What is a DAW?

MacBook Pro running Logic Pro 10.6.2

If you’re just starting your journey into the world of audio on a Mac, the plethora of mysterious terms and acronyms can be bewildering – they can almost appear designed to be exclude the beginner. I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re likely to be a newcomer to digital audio, so I’ll start with the broad view.

A DAW is a digital audio workstation. So, what is that?

Imagine an old world, fully featured recording studio like Hansa studios in Berlin (pictured below).

Hansa recording studios, Berlin

I’ve deliberately chosen an image of a studio ‘pre computer’. Not a screen in sight!

The chairs are sat in front of the mixing desk (or ‘board’ if you’re American). The desk handles inputs from multiple audio channels so each can be treated and balanced, mixed and/or sent to tape. The tape machines would be housed in a separate space (to minimise distracting noise), so not in shot here. The racks of gear either side of the desk are ‘outboard’:- dedicated reverb, delay, eq, modulation units to which audio can be sent from, and returned to the desk.

In today’s money, you’re looking at in excess of £300, 000 worth of equipment here.

Fast forward (sic) to today, and all of this is available inside a DAW. Put simply, your DAW is tape machines, mixing desk and outboard all rolled into one computer app. All for between a few hundred ££ and nothing. Happy days.

One caveat is audio plugins: - audio plugins are the ‘outboard’ described above, small apps that sit inside of your DAW. Many DAWs come with very workable suites of bundled plugins, enough to get you well along the road for the time being, but there are a host of third-party developers, making plugins that the audio professional wouldn’t be without. That’ll be a subject for another time.

Getting you hooked

My first DAW was Logic 4 – back in the day when my shiny Mac was a Performa 5400 (that prehistoric rig certainly couldn’t replicate Hansa). I still use Logic today – I’ve evolved as it has, and the thought of relearning my workflow on another platform is overwhelming. Also, as a professional, I just haven’t got the time to learn a new platform when I’ve got deadlines to meet.

My experience is echoed by many other professionals that I know – you stick with the DAW that you first learned. You swear by it (and sometimes swear at it). Until a decade ago, ProTools was the only game in town (it just sounded better), but not so now. All good DAWS do more or less the same things these days, all sound good, but have differing terminology, workflow, key commands and feature sets.

This leads me to the pricing point of many DAWS – you’ll notice in the list below that the pricing model tends to be variations of ‘free trial’, ‘light’ version (cheaper than full fat) and ‘pro’ version (all singing and dancing, and therefore the most expensive of their offerings). Gateway drugs – a time honoured strategy! Investing time in a steep learning curve with any DAW is inevitable, so the strategy of incrementally pulling you in to a particular ecosystem is sound.

Don’t be put off by the learning curve. The better a DAW is, the more it can potentially do – but that doesn’t mean that you have to learn everything that it can do just to get started. Whatever DAW you choose, start simply: - ask what you need it to do for you. Also, thanks to Auntie Internet you’ll find really good tutorial courses online – that would be a time and (modest) financial investment that I’d highly recommend.

Compatibility and support

There are a couple more considerations when selecting your DAW.

Will you still love me when I’m 64?

Why invest all of this time learning an app platform if it disappears in a few years’ time? How established is the DAW developer, what’s its user base, and crucially will it be supported over time? I remember when Apple bought Emagic’s Logic back in 2002. Sleepless nights for our Logic community, wondering whether it would lose its ‘pro’ features.

Sharing is caring

Collaboration. Music making is often a group activity. Who will you be working with? Do you want others to take your music on and work on it (e.g. have someone else mix it)? Nearly all professional studios that I work at use Pro Tools as their DAW of choice, so I own and have a working relationship with Pro Tools as well as Logic because I just have to. If I had a penny for every project that I’ve transferred between Logic and PT…. I’d have £16.37.

The DAWS below are not ranked, pop pickers. I’ve listed them in broadly by price, starting with free (everyone likes free).


1. Apple Garageband

Apple Garageband

Pricing - free

Versions – full

Demo version – N/A

Apple’s Garageband has now reached the grand old age of 17, and has become a great starter DAW in its own right. Garageband projects are also compatible with the fully featured Logic Pro (here’s your gateway drug!), so the upgrade path is smooth as silk if you like the feel of it.

This DAW comes with a huge (and very usable) loop library, so you can be up and running quickly. It comes with a great selection of virtual instruments (VSTIs) - and the Drummer virtual instrument is particularly flexible for generating and modifying beats. It’s capable of multitrack recording, and had a good selection of plugins including virtual guitar amps and guitar stomp boxes.

The Logic remote app (also free) can control Garageband from your iPad. There’s also an iOS version of the app (also…. free!), which doesn’t continually nag you about in-app purchases.

Garageband comes built in to your MacOS, so it’d be foolish not to at least try it.

2. Audacity

Audacity

Price – Free

Versions – Full

Demo version – N/A

Audacity is the grandaddy of free audio apps. In contrast to Garageband, which has the corporate backing of one of the biggest and wealthiest companies in the world, Audacity is open source, built and maintained by volunteers.

The GUI (graphical use interface) may appear basic next to other DAWS, which may put some off – its design is a little clunky, but hey, you don’t ‘hear’ that. Under the hood, it’s a very capable workstation – multitrack recording is supported, and it comes with a suite of very useful native plug-ins as well as supporting most third-party developers.

Audacity is not power hungry, and uses system resources efficiently (so good if you have an older, crankier machine). It doesn’t come with the huge library of virtual instruments and loops that others may provide, but that all depends on intended use. Also, online support documentation is very good.

If you’re looking for something more basic than a fully featured DAW (say, for podcasts or as a notepad), this may well be the one for you. Also, as it’s more limited than other apps, the learning curve is less steep.

3. PreSonus Sudio One

PreSonus Sudio One

Price – Free/ £85.20/ £344.40/ £13.24 monthly subscription

Versions – Prime/ Artist/ Professional/ Sphere

Demo version – No

Presonus have thought out the gateway model well, offering the ‘Prime’ version free with seamless upgrades through ‘Artist’, ‘Professional’ to the all-inclusive ‘Sphere’ subscription model.

The Prime version is an introduction, so of necessity it’s more limited than its bigger brothers. However, it offers unlimited audio and instrument tracks, a limited plugin fx suite, a built-in sampler and 2GB of loops to get you started.

The bigger brother really is a fully featured DAW, offering an intuitive workflow and a nice GUI. Its functionality is every bit as good as any other DAW in its ‘professional’ version - and you can get hooked for free!  

4. Cockos Reaper

Cockos Reaper

Price – $60

Versions – Full

Demo version – 30 days fully functional

Reaper is anything but grim, it’s a top class offering for half the price of a decent pair of strides. The workflow is fast and intuitive, and its system footprint and resource usage are very small compared to other fully featured DAWS.

Reaper is highly customisable to the way you work and has very flexible audio/midi routing available. It doesn’t come with a huge library or variety of audio plugins, though, so you’d have to factor in the price of your plugins of choice.

Still and all, terrific value for not very much money.

5. Avid Pro Tools

Avid Pro Tools

Price – Free/ from £25 a month subscription

Versions – Prime/ Pro Tools/ Pro Tools Ultimate

Demo version – Time limited trial versions available

 

Avid’s Pro Tools has long been the industry standard for recording and post production, so in terms of support, it ain’t going nowhere.

As I’ve said, 99% of studios you walk into will be running PT, so if you ever intend on shifting projects between home and a professional facility, a working knowledge of this DAW would be very useful.

In times past, PT was never quite as capable in the midi department as some other DAWS, but not so now. For this historical reason (and the price of its dedicated hardware in days of old), it’s not quite as ubiquitous in the home recording market as the professional one.

Feature-wise, Pro Tools is as good and rock solid as it gets. Two newer features are Avid Cloud Collaboration (for cloud-based project storage) and Avid Marketplace (designed for connecting with other members of the Avid music community).

Avid Prime (Avid’s gateway DAW) features a limited but excellent set of plugins, but is limited to 16 tracks and recording only 4 simultaneous tracks. However, trying Prime will give you a good idea of this DAWs capabilities.

6. Ableton Live

Ableton Live

Price – Free/ from £25 a month subscription

Versions – Intro/ Standard/ Suite

Demo version – 90 day trial

Since its introduction some 20 years ago, Ableton Live has become the mainstay of many professionals, especially in the live sphere (the clue’s in the name!).

20 years on, it’s still cutting edge, and offers a streamlined workflow that is in many ways different to most other DAWS – it’s almost a musical instrument in its own right, and I know many musicians in the live sphere who really wouldn’t consider anything else for its sheer flexibility when working on the fly.

The full fat version comes with a great suite of plugins and instruments, plus a sound library of over 70GB.

The intro version is a little disappointing feature-wise, with only 16 tracks available (and naturally, a cut down plugin /instrument /sound library suites). There again, you do have a very generous 90 days to give it a trial….

7. Steinberg Cubase

Steinberg Cubase

Price – £85/ £284/ £499

Versions – Elements/ Artist/ Pro

Demo version – 30 day trial

Cubase is another big hitter from back in the day, still sailing out there with the very best of the flagships.

Steinberg launched Cubase over 30 years ago, and like Logic, it started as a midi editor in the days before computers were capable of handling audio. As well as creating one of the very first DAWS, Steinberg pioneered what is now the ubiquitous visual concept of block-based audio. During its voyage over those 30 years, it also pioneered virtual studio technology (VSTs) and survived the turbulent waves of piracy. It also created the excellent Wavelab audio editor – a world leader at the time.

These days, Cubase is no slouch. It is a massively functional DAW, offering great workflow and capability.

8. Image-Line FL Studio

Image-Line FL Studio

Price – £76, £153/ £230/ £358.17

Versions – Fruity/ Studio Producer/ Studio Signature/ All Plugins

Demo version – Unlimited time, but cannot re-open saved files

FL Studio started life as the legendary FruityLoops back in 1997. You may not know what FruityLoops is (it’s not a kind of Wine Gum), but you’ll have heard it on countless dance records.

This capable DAW is a first go to for many, especially EDM creators.

There’s always been a slight snootiness in the Pro community towards this DAW – I don’t know whether that’s anything to do with the slightly daft original name, but it’s up there with the best. In its full version, it sports a good plugin selection and a massive instrument library, naturally slanted towards the EDM side of things, as well all the tools you need to create a social media-orientated music videos. Useful.

FL Studio’s version structure reflects its roots – the entry level version has no audio recording capability, so obviously directed toward EDM, so you’ll need to buy its bigger brother to take advantage of audio capabilities.

One puzzling aspect is that the demo version is not time dependent:- it’s limited by the ability to open a saved project. It consequently isn’t quite the gateway it should be. On the plus side, FL Studio offers free upgrades for life – not many paid DAWS can boast that.

9. Apple Logic Pro

Apple Logic Pro

Price – £139.99

Versions – Full

Demo version – 90 day trial

I have to put my hand up here as a biased party – as I’ve said above, I’ve been using Logic (now Logic Pro) since my grown-up kids still needed wheeling down the street.

Logic was launched in 1993 by Emagic, then bought by Apple in 2002 and effectively split into two versions – the free, cut down Garageband and the flagship Logic Pro.

More than anything, Logic Pro offers unbeatable value for money. It comes with a massive sound library and a great selection of plugins and instruments (including the excellent ‘Drummer’ instrument), more audio tracks than you’ll ever need and extremely flexible routing. Step sequencers, samplers, flex time audio stretching etc. etc. All for the price of two moderately priced pairs of strides.

The upgrade path from the MacOS included Garageband is seamless (Logic Pro can open Garageband projects), so it’s a well thought out ecosystem.

Logic Pro is also native to (and therefore supported by) Apple, with every advantage that entails – frequent updates and bug fixes.   

10. Reason Studios Reason

Reason Studios Reason

Price – £399/ £16.99 monthly subscription

Versions – Reason/ Reason +

Demo version – 7 Day trial

Reason has been around since the mid 1990s, so is another venerable old beast in the world of audio. Reason differs in approach from other DAWS in that its rack based, so it’s GUI and workflow appears ‘hardware’ like. Reason is a good DAW on its own, but is also the only DAW out there that it can also function as a plugin for other DAWS –a unique feature.

Reason is full of world class sounds and tools, not least the superb SSL modelled mixing desk, individual elements of which you can use in other DAWS. Genius.

I think that the 7-day trial (for Reason +) is a little on the stingy side - as with all DAWS, it takes a while rooting around under the hood to see just what this baby can do. Just saying.


You pays your money….

…or not! The free and more basic approach may just be all that you really need. When selecting your DAW, ask yourself what you’ll be using it for, and don’t be seduced by having to have all the bells and whistles if you don’t need or won’t use them.

One last thing: please don’t use cracked software. We’ve all gotten used to free (or nearly free) software, but these deep deep apps take a lot of work for the girls and boys who make them to develop and maintain. They have to eat too. Besides, cracked software is unsupported and could fall over at any point. Probably just before you put that vital mix down…

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