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For quite a few years I've wanted to get my Mum into the world of "what happens if you connect the piano to a computer". To get this goal off the ground, I've invested in a MIDI interface box and a 2013-era iMac - a little on the older side, but I understand OS X (so named in the versions ideal for this hardware) is the king of music production and latency, and so hopefully this hardware represents an above-adequate start. Ideally it will be replaced in a small handful of months.

So, I've got a keyboard, a MIDI box, and a Mac - but I have no idea what audio software to get Mum started with!

OS X/macOS will be enough of an adjustment on its own (from Windows, and a stint on Linux), and I know dropping Mum into a MIDI sequencer will be utterly foreign, alien and disillusioning. Before Mum absorbs "MIDI sequencing" generally, she'll go through a period where she calibrates off of the idiosyncrasies of whatever software she's saddled with.

I remember when I was in a similar position myself, just after discovering QBASIC on the 386 I was playing with at the time. I unwittingly internalized a dumbed-down ideological model of computing that QBASIC exposed as ground truth as I didn't know any better, and I only later realized it was reasonable that I failed to see beyond the simplified horizon that was presented and grok the fundamentals of programming because what QBASIC presented felt pretty "complete" at the time. That took a good decade to unlearn. I do not want Mum to fall down a similar hole of "local maxima", so I want software that is not simple and is not dumbed-down, but instead represents diving in at the deep end, drowning for a bit, and (eventually) surfacing with a firm foundation.

The above represents my predominant concern about the type of software I'm looking for, alongside a broader set of considerations:

  • <$200, ideally <$150 (FOSS and/or free would be an unanticipated bonus)

  • Indefinitely licensed (for the version purchased)

  • Will run reasonably performantly on a 2013-era iMac (perhaps I can get an older version second-hand), even if suboptimally configured, and loaded down with a few plugins

  • Expressive instead of simple

  • Consistent instead of intuitive

  • Emphasis on getting out of the way of (eventually) confident sequencing/production, as opposed to simplification/dumbing-down/new-user onboarding

  • Primary focus on MIDI sequencing, with reasonable support for sampling (to capture the sound of the keyboard's synth, if Mum wants to do that - I also have a USB audio box)

  • I'm curious to know about *both* sides of: relevant/mainstream vs obscure/idiosyncratic

As you can see, I have exactly no idea what I'm doing :) in terms of domain-specific knowledge about sequencing/sampling/mastering - I have a cursory/broad understanding of the terms, but haven't gotten to the points I describe above for myself yet, so I can't pass them on. Hence, I really really appreciate any advice that can be offered here.

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The two big players in this arena for straightforward 'Midi sequencing plus audio recording' as opposed to those aimed more towards groove/loop processing are Apple's own Logic Pro [& its smaller sibling Garage Band] and Steinberg's Cubase.

Both of these are extremely mature apps, with histories stretching back to the late 80s.
Either can be used 'like a tape recorder & mixing desk' for Midi & audio, for those not wanting to use 'loops & samples'.
Neither is just step up & play like a pro, there's a learning curve. Each comes with a thousand-page manual going from baby steps to the most intricate detail. There are also many YouTube videos from official & unofficial sources - though as with anything on YouTube, there's no barrier to entry so there's as much misinformation as information.

Garage Band is free. It does contain a lot of 'let me make it for you' elements, but it can be used for 'Midi + proper audio recording'.
Logic is the full-blown, industry standard, all bells & whistles with the pro in mind. It can use imported Garage Band projects, so you can upgrade from one to the other if you desire.

Cubase comes in several versions from simplistic to, again, full-blown industry pro standard. All versions are paid software - the only free versions are bundled with hardware deals.

Potential licensing & acquisition issues…
Being stuck on macOS Catalina is something of a stumbling block to the late starter. Neither the current Logic nor Cubase will run on it any more.
Prior purchasers of Logic can always access older versions through their Apple ID - but if you try to buy it as new it will just tell you you need a newer OS. I'm unsure how you would bypass this restriction without access to a newer Mac using the same Apple ID.

Cubase has a similar issue. once you own a license you can use just about any previous version… however, Steinberg's licensing model has just changed with the current v12 from a hardware dongle to a purely software-based model.
It's difficult to check for minimum/maximum requirement for older versions, but v 11 or 10 should be OK to run on an older OS. Purchasing the current version right now might give you a struggle to actually get the license onto the computer, as you can't run the new version. You may have to separately purchase a dongle, as it will no longer be part of the current package. This is a simple task. Buying a 'spare' dongle is a simple process, quite legitimate, as the license is added to it as a separate process. I think this version-juggling, in effect buying an old version, would be a question for Steinberg's pre-sales support. I have no doubt it's possible - I just don't know how, precisely.
Steinberg also offer a kind of escrow process for people selling their old versions [this enables a safe transaction & prevents people trying to sell a version they have already upgraded.]

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  • Thank you so much for this extremely helpful information. I'd thought licensing would be a bit interesting (specifically around my preferences around non-expiry) but I had no idea it would be this Fun™. It sounds like, from both an old-hardware perspective and an overall "getting started" perspective, that the simplest option is just to stick with GarageBand to get Mum's feet wet and then upgrade both the software and hardware at once? Also, I can't help but notice your mention of Catalina - is this preferable over Monterey for a 2013-era iMac?
    – i336_
    Sep 24, 2022 at 12:46
  • I'm glad you can see how much 'Fun™' this will be;)) Your sticking point is based on the fact that a 2013 iMac cannot run any OS newer than Catalina - unless you want to get into Open Firmware hacking - not recommended for a high-octane app like a DAW. If it's the family's first foray into Mac, I'm still not sure how you'll get Garage Band on it in the first place, as it won't already be in 'Purchased', even though it is a free entitlement. See apple.stackexchange.com/questions/418061/…
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 24, 2022 at 12:57
  • btw, none of these is a 'rental'. Logic/Garage band is yours forever including any future updates - that's just how Apple rocks in general. Cubase wants an upgrade fee every time you decide to, but the current version is yours forever - so long as you don't update your computer above its 'maximum requirements'.
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 24, 2022 at 15:24
  • Oooh... great. I got the naming wrong, just went back and it was macOS Mohave that was suggested as the best macOS version for this hardware. Yay. Well, if GB is already configured on the OS X install the machine comes with, I might just not touch anything and leave it... but alternatively, maybe (sigh) I could boot a copy of Catalina (older=marginally smaller) in QEMU somewhere and close the loop that way. Not ideal, but I'm only running it to complete this particular task.
    – i336_
    Sep 26, 2022 at 0:53
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    Ah, thanks also for that clarification. The machine turned out to be factory reset - and running Mavericks. One update to Mohave later, I called Apple Support to find out what I could do, specifying I really wanted an alternative to using OSX-KVM; the rep noted I'd tried everything I reasonably could, and suggested that if "my method" didn't work to call them back. Suffice to say I won't need to call them back; GarageBand is (slowly) downloading right now.
    – i336_
    Sep 27, 2022 at 14:42

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