When it comes to upping the quality of your audio, what’s a cash-strapped producer to do? The entry point for any audio hardware or software seems to be around $400.
Relax, and put your wallet back in your pocket. There are plenty of audio bargains just waiting for a click of your mouse. Whether you are bargain shopping, downloading or just poking around, the Internet is a great place to find just about anything in the audio world. So make a list, check it twice and let’s go surfing for bargains.
Shop Till You Drop
There are many price-shopping opportunities on the Internet. eBay is one of the best places to score a bargain. Whether you’re looking for mic cables, interfaces, software or a replacement clip for an obscure lapel mic, you can probably find it on eBay. It’s also a great place to see what things are worth, if you’re in a selling mood. eBay is like the world’s biggest yard sale – there are incredible values and some real stinkers in there somewhere. It’s up to you to sort them out. Be sure to check the seller’s statistics and feedback for positive numbers. Be sure to pay for your purchase with PayPal or some other method that offers fraud protection.
Sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Yahoo Shopping and Overstock.com offer both new and used versions of popular training books and software. There are often excellent reviews of the products and insights from previous owners to help you sort the hype from reality. Google Products, PriceGrabber and MySimon are comparison sites to help you find the lowest price on the Internet. Once you know what you want, just type in the make and model number and sort by price. You’ll also find ratings on the suppliers, based on in-stock quantities and their ability (or inability) to get the product out the door on time.
Try Before You Buy
Back in ancient times (about ten years ago), you had to buy a product based on reviews and faith – sometimes it worked out, and other times it didn’t. Today, most software manufacturers offer trial versions of their core products. You may have to fill out a form, create a user account or provide your email address, but that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to try the latest, greatest version of the software you’re considering. For instance, Sony Creative Software offers trial versions of all its audio software products, including Acid, Sound Forge, CD Architect and Cinescore. You’ll find similar offerings from Adobe and PG Music – in fact, whatever product you’re considering, check the manufacturer’s site for a demo. Trial and demo versions usually have missing features or functionality, and the ability to save or render a project is often disabled. Others have time limits, usually 30 days or so. The upside is that this should give you enough time to check out the software, compare it to other offerings and decide which way to go.
One of the coolest trialware offerings on the Internet is available from DigitalJuice.com. Every week, they post a free sample from their myriad products. Some weeks it’s a song from a StackTraxx or BackTraxx library; other times you’ll find a graphics file from Juice Drops or a looping video from their Jump Backs library. Once you create a user account, you are free to download the sample and use it in your productions. This is an excellent opportunity to test the product in your environment and see how it suits your production style. If you like what you hear, it’s easy to purchase the full product from the Web site, often at a hefty discount. Don’t forget, almost every buyout music supplier offers streaming samples of its music, giving you the chance to sample a particular song or compilation before clicking the Buy button.
Share the Love
Shareware is the ultimate try-before-you-buy experience, but it has a bit of a reputation for being half-baked attempts at commercial software. In the audio category, that’s changing fast. One of the reasons is that companies like Steinberg have created software developer kits or SDKs that anyone can download to create audio software. A visit to SharewareMusicMachine.com will offer hundreds of shareware pieces in dozens of categories, including audio editors, media players, codecs, plug-ins and virtual synthesizers.
Shareware is usually downloaded for free, with the understanding that, after a period of time, you will pay the author for the product, assuming you find it useful. Alternatively, some products offer a certain number of uses before displaying some type of notice asking for payment. Regardless, it’s a really great way to dabble in some new audio creation software without breaking the bank.
My current favorite shareware example is Reaper, a full-featured digital audio workstation created by Justin Frankel, the man responsible for Win Amp. Available at www.reaper.fm, this piece of shareware can easily compete with commercial packages costing hundreds of dollars. In fact, I know of two people (three, counting me) who ditched the high-profile packages they used to use in favor of Reaper, due to its speed, ease of use and massive feature set.
Reaper isn’t perfect, but there are updates every week, usually enhancing features and stabilizing minor glitches. The Web site calls Reaper “uncrippled unexpiring shareware,” meaning you can use it indefinitely without paying, but for the $40 they ask, this is a major bargain (expect to pay more to get a commercial license).*
If It’s Free, It’s for Me
Freeware is another way to score a major Internet audio bargain. For whatever reason, some people love audio software so much that they will create useful programs and plug-ins to give away for free. But beware, the freeware category is full of ugly products with poor or no performance. Of course, there are gems too, so you’ll have to do some homework.
Audacity is a prime example of audio freeware. With full recording, editing and even multitrack support, Audacity is a viable alternative to larger, more expensive packages. It may not have all the bells and whistles, but it’s small, fast, fully functional and great in a pinch. Toss a copy on your thumb drive for emergencies.
Acid users should visit www.acidplanet.com, not only for tips and hints, but also for their weekly 8-pack download. Featuring eight free loops from various libraries and a demo song file that ties them all together, Sony Media Software’s 8-packs are a great way to build your loop library and your Acid skills.
We’re out of space and haven’t even touched on free plug-ins, patches and software upgrades. Obviously, the Internet is a great place to score an audio bargain. Whether you’re looking for hardware, software or training materials, spend a little time exploring and you’re bound to find just what you’re looking for.
Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer who claims that broadband Internet changed his life.
Reaper is in a constant upgrade/development cycle. At the time of print, rumors are that version 2.0 will be out shortly. It’s also possible their price/license structure will change then too. A Mac version is scheduled for release Q4, 2007. Check their Web site for the latest news and updates.
Side Bar: Downloader Beware
Downloading software is a great way to get what you want quickly and efficiently. But, like most good things, there is a dark side. Freeware, shareware and even commercial software can deposit auxiliary programs during the installation process. Some are harmless helper apps, but others are adware, spyware and sometimes viruses. Install one, and your computer becomes a crippled heap of steel and silicon. All you can do is make sure your virus and spyware programs are up to date, choose your downloads carefully and read the license agreements to verify what software is being installed.