Choosing the Perfect Digital Audio Workstation - DAW
What Is a DAW?
In a world filled with endless audio tools at your disposal it can be a daunting task to find the right ones to fit your needs. This is very true when talking about which DAW you should start with. For starters, DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation such as Pro Tools, Ableton, Logic and Fl Studio which are some of the most popular DAWs available. In essence, they all perform the same function - they give you a platform to compose and record your musical ideas and turn them into tangible material. Although they all perform the same task, the road to the final product is very different.
There are a few questions you should ask yourself before choosing your weapon. What is your primary goal? Are you producing beats with samples or are you recording yourself and other musicians? Which operating system do you have access to? What is your budget and how familiar are you with digital audio workstations? All these questions are vital to address before you even consider opening up a DAW.
There are many different types of DAWS, all with varied skill levels and features. Today I will be talking about five DAWs that range from entry level all the way up to pro.
GarageBand - The Ultimate Beginner DAW
To begin, if you own a Mac, then you probably already have GarageBand. It comes with all of the new Macs and is free to download in the app store. It is the perfect introduction for anyone interested in getting into production. It comes pre stocked with an array of quality loops and effects to get you started and familiar with a typical DAW layout. Its simple design guides you in the right direction without over stimulating your senses. One of the stand out features is the session drummer, which provides over 28 unique drummers all with their own unique styles. Inside each drummer are intuitive controls to fully customize their play styles by tweaking the characteristics of percussion, cymbals, kick, snare, fill and swing controls. But the customizable features don’t stop there! Each synth features the Transform Pad Smart Control. This control allows you to tweak your synths with a swipe of your mouse, breathing new life on your chords and melodies. Perhaps one of the coolest features is the ability to begin an idea on your mobile device and then syncing it to your computer to finish it up with iCloud. All in all, GarageBand is a great DAW for beginners and a no brainer for Mac users.
Logic Pro X - Mac’s Favorite DAW
Next up on the list is Garageband’s bigger brother, Logic Pro X. Logic Pro X expands upon all of the features and layouts that Garageband users are already accustomed to, making it an easy next step for people who want to take their production skills to the next level. With an improved user layout and routing capabilities, it is much easier to get a polished final product. Sample rate is very important to consider when choosing a DAW. Higher sample rates means better audio quality at the cost of space and power demanded from your computer. Logic Pro X features audio file and I/O resolution up to 24 bit/192 kHz which is a large improvement from GarageBand’s fixed sample rate of 44.1 kHz. With the latest update, you can now render your effects directly to any audio file. This is important for larger projects that use multiple plugins which could eat up your CPU. Logic Pro X also supports 12 surround sound formats, making it ideal for those involved in film and television or those who want to expand their creative options. One of the more interesting features is the ability to transcribe your midi performance or audio recording into a musical notation. This is huge for producers who want live musicians to eventually perform their musical pieces. The new update even supports the touch bar on the new MacBook Pros, allowing you to make precise edits, quickly navigate your project, and even perform on instruments. Logic Pro X provides everything you need to create professional sounding material for both beginners and pros at the low price of $199.99, making it one of the most affordable DAWs on the market.
FL Studio - PCs Power House
Now to switch it up, let’s talk about FL Studio for Windows. As of right now, FL Studio and many of the provided plugins are proprietary to Windows, which may be an incentive for people who want a unique sound that many others don’t have access to. FL Studio comes in four different versions: Fruity, Producer, Signature and the Full Version FL Studio. This is great for consumers because you get what you pay for and aren’t forced to buy unnecessary plugins that you won’t use. FL Studio also provides free lifetime updates to all of their users so you never have to pay for newer versions, unlike other DAWs. With the latest update, FL Studio now supports multi-touch support and a new scalable mixer window with six different mixer layouts. However, FL Studio really shines when talking about its piano roll. Features like the ghost channel allow you to see the notes of other channels so you may use them as a guide for other instruments without them actually playing in that channel. You can also edit things like note length, velocity, and pitch bends of ghost channels while adding notes in your main channel. Another feature is the ability to have 16 different voices in a single piano roll and effecting them independently, meaning you can have multiple synths and instruments playing in one piano roll. This is perfect if you are doing orchestral scoring or experimenting with different harmonies. FL Studio editions range from $99 - $899, allowing you to pick the perfect version that suits your needs.
Ableton Live - Create, Finish, Preform
Moving up the list is Ableton Live, one of the most popular DAWs for producers due to its intuitive design and brilliantly crafted stock library and plugins. One of Ableton’s powerhouse instruments is known as Simpler. It allows you to drop any sample you want into Simplers sample window and allows you to play it on your keyboard. Within Simpler are tools like pitch and amplitude envelopes that help shape your sound even further to create complex sounds never heard before. If this wasn’t enough, you can right click on Simpler and turn it into a Sampler. This gives you even more freedom to manipulate the sound with LFOs, filters, and even AUX sources. Tools like sustain mode turn an ordinary vocal adlib into a sustained note that could be held down seamlessly. Drum racks in Ableton are a powerful tool to program drums and add effects to single samples or the entire drum rack. It even allows for internal send and return tracks within the drum rack itself. One of Ableton’s greatest features is having the ability to group instruments and effects and assigning macros to multiple parameters to a single knob. This powerful tool makes automating multiple controls easy and saves you time in the long run. Each group has up to eight assignable macros. Ableton also has six different warping modes used to effect the timing of an audio sample. This could be used to create complex rhythms, beats, and ambient effects with extreme settings. One of the warping modes is called Complex Pro, which retains the sample’s rhythmic and tonal qualities, allowing for intense transposition while keeping the sample intact. Ableton Live comes in three additions: Intro, Standard, and Suite. Prices start at $99 for Intro and $799 for the Suite version.
Pro Tools - The Industry Standard
Last on the list is Pro Tools, the industry standard in music and Post Production. Pro Tools is the most commonly used DAW because of its compatibility with large format consoles in studios. This allows artists to seamlessly record multiple inputs at once. It also boasts one of the best mixing experiences with 17 different metering options, ranging from K System, VU, and other professional standards. Each channel has its own gain reduction meter to properly gauge dynamics. Pro Tools provides a plethora of tools and editing modes to fit the task at hand such as the smart tool, tab to transient, and the four different edit modes, just to name a few. Along with all of the integrated tools come quick key shortcuts for almost every feature available. Pro Tools is able to record at a pristine 32 bit/192kHz with supported audio interfaces. You can even record audio for movies, TV, and other visual mediums with frame perfect accuracy. Offline bouncing means you can deliver stems or final mixes at up to 150 times faster with the high quality results you’d expect from Pro Tools. Perhaps the only downside to Pro Tools is that it requires an Ilok device in order to use it. An Ilok is a USB dongle that enables a licensed user to use that piece of software on any computer without having to register it for each computer. This can be troublesome due to the fact that you always need your Ilok and it requires one of your finite USB slots. However, if you want to ensure that your work is compatible with just about every program out there, Pro Tools is the only way to go! Pro Tools comes in three versions, Pro Tools | First, Pro Tools, and Pro Tools | HD. You can subscribe for as low as $25 a month with an annual contract or $85 a month for HD.
Whether you’re just getting your feet wet or already working in the industry, any of these digital audio workstations can be the right fit for you. My best advice before purchasing is to figure out what your budget is, what your workflow is, and how much knowledge you currently possess in audio production. If you are just starting out, I recommend starting with Garageband or Logic Pro X. Again, budget plays a major role in deciding between these two DAWs. If you are intermediate, I recommend FL Studio or Ableton Live. Lastly, if you have a substantial understanding of signal flow and audio production, then Pro Tools is the DAW for you.
So there you have it! My guide to five of the most accessible and affordable DAWs on the market right now. Thank you for reading and check back soon for more articles from DJBooth.net.