Join Garrick Chow for an in-depth discussion in this video Choosing a digital audio workstation (DAW), part of Audio and Music Production Careers: First Steps.
- One of the most daunting aspects of getting started in audio is deciding which digital audio workstation, or DAW, to choose for the work you'll be doing. Your DAW's going to be the central location where you'll record, create, edit and mix your audio files. So it's essential to find the one that works best for you. But as you dig around, you'll quickly find that there are dozens of options out there. Sometimes there are even multiple versions of the same DAW, each designed for a specific needs. But generally, most professional-level DAWs these days are capable of the same things that their competitors are capable of. All DAWs allow you to take recordings or electronically-generated music and edit, mix and manipulate them into a final project.
You'll find that some DAWs are more suited for recording live audio, while others are geared more towards electronic musicians who work more with audio loops, sequencers and synthesizers. Some DAWs come packed with tons of plugins and effects, while others have less robust processing features. But the feature set of a DAW is not going to be the only determining factor. Other factors that may affect your decision include the platforms the DAW is available on, whether or not you need specialized hardware to run the DAW, and of course the price. Fortunately, almost all publishers of DAW software offer free demo versions of their software that usually either function for a limited time or with limited features.
But a demo should be enough to get you an accurate idea of whether or not you'll be able to use a particular program for your working projects. Let's take a look at some of the most popular options that are available at the moment. If you're just starting out, the best all may be the one you already have. For example if you're using a Mac, an obvious jumping-off point would be Apple GarageBand which comes pre-installed on all new Macs. GarageBand is a great all-purpose tool for anyone who wants an easy way to create music, either by recording it live through real or built-in instruments or by assembling loops into complete projects. Which can be especially useful for people who aren't musically-inclined.
It also excels for producing non-music-related projects like podcasts or other spoken word pieces. GarageBand provides an easy entry into multi-track recording and producing, and if you're a hobbyist, it might be the only DAW you ever need. But if you want to perform more sophisticated edits, or you begin to find its features lacking, you'll want to eventually step things up to a more professional-level DAW. A natural progression from GarageBand would be to Apple Logic Pro. Logic Pro takes the concepts and workflows from GarageBand and extends them to the next level. And it also throws in an incredible number of plugins and an enormous library of sounds.
Now of course, both GarageBand and Logic Pro are Mac-only. One cross-platform digital audio workstation you've most likely heard of is Pro Tools. Pro Tools is considered by many to be the industry standard software for recording, editing, and mixing audio. And it's used heavily in professional recording studios and post-production facilities because of the quality of its editing tools and audio summing. This brings up another fact you could consider when choosing a DAW. If there's a chance you might be working on your project partly on your own, and partly in a studio, you'll want to consider using the same software the studio uses.
Now there are always way to export or port audio from one DAW to work in another, but it's always easier when you're using the same DAW. While Pro Tools may be used in many professional studios these days, you'll find that it may not be preferred in others or by other people you collaborate with. Especially since many other DAWs had brought their feature sets up to par over the past few years. One of Pro Tools' downsides is its price, which can be prohibitive if you're just starting out. A nice alternative DAW that gives you many of the same features and functionality as Pro Tools is Reaper. Reaper is another professional-level DAW that's available on both Mac and Windows but with a considerably smaller price tag.
And it's also one of the most customizable DAWs out there today. In addition to providing you with the ability to record, edit, and mix your audio projects, it also allows you to adjust the look and contents of nearly all of its windows and menus so that you can create a workspace that's completely tailored to the way you prefer to work. Other DAWs that fall into relatively the same category as Logic Pro, Pro Tools, and Reaper include Cubase, Studio One, Sonar, and Digital Performer. Cubase, Studio One, and Digital Performer are available for both Macs and Windows while Sonar is Windows-only.
But all four have impressive feature sets and options and are great tools for recording, editing, and mixing audio. However if you're more into programming virtual instruments rather than recording live instruments, you might find tools more suited to you in a DAW like Ableton Live. Ableton Live is another cross-platform app. But it focuses on the needs of electronic musicians, providing thousands of loops, samples, and virtual instruments. It's especially useful if you need a DAW for live performances, and in fact, some performers and DJs use Ableton Live as a musical instrument.
Another DAW in this category is Bitwig Studio. Bitwig is a flexible, multi-platform music-creation system that's great for both music production and live performances as well as DJ-ing. It also includes a technology called Open Controller API that allows anyone to create custom controller scripts for hardware controllers like keyboards and drum pads. So if external hardware controllers are important to you, Bitwig is especially worth a look. Along the same lines, another DAW that excels for electronic music production is Reason.
A loop-based music-creation application with a focus on MIDI sequencing, sampling and sense. It has a unique interface design which can be a little bit daunting at first. But if you want to produce electronic music, you have to at least give reason to try it. Another DAW that employs a unique design but is Windows-only is FL Studio. FL Studio makes it easy to combine loops, samples, and recording music into a complete project. And it's hugely popular among hip hop musicians and producers. Another cross-platform DAW you may already have access to is Adobe Audition, which comes as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of application packages.
Adobe Audition is a powerful audio editor that's especially useful when working with audio from other Creative Cloud apps like Premiere Pro and After Effects. Although it also operates just fine on its own. Audition allows you to work with single audio files or multi-track projects. It has a great selection audio restoration and correction tools. And it can also play back video which is useful when you're editing or scoring through a video. If you're currently an Adobe customer, Audition may already be installed on your Mac or PC. If you don't have the Adobe suite and you're looking for an application that also excels at audio restoration, as well as fall conversion and mastering tasks, Sound Forge might be good choice.
Now if you're sitting there thinking that all these programs are too daunting or too powerful for what you need to do, maybe just need to edit down a recording or a lecture, record or edit a radio broadcast, or record a quick voiceover for a PowerPoint Presentation you're putting together, there are still other options available. For instance you might want to look into Audacity. Audacity is a free and open-source audio editor for both Mac, Windows, and even Linux. And it gives you the ability to record and edit audio in a simple but powerful interface. It comes with a large collection of effects you can apply to your recordings, and it's able to export your audio in a variety of formats.
If you're looking for a simple audio editor to start out with, Audacity is a great choice. Or maybe you're looking for something more portable. While all of the DAWs I've mentioned so far can be run on a Mac or Windows laptop, many people these days are turning to devices like the iPad to act as the recording race. There are a variety of audio interfaces that allow you to plug in mics, guitars and other instruments to your iPad. And you'll find dozens of apps designed specifically for recording, editing and mixing audio on the iPad. For example, Auria Pro is an app that allows you to record up to 24 tracks simultaneously and offers a virtually unlimited number of tracks to record onto.
You can then edit, mix, and export directly from your iPad without ever having to connect to a computer. In contrast, the iPad version of GarageBand is a fully-functioning DAW that allows you to record audio tracks as well as utilize entire collections of smart instruments which enable you to easily play or program drums, keyboard, guitar, bass, and string instruments into your project right from the iPad touch interface. An alternative to the iPad for music production is the Microsoft Surface.
Most DAWs that run on Windows run on the Surface. And you can even use the Surface for writing music notation. As you can see, there's an entire world of options available when it comes to selecting a DAW. If you're just starting out, download and trial several DAWs to see which has the best feature set that suits you and which one feels the best to use.