The two software suites most used for professional music recording, Avid's ProTools and Apple's Logic Pro, both bundle in nearly every piece of virtual equipment needed to record anything from a music album to multimedia soundtracks. Apple has released a total overhaul of Logic, called Logic Pro X, and while it's aimed at professional musicians and music producers, hobbyists will especially appreciate the $199 price.
I've used both Logic and ProTools for years, and have recorded and mixed albums on both, often taking sessions back and forth between home and professional studios (my most recent project was recorded and mixed on ProTools). Both software packages are complex and packed with bells and whistles, so consider this initial set of impressions as a look at some of the hands-on highlights in Logic Pro X, rather than an exhaustive list of features and plug-ins.
Most music-recording apps mimic the look and feel of a traditional physical mixing board, while also offering an edit view with music note data and audio file waveforms, as well as multiple pop-up windows for controlling everything from effects to signal routing. There's so much going on that Logic, ProTools, and similar apps can be nearly impossible to effectively control via a mouse and keyboard, unless you're sticking to simpler track-by-track recording.
One common solution for both has been physical control surfaces, which could be anything from a USB-connected keyboard (the musical kind, not the QWERTY kind) to a full-on mixing desk with physical faders, knobs, and inputs. These can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and as many third-party companies make these devices, the functionality, or even reliability, can vary widely. (This is an oversimplification of all the different ways ProTools or Logic Pro can be controlled, especially in professional studio environments, but we're looking at this from the small/home studio perspective.)
One of the most interesting features in the just-released Logic Pro X is the seamless support for the iPad as a control surface. Once you purchase the $199 Logic Pro X app from Apple's Mac App Store (the latest version of ProTools costs $699, but a simplified version with a hardware interface box starts at $499), you can then download a free companion app for the iPad.
Once both an OS X computer running Logic Pro X and your iPad running the Logic control app are on the same Wi-Fi network, they can be linked together. The big advantage here is that Apple makes both the OS X software and the iOS app, so they're built from the ground up to work well together. Over the years, I've tried a few third-party apps for controlling ProTools in a similar fashion, but none of them has been as seamless and wide-ranging as this, and those apps are prone to lag, bugs, incompatibility issues, and other problems (there may be a perfect ProTools/iOS control surface app -- I just haven't found it yet).
The most obviously useful way to control Logic Pro X from the iPad is to use the tablet's surface as a mixing board. This mode literally puts a bank of faders in front of you, up to eight at a time, and you can jump between different banks of eight faders at will. Manipulating the mixing board faders via iPad instead of a mouse and keyboard has one big advantage: thanks to the multitouch screen on the iPad, you can grab several faders at once and manipulate them in real time. On a laptop or desktop, you'd have to link several tracks together or else record fader automation one track at a time.
Many of the built-in plug-ins and virtual instruments that come included with Logic Pro also have custom control screens on the iPad. Keyboard-based instruments give you an actual physical keyboard you can play, plus the various knobs and other controls as the real-life version of these virtual keyboards would offer.
Obviously, with no real tactile feedback, it's very difficult to play accurately or expressively on an iPad screen. With only an octave or two represented on the screen at once (depending on how you set it up), you can really only play with one hand at a time. You can, however, use the iPad screen to quickly and easily input note information, strum a virtual guitar neck, or even set up basic chords you can strum or arpeggiate with minimal fuss.
One of the other interesting new software features in Logic Pro X is called Drummer, and it's Apple's take on programmable drum machine software. Instead of basic beats and loops, Drummer offers different personality-filled virtual drummers, and pairs them with drum kits while offering some serious flexibility for how these loops are played.
Each drummer is essentially a bank of drum loop families, and you can reassign any drummer's patterns to any other drum kit. More importantly, any loop can be adjusted on the fly to be louder, softer, more or less complex, using different symbol or kick/snare variations, and with more or fewer fills. You can even tie the timing and complexity in with an audio track, such as a bass guitar, and it will tweak itself on the fly to follow along.
This "virtual drummer" idea has been around for a while, with plug-in apps such as Strike and BFD, and Drummer works in a largely similar way. In the right hands, it's definitely more expressive than simple drum loops, but there's still a looplike feel, and the number of base patterns and styles included isn't as large as I'd like; also, many have a middle-of-the-road feel. Personally, I love jazzy '60s bossa nova beats, so Drummer doesn't have anything custom made for my very narrow interests. It's great as a scratch tool for songwriting and demoing, however.
The current version of Logic Pro shares some DNA with Apple's consumer-level music app, GarageBand. Logic's redesigned look and color scheme bring it into visual sync with GarageBand, and knowing how to use one can at least help getting started in the other. That said, Logic Pro is not the sort of program a beginner is going to be able to pick up and master overnight.
As someone who has used Logic extensively (albeit years ago), and more recently its main competition, ProTools, I was able to get back on the horse fairly quickly after some trial and error about which submenus certain options are under. There's a language to most music recording and sequencing software that works across platforms, and the basic building blocks should be recognizable to anyone who has recorded multitrack music on a computer before.
Above, you can see a hands-on video demo of how the iPad integration works with Logic Pro X. For what seems like a very reasonable price, this new version of Apple's pro music software works well out of the box, and I was able to put together a quick and dirty demo loop with relative ease.
There are a few caveats to keep in mind. The first is that many professional studios run primarily ProTools these days, which could make transferring between home and studio a hassle. Also, while the instrument and effects plug-ins that are included with the software are great, you may want to invest in expensive third-party ones (such as Auto-Tune from Antares or mastering plug-ins from Waves). All plug-ins need to be 64-bit now, so older 32-bit ones you may have already purchased for previous versions of Logic will no longer work (however, most major ones have been updated). Finally, to record real-world instruments, guitar, bass, vocals, and so on, you'll need potentially expensive I/O equipment and pre-amps to get a good signal into your Mac, so remember to budget for that.