All new Macs come complete with a free copy of the powerful GarageBand music production software - but if you fancy something different then there are lots of fine alternatives out there. In this article we bring you ten of the best music-production packages for Mac, as well as key specs and download links.
If you're looking to get more out of GarageBand itself then take a look at Best free GarageBand for Mac plugins and Using Drummer in GarageBand. For mobile creators, meanwhile, there's How to use GarageBand on iPhone & iPad.
1. GarageBand 10
Full review: GarageBand for Mac review
Features: Before discounting GarageBand to move on to another software package it's worth taking a deeper look at what this free app can really do. GarageBand has for years been a simple, accessible yet very capable way of getting your songs recorded without needing to know too much about the mechanisms involved.
Recent versions have brought GarageBand into line with Logic Pro X in terms of style, while also bringing across impressive features such as Drummer, which intuitively plays along with your compositions, alleviating the need for hours of careful MIDI programming.
The included Amp simulators make recording guitars (both six-string and bass) very easy, while the wealth of loops and sound effects add a professional edge to compositions.
See also: GarageBand features
Ease of use: GarageBand's elegant layout and lack of too many control options makes it an ideal place for those new to working in a digital environment. Instruments have reassuring graphical representations, and the menus are arranged in a way that you never feel overwhelmed.
It does lack some useful editing capabilities such as cross-fades, and podcasters are unhappy with the reduction in features that have marked the past few years, but there's plenty here to help you create great-sounding songs.
Supported formats: AIFF, CAF, WAV, AAC (except protected AAC files), Apple Lossless, MIDI and MP3. 64-bit.
Supported third-party plugins: Audio Units.
Supported third-party hardware: Core-Audio devices and MIDI controllers.
Notation feature: Yes.
Read more: GarageBand for iPad & iPhone review
2. Logic Pro X
Full review: Logic Pro X 10.5 review
Features: If GarageBand isn't quite powerful enough for your needs then upgrading to this premier music suite should be top of your list.
Logic Pro X is a fully fledged, professional-level software studio that comes complete with quality virtual instruments, a huge library of loops, synthesisers, and audio tools. Some of these make it worth the purchase alone, with the newly added Live Loops, Sampler, Step Sequencer, and Drum Synth all bolstering what was already an impressively offering.
You can record up to 1,000 tracks in total for each composition, with the ability to lay down multiple ones at the same time, plus several effects can be applied and manipulated while the track is playing.
The editing features are complex and powerful, giving you control over MIDI patterns, various aspects of the audio tracks, plus you can automate changes on the fly. Then there's Flex Pitch, which is a sort of auto-tune that allows you to correct any errant vocalists or wandering guitar solos, and Flex Time which can resolve any timing issues in the playing.
Smart Tempo is a particularly useful tool, as it adjusts midi instruments to fit around the varying tempo of a live recording, plus the new Sampler allows you to import recordings and have Logic automatically break them down into constituent parts that are then mapped to MIDI keyboards.
The addition of a Step Sequencer makes light work of creating drum, bass and melodic patterns as you simply select the cells on a grid to turn beats and notes on or off. These can then be individually adjusted for timings all while having effects applied. It replaces the ageing Piano Roll and is a big leap forward for Logic Pro X users.
The Track Alternatives feature also permits users to switch between playlists of regions and edits on any track, making it easier to dabble with creative ideas.
Should you prefer to work with loops, the Live Loop feature allows you to assemble them in columns (called Scenes) and then trigger them simultaneously. All of these can then be recorded directly into your project, appearing as standard tracks on your workspace.
Ease of use: GarageBand and Logic share a very similar, elegant layout, so if you like the way the free version works then you'll be right at home with its bigger brother. Some of the advanced features are initially hidden, but it only takes a couple of clicks to get them up and running.
Owners of the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar will find Touch Bar support a welcome addition, bringing the ability to control various aspects of editing as well as using it to play certain virtual instruments.
Logic is one of the friendliest powerhouses around, and you can also use an iPad as an additional control surface via the Logic Remote app. Plus, Apple offers the option for iPad and iPhone users to upload Logic files to iCloud and then add to them when they're out and about via the iOS version of GarageBand.
Supported formats: AAF, OMF, Open TL, and XML (Final Cut Pro) projects. Plus AIFF, WAV (BMF), CAF, SDII, ReWire, MP3, MP4 and MIDI output options.
Supported third-party plugins: Yes, although they need to be 64-bit.
Supported third-party hardware: Core-Audio devices are compatible, as are MIDI controllers and various control surfaces.
Notation feature: Yes.
3. PreSonus Studio One 4 Prime
Features: The Studio One range has built an impressive reputation as a solid, capable, and well thought out DAW. Now in its fourth major iteration Studio One is available in three tiers: Prime, Artist, and Professional.
Prime is free, and while it doesn't have the full toolset of its more powerful stablemates, it remains a fully functional package that offers unlimited audio tracks, MIDI tracks and FX channels. These are aided by a plethora of effects, loops and samples, alongside the Instrument and Drum editor, plus the recently overhauled Ampire selection of guitar amps, cabs and effects.
The paid versions add a raft of more advanced options and content, including the Chord detector, and the powerful Sample One XT sampler. But as an alternative to the free GarageBand, Studio One Prime is a great starting point in the PreSonus world.
One drawback of the free version is that is doesn't support third-party plugins such as AU, VST2, VST3 and Rewire, which does limit your options somewhat.
But if you're willing to move up to the paid tiers then you'll find a hugely powerful and modern production suite that can match most of the features found in its rivals.
Ease of use: The layout and general design of Studio One is modern, clean, and very easy on the eye. It bears a passing resemblance to Logic and GarageBand with its darker palette, and shares a number of similar functions. Everything is intended to work on the one main screen, so no popup windows hiding behind each other to confuse, and while this keeps things simple it does mean that the software works better on larger displays.
Supported formats: A wide range, with MP3 encoding/decoding now standard on all versions.
Supported third-party plugins: Not on the Prime edition.
Supported third-party hardware: Core Audio compliant audio interfaces, Mackie interfaces, and MIDI controllers.
Notation feature: No.
4. Ableton Live 10
Features: Whereas most apps on this list are more traditional DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), Ableton Live is something quite unique.
Usually you'll use a music program to record and arrange parts sequentially on a timeline. Ableton does this of course, but it also has a second mode called Session that allows you to create shorter Clips of music that are held in banks. With one clip playing you can jam something underneath, then another, and just experiment with creating textures and riffs. When you're happy with the various elements you then press a global record button and trigger the clips live, usually via a MIDI controller.
It takes a bit of time to get your head around the concept - essentially you're almost being a DJ for your own music - but when you do it's incredibly liberating.
Ease of use: Ableton Live is almost like playing a new instrument, so the learning curve can be a little steep. Ideally you'll need to invest in some sort of control device as well, but a computer keyboard can be mapped to trigger the various Clips.
The program has a wealth of sound creation modules and sample libraries, plus innovative editing controls that are executed in real-time. It's not your normal stop/start kind of affair, as the name suggests, but if you can master the controls then you can even play new creations at a gig purely through your computer.
Supported formats: WAV, AIFF, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC.
Supported third-party plugins: VST2, VST3, Audio Units, ReWire.
Supported third-party hardware: Various MIDI controllers, plus a bespoke Ableton control surface (Push) that starts at £599/$799 bundled with the Intro version.
5. Cubase Elements 10.5
Features: One of the true stalwarts of music production is the Cubase platform that for many years has provided musicians with excellent creative tools. Those wanting to sample its delights without emptying their wallets will find the Elements 10.5 package an enticing proposition.
It might bear the budget name but Elements comes equipped with many of the features that makes its more august sibling so popular. Pro-level mixing and editing tools give the user an enviable amount of control, while a plentiful selection of audio effect processors, plus the ability to simultaneously playback 48 audio tracks and 64 MIDI tracks gives you a very broad sonic palette to play with.
Ease of use: Steinberg has created a number of tutorial videos to help newcomers adapt to the sometimes complex environment of Elements 10.5. Even with these helpful lessons Cubase remains a sophisticated product for those new to digital music. If you're already versed in the system from previous versions of Elements then this will represent a significant upgrade. A recent tweak that makes life easier though is the ability to assign different colours to the channel strips, so you can tell at a glance what each one represents.
Supported formats: WAV, AIFC, AIFF, MP3, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, Wave64.
Supported third-party plugins: VST, ReWire.
Supported third-party hardware: ASIO, MIDI, and Mackie devices.
6. Reason 11 Intro
Features: Reason 11 is one of the most popular music creation platforms around, but as the full Standard version retails for £309/$399 we're looking to its little brother, Reason 11 Intro, as a fairer alternative to GarageBand. This slimmed-down edition still packs plenty of punch and is a great place to get familiar with the Reason approach.
While this is in many ways a normal, complete production suite, the standout feature is the rack-style nature of the excellent synthesisers, sound modules, and virtual instruments. Each one comes complete with dials and sliders that look distinctly analogue in nature. You can even turn the rack around and run virtual cables to keep things old school.
Design choices aside, tonally this is a beast, with wonderful effects that can create sonic landscapes, mangle audio into fascinating new textures, and allow you to build detailed and stomping drum patterns.
Intro offers 11 instruments, 11 effects, 16 tracks of audio and midi recording, plus a large collection of editing features. If you move up to the more expensive Standard tier then you get unlimited tracks, 17 instruments and 29 effects.
One new feature introduced in this version is Reason Rack Plugin that allows users to easily access sounds from Reason through a virtual rack that works within your existing DAW. This opens up a number of soundscaping possibilities and means you can still use GarageBand for recording, but with the power of Reason to create new beats and tones.
Ease of use: As with all the platforms in this roundup there is a definite learning curve at the beginning. Reason 11 Intro scores highly though, much like Ableton Live, as it's just so much fun to experiment with due to the high quality sounds it can create. One consideration is that a MIDI controller is a must have accessory, as many of the best features reside in those realms.
Supported formats: AIFF, WAV, REX.
Supported third-party plugins: Reason Rack Extensions, VST
Supported third-party hardware: Pretty much any MIDI controller.
Features: While GarageBand has one of the richest companies in the world backing it, another free option is Audacity, which is an open source project built and maintained by volunteers.
At first this might seem like a basic, no frills product, but in fact Audacity is a very capable system that can achieve impressive results. Alongside the general recording and editing functions that you would expect, there are also the options to record multiple channels at once, add cross fades, and even overdub an existing track - say for clever vocal harmonies or Queen-style multi-octave solos.
Advanced tools such a noise elimination feature also allows you to sample any background hums and rattles then apply filters to a track. It might not eradicate everything, but its still a great improvement. Another interesting tool is the ability to change the pitch of a track without altering the tempo (and vice versa), plus a decent amount of built-in effects that can be applied to recordings.
Ease of use: Audacity is powerful, but it certainly isn't pretty. The user interface is probably the biggest problem with the software. Whereas GarageBand is neat, tidy, and sports a modern design, Audacity feels very much like a program built by engineers. Menus and buttons are somewhat colourless, with an initial impression that can be a bit intimidating. Once you get used to the perfunctory nature of it though, things make sense and you can produce complex projects in relative comfort.
Recent updates have introduced navigational improvements, refinements to the light and dark themes, plus a built-in LAME mp3 encoder, which all shows that the enthusiastic developer base is as dedicated as ever.
Supported formats: WAV, AIFF, AU, FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. MP3, AC3, AAC, and MP4 are also available via free downloadable add-ons.
Supported third-party plugins: LADSPA, Nyquist, VST, and Audio Unit.
Supported third-party hardware: No official list, but many USB devices and microphones are known to work, with a user-created list kept here.
8. Reaper 6
Features: Reaper is the linguistically gymnastic acronym of Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering and Recording. With the amount of thought that went into the name alone you know this is going to be something good.
The program itself boasts an extensive list of features with which you can create entire albums from scratch. Multi-track recording for live audio or MIDI, layering takes, deep editing functions, the ability to embed FX plug-ins into track controls, time-stretching to lock in parts, and even pitch correction software come included in the price. Reaper is also very customisable, with various GUI elements being available for the user to alter with new skins.
Ease of use: The clean layout and customisable nature means that Reaper can quickly become a very familiar environment. It is a hugely detailed program though, so expect to spend more time working things out than you would with GarageBand, but conversely this also means that you can achieve a great deal more once you've mastered the environment.
The Reaper forums are also well populated by friendly and wise users who can help you learn, many of whom also create new plugins for the platform.
Supported formats: Pretty much everything, and even a few we hadn't heard of.
Supported third-party plugins: VST3, DX, AU, ReWire, JS (user scriptable plug-ins), and others.
Supported third-party hardware: Reaper's creators claim compatibility with "almost any audio or MIDI sound card or interface".
9. MuLab 8
Features: This production suite is another complete studio that can handle recording, editing and mixing. It comes from a good pedigree too, as the designer was responsible for the free CMusic sequencer that used to arrive with copies of Computer Music Magazine.
Now on its eighth major version, MuLab is probably aimed more at the newcomer to DAWs, with a simplified UI, colourful palette, and drag and drop features for selecting various functions. This doesn't mean that the tools are minimal though, as the built in synthesisers, modular plug-ins and editing controls mean you can get some good work done from the outset.
A free trial allows you to sample the joys of MuLab, but after that you'll need to upgrade to the full version for £61/$78/€69.
Ease of use: The MuLab interface has received some very contradictory reviews, with many saying that the UI is easy to get to grips with due to its basic layout, and the use of menus and pop up boxes means that they now what's happening all the time. The other school of thought is that things are more cumbersome than they need be for precisely the same reasons. Thankfully the trial allows you to decide for yourself.
Supported formats: Not listed.
Supported third-party plugins: VST, ReWire.
Supported third-party hardware: Not listed.
Features: Ardour is an open-source project that offers a fully featured DAW, allowing recording unlimited tracks, importing files or MIDI, editing features that include crossfade, transpose, quantize, and just about anything you need to put together cool-sounding audio.
Ease of use: If you've used any kind of music production software before then Ardour will make you feel right at home. For newcomers it's no more intimidating than any other capable system, plus the community seems vibrant and helpful if you do run into any problems.
Supported formats: WAV, AIFF, CAF, BWF, FLAC, Ogg/Vorbis
Supported third-party plugins: AU and LVT.
Supported third-party hardware: Various MIDI controllers.
11. Ohm Studio
Features: Making music can be a solitary affair. All those hours tweaking parameters, programming MIDI drums, and designing sounds in synthesisers is one of the attractions for some, but can be a burden to others. If you hanker for a more collaborative form of creation the Ohm Studio is a fascinating idea.
Essentially you create projects in the cloud using Ohm and all its varied, fully functional recording tools. Then you can invite other musicians to play and record tracks in the project wherever they may be. So you could create a song structure in England, ask a friend in America to lay down a guitar part, then wake up to find it sitting there in the project. There is even a function where you can record simultaneously, but we're not sure how much latency might be involved there.
Ease of use: For the most part, Ohm Studio look and behaves like a normal DAW. Tracks appear on the timeline, you can edit the audio, record MIDI, and apply effects as you would expect. The social layer is also well designed, featuring the ability to put notes on your project requesting the relevant needed part, how you'd like it played, and for how long.
The basic tier is free, but if you want to unlock some of the more advanced features such as exporting audio to WAVE lossless files or recording in 24-bit, then you'll need to invest either the Pro version (£35/$44/€39) or the Pro XL (£88/$112/€99) and look at the subscription rates which run at around £8/$10/€9 p/m.
Supported formats: Free version only exports to MP3.
Supported third-party plugins: VST.
Supported third-party hardware: Various MIDI controllers.