all the aspects of recording that you want to cover with your system. For example, if you set a budget of $300 for a software program and also plan on forking over $800 for soft-synths or a hardware synthesizer, getting a program such as Logic Pro — which gives you both the soft-synths and the recording program in one fell swoop — might actually put you back less than buying everything separately.
  • Examining your musical style: The style of music you make and the way you work can narrow down your software options. For example, if you intend to record mostly soft-synths and you do a lot of MIDI work, Pro Tools wouldn't be your best choice because it's more aligned with people who want to record live instruments and edit and mix audio tracks rather than MIDI tracks. Plugging in soft-synths and running MIDI-intensive music isn't what Pro Tools does best. If this is your desire, you're better off with Logic Pro (on a Mac) or SONAR (on a Windows PC).
  • Exploring computer platform compatibility: Certain software runs on only one computer platform. Logic Audio or Digital Performer, for example, can only run on a Mac, whereas SONAR requires a Windows machine. Other software, such as Pro Tools or Cubase, can run equally well on both platforms. So if you already have a computer or know which type you intend to get, your choices do narrow down a bit.
  • Exploring hardware compatibility: Some software programs do require specific hardware in order to run. For example — and this is the most extreme example — Pro Tools simply won't run without Digidesign hardware. If you have hardware other than Digidesign, Pro Tools won't boot up. In less extreme cases, you might find that certain programs don't work very well with certain types of hardware. This is becoming less of an issue as manufacturers work to keep their products compatible with other products, but hardware compatibility is something to keep in mind as you decide on the particulars of your system. Pay special attention to your hardware's drivers (the software that comes with your audio interface hardware) — make sure that the software you intend to use supports those drivers.
    Because there are so many variables in hardware and software, not all manufacturers of software can test all the hardware variations. The best thing you can do to ensure that certain hardware works with certain software is to see whether other users have had success with the combination. Internet forums are good places to find this information. The Web site of the hardware and/or software manufacturer is another great place to look for compatibility issues. Be sure to do your footwork before you buy. This action will minimize the chances of you not being able to get your system working.
  • Exploring software compatibility: Many people want to run more than one audio recording program at a time or they want to use third-party plug-ins with their main program. If this describes you, make sure you understand what other software is compatible with your main recording program. For example, there are several plug-in formats, and each recording program uses one (or sometimes two) of them. So if you want to use a compressor that is in, say, VST format, you need to make sure that you get a recording program that supports VST plug-ins.
  • Planning for the future: If your budget is limited or you aren't sure how deeply you want to get into computer-based recording, you'll probably be tempted to get a basic, entry-level recording program to give you a taste of the process. This is well and good, do think about the future and choose an entry-level program that has an upgrade path built in to it. Software makers fashion their programs with a certain workflow and graphic look, and having to abandon that workflow and look just because you've outgrown a particular software version would be a pain.
    Need more convincing? If you get used to a program that doesn't have an upgrade option, you'll be forced to learn a new program's ways of working, which could take you weeks to figure out. On the other hand, if you think ahead, you can get into a basic program for very little money and upgrade to a fuller-feature version of that same program, saving you the hassle (and headache) of learning a program from scratch.

Tons of audio recording programs are available. Remember, however, that you can save money and hassle in the long run by choosing a program with a decent upgrade path. You'll need to upgrade as your needs grow. Because developing software is expensive and risky for the manufacturers, buying a product from a company that has several versions of its program for different users increases the chances that the software you get good at using is available down the road.

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