I’m often asked by friends and colleagues, “Which DAW do you use?” or “What’s the best DAW?” What may be right for me might be completely wrong for you. With so many Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) choices, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. All DAWs share a main purpose, which is to record, edit, and mix audio (and MIDI), but each platform offers some unique features, bells and whistles, if you will, which may impact your decision drastically. In this article, we’ll be looking at several different DAWs to help you decide which DAW is right for you.
Before we begin, ask yourself, what type of music am I creating? Will you be tracking a live band with physical instruments such as guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and keyboards? Or are you an electronic music producer, interested in using just software instruments? Or perhaps you’re wanting a hybrid setup that will incorporate live instrumentation with software instruments. DAWs have become the norm because they offer non-linear editing (as opposed to linear editing, like tape). There are a few commercial recording studios that are die-hard “analog” devotees and only use tape. However, the rest of the world has embraced the digital revolution.
I typically break DAWs into two categories: Conventional and Unconventional. The conventional DAW typically organizes tracks into rows on an arrangement page. This is the main window in which you record, edit, and play back audio and MIDI data. The new standard incorporates a single window with the mixer, audio and MIDI editors, an audio pool, and preset browsers, which all can be expanded and collapsed. The unconventional DAWs offer the same “arrangement” view, but offer something wholly unique to their interface and how to interact with media.
Pro Tools wasn’t the first DAW, but it quickly became the industry standard with its powerful hardware-based DSP. When it was first released, it was typically used as a glorified tape machine, but with non-linear, non-destructive editing. Commercial recording studios loved the high-quality DSP cards, which offered zero-latency performance and higher-quality plug-ins. At the time, you had to buy their interfaces, and even a basic setup was very expensive. At present, Pro Tools is still considered the industry standard with three tiers available, including Pro Tools First, Pro Tools, and Pro Tools HD. You are no longer required to purchase an Avid audio interface; however, if you are going for HD, you will be investing in Pro Tools HDX hardware cards, which are five times more powerful than the previous generation, but still cost a pretty penny. MIDI wasn’t added until Version 5, and it was a very basic implementation. It has since expanded and offers a decent amount of control. Avid is also highly regarded for its video-editing systems and Pro Tools is also used in film and video production. If you are an artist/musician who will be working in and out of commercial studios, this platform would be your best bet. In my opinion, Pro Tools offers the fastest and easiest audio editing in the business and really excels for live-instrument recording and mixing. The plug-in collection that ships with the software is usable, but most users purchase third-party add-ons.
Cubase offers several advanced features, including 32-bit floating-point processing with up to 192 kHz, 5.1 surround, flexible routing, and full automatic delay compensation. The Pro version boasts unlimited audio, instrument, and MIDI tracks, while accommodating up to 256 physical inputs and outputs. There are more than 90 high-quality plug-ins, eight instruments with more than 3,400 sounds, and full VST expression for dynamic expression maps for musical articulations. The mixing console offers an integrated high-end channel strip, VCA faders, a loudness meter, and wave meter. The Artist and Elements version offer the same quality with fewer tracks, instruments, and inputs/outputs. Cubase has a long heritage and is great software for anyone working in any style of music. The included plug-ins are excellent, and while the number of included instruments may seem sparse, they are of high quality. Plus, the mix engine is revered by many engineers.
Logic Pro Apple purchased Emagic’s Logic in 2002, and has continually updated the software. Now on Version 10, Logic offers a vast collection of more than 51GB of content with highly regarded software instruments, effects plug-ins, and an updated mix engine with true stereo panning. Apple has redesigned the interface to work with its new touch bar on the MacBook Pro computers, as well as an iOS app called Logic Control, which allows you to create and select tracks, play and record MIDI, and manipulate software parameters wirelessly. Another highly beneficial feature is the Drummer, a powerful collection of more than 28 virtual drummers that are simple to set up and operate with great-sounding results. Furthermore, Garageband for iOS is compatible, so you can start tracks on your iPad and import them into Logic Pro to finish them. Logic Pro ranks high for the best “bang for the buck.” It’s a cost-effective DAW that doesn’t need any additional plug-ins or instruments, and can create any genre of music in a simple and easy fashion.
Other conventional DAWs that are worth checking out are MOTU’s Digital Performer, PreSonus Studio One (which has added goodies for mastering), and Reaper, which are all available for PC and Mac. For PC-only, check out Cakewalk Sonar which offers a wide selection of plug-ins, instruments, and workflow enhancements.
Reason 9.5 is a wholly unique software with many advanced features available for Mac and PC. Propellerheads released the software in the early 2000s. At the time, it was a closed environment and did not record audio. It was used mostly for electronic music. The latest version offers many new enhancements, including the ability to work with hardware MIDI devices, modular synthesizers, as well as recording and editing audio. The software is now compatible with VST plug-ins, and Propellerheads has opened its code up to third-party developers in the form of Rack Extensions. The interface consists of three main windows: an arrangement page, a rack for all instruments, tracks, and effects, and a mixer modelled after an SSL 9000K console, complete with full SSL EQ, dynamics, and signal flow. There’s even the highly-regarded SSL stereo bus compressor on the master section. The rack widow can be flipped around to reveal the rear of each component, allowing for advanced routing and flexible sound design. The software is highly capable of creating any genre of music and excels at producing electronic sounds and organic tones. It’s also an excellent tool for learning signal flow since audio and virtual CV/Gate signals can be used to create wild patch configurations. Highly recommended.
FL Studio What started as Fruity Loops more than 18 years ago has been developed into a full-fledged DAW, which includes everything you need to compose, arrange, record, edit, mix, and master professional-quality music. This PC-only software has been embraced by several popular electronic music producers and is favored for its fast and intuitive interface, diverse instruments, and advanced routing capabilities. The software is optimized for multi-touch screen interfaces and features several scalable windows. Although it’s currently a Windows program, Image-Line is currently working on a Mac version of the software. What’s more, FL Studio comes with lifetime updates.
Ableton Live is software for creating musical ideas, turning them into finished songs, and even taking them onto the stage. With two views, the classic Arrangement View, where musical ideas are laid out along a timeline, and the innovative Session View, here you can improvise and quickly experiment with musical ideas, Live is a fast, fun, intuitive way to make music. The software is excellent for any type of music, especially when musicians wish to experiment with song structure on the fly, without ever hitting Stop. Suite adds a wide selection of instruments and content, which covers just about any genre of music. The onboard effects can be nested into racks, while any number of parameters can be controlled from custom macros for intuitive and powerful control. What’s more, Live can be integrated with Max for Live, which is a visual programming environment that allows users to build instruments and effects for use within Ableton Live. Ableton pioneered the warp marker and advanced the concept of “elastic audio,” which makes the software great for remixing, DJ sets, and live performance.
Bitwig is a newer program that was created by ex-Ableton employees and includes many of the same concepts and workflow, but with a greater focus on built-in modulators and ease of use. It’s now in version 2.0 and the software boasts several new enhancements, including new modulators that allow you to add motion to any parameter of any device, instrument, or plug-in. Additionally, there are many enhancements to parameter visualization with spectrum analyzers, and the software now offers fades and crossfades.
Many of the software titles include free versions or trial versions. If you are new to DAWs, do some research and try a demo before taking the plunge. Additionally, some manufacturers offer scaled-down versions of their software, which are low cost and can be upgraded as your needs grow.