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Dollar for dollar, feature for feature, there is honestly no beating Ableton’s Standard edition for the professional DJ or producer. It’s not as bloated, price-wise, as the Suite version, but not as slim on features as the Intro version. In terms of basics, it has everything you’ll need, from unlimited audio and MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) tracks to 12 sends and returns to 256 mixable virtual tracks. You can capture MIDI (and learn some triggers) and they’ve included some complex warp features, as well. There are 10GB of sounds built into the library, containing 1,800 different samples and loops. Get creative with the five built-in software instruments to lay down your own original melodies and beats. Plus there are 34 baked-in audio effects (eight dedicated to MIDI), so those looking for post-production won’t be missing anything. Any DJ worth their salt is most likely using Ableton Live 10.
If you ask professional DJs and producers what software they prefer for producing their beats, a lot of them will tell you Ableton. But a smaller loyal group will point you towards Propellerhead’s Reason 10. The full version comes in at a great price point and includes all of the premium features you'll need. With the full version, you’ll get Reason’s 10 tried-and-true software instruments, including the Europa Shapeshifting Synthesizer, the Thor Polysonic Synth, the Subtractor Synth and more. The loaded version also gets you a host of exclusive effect plugins, including the RV-7 Digital Reverb, the PH-90 Phaser and the BV512 Vocoder. Of course, you’ll also get unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, VST (virtual studio technology) and ReFill support and anything else you’ll need to produce high quality, completely professional tracks.
Ableton Live 10's Intro version serves as a perfectly adequate understudy to the standard version, especially if you're just getting started producing or DJing. You get a large subsection of the features of the standard version for a solid price — a real bargain considering what you get. The major trade-offs? You’ll have to settle for only 16 audio and MIDI tracks, so if your music is expansive, you might need to shell out for the full version. You still get the MIDI capture and learn features, but they’ve slimmed down the audio ins and outs to only 4 of each. Surprisingly, the rest of the numbers aren’t actually that low. The Intro version of the software gives you 1,500 (5 GB) of sounds, four software instruments (only one less than the full version), 21 Audio effects and eight MIDI effects (the same as the full version). So if you can stomach a much smaller feature set and fewer tracks, but love the looping, grid-style interface of Ableton, this might be the software for you.
What originally started as an ultra entry-level audio program (even offering a fully free version, once endearingly called Fruity Loops), FL Studio Producer 20 is now a full-fledged audio workstation that will give you top-notch features for an unbelievable price. The software holds true on the three main pillars of any good beat-making software: great recording functionality with pitch shifting and time stretching, amazing sequencing capability for MIDI production and a full suite of mixing and mastering plugins to tie it all together for output that sounds great. The intuitive mixer screen is color-coded with easy-to-handle sliders and effects buses, and the piano roll also offers a more intuitive interface than many of the other (more expensive) programs. Plus, there are 80 built-in plugins that range from EQ to reverb to compression and more.
To be fair, most of the music production software that’s worth your time for beat-making is going to have a full-featured — or at least perfectly serviceable — drum machine solution built-in. But if you want something solely dedicated to producing drums to make the perfect backbone for your beats, you should consider turning to Toontrack’s EZDrummer 2. It all starts with the ability to tap out rhythms and tempos. The software locates and categorizes a list of premade grooves that fit your rhythm. Next, you can provide more specific, real-time feedback to adjust the angle or velocity of each hit, tailoring each groove even closer to your song. Finally, they’ve developed an in-plugin mixing functionality that will spit out a fully optimized drum track mix to fit right into your DAW environment. At the end of the day, most programs like Ableton or Reason will have you covered with a drum machine, but if you want something a little more like a natural drummer, Toontrack is your go-to.
Mastering is the last step in the production process and often comes last when building up your home studio's software capabilities. But if you want the most professional-sounding tracks after you’ve spent all the time producing and mixing, then you’ll need to turn to Ozone 8, the latest flagship mastering plugin from iZotope. What the brand calls, “The Future of Mastering” offers an expectedly deep set of modern functionality, from tons of stereo and spatial imaging options to a smart track recognition algorithm. Their EQs are some of the most trusted in the software world and they’ve even pioneered the concept of a dynamic EQ that changes with whatever the scope of the song is. They also offer a host of vintage compressors, maximizers and tape delay units to emulate those old-school hardware rack units. These units are available in the standard edition but you can only port them to your digital audio workstation as plugins if you shell out for the Advanced version.
When it comes to plugins, Native Instruments needs no introduction. In addition to their Komplete line (which is essentially the umbrella collection that houses most of their plugin software), they’ve been offering some of the music world’s most iconic synth sounds with Reaktor for a long time now. Komplete 11 comes with a boatload of features but a steep price tag. We’re talking 45 different top-notch plugins that constitute more than 13,000 sounds and over 150GB of effects and samples. You'll get Reaktor 6 for all of your synth needs and a variety of favorites, including Una Corda, India, Replika and Kinetic Metal — all of which give you an amazing bang for your admittedly high buck. This is the one-stop-shop to add synth plugins to your DAW and lay down the perfect melody or chordal bed.
When you’re buying plugins for your DAW, you have to factor in a few things. For starters, what plugins are already present in your software? If you realize it's not enough, maybe it's time to drop money on plugins to complement what your workstation includes. And if that's the case, it’s best to spend a little more to get a worthwhile bundle. Waves is a premium brand of mastering and effects plugins that specializes in bundling their products for the best deal. Our choice here is the Diamond Bundle, which is a solid step up from their Mercury Bundle. You’ll get more than 65 different mixing and mastering options, including dynamic plugins (like compressors and exciters), EQs, reverbs, pitch correction and even spatial imaging. They’ve even modeled some vintage hardware units to emulate some of those classic sounds in your mix.