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Plugged In

Make sweet music with these five affordable music creation tools

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Writing music is a daunting affair. Whether it's the impenetrable morass of time signatures, keys, and chord progressions, the monochrome confusion of clefs, staves, slurs, and rests, or the simple problem of finding enough quiet time to sit down and crank out a tune, getting musical ideas out of your brain and into the world isn't as easy as it sounds.

Or it used to be, anyhow. These days, a veritable orchestra of music creation and editing programs and apps for PCs, Macs and mobile devices take the pain out of the process. You don't even have to be able to read music (although it might help). While you might not use these five programs to mix down that rock opera you've been sweating over for the past ten years, they're cheap, powerful, and user-friendly. Music to our ears.

Garageband (iOS)

Apple's rep for making complex processes user-friendly and clear is legendary, and after spending a few minutes with the iOS version of Mac hit Garageband, you'll see why that is.

It lets you either record yourself playing your own instruments, or create your own tracks with its range of built-in voices and tools, before mixing it all together and publishing your masterpiece to YouTube. And it syncs to iCloud. And it'll work as a guitar amp. And it comes with all kinds of backing tracks and loops. And...oh, just download it already. At $4.99 on any newish iOS device, it's a must-have.

Symphony/Symphony Pro (iOS)

But while Apple certainly makes easy-to-use apps, sometimes they can be a little too easy.

If that's the case for you, check out Symphony. It's more of a traditional composing tool, and that means you're going to need to be able to read music (or be willing to learn how) to get anything out of it.

Once that hurdle's cleared, it's a joy. Whether you prefer to tap out melodies on the on-screen keyboard or lay them out by dropping notes onto the staves, you'll be able to immortalize your compositions in beautiful black-and-white sheet music. Symphony is available in two versions: the regular one on the iPhone, and the "Pro" version for the iPad, at $4.99 and $14.99, respectively.

Groovy Music (PC/Mac)

Flippant though the name might be, this kid-friendly music creation program has an impressive pedigree.

It hails from the makers of Sibelius, a superb pro-quality composing suite that is only omitted from this round-up because it costs a cool $600 or so. Sibelius sibling Groovy Music is no slouch itself, however. It's a set of three programs -- Shapes, Jungle, and City -- aimed at age groups 5-7, 7-9, and 9 and up, respectively, which collectively will take youngsters from the very basics of music composition all the way through to the nuances of the blues scale and other intermediate concepts. Start out 'em out right.

Musicshake (PC/Mac)

If you build an Ikea flatpack dresser, have you really built a dresser, or just awkwardly plugged one together? More to the point, if you like the dresser, does it matter?

Whether or not Musicshake and its browser-based ilk appeal to you depends largely on how you answer questions like that. Rather than composing as such, they give you a huge set of pre-arranged drum tracks, chord progressions, and melodies for you to arrange into your chosen shape. Purists steer clear, then -- but if you just want to dip your feet in the wonderful world of composition, it's well-featured and quick enough to raise a smile, and best of all, it's free.

Soundation (PC/Mac)

Cloud-based content creation tools are rapidly taking the place of desktop apps, but can they really do the same for music sequencers?

Sure they can. Soundation's been doing it for some time, in fact.

Log into its friendly-looking site (basic accounts are free) and you'll quickly find yourself staring at a web-based version of a professional-style electronic music studio. It's a little daunting at first, but thumb through the online help files and in no time you'll be slinging loops, effects, and samples like a pro. Or some approximation of one, anyway. Once you're done, you can publish your completed masterwork to your Facebook page, and let your friends tell you what they think of it…and if your friends are anything like ours, that won't be a mistake you make twice.

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