Being a writer, self-publisher, musician, and graphic designer, I have to work with a variety of software packages in order to . . . well, do what it is I do. (I can hear you rolling your eyes at me right now and saying, "Naw, really, no shit? We thought you wrote shit on cave walls with charcoal and painted with plant extracts! Get the fuck outta here, software and shit!") And over the years, I've developed several favorite pieces of software, tools I've come to rely on more than I do others, because they simply get the job done better and faster than other tools do. I'd like to share some of them with you here. In the case of one or two of these tools (specifically, Scrivener and DAZ Studio), I'm a paid affiliate — and yes, that means that if you follow the link, and you buy the software, I get a slice of the pie. However, I wouldn't have signed up to be a paid affiliate for those programs if I didn't already like them and believe in them enough to do so. In other words, if I wasn't already a convert to the religion of Scrivener, or DAZ Studio, a 10% cut of a potential sale through this website wasn't going to win me over enough to shill for their stuff. So, there you have it. Now, there's other software that I've listed here that I'm most definitely not affiliated with — such as Autodesk's Maya or Adobe's Photoshop, Finale, or the Apple programs. Those guys are way too big, as companies, to have anything to do with a small-time operator such as me! Besides, do you really need my recommendation on Adobe Photoshop to influence you on whether or not to try it out? I didn't think so. I'm including it here just for shits and giggles, mainly. Anyway. Enjoy the list, and I hope you find something here that tickles your ganglia!
Scrivener is my favorite writing tool, period. It's what I use to write my novels, short stories, papers, everything. Why is it my favorite? Why do I rely on Scrivener instead of on that venerable workhorse, Microsoft Word? Well, I'll tell you. It's because Scrivener is more than just a word processor. Scrivener is a research and manuscript organizational tool, a story formatting powerhouse, and an intelligent writer's thinking tool as well as a word processor. It's not just that it lets you bang out words and make them pretty . . . it lets you do that, then put them in the correct order . . . in any order your want in fact, and then it lets you play with that order until those words are in the precise order you want them, and look just the way you want them to look. It works on the principle that a large project, like a novel, is best broken up into smaller pieces, such as chapters. Or, if you prefer, scenes within chapters. Or, if you further prefer, paragraphs within scenes. Or any arbitrary kind of smaller units you want, that you can then stitch together in any order you like, in any kind of hierarchical structure that makes sense to you. I like to break my novels into chapters, and then into scenes within those chapters. And then those scenes into smaller sub-scenes. And you know what? Scrivener lets me do that. And then, it lets me drag and drop those chapters, scenes, and sub-scene pieces all around and into any order I want, however I want. And then it lets me tag them, add keywords, search them, collect them, and place them in a hierarchy—sort of like a tree, or a list of files—and then edit each of them as individual documents, each with its own formatting and settings . . . and it lets me view those scenes as index cards on a cork-board, or as items in an outline, or as items in a hierarchical list view. Or just as documents in an editor. Then when it comes time to output the entire manuscript, Scrivener lets me define a uniform format for all of my scenes, sub-scenes, and chapters, according to where they fall in the hierarchy, and according to how I've defined each of their settings. It gives me "index cards" for each scene and sub-scene (on a nice cork-board background), where I can write about them, summarize them, and make notes on them. It lets me take notes on each item, and notes on the entire project. It lets me define keywords for the entire project, keywords that go with each scene, and lets me define keywords within keywords that I can use as search terms when I go looking for things. And speaking of looking for things—I can use regular expressions in my searches when I do go looking for things. And those index cards I mentioned? It lets me re-order those index cards, and thus re-order all my documents for all my scenes and sub-scenes. And that's just some of what it lets you do. It also has a distraction-free writing mode that's just gorgeous; I can choose to have wallpaper there or not, if I want. I can choose custom icons for my documents in the tree-view, if I want. Everything is customizable. It also has a name generator, for those times when you don't feel like coming up with names for those ten thousand characters in your fantasy army that's storming the castle gates. And it features things like spelling and grammar checking, of course. And it has a dozen other unique and cool features that make it an excellent novelist's best friend. I highly recommend it. The Mac version is more advanced than the PC version — I think the Mac version is on v2.8 while the PC version is currently on v1.9, or something like that — but it's still worth a go, even if you're on PC. And hey — it's only $45 on the Mac App Store, and only $40 if you're a Windows user. So what're you waiting for? Go check it out today!
DAZ Studio Pro is one of those software gems that you discover by accident, but that once you do, you're totally in love with it forever. It's a 3D design program that's not based around modeling (the creation of 3D objects out of primitive shapes, lines, and curves), but rather around 3D scene creation — the creation of 3D scenes by assembling them out of already-created objects, such as any of DAZ's thousands of 3D characters — which are their VERY lifelike people — or props, sets, objects, effects, anything you can think of, they have it, all of which are available for small amounts of money from their online store, ranging in price from anywhere from $5 to $100. The software itself — DAZ Studio Pro, which you use to assemble these things into scenes — is provided free of charge. The 3D content is what you actually pay for. Here's how it works. You go to DAZ3D.com, and you download the DAZ Install Manager. Then you use that to download your free copy of DAZ Studio Pro. Then you go back to DAZ3D.com, put in your credit card number . . . and go nuts. Buy yourself some people, like the beautiful Victoria 7 or the handsome Michael 7. Or the awesome-looking The Girl 7 or The Guy 7. Then them clothing to wear, like the Tau Ceti Overseer outfit, an interplanetary explorer's suit that looks badass on anybody. (The outfits and characters come complete with both geometry and textures you can apply to make them look very realistic and photoreal when you go to render them.) Then get them some hair to put on their heads, like the Colors of Summer hair. Then buy some coloring for the hair. Then maybe buy them some boots to wear, and some gloves. And maybe a superhero cape. Download all of this using the Install Manager. Get it on your harddrive. Then go into DAZ Studio Pro, and start assembling your scene. Load in The Girl or Victoria, and move her limbs around. Pose her however you want. (Use your imagination . . . Is she fighting a bear? Is she blasting with the ray guns you bought for her? Is she kicking a bad-guy in the face? Or are you a total perv?) Then dress her up in whatever outfit you bought for her. Play with the textures on the outfit, the colors. Then add lights to the scene, adding shadow and depth. Add a camera, and view the scene through the camera's lens — add depth of field, focal depth, and zoom. Adjust the angle of view. Then, render. (Rendering is the process by which you turn your scene into a "finished" work of art, wherein the computer calculates the values of light bouncing off the virtual objects in the scene, turning it into a photo-realistic picture as though the objects existed in "reality.") And viola — you're a master of creating 3D art! Take your finished piece into Adobe Photoshop for further refinement, adding lens flares and whatnot to it, and you're on your way to creating fantastic sci-fi or fantasy art pieces, just like I do! If you want, check out my gallery of artwork here on this site to see what's possible!
Autodesk Maya is the 800-pound gorilla of 3D-modeling, animation, special effects, and visual design software. It's what the big boys use. Pixar. Industrial Light & Magic. Those guys. Yeah! It's the software that the professionals in Hollywood turn to whenever they need to create the effects and animation for the next Star Wars or the next Toy Story movie. It's got everything—industrial-strength 3D modeling tools, animation and kinematics tools . . . tools for doing fire, smoke, fluids, camera tracking, compositing, and motion graphics . . . tools for matching movement and texturing, mapping surfaces, and drawing . . . You name it, it's in there. Maya is an incredibly rich and complex software environment. It even has its own internal programming language, called MEL, which is based on the Python language. It's not for the faint of heart. I use it to design items that I then import into DAZ Studio, such Dizzy's guitar and Exosuit (which you can see in the cover art I designed for my book and in my art gallery.) I also use it to learn about 3D modeling in general, as it has a complete modeling toolkit, a complete animation toolkit, a complete effects toolkit, and a complete set o tools for working with compositing software, camera tracking, and other professional filmmaking tools, too . . . it was designed to be used in freakin' Hollywood, after all. Maya is a big program, but, once you learn your way around its (very complex) user interface, it isn't quite so scary anymore. Granted, there are a thousand and one buttons, menus, dialog boxes, check boxes, and pull-downs, and a frightening number of x-y pad controls, too, plus a fuckton of sliders, radio buttons, and controls with confusing and alien-sounding names to them, but, Maya strives to be complete more than it strives to be understandable to the layman. It's also expensive—it costs about $1725 per year to use, and it's a rental. That is, you don't "buy" Maya like you do other software; you pay $125 a month to rent it from Autodesk, just like you "rent" Adobe Photoshop and its Adobe Creative Suite. But, the upside to that is the software is never out of date; you always have the latest version, and you always have tech support on hand to help you with any issues you might run into. If you need powerhouse 3D design and animation tools, Maya is your solution. However—if you're on a budget, Autodesk makes a companion program, called Maya LT, which has a lot of the higher-end features removed, which is available for about $695. It's a good bargain, and I recommend it if you're in the market for a good 3D design program but don't need high-end features. Also, if you want the full package but don't mind a few restrictions on your use-case, you can—if you're a student—use Maya for free, by signing up for Autodesk's Education program. No joke — it's free if you're a student, at least for three years . . . then your license runs out. BUT HEY! FREE FOR THREE YEARS, YO! I recommend — heavily — buying a book on how to use Maya if you're serious about learning it, such as Sybex's "Mastering Maya 2018" or whatever year you're reading this in.
Ah, the old workhorse, that old standby, the one so ubiquitous that its name has become a popular verb. "To photoshop" is actually an infinitive in the English language now. It's so well-known that it's taken for granted. Adobe Photoshop is the gold standard in photo-editing, and needs no introduction. Still, it deserves mention here, as it's what I use to edit the graphics I produce with Maya and DAZ Studio. It's the lynchpin in my graphic design workflow, the app I could not live without. Without Photoshop, I could not produce the artwork that I do. It's awesome, and amazing, and it's grown so much since version 6, which I used aeons ago, and which I was fist introduced to by my old friend Mie Cash several lifetimes ago in his and Tonya's living room. Ah, the good old days, how I remember them. Photoshop has the tools you need to do graphic design — all of them. Whether you're cropping an image, adjusting levels, tweaking the hue and tone and brightness of something, or playing with plugins that design lens flares, lightning, and that liquify an image like putty, it's all there in Photoshop, awaiting your creativity. It's another subscription app now — you don't but it, you rent it. The cool thing is that unlike Maya, it's affordable. It's only like $11 a month to rent, on its own, or, as part of Creative Cloud, for like $50 a month, which buys you access to all the Adobe Apps, all together in one big bundle (that's the option I went for, since I use more than just Photoshop to get my work done). It even buys you access to any new apps that Adobe comes up with and puts into the bundle (like they just did with Adobe Dimension, their new solution for adding 3D elements to existing photos). Photoshop is a general purpose program for editing photos, but it can also have some terrific specific uses. It can be used to create web graphics (I used it to create and prepare all the graphics on this site); it can be used to retouch — or radically alter —- photographs; it can be used to adjust the color or light balance in photos; it can be used to add weird or cheesy effects to photos just for fun; or it can be a professional photographer's best friend in the field, helping to retouch and adjust photos in extremely minute and fine-tuned ways that other programs simply can't match. Like I said, Photoshop is the gold standard. If you have Photoshop, you don't need another photo editing app; . . . and if you subscribe to it via Creative Cloud, you won't need another photo-editing app ever again.
Adobe After Effects might not have the fame of Adobe Photoshop, but it sure as hell deserves it. Many of your favorite TV shows have had their special effects produced by this venerable workhorse, this powerful little program. It's name is sung in the halls of Visual Effects Valhalla, I tells ya. After Effects is the visual-effects technicians' old standby, the powerhouse whose glory in battle is unrivaled even by Klingon heroes of yore. It can do anything. Really, it can. Need to composite film and video and motion graphics together? With Photoshop layers? After Effects can do that. Need to slow down time to a craw and make that perfect slow-mo shot line up with the rest of the action? Well, with the right plugin, AE can do that too. Hell, it can almost do it on its own. Need to generate lightning around the edges of an object you composited in from a 3D program? Sure. Want to generate some text for a 3D rotoscoped title sequence and then animate it bouncing in from above? Yep, you can do that in AE. Want to create a motion graphics project with all sorts of vector art flying around and catching on fire? Uh-huh, got you covered. After Effects is a powerhouse tool that can do many powerful things, and I'm proud to say that I've learned how to use it. Well, sort of. I've learned how to use parts of it. A few parts of it, at least. I'm not a master of it — whoa no, not by far. To master After Effects is a lifelong goal, pal. One can dive into its mysteries and spend years tinkering with its many knobs and twiddling its many levers, and still never master its many eccentricities and cool features. And the plugins — oh, the plugins! There are so many of them, too many to name. There's Boris Continuum, there's Eye Candy, and of course, any Photoshop or Premiere plugin will work within After Effects as well, and some of them can even have their parameters animated over time! But like I said, After Effects is a mysterious lady of the night, and to crack all of its mysteries in one lifetime is frankly impossible. To explore all of its possibilities would be, itself, impossible. It's the go-to solution for visual effects at many television studios, and there's a damn good reason for that. So have I mastered it? Ha! A fool's question! And I'm fine with that. I know enough to get it to do what I need it to do about half of the time I need it. Which is great! After Effects forever! It's part of Adobe Creative Cloud, which means that along with Photoshop, you can get it as part of your CC subscription for $50 a month. Which is an absolute steal, dudes. Seriously. You owe it to yourself to subscribe to Creative Cloud. Really. IF FOR THIS REASON ALONE, DO EEET!
Final Cut Pro X is Apple's premiere video editing app. Everybody knows about iMovie, Apple's rinky-dink video editor that they include with macOS — y'know, the basic video editor you get when you buy a Mac — but not everyone knows about FCP X, Apple's 800-pound gorilla of a video editor that they sell for $199. It's a truly professional-grade video editing app, akin to Adobe's Premiere Pro or Avid's pro video editing solutions. And man is it powerful! It lets you do serious video editing and effects. Anything you can imagine doing insofar as cutting together video, FCP X will let you do. It's a great program. It's what Greg and I used to cut together The Lords of Dorkness premiere episode (and will be using to cut together subsequent episodes, as well). What makes it great is how easy it is to use. All that editing horsepower, you'd figure, would be hard to access and come with an arcane learning curve, right? (The way that Autodesk Maya does. That program is terrific, but it's highly difficult to learn.) Well, no, actually. FCP X is incredibly intuitive, and practically holds your hand as you go about using it. Everything is right there, right where you'd expect it to be (the same way as it is in Motion and in Logic Pro X, reviews below). It's all logically laid out, and if you know the basics of how to cut together a video — if you've used iMovie, for instance, or any other editing app, ever — it's really easy to fall into the groove of editing with FCP X. It does not, however, utilize the same "editing paradigm" of most video apps, wherein you have "tracks" that you lay down video on and then switch between the tracks to cut between elements. No, that's gone in FCPX. Instead, you have a "magnetic timeline" with a central "storyline," off of which branch other "storylines," and to which connect other video stems, and audio stems, and which grows linearly as you add video and transitions to it. It's a whole different world than, for instance, Adobe Premiere, or Avid video editing systems. Some people have insultingly called it "iMovie Pro," but that's a harsh misnomer for something so radically powerful as FCPX. That, and it has some really unique and groovy features, like the Magnetic Timeline, where video pieces "snap" together, and form "storylines," rather than being organized into arbitrary "tracks" or "lanes" like they might be in other editing apps. In FCPX, things feel much more organic, as though editing was always "meant" to be this way, but never could be, like it was "trapped" within another paradigm but jut couldn't break free . . . but now it has, and it's beautiful. That may not make any sense to you if you're not a video editor (sorry, for those of you I just lost), but trust me, it's a big help if you tend to think in terms of stories and events and the flow of things rather than in terms of cuts and edits. FCP X is an all-around workhorse and a great piece of software, and I can't wait to see where Apple goes with it in the future. So hats off to them for, yet again, making something insanely great.
Right on the heels of describing Final Cut Pro X, I'd like to talk about another Apple program, the companion to FCP X, Apple's "Motion." What is Motion? It's a motion graphics program. It does some of what Adobe After Effects does (though by no means is it a threat or a competitor to AE), only it does it a little bit differently. It's designed to focus almost exclusively on the motion graphics aspect of what AE does, such as doing things like titles and animations. It can create fire and lightning, and things like organic reactions and animated effects, vector images, and title cards. It can create generators and effects plugins for Final Cut Pro X by daisy-chaining its (many) built-in effects modules into complex formulas that can then be "published" to FCP X's effects engine (which is a very powerful feature, mind you, and is something that After Effects cannot and never will be able to do). You can use it to create title generators for FCP X as well, in much the same fashion as you can create effects plugins. And, it can create killer motion graphics sequences, using built-in "behaviors" that can be attached to objects. Lastly, there are some absolutely fabulous plugins available for Motion, from companies like MotionVFX. Plugins that let you do things like import 3D graphics objects from programs like Maya and apply textures and lighting to them. (That's another difference from After Effects; whereas After Effects is at best a "2.5D" environment, Motion is a truly "3D" environment, with actual three dimensional cameras, lights, objects, and movement.) And what would you expect all this to cost? Maybe a couple hundred bucks, right? Nope. Motion costs just $49. That's right — you get all this wow-factor for just fifty bucks, and it works right alongside FCP X. That's next to nothing. (I know, I could hardly believe it either.) I'm not a paid shill for Apple, but I'm telling you . . . that's a steal, folks. If you have a Mac (sadly, whereas After Effects is cross-platform, Motion is Apple-only), you owe it to yourself to buy Motion. For reals, yo.
Now, if music is your thing, I'd like you to meet one of my good friends — actually, one of my best friends in the universe — Logic Pro X, again from Apple. (Notice how Apple tend to make stuff that looks elegant and simple on the surface, but once you peel away that outer layer, there's a whole world of badass waiting inside? Yeah, that's definitely true in this case.) If Final Cut Pro X is the 800 pound gorilla of professional video editing (and it is), then Logic Pro X is the 900 pound baboon of music production. It comes equipped with enough effects, plugins, and virtual instruments to keep you quite busy during the "honeymoon" period that comes just after a major software purchase. And that's another plus it has — it only costs like $200. For real. They took a professional recording studio, with a full-blowm mixer capable of an almost infinite variety of signal configurations, a shitload of virtual instruments (50GB worth of sounds, most of which you have to download, sadly), and a boatload of effects (professional reverb, compression, limiter, expander, four types of EQ — it's all there), and stuffed it into an elegant and intuitive interface, replete with MIDI sequencer and DAW, and then they slapped a $200 price tag on the whole thing. That's a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me. I mean, come on. The whole thing works with the simplicity of Apple's junior baby recording app, GarageBand, which if you ask me (again), is brilliant . . . the idea is that the program conceals its complexity until you need it. When you do — it's right there waiting for you, and — guess what — it's right where you expect it to be. It's like the program is reading your mind. As if the designers knew exactly where you were most likely to look for this or that tool, or this or that menu . . . which of course they did, after years of studying users' habits and trends in behavior. Which is just another amazing thing that Apple does to make their products freaking great. (Or, just another creepy, crawly, invasive and unappreciated breach of privacy that a big corporation is doing to its poor customers, so fuck off, Apple; it's definitely something you can look at two ways.) But, regardless, Logic Pro X is a fan-fucking-tastic DAW, MIDI sequencer, and media editing program. It rivals Maya in its complexity, but it handles that complexity in a much subtler and more cohesive way than Autodesk knows how to; it doesn't overwhelm the user like Maya does. It's beautiful, the way it does it, really. And it's also badass in terms of sheer power and flexibility. And, it's ReWire compatible, so it can route MIDI signals between itself and other software that supports the ReWare protocol. It also has tremendous plugins, like the Space Designer, which allows you to immerse your virtual instruments — or real ones! — in virtual 3D "spaces" to generate the sounds they would actually make in those environments. It's freaking awesome. It also has things like the "Amp Designer," which let you design your own Guitar Amp! You choose which circuits go into it, you choose the effects, you choose the power level. You choose the inputs and outputs, and bam — you've got a guitar sound that you made possible. It is a total bag full of awesome. I cannot recommend Logic highly enough if you're an amateur record producer looking to put out an album. I use it daily, and love it!
Finale is a wonderful piece of software from the folks at "MakeMusic." Unlike Logic Pro X, which is an all-in-one digital audio and MIDI workhorse designed to serve many needs at once, Finale is a single-purpose application: It does musical notation, and that's all it does. It's a beautifully designed application, though it is a bit primitive in its simplicity. It's not elegant, the way Logic is in its execution. It's rather bare bones; what you see is what you get. But man, does it ever do a damn good job at what it does, let me tell you. Finale is awesome. It lets you do damn near anything you can imagine with musical notation, pretty much anything you can conceive of that can be written out in terms of notes, ties, staves, trills, bends, dots, or triplets â€” whatever â€” Finale has a way to do it. And best of all, for most of these things, Finale has a way of playing them via MIDI, so you can hear what you've written played back on virtual instruments. And if you're lucky enough to be on a Mac (I don't know if it works this way on PC computers or not; I don't think it does), Finale can use the Mac's system-level access to any virtual instruments you have installed as "Audio Units" plugins â€” which means pretty much any virtual instrument from pretty much any major manufacturer â€” to play back your music for you. So, you're not limited to just the virtual instruments that come with Finale, which, by the way, are none to shabby . . . Finale comes with a subset of Garritan Personal Orchestra, a mighty fine sample package. Finale is a workhorse of a program in its own right, and can also produce beautiful printed scores for you, and can extract playable parts from pretty much any complex larger score you have created. It's amazing to watch it work. It can also do all sorts of nifty tricks with musical arrangement, too â€” it has Canonic Utilities, such as retrograde (it will reverse something you've composed), along with transposition, modulation, split voices, multiple music layers, guitar tab and chord diagrams, and so much more I can't even list it all here; it would take up several whole pages if I did. If you can imagine it musically, Finale has a way to notate it and play it back for you, or a way for you to notate it, and then program a way to play it back (because all of Finale's symbols are user-hackable.) It can also, of course, receive MIDI input as well, and can record your performance on your MIDI controller or keyboard or guitar controller and turn it into notation for you. It can also output standard MIDI files and MusicXML files for you, so you can then import them into your favorite sequencer (such as Logic Pro X; I do this all the time). Lastly, Finale is brilliantly easy to use. Just open up a new document, answer the questions in the Setup Wizard about what type of score you'd like to create, and then open the Simple Entry palette, and boom . . . you're writing music on the staves, lickity split. It's a fantastic program, and I highly recommend it for all musicians of all stripes.