When you first decide to build a home recording studio or capture your music ideas on your computer, you must decide which digital audio workstation (DAW) you want to use. In this post, I will help you determine what factors to consider when spending money on a DAW. If this were an easy question, there wouldn’t be countless reviews, comparisons, and arguments about which DAW is best.
Truthfully, and for the most part, it comes down to the aesthetics and how much time you want to spend diving into the pool’s deep end to learn the intricacies of each offering. At the core, every DAW out there nowadays is equipped to handle audio and MIDI music production.
Audio and MIDI Recording
To those new to the subject, audio recording takes instruments such as guitars, keyboards, drums, and vocals and converts their analog signals into the digital domain. MIDI, on the other hand, does not capture real audio. With MIDI, you can use an input device, like a MIDI keyboard or pad controller, to capture notes on or off, velocity, pressure, and other variables and apply those inputs to virtual software instruments inside your software. In fact, having a MIDI input device isn’t a requirement, as you can “draw” notes into a “piano roll” and create music with nothing more than a mouse. How all of this works will be covered in another post.
The point here is that whether or not you want to work with MIDI instruments or capture live performances, each DAW can handle the task.
Who to Believe
So the burning question is, why do people become fanatical in singing the praises of one DAW over the other DAW? The answer comes down to how that person spent their money and how much time they’ve invested into the product they’ve been using.
For some reason, many musicians feel ultra-defensive while supporting their DAW. I suggest ignoring those who never see the merits of other offerings. The most important thing for you is to decide which software you should purchase. Then you can spend time getting to know how it works before you start looking at other options.
There are many possibilities from which to choose. The list of contenders looks like this: Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, Reaper, Studio One, Bitwig Studio, Reason,
FL Studio, Samplitude, Mixcraft, Tracktion Waveform, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Cakewalk Sonar, Cubase. That’s quite a list, so how do you choose one over the other…and why?
The actual answer is, “I don’t have an answer.” I cannot judge what you find appealing, what color schemes you prefer, what budget you have, or how your brain works. These programs can be as straightforward or complicated as you want them to be. Some have advanced capabilities that go beyond others, which usually comes at a cost, but not always.
I read a lot of user forums, and what I find interesting is that there is so much talk about this DAW or that DAW; I wonder how much actual recording goes on with many of these people. It all seems like a diversion from the real issue; are you making music or simply dwelling on everything else? As I said, each of these programs can achieve the ultimate goal of creating music.
It comes down to a few things that can help you narrow your choices. First, what type of PC do you have, Windows or Mac? If you have a Mac, that eliminates Samplitude, Cakewalk, and Mixcraft. The door is wide open if you are on Windows, other than Logic Pro X.
My advice is simple, watch as many Youtube videos as possible to see which offering captures your interest most, check to see if a free trial is available (highly recommended if you are unsure), and if you get on with one over the other, go ahead and make your purchase…and don’t look back. It may seem that I’m oversimplifying the decision-making process here, but trust me, you’ll thank me down the line.
Settling On One DAW
Once you’ve decided which DAW to purchase, take the time to get to know the software inside and out. If you are getting great results without significant hassles, what’s the point of switching?
Ah, that’s the big question, why do so many people jump from one DAW to another? Well, it’s like driving a car. Some people bury their car and go 300 miles before buying a new one; others like a shiny new vehicle every couple of years. It doesn’t matter that they all have a steering wheel, radio, and four tires and can get you from point A to point B. The newness, the emotion, the color, or whatever it is drives some people to never be satisfied with the status quo. Maybe I now want heated seats because I moved to a cold-weather climate.
The point is situations change, and sometimes it may make sense to look at alternatives. In other words, some people get bored and want a change. I get it. Don’t fall into this trap. Find something that works and OWN it.
For most of you reading this, you won’t be in the situation of needing to forward demos to music studios. If you are, you’ll most likely want to operate in Logic Pro or Pro Tools, as most professional studios are equipped with those options. In reality, most of you are recording music in your home studio and need capable software to make a recording. As I pointed out earlier, these DAWs are up for the task.
If you are on a Mac, Logic Pro X offers the most for the money. I say that not as a fanboy but as someone who has used the software extensively. I purchased Logic Pro X 10 years ago and have never had to pay for an upgrade. It works seamlessly with OSX, including over 70 instruments and effects and a sound library of over 70 gigs. For those who have only considered Ableton for loop-based recording and performance, Live Loops is now part of Logic Pro. In many ways, Live Loops works the same as Ableton Live. Still, the workflows within each DAW are pretty different, so I wouldn’t necessarily say you should forget Ableton. That’s as far as I’ll promote Logic Pro, as I don’t want to be accused of being a fanboy.
If you are on Windows, you must do more research to decide which DAW suits your needs best. Cakewalk by Bandlab would have been my choice, as it is free, but only for a short time. I recently wrote a post about the changes Bandlab will make by reintroducing the software as Sonar, and it will no longer be free. Grab it while you can and see if you get along with it. Then you can decide if the paid version works for you.
The rest of the list works on Mac and Windows, so many options are available. I own Cubase, Reason, Ableton Live, Reaper, and Samplitude. Again, I also drive a new car every few years, so I’m one of those people. Plus, it’s my business to know what’s out there, so I expect to add others in the future. I have paid for several DAWs on the list, and they are all fun to use. However, owning several DAWs creates many problems, most notably paying for upgrades to keep them current, which adds up to a considerable cost over time.
What do I think of the DAWs that I own? Here are some general thoughts.
- Cubase: probably the most capable but also the most complex.
- Reason: As a DAW, it falls short of others due to its track arranger, but as a toolkit for using the Reason Rack in other DAWs, it might be the best investment you can make to add a plethora of instruments and effects to any DAW.
- Ableton Live: As an ecosystem for Loop-based recording and live performance, it is still King.
- Reaper: for $60, you get a full-fledged audio and MIDI recording package. Reaper is powerful, but its MIDI functionality is less developed than Cubase. It’s fully customizable, but if you start screwing around with theme editing, you’re moving away from making music and now are becoming a design artist. Also, so many users mess with the themes because, frankly, the default interface is the least appealing of the group to me.
- Samplitude: Powerful Windows only DAW, but it also feels most dated. Magix has been in the game for a long time, so the DAW is capable, but many features seem like they have been bolted on. It also has a lot of Windows menu diving. At least, that’s how it was with my most recent version.
- Studio One: I had it but then sold it and replaced it with Cubase. Fender now owns Presonus, so hopefully, the product will continue to grow and develop. Studio One originated from developers who left Steinberg (Cubase), so it has a good pedigree. There was much to like about Studio One, but I didn’t love the color schemes and layout as much as Cubase.
- Logic Pro X: If you are on Mac, you would need help to convince me there is a better offering. $199 for the complete package is almost too good to pass up. As I mentioned, I’m not a shill for Logic; I just like what-if offers, and the workflow best fits my style. If you own a Mac, you can check out Garageband, which offers a similar experience, and then decide to step up to the big brother, Logic.
Most of these DAWs play nice with various MIDI controllers, audio interfaces, etc. If you already own gear, ensure that your devices are compatible and, in many cases, have integrated functionality with each DAW you’re considering. It’s convenient to control various aspects of our DAW with hardware devices, so it’s a consideration worth investigating. For instance, Apogee audio interfaces have built-in functionality right inside Logic Pro. I believe Presonus interfaces and Studio One also offer some advantages when paired together as well. Same with Pro Tools.
As for the others on the list, do your research and make the best decision you can for your needs. At dawtopia.com, there is a user forum that you can join to ask questions of others who are using or researching different DAWs. To join the forum, go to dawtopia.com/forum and register. Then you can head over to the DAW section and as specific questions about any DAW I’ve discussed in this post. There are separate sub-forums for each DAW, so go ahead and get some advice!
The most important thing is to decide, not look back, and get on making music. Please don’t become a software critic; focus on making songs you can share with others so they can hear your music.
Leave a comment about what DAW or DAWs you use and why you made the decision. We’d love to hear from you.