So you’ve decided you want to start making and recording your own music, but you don’t know where to begin. Well you can now rest easy as we bring you our guide to choosing the best DAW for you. You might be sitting there wondering what exactly is a DAW? Well a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation is a piece of computer software used for recording, editing and producing audio files.
With this guide we aim to breakdown our favourite DAW’s on the market. Whether you’re looking to record a full band or make your own electronic dance music, hopefully this guide will lead you along the right path.
Known for being the best DAW on the market for live performance, Ableton Live is much more that just a live tool. The process of creating a track and then using it for live performance, however is an unbelievably smooth process.
Currently available in three editions;
If you’re looking for a DAW on a budget the Intro edition could be the perfect tonic. If however you’re looking for something a little more substantial the standard and suite version come with a whole host of great sounds, effects and instruments.
The biggest difference you’ll find with Ableton when compared to many of the other big DAW’s is the interface. There is the more standard arrangement view (displaying information sequentially) or Ableton’s very own Session view, a track-based approach. Session view allows you to capture loose ideas and takes kind of like a sketch pad. From there you can then build a track around this raw material, which for many is a much more flexible and hands on approach to songwriting.
Another big advantage to using Ableton is its great line of compatible hardware, including; the APC and more importantly the Ableton Push range. Built specifically to be integrated with Ableton Live, there aren’t many products on the market with the same level of integration between hardware and DAW (other than maybe the Maschine.) When using the Push with Ableton Live you’ll be able to control almost every parameter in the software, a real hands on approach and completely different from clicking away with your mouse and keyboard.
If you’re mainly looking to create electronic music we’d say that Ableton would be a great pick for you, similarly if you’re mainly recording audio then Ableton may not be the best choice for you. A fantastic DAW for producing, mastering, and performing electronic music productions, if you’d like to take your productions from your bedroom, all the way to the stage then look no further than Ableton Live.
Arguably the most popular DAW in the world’s biggest and best studios, Avid’s Pro Tools is the industry-standard production software. You can be pretty sure if you hear a track on the radio it will have been through Pro Tools at some point through the production, mixing and mastering process. If you’re a beginner using Pro Tools may be a bit of a steep learning curve, but if you’re an experienced producer it may give you the tools to take your production to the next level.
Just like the majority of other DAW’s, Pro Tools arrange window shows information sequentially. There is also now new powerful loop-based music creation and trying ideas via Revision History. The most impressive new feature to be found on Pro Tools 12 is Avid’s Cloud Collaboration. What this enables you to do is easily share tracks and work on projects with anyone—anywhere, as if you’re together in the same room through the glorious power of the internet.
Pro Tools also comes packed with more than 60 amazing virtual instruments, effects, and sound processing plug-ins. It’s also possible to access 17 additional brand-new bonus plug-ins.
If you are unsure whether Pro Tools is for you, there is a trial version called Pro Tools first and it’s completely free to try. Although there is limited functionality it will give you a good idea of what to expect from the full version.
The full versions are Avid Pro Tools Annual Subscription and Pro Tools HD. With the release of Pro Tools 12, Avid decided to create a subscription service, so it’s now possible to pay a monthly fee for the DAW instead of buying it outright.
The Pro Tools experience is meant to simulate working with analogue gear. If you’re used to working in large analogue studios, the transition should be fairly simple. If you’re new to music production and audio recording then the learning curve may be too steep. It’s also widely known that the plugins in Pro Tools aren’t quite as good as those you find in many of the other DAW’s. So if you’re a complete beginner we would probably recommend starting with a different DAW.
The artist formerly known as Fruity Loops, FL Studio has been a staple for beat makers for the last 15 years. If you want simplicity then this could well be the right DAW for you. The biggest negative we can find is that it’s only available for Windows. Image Line are currently porting it over to macOS, but there is no set release date for that version yet. It is possible to use FL with a Mac and bootcamp but we wouldn’t recommend it.
With the release of FL Studio 12, Image Line introduced a whole host of new features. These included; NewTone (FL’s own version of AutoTune), Real-time audio stretching, new plugins (Transient Processor and Razer Chroma) as well as lots more.
Although it has been improved through every version, the beat-making beginnings of FL Studio are still present in the DAW today. The step sequencer is very similar to most of the hardware sequencers on the market and for this reason creating a basic beat is quick and very simple. In terms of plugins, FL offers more than any other DAW at a similar price.
There are three different versions of FL available to buy, these are;
The intro version is only a basic beat making program with no Mic recording capabilities, the Producer version includes mic recording but none of the additional plugins, while the Signature version includes all the extra plugins you need. If you’re combining both MIDI recording with live instrumentation, we’d recommend the Signature version.
If you’re looking to record a full band then FL Studio may not be the DAW for you, however if you’re a beatmaker/producer looking to take your production to the next level then look no further.
A completely different kettle of fish to other DAW’s on the market, Reason utilizes a rack-based design. If you’re use to using a lot of hardware the digital modeled modules of synths and effects will be perfect for you. Reason is readily available on both macOS and Windows.
Propellerhead’s latest release Reason 9 comes with a host of brand new features. It has Reasons own version of AutoTune, Pitch Edit. There are 1000 new sound patches, new visual themes so you can tailor the look of your DAW to suit your mood. Most impressive is the new Audio to MIDI function which allows to hum in a melody, bass line or other monophonic piece of audio and with a single click this will be exported to a MIDI click. For those who are not the most musically inclined, this could be a lifesaver.
One of the biggest downsides of Reason is the limited support for external plugins, it’s not easy to instal VST’s or AU’s without extra software to support it. Instead Reason uses Propellerhead own rack extensions and refills to keep it all in house.
You can pick up a copy of Reason at two different price points. There is the full version or the stripped down Essentials version. If you’re just looking to create a few simple beats then the Essentials version might be worth a try, but if you’re looking for the full production experience then you’ll need to get your hands on the full version.
Reason 9 is seen as a series upgrade to the product by many. If you’re looking for something a little more hands on than the standard DAW’s, Reason could well be the answer. Many people are big fans of Ananlog Hardware but can’t afford the price of a lot of the gear. At a fraction of the price Reason will give you a taste of the analogue experience in a bitesized digital package.
First released in 1989, Steinberg’s Cubase software has been continuously developed since it was released almost 20 years ago. Its ability to non-destructively manipulate audio and virtual instrument integration means that Cubase remains as one of the top contenders in the DAW market today. Whilst many DAW’s present themselves as both audio recording software and as a live tool, Cubase has always and still does focus on it’s main goal of mixing, mastering and recording audio to the best of its ability.
Like the majority of DAW’s on the market Cubase’s arrangement view displays information sequentially. If you like to see the overall structure of your project then this sort of arrange view will be perfect for you.
As stated above, plugin and virtual instrument integration in Cubase is fantastic. Steinberg introduced VST instruments in 1996 (an industry standard format used by all Windows based DAW’s) and there are 100’s of third party developers making VST plugins for the software. Cubase also comes bundled with a great variety of effects, synths and tools that allow you to work straight out of the box, although compared to many of the other DAW’s on the market the choice is a little limited.
Working with Audio is where Cubase really starts to shine. It has a very impressive and robust audio editing functionally and it’s non-destructive editing means that all changes you make are fully reversible. Two of its most notable audio functions are VariAudio and Render In Place. VariAudio is a pitch and timing correction tool, perfect for quick, subtle clean-up of vocals and other instruments. Render In Place enables you to convert midi instruments to audio and therefore save on that annoying CPU overload!
Cubase is available in three different packages. These are;
If you’re looking for a traditional sequencer for recording, mixing and mastering music, Cubase is the perfect DAW for you.