GarageBand Alternatives for the PC

Published: 16th April 2010
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As a life-long PC user and music fan, I've always been jealous of my Mac-using friends. The user-friendly interface, slick ad campaigns, and seeming cult-like status afforded all things Macintosh has, admittedly, had me curious lo these many years. But no, I've hung on tightly to my membership in the PC Club, and the knowledge that I was in the vast majority made it easier to avoid slipping over to the other side.

For music creation though, the Mac side has the clear "800-pound gorilla" for entry-level music creation with Apple's GarageBand. We have many options for music creation on the PC, though none has its popularity. But as a PC-based singer/songwriter, what if I want to try all the bells and whistles and feel-goodness that comes with GarageBand? Am I shut out? What do I use?

I'm going to find out.

Interestingly, GarageBand comes as part of a package called "iLife," and includes a bunch of other titles, including iPhoto, iMovie, iWeb, and iDVD (no wonder it's so popular). It's a full suite, so finding an equivalent product on the PC side may be tough. But in all honesty, I don't want those other products anyway; perhaps they have plans to sell GarageBand as a standalone someday, but it seems odd to me being packaged this way. Anyway, it retails at $69 new, but I saw it cheaper around the Net.

I did some initial research, looking at several of the better-known

and even lesser-known PC-based options:

1. Acid Music Studio (Sony) - A light version of their very popular ACID Pro product. Has tons of instruments and tools. Good pricepoint for me. Has developed its own standard, but might be too high-end for my needs, and as a true comparison to GarageBand. 3 out of 5 stars on, though I'd have thought they'd have more.

2. Audacity (SourceForge) - A free program (which tends to make me get what you pay for), but primarily an audio editor, and doesn't look novice-friendly. Works with Linux. While I'm all for open standards, this is too techie for me. Not what I'm looking for.

3. FL Studio (Formerly FruityLoops, Image-Line Software) - Couldn't figure out their website to determine what was right for me...lots of products and instruments, not novice-friendly. Studio Express was closest to what I was looking for in terms of pricepoint, but is basically a 'loop creator'. Interesting, but too specific and probably too high end for my needs. Only comes as a download too, I like boxed products. Looks complicated, comes with lots of buttons, and seems hard to record my voice or guitar.

4. Mixcraft (Acoustica) - I'd never heard of Mixcraft or Acoustica before my research, but this seems to be pretty popular with good reviews and industry awards (albeit it with a bit of a skimpy and sort of cheesy website). $75 is about the high-end for what I want to spend, but I want a box version and they are hard to find (no retailers near me, but you can purchase it on-line).

5. Music Creator 5 (Cakewalk) - Company has been around since the '80s, makers of the well-known SONAR products. Good price ($39, boxed version, $35 download). Website says "no previous recording experience required," which is right up my alley. Use a lot of the same or similar language to Apple's GarageBand site; both are inviting, novice-friendly. Seems to have a lot of pro-level effects and tools.

OK, now that I've looked at all the key players, and figured out what they do well (and don't do), let's stack them up against what I plan to do with the software. Here are my parameters for choosing a music creation software package (your needs may vary):

• I want to create new songs with a variety of inputs/instruments/MIDI

• It must be easy to use

• Live recording/use my own instruments

• Record a CD

• It must be inexpensive (under $100, preferably under $75)

• It should work well with an average, possibly older PC set-up (Windows XP/Vista. 512meg of space, I GB of RAM etc)?

• It should have good support (include or links to on-line videos or tutorials)

I've eliminated a few based on reasoning given above and my needs in a product, which leaves me with Sony's Acid Music Studio and Cakewalk's Music Creator 5 to compete with GarageBand.

But let's look at what GarageBand does, so we can make a truly educated comparison. GarageBand '09 allows you to do a number of things, taken right from their own website (new updates to basic functions are in parenthesis):

• "Learn to Play: Basic Lessons (Learn piano or guitar at your own pace, with interactive lessons that combine video instruction with animated notation and instrument views)." Wow, that's very nice! Neither Acid Music Studio nor Music Creator do this, but then again I'm not looking for software to teach me how to play an instrument. I'll consider this a bonus, but not necessary. I can play piano and guitar adequately enough.

• "Learn to Play: Artist Lessons (Let leading artists - including Sting, Fall Out Boy, and Colbie Caillat - teach you how to play their hit songs, then practice along with the band)." Again, also interesting, and probably fun to try, but I won't be spending a lot of time here either. And neither Sony nor Cakewalk offer this functionality, but I don't really want these either.

• "Plug and play. Turn your Mac into a musical instrument (Play and record with new guitar amps and stompbox effects)." Ah, now we're getting to the meat-and-potatoes of what I want. This is music creation functionality. Acid Music Studio and Music Creator offer tons of very specific instruments and effects, many with name-brands from actual instruments or companies. SONY has created their own branded standards, while Cakewalk adopts top technologies from other companies (like IK Multimedia's Amplitube X-Gear, which provides real-life guitar amplifier sounds). Either way, these are the tools I'm looking for.

• "Jam with a full-screen band (The virtual instruments in Magic GarageBand using a new full-screen view that lets you mix, play along, and record)." The mixing and recording aspects are valuable, but the ability to play along with an on-screen band isn't particularly useful. It might be to a youngster. I'm not sure how much I'd use this.

Both the SONY and Cakewalk products have a much more professional feel to them than GarageBand, and I like that they take music creation very seriously. GarageBand feels more like a video game in many regards. Video games are quite popular, so it's not surprising their look-and-feel has helped win so many loyal customers. But I want to make music, real music, not play at it.

The SONY and Cakewalk products offer a ton of instruments and effects, with SONY having the slight edge here, and Cakewalk offering higher fidelity audio quality (24-bit vs 16-bit). With both I can make CDs and upload and distribute my music, and both will work on an older PC. I can even plug in my own keyboard, guitar or microphone via a USB connection or audio interface and use them with both products.


As I was putting this together, I thought perhaps there is no GarageBand equivalent on the PC side, and that this is in reality an apples-to-oranges comparison. And that is probably a good thing after all, since I'm sticking with my boring old PC, and will let the touchie-feelie Mac disciples have their GarageBand, complete with guitar lessons and animated play-along bands.

But SONY has its own cult-like following, fed largely by their ACID loop technology and manifested in its fan/community site, This is hardly surprising, however, since SONY, like Apple, makes a ton of other products and knows how to market to, attract and retain a large customer base. So they're doing something right. But in the end, I am not a big user of forums or communities. Sure, I want to know about the latest developments and product news, but I don't need all the hoopla, the user groups, etc. I just want a company to support me and let me do my thing.

Cakewalk does only music/audio, and for me that tends to tip the argument in their favor. It offers better sound quality and a large amount of tools, effects and power for the money. Free technical support is also big in my book, since I'm sure I'll hit some stumbling blocks that not even the tutorials or documentation can answer. Ironically Cakewalk Music Creator requires more system resources, it's not as streamlined a product as SONY's, so you need a fairly modern rig (anything bought in the past 3 or 4 years, like my Windows XP-based Dell rig, will likely be good enough).

Bottom line: You can't go wrong with SONY ($69 boxed version), but for the money and the actual easy creation of music without a lot of extra unnecessary stuff (like those guitar lessons on GarageBand), my feeling is that you'll want to go with Music Creator 5 ($39 boxed version). SONY has a truer "PC version of GarageBand," right down to the cult-like air, but Cakewalk will give you the meat-and-potatoes for music creation at a better price, and in the end, isn't that what it's all about? I also like the fact I see Cakewalk's stuff all over (like at Best Buy, and I've even seen their products in Staples and OfficeDepot).

In my next article, I'll take MC5 out for a spin and let you know if they put their money where my mouth is.

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