What’s the best way to help get someone started on computer music making? From comments, we get this request from a mother looking to buy the first software on a budget for her teenage son. I’m, uh, hoping your son isn’t reading this (actually, he probably won’t mind – just remember, act surprised).

I am completely new to this kind of software, but my teenage son is requesting the likes for Christmas. I started out looking at Ableton Live 8, but am a bit wary of the price. I’ve also looked at Reason and Apple’s Logic Studio. The price is a bit of a deterent, (he’s not an only child) and I have also looked at the Live Intro and Logic Express. I would love some advice on what to get. He is wanting something that will let him play around with the existing song library on his iPod (mixing songs together, making remixes of individual songs etc), as well as something he can create his own music with. He’d like to be able to save or record what he does. Eventually he might want to be able to plug in a guitar or mic and add his own playing/singing to what he has done on the computer. Any suggestions?

Good question! I take she had also pulled up some of my reviews (presumably for Macworld) and hadn’t come to any definite conclusion, because I said nice things about both.

The challenge here, as always, is that any number of tools will be up to the job, including GarageBand. I quite like Logic Express as a bargain choice for Mac production. It’s got the amp and pedalboard options for guitar, and nice effects built in. Apple’s done a lot to make the interface friendly and attractive. And for someone just getting started, there’s almost nothing in Pro that’s missing from Express that you’ll really need. Logic Express is also an interesting choice for doing remixes, because of the new Flex Time feature.

That said, I’m going to go with Ableton Live Intro as my recommendation, based on the way she describes her son. It’s an ideal choice on the Mac for getting creative ideas flowing, thanks to Live’s non-linear Session View and approach to musical clips. Live offers a tough-to-beat toolkit for the beginning remixer, with the ability to slice and rework audio and apply various envelopes to musical materials. But it’s also a good place to begin experimenting with your own ideas; because you don’t have to look at a linear, left-to-right view of your music, the addictive process of imagining ideas is easy to employ.

Live Intro does just about everything you’d need to get going (though it’s too bad, for a guitarist/vocalist, that Looper is missing). Intro also bundles a lot of preset sounds. And it’s only $99. The best advice: give Live Intro a try, and then as your son’s work grows, he might add on Logic Express or upgrade Live to a higher-level version. By then, he’ll know more about his own tastes and needs.

Here’s a comparison of the two Live versions (I actually couldn’t find a chart this simple for Logic Pro versus Express, though I’m sure I’ve seen that somewhere):
Live Intro vs. Live 8 comparison chart

Anyway, that’s just my humble opinion. And yes, I use both tools myself. Live is a place where I’ve often started new ideas, even if I finish them off somewhere else. And Live will work with Logic, so if he decides he wants some of the features in Logic, he can use them together.

Readers, any different thoughts? Of course, there are many other software options not listed here available on the Mac.

On Windows, we’d have a different set of variables – there, I might be inclined to point to Cakewalk’s Music Creator 5 and Reaper, too. (I like FL Studio, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone with this particular set of tastes.)