For the past year or so, I have been experimenting with various software/audio interface/computer combinations.
The most important thing, imo, is to ask yourself what you really intend to do with the software before you purchase it. I have two good friends who spent way more $ than necessary for what they wanted to do.
Also, if you do need a $500 or higher piece of software (and if you are new to this), I would suggest joining the forums that exist for most of the programs and spend a week or two reading up on them.
On PC I have used the following:
1. Sonar-This program rocks. I think many people sort of turn their noses up at Sonar because for some reason, there are folks who view Cakewalk products as not being professional grade products. I received Sonar Le with a Emu-1616m that I purchased and soon upgraded to Sonar Producer. This program has a good set of included plug-ins, audio editing is easy and in-depth enough for my needs, midi is extremely well implemented, and it runs crash free for me.
2. Ableton Live-I use the PC version, but it is, if I recall, available for Mac. This is an incredibly PC efficient program. I believe that many of the programs that have been around for a while (on both platforms) may suffer from having too much old code. Many folks tend to view this as strictly an Acid style loops program, but it is much more than that. It is a whole new approach to what a DAW is and for me it is like Ableton approached the program as being an instrument, as part of the creative process, rather than as a vehicle for merely capturing performances.
3. Pro Tools Le-I have used the Mac and PC versions and have obtained much better performance on a PC. Also, there is the M powered version which allows you to use M-Audio interfaces instead of the Digidesign units. My personal favorite in interfaces is the venerable Digi 001. It is no longer produced and doesn't run the latest version of PT, but it is a rock solid unit. The Digi 002 and 002r are great choices if you want to run the latest version of PT. Pro Tools is very finicky on computers, so if it is what you want, be sure to visit the DUC (Digidesign User's Conference) that is on the Digidesign website. There are several threads there on PC/Mac compatibility issues.
I found PTLE to be easy to use. However, keep in mind that you are getting the LE (limited edition) version of the program. It is not the same as regular Pro Tools and you do not have all of the same features as the regular version that is used in many professional studios all over the world. I also think that the Pro Tools is the standard argument is over blown. Sure, if you are running a high dollar commercial studio, you might need to drop ten thousand plus on an HD system. However, the version of PT that works with the Digi 002 and Mbox (that most of us can afford) is not the same thing.
Still, audio is handled nicely, but I could never bond with the way PTLE handles midi and soft synths. Some folks, however, love it.
Digital Performer-I love this program. I found it fairly easy to use and very composition friendly. However, getting into it is not cheap as it only runs on a Mac.
Logic-$999 for Logic Pro is, imo, a steal. Apple seems to want Logic to be a complete solution, with all of the plug-ins and soft synths you could want included. The great thing is that if someone in your family is an educator, you can get this for $499.99. Also, I have seen some specials where if you are buying a new Mac, you also get the $499.99 pricing on Logic. I found Logic difficult to use at first, but once you get into it, it can be very easy. The big thing in Logic, for me, is the ability to create your own environments. Once you understand the program, you can adapt it to your way of working rather than having to adapt your way of working to it.
Personally, I do everything on a PC. As long as you do your research, it is pretty easy to pick up a PC that will run audio software without any problems. I like Macs, but don't like the prices of their machines. If you are willing to go used, you can pick up a Mac and save some $. Powermax.com usually has a good selection of used machines.
Ram and hard drive performance make a bid difference with many programs. Be sure to fully investigate what people are having success with.
I use a Dell Inspiron 9300, with 2 gigs of ram and a 7200 rpm internal drive (standar on most laptops tends to be 5200 rpm), to run Sonar and Ableton. I feed my audio into the computer using an Emu 1616m interface. It came with lite versions of a lot of software to try out, which was a nice bonus. For most folks, these lite versions would be all you would need. While I do have a second firwire drive I usually use for the audio tracks, I can actually use Sonar with no problems on just the internal drive.
Don't let the fact that they don't spend as much as some others on advertising and hype fool you. This is a top of the line recording app. with outstanding audio reproduction qualities. Once you try editing with the object editor you'll be hooked. Plus it comes with a killer convolution reverb, great sounding compressors, Elastic Audio, and much more ........... lots of really great features.
I track, edit, mix, master (if I'm feeling brave) and burn red book CD's without ever having to leave Samplitude. So there's no need for other apps. It's a very deep program but very intuitive at the same time. That's what got me hooked on it at first ................. well, that and some powerful recommendations from a few audio pro's.
It may or may not be right for you. But you owe it to yourself to try the demo before you make your decision.
I was leaning towards Adobe Audition (formerly Cool Edit Pro) until Pro Tools came out with M-Powered. It has been fantastic so far, not a hitch running on a new Dell with plenty of RAM and an M-Audio Audiophile 2496. Very simple and affordable entry-level setup. I'll pick up Ozone 3 and be set for awhile.
For me Pro Tools LE was the best bang for the buck on my PC.
To the guy who mentioned that PTLE is not the same as PTHD that is correct but the differences is not as much as you might think. The biggest is the 32 track limit to PTLE also PTLE doesn't support all the beat detective features as PTHD.
I've recorded 2 CDs and around 30 songs so far with PTLE and have not felt like I was using a limited version.
I also have years of time using Samplitude. It's a great and very powerful app, but it's cost is rediculous compared to Pro Tools. But I do like it quite a bit but only use it to master now that I'm running PT.
As I stated, I have used PTLE (on the Digi 001) and it is a good program. I really liked it for working with audio (very easy to edit), but I honestly couldn't bond with the way PTLE implements midi.
Also, if I remember correctly, unlike an HD system, PTLE does not have true delay compensation for plug-ins and you can't load plug-ins during playback. When I used it you also couldn't have multiple sessions open at the same time, but that might have changed in the latest version.
Still, the program has had many improvements. Direct connect was a real headache and has thankfully been replaced.
However, sales reps at many chains that sell PTLE make first time buyers think they are getting the same capabilities as an HD system (I have witnessed this first hand).
I just messed around with this tonight... and I seem to be stuck at 512 samples (11ms) when working inside Pro Tools M-Powered. The tab in M-Audio's Control Panel makes it look like I can set the buffer as small as 64 samples (1ms @ 44.1k... or "0ms" @ 96k... uhh... shouldn't that be impossible?!). However, I can't seem to get it to do this inside of PT. Even if I set the buffer at 64 samples before launching PT, as soon as PT gets ahold of things, it gets reset to 512. Doesn't really affect me much because I don't work with MIDI. It'd be nice to be able to, ahem, run the outs back into the ins as it were, and record audio off a DVD or streaming audio without a delay being added... but I can live without that. Let me know if you have some insight into this situation.