Louigi Verona's Workshop


A comment on TechRadar's
"The best free music production software 2017"

17 September, 02017

TechRadar has responded to my criticism by removing the article. I thank the editors of the online magazine for their reaction. And I urge them to ask their writers to put in slightly more research into the material they are working on. This review is left here for historical purposes. It is also an example of an analysis that was successful in demonstrating that the article in question required editorial action.

September 4th 2017 saw the release of an article on TechRadar titled "The best free music production software 2017". The article was posted in at least two notable music production communities (KVR Audio and Linux Audio) and quickly became a joke that people share with their friends to amuse.

The article is misleading, demonstrates that its author knows virtually nothing on the subject, and yet claims that the software he lists is "best" and that he had "tested" it. To people who are experienced in music production or who at least do basic fact checking and research, it is clear that research behind this particular article cannot boast anything, but perhaps a quick skim through Wikipedia. For the reader who wants to learn something new, the added value of this article is so negligible, that we would go as far as to say that it crosses the line into doing harm.

Let's go through the article and see what's wrong with it.

1. The "best of" list

First of all, the author does not explain why these tools are the best and what they had been compared to.

Perhaps, he decided to take different segments of music production software and present his picks. But that doesn't seem to be the case. The 5 tools he lists are a DAW, a DJ mixing software, another DAW, a sound editor and a drum machine. This looks very random.

The picks themselves are kind of random too. Mentioning LMMS and Audacity was a good idea, everything else is questionable and demonstrates that the author is addressing a topic that he knows very little about.

For instance, VirtualDJ is a strange pick for a free DJ mixing software. It is free of charge only for "home use". Mixxx, a completely free software package, is on par feature-wise with Virtual DJ, but had not been mentioned.

Rosegarden is a very respectable DAW from a historical point of view, but can be considered quite obscure today. Although statistics are scarce in this regard due to the nature of open source software, which typically has no way of reliably measuring its usage share, the more popular DAWs today seem to be LMMS, Ardour and Qtractor. But Rosegarden does have a dedicated userbase, albeit small. Perhaps, there were reasons to highlight Rosegarden specifically? The author says nothing of substance on this matter, only that he finds Rosegarden "brilliant".

Hydrogen is an okay pick as far as it goes, but it's not clear why it is a part of this list. We are told that "Hydrogen is all about marrying the deep complexity of most other drum machine suites with a setup that’s just as accessible for relative newcomers", but no other "drum machine suites" are mentioned.

A better written article would have explained why these picks are the best in the opinion of the author, and done it in greater detail than just saying that it is "brilliant". Talking about other programs of the same class should be part of any review that makes claims of superiority of one product to all others.

A deeper understanding of music production and/or better research would have also allowed the author to explain the different use cases, and why some musicians should aim for LMMS, and others would find Ardour or even Rosegarden more suitable.

TechRadar has articles by other authors that are written much better. For instance, "The best free audio editor 2017" by Mike Williams.

2. Claims about specific software

The text itself betrays poor research on the part of the author, as well as a general lack of competence in the area.

He seems to think that VirtualDJ is a Digital Audio Workstation, and even says that it is one of the oldest DAWs "much like LMMS".

He also claims that VirtualDJ is "one of the best ways to start making music for free right now". Typically, "making music" is used to denote composing from scratch, not mixing already produced material.

He then proceeds to call Audacity a Digital Audio Workstation. In fact, he specifically points out that although people typically use it for podcasting, it is actually a DAW for songwriters:
"Audacity remains a brilliantly accessible digital audio workstation that’s perfect for songwriters of all skill and experience levels."

While there is a grain of truth to this, let us first of all point out that Audacity is not a DAW for songwriters, and songwriters are strongly encouraged to use actual DAWs, like Ardour or LMMS.

The grain of truth here is that Audacity is used by most people as a simple audio editor only. In reality, however, it is a full-fledged multi-track audio editor and recorder, similar to Cool Edit Pro, the early Adobe Audition. Audacity capabilities seem to be commonly under-appreciated by its users.

Of course, one can argue that if it is multi-track, one can use it to record complete music tracks. Formally this is true, but then even a multi-track tape recorder can be considered a "DAW" in this very generic sense.

A modern DAW provides a richer feature set for a specific purpose of authoring music, with a track tempo, beat grids, patterns, and other tools specifically tailored to producing complete music tracks. Characterizing Audacity as a DAW and as a tool "perfect for songwriters" is very misleading. Audacity is a multi-track audio editor, not a DAW.

Interestingly enough, the author provides a link to TechRadar's own review, written by another author, which clearly calls Audacity an audio editor, not a DAW.

He then says that "Audacity will keep you embedded in its digital suite thanks to one of the simplest and most intuitive graphical interfaces on the scene (thanks mostly to the brilliant wxWidgets software library)".

This is especially hilarious, because Audacity is known for its ugly and difficult to work with interface. Using wxWidgets will not make your software intuitive, wxWidgets is designed to ensure your GUI is cross-platform.

The article continues:
"TLDR: you’ll be hard-pressed to find an audio workstation as malleable and rewarding as this for free anywhere else."

This seems to be a contradictory claim, as the author himself lists LMMS earlier as the number one DAW. Unless the number one DAW is best at everything, but being malleable and rewarding.

Another fantastic claim concerns Rosegarden. The author writes that Rosegarden satisfies "all your EDM needs". And this is done in the same sentence as he mentions Rosegarden's "own score-writer".

It would be interesting to learn how many of today's EDM musicians author their techno or house tunes by writing notes in a score editor.

Rosegarden is a very old piece of software, and while using it to write EDM music is not impossible, and it does have a "piano roll", it is definitely awkward. (Believe me, I tried!)

The author of the article also claims that Rosegarden is "easy to use", and names it "one of the simplest tools you can get for creating and editing your own tracks".

I find it hard to believe that the author has actually tested Rosegarden. This looks more like a quick glance at the software's homepage, and then an irresponsible write up with some generic compliments and an obligatory mention of EDM, because this probably makes it sound more relevant.

Then the author finishes it off by making blatantly false statements about Hydrogen.

First, he calls Hydrogen "a free Windows music production app". In reality, Hydrogen is a cross-platform program with a focus on Linux, with its Windows port clearly de-prioritized. The Hydrogen site even says in their download section that "at the moment only beta Versions are available for Windows."

Interestingly enough, the author himself notes that fact only two paragraphs later! It could be theorized that he wanted to highlight software choices that are relevant to Windows, but Rosegarden is a Linux-only DAW. So this maneuver with a "free Windows app" is very strange, and underlines the low quality of the writing presented to us.

Note: Yes, there is actually an obscure Windows port of Rosegarden, which offers very limited functionality and has been unmaintained since 2014, but primarily Rosegarden is a Linux DAW, and its relevance to Windows is negligible.

Second, the author claims that Hydrogen was created in 2016 and is "a relative newcomer on the beat building scene".

This is a laughable statement that justifies people commenting on the article in social media with hashtags #EpicFail.

In fact, Hydrogen had been around for more than 10 years, and is definitely one of the veterans of free and open source offerings. While I could find no date of the initial release on Wikipedia or at the Hydrogen website, a quick Google search reveals mentions of Hydrogen going back to as early as 2004, for example, in this well researched article by Dave Phillips, "An Introduction to Hydrogen".

That the author of the TechRadar article did not feel that he owes his readers even such basic research is disheartening.

Finally, the reason why Hydrogen presence on this list needs more explanation is because anything you can do on Hydrogen can easily be handled by almost any DAW, definitely by a DAW like LMMS. So, it is not clear why Hydrogen is mentioned at all. As someone who has actually worked a lot with both LMMS and Hydrogen, I can say that Hydrogen, while useful for its purposes, has a limited feature set compared to putting together beats on LMMS, and its playlist editor, the one where you arrange drum patterns into a song, is at times cumbersome to use.

What makes Hydrogen interesting are the drumkits designed by the community, that come with handpicked samples and velocity layers, and which can be downloaded right into your Hydrogen instance for immediate use. This signature feature of Hydrogen is not mentioned in the article at all.

3. Conclusion

In the end, what we have is a poorly researched and quickly concocted article that spreads misleading information about the state of open source and freeware music production software, insults the intelligence of its readers, and ultimately gives bad advice.

It is my firm belief that bad journalism should be challenged. I call either for a re-write or complete removal of the article from TechRadar. I also call for stricter editorial work at TechRadar. Nothing pointed out here was impossible to get right with a little more research work.