a) bite the bullet and get a Mac Book and dual boot windows with boot camp (I need windows for work basically)?
b) find a GarageBand alternative for Windows.
GarageBand for PCI have to say that I thought that finding an equivalent to Garageband for Windows would be pretty much impossible, but I started Googling and after a while stumbled upon a review of Acoustica’s Mixcraft 6. Having read a little it seemed to be just like a GarageBand for Windows, so I decided to give it a test drive. It installed VERY fast, so I wondered if it would be up to the job given the epic install time for GarageBand on my Mac Mini. This is likely because of one of the clever Mixcraft 6 things, you don’t download a loop or sound effect till you need it, so you don’t end up using a bunch of space on your hard drive unnecessarily for unused and probably unwanted ones. Even cooler is that you can import your GarageBand loops into it too (if you really need to! there are like 3000 loops and sound effects included spanning every genre from Industrial Techno and Hip Hop to Reggae and Blues).
I was mainly looking to record Guitars, Bass and Vocals but I have found I use the loop library quite a lot to add special effects etc. Some of the bass lines and drum loops are pretty cool too. So if you want to just get an ultra quick demo or a backing track to play with, the loops really speed things up.
In the end I purchased the Musician's Bundle 3 which includes Beatcraft (Beatcraft is a good solid drum sequencer/drum machine which, like Mixcraft, is really simple to use) it works nicely with Mixcraft 6 and means you can record songs complete with drums or basic percussion backings. You can add effects to the drum sequence or individual tracks too in the same way that you add effects to tracks in Mixcraft.
The Mixcraft 6 interface is VERY similar to GarageBand, so you have the typical stack of horizontal tracks on a timeline to play with:
In Mixcraft 6, like GarageBand, you can choose from a bunch of images like drums, guitars and bass to give each track a visual pointer as to what it is. It is very easy to take a recorded guitar riff, for example, and edit it into a loop, which you can then extend indefinitely along the timeline, this is cool for making a quick backing track for practising. But here's a secret.. how many times these days do you think a pro musician plays the same riff over and over again? I'd say 3, if you are lucky, just to get some texture and after that it is looped.
Recording is as easy as arming a track and clicking record and off you go. After you are done it is ultra simple to fade tracks in and out or apply effects to each track or your whole project. New to Mixcraft 6 is automation, which adds the professional option of applying effects, fade out or fade in anywhere along the time-line of your individual tracks. We have all seen a mixing desk levels moving up and down and dials turning automatically, well this is exactly what this is, in fact you can even watch it working if you open the Mixcraft mixer while playing back your projects.
Audio InterfaceAs with any recording software, it's essential to have a good sound interface, I have been using a Line 6 Pod Studio UX1
which works really well with Mixcraft 6 and allows me to record an effected or clean guitar/bass and an effected or clean vocal at the same time. The benefit of the Line 6 POD Studio is that it has almost zero latency and almost noiseless transfer which means there is almost no delay between when you sing/play a note and what you hear from your monitoring headphones or speakers, which makes it a thousand times easier to record a great (in time/sync) track. For those of you thinking "I can use my microphone directly into the PC", think again! I reiterate, you NEED a good sound interface, think hissy, tinny and everything you hate about bad demo's and that is what you will get, not to mention that actually monitoring what you are recording in real time is nearly impossible. Line 6 championed amp modelling in the now ubiquitous pod series and this box takes that whole concept a step further giving you near zero latency digital recording and more amps, effects and presets than you will ever need in a lifetime. The POD Farm 2 software it comes with, like Mixcraft 6, is easy to use and worth the money! (see here for a detailed review of the POD Studio UX1).
Mixcraft already has a bunch of built in effects that you can add to all tracks or a single track at a time, but if you have your own favorite VST effects you can use them too. Personally, I like recording dry guitar tracks then using the PodFarm VST plugin from Line 6. You can get exactly the same effect by recording directly from your Pod Studio using the Pod Farm standalone application but I just like having a raw track to play with.
MicrophoneA decent microphone will go a very long way to helping you record killer tracks, I have always been fond of the Shure SM58 Vocal Microphone which is the Microphone of choice for almost everyone live and recorded. That said, I also own a Shure SM57
which has a better bass response, typically I use this for recording acoustic guitars and drums, but it is also great for getting a deep dark vocal. Be wise don't scrimp on the microphone, you will get much better results if you don't.
Midi ControllerMixcraft 6 also comes with a bank of virtual instruments, so if you have a Midi keyboard you can synth away to your hearts content. Mixcraft 6 has the Lounge Lizard Session vintage electric piano, VB3 tonewheel organ, MiniMogueVA monophonic analog synthesizer and the Messiah polyphonic analog synthesizer all built in. The virtual instruments include a bunch of ethnic sounding instruments, which I like to use to add character to acoustic songs, while Mixcraft does include a virtual keyboard that you can use by touching keys on your pc keyboard, it is far easier to use a midi controller, my M-Audio AXIOM 49 MIDI Controller works perfectly with it and it is well worth downloading the 2 free Acoustica piano instruments that you get when you buy. Mixcraft 6 also comes with a cool Midi editor so you can “fix & Tweak” your Midi tracks visually.
Video EditingIf all that wasn't enough, you can also edit video with Mixcraft 6, that includes crossfading Video Clips, editing Audio and adding Sound tracks, once you are done Mixcraft 6 will export the finished product into various popular formats so that you can burn them on to DVD's or upload them to You Tube.
ConclusionIf you want a professional sounding, reasonably priced recording set up for your PC and you are already used to using GarageBand, I really don’t think you can go wrong with Mixcraft 6. While it does not have all of the bells and whistles that it’s significantly more expensive competitors have, it does a fantastic Job of making it very easy to record and for the price, it also offers an amazing range of functions.
Mixcraft is available from Acoustica for $74.95
If you want to take things a step further then I would recommend you take a look at Mixcraft 5 Pro Studio, which essentially includes a suite of mixing and mastering tools plus additional virtual instruments:
Mixcraft 5 Pro Studio Review