Pro Tips, Reviews

Home Studios: How to Choose a Digital Audio Workstation

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A DAW (digital audio workstation) is the canvas for your musical creation. Think of it as a mini-studio built right into your computer. Most DAWs are packaged with a recording interface as well as effect racks, digital instruments, and music sequencers. If you’re new to home recording or want to get into making music on your computer, choosing your DAW is the first step.

Before we jump in though, ask yourself what you want out of producing music. Are you looking to create a soundtrack for your new movie? Are you going to record yourself and an acoustic guitar? Do you plan to make electronic music? Every DAW serves the same purpose of recording and playback, yet many offer different functions and capabilities better suited for each musician. With many options out there, we’ve narrowed down the most popular, from beginner to intermediate and professional musicians.
 

Beginner

If you’re new to music recording or just looking for basic audio software, these applications are both affordable and beginner-friendly. Although several functions are limited, these DAWs are perfect for recording simple projects like vocals and acoustic guitar, an instrumental track with string instruments or drums, or a voiceover recording.

GarageBand
Bundled with MacOS: Free
Standalone: $4.99

garageband

For Mac users, GarageBand comes pre-bundled with most OS installations. GarageBand is straightforward and the most beginner-friendly DAW available. It introduces you to many key elements of working within a DAW, such as the play/stop/record buttons, working with multiple tracks, adding effects, and working with external microphones in an interface that’s easily navigable.

GarageBand has been used on everything from Grimes’ debut album to T-Pain’s demos to the preset drum loop in Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” It offers pre-installed templates for any number of projects or genres, automatically placing tracks with built-in plugins. This is also the best introduction to using MIDI instruments (such as pianos and string instruments), as well as a number of loops (an instrumental track that can be repeated for any number of measures) of drums, synthesizers, and other built-in sounds.

Audacity
FREE

audacity

For Mac and Windows users, Audacity is about as simple as it gets — and it’s free and open-source! It allows multi-track recording and makes it easy to quickly add effects. However, Audacity’s capabilities are limited and the interface can be confusing. Audacity is good for a quick and dirty demo or voice recording, but I would recommend a different beginner DAW if you’re looking to ease your way into using a more advanced program.
 

Intermediate

If you’re familiar with the basic features of a DAW and are looking for something more powerful and capable, look into these types of programs. These DAWs offer nearly unlimited capabilities and intuitive features.

Ableton Live
Intro (w/ limited features): $99
Standard: $449 (Recommended)
Suite (additional features and plugins): $749

abletonlive
Screenshot courtesy of Ableton AG

Ableton Live is an all-in-one recording interface, MIDI sequencer, and live-performance tool. It’s the go-to for electronic producers and home-studio musicians due to its clean interface, great sounding plug-ins, performance capabilities, and intuitive design. Ableton is unique in offering two views: arrangement view and session view. Session view allows you to create “clips” (loops, chord progressions, and bits of audio) on the fly, whereas arrangement view allows you to take those clips and arrange them into a composition.

Ableton Live includes descriptions of every instrument and effect plug-in, making it even easier to experiment. It’s also one of the most popular DAWs in electronic music, due to its easy MIDI programming and sequencing. It’s the DAW of choice for everyone from composer Hans Zimmer to Skrillex, Diplo, and Justin Bieber. However, with its emphasis on MIDI and electronic production, the workflow for audio (such as recording live instruments) can be limiting for some users.

FL Studio
Starter: $99
Producer Version: $199 (Recommended)
Signature Version: $299 (Additional Plugins)
All Plugins: $799

fl-studio
Screenshot courtesy of Image-Line

Originally known as Fruity Loops (I know), FL Studio became popular for its ease of drum sequencing and healthy collection of thousands of pre-programmed beats and loops. Although the DAW is great for digital instruments, its audio editing and microphone recording functions are limited. FL Studio’s number of built-in MIDI keyboards, synthesizers, and drums make it popular among electronic and hip-hop musicians (such as EDM stars Avicii and Martin Garrix), but for a more versatile experience, I would recommend Ableton Live or Logic Pro. Additionally, FL Studio is only available for Windows, although a Mac version is currently being developed.

Logic Pro
Logic Pro X: $199

logic-pro
Screenshot courtesy of Apple

Think of Logic Pro as a souped-up GarageBand (perhaps because they’re both manufactured by Apple). Logic Pro has a bit of everything, and is a favorite among home producers to record live bands, acoustic demos, and vocal recordings, or to do audio manipulation. Logic offers a number of great-sounding built-in plugins and effects and is the perfect balance between a more advanced program like Pro Tools to a more user-friendly one like Ableton Live. The program was used in sessions for everything from Adele’s 21< to Coldplay's Viva la Vida and the newest version, Logic Pro X, introduces a virtual drummer, too. Despite the fact that Logic Pro includes easy-to-learn MIDI sequencing and programming, however, the workflow can be incredibly confusing compared to a program like Ableton Live or FL Studio.
 

Pro

Figure out all the basics and want the most powerful and flexible DAW you can get your hands on? Look no further.

Pro Tools
Educational Edition: $299
Individual Edition: $599

pro-tools

Pro Tools is one of the most widely used tools for music professionals. It was one of the first commercially available DAWs and remains one of the most popular for musicians at all levels. Pro Tools contains the fundamentals of every other audio workstation, but is widely used by professional studios for its multitude of minute audio editing features, incredible sounding built-in effects (such as its realistic, room replicating reverbs) and powerful performance capabilities.

Pro Tools was originally developed by Digidesign, but is now owned by Avid. So for all of you video editors and producers, Pro Tools and Media Composer work in tandem. By no means is Pro Tools a beginner’s program, though. It’s favored by the likes of the sound designer behind Star Wars and Dave Grohl, so for more basic home-recording approaches, it may make sense to stick to something simpler like Logic Pro or Ableton Live.

Propellerhead Reason
Reason 9: $399

propellerhead-reason
Screenshot courtesy of Propellerhead Software AB

Reason stands out among other DAWs for its unorthodox interface. Designed to emulate rack modules of plug-ins and sequencers, Reason is a favorite among electronic musicians and composers for the nitty-gritty effect processing that’s possible with its unique UI. Reason works in Tandem with a number of the other DAWs listed as an effect plug-in, but also works as standalone recording software. I would recommend Reason for more seasoned studio musicians — for anybody looking to get into producing electronic music, Ableton Live or FL Studio may be a more sensible start. However, after time spent starting with other programs, Reason can be a powerful addition to your workflow.

What’s your workstation of choice? Do you have any favorites we didn’t include here? Tell us in the comments!

Top image: Headphones in a home studio by Antbphotos