Logic Express 9

Reviewing Logic Express 9 after the latest version of Logic Studio ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) has been reviewed is an interesting proposition. After all, Logic Express is really a slightly stripped down version Logic Studio's core digital audio workstation (DAW) application, Logic Pro 9. And because it is, any review of Logic Express 9 risks a "me too" rehash of points culled from the Logic Studio review.

Like Logic Studio, Logic Express 9 offers some of Logic Studio's marquee features--the Flex Tool for easily warping audio phrases and individual notes, the Amp Designer and Pedalboard features, which simulate amps, speakers, microphones, and pedal effects; Varispeed, for slowing down an entire project without changing the project's pitch so that you can, for example, record a difficult solo; Drum Replacer for replacing real drum tracks with triggered samples; and a new feature for adding guitar chord grids to a score. These elements work just as they do in Logic Studio. They're musical and add tremendous value to an already capable DAW.

The questions that remain for this mid-priced DAW are these: How does it compare to other applications in its price range? Is its feature set hobbled to the point that it makes more sense to jump in with both feet, spend the $500, and get Logic Studio? And how challenging will it be for those moving up from GarageBand?

The value leader

There just isn't a better DAW deal than Logic Express 9. At $199 it's $50 more than Steinberg's Cubase Essential 5, but it has far more features. Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer 7 is $395, introduces its own line of guitar amps and effects, and provides such professional features as Pro Tools and surround-sound mixing support that are found in Logic Studio but not Logic Express. Ableton's Live 8--a DAW that takes a different approach to recording and music creation than traditional DAWs such as Cubase, Digital Performer, and Logic--is $450. Wonderful though all of these DAWs are, if you don't need features intended for the pros, Logic Express 9 delivers huge bang for your buck.

It does so without feeling stripped down. Sure, Logic Express 9 is missing a lot of features included with Logic Studio--support for Digidesign's Pro Tools TDM hardware, surround sound production, and distributed audio processing (the ability to have multiple Macs devoting their horsepower to a Logic project). It additionally lacks Apple's Jam Packs and the Soundtrack Pro 3, MainStage 2, WaveBurner, and Compressor applications. And you won't find the space and delay designer components or the Sculpture, EVB3 Tonewheel Organ, EVD6 Clavinet, and EVP88 Electric Piano synths. But the elements that musicians are most likely to care about--Flex Time editing, the amps and pedalboard effects, the other new features I mentioned earlier, along with the already solid core of capabilities--are present. Although, while recording a few tunes with Logic Express, I missed some of the instrument sounds included with Logic Studio (the Steinway piano, in particular), I never felt like Apple had removed a tool or tone that I absolutely needed. In the case of the Steinway, I was welcome to purchase a third-party plug-in that provided the sound I was after.

Apple claims that Logic Express requires an Intel Mac, but it's actually a Universal application. It installed perfectly well on a Dual 2GHz Power Mac G5 with 1GB of RAM running OS X 10.5.7. On that Mac I was able to open and play the 40-track demo project without any glitches. Similarly, I transferred a project of my own that contained a mix of 15 software instrument, loop, and digital audio tracks and it too played as expected.

Leaving the garage behind

When you hit the limits of GarageBand ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), Apple would like you to believe that Logic Express 9 is the next logical step. And, for many people, it should be. With Logic Pro 8 ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ), Apple greatly retooled the program's interface in an attempt to make a complicated application more approachable. And it is. It's not difficult to perform the bulk of GarageBand's chores--create digital audio, software instrument, and MIDI tracks; audition and string together loops; mix tracks; and apply effects. The 166-page Exploring Logic Express book included with the program is a big help in this regard. But many of the program's most powerful features are buried in one of the application's many menus. And because they are, the unwary GarageBand user who has aspirations of greater things is likely to become frustrated.

Apple includes a disc that contains three large demo projects (and another demo project is installed along with the application) so you can glean an idea of how projects are put together. And the extensive online documentation that comes with Logic Express provides insight into every corner of the application. But there will be cases when those new to grown-up DAWs will have no idea what to look for. They may have a general idea of what they want to do, but lack the terminology necessary to search for an answer. In an application such as Logic Studio, aimed squarely at pros, online documentation is reasonable as the target user likely understands the underlying concepts and vocabulary and so can search for the answers they need. For those acquiring Logic Express as a step-up from GarageBand, however, more hand-holding would be welcome.

Once GarageBand users discover some of these features they'll wonder how they made music without them. Logic Express 9 includes a "real" mixer with inserts and routing rather than the extremely hobbled channel volume and pan controls found in GarageBand. While GarageBand's guitar amps are nice, the ability to mix and match amps and speaker cabinets (and choose from among three mic simulations to record their sound) is far better. Logic Express' pedalboard offers more effects than GarageBand's stompboxes and you can trigger them via a control switch--a real failing of GarageBand. Logic Express' notation capabilities make it a reasonable way to create scores and lead sheets. GarageBand's very basic notation feature can only dream of such powers. Logic Express has more and better effects (the pitch-correction effect has already saved my vocal bacon in two different projects). And Logic Express works with control surfaces and MIDI controllers, allowing you to record and mix with knobs, faders, and buttons rather than with mouse and keyboard. In short, Logic Express feels and operates like a professional tool. Much as I love GarageBand, it's toy-like in comparison.

Macworld's buying advice

Logic Express 9 is a tremendous value for musicians seeking a tool more powerful and musical than GarageBand. But with that power comes complexity. While Apple has done much to tame the beast that was Logic, some users will still find its advanced features confounding (and hard to locate). Work through the application's challenges, however, and you'll receive many harmonious rewards.

[Senior editor Christopher Breen is a professional musician and hosts the Macworld Podcast.]

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