Seeking software advice

Hello Composers!

My daughter, Kay (14), is interested in composing and working with software that produces instrumental sounds. She has composed several pieces for the school ensemble she plays with. She is self-taught with regard to composition although her music teacher gives her (a little bit) of feedback. She has also found internet resources.

My job is to figure out the computer and software. Right now she only has a very old laptop (it's Windows XP...). It is time to buy her a laptop and, given her interest in composition, I wanted to get advice on what is best for running a DAW and whatever other software she will need.

Where do I find information about different DAWs and what they do? How do we choose one? This may also influence what sort of laptop we get for her. Is it better to get an iOS or Windows operating system?

She has learned to write music notation by hand. Is there a DAW that can read music notation?

She thinks that she should write music notation in a software program, then feed it to the DAW, then use the DAW to work on expression by adjusting speed and volume locally to each instrument. Then she would get a sound file from playing the DAW. Does this make sense? Or is it better for some reason to use the DAW directly without first writing in music notation? She wants to have a score at the end. If she uses the DAW directly will she then write the score herself or can the DAW help her write the score for what’s been entered into it?

So here’s my questions to you if you don't mind:

  1. What DAW software(s) should she use? (I don't mind spending some money if that means lasting longer as she improves her skills - she's a fast learner!)
  2. Should we get an Apple or MS Windows operating system?
  3. Internet resources on how to make use of different instruments to create the sounds you want?
  4. What should I be asking you?

Her style is classical though very unique and in a way very modern sounding. She has so far used string instruments (violins and cellos), piano, trumpet, trombone, some kind of flute, and percussion. She is essentially isolated as a composer but not as a performer, and the pieces she came up with so far are appreciated within her circle of friends, school and family.

Thanks for your time and trouble!


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  • Hi Shine,
    Me, Dave and others here can help you, so answer Daves' questions first as they will dictate what direction our suggestions will take.
    1. She does not need a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
      She needs a notation program that:
      • allows her to capture performance via midi and do a good job of getting it into a score.
      • write music on a score with proper articulations, dynamics, etc.
      • is able to play back the music with a set of reasonably good sounds that come packaged the with program.
      • is able to add other instrument libraries.
      • can do a reasonable job of producing a printed score and parts for a small ensemble.
      • is SIMPLE to learn and use..

        There are few programs that meet the criteria...especially SIMPLE
        Steer her efforts toward learning how music works (theory) and performance (musicianship). DAW skills are secondary, way secondary (maybe fun though). Choose a program that makes it easy to quickly try out different harmonizations, melody lines, etc. S she studies and composes.I am constantly doing that myself..
    2. I use Notion on a fairly powerful Windows laptop. Notion runs on Mac and iPad, as well. I would not want to get into a debate about the merits of each, Windows vs.Mac. However, I would guess that more professional composers work in an Apple environment.
    3. Internet resources? Tons...from very advanced to pretty elementary. For standard orchestral stuff, Google "orchestration" and start from there.
    4. Shoot...


  • @Dave, the answer is that both the score and good midi are priority. The score will keep her going with the school ensemble (a priceless opportunity, even from a socialization viewpoint). The midi recordings would provide a second avenue for her, more exploratory. 

    Now, if the same software could use both scores and midis, then the two worlds (the live music world and the exploratory computer world) could come together and benefit each other. I hope she can continue playing live with other kids once she enters highschool and this will be way preferable to merely computer-geeking perfect midis all by herself from home. It seems essential to keep the scores “in there” as much as possible to keep the live music thing going as well (and the face-to-face interactions that go with it).

    Does she need good samples to compose with or can she hear everything accurately in her head without needing an aural reference when writing?

    Right now, when she composes she uses the keyboard to help her hear, even if she’s writing for strings or wind instruments (the teacher helps her write the scores for those instruments).

    But in future, I think she will need lots of “aural references” because she wants to expand to “all kinds of sounds” beyond the instruments she is used to. I think especially complex percussion which there’s no way they can play live. Such things may never make it to score (sorry if this point will confuse everything).

    @Mike, thanks a lot for being available for this.

    @Bruce, I asked myself whether you could be right. If she could use software that plays from score using instrument sounds. I haven't reached any conclusion, right now I'm mostly confused and need more time.

    I saw that you started a thread “Survey and discussion” asking people what software they use. This should be very useful also for me right now. Probably useful to a lot of people.

    Maybe this thread I started could wait a little bit to let your thread provide some information first. Then we could come back to this thread with that information in hand. Or maybe it’s okay to have the two threads going at the same time – up to you all.

    Meanwhile I will read about Notion and its symphony libraries.

    Thank you all lots.

  • @Bob, I really appreciate the hardware advice. Not sure (yet) what "i3" means but will find out. Thanks for suggesting an SSD and minimum 8 Gb Ram - it's great to keep that in mind from the start.

    Since your daughter tends to write music for live performance, why not continue writing in notation software.

    She'll do 2 different things. Probably not entirely separate, but distinct:

    One, she'll write scores for playing live (assuming the conditions will be there at highschool next year).

    Two, she'll compose at the computer without limitations (of instruments, number of players, or style). I suspect that once she has a new laptop she'll immerse herself in activity "Two". (About the concept of there being a "learning curve" for software... keep in mind that a 14 or 15 year old seems to instinctively know how every piece of software operates. Everything seems "user friendly" when it's them using it, so we can remove that factor from the equation.)

    What I'm thinking is that, if we could get "one" and "two" into the same software, then the two activities might learn from each other. The score could help her understand some of what she's doing in the DAW and how realistic it would be to play with instruments. Therefore, if whatever she comes up with using the DAW could be converted into notation (a score), she would get a more complete picture of what she's doing.

    I think Dave is saying that his DAW (Logic Pro 9) can produce a score. I need to know more about that.

    @Dave, Can you compose a piece of music in a DAW (by the way, do you call that a "track"?) and then somehow the DAW helps you convert it into a score afterwards

    I've tried to get an idea online of what it is like to compose using a DAW, but I don't get it yet. Kay says for me not to worry. I think she may take over and research DAWs herself online, which she can probably do more easily than I. She's also reading this thread and Bruce's thread with me now.

    Thanks so much again, folks! We'll keep reading your posts about this.

  • One more thing. Kay has used notation software at school and one problem is that there is a finite number of volume intensity settings. Ranging from pppp, to ffff or something like that. Something in the order of 10 or 20 volume intervals. So that it is difficult to get decent expression from a line of music. She'd need many more intervals and also a more intuitive way of entering the intensity of each note. Even worse is varying the speed from note to note. It's not impossible but completely non-intuitive to mark it from note to note.

    Here's how she dreams of doing it:  She'd like to be able to play a line of music on a keyboard and get the volume of each note and speed of each note (time lapse from one note to the next) registered, and she thinks that's what a DAW can do. She thinks that what she plays on the keyboard can be "recorded" by the DAW, but not as just as a sound file but as "data" that she can then readjust with knobs of some kind on the screen. Is that right?

  • One more thing. Kay has used notation software at school and one problem is that there is a finite number of volume intensity settings. Ranging from pppp, to ffff or something like that. Something in the order of 10 or 20 volume intervals. So that it is difficult to get decent expression from a line of music. She'd need many more intervals

     If a notation program has what Ive seen called a "Playback Dictionary" she can set up her own dynamics and reduce those "10 to 20 volume intensity settings". I use for example mf+ to get between mf and f--also meno and piu plus the dynamic can be used.

    note (time lapse from one note to the next) registered,

    Are you speaking of note lengths here?

    To do both of the above Ive used a DAW and exported midi to a notation program, which also converted the volume into written dynamics. Ive had very good results with this, by NOT quantizing the midi file before importing it into a notation program, and finding settings that work for me. Sometimes parts of differently quantized versions of the same files can be pasted together, to get the desired effect.

    And as a side note seeing that your notation program can use the exact same instruments (sound library) that your DAW does means checking beforehand that theres a "soundset" available for it, or you can also with much more difficultly set up a manual soundset. This allows you to hear the playback with the exact sound library, and a/b compare it.

    The best of luck with this!

    Thanks Bob

    PS My personal take on this is to do all ones composing in a notation program, and get a good score, and then export to a DAW if you want to tweak playback settings.

  • Dave, What you describe sounds exactly like what Kay needs. Of special interest to her are the following points:

    This information [on each note's volume] can be input from a keyboard or midi controller during playing, or by hand.


    Logic Pro can certainly produce a score. It's not even a case of producing it afterwards; it's simply another way of interpreting the information you input, and it's done automatically (though some work is needed to turn it into legible score). You can compose within the score editor if Kay's more used to that, then just switch to a different view that allows you to edit the midi information as seen above. 


    I think this is what we need. Kay is going to research Logic Pro online.

    Thank you for your generosity. This must have taken some time from you. It was very useful to us.

  • Bob M.,

    I thank you also for your generosity. I think what Dave suggests (a DAW that works together with a score) is the best choice for Kay's purposes. But thank you very much for your thoughts also.

  • Youre very welcome Sinead--my only concern is that in my experience, with an old version of Digital Performer, the written score that was displayed was a very much quantised or corrected version of what you were actually hearing, making everything snap to a grid, which didnt always match what the file really sounded like --you got to hear your file, but see their score which didnt play back..Its equivalent to what SIbelius has with having Live Playback off or on.

    This may have changed since I last used it, (and Id welcome knowing this!:) and if so, then it does sound like a good solution--ie being able to hear the score alone, and the sound file alone and a/b them if necessary.

    Thanks and best of luck with this! Bob

    Sinead Morrison said:

    Bob M.,

    I thank you also for your generosity. I think what Dave suggests (a DAW that works together with a score) is the best choice for Kay's purposes. But thank you very much for your thoughts also.

  • Shine,
    The gentlemen have this covered so I will leave it to them and back out...good luck and may I say your daughter is in good hands
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