When I was first getting into music production everyone kept parroting the name GarageBand at me and telling me that a Mac was the only way to go. But then again people had done that ages ago when I'd started working with basic graphics as well. I've said it before and I will certainly say it again - you do not need to swap over to a Mac. In fact there are plenty of better tools out there and we are the first to suggest using an alternative but how do you pick the right GarageBand alternative for you?
Cost: This one will matter differently to different people. Some of you will be looking for free beat makers (I've mentioned them before here) and others are probably expecting me to mention some $5000 super tool which directly takes music ideas out of your brain and comes up with sick beats for you. Really the price should be something you are comfortable with. I know some of you intend to make money selling music and this is fine but don't pour everything you own into getting software because nothing worth having comes quick.
I'd be the first to tell you that doing this properly is going to take work. This is the reason why, instead of just suggesting a tool or two, I actually show people how to work with the beats. That said some tools are certainly more 'fun' to use than others. Learning something like this is not the same is being back in school and hating it because it is something you actually want to learn. So the tool you work with should make it fun, engaging and intuitive for you.
Certainly one of the more important parts and this is the part where GarageBand itself falls down. Having a flashy looking UI and a pretty logo is one thing but you need a tool which can actually suit your needs.
By this I mean the quality of the music produced. Not how good your music is but the actual quality of the sound the program makes. If you're using a beatmaker which is spitting out the usual low quality MP3 then you can't really do much with it. Even if you make the best beats nobody will want to hear them if they sound like you're playing them with a cardboard box. GarageBand really fell down in this department because it was built for people to mess around with and forget. It couldn't export anything high quality and it was not compatible with any other beat maker which could. If you're only making music for yourself to listen to this might not be a huge deal but there is no reason to limit yourself. If you work with software capable of making high quality sounds then you have the option open for the future.
Ease of use is measured in two ways. How easily you can get to grips with the software in the first hour or so and how easily you can work the more advanced features when you are at that stage. Some tools do exactly the same things but do them in complicated ways which just makes it harder than it has to be. A tool should be easy enough to get used to the basics although that part isn't a huge deal because you only do it once. The important part is making sure you can continue to work the tool afterwards properly.
The software should be flexible enough for you to use (GarageBand fails this because it was restricted purely to Mac) and being able to customize it to make things smoother for yourself is a bonus. If i can bind the keys of things I use frequently it just makes it a little easier. We do show you some tricks later on how to make things easier with any software you're working with.
When you're trying to learn it helps if you have some existing beats to mess around and experiment with and when you're moving on to really making your own tracks it doesn't hurt if you have a large amount of loops and sounds you can choose from to add to your beat. Some tools don't have this and some have it more than others. A decent tool will always let you import your own but it doesn't hurt to look for something which has everything you need from the start.
A lot of this really comes down to what you want to actually do. But considering that even some of the best tools out there are pretty cheap (and you don't need to buy yourself a complete Mac) I figure you might as well go for the best you can work with. You can check out our download page here where we suggest some of the best tools or, if you prefer, you can learn more about our free training (where we actually show you how to use everything) here.