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Making music on the Mac for beginners

The market for digital music production is more vital than ever: The boundaries between musicians, producers and DJs are blurring and productions from the home studio have long dominated social online networks, YouTube - and even the charts. At the center of most hits: the Mac and a complete recording studio in the computer.

Apple's music software GarageBand has played a not insignificant role in the triumph of home productions. First published in 2004 as part of the iLife package on the Mac, the versions for iPhone and iPad made the music production suite also suitable for mobile use. The range of functions has always focused on beginners and amateur musicians, but today the software is also suitable for professional productions. This is reflected not least in the charts: The drums in Rihanna's hit “Umbrella” and the beat from Kendrick Lamar's “Pride”, for example, come from GarageBand. And even the seasoned Britpoppers from Oasis recorded the demos of their last studio album "Dig Out Your Soul" with the standard Apple solution. The professional interest is not even surprising: The software "substructure" of GarageBand comes from the creators of the professional recording solution Logic Pro X.

In order to give all candidates the same chances, we exported a piece created in Logic and loaded it into the respective programs track by track. We did not do any pre-processing with plug-ins and equalizers in order to examine the corresponding properties in the mix with the individual solutions. We used various USB controllers and MIDI devices for the control.

You should pay attention to this when buying:

  • MIDI in and out: If you want to include external sound generators in your productions, you should make sure that your music software can control them with the help of MIDI inputs and outputs.
  • Number of tracks: Some entry-level versions of established music programs reduce the number of available recording tracks - and thus limit your creativity.
  • Plug-ins: Some of the best digital instruments today come as VST and AU extensions. Mac users should make sure that their software supports both formats if possible.
  • ReWire: Rewire has emerged as the standard for communication between music programs. But not all programs have this technology!
  • iPhone & iPad: There are special iOS versions of many programs that you can use to gather inspiration on the go or continue ideas you started on your Mac.
  • Promotion opportunities: There are opportunities for promotion to the professional version for many entry-level programs.

The professional audio suite is available in three different versions for beginners, professional musicians and producers.

Web: Price: 99.99 euros / 309 euros / 559 euros

This free audio editor is certainly not a beauty. In terms of performance, however, it can certainly keep up with many professional solutions.

Web: Price: free of charge

Sounds great, it doesn't cost anything!

A reason not to be underestimated for the great success of the audio workstation, especially among beginners: Apple always kept the price of GarageBand low - today, like the programs in the iWork suite, it is even available for free download from the App Store.

Nevertheless, the program on the Mac is by no means unrivaled: Established companies such as Propellerhead and Ableton offer entry-level versions of their well-known programs Reason and Live at low prices, albeit with reduced functionality. And the free and shareware market holds some free and professionally usable pearls - such as the Ardor music production workshop, which is reminiscent of Pro Tools.

Test 1: price-performance

Do you want to get a MIDI controller? Then the chances are good that the intro version of Ableton Live is included. Although it is a version that has been greatly reduced to the full range, this also applies to Reason Essentials. Conversely, in the reduction there is also the opportunity for clear and clear production.

It is different with GarageBand: Although it uses the Logic Pro audio engine, it is ultimately a completely different program. The donation-financed Ardor is particularly impressive: its operation is based on the Pro Tools studio solution and is therefore also suitable for professional productions. Reaper is just as demanding: if you only use it for non-commercial projects, you benefit from a purchase price that is four times lower.

Test 2: Ease of Use

With GarageBand, Apple is deliberately targeting songwriters - professional logic is more useful for complex production. Even beginners in music production will get their first results accordingly quickly. This also applies to Ableton Live: With its loop-based approach, it invites you to improvise in the studio and on stage - even DJs appreciate the ability to start clips with precise timing. The intro version is often enough for them. Reason, on the other hand, is like a giant creative playground for sound developers who want to spend hours in front of their software. Ardor and Reaper require plenty of training time, and their approaches are based on the professional role models Pro Tools and Logic Pro. However, they reward the effort required to learn with absolutely high-quality results.

Test 3: Functionality

GarageBand also offers simple options for post-processing your productions, but first and foremost it wants to help you capture your ideas quickly and easily. The advantage: If you later switch to the “big brother” Logic Pro X, you can easily import and process the songs you created in GarageBand.

Ableton Live Intro offers an almost playful handling of music loops, but is quite limited due to its limitation to 16 tracks. The Essentials version of Reason has no restrictions in terms of track equipment and also offers many other possibilities for creative romp. Ardor, Mulab and Reaper, on the other hand, represent fully developed production environments - without any creative limitations, which can be overwhelming at the beginning.

Test 4: expandability

With the basic versions of any music software, you will quickly reach your creative limits. So it is important to have support for plug-ins, external hardware and the possibility of upgrading to professional versions. GarageBand gets along great with Logic Pro and its versions for iPad and iPhone, but only accepts extensions and effects in Apple's own audio unit format. As with GarageBand, the Reason Essentials MIDI channel turns out to be a one-way street. Just like Mulab, however, it supports plug-ins in the popular VST format and via Rewire. Ardor knows about VSTs and AUs and boasts of hosting one of the most extensive MIDI support in the industry. Ableton Live understands all interface formats and can even control compatible iOS and Mac apps remotely.


Which music program is right for you depends primarily on your approach. If you primarily want to capture your own ideas and quickly achieve musical results, GarageBand is an excellent start - even if you already own Logic Pro X or plan to buy it in order to polish it up professionally later.

The intro version of Ableton Live might be enough for you if you mainly want to work with loops and on-board resources or if you want to incorporate additional clips into your DJ performance. For extensive productions, however, it is simply too limited. Ardor, Mulab and Reaper have significantly more options here that can compete with professional solutions such as Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools. Reason has its very own, rack-bound approach - and even the inexpensive Essential version invites you to "fiddle around" with sounds and loops. But you have to get involved.

“Are you flirting with Ableton Live? Then try out Bitwig Studio beforehand - developed by a group of former Ableton employees, it follows a very similar concept. "

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