Most software synthesizers can operate stand-alone, but I seldom even bother installing the stand-alone. For practical purposes, these instruments are meant to live inside a DAW.
I hate that acronym, by the way, but we’re stuck with it. For those who are new to the party, it means “digital audio workstation.”
I’m just thinking out loud here, but readers who are into this technology may find an idea or two to ponder. As I rev up my interest in softsynths, I find myself facing a quandary. Which DAW should I use? There are as many as a dozen to choose from, and I have four of them. Three of mine are not in their most recent versions, so I might want to pay for an update. I have Reason 11 Suite (12 has just been released), Cubase 7 (current version is 11), Ableton Live 9 Suite (current version is 11), and FL Studio 20. Each has some advantages and some disadvantages.
In recent years I’ve been using Reason exclusively. But Reason is looking, frankly, a bit long in the tooth. I’ve just downloaded three great freeware synths (Surge, Dexed, and Odin) that require VST 3 compatibility, and Reason is stuck in the land of VST 2, this in spite of the fact that VST 3 was released in 2008! I’m fast on Reason — I can do stuff quickly and smoothly — and I have a huge trove of Reason Rack Extension plug-ins, which are not VST at all. Fortunately, Reason itself will now run as a VST 3 in other workstations, so I can access those instruments, effects, and utilities (with a few limitations) without running the Reason DAW itself.
FL Studio offers lifetime free updates, so it’s always current, and it’s massively powerful. But the workflow in FL is … peculiar. The developers have always gone their own way. I’m quite rusty on it, so I would have to re-learn some of the basics.
Ableton Live has an amazing feature called Max For Live: Cycling ’74 Max can operate behind the scenes, allowing the intrepid DIY addict to do all sorts of cool stuff. But I’ve never warmed up to the Live user interface. Also, just now I opened up Live 9 and it didn’t see those new VST 3 plug-ins. FL Studio and Cubase 7 see them, and Live sees the other new synths I’ve just installed; what’s the problem?
I was a Cubase user for many years, so I’m probably still pretty fast using its UI. Or maybe not. Last night I downloaded the Trial version of Cubase Pro 11. It has a bloated, ugly look. I’ve seen this sort of change before; the developers want the program to look new and improved, but the feature set is already well beyond complete, so they overhaul the UI. Usually for the worse. Cubase comes with a boatload of content, but that’s probably a selling point that will attract other musicians more than it attracts me. I already have a boatload of content.
And then there are the host programs I don’t own, that I might want to consider, notably Bitwig and Studio One. Or maybe Reaper. Or even MOTU Digital Performer. In years past, DP was Mac-only, and I haven’t had a functional Mac since my 2008 MacBook died. But it’s now a Windows app as well, and it looks quite nice. I’d have to learn a new UI, but I like learning stuff. I wonder if the guy I used to know at MOTU is still there….
Basically, the factors to consider are ease of use, support of current features, and cost. The current features would include support for MPE (MIDI polyphonic expression). The other DAWs have it; Reason doesn’t. I have no use for MPE at the moment, but I’ve been thinking I might want to acquire a Linnstrument. Maybe Roger Linn would sell me one at an accommodation price.
Accommodation pricing is one of the advantages of being an insider in the music technology game. I used to be the insider’s insider, but that was 20 years ago. Reinvigorating my reputation is not easy, because the media landscape has changed. But that’s a topic for a future blog post.