Review: MuLab is a little-known gem of a digital audio workstation

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder MuLab

    While not the most feature-rich DAW available, this track-based DAW easily covers what most musicians need, and its super-flexible routing and high-efficient interface are addictive.

At first glance, MuLab from MuTools might appear to be one of those simple, feature-deprived efforts you see from a multitudes of software vendors trying to cash in on Garage Band's success. However, just a few minutes with the free edition of this audio recording and MIDI sequencing program, and you'll realize there's much, much more to it than first meets the eye. Indeed, it's now my favorite track-based recording app--and I've used nearly every product on the market. It's available for both PC and Mac.

Where MuLab shines is in hiding its power while still keeping it in easy reach. The secret is right-clicking--much of the program functionality is found in context menus. Everything looks nice and the use of icons is for the most part spot on--minimal and limited to those that are easily intuited. Too many vendors try to squeeze every feature onto the main screen, use too many similar-looking icons and wind up with a severe case of information overload. The interface isn't perfect, but it's a lot closer to it than the majority of competition.

The session mux lets you see and edit the super flexible audio signal routing.

MuLab supports drag and drop so you can import MIDI and audio files directly from the desktop (there's also an integrated browser). I recreated/imported an entire 12-track MIDI/audio Studio One project in about ten minutes. The program also fully supports VST effects and instruments and includes its own reverb, EQ, sample player, drum set, synth, etc. You must scan for VSTs manually, but I find this approach appealing as it doesn't waste time automatically scanning each time the program boots as other DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) do.

Besides power and simplicity, perhaps Mu.Labs greatest asset is its incredibly flexible routing, which reminds one of a modular synthesizer. You can send signals along any path to any effect, MuLab rack (versatile routing and mixing strips), input, output, etc. You can also view and edit the entire routing scheme in the session mux routing schematic. Once you're used to the power of free-form routing, it's difficul to go back to the stricter mixing board concept.

MuLab is not without foibles. It makes you confirm deleting just about any object and unlike most programs, you won't see a representation of what you're recording in real time. You get  a visual waveform only after you've finished recording. For those used to programs that provide more feedback on the process, this requires an initial leap of faith, but you'll get used to it quickly and it's less distracting. Some of the visual elements draw your eye to the wrong area, but by and large, the interface is top-notch.

Looks can be deceiving in MuLab. Right-click any object and you'll usually find the functionality you need.

MuLab lacks one feature that some users will miss—audio punch in/punch out. Called punch because the process originally involved a recording engineer punching a button, it allows recording to start when you reach a marker, and cease when it reaches a second marker. You can of course record on another track (MuLab does this automatically where there are overlaps), then cut and paste, and to be honest, I'm so used to this now that I don't miss punch all that much. I'd also like to see Music XML support, but I could say the same thing for nearly the entire industry.

A major MuLab perquisite is portability; you can install it on a flash drive and take it with you for use on any computer. Many competitors hand out seat licenses that must be activated online, which can be a major pain for the musician about town. Mu.Lab is also very light weight for a DAW, weighing in at less than 19MB--including a fair number of instrument samples. And it's self-contained, i.e. it doesn't install any third-party or Microsoft Visual C++ DLLs as some programs to.

Any musician who records audio and MIDI, even if entrenched with their current DAW, should download Mu.Lab and explore it for an hour or two. It's not what you're used to, so give it some time. It's powerful, clean, simple, and the right-click functionality is highly efficient, not to mention addictive. So addictive that you might have a hard time not plopping down 25 Euros for the 8-track/16-bit XT version (not the 70s tape format!) or 75 Euros for the 32-bit version without limits on tracks, effects, or instruments. Consider that fair warning.

Note: The Download button on the Product Information page takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software. The free 4-track version is perfect for small recording projects like the local school play, church choir, etc. but you'll hear intermittent noise if you exceed its (or the XT version's) track, instrument, or effects limits.

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At a Glance
  • While not the most feature-rich DAW available, this track-based DAW easily covers what most musicians need, and its super-flexible routing and high-efficient interface are addictive.

    Pros

    • Super-clean interface
    • Highly flexible routing
    • Supports VST effects and instruments

    Cons

    • No punch record
    • Free version limited to 4 tracks
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