Fast notebook computers, portable interfaces, and powerful software such as Apple's Logic Pro 8 let songwriters and producers create music, anytime, anywhere.
Logic's multiple-window workspace gives a quick view of your parts, the mixer, video, and more. Here, the Detect Cut feature is being used to identify cuts in a video.
Channel strip presets make it easy to call up sounds that are optimized for various real and software instruments.
Working from a template like the one above left gets you going on a song without having to fiddle with track setup.
The Comp Tracks feature makes it easy to manage and edit multiple takes.
Logic can bounce mixes in a number of formats and can even burn directly to CD.
Logic is a power player, but it isn't the only game in town. Here are some alternatives.
Avid's Pro Tools (digidesign.com; m-audio.com) comes in several versions and runs on both Mac and Windows platforms, but each requires that you use Avid's Digidesign or MAudio hardware hardware in order to run the software. (Both Digidesign and M-Audio make laptop-friendly interfaces.) Pro Tools remains the standard in professional circles, and excels at straight-ahead music recording while its music creation features continue to improve. Its clean user interface and logical layout make it among the easiest full featured programs to learn and operate.
Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer (MOTU.com) offers an excellent balance between audio and MIDI production. The OSX-compatible software's ability to include a number of different sequences in one file, each with its own start time and tempo, is a plus for film and video production. Ditto its flexible mixer. MOTU also makes a range of portable and rackmountable interfaces that work well with a Mac or PC notebook.
Steinberg's composer-friendly Cubase SX and its cousin, Nuendo (used for high-end production and post work), offer powerful audio and MIDI production for both OSX and Windows. Very flexible editing and efficient user interfaces make both of these programs very solid when time is of the essence. Their mixer sections are especially flexible. They include an acceptable number of onboard effects. (Steinberg.net)
Cakewalk's SONAR (cakewalk.com) has been a stalwart in PC circles for years. It was among the first multitrack programs to offer realtime pitchmanipulation, and continues to boast a huge array of features for a relatively affordable price. Cakewalk has a reputation for optimizing its software for the latest Intel and AMD processors. The company's effects and software instruments continue to impress.
Ableton Live (ableton.com) started life as a sort of über sampler that could trigger loops at the touch of a MIDI or QWERTY keyboard key, but it has become a fully-functional multitrack program with MIDI support and good video integration. Like Propellerhead's suite of software instruments, Reason (propellerhead.se), projects created in Live can be integrated into other software such as Logic, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Cubase, SONAR, and others, via a technology called ReWire.
When the computer first emerged as a part of—and later as a replacement to—the traditional tape-based recording studio, it was just another piece of specialty equipment. Computers were big, expensive, and somewhat limited. Today's laptops, on the other hand, are so powerful that a well-equipped portable can replace a roomful of gear. Both Mac and Windows-based portable systems can offer enough recording and music creation power for full-on album production and film scoring.
Apple Computer has been especially aggressive in going after the music market in recent years. Programs like GarageBand and Soundtrack seemed to whet the company's audio appetite. Its purchase—and subsequent development of—Emagic's Logic digital audio sequencer has put Apple in a unique position as a company that makes both music software and the computers that run it. The latest version of Logic, Logic Pro 8 (part of the Logic Studio suite), is about the most comprehensive integrated recording setup available, making it especially appealing to users of the company's portable MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks. Logic isn't the only worthy choice (see sidebar "Workstation Warriors"), and isn't even an option if your machine speaks Windows. (After taking over from Emagic, Apple discontinued Logic's cross-platform—somewhat ironic today when you consider that Apple's computers themselves do run Windows as well as Mac OS!) But its feature set is similar to those of Steinberg's Cubase and Nuendo, as well as Avid's various forms of Pro Tools (all of which are both Mac and PC compatible). Other similar programs include Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer (Mac) and Cakewalk's SONAR (Windows).
The Complete Package
One of the things that makes Logic and its brethren so effective as portable composition and recording tools is that they offer all of the essential elements of the modern digital studio. Key features include:
Multitrack audio: This is a given, and is included in even the most basic programs (such as GarageBand). But for professional use, a program should let you do more than record, overdub, and edit audio. It should also offer tools for managing different takes, arranging audio quickly, and organizing and sharing audio files among projects.
Among Logic Pro's key new features is the Comp Track, which automatically organizes different versions of a single audio part. This saves a lot of setup time and also reduces the onscreen clutter that can occur when you're taking a bunch of passes at the same track. Onscreen, the audio channel looks like a single track—until you click its expansion triangle to uncover all the takes. You can then select which parts from each take will be used in the composite. You can store multiple comps and switch among them with a mouse click. For Logic veterans used to the old "duplicate" track system, you can blow the comp out to individual tracks and work the "old way." But you won't want to.
Editing in general is aided by a new "single screen" approach—something also found in Digital Performer and Pro Tools, and, in a different form, Cubase and SONAR. It's focused on the main Arrange window, but gives easy access to the mixer, MIDI editors, audio files, sample editor, notation, and more. This approach makes it way easier to work within the confines of a laptop's limited screen space.
Efficient use of tools makes editing extremely fast and easy. The cursor's function changes depending on how it's positioned over the material you're editing, but you can also manually set the mouse to perform specific tasks.
Another of Logic's strengths, especially for laptop use, is its ability to work with—and switch among—a variety of audio interfaces. You can start a song in a studio setting using an outboard device, then unplug and move operations: Logic lets you switch to the computer's internal audio hardware without having to reboot.
Mixing: While all multitrack audio programs include some type of mixing, many of the newer programs have done a good job of integrating a "traditional" mixer with faders to a modern automated on-screen approach. Logic's mixer is especially flexible and the program's comprehensive automation is great if you're working with complex mixes and remixes—you can do all your mixing from the arrange window or switch to a more traditional "channel strip" display. The mixer's best feature is the ability to save an entire channel strip, including all effect plug-ins for later recall in any project. So, for example, you can set up favorite vocal or guitar sounds and get to them instantly.
Effects: This is one area in which the leading programs vary widely. Logic includes a huge array of onboard plug-ins, including dynamics processors such as compression, limiting, and gating; several EQs; a collection of reverbs and delays; and an interesting group of filter and modulation effects. You'll also find some some specialty items, such as very good guitar and bass amp modelers and functional, though basic, pitch correction. Its Space Designer convolution reverb is as good as some top third-party plug-ins.
Logic's new Library feature is great for songwriting. It lets you dial up complete preset tracks, which can be optimized for audio sources (such as guitars or vocals) or for software instruments. For even more instant gratification, song templates take that concept further, letting you load up an entire array of tracks pre-configured for songwriting, film scoring, surround mixing and more. You can also customize and store your own song templates.
Software instruments: If there's one area where the computer-studio has exploded recently, it's in the ability to emulate— and in many cases outdo—hardware synthesizers, drum machines and samplers. This kind of processing, which we discussed in some detail in Playback's Fall 2007 issue, requires a lot of computer power, and until recently, the typical notebook was relatively limited in its ability to handle more than a few software instruments. Logic's retinue of software sound generators is both extensive and impressive. Fortunately, the stock 2.2 GHz MacBook Pro we tested it with was well up to the task of playing them back.
Among Logic's instrumental highlights is a flexible and good-sounding sampler, which comes with an impressive library of sounds; can import formats such as Akai and Giga; and is pretty easy to program from scratch. Other highlights include a very good virtual drum machine; expressive electric piano and tone-wheel organ emulation; and a cadre of analog and digital synthesizers, including Sculpture, a modeling synth that can produce both realistic instrument sounds and unusual textures ideal for film sound design.
Audio time stretching and pitch transposition: Lots of programs offer the ability to alter the tempo and pitch of digital audio files, though some, like SONAR, Logic, Ableton's Live, GarageBand and Sony's ACID, make the process almost completely seamless. This feature is not only important if you're working with pre-recorded loops; it's also useful if you like to try out ideas in different keys or at different tempos after the initial recording. Although this technology continues to improve, there are limits to how far you can stretch tempo or pitch without hurting audio quality. Logic's built-in tools are mostly effective. It offers both realtime and offline pitch shifting and tempo changes, and you can switch individual audio tracks between following the song's tempo or ignoring it—very handy for spotting film cues.
Video integration: Computers are great at audio-for-video work, provided that the computer's processor and hard drive are robust enough to handle the enormous amounts of data involved. The ability to locate precisely, the speed of synchronization, and the convenience of seeing video cues and markers on the same screen as audio and MIDI tracks are big pluses. Logic's best video feature is "detect cuts" which creates thumbnails for scene changes.
Output: All of the major programs let you "bounce" a mix to disk—eliminating the need for a mixdown deck. Logic can output in multiple formats simultaneously (very handy when you want to send an MP3 to a client and keep an uncompressed file for CD burning). The inclusion of Waveburner CD mastering software in the Studio suite is a big plus, as well, letting you see a project all the way to completion without taking the notebook off your lap.