Music software

November 12, 2014 — December 17, 2023

making things
signal processing

A list of things, that I have used or wish to try using, in order to make sound come out of my computer. NB, this area is rapidly moving as AI moves into music; I have not updated it as much as it merits, given how intersted I am in this topic, but I keep my musical activities and my textual ones somewhat distinct.

See also automated composition for some ideas about structure of the harmony/melody/bassline and all that compositional stuff.

1 DAWS and trackers of note

Figure 1

DAW=Digital Audio Workstation, the toolkit of digital audio production.

  • Ableton Live is the paradigmatic modern performance-oriented, electronic-music-focussed option.
  • Bitwig (Windows/macos/Ubuntu) is an even-more-modern Ableton-competitor with most things done better, IMO. This is what I use at the moment.
  • Renoise (Windows/macos/Ubuntu) is weird but good. Recommended for its scripting interface (using Lua) and consistent design quirk. Not open-source, but cross-platform and cheap.
  • Sunvox is also a closed source tracker. Its USP is extreme cross-platform compatibility, running on nearly every phone or computer platform that I have heard of. Useful emergency fallback. Even weird UI than renoise.
  • Traktion (Windows/macos/ARM/Ubuntu) is another DAW that works on Windows Linux and macOS. It is also rather cheap, considering the freebies it comes with; there is an older version that is completely free. It is made by the creators of JUCE, a handy C++ music software framework.
  • Reaper (Windows/macos/ARM/Ubuntu) is a cheap, simple, classic style DAW.
  • Non looks interestingly designed and if I want my project to work on Raspberry Pi, it fits the bill. The author is renowned for being grumpy.
  • blue is the oddball DAW for csound.
  • Qtractor is one weird solo DAW that runs on Linux.
  • LMMS is a macos/Linux/windows open source DAW.
  • Many more I don’t use enough to care about. Logic, Protools, Acid, Fruity loops etc.

Some of these I use a lot; let’s drill down.

1.1 Ableton

The default all-purpose stage-n-studio tool.

Full of irritating limitations, but then the competitors are historically full of even more, even more irritating, irritating limitations. It is scriptable, in a half arsed sort of way. That irritation can be soothed by certain hacks. See Ableton live.

Also the rather improved sibling…

1.2 Bitwig

A derivative of Ableton live that attempts to remove the irritations and bloat while addressing certain long-standing annoyances. It’s cheaper and IMO better, although the community of fancy libraries and patches is smaller. I’m trying to reduce the number of moving parts in my audio setup so this is not a problem for me. I think I can. See Bitwig.

2 Collaboration

How to collaborate on music? There are various ssystems that more or less can be described as DAW-optimized Dropbox workalikes.

AFAICT these all work with various DAWs such as Bitwig, Ableton Live etc.

  • Splice: Our desktop app syncs all of your projects, samples, and presets with the cloud — no need for “Collect All and Save” and up to 10x faster than Dropbox.
  • Blend: Publish your projects on Blend to get feedback and invite fresh collaborations.

Realtime collaboration: Studio-link looks interesting and claims to connect many different software tools together over networks via standalone apps and VSTs.

Browser-DAW soundation now has live collaboration.

audiomass, is an in-browser audio editor.

3 Editors

3.1 Izotope RX

Noise-removal-focused. Expensive but useful; as such, my primary go-to tool.

3.2 Audacity

Audacity is the original open source audio killer app. General-purpose, open source. Has a bunch of surprisingly deep functionality behind the clunky interface.

3.3 Amadeus

Amadeus is the only one written by a Fields medallist.

3.4 Regroover

Accusonus regroover is a demixer/audio source separation of audio (USD219). Works ok for standard western drum loops, but is not brilliant at much else so far.

UPDATE: their website doesn’t seem to exist any more. Wikipedia says they were bought up by Meta and all their software was discontinued. That was a waste of a week’s rent. Fuck you, Meta, you take my time and money and give me nothing back.

4 Live loopers

See music loopers.

5 Converters/transcoders

See transcoding.

6 Patchers

See “patchers” in music software frameworks.

7 DJing software

see DJing.

8 Libraries, frameworks, musical-domain-specific-languages

See audio frameworks.

9 Sundry synthesizers

  • Fluidsynth is an open-source Sound Font synthesizer. Which sounds boring but is splendidly useful, producing audio with no fuss whatever. You will need SoundFonts.

  • Helm is an open source very-modulatable synthesizer

  • Usuriously expensive, but cool: Kontakt, a de-facto standard for sample-based instruments.

    • If you want it to build new sample ambient libraries you might want to use in addition photosynthesis
  • polyphone is an editor of Sound Fonts, which you might want to use with fluidsynth

  • And DinIsNoise, the wonderful, quixotic, idiosyncratic project of peripatetic waveform genius Jagannathan Sampath, who is good value and deserves your support. I have no use for it personally, but my life is made more wonderful by knowledge of its existence.

  • STEIM’s RoSa is a freaky sample-based synth which only the Dutch can ever truly understand.

10 Reverbs

  • SIR sounds OK. Free: SIR1 (windows) Paid version does lots of freak modulation tricks: SIR2 (mac/windows USD185)
  • Altiverb (💸💸💸) (mac/Windows, USD600-1000)
  • Waves IR*
  • Reverberate: Fancy and free editions. (Windows, GBP50)
  • The name LAconvolver tells you all you need to know about the aesthetics and currency of that plugin (free, mac)
  • freeverb3 is a fugly reverb library suite that does sophisticated hybrid convolution, allpass and physical modeling, oh my, and is open source, but is so oldskool they think your DAW is a text editor. You probably should get the freeverb3vst if you don’t want to compile your own code. (downloads.)

Modern versions of Logic and Ableton have convolution reverbs built in too.

11 Wacky Delays

None of these do what I want. Long story.

I have some ideas I want to implement myself but I will probably never have time.

12 Slicers

Somewhere between delays and samplers, slicers are about creative rearrangement of repetitive sound.

13 Granulators

Less-tempo-oriented than slicers are granular synthesizers, i.e. they do concatenative synthesis. In a sense these are everywhere, since much of modern DSP is based on granular processing, e.g. pitch shifting is based on it - but granular synthesizers put more parameters under your control.

There are comprehensive indices of these things, but I’ve only a used a few.

Arturia’s Efx FRAGMENTS seems to be rather nice.

Hadron is an open-source csound-backed VST. Also runs on Linux, or in fact anywhere. Great for the price

The Mangle is a popular and very beautiful commercial one (also quite cheap at GBP20) for Mac/Win. Ribs is pay-what-you like granulator for mac/win.

There are a number of granular delays and effects in Ableton but I am bored of that platform.

There are also many unmaintained open-source ones of waning renown and waxing bitrot, e.g. soundmosaic, Mosievius, etc.

The best lineage is the series of Bob-Sturm-backed academic projects, culminating in nimfks.

14 Misc plugins

  • NES are Max4live spectrum editors. Free. If you own the expensive Max4live suite.
  • Celemony. (polyphonic autotune)
  • protoplug again (creates plugins)
  • FaustDSP again (Of course, Faust creates plugins too. The polyphony handling is clunky enough that you probably don’t want to do this for synths bareback, but might be fine for effects.)
  • Redux, the plugin version of renoise.
  • csound can create VST plugins.

15 Arpeggiators and sequencers

Don’t judge me. See composition.

16 Software audio routers

See audio routers.

17 OSes

KXStudio, the latest open-source-y sound OS. (There have been so many, and so many crushed dreams) See also Ubuntu studio, which will probably win by default, as Ubuntu is the de facto standard for random OS forks.

18 Weird left-field space crazy

Argeïphontes Lyre by Akira Rabelais.