Are you looking for a good beginner digital audio workstation (DAW)? Congratulations. There is a world of fun and discovery before you. I’d like to nudge you towards not finding a DAW for your immediate needs but for your long term needs. Rather than find one that is suited to beginners, find one that you can grow with.
There are a ton of DAWs out there right now. Not all of them are as powerful, complex, or expensive as Pro Tools. Some are completely free. At the end of the day, they do many of the same things and the variety within DAWs is not huge, although there are some appreciable differences that you’ll notice over time.
So, how is a beginner, who doesn’t really understand all the techno-babble, supposed to settle on one DAW? Without experiencing the world of DAWs, you won’t be able to make that call. As you might imagine, I have some suggestions.
If you don’t have any audio production experience, try working with a free digital audio workstation like Audacity. Audacity lacks the bells and whistles of big name competitors, though there is plenty of power under the hood. More importantly, using freeware is a low risk way to find out if you’re really interested in using music production software. No doubt, home recording tools are more powerful and user-friendly than ever. But it would be a mistake to think that music production is any easier. Making amazing records is just as challenging as it has ever been.
If you are really enthusiastic about recording, you’ll find a way to get results with any DAW. If that’s the case, welcome to the club. You may now proceed to the next step.
For some, Audacity might be perfect. Most home producers will find they need something more powerful. This is where things get difficult, unless you peer through the hype.
To find a good DAW for a beginner, I suggest playing around with a few different DAWs, 3 at the most. Maybe you’ve heard of a few programs or you received recommendations from friends. Check them out. There’s a short list of a few DAWs that offer demos at the end of this post, so you can get an idea of what a program is about, without committing your money.
Why just 3? As a beginner, all DAWs are going to be somewhat intimidating. These programs are meant to make professional music and have deep features and functions. You won’t be able to really tap into their power without a few weeks or months of education, so don’t expect to get a good feel for them in your first trials.
Seriously, don’t waste much time trying to sift through all your options. The more advice you look for, the more contradictory “expert” information you’ll find. It will probably be over your head. And that’s fine. You’re a beginner; there will be plenty of time to obsess about the nuances of DAWs down the road.
It’s far more important to make music, so get a recommendation, try out a few programs, and get down to business.
Here are a few things you’ll notice with many of these programs.
1. Using a DAW isn’t entirely intuitive. The learning curve for DAWs is long and using them involves lots of drop down menus and unusual orders of operation. That’s just something that it takes time to get used to. Don’t discount a DAW because it’s a little frustrating to use at first.
2. DAWs don’t “unlock” your creativity. A DAW contains many of the capabilities of a recording studio, fit into a much more compact package. A recording studio is there to capture the creativity and energy you bring to music. DAWs don’t create great recordings and they don’t inspire amazing performances. Some people think that DAWs have taken musicians and producers further away from creativity. If anything, DAWs make you sound exactly as good or bad as you are, in the uncompromising perfection of digital audio.
3. DAWs are time consuming. If you aren’t familiar with the workflow of a program, it’s going to take a lot of time to get anything done. Gradually, you become faster and learn how to move through the program. In the short-term, though, it can be painfully slow.
4. There are many options. Modern DAWs have capabilities to suit the most advanced audio professional, as well as the intermediates and beginners. Put on some blinders, ignore all the advanced options, and figure out how to record before you investigate the rest of it. You might even consider the accessibility of basic functions a good measurement of a DAW.
For the above reasons, I recommend that beginners don’t worry about a specific DAW, unless they have very specific goals in mind for their production future. Instead of obsessing over programs, choose one and start learning how to record. Learning to properly position a microphone is going to have more impact on your recordings than which DAW you use. Remember, the Beatles recorded to 4 track tape and made some of the most classic recordings of the 20th century. You think they wondered which 4 track they should use? Probably not.
To sum it up, instead of wondering about which DAW to buy, you should be making music. There are some amazing programs out there, but they’re only as good as your ability to make good recordings. The skills of an accomplished producer or engineer are transferable from platform to platform.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for putting in the time to get proficient at any audio recording software, a good argument for getting a DAW that you can grow with.
So, you need to know where you want to take this recording gig. Are you planning on making a career of it or just making some recordings at home? What kind of music do you plan on recording?
Most DAWs are going to perform fine with both recorded audio and production that happens strictly within the confines of the computer. But, if you are going to focus on making electronic music, consider investing in either Ableton or Reason. They have the best platforms for easily creating synthesizer based dance music, for instance.
If you want to really take your production far and work in a studio some day, think about getting Pro Tools, the industry standard software. The sooner you get started on Pro Tools, the sooner you will have the facility to use the recording software professionally.
So, check out some demos of the programs listed here.
- Pro Tools – Even folks with no knowledge of audio production have heard of Pro Tools. Pro Tools has reached its position as the standard for digital audio workstations in professional recording studios with a powerful array of editing and arranging tools. Since it can be found almost anywhere in the audio world, Pro Tools hosts a huge number of plug-ins and hardware control options, offering a great degree of flexibility. As the Gold Standard, Pro Tools is expensive, though there are some scaled down versions like Pro Tools SE that will appeal to the budget audience. You don’t have to use Pro Tools to get great sounds, but if you imagine yourself an audio engineer some day, you’ll end up using this.
- Apple Logic – In recent year, many artists have sung the praises of Garage Band, an Apple program aimed at making audio production accessible to the masses. Logic is the next step up, with a powerful audio engine, on board sequencing, and native effects processing to rival Pro Tools. Some studios prefer Logic to Pro Tools and it is widely regarded as a perfect environment for electronic music production and sound design. Perhaps the biggest advantage of Logic is that it is quite affordable, somewhere around $200. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), it is only available for Macs, just like everything else Apple makes. You can’t find a demo version, but using Garage Band should give you some insight into Logic, since some of the instruments and sound engines are identical.
- Steinberg Nuendo and Cubase – Steinberg has been around the DAW scene for a while and offers these two music production software workstations that seem pretty similar, though each has a slightly different application. Cubase is a complete production environment and offers a similar set of tools to Ableton or Logic. Nuendo, on the other hand, is aimed more towards the producer and mastering engineer, more concerned with post-production than composition and recording.
- Fruity Loops Studio — Fruity Loops started out as a loop based sequencer in its early days but has since gained some of the sophistication of a full DAW. Still, it retains a slight bias towards the electronic musician and is known in the audio world as being particularly suited toward the beginner.
- Ableton Live — Ableton is widely favored by DJs and electronic musicians but doesn’t suffer from any live recording limitations. The popularity of Live can be traced back to the intuitive “drag and drop” nature of sequencing audio. That makes it easy to improvise recorded music live, making Live perfectly suited for the studio or the stage.
- Sony Acid Pro — Acid is Sony’s answer to Pro Tools and Logic and covers all the basics of the home studio. It’s not the most popular DAW out there, but it certainly has some devoted users. There is also a free version, Acid Xpress, which offers a scaled back version of the software with track limits.
- Propellerheads Reason — Few DAWs inspire the following and absolute vitriol that Reason does. It’s one of the most unique DAWs out there and has only recently incorporated the functions of a full-fledged DAW. For years, the main selling point of Reason has been the dynamic and flexible sound generation modules. From the interface to the synthesizers, there’s nothing quite like Reason and it contains the tools to help you create some far out sounds.
- Presonus Studio One – Studio One is a very recent contender in the crowded DAW market but has been steadily winning over supporters. The Presonus claim to fame is enhanced workflow and unbridled creativity, a frequent claim applied to many of the best programs, but fans agree that Studio One actually delivers. Presonus pulled that off by taking the best features from competitors like Steinberg and Ableton. Though there are still some gaping holes in the capabilities of the software, it has come a long way, and is only in its second version. One of the big wins for Studio One is complete integration of Melodyne’s Celemony, the best pitch and time software on the market. For far less than you would normally pay for just a DAW, you get a pretty killer workstation and Celemony, enough of a deal to rack up legions of fans.
- Cockos Reaper — Reaper is something of an upstart in the world of DAWs. Designed by indie developers, Reaper has the functions that are common with more expensive DAWs but for a fraction of the price. Full registration only costs $60, which is too cheap to justify stealing.
These are just some of the options out there that offer demos. There are some other heavy hitters like Pro Tools, Apple’s Logic, Nuendo and Cubase from Steinberg, and Cakewalk’s Sonar that don’t offer demos but are very popular.
If you remember nothing else, though, remember this: DAWs don’t make producers and engineers. Any of these programs gives you the flexibility to make music with ease and you would be better off using any one of them than endlessly weighing your options. With a little experience, you’ll be better suited to deciding which one suits you best.