Software Sequencers
Music Software Software Sequencers
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What are the best DAWs?

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Our favorite sequencers for music production

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The DAW is the heart of modern home studios. A sequencer isn't something you should buy carelessly because it impacts the way you work – the whole process, from the idea to its realization. Here is a brief introduction to the 18 best sequencers on the market, in no particular order of course.

Note that the following selection intentionally excludes broadcast sequencers (Nuendo, Sequoia, Pyramix, etc.) that are much more expensive. Our focus is on sequencers dedicated to music production. Also, this list is ordered by product name, not by "best" to "worst".

We also do not cover Linux-based software, for instance the excellent Ardour and Rosegarden, or the amazing Usine and the nice EnergyXT. Due to their more modular approach, they are not really comparable with the products listed below.

Finally, keep in mind that this selection is indicative and subjective. And since a sequencer is as personal as a toothbrush, it would be unreasonable for you to spend several hundreds dollars on a sequencer before trying it out first. Some manufacturers give you this possibility with trial versions, others don't... which is quite a pity. In the end, it makes it harder for the customer to feel confident: would you buy a house without visiting it or a pair of shoes without trying them on? Anyways, it's your call! ;-)

Sony Media Software Acid

Price: €50 to €200, depending on the version you choose
PC - 32 and 64 bits

Sonic Foundry developed Acid upon the concept of the loop sequencer invented by Magix in 1994. It then took it to the next level and added pitch shifting and time stretching capabilities. This very effective and intuitive tool won many musicians and beginners in spite of its poor GUI. When Sony bought it to turn it into the foundations of its video editing suite Vega, Acid became progressively a more comprehensive tool, but it lost many of its advantages in terms of design and it never did catch up with the competition.

Steinberg Cubase

Price: €100 to €600
PC and Mac, 32 and 64 bits
Protection via Syncrosoft dongle

Cubase is Steinberg's flagship. It has begotten many a revolution (ASIO, VST/VSTi, Drum Edit, etc.) and is still one of the biggest names when it comes to sequencing. Among Cubase's special features we can mention an interesting Control Room section, advanced MIDI processing and automation functions via the VSTexpression standard, and the good old logical editor. We also appreciate the latest evolutions regarding arrangements. As for the cons, we have to mention the virtual instruments bundle, which still lags behind competitors (in spite of Steinberg's efforts) and the actual management of virtual instruments, as well as some awkward routing workflows.

 
 
 

MOTU Digital Performer

Price: about €500
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits

Exclusively available to Mac users for a long time, DP is finally available for Windows now. So you have no excuse to ignore this sequencer that has been continuously improved with each new version and is still one of the favorite programs for audio-to-picture applications, especially because of its excellent score editor. Digital Performer brings all standard features with itself plus some well thought-out details: customizable interface, management of multiple sequences in a single project, advanced looper, Punch Guard function capturing the signal before and after you push the recording button so you don't miss anything, etc. While it includes an excellent effects bundle (especially the amazing dynamic EQ), the software is rather poor when it comes to virtual instruments: synthesizers apart, fans of acoustic instruments will have to reluctantly make do with the pretty old Nanosampler. The makers of MachFive, Electric Keys, Ethno and Symphonic Instruments should think about including a light version of their super sampler to be able to compete in this area.

 

Image-Line FL Studio

 

Price: €95 to €700, depending on the version you choose
PC only - 32 and 64 bits

Being a proud descendant of the venerable shareware Fruity Loop, FL Studio keeps a dedication to beat-making (for hip-hop and electronic music, even if you can use it for other genres as well). The handling is very original because of the step sequencer and the peculiar insert and FX send management system. The program also distinguishes itself by its very affordable price and nice sales strategy: if you buy the current version you have lifelong access to all future updates! Maybe that is the reason why the product enjoys an extremely active community, including many professional remix producers and electronic musicians. Nevertheless, a lot of people still think that FL Studio is just a big toy. The addition of special features for live applications since version 11 is a very good thing. However, in the standard versions, the software confuses quality with quantity when it comes to effects and instruments. And the downloadable full version, including all great plug-ins, is sold separately by Image-Line for "only" €700...

Apple GarageBand

Price: free (with a new Mac) to €14
Mac - 32 and 64 bits

Inspired by Magix's Music Maker or Sonic Foundry/Sony's Acid, Apple launched Garageband — one of the most appealing sequencing tools for absolute beginners, under the condition that they own a Mac (the software is included in every new Mac). With its very clear interface, GarageBand is mainly based on audio and MIDI loops, so that you can achieve attractive results very easily. It is sold with many ready-to-use loops covering a wide range of sounds and styles. However, GarageBand is not limited to loop combinations: it also allows you to record and edit your own audio and MIDI parts. Browsing its menus you'll discover many other functions that open up a rainbow of possibilities: a quite comprehensive insert effects section for the individual channels and the master track, audio transposition and pitch correction, automation, Audio Unit support, etc. It only lacks some effects sends, which speaks very good for a mass-market sequencer. In short, it's an excellent choice for beginners... on a Mac... and on an iPhone/iPad (yes, Apple's tablets also include their own version of GarageBand, even though less comprehensive, but still interesting).

Ableton Live

Price: €80 to €650, depending on the version you choose
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits

Live was a revolution when it came out because it took the sequencer from the studio (where it had historically lived) to the world of live music. Ableton's sequencer quickly became a real institution and the favorite sequencer of numerous DJs and electronic musicians who use it both on stage and in the studio, alone or as a complement to their setup. Its main advantage? The pad matrix and the features allowing you to compose and arrange a song in real time, but also the integration of Max4Live, an effects and instruments bundle created with MaxMSP and conceived especially to increase greatly the software's possibilities. Another advantage is that you can find many controllers (from Akai and Novation, for example) and iPad apps dedicated to Live. Its disadvantage? A strong predisposition to binary rhythms and music styles. Plus, it's not the best tool to write symphonic or jazz music...

Apple Logic Pro

Price: $180
Mac - 32 and 64 bits

Since it was bought by Apple (who sells Logic at a very low price to market Mac computers), Logic certainly has one the best quality/performance/price ratios in the market — under the condition that you have a Mac and that you are wishing to make do with a product that has had no updates in two years (with Apple showing no sign of trying to reassure its users). Its advantages? A very accurate management of complex audio/MIDI setups in the Environment window, the Mainstage utility for live performances and recording, a powerful score editor and some quality plug-ins, especially delay effects. Its disadvantages? A very uncertain future, which is an open invitation to not spend your money in a platform that could end as Garageband Pro or iLogic and losing many of its features. This wouldn't come as a surprise considering the general outcry caused by Final Cut Pro version X...

Cakewalk Music Creator Touch

Price: $50
PC - 32 and 64 bits

Music Creator is the entry-level software by Cakewalk. It's like Garageband in terms of simplicity, but with Live or Fruity Loops-like properties such as a Pattern Editor, Matrix and the live loop-editing feature taken from Sonar. But what makes it original is the fact that it supports touch screens, which makes it rather intuitive for beginners. A perfect introduction to sequencing, even if Sonar's most affordable version could be in its way due to its generic aspect and upgrade possibilities.


Magix Music Maker

Price: €60 to €100
PC - 32 and 64 bits

We shouldn't forget that a long time before Garageband, eJay or Acid came into existence, Music Maker was the very first audio-loop sequencer and the first DAW for the masses. Many versions later, the program keeps its philosophy and is still an attractive alternative to Sequel or Acid Music Studio because it provides instruments, effects and tools (Vandal guitar amp, Vita, Loop Designer, etc.) that are really useful for beginners. Its main disadvantage is the limited number of FX inserts and sends in the mixer, which makes things easier at the beginning, but more difficult when the user becomes more experienced.

 

Avid Pro Tools

Price: $650
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits
iLok dongle protection

Pro Tools belongs to a software and hardware-based ecosystem that fulfills almost all the needs of professional music and broadcast productions, and thus it has been the reference tool in the professional audio world for over 15 years. It is available in virtually every studio. Although it can run with any audio interface since version 9, its main value is the ability to manage DSP cards manufactured by Avid. These cards allow the software to manage effects in real time in large projects (over 100 tracks) with almost no latency and on different formats and standards that competitors don't support. Pro Tools now also includes very valuable effects and instruments, after having resorted to different products signed by Wizoo, Euphonix or Bomb Factory. Its main disadvantage? A somewhat slow evolution and a price that rises quickly when you add the Complete Production Toolkit. Even though the toolkit is dedicated to audio-to-picture applications, it also includes some very useful features for music production... for €1,700! Its main advantage? While other manufacturers sell software programs, Avid sells solutions called Pro Tools, which is priceless for professional musicians, engineers, producers, etc.

Cockos Reaper

Price: €46 to €172, depending on the version you choose
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits

Developed by Winamp's author and the Gnutella network, Reaper is not only one of the most affordable sequencers on the market, it's also (and above all) the most customizable in terms of GUI and features. It enjoys an extremely active community and many modules, skins and add-ons to cater to the taste and needs of every user. It misses no major feature and it includes the excellent Reaplugs bundle. Moreover, Reaper comes with an extremely versatile audio engine — for example audio and MIDI can coexist on a single track, and the routing options can easily compete with what others have to offer. Some users will certainly miss a score editor and a bunch of virtual instruments, while the complex aspect might confuse beginners, but all these disadvantages are easily compensated by an amazing value for money and an honest sales strategy: a fully functional demo version and no limited light nor studio version. Regardless of the license you purchase, the program always offers the same features. But where is the difference? Your moral commitment to pay the developers of the software depending on your use of it. If you're using Reaper in professional projects, you'll have to pay $250. If you're an amateur user, you'll pay only $60. And when it comes to the demo version, the developers trust your moral commitment and a small pop-up window opens to encourage you to buy the product. Such an open sales strategy will be hard to find elsewhere, regardless of the performance and price of the product.

Propellerhead Reason

Price: €120 to €400, depending on the version you choose
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits
Protection via Ignition Key USB dongle, Balance audio interface or online authorization

Since it merged with recording software Record and it has its own format for third-party plug-ins, Reason is without a doubt the program that best deserves the tag of "virtual studio". Apart from the photo-realistic GUI, its virtual patching system, which is very powerful in terms of audio and MIDI routing, is especially impressive. However, it could discourage users who have never worked with hardware gear or it may annoy people who think that the premier advantage of a DAW is not having to deal with cable hassles. The software's very active community, dedicated mainly to electronic music due to the long period when Reason was only a super instrument (it didn't include any audio recording features), is noteworthy too. On the downside, do note that the vintage look of the GUI isn't really the best for small screens or even for a single screen, unless you like to scroll across different windows.

 

Magix Samplitude

Price: €250 to €960, depending on the version you choose
PC - 32 and 64 bits

Limited to audio processing for a long period, Samplitude has been including MIDI sequencing since versions 8-9. What sets it apart from the rest is the concept of audio object, which proves to be very powerful and has a great impact on the way you record, edit and mix music: apart from standard channel and bus features, each audio clip has its own inserts, sends, automation data, and non-destructive processing. Besides this, the software is also quite original in its offer of effects and instruments bundles, which are far ahead of most competitors in terms of audio quality. What's not to like about the integration of the Independence sampler and the excellent Yellow Tools sound banks or the plentiful and really powerful plug-ins included? If that weren't enough, you also get spectral editing, restoration and mastering/authoring functions, which put the software on another level. Samplitude is reliable and powerful, even though somewhat too technical in its design and approach. Taking that into consideration, it serves better experienced engineers than music newbies. Final note: the most interesting version, including Independence, a 70GB sound library, Vandal and the Analogue Modelling Suite Plus plug-ins) is sold for €949, which is quite a bit higher compared to other options.

Magix Samplitude Music Studio

Price: €50 to €100
PC - 32 and 64 bits

Called Magix Music Studio or Samplitude Music Studio, it's sort of Samplitude for the poor. But still a good option to be considered as a first sequencer because it includes all essential production tools (among which are a pitch editor with formant-protection function, quite rare in this price category) and the famous object-based editing from Samplitude's audio engine. The product has a lot of good features and a consistent bundle considering the price. However, the GUI and overall design might seem a bit too complex for beginners.

Steinberg Sequel

Price: €75
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits

Sequel is Steinberg's answer to Apple's GarageBand. It includes everything to fulfill the needs of the mass-market. Plus, it adds some interesting features in terms of instruments (besides the ROM-player Halion Sonic SE, you also get the drum sampler Groove Agent One, both taken directly from Cubase), sequencing tools (Beat Designer for rhythm editing, Step Envelopes for automation editing) and live performance features (Quick Control panels and pad matrix to trigger arrangement parts in real-time, like in Ableton Live). Bundled with many loops, Sequel's main drawbacks are its much too basic effects and that it supports third-party plug-ins in VST3 format only. But, considering that most of them support only VST2, the question of whether Steinberg was afraid that Sequel would get in the way of Cubase's light version keeps ringing in our heads... Without VST2 support, we can hardly recommend Sequel, even if it only costs €75...

Cakewalk Sonar

Price: €100 to €500
PC - 32 and 64 bits

Dedicated to PC users, Sonar is one of the most used sequencers in the USA, and also one of the most dynamic in terms of development. Sonar's team is often the first to incorporate breakthroughs in computing technology (64 bits, touch screen management, etc.), and they also offer one of the best plug-ins bundles in the market. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Cakewalk's approach is to take over existing companies or collaborate with them, which allows them to offer effects and instruments from the best developers on the planet: RGCaudio, Kjaerhus, Overloud, TruePanios, Softube... and Roland, since the Japanese company is the owner of Cakewalk. Add to that a GUI you can personalize quite easily and a smart quality/performance/price ratio for each version and you'll easily understand why Sonar has had such a long life. Like all older sequencers, its main disadvantage is its somewhat complex character.

Presonus Studio One

Price: free to €370, depending on the version you choose
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits

 

Developed by former Steinberg employees and based on a brand new audio engine, Studio One is surely the result of a meticulous market survey in order to offer a sequencer that integrates the best from each competitor while improving some other aspects. In fact, Studio One provides all essential features of its competitors, but the workflow is much smoother, you need less clicks to achieve things and the GUI allows drag and drop. But its best achievement is the integration of Celemony's Melodyne, the pitch and time editing tool, which is much more powerful than the Zplane algorithms used in most competitor sequencers (Melodyne is the only tool that manages polyphonic tracks with Zynaptiq Pitchmap). The different versions are competitively priced, especially the free version, which is certainly no toy. Its main drawbacks would be the virtual instruments provided and the poor readability of the GUI due to very tiny fonts. When compared to the sequencing old-timers, some songwriters will certainly miss a score editor. But that ought to be forgiven by most users when considering the gain of productivity that Studio One provides.

Tracktion

Price: $46
Mac and PC - 32 and 64 bits

After having introduced many innovations when it came out, Tracktion nearly died and became an ordinary bundled software tool when Mackie took over. Luckily, its brilliant developer reclaimed its independence and now sells Tracktion for less than €50, making it a very good deal for beginners and for users looking for an uber convenient music notepad that is much lighter than the sequencing giants. Its advantages? Brilliant design: all aspects of an audio production are managed from a single window, and the system allows you to combine plug-ins in order to create complex effects chains or super virtual instruments. On the other hand, people who are looking for a sequencer with many effects and instruments or advanced functions (like in the big sequencers) will be frustrated. Comparing Tracktion with Cubase, Sonar or Logic is like comparing Pages or Wordpad with Word, with all implied disadvantages in terms of comprehensiveness, but also all implied advantages like simplicity and creativity. And for the price...

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