There are a ton of options when it comes to choosing the best music software available to composers today. It can be overwhelming to choose the “right” one. At the end of the day, the best choice is the software package that allows you to be the most creative. The less barriers between your imagination and the music, the better. And, the best software packages can even inspire you to try new things and compose music that is truly unique.
**UPDATED June 2019 to reflect new versions and features of the software**
Top Music Software Packages:
- Apple Logic Pro X
- Steinberg Cubase
- Ableton Live
- MOTU Digital Performer
- Image Line FL Studio
- Avid ProTools
- Tracktion T7
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Logic is a venerable DAW, having established itself in the music world long before it was acquired by Apple. It still reigns as a top choice for music makers, whether you’re recording songs for a band, or composing film music.
The latest version includes a massive library of samples, plugins, and virtual instruments to kickstart your creativity. One of its biggest selling points is the huge functionality that comes right out of the box. And, like all Apple apps, it’s gorgeously designed and stable to run.
One of its latest features is Smart Tempo, which autodetects the tempo of anything you record, so you’re not restricted to a robotic click track. This is incredibly useful for film composers, when you need the music to follow the rhythm of a scene, or hit very specific timings, rather than force an artificial tempo onto a scene.
For tips on finding the right tempo for your cue, check out this article.
Cubase has an even longer history than Logic, first released in 1989 for the Atari ST computer! That kind of lineage means that the current incarnation is highly refined to get your music composed, recorded, and mixed intuitively.
“Cubase has marvelously developed into a rich and seamless program, allowing me to build dream templates that satisfy any desire when scoring a film. The arrange, mix and editing features are simply superior to any programs out there.” – Tom Holkenborg, composer, Mad Max: Fury Road & Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
It is also uniquely focused on the needs of composers. One of the most useful tools is its notation abilities, which allows you to edit the score, then print sheet music for recording sessions. The Cubase Pro version features expanded capabilities over the Artist version, adding articulation and dynamics.
Live is a non-traditional DAW, and has a unique place in this list. It’s not your standard software package when you think of composing film music. In fact, the software (as its name implies) is geared towards live performance. The entire interface has been designed around spontaneous ideas, real-time tweaking, and experimentation.
As a film composer, this can be extremely useful, especially in the early stages of sketching out ideas. The ability to quickly play with variations on ideas opens up new, creative ways of working. If you come from a musical background, learning how to use Live with physical midi controllers can be an intuitive way to compose.
Live’s bundled samples, plugins, and virtual instruments is focused on electronic music, but, as in all DAWs, anything can be recorded, sampled, or programmed. Don’t let Live’s pedigree among EDM DJ’s deter you from trying out this useful tool.
Digital Performer is a favorite among many of the most successful film composers for its set of features. It is arguably the most film composer-focused DAW in existence. It’s no coincidence that it is seen being used extensively by Hans Zimmer in his Masterclass.
For the film composer, It has a much-lauded musical notation plugin. Beyond transcribing your music into notation, it allows full annotation, editing, and production of lead sheets and full scores. There is even a special Film Cues view, which displays cue points (markers) with respect to beats on a timeline above each staff, complete with SMPTE time code locations, beat locations and the nearest beat or half-beat. This functionality was actually developed in coordination with Howard Shore during the composing and recording of the score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Its notation functions also integrate with other professional notation software packages, such as Sibelius and Finale. There’s a professional SMPTE timecode generator for frame-accurate timelines. And to top off its professional-level composer features, it has support for video i/o hardware such as Blackmagic and AJA video output devices. That way you can send the video of the scene you are composing out to a large professional monitor when watching the music against picture.
This software package is the real deal and not to be overlooked. You will learn a professional toolset aimed right at film composing.
FL Studio is a mature all-in-one music production software DAW. A slick interface presents dozens of creative plugins, synths, samples, effects, and virtual instruments. This has long been my music software of choice, even though it’s not necessarily targeted towards film composers.
Its strengths lie in the intuitiveness of the interface, and the ease with which you can tweak, edit, and experiment. I can spend less time worrying about how to do something inside the software and more time creating. And it’s just fun! The only downside is that there are sometimes too many features, presets, or effects to play with. These can often lead me off on a creative tangent when I need to stay focused. But, many times this is a pro, not a con.
From a composing point of view, the video player has frame-accurate SMPTE timecode, easy-to-use timeline event markers, and elastic tempo manipulation. The automation and piano roll make it easy to “humanize” programmed music for your score mock-ups or final deliverables. It works with most midi controllers and audio interfaces, and has a relatively quick learning curve. There are thousands of free tutorials available online, and there is a large, active user community.
Be sure to go for the Signature Bundle in order to get frame-accurate video timecode functionality.
ProTools is synonymous with digital music production. It is ubiquitous in studios around the globe, and for decades has been the gold standard for DAWs. It’s unrivaled in its universal popularity, and it sets the bar for professional music software.
That being said, its focus for years was live instrument recording and post-production mixing. Other DAWs that sprang up focused on virtual instruments arguably have better functionality in those areas. In addition, its iLok license management system is complicated, restrictive, and sometimes annoying to deal with (however, the new cloud-based version is a huge upgrade).
For film composers, ProTools comes with a suite of composer-focused tools. The Avid video engine and SMPTE timecode keep your score accurately locked to picture. The Sibelius editor is an integrated, full-featured notation software package. And if the film editor is working on an Avid system, you can easily share mixes through AAF project files. If you need surround mixing, look to ProTools Ultimate for Dolby Atmos capabilities.
T7 is a lesser-known music software package, and not quite as full-featured as some of the other solutions listed in this article. It doesn’t have a powerful score editor or a host of built-in virtual instruments. It doesn’t have as long a history or composing pedigree as some of these other DAWs. But it also doesn’t have a price tag. That’s right, it’s FREE.
Tracktion (up to version 6) was commercially available music production software. When the developer moved on to create a new, higher-end DAW (Waveform), it updated T6 to T7 and made it free to everyone. They didn’t cripple the features, restrict the number of tracks, or place ads in the app, they just released it into the wild.
For film composers, T7 allows you to score films inside professional music software – with all of the standard tools and plugins – at no cost. There’s just no comparison. It has a simple, single-window interface designed for productivity, and it works on Mac, Windows, or Linux. Especially if you are just starting out, it’s worth a try before investing hundreds of dollars into more complex music software.
If you are looking to see how you can begin composing on a budget, check out my article about building your studio at different price points.
In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. Each music software package listed here is professional-grade, and offers many of the same tools. While each may offer unique features, you could compose a film score on any and all of them. Choose one that you think fits your needs, and try it out. Most offer a free trial to get your feet wet. And remember that music software is just a tool; your creativity is what will make your film score great.