Studio Basics for Beginners Pt. 3: Choosing Your First DAW

Studio Basics for Beginners Pt. 3: Choosing Your First DAW

*This article is a continuation of “Choosing Your First Audio Interface

The final element of your home recording setup will be a Digital Audio Workstation, or “DAW” for short

Choosing your first DAW is just as important as choosing your microphone and interface, but for different reasons. With the exception of a few specialized programs, most DAW’s will not inherently affect the sound quality of your recordings. A DAW is essentially a virtual mixing console. It uses your computer’s power to record, process, edit, and compile audio during the mixing process.

What’s different between most of the popular DAWs? Design, layout of controls, and ease of use.

Most modern DAWs can achieve all of the same things. That being said, there does seem to be a hierarchy of DAWs in the industry. Although the playing field has never been more level. Interestingly enough, Pro Tools happened to be the first major non-linear editing audio suite in the early 90’s. It remains the industry standard for professional digital recording and mixing, but it is no longer the clear cut frontrunner.

DAWs are geared toward certain types of production or workflow.

This allows for specialization in one area and optimizes the user interface more efficiently. Some come equipped with able mixing tools, and others with built in software instruments or arranging tools. There are DAWs that even come with accommodations for live performance use or sound synthesis, manipulation, and creation.

A great process of choosing your first DAW is to try out a few of them.

See what makes the most sense and fits your workflow the best. Popular DAWs have trial versions that will allow you to get familiar with the layout and workflow before committing to a potentially expensive purchase.

Although there is no “best” all-around DAW out there, there is certainly the possibility of a “wrong” DAW for you.

Just find the “right” choice that will cater to your needs and preferences. Keep in mind that you are by no means limited to a single DAW, and it may even be best to practice using several DAWs to create music effectively and efficiently.

The more popular DAWs out there today and where they tend to shine:

Pro Tools – Pro Tools is the godfather of all modern DAWs. Over the last 25 years,  countless hit records have been recorded and mixed in Pro Tools. It remains the most popular DAW among professionals and hobbyists alike. Still, the gap has been consistently shrinking. The software and interface are heavily geared towards recording and mixing. It’s been dubbed an “industry standard,” but is no longer the exclusive platform of the professional industry.

As with most DAW platforms, Pro Tools has a learning curve that can be frustrating, but once mastered, is hard to beat. Similar to many DAWs, Pro Tools comes stock with a good handful of powerful and useful plugins and audio processors, all of which are essential for mixing and producing music.  Pro Tools offers different levels of their software that range in features and price from $299 to over $2,500. Most DAWs will also offer a significant student/educational discount with Windows/Mac

Apple Logic Pro X – Apple’s Logic Pro is quickly becoming one of the most popular DAWs in the world due to its low price and ease of use and access. It has a slick looking and easy to follow layout that many users find easier than Pro Tools. Besides the emphasis on recording and mixing features, Logic comes packed with a huge free library of VST software instruments and sounds. They can be incredibly useful during the composing and arranging process. Plus, it also comes with a good selection of powerful stock plugins for audio mixing and production work. These features have made it very popular among composers and arrangers as well as recording/mix engineers.

It’s exclusively available through Apple, and bears a great resemblance to the free Garageband app that comes stock on Apple devices. In fact, learning your way around Garageband could be a great intro to the much more in-depth Logic Pro. Mac only. ($199 at the Apple App Store).

Apple Garageband – The “basic” version of Logic Pro that is geared towards a hobbyist who wants to get a taste of audio production. It allows for multitrack recording, editing, and mixing. It’s packed with many of the same software instruments as Logic Pro. Apple Garageband also comes equipped with basic audio plugins that have a simplified and streamlined interface that requires less technical knowledge of the processors. It’s also limited in its power and functionality. A fun DAW to play around in or capture quick ideas, but is not a professional platform. Mac only. (Free at Apple App Store)

Ableton Live – Ableton is another very popular platform of today. It’s used differently in production than programs like Logic Pro and Pro Tools. Basically, it comes with a clip view as opposed to an arrangement window like most non-linear DAWs. This gears it more toward storing and triggering many samples, layers, or loops. It’s equipped with tempo and pitch shifting plugins as well. This helps place differing samples/loops in the same key and tempo for more creative remixing and sampling options. It is very popular with live DJ’s and remix performers with its unique layout being geared specifically for live use. But, it is not generally recommended as a multitrack recording and mixing platform due to its lack of an arrangement view for efficient editing and arranging. Windows/Mac (Intro package $99, Standard package $449, Suite package $749)

FL Studio – FL Studio uses a unique blend of both Ableton Live and Logic X or Pro Tools. It’s similar to Ableton because of of the sequencing and sample blocks. It’s similar to Logic x or Pro Tools because of the arrangement capabilities. This allows you to create sounds or textures via the sample sequencer. You can then drop and place them into your arranger for mixing and editing. FL Studio is a popular platform for composing and arranging. Windows/Mac. (Four levels of FL Studio are available at $99, $199, $299, and $899, each progressively adding more features/plugins until the top version ($899) which is all inclusive.

Reason – Propellerhead’s Reason is another popular DAW for beginners, due to its large library of user-friendly synthesizers, instruments, and effects geared toward sound design, composition, and arranging. It is not generally considered an efficient platform for multitrack tracking and mixing because of the way its layout. It puts more of its emphasis on sound creation and arrangement. It’s common to start a project within Reason by putting together demo ideas, but then move to Pro Tools or Logic to finalize and mix them. Windows/Mac. ($399 on Propellerhead website)

StudioOne – Presonus’s offering of StudioOne to the DAW world is rising fast in popularity. As an alternative to a Pro Tools or Logic Pro, it displays a similar layout and feature set. This includes powerful mixing and processing plugins and software instruments. StudioOne holds its own and offers a slightly different approach and workflow that may just be perfect for your needs. Windows/Mac. (Available in three versions, Free, $99.95, and $399.95, which include progressively more features and plugins)

Cubase – Another rising star in the DAW world, Steinburg’s Cubase, is similar to StudioOne as a Pro Tools style interface. Its layout is geared toward recording and mixing. The features include powerful mixing plugins and editing capabilities. Just like StudioOne, this DAW can roll with the big players and can easily be used to create professional recordings and mixes. Again, Steinburg offers their own take on the layout and workflow of the modern DAW. It may just be perfect for you and your needs. Windows/Mac. (Progressive versions available at $99.99, $309.99, and $559.99)

Reaper – Reaper is the most affordable choice on the list and is another Pro Tools style platform. It prides itself on being a Swiss Army Knife of audio production. Reaper includes powerful features and tools for multitrack recording, mixing, and mastering. Also it supports a vast range of hardware, digital formats, and plugins, but what makes it unique and incredibly flexible is its ability to be extended, scripted, and modified by a user with the proper knowledge. This ability sets it apart from the more popular industry DAWs that do not allow the same level of customization. Writing a script or macro to perform a tedious task many times in quick succession or processing many tracks at one time can be an incredibly effective time-saver for a busy engineer who’s $/hour income is directly related to how quickly he can perform each job.

Its users argue that it can equal or outperform Pro Tools in just about every aspect and swear by its power and ease of use. If you’re looking for an affordable and powerful alternative to the more popular DAW’s, this may be the perfect choice. Windows/Mac. (Free, fully-featured 60-day trial, $60 for fully-featured non-commercial use license, $225 for commercial license).


Honorable Mentions

Harrison MixBus – As opposed to almost every other DAW on the market, who do everything they can to be transparent and invisible unless otherwise directed, MixBus was created by the mixing console manufacturer Harrison to recreate the vibe and analog sound signature of their famous analog mixing consoles in a modern DAW format. The mixing layout is obviously mimicking the look of their analog consoles, including the same buttons and functions. Their goal is to recreate the sound of each channel, bus, and feature from the analog boards and integrate them into the digital format of their DAW. This means by just playing your tracks back through MixBus with no added plugins or processing, the DAW will add Harrison’s signature vibe, warmth, depth, and glue to your recordings.

Harrison MixBus is not geared toward editing, arranging, or composing and can be a bit clunky to use in these ways, although possible. It best presents itself as a pure mixing platform, or a last-stage summing “console” emulation to run your stems or finished mix through. If you are looking to add some analog warmth into your mixes or are used to the sound, vibe, and workflow of mixing on an analog board, Harrison MixBus might be exactly what you’re looking for. Windows/Mac. (Progressively featured versions at $79 and $299)

Audacity – An open-sourced software that is more of an editing suite than a mixing platform, but since it comes free and packed with quite a lot of features, we decided to include it on the list. If you don’t require a fully featured mixing platform, but still want the ability to record, edit, arrange, apply processing, or convert file formats, this free software can be very powerful and useful. Attempting to mix a record in this program would be a joke at best and a nightmare at worst, but it could be everything you need for recording, editing, and exporting a podcast or interview. Windows/Mac/Linux. Free.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and is only a guide to help give you a basic understanding of what’s available.

As with many other things, choosing your first DAW will be driven not only by necessity, but also by personal preference. Most DAWs are close enough in function and power that personal preference will play a large role in choosing the right platform for you and it’s highly advisable to try several or all of them to get a feel for what works best for you.