Audio terminology can get incredibly confusing and trying to understand it all can be tough… It’s a new universe you’re about to step into, one that can feel daunting at first, it certainly did for me. I felt overwhelmed and perplexed about how to begin my journey. That’s exactly why I put my website together and why I write guides like this one, to help you! To help you understand the jargon, make the best choices with gear and software, and make the best music possible with that you have available.
If you are new to the world of audio production and want to record your own music or produce others’ music, one of the first terms you will come across -if not the first- is the the acronym ‘DAW’. But what is a DAW? What does it stand for? What does it do? Do you need one? All of these are excellent questions. The same ones I asked myself when I started learning how to record my own music at home. In this guide I will cover what a DAW is, what it does, and why you need one; followed by a list of the best, most commonly used DAWs so you can decide which one is most suited to you.
What is a DAW? – It’s Simpler Than You Think!
DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. This can be an electronic device, or software. Typically today a DAW more commonly refers to audio software and it really is as simple as that. All DAWs essentially have the same functions and it’s important to remember that. If you can learn how to use the basics in one DAW, you can easily apply them to another. It’s just a case of getting familiar with another layout/user interface. The main basic functions of any DAW are as follows:
A DAW enables you to record your voice, instrument, or anything else that produces sound into your computer. However, don’t forget you will also need an audio interface, if you don’t know what that is, you can read my guide here.
Once you have recorded audio into your DAW, you can edit it. This includes basic functions like cut, copy, paste, trim, split, and many more, such as adding a fade at the beginning or end of the audio.
MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. The most commonly used device is a MIDI keyboard which records and sends MIDI data/musical notes to your DAW. These notes are displayed as small blocks, which can be adjusted and manipulated with ease. In your DAW you can select which kind of virtual instrument you want. For example, you could choose a piano, strings, organ, drums and so on. To be honest the possibilities are endless as there are hundreds of companies producing thousands of virtual instruments. Some DAWs come with virtual instruments but you can also buy third-party ones.
A plug-in is a sound processor that changes a sound by manipulating it in someway. A typical plug-in could be a compressor, limiter,EQ, reverb, delay, or modulation effect. You apply them to your audio in your DAW and they are primarily used for the mixing and mastering process. Just like virtual instruments many DAWs come with their own plug-ins, or you can buy third-party ones. You’ll never be short to find new plug-ins as there are literally thousands available to buy. In fact, it can get pretty addictive building your collection of plug-ins… You can read more about the types of plug-ins in my article ‘What is a VST Plugin?‘.
When you record any sound source at home, or in a studio environment it can sound dull and lifeless. This is because studios are acoustically designed to be dead, meaning there are no natural reflections. This is to record music in a controlled environment with no background disturbances. How do we bring it to life and make it sound the way we desire? By using plug-ins and mixing what we’ve recorded. This enables us to make our song sound professional and polished, or raw and gritty… It depends on what style of music you’re recording and what end result YOU want.
Another reason we mix is to tame and balance all of the audio we’ve recorded. Imagine you’ve just recorded a loud and heavy rock band. You’ve got thrashing drums, a thundering bass, a screaming vocalist, and two guitars with distortion; both competing to get their guitar louder than the other, typical right? Now you have a lot of dynamics and frequencies, all fighting for space with some masking each other.
Mixing allows us to control and manage this ocean of audio by taming all of the tracks so that together they make a coherent, tight, well-balanced song. We ensure that all the sounds compliment each other and work in unison. The difference between a mixed and unmixed song, is like day and night.
So, you’ve recorded, edited, and mixed your music, now what? Is it ready to be released into the world commercially? Not quite. Mastering is the final touch, the icing on the cake. After exporting your song into a wav file, we master it as one complete audio file. This can involve tightening the overall dynamics, adding more volume, and even more EQ if required. We also achieve this by making use of plug-ins in our DAW.
Choosing the Best DAW for You
And thats it! That’s why music producers and audio engineers use a DAW. Without a professional DAW, you have no control over the audio you record into your computer. If you want to do the same then you also need a DAW but which one? If all DAWs offer the same basic functions, what’s the difference? It’s true any DAW will allow you to record, edit, mix, and master your audio; but some are more suited to different types of music and are more user friendly with certain functions. For example, if you’re an electronic artist or DJ and you like to perform live, you may choose Ableton Live. If you are a music composer and need to work with notation, you may choose Logic Pro X. If you run a professional studio and only work with audio, you most likely have a Pro Tools set up.
Largely your choice is going to come down to 1) price, 2) what you want to use the DAW for, 3) the style of music you want to create, record, and produce. Compatibility is also important, but most DAWs are compatible with both Mac and Windows. Now, I’ll show you the most common DAWs, and the best DAWs for beginners. Let’s begin with the most commonly used DAW in studios across the world, one that I am sure you have heard of.
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Pro Tools is the kind of DAW that people either hate, or swear by. I actually started my audio career with Pro Tools way back in 2006 when I was just 16 years old. I had a pretty average PC, which would be considered terrible by today’s standards. When I first opened Pro Tools I was completely clueless about how to use and navigate through it. There were less resources around when I was younger, it wasn’t possible to just go onto YouTube and find hundreds of tutorial videos; but nonetheless I figured out how to do the basics on my own.
That is one of the gripes that people have with Pro Tools, it’s not a very beginner friendly DAW, and personally I’m not a huge fan of its appearance and user interface. It’s a popular opinion that it still looks a little outdated. Also, if you like to write or compose music with virtual instruments and synthesisers using MIDI, then I certainly wouldn’t advise using Pro Tools. Using MIDI with Pro Tools is a little fiddly and awkward, mostly because that’s not Pro Tools’ main use.
So, why is it an industry standard? It’s an incredibly and powerful software for recording and editing audio. Pro Tools capabilities here are unmatched and this is where it really excels. It’s been a big player since the 90s which has continually developed and grown with the audio industry, giving it plenty of time to adapt and evolve. The stock plug-ins are also great, but it lacks any decent synthesisers or virtual instruments.
Is It for You?
As I said, some people love it, some people hate it. However, Pro Tools comes in three different versions, including Pro Tools First, which is totally free! So, why not give it a try? If you’re mostly just interested in working with audio then I’d advise checking out the free version and see if it’s a good fit for you. If you want to write music in your DAW I’d give this one a miss. If your goal is to work in professional studios then learning to use Pro Tools is a must.
GarageBand isn’t really considered as a professional DAW because it is more basic and limited compared to others but that’s exactly why I’m including it. It’s extremely easy to use, plus it’s completely free! It only comes with Apple computers though, meaning it’s only compatible with Mac. So, if you’re a Windows user give this one a miss. Sorry about that…
What I love about GarageBand is its simplicity. It has been made for one purpose, to create music. If you want to do some recording for vocals, guitar, MIDI and so on, then it’s a great little DAW. You also have access to some basic plug-ins like compressors, limiters, EQs, delays, reverbs and modulation effects. This gives you the fundamental tools to get familiar with, ready for when you upgrade to a more powerful DAW.
GarageBand comes with an array of virtual instruments and synthesisers, perfect for any composers or electronic artists that want to get started in the world of MIDI. Guitarists and bassists will also be pleased to know that you can choose from a section of amps. Another superb feature is the virtual interactive drummer, something I have yet to see in other DAWs apart from GarageBand and Logic Pro X. You can essentially generate a virtual drummer at the click of a button. From there you can choose a selection of custom drum kits and effortlessly change the beats, grooves, fill combinations, and individual sounds of the drum kit. I love this dynamic session player.
Is it for you?
For a free DAW it’s kind of mind blowing actually. It’s a very clever ploy from Apple to get musicians interested in their products. I can’t fault it though, it’s superbly made, easy to use, and a perfect way to learn the basics. For that reason alone, you should give it a try. You’ll be able to record, edit, mix and compose music with ease. It’s also a brilliant stepping stone to Logic Pro X (Also made by Apple), as its layout is very similar. I’ll talk about that next.
Logic Pro X
Logic Pro X is my favourite DAW and it’s what I use all the time, but why did I make the switch from Pro Tools? At the time I wasn’t a Mac user and I was still a little anti Mac to be honest… However, when I went to study Audio Production at university all they had were Apple computers, iMacs to be precise. We used Pro Tools of course but also Logic 9. When I started to get used to it, I found it to be much better for writing music than Pro Tools.
I decided to bite the bullet and buy an iMac, with the newly released Logic Pro X for £199. I was totally blown away by what was included. With Logic Pro X you get access to hundreds of stock plug-ins, amps, virtual instruments, loops, and interactive sequencers, samplers, synthesisers, drum machines, and the virtual drummer I mentioned earlier in GarageBand. As well as being able to record, edit, mix, and master your music; you can write notation, create live loops for spontaneous composition in real time, and use your iPad or iPhone as an extra DAW controller. Giving you a much more efficient workflow.
The layout of Logic Pro X is very user friendly, it’s easy to navigate and you can always select the help tool at the top if you’re lost. Upon doing so, whenever you hover your mouse over something it tells you what it is, its function, and its shortcut key. Extremely handy when you’re starting out! Some may not like the dark grey appearance of the DAW. It did take me some getting used to after the bright appearance of Pro Tools. Now my eyes thank me for the darker layout.
Is It for You?
Logic Pro X is a truly brilliant allrounder and exceedingly good value for money, considering everything that you get. It’s a powerful, mighty DAW that Apple continually update, improve, and add new features too regularly. You have life access to these updates after your first purchase, which is a big bonus. Sadly there is no free trial to test it out though… which is why I recommend checking out GarageBand first which is a very stripped down version of Logic. If you need a DAW to do a bit of everything, efficiently and accurately, including composing and electronic music creation then go for Logic Pro X. You will not be disappointed!
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PreSonus are well known for making quality and affordable audio hardware, but in 2009 they created their own DAW called Studio One. Since it’s creation it’s become more and more popular over the years. It’s now one of the most commonly used DAWs on the market.
So, what sets it apart from the others? Well, you can do all the basic and advance functions of any DAW, plus some brilliantly intuitive design features which make it stand out. In Studio One you can also fully customise the interface, giving you the ability to choose from different colours and themes. Perfect if you want a darker theme for working at night, or a lighter one for working during the day time. I really love this feature and I wish more DAWs had this option.
Like Logic, Studio One is always continually being updated and developed by PreSonus. All the updates are free and so they should be if you’ve paid for it. Something else that sets it apart is most DAWs have a recording window, and a mixing window where you also do your mastering. However, Studio One is the only DAW with a dedicated mastering window, where you can adjust track sequencing, loudness, and apply any plug-ins to the entire project. You can keep an eye on the levels with the mastering meters and even burn straight to CD straight from Studio One if you desire.
Studio One comes with an excellent range of plug-ins, instruments, and melodyne; which is a plug-in to rearrange, change, or add harmonies to vocal recordings. You can even change the pitch and timing, which hopefully you won’t need to do, providing your vocalist can actually sing, just kidding…
Is It for You?
Studio One is brilliantly intuitive, and easy to use due to its very user friendly interface. The layout is well organised, with customisable themes. It is great value for the money although more expensive than other DAWs. It’s worth noting though, that if you buy an audio interface made by PreSonus, you get Studio One completely free. If you want a powerful, flexible and versatile DAW, then I would strongly consider buying a PreSonus interface with Studio One included. It’s a killer combination!
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Ableton Live, as the name suggests is perfectly suited for live performers, specifically electronic artists and DJs. That’s not to say it doesn’t function like a normal DAW, it does, but it does lack some more advanced editing and mixing features. Other DAWs are more intuitive for editing and mixing, but for seamless live performance Ableton is king.
So, what makes it so good for live performance? You can loop record in MIDI or audio, and have your recordings play simultaneously or separately, for creative spontaneity. It’s also very easy to select the best take as they are organised into vertical lanes. With the new release of Ableton 11 you now have MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) compatibility. So you can plug in your MPE controller and effortlessly add bends, slides, and dynamic changes to any note or chord. Giving you ultimate expression when performing live. If you don’t know what MPE is, I’d highly recommend you to check it out.
Another highly intuitive feature is when you are performing live with Ableton, it listens to what you’re playing and figures out the tempo. Genius, right? The benefit of this, is that any plug-in you are using is now completely synced up to you! If you’re using a delay, sequencer, or drum machine, it will dynamically adjust to the speed you are playing in real-time. Essentially this makes Ableton Live a performer that seamlessly works with you.
Is it for You
If you are an electronic artist or DJ, with live performance being a priority, then it’s absolutely worth giving it a go. It’s highly intuitive, and perfect for improvising on stage. The large range of included plug-ins, instruments, samples, effects, and presents are all you need to get started. If you’re on a budget, you can purchase the introduction version for just £55. Experiment with the basics and see what you think.
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Cubase has been around for a long time and is still a very popular DAW. If you’re into film composing, you may know the names Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer. The latter probably being the most famous film composer of our time. Both of these composers swear by Cubase and it’s true it’s a fantastic DAW for writing music.
Similar to Logic, Cubase has an inbuilt score editor where you can write and edit music notation. Cubase even converts MIDI notes into notation for you. This is perfect if you want to print your scores out into sheet music for a musician to play. You also have fancy tools like Chord Track and Chord Pads to speed up the composing process.
Cubase has a black user interface which some may not like but it is very sleek and easy to navigate through. People who write music really love cubase for its practicality with MIDI. It’s MIDI layout is incredibly user friendly, efficient, and speedy; which is probably why it’s so popular amongst film composers under tight deadlines with a need to save time.
Like other DAWs on the list, Cubase also comes with a lot of virtual instruments, plug-ins, effects, drum machines, and audio suites to get you started. It’s also a DAW renowned for its stability and ability to handle a lot of processing without crashing. Plus the regularly updates ensure that Cubase is always up-to-date and compatible.
Is it for You?
If you want a powerful, sleek DAW perfect for composing and writing music, Cubase may be for you. It’s not the cheapest on the list, but you get a lot for your money. It comes with all the standard bells and whistles of any DAW, with some very intuitive innovations for making music. It has been around for a long time and they have built a solid reputation for a reason. Why not give it a try and see if it’s a good fit for you?
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Previously known as Fruit Loops but Kelloggs thought people may confuse a DAW with their cereal and took legal action… hmmmm, ok. FL studio is a name that comes up often when looking for a cheap DAW. However, the cheapest version does not allow you to work with audio, so be careful when choosing which type to purchase.
FL studio is a DAW popular among electronic musicians such as DJs, Hip-hop, and EDM artists. With its spreadsheet like interface, it’s easy to create electronic music and edit MIDI. Using tools like their pattern roll you can program drum loops within seconds, freeing up your time for other tasks. Like other electronic based DAWs you have access to an array of plug-ins, synths, virtual instruments, samples, and loops to help you get inspired. All of which cover sub-genres such as trance, house, dubstep, drum and bass, and hard-style.
You also have access to a pretty decent sample editor where you can turn any audio file into a MIDI instrument, pretty handy for hip-hop producers. If you’re into creating glitch music or complextro, FL Studio covers that too with their grossbeat plug-in. This will save you a lot of tedious hours cutting, stretching, and pitching audio. Similar to PreSonus’s Studio One you can also customise the interface, changing the colours to suit your taste or working environment.
Is it for you?
If your goal is create electronic music then I would say this is a good choice for you. Working with MIDI and the piano roll in FL Studio is efficient, easy to use and navigate through; but for more complex audio editing and mixing you’d be better to look elsewhere. You can try it for free so you don’t have much to lose. If you do decide to purchase it, nFL Studio give you unlimited upgrades for life, which is pretty awesome.
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Reason is another DAW well-suited to electronic musicians. What makes it more unique than others is its user interface. Firstly, it bases itself in 3 windows, a rack, a sequencer, and a mixer. Giving you a window to create sounds, a recoding window, and a mixing window. Secondly, it has the interface is designed to look like an analog mixing console, giving it a classic retro look and feel.
With Reason you get a comprehensive collection of instruments, synthesisers, plug-ins, and presets. Using their rack window, makes it very simple, easy, and fun to create an endless amount of sounds. I would say it’s a unique selling point of Reason and very beginner friendly. The lighter interface is a nice change from some other darker looking DAWs, and it’s very clean and easy to navigate through.
Is it for you?
If you’re a beat maker, or electronic artist then Reason is a superb choice. Working with MIDI is a breeze, and creating new sounds is fun and simple. The retro look, makes you feel like you are working in a real analog studio environment. For more complex audio mixing and mastering tasks though, Reason is lacking in this area.
Cockos Reaper is the cheapest on the list at only $60 which is unbeatable value for money. Naturally as the price is so low, you don’t get a lot included with this DAW. It comes with some basic plug-ins that do their job but they’re nothing to write home about. Likewise the layout and design is very minimalist but not in a bad way. Once you spend some time with it the user interface is very easy to navigate through. Reaper’s simplicity is what makes it desirable for some producers and musicians. It’s gained somewhat of a cult following and its fans are very loyal to this unassuming DAW.
It comes only with some fundamental plug-ins enabling you to do the basics, and in terms of virtual instruments and synthesisers it’s severely lacking, but for the price it’s no real surprise. Reaper is very reliable though and it handles tasks very well, not only that but its highly compatible with third party plug-ins from other companies. It’s easy to set up and highly customisable, you can adjust colours, size, and layout to suit it your workflow.
Is it for you?
If you’re looking for simplicity, straightforward usability and you’re not bothered about the lack of virtual instruments and synthesiser then Reaper could be good choice for you. You can it for 60 days for free from their website. So, what’s to lose? It’s perfect for a beginner and extremely budget friendly if you’re looking to save some some money.
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Funnily enough, Bitwig was created by some engineers who previously worked for Ableton Live. They wanted to create something with expanded functionality and they did a great job! It’s a relatively new DAW compared to others, but it has certainly come a long way since it’s early developed when it was still being compared to Ableton Live
I really like the layout and interface of Bitwig, it’s simple, but sleek and well organised. Its design is black but as all of the controls and parameters are coloured, it’s very inviting and looks playful and fun. It’s easy to navigate through and interact with. Plus everything is customisable, so if you don’t like it’s default design you can play around with it.
Bitwig has a huge selection of modulators, so if you’re big on electronic music production you’re going to have a lots of tools to play with. You also get access to a fair amount of synthesisers and virtual instruments. The visualisers and controls on the modulators and synthesisers are eye catching and pleasant to use
Is it for you?
It’s a relatively new DAW but it is continually developing and they have a very exciting feature still in the works. In the future they intend to let users work on the same project simultaneously whilst using different computers, pretty cool right!? If you’re an electronic music producer who loves to play around with modulators and synths check it out, although it is not as cheap as some other options on the list.
Now What? My Advice to You
I know what you’re thinking, that’s a long list… and guess what? There are even more DAWs available than those ones. How do you even choose one? My best advice is DON’T OVERTHINK IT. It’s easy to get caught up in the little details and differences, but do you remember what I said at the beginning of this article? If you can master one DAW, you can master any!
Hopefully this guide has given you some idea about which to pick, but gust pick a DAW and get started. It doesn’t matter which one you start with. I started with Pro Tools remember and then I went to Logic Pro X. Who knows, I might change DAW again in the future. Look for which DAWs offer free trials, try them out and go from there. Regardless of which one you choose, it will allow you to start creating, recording and producing great music, and that’s what you’re here for right? So, spread your creative wings and begin your audio production journey.
Want to know what else you need to start recording and creating music at home? Check out my article How to Record Music at Home.
Which DAW do you use? Which one are you thinking about trying? Do you have any questions?
Let me know in the comments