“What Software Do You Use to Make Music?”

Cakewalk by BandLab

Too long; didn’t read (TL;DR)? Jump to the short answer.

Since another friend just asked me this…

The one question I’ve probably been asked more than any other, in recent years, is “what software do you use?” I remember asking that question. It’s really important when you’re starting out. “Why is this other guy making more music/better music than I am? Hey, what software do you use?”

The irony is that I’ve been avoiding “software” over time, reducing my dependency on it, to get a break from my software-based career as a programmer.

It’s Not About Software (Until It Is)

We all use and depend on software, or at the very least, we depend on people who depend on software. It’s here to stay. I’ve traversed the extremes of software-dependency and software-independence. Keep reading to find out what I learned from a life of both.

The Short Answer

At the time of this blog post (mid-April 2021), the only audio software I’m currently using is Cakewalk by Bandlab, Adobe Audition, and VST plugins from Native Instruments and SoundToys. The rest of my equipment is hardware. (Mostly Strymon and Eventide effects pedals.)

Cakewalk by BandLab

I was so automatically skeptical about the re-launch of Cakewalk, that I completely forgot to try the new, free version until now. Good news: So far, it’s just like the Sonar X3 Producer software that used to cost $500, but BandLab has apparently made some improvements, removed the price tag altogether, and chose to push for a musical social network of its own.

So far, no red flags. I recommend it. Cakewalk by BandLab seems very familiar to me, yet subtly improved. It’s worth the download for the included VST plugins alone (a full suite of mixing/mastering plugins, instruments, Melodyne, and various effects).

Adobe Audition

Adobe’s Creative Cloud All-Apps bundle, which I resisted buying for years, has been quite an incredible resource for all my various forms of media creation (music, pictures, videos). Audition looks primitive when compared to my old staple Cakewalk Sonar X3, a massively full-featured DAW (now relaunched as Cakewalk by BandLab). The simplicity has not been a hindrance, though. There are two distinct editing modes in Audition: Waveform, and Multitrack. Taking the time to understand both comes with huge payoffs.

Native Instruments Komplete 13

I picked up a Native Instruments Maschine Mk2 via Craigslist back in 2019, but never really touched it (I was too busy learning modern JavaScript frameworks, practicing Ukrainian, recording guitars, etc.). When I finally went to use it, something was lacking. Nothing inspired me to create new beats.

I went looking for trouble (“shopping for inspiration”) and fell into an impulse buy from some effective marketing by Native Instruments. “Get the entire collection for 75% off!” or whatever… It was expensive to buy the entire thing, but I’m not disappointed. In retrospect, I think Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 would have been a more fitting investment for my needs, but I look forward to having both NI Komplete and Omnisphere 2 some day soon.

Native Instrument generally focuses on the popular electronic sounds of the day, with presets that seem dead-set on making sure you sound just like whatever songs are popular on Spotify. If that’s your thing, you’re in luck with NI. I’m more into the search for the obscure, and the interestingly original. When it comes to that, having gigantic libraries of “pop sounds” just isn’t very satisfying. Luckily, Komplete 13 includes quite a few quirky and experimental libraries, such as Kinetic Metal, Straylight, Mysteria, Pharlight, and Damage. Damage is quickly becoming my favorite tool for layering together heavy, energetic beats. The built-in sounds & loops have a lot of beef to them, and the built-in distortion goes real nasty.

I’ve used Kinetic Metal in the past and always loved it. Straylight, Mysteria, Pharlight, and Mallet Flux have a ton of spacious sounds that are fitting perfectly with In The Branches and Quiet Sector material (ITB and QS are my currently-active projects, and both are generally relaxing and sleep-oriented instrumental music).

SoundToys 5

I haven’t used these plugins much yet, but I like what I’ve seen. The SoundToys 5 bundle effectively mimics much of what I’ve seen and heard from the Eventide H9. I purchased this collection when I wasn’t actively making much music, because of a Black Friday deal that was too good to resist. No regrets.

You get a collection of delays, reverbs, pitch-shifting effects, tube emulations, compressors, etc. These effects are on par with the best VST’s I’ve used, including ones from Waves. In the SoundToys universe, nothing looks too modern or high-tech. Everything comes across like emulated analog equipment. EchoBoy and Crystallizer are great, especially when you can feed them into your favorite reverb. Being able to stack effects in your DAW or inside SoundTools makes this bundle incredibly versatile. That’s about all I can say for now.


The real fun happens with the hardware I own. Stay tuned for a followup post about the hardware I use.

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