Guide to Audio Recording Software

A Quick Guide to Selecting the Best Program for You

You own a computer, some microphones, and most importantly, you have the desire to capture your music on a hard drive. The next logical step is to buy an audio interface (a necessary piece of gear for getting sound into your computer) and load up some recording software.

But how do you know which software is best? Unfortunately, it’s not simple. Each program has its strengths and weaknesses, which are passionately debated on Internet forums and in recording studios around the world. Strong opinions aside, it ultimately comes down to what will work best for you.

To start, keep it simple. Many top-end programs have stripped down, home studio versions that are less expensive and easier to use, while still having more features than the average home studio engineer will ever need. Also, different programs have different strengths, for instance, some offer great MIDI and looping capabilities, while others provide a stable, easy platform to simply and easily capture recorded sound.
One last important note is to make sure your computer is up to snuff. You should have plenty of RAM, a fast processor, and a separate hard drive for your music. Ideally, the computer should be used only for recording, meaning that it is only loaded with a capable operating system and the software necessary for recording. This makes for a stable setup, free of viruses and adware that can easily ruin a moment of inspiration.While many of the core elements are the same between programs, each has its own specific workflow, or interface setup, that will appeal to different personalities. Most companies offer a free demo/trial version for download that allow you to use the product for 30 to 60 days. Take advantage of this to try out several different programs and see which one you like best.


There is specific language used to explain the specs of recording software. While it’s far too broad a subject to cover comprehensively here, a few of the terms you will likely encounter are:

Plug-ins: These are extra pieces of software that interface with the recording program to increase it’s functionality, such as equalization, effects, dynamic processing, and virtual instruments. Generally, a good program will come preloaded with plenty of plug-ins to get you started.

Tracks: These are the channels where audio is stored. Many programs will boast that they have unlimited tracks, but in reality, you are limited to what your computer can handle. Chances are, you will never use more than 48 tracks in a home studio.

Automation: Before computer-based recording, when the engineer wanted to do a mix down–create the final song with all of the audio processing–they had to do it manually. That meant they went through a crazy dance in real time, adjusting EQs, track levels, and panning by hand as they bounced all of the tracks down to a final master. The software you choose should be capable of doing this. Basically, you set how you want your tracks to be manipulated, and the software does it automatically.

Bit Depth and Sample Rate: This is a measure of the quality of audio produced by the software. For instance, CD-quality audio is 16-bit/44.1kHz, 16 being the bit depth, and 44.1kHz being the sample rate. Your recording software should be capable of recording at 24-bit/96kHz. Anything above that is probably overkill for a modest home studio.

Here are a few options for home recording:


This is a great choice for someone who wants to experiment with audio recording, but doesn’t want to spend any money. Audacity is completely free, but don’t expect any bells and whistles. It only records audio, and has a bare bones, no frills interface. MSRP: Free


This is an entry-level option, with many of the same features as higher-end software, but at a very modest price. Also, new to the latest version of Mixcraft is a video editing feature that allows you to edit video and sync in audio to create soundtracks. MSRP: $75


This was one of the first software recording platforms to emerge and be taken seriously. Most commercial studios use ProTools, and though it’s a little pricey, it is a very stable, straightforward program to use. MSRP: $495 (comes with the Mbox 2 interface)


You can do almost anything with Cubase—record audio, sequence MIDI, create loop-based songs, and the list goes on. However, with all of Cubase’s capabilities, it can be a little overwhelming for a beginner to sift through all of the features. MSRP: $196 (Cubase Essentials)


If you own a Mac, you may have this program preinstalled. Available only for Mac, GarageBand is surprisingly powerful software, capable of easily creating loops, MIDI sequences, and recorded sound. MSRP: $79 (with iLife software bundle)

This article is from our November-December 2010 issue. Click to order!


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