Before around 2000, the average home computer did not really have the “juice” to conveniently manipulate audio data the way you would say, graphics or words using paint and word processing programs. Because of that, the way most PC/Mac composers had to work was to use the MIDI command language to drive hardware synthesizers through an interface device.
To me, the first big breakthrough towards the goal of “completely-inside-the-box production” was the introduction of Propellerheads’ Reason in 2000. This was a 100% software emulation of a stack of synthesizers and processing units with an integrated sequencer. Reason was the first major commercial application that made it possible to create an entire composition within the computer.
Of course, Reason had its limitations. For efficiency, it was completely self-contained and did not allow the recording of audio into itself; but all sound generation was internal. Still, the synths, samplers and processing units provided were very powerful. Since upgrading is always cheaper than buying a new piece of software, I did “splash out” for the version 4.0 upgrade after sticking at version 2.5 for a long time.
Around this time, the ability of MIDI sequencers to better handle audio was being improved by all manufacturers, including Opcode, Mark of the Unicorn, Emagic, Cakewalk and others. To be fair, digital audio recording was available even in the early 1990s on PCs and Macs, but they were very limited in power.
A year or so later, the next big thing arrived for me which was Ableton’s Live software. Besides the ability to record audio or use existing loop and sample files, the big selling point of Live was that, using its own internal elastic time algorithms, you could combine several loops and/or recordings together and have them synchronize perfectly on the beat.
Since Live was primarily designed to be used live (coincidentally enough), a lot of care was also taken so that no matter what you did to the piece you were working on, the audio engine did not stop or hiccup. Even though I never play live, this was great since you could tweak a composition without annoying disruptions in the audio.
Starting with version 2.0.3 Live quickly supplanted all other methods of working I had — even though there was no MIDI support at all until version 4 ( I think) . I am currently (7/2008) using version 7.0.x in my studio. I’ve gotten to this version by faithful upgrading, as the retail price of Live 7 is breathtakingly high (US$500 for the download version!)
For “regular” MIDI and audio work, I’ve been using Cakewalk’s Sonar sequencer. I missed Opcode’s Vision product terribly, but it was Macintosh only and the company disappeared anyway, so I regretfully had to move on. Sonar (originally called called Cakewalk) appealed to me since it had no copy protection to fool with: basically you could just enter your serial number and run. They’ve beefed up the CP so you have to register the program but still it’s better than many. Sonar was also relatively inexpensive. The upgrades have been tempting in their low cost (just like Live) so I basically upgrade not every major number (i.e., I had Sonar 4, 5, and now am running 7).
Sonar does keep improving. They give you more and more options to customize the GUI, but the things I want to change (type size of certain GUI elements, size of ruler, etc.) are not yet customizable. With my new 24 inch monitor, I would like to do this. I suppose I could use the Windows feature where you can magnify the output (see the Advanced tab in the Display Control Panel) but that can mess up other things.