Finding multitrack recorder software that meshes with how you like to work is not guaranteed to be a stroll in the park. I feel for musicians who have to pay for the software they use. If you pay $500 for a program and then it drives you crazy … no fun at all. I have the preposterous luxury that the manufacturers give me their software. I have Cubase, FL Studio, Ableton Live, Reason, Sonar, and probably a couple of other recording programs I’ve entirely forgotten about.
Each of them drives me crazy in a slightly different way.
I’ve been using Cubase for 20 years, and I’m fast on it. But it has to be said, the built-in synthesizers are inferior. Also, the management at Steinberg/Yamaha has decided that I have to renew my NFR license every 90 days. I’m not willing to take that extra step. If I’m going to do any actual creative work in a program, it had darn well better stay installed and running, at least for as long as I own this computer.
FL Studio is packed with terrific features, but its MIDI input routing is for the birds. You can assign the mod wheel to control vibrato in your software synth plug-in, play some notes and hear them, but when you push the mod wheel on your hardware keyboard controller … the wheel does nothing. FL Studio makes you go through an extra step to connect the MIDI input to the parameter. There’s a certain twisted logic to the way they do it, but it’s a constant annoyance. Also, the timeline in the multitrack arrangement window doesn’t know about changing time signatures, and I use changing time signatures a lot.
Reason is a sweet program, but it doesn’t host third-party plug-ins of any kind, and its own instruments are strictly tuned to 12-note-per-octave equal temperament. Sometimes I like to do microtonal music.
I’ve never had time to come to grips with Sonar. Its user interface is, I’m sure, no more complex than that of any of the other programs I’m familiar with, but every time I launch Sonar my eyes cross and my teeth start to hurt. Nothing against Sonar, which I’m sure is brilliant. This is a strictly subjective reaction. If I needed to learn it, I’d learn it. But I don’t need to.
And then there’s Live. Back at the beginning of 2010 I developed a bad attitude about Live. That was when I upgraded to Windows 7. Live was unable to make use of my VST plug-ins, because they were tucked away inside the Program Files(x86) folder, and it didn’t like that location. I worried, with some justification — though not, as it has turned out, a great deal of justification — that if I moved the plug-in folder I would have problems with copy-protection. That and the fact that in Live, you can’t doodle on your keyboard while listening to a pattern you’ve already recorded for the same synthesizer. Try it and you’ll find that your doodles were recorded into the pattern. I told them years ago they should add a “Both” button to the mixer channel. The suggestion fell on deaf ears.
It has to be said, though: Live is the best program of the bunch for playing live. (Duh.) Yesterday I found myself musing about the possibility of doing exactly that, so I decided to give Live a fresh look. I downloaded the 8.2.2 update. Oh, and I have an installed copy of Max, so I’m running Max For Live, which adds dimensions of music power that are undreamt of in quantum physics.
I dragged my VST plug-ins folder out to the root of the C: drive, and found that the NI instruments and the u-he instruments, all of which are essential to my musical aspirations, were happy to run. Omnisphere, no problem. Stylus RMX can’t find its authorization, and that’s a big bummer, so I’ve fired off an email to Spectrasonics. Likewise Alchemy. These are not insoluble problems; I’m not sure why I let them gripe me for so long.
Well, no, I do know. My big issue with Live is that I don’t tend to think in terms of repeating riffs. I have this classical music thing in my head. Live makes it really easy to cue up four-bar riffs (or one-bar riffs, if your IQ is under 95), but if you compose music that moves linearly from point A to point N, certain of Live’s more interesting interactive features drop out of the equation. You have to switch over to Arrange mode, and it becomes just another sequencer.
But now I’m giving it another try. So far, so good. Eventually I may even get around to rolling up my sleeves and banging my knuckles on Max.
Also on tap is my M-Audio Axiom 61 keyboard. Not one of the new Axioms, and not the Axiom Pro — this is one of the original models. Even so, it’s amazingly capable. Eight pads, which can be either drum triggers or pressure sensors. Eight knobs, nine sliders, nine buttons, all of them individually assignable to whatever MIDI control message you might need. A keyboard with up to four split/layer zones. Envisioning how all of these widgets might interact with Live … well, I’ve got two manuals to read, so I don’t know yet. And reading the manuals, while necessary, is not the whole story. Ultimately, the point is to produce music, so you have to stop and think, “If I assign pressure pad 3 to send CC 11 on MIDI channel 8 and use that to modulate the filter cutoff of this synth here, how will the musical gesture fit into the piece I’m working on?” Not an easy question.
Oh, and did I mention Reaktor? A dozen amazing-sounding synthesizers in one, all of them studded with features and none of them too well documented. So let’s see, how do I assign this Axiom button to mute the Reaktor output? I right-click. Okay, it has MIDI Learn. Why isn’t the MIDI Learn working? Because I forgot to switch the Live channel to look for external MIDI input, so no MIDI messages are getting to Reaktor. Grr.
I have some compassion for young musicians who are trying to get started with this stuff. I’ve been doing it for 30 years, and there are still moments when I’m ready to tear my hair out. But the results, when it comes together — the sounds, the intricate polyphonic rhythms — oh, my.