10 Must-Have Mac Apps for Amateur Musicians

Maybe you’ve played guitar for fun since you were a kid, or you start your day by singing in the shower. You may not be a professional musician–in fact, you might not even pass for decent–but you’ve always wanted to play with home recording and see what you can come up with.

The price tags on professional digital audio workstations like Apple’s Logic Pro are prohibitive for the hobbyist, to say the least, but there are plenty of cheap and even free apps for the Mac that can help you realize your secret dream.

GarageBand

The obvious place to start is with the app that comes with your Mac. New Macs come with the latest version of Apple’s GarageBand, and subsequent versions require you to either purchase the upgrade or purchase a new Mac. Needless to say, it’s cheaper to purchase a new copy of GarageBand, which you can grab for only $14.99 from the Mac App Store.

GarageBand is based on Apple’s professional audio offering, Logic Pro, and when new versions of Logic come out GarageBand is frequently the beneficiary–for instance, with the introduction of the Flex Time feature in GarageBand ’11, a Logic feature that helps you fix timing issues in your songs.

For the price and feature set, there’s really no better value for the amateur than GarageBand. Some professionals have even recorded complete albums using no other software, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s probably going to be good enough for you.

Price: $14.99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later
Developer: Apple Inc.

Audacity

Audacity is an cross-platform open source audio editor that works on the Mac, as well as Windows and Linux. As an audio editor it’s most often used for simple one-track editing jobs, though it does have multi-track capabilities.

That’s more than enough functionality for you to put together the most complex of podcasts, but using Audacity for full-blown song productions may be pushing your masochistic side. Use GarageBand as your workbench, and Audacity as your Swiss army knife for making quick edits and fixes. It’s still an essential in any amateur musician’s software kit.

Price: Free
Requires: Any version of Mac OS X
Developer: Audacity

Gtuner

For the longest time after I broke my physical guitar tuner, I would load up Logic Pro and use the tuner plugin to tune my guitar rather than go out and buy a new tuner. Much like GarageBand, Logic Pro can be a slow loader and if you just want to play rather than record loading up a whole DAW is a real pain.

Get a simple tuning app to save some money on real tuners and avoid the loading times of big apps. Gtuner is free and easy-to-use, with an interface very similar to the hardware tuners you’re used to.

Better still, when Gtuner is running you don’t even need to tab into the app to tune your guitar–it provides you with the information you need to get tuned up right in the Dock.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 or later
Developer: iwascoding

Mixxx

If you’ve always dreamed about becoming a DJ, the free app Mixxx is for you. It hooks right into your iTunes library so you can perform live DJ mixes on the music you like most. Mixxx features automatic BPM matching to take away some of the guesswork, and everything you need to remix live as the song is playing.

For the exhibitionist amateur DJ, Mixxx has integrated Shoutcast and Icecast broadcasting so you can run your own show online.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later
Developer: Mixxx

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is a free advanced drum sequencer. It’s advertised as a Linux application, but there’s a Mac version available that works just as well. With your library of samples, Hydrogen can function as a sequencer, but it really shines when you want to program drum tracks.

Hydrogen works with samples in most lossless audio formats, including FLAC, and features multi-layer support with up to 16 samples per instrument–not ideal for non-percussive instruments, but enough to trigger different sounds for each drum based on variables such as velocity.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X
Developer: Hydrogen

Finale NotePad

From the makers of the popular Finale suite comes Finale NotePad, a lighter alternative that helps you take care of your notation needs. I know I’ve recorded many songs that I’ve later forgotten how to play and had to work out again by ear. Save yourself the hassle with an app like NotePad and get your songs notated while they’re still fresh in your mind.

NotePad, like most notation programs, supports the inclusion of lyrics. More importantly, it supports guitar and bass tablature–which amateur musicians are more likely to be familiar with than traditional notation.

Price: $9.95
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5 or later
Developer: MakeMusic


Reaktor 5 Player

If you’re a fan of synthesizers and sound design, Native Instrument’s Reaktor 5 Player is the free younger sibling to the rather expensive Reaktor 5. NI offers a broad range of free sound banks to go with Reaktor 5 Player so you can get going straight away–particularly cool if you just want something that’ll get your new M-Audio Axiom to make some noise.

It also boasts synthesis, sequencer and effect features so you can tweak the sounds you’re making until you’re happy with them.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5 or later
Developer: Native Instruments

Melodyne Essential

Melodyne allows you to manipulate the timing and pitch of your audio tracks with a precision that few other packages allow. Transpose entire songs, make changes to melodies, change the drum beat, put a rich harmonized backing vocal behind your lead vocal using nothing but the lead vocal as the source–all without re-recording.

Celemony offers Melodyne Essential, a cheaper software package, for amateurs and prosumers. It’s not just a handy tool for fixing issues with your songs–it can also be a lot of fun to see just how much you can make out of a few well-chosen tracks.

Price: $99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 or later
Developer: Celemony

Reaper

Reaper is a full-featured DAW by a small company called Cockos. Though a commercial license is $150, a personal license suitable for amateur musicians costs only $40.

Reaper features everything you’ve come to expect from more expensive DAWs–64-bit audio, MIDI sequencing, automation, an extensive array of plugins including EQs, compressors, delays, pitch shifting and correction, gates, reverbs, and much more.

Price: $40
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 or later
Developer: Cockos Incorporated

Logic Express

Maybe you feel like you’re in the twilight zone between amateur and professional–the prosumer. If you have stars in your eyes and hope to one day master the Mac’s ultimate audio suite, Logic Studio, Logic Express is the perfect stepping stone after GarageBand.

Like GarageBand, Logic Express is the beneficiary of each version of Logic Pro’s new features–just more of them. Flex time, speed fades, improved comping tools, amp designer and pedalboard are just a few of the Logic Pro 9 features that have been included in Logic Express 9.

Price: $199
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5.7 or later
Developer: Apple Inc.

Conclusion

While some of these apps are decidedly aimed at amateur and prosumer musicians, many of them–such as Celemony’s Melodyne–are valuable professional tools as well. If you plan to turn your hobby into a profession one day, the commercial apps listed here are well worth picking up!

What do you use to make music on the Mac? Let us know in the comments.


  • http://www.twitter.com/sswinkels Sebastiaan

    Kinda missing GuitarPro here. Great tool for new and seasoned guitarplayers.

  • Zac

    Where’s Capo?
    http://supermegaultragroovy.com/products/Capo/
    Easily the coolest app for amateur musicians in my opinion.

  • http://dzine-studios.com Dan

    I usually use Logic Express for all heavy-duty recording/editing/mixing/mastering. I occasionally use Audacity for small tasks like changing iPhone-recorded .m4a’s into .mp3′s, or chopping up rough recordings. I have Guitar Rig installed in Logic Express, and it has a very good tuner, much better than Logic’s built-in one for sure. Plus it has some decent guitar/bass tones.

    I used to use Garageband, but then I switched to Logic Express when I wanted something more powerful.

  • http://about.me/jorgerdz Jorge Rodriguez

    Used to record on Audacity, but it was really a painful experience. I now use GarageBand, but will check out some of these apps like Hydrogen.

  • Jardar

    I’ve used Melody Assistant for notation (and playing) for years, and I recently purchased its big brother Harmony Assistant: http://www.myriad-online.com/

  • Carlos J.

    No love for Ableton Live? Yeah it costs a pretty penny but I think its worth every single one if combined with the right midi controllers.

  • gouv

    Lilypond for creating sheet music: http://lilypond.org/introduction.html

  • http://jimmyliu.tk Jimmy

    Hey, you guys forgot Synthesia! It’s like rockband for piano made more awesome!

  • Geiri

    I would never recommend Audacity to anyone. Free or not, it’s a terrible application and makes easy things pretty hard. Stick with Garageband for recordings if you don’t know how Logic or Pro Tools work.

    • http://joelfalconer.com/ Joel Falconer

      I wouldn’t use Audacity for multi-track recording, though some people have done whole albums using it (insane!). On the other hand, Garageband gives you a horrible interface for audio editing (editing single audio files). I use Logic Pro for that myself, but I’d personally prefer to head into Audacity than Garageband for this particular task.

  • Jon
  • Chatham Shakespeare

    I personally like using Ableton Live with Propellerhead’s Reason running as a slave program in ReWire and of course a good batch of AU/VSTs from Waves, Native Instruments and FabFilter. It’s good for any set up from Production/Mixing/Mastering/Live Performance. Of course this is more of an expensive software setup for a home studio (unless you know how to “procure” the above *cough: bittorrent* via saving up money and buying it). But seriously if you make money off your music, help the people that made that possible.

  • Julian

    I cant believe what me eyes see, why you dont put the high end professional software of Propellerheads? why? its impossible not to have in the list!.. is like to say that the most important Operation Systems in the world are: Windows, Linux and Solarium…

    It has all the features of all the apps above, and you forget to put, i cant belive.

    • http://joelfalconer.com/ Joel Falconer

      It’s not that I forgot it, I’m personally a big fan and user of Reason, but this piece is aimed at amateur musicians. It was a bit of a stretch to include even Logic Express, since I wanted to keep the products cheap enough for amateurs, and that’s aimed at (higher-end) amateurs.

  • Jessica

    I just bought The Play List, which lets you use different effects on the iTunes music you already own. It’s super fun!! There’s a demo here:

    http://www.subtorioussound.com/p/media.html

  • gorgl

    a nice & simple one is RealBeat:
    http://apps.piringer.net/realbeat-mac/

  • http://www.discoverlearnandplay.com eugene cantera

    We use almost all of Finale’s products here at DSM and discoverlearnandplay.com. We built Finale Reader inside our online learning curriculum. Our users access it when they want to print our songs. It’s allows us to control the look and size of each piece of written music. Many of the faculty here at DSM (Dallas School of Music) use Finale NotePad – the vocalists love the ease of use for adding lyrics. Go MakeMusic!

  • Gabriel

    Yo, learn to tune your guitar by ear. Noobs’ who can’t.

    • eric

      anyone can tune a guitar by ear, even noobs. i learned how to do it before i even learned yankee doodle 20 yrs ago. the purpose of using a tuner is to accomplish standard tuning. this will ensure that your guitar is not only in tune with itself, but other instruments as well. if you have perfect pitch, which i doubt, well then good for you. but then you’re also undoubtedly aware of the fact that it is practically impossible to teach or learn. either way, perfect pitch or not, a tuner will still be more accurate than you are, yo.

  • Samuel Chell

    I know Audacity is ubiquitous, is top rated by Cnet, etc., but I find it complex and time-consuming. On the other hand, Toast is cosmetic candy–its operation is hit and miss, constantly throwing new frustrations at you (its very imprecise wave patterns are almost impossible for serious editing–they’re actually a part of the bundled Spin Doctor). Sound Studio 3 or 4 is less pretty than Toast, less expensive, and a lot more convenient and dependable. WireTap, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing because of its small, cramped work-space. Someone really needs to work on the aesthetics of the program. For reliable recording from the internet I’m still using an external patch between my aux in and aux out audio receptacles.

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  • Jake

    thanks a lot! i just started making remoxes, but since i was new i couldn’t figure out what to do, thanks to your help i can finally start!

  • Caleb

    I recommend using kontakt player

  • Christian

    Thanks. Happy Holidays you

  • Alphonse Cabaro

    NanoStudio is definitely worth looking into.
    It is more powerfull than you might think at first glance.
    Its originated from iOS devices and they made it available for mac too.
    And its free and downloadable from AppStore.

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nanostudio/id537061117?mt=12

  • domanick hope

    ok i just want to prove a point to everybody im thinking about buying a macbook to make music “beats ” and eventually putting lyrics on them beats what would you prefer for me to get and what app to use to do that. i was thinkin about GarageBand ….what ever happend to reason

  • A.E.Rodriguez

    I’ve been a Cake-head for ages, but switched to Logic Express 4 years ago. I use Jammer on my Windows partition to create a starting point for any new song. It composes a complete band arrangement from the chord progressions I type in. I import the midi file to Logic and start tweaking, then add vocals and guitars. Is there an app like Jammer for OS X?
    By the way, I use Audacity to record vinyl and do initial clean-up. Its noise remover is excellent, but the instabilities are irritating. I use Logic to hand-remove pops and do a final compression.

  • Dan Barry

    We just released Riffstation for guitar players to get the chords from any song in their music collection. It also has slow down, key shift, loop and isolate functions which will work with any mp3.

    https://itunes.apple.com/app/riffstation/id602165764

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