A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is indispensable for making music with the computer. If you choose the right one, you will be more productive and creative.
Did you want to record a song in the studio in the past? Then you had to do it one channel at a time, on a multi-track recorder. These were large tape recorders that you had to rewind and forward manually. Did you make a mistake? Then you had to record the part again, or cut and paste the tape.
Nowadays most producers record their music in a DAW. It stands for Digital Audio Workstation, a computer with special software for recording and editing digital audio.
DAW software comes in all shapes and sizes. From free to very expensive and from simple to complex. But what exactly does a DAW do and why is it crucial that you choose the right one right away?
What is a DAW and what can you do with it?
You can record music on a computer in various ways. Probably you wanna do one of these things:
- Record instruments and vocals
- Record virtual instruments
- Work with audio and loops
- Edit audio
- Mix and produce songs
- Work with audio effects
This is all possible with a DAW.
Digital Audio Workstations differ in how they look, work and sound. DAWs as FL Studio and Ableton Live mainly focus on electronic music, such as house and EDM. Programs like Protools, Logic, and Cubase are a bit better for arranging and mixing.
💡 Example. FL Studio is originally pattern-based. That means you can easily program patterns, such as a beat or a bass line. You can then merge these “patterns” into a song.
FL Studio’s workflow is ideal if you make music with a computer mouse. Do you prefer to record parts with a midi keyboard or drum pad? Then other DAWs are more suitable.
In FL Studio you can program beats quickly and easily.
Do you need DAW software to record music?
No, it isn’t necessary. You can also record music with other devices such as a multi-track recorder. This is a kind of stand-alone computer to which you can connect, record, and mix instruments.
If you make electronic music, you can also work with an external sequencer, such as an Akai MPC. In the MPC you can record and program beats and melodies. The sequencer then sends note commands to your synthesizers and drum machines. This way you make music without a screen and you really use your ears.
Editing with an external sequencer is possible, but the screen is way smaller than a computer monitor. Also, you can’t use VST instruments either and you need a mixing console to mix your tracks. An all-in-one DAW is cheaper.
Finally, there are hybrid devices. Tools that allow you to operate your DAW without a mouse and keyboard. This way you combine the best of both worlds: the feel of buttons and sliders and the convenience of a DAW.
With a multi track recorder you can record and mix music without a computer.
What is the easiest DAW to use?
You learn to work quickly with most DAWs. They are quite intuitive, especially if you understand the principles behind making music with the computer. Still, some DAWs are easier to use than others.
An ideal DAW for beginners is FL Studio. You install it quickly on a laptop and you can get started right away.
In this video, I show you how to make a Tech House beat in less than 10 minutes.
Is GarageBand a good DAW?
With GarageBand you can make music quickly. The program is free, which makes it very suitable for beginners. If you want to get started with music production more seriously, you will quickly run into its limitations. However, don’t let that deter you. Just try it out and discover if you enjoy making music. You can always switch to another DAW.
Why do many dance producers use Ableton Live?
Ableton Live is a relatively new DAW. The program works very well and contains no unnecessary bells and whistles. You also notice that in the design, because it is rather bare.
Ableton Live is very popular among DJs and producers. Partly because you can perform excellent with the software. You can easily link loops, samples, and complete tracks to hotkeys or midi devices. Then you trigger them at the push of a button, automatically at the right tempo.
German producer Ben Böhmer shows in this video how he gives live shows with Ableton Live. Highly inspiring!
How do you choose the best DAW?
Some people say it doesn’t matter which DAW you use. I don’t agree with it. A Digital Audio Workstation is the most important part of your studio, together with your sound card and monitor speakers. Once you choose a program, you often work with it for years. Therefore, make sure the software inspires you.
1. The best way to find out if a program suits you is to download the demo. Really do this and follow some videos on YouTube. Does the workflow suit you and do you feel like making music? That’s a good start.
2. Also search online for the pros and cons of DAWs for the music you want to make. Some DAWs lend themselves better to certain genres than others. You have extensive notation options at Cubase and Studio One, for example. If you work a lot with sheet music, this is an interesting feature.
3. Watch instructional videos on YouTube. You will find much more for some DAWs than for others. Do you like to learn through videos? Then take this into account in your decision.
“Do you like video-tutorials? Then also check how many videos and courses you can find for a DAW. ”
Switching to another DAW can make a big difference
Choosing a DAW made a big difference to me. I started with Cubase a long time ago, worked briefly with Ableton Live, and then switched to FL Studio. I enjoyed working with it for 15 years, but my music didn’t sound good enough.
I’ve switched over to Studio One 2 years ago and it turned out to be a golden move. In Studio One I mix with more confidence and my tracks sound way better. After the switch, I’ve signed a record deal and now I’m making money with my music.
Is Studio One better than FL Studio? Absolutely not and Martin Garrix, among others, makes great music with this DAW. But for me, Studio One suits better.
Can you transfer songs between different DAWs?
Satellite Plugins make it easier to transfer files between different DAWs.
Unfortunately, you can’t exchange songs between different DAWs. Although different programs do more or less the same, they do it slightly differently. For example, they work with different plug-in protocols: TDM and RTAS plug-ins for Pro Tools, VST plug-ins and Audio Units for other DAWs. And they handle audio and MIDI files differently.
Sometimes you already have problems with older versions of the same DAW. Simply because a certain function is missing in previous versions.
Developers are working on solutions to make collaboration easier. For example, Satellite Plugins has recently been introduced. It’s a free cross-platform tool for Ableton Live, Logic, FL Studio, Pro Tools, and other DAWs. I haven’t worked with it yet, but the website looks promising.
Good to know. In DAWs you can always export audio and midi. If you choose the option “Export Stems”, you can automatically export all tracks as audio. Please note that this takes up a lot of space. A single audio track as a wave file is about 70 to 80 MB in size. If you use dozens of tracks you’ll end up with a big file.
💡 Tip. Do you want to exchange large audio files easily? Then try WeTransfer. You can send files up to 2 gig for free.
Best DAWs in 2021: and the winner is…
You can use all kinds of criteria when choosing a DAW. Like:
- How much money do you want to spend?
- How expensive is updating?
- Do you want the program mainly for audio or midi?
- What type of music do you make?
- Do you want to perform on stage with the DAW?
Many DAWs have a light and premium version. More and more programs also work with a subscription model. For a fixed price per month, you can use the latest version. That’s certainly interesting if you want to try a program longer than the demo period.
These are nice DAWs in 2021
Apple Logic Pro
Logic Pro is a fun and easy-to-use DAW for all genres. You can perfectly compose and produce music with it. The mixing options are also very extensive. With Logic Pro you can get started right away.
PreSonus Studio One
Studio One by the American company PreSonus became popular in no time. And with a reason, because the software is intuitive, robust, and sounds fantastic. For electronic music, DAWs like FL Studio and Ableton Live may be more versatile. But it’s possible with Studio One as well.
Reaper is rock solid and very affordable. You can buy a license for personal use for $ 60. A commercial license costs $ 225, which is still way cheaper than most competitors.
Price: $60 for personal use.
A personal license for Reaper is only $ 60.
Steinberg Cubase Pro
Cubase is one of the older DAWs. The program is overcomplete and it does what it should do. The software is relatively expensive though and you have to pay a lot with every update. It’s the reason quite a few producers switch to other programs.
Image Line FL Studio
FL Studio is ideal if you want to quickly create electronic music. In a few clicks, you make your first beat. And you can easily create a complete song from a few patterns. More than 5 million producers worldwide use FL Studio, including Martin Garrix, Afrojack, and Boi-1da (producer of Eminem, Drake, Rihanna etc).
Also good to know: FL Studio offers lifetime free updates! This is the only DAW that offers this.
Price: from $89 including lifetime free updates.
Avid Pro Tools
If you visit a professional sound studio, they probably work with Avid Pro Tools. However, the software is very expensive and looks a bit dated. Modern DAWs can do much the same for a lower price. But for now, Pro Tools is the industry standard.
Germany’s Ableton Live is great if you make electronic music and want to perform on stage. In the latest version, the audio and midi options have also been considerably expanded. That makes Live a great DAW. As long as you don’t mind the rather bare interface.
Price: from $349
This DAW is made by former Ableton programmers. According to experienced users, Bitwig Studio is a wonderful program to sketch with sound and ideas. But it is also more of a program for audiophiles than for musicians. Whether it’s true? Try the demo and find out yourself.
Propellerhead Reason Studios
Propellerhead Reason has been around for quite some time. The program looks like an old-fashioned studio, to which you can add all kinds of virtual equipment. Since 2017, the software also supports VST plug-ins.
Reason is available in a subscription form and the first month is free.
Price: from $336
MOTU Digital Performer
MOTU was already making music software in the 1980s. Flagship MOTU Digital Performer has reached version 10 and now has a clip launcher (just like Ableton Live) on board. The launcher allows you to trigger clips with a MIDI keyboard or controller. That’s ideal for performing live.
Price: from $389
Now, what’s the best DAW of 2021?
Which DAW should you choose and which is the best? Unfortunately, the answer to that question doesn’t exist. I really like Studio One. But it depends on what you want and what you like. So try out the different programs and discover what works best for you. You will enjoy the right one for years.
Which DAW do you work with? What do you like about the program? And a little less? Leave a comment and share your knowledge. Because together we know more.