Computer-based music making continues to become ever more popular and accessible. As such, with each new school year I encounter ever more first-semester students with, at least some, previous computer-based music making experience. This is definitely a good thing. However, these same students often lack understanding of their tools' abilities. It's fantastic when a student comes in with previous experience, but not so fantastic when that experience has been nothing more than clicking around a screen until something interesting happens. To utilize tools, any tools, it's important to understand how the tool works, and what the tool is capable of. As an example, let's say I am working under the hood of a car. I decide I need to disconnect a part that is connected with a bolt. To disconnect the part, I would need a wrench of the proper size to loosen the bolt. I would not use a crow bar even though it IS a tool to disconnect things. Likewise, a screwdriver wouldn't be the right choice even though it, too, is a tool that can be used to loosen threaded connectors. An all-too-common question I get asked by beginning students is “how do I record my vocals in Reason.” The short answer is that you don't! Reason is an instrument – a synth/sampling workstation, the hardware version of a workstation keyboard like the Motif, Fantom, or M3, or groovebox like the Roland MC series. Reason is not designed to record audio tracks. To record audio to go along with music created in Reason, you need to use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like ProTools, Cubase, Logic, DP, Sonar, etc. or use a complex work-around of triggering audio snippets using one of Reason's samplers.
ProTools, Cubase, Logic, DP, Sonar, and the like, fall into the category of DAW software. As DAWs, their primary use and focus is on multitrack recording of audio and MIDI. Their primary differences lie in workflow, feature set, and MIDI implementation – basically, how much stuff they can do and how they go about doing it. The differences are in the details. However, in their marketing, they would all have you believe that they are all things to all users, and if you buy their product, you'll never need another piece of music software because theirs does everything you would ever want to do. This is where the world of music software gets incredibly confusing to novice users. Looking at Wikipedia entries for multitrack recording software, music software, or the Wikirecording site further complicates matters by grouping nearly all music creation software together. Perhaps it's time to establish formal categories, at least among users of music creation software, to help overcome the frustration and confusion. So, here are the music creation software categories as I see them:
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) – These applications are the closest to being “all things to all users.” They record multitrack audio and MIDI and have options for editing both, usually in lots of different ways. They also usually include a set of software instruments (synths and samplers) and audio effect plug-ins (reverbs, delays, compressors, equalizers, etc.).
Production Workstations – Though many (but not all) applications in this category can record audio tracks, most focus on music making rather than recording. Recording audio tracks is, almost, an afterthought for those in this category that can do it. The emphasis in these applications is the creation and manipulation of sounds using synthesizers and samplers or phrase-sampling (often loop-based) tracks. There is wide variability in functionality in this category. Some focus on sampling, some on synthesis. It might be helpful to think of this software as made for the “one person band” rather than as software for “recording the band”.
Modular Programmers and Languages – For uber-geeks only! This category of applications can do anything you want it to do if you have the knowledge and skill to make it happen. This is the oldest category of music software, going back to the days before graphical user interfaces (a screen you click on using a mouse). Today, in addition to straight programming languages like Csound or Jmusic, we have lots of programming environments to make the uber-geeks' explorations much easier.
Examples: Reaktor, Max/Msp, ChucK, Pure Data, Supercollider, Synthedit, Bidule, OpenMusic ...and plenty more.
Notation Software – This category is designed to create pretty scores. Plain and simple. Today, notation software typically includes some software instruments and the ability to do some basic audio recording, in order to assist composers who wish to use their notation software for composing.
Examples: Finale, Sibelius, Notation Composer, QuickScore, Encore
Software Instruments – These are samplers and synthesizers in software. Though usually used as plug-ins in DAWs and Production Workstations, many (though definitely not all) can also be used in a stand-alone mode for live playing.
Examples: FM8, Elektrik Piano, Sampletank, Albino, Halion, Discovery, Tassman ...and thousands more! Check out KVRaudio for a massive database
Software Effects – These are audio effects in software. Like the instruments, these are also usually used as plug-ins, but a few can act as stand-alone units (especially those intended for guitar or audio mastering).
Examples: Waves bundles, T-Racks, GuitarRig, ...and thousands more – also a huge database on KVRaudio
Stereo Editors: These pieces of software have two primary uses – sample editing and stereo mastering. They are less popular than they used to be due to many of their functionality being incorporated into the DAWs. However, for quick stereo editing, file format conversion, bulk editing audio files, or audio restoration, they can't be beat.