What Alternatives to Garage Band Exist on Windows?

Earlier today, Dan Iggers from Toronto asked the following question:

I hope you are the right person to ask, or can point me in the right direction.

My son would like to have, for his birthday, recording software akin to "Garage Band" and a microphone. We have a Pentium II or III (?) PC with XP, and we can't go out and buy a Mac. Is there PC software that might fill the bill?

Thanks for asking, Dan. I'm answering this question on the site for the benefit of our readers. Try to keep your son away from Operation Gadget until his birthday.

With all the press that Garage Band received recently, you'd think that it was the first program of its kind for any computer. But, there have been digital music creation tools for the PC and Macintosh since before Windows.

I'm going to get in trouble with real musicians here, because there are programs out there that define themselves as "accompanyment generators," while others call themselves "digital recording studios." I'm not sure which of them is more appropriate for your son, so I'll pick a few examples that I consider affordable, then I'll talk a bit about the professional level tools that will help you do things like produce sound for independent films or professional audio applications.

Affordable Products

The first product I'm going to recommend looking at is Band-in-a-Box Pro 2008. This is the latest version of a product that has been around a long time and has had features added to it again and again. It's not as slick looking as Garage Band, but it allows you to combine keyboard, guitar, and vocal inputs with accompanyment created on the PC. You can use it for notation as well.

One of the reasons I'm recommending Band-in-a-Box is because it has an active user group. These people may be too musically geeky for you or your son. But, anytime a product has a user group that is this organized, it means that it's a high quality product to which customers have made a big commitment.

Another product that may fit the bill while taking a slightly different approach is Cakewalk Sonar Home Studio 6XL. Descriptions of Sonar Home Studio 6 talk more about incorporating ACID-format audio loops which is one of the main features of Garage Band. There's also Screenblast Sound Forge, a product from Sony Pictures Entertainment that is even more oriented to loop-based music creation. This may not be powerful enough for your son, because it doesn't look like you can integrate your own performances as much.

Professional-Level Tools

The first product I want to highlight in the professional category is Adobe Audition 3. This product was originally called CoolEdit before Adobe purchased and integrated it into its digital effects arsenal. Audition is a powerful product with strong audio mixing, editing, and effects processing. The system is designed for someone who needs to focus on productivity-- a lot of the discussion of this product revolves around workflow. People use Audition for many different types of sound production, including professional-level podcasting, video and movie sound production, and voice-over work.

Two more things I like about Audition are the number of accessory products that work with it and books and DVDs that talk about it. Accessory products include Adobe After Effects CS3 Professional and Adobe Encore DVD 2.0. After Effects is much more expensive than Audition and has a lot of video features, but works well with it. Encore is a DVD production tool, similar to Apple's iDVD for the Macintosh platform.

The books and DVDs that people buy to work with Adobe Audition include:

Sony Sound Forge 9 is another option at the professional level. It's big feature is a plugin called Noise Reduction 2 that helps clean up sound clips that are being integrated into your projects. Sound Forge 9 also includes a copy of CD Architect, which is a very good CD burning tool. Books and media that talk about Sound Forge include:

Steinberg Wavelab 6 is even more of a niche product in pro audio production. My sense is that Wavelab includes more tools in the box than Audition or Sound Forge do, but third party tools and documentation are a lot harder to find.

Music-software-reviews.com produced a good feature comparison chart for Sound Forge, Wavelab, and Audition. Check it out if you have feature-level questions.

I could go on, but, it becomes hard to make judgements about all of the products without doing more detailed evaluations. I hope that these suggestions help you find a program your son will enjoy. Make sure you check the program requirements to ensure that your PC is powerful enough to use all of the features of the software. Good luck, and let us know what you finally choose for your son.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the latest versions of the programs originally mentioned, and a discussion of professional-level audio production tools has been added.