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What’s the Best DAW? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

14/07/2022
Whether you’re recording, mixing, or mastering music with a computer, a Digital Audio Workstation is the most important tool at your disposal. Here’s our guide to finding the right DAW software for you.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is the music production software you record, edit, and arrange your music in. But with so many DAWs available, you may rightly be wondering about how to find the right one for you.

While on one level most DAWs do similar things, they’re all organised a little differently. Some are better suited to certain styles of music, through design.

To get you started, in this super-sized article we will answer:

  • What is a DAW, and what does it do? Read more >
  • What are VST instruments & effects? Read more >
  • What is an audio interface, and why do you need one? Read more >
  • What are the key differences between some of the most popular DAWs – Pro Tools, Cubase, Studio One, Ableton Live, Bitwig, Reason and FL Studio? Read more >

That last question will be our biggest focus. We’ll give you the key features of each major DAW, explain the different versions you can get, and show you the update/upgrade options.

The goal is to help you find a DAW that will best suit you, both now… and in the future.

What is a DAW?

PreSonus-Studio-One-5-Artist-UpgradeOn a fundamental level, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is a piece of software for arranging and mixing audio. If you have a DAW and a decent computer to install it on, you basically have enough to make music with!

Inside the DAW, we can reorganise, layer, edit and mix audio to create a final arrangement.

Then we can export the final track as a mixed-down high-quality WAV file to send to a mastering engineer, upload to streaming services, burn a CD, pop on Bandcamp, or turn into an MP3 and email it to everyone in our address book…

The audio you use is either recorded live into the DAW (via a connected microphone and USB audio interface) or dragged in from folders to occupy tracks.

In many cases, the arrangement runs from left to right, like reading a book, although some DAWs run top to bottom – and some DAWs do both!

A corresponding mixer panel, often at the bottom of the page, allows you to adjust the overall loudness of each track, pan the sounds left & right, and apply effects & processing such as EQ, compression & reverb. These tools allow you to fix issues, balance the sound, and polish your track.

You can also cut, splice and duplicate audio, so that you can extend parts, re-order audio, and perfect your arrangements. Just like you might create a collage of artwork, making music is like an audio collage!

Track limits

Now, some entry-level DAWs limit the total number of available tracks (layers) you have at your disposal. This helps you save money while still getting the essential tools you need to make music.

And while you may feel that having 8 or 16 tracks to play would be very restricting, The Beatles recorded most of their hits on 8 tracks or less! Having more tracks is certainly useful for more complex orchestral arrangements, or doubling-up sounds for fuller-sounding mixes, but there is no direct correlation between how good a piece of music is and how many tracks it happened to use.

In many senses less can be more, helping us focus and work more carefully on what we have available without getting too daunted by endless possibilities. Plus, you can always upgrade later if you prefer to start smaller and save some money for other audio tools you need, such as a MIDI keyboard, audio interface, or perhaps some nice plugins for your DAW.

Shop now | DAW Software

What are Virtual Plugins?

Virtual plugins, aka VST plugins (Virtual Studio Technology), are pieces of software within software. They come in the form of instruments or effects.

A DAW will likely have some form of virtual instruments and effects included. You can call up a VST Instrument on a ‘MIDI track’ and program it to make music. Or, you can add a plugin effect to any audio track to alter its sound.

Shop now | VST plugins

VST Instruments

Arturia-V-Collection-8VST instruments could be virtual guitars, basses, drumkits, drum machines, keyboards, pianos, synthesizers, orchestral instruments, and many more.

By using VST Instruments, you can build complete arrangements without recording a single piece of audio.

25 years ago, you literally had to buy a room full of hardware to achieve this, and while hardware-based music is back with a vengeance, hardware musicians will still inevitably rely on a DAW to edit and polish their arrangements!

Shop now | VST instruments
 
 

 

 

VST Effects

VST Effects processors, on the other hand, are designed to enhance and transform your sounds. You’ll find EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays, choruses, and many more.

Some VSTs are authentic virtual recreations of real-world instruments, or classic, rare, and expensive studio equipment of the past. Other VSTs have only ever existed in the virtual world.

There is a whole industry of amazing third-party VST instruments and effects to choose from, and we would be remiss not to mention that we have a huge range for any budget right here on the Gear4music software site!

It’s important to mention that some entry-level DAWs (i.e., PreSonus Studio One Artist) won’t let you use third-party instruments, but they often include a good selection of their own instruments which can be more than enough to make music with. More advanced users will likely end up mixing and matching their favourite built-in instruments and effects with some choice selections from third parties.

Shop now | VST effects

What is an audio interface, and why do I need one?

Behringer-U-PHORIA-UMC204HD-USB-Audio-Interface

If you intend to record with a real instrument or microphone, an audio interface is an essential DAW accessory. It’s the bridge between your computer and your external studio gear/instruments/microphones.

An audio interface will allow you to connect professional microphonesguitarskeyboards and more, and therefore record ‘real things’ directly into your DAW. Audio interfaces also let you connect professional headphones and studio monitor speakers – important for good monitoring, so you can make well-judged adjustments to your mix.

Many interfaces include a 5-pin DIN MIDI connector so you can also connect a MIDI keyboard, although your MIDI keyboard may side-step this with a USB connector. Having MIDI outputs also allows you to send MIDI data to external hardware gear (such as sound modules or synthesizers), and then capture their audio.

Shop now | Audio interfaces

 

What are ASIO and latency?

ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) is a computer driver that your DAW will understand. It is a piece of software that creates a direct audio connection between your computer and audio interface. This is a critical benefit of adding an audio interface to your music production setup.

These high-speed drivers make for a much better experience when using VST instruments, since they improve latency.

Latency is the delay you’ll experience between pressing a key on your MIDI keyboard and actually hearing the virtual instrument play that note. This can be adjusted with the ‘buffer’ setting in your audio interface’s software control interface at the cost of CPU performance – depending on the interface you have.

You ideally need a near-imperceptible delay. Otherwise, the gap between pressing a note and ‘hearing’ your keyboard makes it very hard to play – a bit like playing with an ‘echo’. But setting your computer for very low latency settings can cause performance issues as it requires more processing power, so you will need to strike a balance.

A good latency would be anything below 10 milliseconds. For reference, if you stand one metre from your speakers, it takes sound 3ms to reach your ears! Rest assured that if you have a computer made within the last 5 years, and an audio interface with an ASIO driver, you should be able to get more than good enough performance.

Many DAWs also include a ‘freeze’ function which temporarily records and then deactivates a virtual instrument, so that you hear a recording of it, rather than the ‘live’ instrument. This frees up CPU power and can allow you to enjoy low-latency performance on the virtual instrument you are playing, even with big sessions running on a modest computer.

Which is the best DAW?

The best DAW is the one that works best for you, and how you want to produce music.

So far in this guide, we’ve covered what a DAW does and outlined some important accessories. Now let’s go through the most popular DAWs one by one and help you understand their key strengths and differences. Hopefully, we’ll help you narrow down the right one for you.

Of course, with creativity, all DAWs can be used to make all styles of music – and possibly ones not yet invented, perhaps! But we do think they can be laid out in a certain order – on one end suiting traditional band-recording applications, and on the other end being more suited to pure electronic music production.

In most cases, DAWs will come in multiple versions – good, better, and best. The difference is often the number of virtual instruments and effects included, as well as the number of available tracks at your disposal. We’ll be sure to outline these differences, as well as your upgrade options since, if you decide to start small, you’ll want to know your upgrade options for later.

Ready? Let’s start on the ‘traditional band recording’ and end with a legend…

AVID Pro Tools

Pro-Tools-Artist-1-Year-SubscriptionIn one sentence:

AVID Pro Tools is the de-facto recording industry standard, used in most professional studios for recording bands and orchestras, as well as in film and television – plus it’s a flexible DAW you can have in your studio too.

In detail:

If you’re in a band or starting a studio, Pro Tools is likely to be high on your list of choices. Think of it like an advanced tape machine.

You can trust it for the highest fidelity, most mission-critical pristine mixes – there won’t be many recordings you hear on the radio that haven’t passed through it.

As Pro Tools is one of the longest established pieces of recording software then many flexible editing conveniences and shortcuts are provided for. You can start your sessions with a clean blank slate and everything you need to do to record, edit and mix audio is there. Plus, there are good MIDI tools and score editing built-in.

Pro Tools supports plugin instruments and effects that use the AAX Native format, a format specific to Pro Tools. Because it’s the industry standard, it’s rare to find a plugin that won’t supply you with an AAX version but do double-check if you’re buying from very small indie developers.

As it originates from the traditional studio environment, Pro Tools sticks strictly to a traditional ‘left to right’ DAW paradigm, so does not have the novel top-to-bottom ‘Session view’ of Ableton Live, or the ‘Arranger Track’ concept of Studio One which suit loop-based music and composing on the timeline.

Pro Tools doesn’t have as many compositional aids built-in compared to other DAWs, and it would therefore be fair to bill it more as a tool, rather than an instrument itself – as opposed to other choices like Ableton Live and Bitwig.

Cloud collaboration in Pro Tools is the most advanced of any DAW, meaning anyone using Pro Tools can remotely collaborate on sessions with other users, making it possible for bands separated by time and space to contribute to mixes collectively.

This isn’t done in real-time, but means that you can send your session to your guitarist across the world, go to bed, then wake up in the morning and open the session to find a shiny new guitar track has been added while you slept!

Pro-Tools-Studio-(Perpetual)

Great for:

  • Band recording and professional studios, singers and songwriters, podcasters.
  • Great for traditional band recording and mixing workflows – think of it as the ultimate tape machine.
  • Unique cloud collaboration features for remotely working on shared sessions with other Pro Tools users/bandmates, wherever they are.
  • Features good MIDI editing and an arsenal of shortcuts to speed up workflow.
  • Features elastic audio and a ‘smart tool’ for fast work.
  • Features undisputed audio fidelity and proven mix engine.
  • Can be trusted for the most high-end applications – most records on the radio will have passed through it, and your favourite films and TV shows will be mixed on it!
  • A good selection of effects and instruments included.
  • Those advanced users looking to mix for Dolby Atmos and surround sound for broadcast delivery – Ultimate required.

Key versions and included instruments & effects:

Pro Tools | First: A free version supporting up to 16 tracks with basic core functionality including MIDI editor – more than enough to make music with. Includes 23 plugins, but no score editor or video support. Does support external plugins (AAX format, which is what Pro Tools requires). A great place to start – after all, it’s free!

Pro Tools: This is the ‘standard’ version of Pro Tools which supports up to 256 tracks and includes 119 plugins. Sibelius Score Editor included. Improved track comping, audio-to-MIDI conversion, comping (helps you assemble the best takes), Beat Detective included. Supports sample rates up to 192kHz, 32-bit. Does not include surround sound editing.

Pro Tools | Ultimate: This version takes advantage of special AVID ‘HDX’ Hardware for handling huge 2048 track sessions and is therefore really the reserve of high-end studios. Includes ‘Advanced Audio Editing’ and higher-end broadcast features, likely only required if you’re doing surround-sound mixes for television or film.

Upgrade/educational options:

Pro Tools can be subscribed to in one-year chunks, giving you all updates during that year. At the end of the year, you would need to purchase another yearly subscription. Alternatively, it can be bought as a perpetual license, where you pay a larger fixed price and get a license that never expires. You do get 1 year of free updates included with that purchase – so any new updates are yours for no extra fee during that time

After a year, your version will freeze at that point. It continues to work of course, as long as your OS is supported, but means that if you would like new updates, you will need to purchase a 1-year upgrade renewal (which gives you the latest update plus a year more). This could be done multiple years after your original year elapsed, however, giving you the option of ‘waiting and seeing’.

If your subscription lapses, your Cloud subscription will be downgraded to a free tier 1GB/3-project limit and must be renewed within 30 days to retain access to all your cloud-saved content as it was. Beyond 30 days AVID reserves the right to remove Cloud storage and delete sessions beyond the limit.

Educational discounts are available in two variants, one for individual Students/Teachers and one for Institutions (colleges, universities and schools).

OS compatibility?

Windows and macOS.

Supports M1 Macs natively (as of July 2021).

Demo version?

A 30-day free trial is available for all versions.

Compatible Controllers?

AVID Control is a free iOS and Android app providing hands-on control via touch screens, a fantastic add-on as you may already own a compatible tablet! Using the Eucon control standard, other third-party controllers are available too.

Pro Tools has an unrivalled selection of dedicated AVID compatible controllers, but certainly with a leaning for the more high-end broadcast sector. These begin with the AVID Dock and S1 Control Surface, right up to the immense S6 control surface ideal for high-end broadcast mixing applications.

Shop now | Avid Pro Tools

PreSonus Studio One

PreSonus-Studio-One-5-ArtistIn one sentence:

A relative newcomer, PreSonus Studio One is built to be a faster, fresher approach to the traditional DAW with some unique capabilities such as scratch pads and harmonic editing, aiming to make it a helpful compositional environment with its own built-in mastering suite.

In detail:

“Create without boundaries” is the message with Studio One. Rather than being built on decades of legacy code, it’s a fresh take on the DAW, although it does follow some well-established conventions.

Studio One provides all the commonplace tools for effective recording, editing, and mixing, as well as a unique take on mastering. There are a lot of interesting and unique tools in Studio One, making it a strong contender that’s growing in popularity.

One of the simplest, yet most clever songwriting features is the arranger track. This allows you to drag markers across the top of your arrangement, denoting sections as ‘Verse’, ‘Chorus’ etc, which creates a list showing your sections on the left.

You can then drag items up & down in the list and watch your arrangement totally reorganise itself in real-time on the timeline – something that would be hugely laborious in any other ‘left-to-right’ DAW. This pairs with ‘scratch pads’, which are like mini timelines where you can try out new experimental combinations, without affecting your main arrangement.

For those less comfortable with music theory, Studio One’s harmonic editing allows you to drag & drop to explore chord progressions, as well as change the harmonic structure of your song. Remarkably, this can change the audio even after it has been recorded! ‘Create without boundaries’ indeed.

Event-based effects allow you to apply (and print or freeze) effects to specific pieces of audio in the DAW, rather than to the whole track, allowing for creative spot effects and corrective processing with minimal hit to your CPU.

Studio One includes an integrated mastering suite called the Project Page. Mixes bounced into this page can then be easily auditioned and mastering processors applied to each of them in relationship to one another. Brilliantly, if you spot a mixing error on one track, you can easily flip back into Studio One, make the correction, re-bounce, and the mastering session will update automatically with your corrections included.

Truly an end-to-end DAW, Studio One now includes the Show Page: an environment for performing your music live (including playing back stems and making virtual instruments & effects ready to play). With Show Page, you can use your iPad as a dedicated controller for live performance. This is achievable after installing the Studio One app, which by itself turns your iPad into a remote-control device for Studio One.

Above all, ‘drag-and-drop’ usability and ease of use is championed. Due to its broad but universally appealing end-to-end feature set, we think Studio One is a great all-rounder choice for beginners and advanced users alike, so can be easily recommended to anyone at any level.

PreSonus-Studio-One-5-ProfessionalGreat for:

  • Beginners, bands, guitarists, singers, songwriters, and electronic musicians looking for a more creative environment to write, arrange, edit, master and perform in. A score editor is included.
  • Podcasters, thanks to end-to-end mastering suite and included macros and templates.
  • Scratchpads and Harmonic Editing are unique features for exploring song material and chord progressions.
  • Novel console shaper can change the sound of the mix engine, making it sound more like a high-end vintage analogue mixer or even a four-track cassette deck! Bear in mind this requires an extra purchase or PreSonus Sphere subscription.
  • A broad selection of instruments, sounds and effects are included.
  • Those looking to do it all themselves from start to stage.

Key versions and included instruments & effects:

Currently in version 5, announced July 2020. Studio One 4 was announced in May 2018.

Studio One Prime: A free basic version available directly from the PreSonus site, which features unlimited tracks and many core features, but does not include third-party VST plugin support.

Studio One Artist: This is the entry-level paid version, with the solid mid-level feature set. Includes arranger track, VST plugins support, instruments, and effects. Artist is also found bundled free with many PreSonus audio interfaces.

Studio One Professional: This is the most complete version available as a one-off payment without a subscription. It offers high-quality WAV export, chord track & harmonic editing, project page, performance views, scratch pads, and 30GB of cloud storage. Extras are available as add-on purchases. Includes an enhanced instrument and effect soundset plus a full version of Ampire amp modelling.

PreSonus Sphere Subscription: At about half the cost of Studio One Pro, this 1-year subscription version gives you ‘everything’ for a year. It includes Studio One Pro, the full version of Notion score editor, and all the various bells and whistles PreSonus offers including the full sound library, console shaper, cloud collaboration tools, and monthly live streams & masterclasses unique to the subscription.

Upgrade/educational options:

A very affordable upgrade from Artist to Professional is available, as are upgrades from older versions of Studio One to the latest version 5.

Educational options are also available.

OS compatibility?

Windows and macOS.

Demo version?

A 30-day demo is available.

Shop now | PreSonus Studio One

Steinberg Cubase

Steinberg-Cubase-Elements-12-Education---Boxed-CopyIn One Sentence:

A classic DAW that’s really advanced with the times, Cubase is great for bands, good for electronic music – a number of features really aid the compositional process.

In Detail:

Cubase is on par with Pro Tools for longevity, originally a MIDI-only sequencer before it was a ‘DAW’ capable of audio editing,

Steinberg invented the concept of ‘VST instruments’. Therefore, a good number of electronic music artists and film composers use Cubase. Nils Frahm, Noisia, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Zedd, Tom Holkenborg, and Hans Zimmer to name but a few!

Steinberg have actively worked to make Cubase a lot more than a tape machine – it’s an active participant in the compositional process these days, with a number of useful tools built in that should really appeal if you’re new to making music or not classically trained.

These include the Chord assistant, designed to help you drag and drop complementary chords rather than relying on you constructing them from scratch. Similarly, Scale assistant is a tool to constrain notes you play to the musical scale in question, never hit a bum note!

There’s a ‘Sampler track’, which allows you to take a recording and very quickly assign it to a keyboard so you can play it like an instrument, as well as Variaudio – a built-in pitch correction system similar to autotune or melodyne to help you pitch correct vocals, as well as correct the timing of performances.

In addition to this, a good collection of Steinberg-made instruments and effects are included, such as drums, interesting synths, and loops all readily accessible from a browser window.

There’s a good score editor too, as befits Hans Zimmer’s DAW of choice, but in all Cubase is a thoroughly capable environment for any musical application, and with good tools to help you stay creative too.

Important: Cubase Artist and Pro both require the separate purchase of a USB e-licenser. This is a special USB copy-protection key that holds your license and must be inserted for the software to load. Keep it safe as if lost, you’ve lost your software too!

Steinberg-Cubase-Artist-12-Upgrade-from-Cubase-AI-12---Boxed-CopyGreat For:

  • Beginners, band recording, singers and songwriters, score writers, as well as electronic music production, Cubase comfortably suits all.
  • Mixing and mastering to a fully professional level, combined with a creative environment for composition full of helpful aids.
  • Those without musical theory backgrounds who want the DAW to help them compose, thanks to unique Chord assistant, scale assistant and more.
  • Autotune-style pitch correction and elastic audio tools are included to help you perfect performances without third-party plugins.
  • A good selection of virtual instruments is included with ‘realistic’ instruments as well as virtual synths and effects.

Key Versions & Included Instruments and Effects:

Cubase LE/Cubase AI: Not available separately, these are special entry-level versions that ship with Steinberg/Yamaha (AI) and third-party audio interfaces and other hardware (LE). Still very capable, these do include a basic score editor – note that AI is superior to LE in terms of included tools.

  1. Cubase Elements: A basic but capable start – Includes Scale assistant, Over 1000 instrument sounds, 3 VST Instruments, 47 VST Audio Effect plugins.
  2. Cubase Artist: Over 2600 instrument sounds, 8 VST Instruments, 60 VST Audio Effect Plugins, 18 VST MIDI Effect plugins. Adds Sampler track, comping, VariAudio 3 and much more. Very capable so check the Steinberg comparison tables on their site for more details – it might be all you need!
  3. Cubase Pro: Includes over 3600 instrument sounds, 8 VST Instruments, 79 VST Audio Effect Plugins, 18 VST MIDI Effect plugins. Pitch Correct comes with this version – Unlike Pro Tools Ultimate’s broadcast-centric features, this adds a fuller toolset for music creators and is recommended if budget allows.

Upgrade/Educational Options:

Currently version 12, released March 2022, previous version 11 was released November 2020.

Upgrades are available from AI and Artist to Pro, and from AI to Artist – so if you have a Yamaha interface you may have a route to saving some money on your upgrade.

A competitive Cubase Pro crossgrade is also available for paid users of other DAWs, to tempt you to switch.

OS Compatibility?

Windows and macOS.

Demo Version?

A 30-day demo version is available.

Shop now | Steinberg Cubase

Ableton Live

Ableton-Live-11-StandardIn one sentence:

One of the most popular DAWs on the market, Ableton Live changed the shape of DAWs with its fresh approach: Live is perfect for electronic music as well as guitarists and bands looking for a loop-based working style with flexibility and speed.

In detail:

Originally designed as a tool for playing live, Live (that’s the software – the company that makes it is called Ableton) has evolved into a phenomenon that is adored by all manner of musicians.

It’s very much a compositional tool and experimentation environment. While it does have a video track capability, Live has no score editor.

A key difference of Ableton Live is the ‘session view’, a top-to-bottom grid where you can mix and match various clips of audio or MIDI, finding interesting combinations and then putting them in rows to work out your arrangement.

You can then hit record and perform the row selections live, tweak effects and such: all of this gets recorded as data into a traditional left-to-right ‘arrangement’ window where it can then be polished and finished off.

Live’s emphasis was on the ability to fluidly make music without ever stopping playback. We think this feature has just as much appeal to singers, songwriters, and guitarists as it does for loop-based electronic musicians.

If you don’t carry any ‘baggage’ with you as to how you expect a DAW to work, Live is arguably the friendliest DAW to learn. Compared to the airliner-cockpit-chic of Pro Tools and Cubase’s interfaces, Live looks positively bare!

Don’t let this efficient interface fool you though; Live is just as capable as many other DAWs, and in many ways, it’s even more flexible. It’s worth bearing in mind that certain conveniences (such as Comping) are only in the latest version – Live 11.

Live featured elastic audio warping from the get-go: that’s the ability to magically pin and stretch audio like elastic in order to fix timing issues, as well as the ability to easily re-record audio internally and other novelties.

Thanks to a merger with Max/MSP (an advanced sound design software environment), we got Max for Live, an open environment that allows users to literally create their own audio plugins, effects, and MIDI tools inside Live.

If you don’t fancy DSP design yourself, rest assured that there are hundreds of amazing tools and effects that other people have made available for you – many free, many for sale. So, if you fancy dipping your toes in some really fun and strange virtual devices, as well as modulating your effects in brave new ways, Max for Live is fantastic, but bear in mind you need the larger Suite edition to get this.

A good selection of instruments and effects are included, including amp modelling and tuner for guitarists, but there’s definitely a leaning towards the Berlin techno-end of electronic music making in the toolset.

Ableton-Live-11-SuiteGreat for:

  • Beginners, electronic music, but also guitarists, singers and songwriters who crave quick, flexible, fluid music making.
  • Playing live sets!
  • Its ability to warp and stretch audio to correct timing errors and make anything fit your track, musically.
  • The session view – allows you to try different combos, work out song structure then perform it.
  • Those craving open-ended experimentation via modular tools such as Max for Live (or who wish to try esoteric tools others have made).
  • DJs – Live lets you DJ and crossfade between tracks, augmenting your set with loops and other material, and has been used by legends such as Surgeon to DJ otherwise ‘undanceable’ tracks, thanks to its warping capabilities and ability to add in extra elements such as a 4/4 beat.

Key versions and included instruments & effects:

Live Lite: This free version is bundled with many interfaces and tools. While basic, it is still very capable. Note that if you have Live Lite, you are entitled to a special discount upgrade: here.

Live Intro: 4 Instruments, 1500+ sounds, 5+ GB library, 21 audio effects, 8 MIDI effects.

Live Standard: 6 Instruments, 1800+ sounds, 10+ GB library, 36 audio effects, 13 MIDI effects. Adds Audio Slicing and Audio to MIDI conversion.

Live Suite: 17 Instruments, 5000+ sounds, a huge 70+ GB library, 59 audio effects, 15 MIDI effects. Only Live Suite includes Max For Live and support for its tools, plus guitar amp and cabinet simulators. Also includes CV tools Great for controlling a modular from your computer if you have an audio interface with DC-coupled outputs or Expert Sleepers modules.

All versions support the use of third-party VST instruments and effects.

Upgrade/educational options:

Ableton updated Live to version 11 in Feb 2021, the previous update was February 2018, so major updates are not frequent! Ableton makes paid-for version upgrades for registered users on their site alone.

Again, if you have Live Lite (and you may not even realise that the MIDI keyboard you bought a year ago included it!) then you are entitled to a discounted Ableton Live upgrade to either Live Standard or Live Suite.

Educational versions are available.

OS compatibility?

Windows and macOS.

Demo version?

A 30-day trial is available.

Controllers?

Ableton Push 2: this is a dedicated controller and compositional device that provides a ‘hardware sequencing experience’, meaning users can compose in Live with the monitor switched off – an impressive achievement.

Akai APC40 MK2 and Akai APC Mini: these controllers provide hands-on control for core mix controls and clip launching. They are ideal for live performance but do not provide the same deeply integrated songwriting controls as Push 2.

Shop now | Ableton Live

Bitwig

Bitwig-Studio-16-Track-12-Month-Upgrade-PlanIn one sentence:

Bitwig is unashamedly electronic music-focused and experimental – it goes as deep as you want (like Ableton Live with the hood open), but it’s still accessible.

In detail:

Made by a breakaway team from Ableton who forged their own company, Bitwig Studio is a relative newcomer on the scene.

It’s a little bit like a hot-rodded re-interpretation of Ableton Live with a modular environment built-in for creating your own effects and instruments – or trying other people’s!

In fact, you can open Ableton Live sets from within Bitwig Studio. We think it’ll be of most interest to electronic musicians.

Bitwig Studio features a top-to-bottom view and left-to-right view too, with the unique ability to see both at once on the same screen.

A key feature is the ability to modulate any parameter with built-in LFOs, Envelopes, step sequencers, buttons, switches, and probabilistic elements. This means you can create expressive, highly modulated sounds and effects that seem to have a life of their own.

If you don’t like that your plugin hasn’t got enough LFOs or envelopes, you can simply add them by mapping Bitwig’s LFOs and envelopes to your plugin’s MIDI control parameters.

Another key feature is ‘The Grid’. This is a modular sound design environment where you can build your own instruments and effects from scratch using drag-and-drop blocks.

If you’re interested in modular synthesizers, this is the same idea manifested inside a DAW. You can make anything from simple subtractive synthesizers to devices that spit out complete pieces of music.

Of course, there are lots of devices available online that others have made for you. Plus, it allows you to embrace the thrifty and inventive notion that, instead of buying new tools, you can simply make them yourself. While Ableton Live Suite has Max For Live, we do feel that The Grid has the edge in regards to ease-of-use for the novice user.

Bitwig-Studio-4Great for:

  • Electronic and experimental musicians keen to explore the outer edges of new sounds and musical styles.
  • Curious modular synth musicians, or well-seasoned modular pros. It can augment your existing modular setup if you have appropriate CV hardware.
  • Budget-conscious musicians who like to get their hands dirty making new sounds and effects rather than buying off-the-shelf options.
  • Long-standing Ableton Live fans looking for something familiar, yet different.

Key versions and included instruments & effects:

Bitwig 8 Track: a basic version (supporting 8 tracks) that comes free with certain audio interfaces and MIDI keyboards. It is limited to hosting 2 VST plugins at once and doesn’t include The Grid.

Bitwig Studio 16-Track: An inexpensive feature-cut 16-track version. Features 2 effect tracks, 8 scenes, 11 instruments and 30 effects (unlimited third party VSTs can be loaded) but does not include The Grid.

Bitwig Studio: The full-fat main event with 13 instruments, 41 effects, 37 modulators, plus the full sound content and feature bundle. Includes The Grid.

Upgrade/educational options:

Currently in Version 4, released July 2021. Bitwig offers version upgrades directly to users via their site (i.e. from version 3 to 4). Any purchase of Bitwig gives you 1 year’s entitlement to free upgrades to a new version if released. Additionally, a ’12-month upgrade plan’ is available.

Upgrades from 8-track or 16-track to Bitwig Studio are available.

Educational versions of Studio are available.

OS compatibility?

Windows, mac OS and – uniquely – Linux.

Demo version?

A non-time limited demo is available, but without save and export functionality.

Shop now | Bitwig Studio

Reason

Reason-12-Music-Production-SoftwareIn one sentence:

Both a DAW and a plugin, Reason is a ‘virtual hardware studio’ playground built entirely on their own proprietary ‘rack extension’ instruments and effects – it literally doesn’t have third-party VST plugin support, because it’s all about having fun with theirs.

In detail:

Beloved by electronic musicians over its long lifetime (Reason first appeared in 2000!), Reason is a unique DAW that only introduced the ability to record audio in 2009.

Reason is based on a virtual ‘hardware’ rack of equipment that you can specify, rearrange, and sequence.

It boasts an authentic approach to the ‘virtual hardware studio’, a Tab button that allows you to flip around to the back of your plugins, and the ability to drag virtual cables around and wire up all manner of interesting sounds and processing.

It’s certainly going to appeal to those who remember (or wish they could remember!) the days of the all-hardware music studio and will unquestionably appeal to electronic musicians.

With that said, many provisions are made for the guitar-wielding among us. You’ll find amp models, pianos, keys, realistic acoustic drum kits, and a host of pedal-style effects provided, plus the ability to set up truly awe-inspiring effects chains that would make The Edge feel he was losing his… edge. And of course, you can record and edit long takes of audio in Reason, like any other DAW.

Such is Reason Studio’s commitment to the virtual gear concept that Reason doesn’t support third-party plugins – you simply use their ‘equipment’, but there is a very elegantly designed and broad portfolio of instruments and sounds available, and you can actually buy third-party plugins called ‘Rack Extensions’ online, but note that they are only compatible with Reason.

Interestingly, Reason’s Rack can also be used as an independent VST instrument and effects processor in a different host of your choices, such as Ableton Live or Pro Tools.

So, Reason is both a DAW and a plugin instrument itself, unlike any of the DAWs we’ve looked at in this article. It makes it a great add-on choice should you crave a bundle of interesting instruments, sounds and tools to try, as well as an inspiring DAW all by itself for coming up with ideas.

Reason+-1-Year-SubscriptionGreat for:

  • Electronic musicians who wish they had a room full of hardware music gear but lack the space to house it, funds to pay for it, or inclination to dust it!
  • Guitarists who are looking to assemble tracks by themselves, who crave a more ‘old school’ hardware studio to do it in.
  • Those looking for a vast collection of easy-to-use and interesting new plugins for their existing DAW. Simply buy Reason and run all its goodies as a plugin!

Key versions and included instruments & effects:

Now in version 12, released in September 2021.

Reason: This is the main ‘perpetual’ non-subscription version, includes 57 instruments and effects, and operates as a plugin also.

Reason+: This is a yearly subscription version, giving you 75+ instruments and effects, plus weekly sound packs, and all future devices and version upgrades as they appear, while your subscription is active.

Upgrade/educational options:

Upgrades from previous versions, educational versions and site licenses are available – Reason+ is automatically updated as updates appear.

OS compatibility?

Windows and macOS.

Demo version?

A 7-day trial is available.

Shop now | Reason DAW Software

FL Studio (Fruity Loops)

Image-Line-FL-Studio-Producer-Edition-v20---Boxed-CopyIn one sentence:

Another decades-old electronic music classic, FL Studio is a pattern-based DAW that’s naturally suited to loop-based grooves, and a favourite of beginners and many well-established producers such as BT, Matthew Dear, Deadmau5 and Martin Garrix.

In detail:

Fruity Loops is built for pattern-based loop making. You drag samples onto the grid and can very quickly build up beats and sound collages. Once you have all the parts of your song, you click and drag where you want each loop to go, making it quick to throw ideas together and create an arrangement just by swiping the mouse.

A classic piano roll style interface is included allowing you to program melodies and chords, and external audio can be recorded into Producer and above just as with any other DAW.

FL Studio has worked to create its own library of unique synths, keyboard instruments and effects. They are included fully or partially (depending on the version you buy) and they are also available to purchase separately at affordable costs (many are less than £50).

There’s a broad selection of tools with a definite emphasis on synths and electronic music. That being said, there are also guitar pedal style effects available, so there’s absolutely no reason FL Studio can’t appeal to a guitarist or singer & songwriter – although the instruments do have a slightly electronic edge.

You’ll be in good company though – even the Beatles used synths! You can use third-party external VST plugins with all versions of FL Studio.

At its heart, FL Studio is simple, quick but capable. It’s easy to see why musicians craving a bit of a change are coming back to experiment with FL Studio after perhaps once making their first music on it many years ago.

Image-Line-FL-Studio-Signature-Edition-v20---Boxed-CopyGreat for:

  • Beginners as well as advanced users looking to explore loop-based electronic music.
  • Guitarists with a foot more in the electronic camp, or who want to work with a clean, groove and pattern-based workflow.

Key versions and included instruments & effects:

All versions support the use of third-party VST instruments and effects.

Fruity: Basic version with core functionality and 82 instruments and effects, samples, loops and presets, but does not include audio recording or ability to drag audio into the ‘playlist’ aka the timeline, so not suitable for guitarists or other recording artists.

Producer: The most popular option, includes 86 instruments and effects, content and adds audio recording and editing.

Signature: Everything from Producer, plus more advanced plugins (including ‘Hardcore’ for guitar effects). You receive 92 instruments and effects in total.

All Plugins Edition: As the name implies, this is the fullest version with all features and native plugins available at the time of purchase (future ones must be bought separately). Currently 102 instruments and effects – plenty to explore!

Upgrade/educational options:

No upgrades exist, as FL Studio has a unique policy that when you buy a copy of FL Studio you receive lifetime updates for that edition, making it a highly affordable, future proofed option.

No educational versions available.

OS compatibility?

Windows and macOS.

Demo version?

You can download a fully functional unlimited-time trial version which is basically the full program, and which can save sets and export mixes – but it cannot reopen projects saved in the trial.

Shop now | FL Studio – Fruity Loops

Keep learning

That concludes our whistle-stop tour of the most popular DAWs – well done if you made it this far!

We’ve talked a lot about the specialisations of each DAW, but we’d like to end with some advice from Oscar-winning and 10-times-nominated film composer Hans Zimmer in an excellent interview on the Steinberg channel:

“You can’t learn it in a day…You have to make up your mind – is this who I am? Am I going to dedicate time to it? The questions about how ‘easy it makes my workflow’…are irrelevant. Because it’s not about your workflow, it’s: Are you a dedicated musician?”

Every single professional was a beginner once. All these DAWs will take some commitment to learn, so the challenge isn’t so much which one to choose, but knowing that whichever you do choose, you need to be able to set aside the time to learn it. If you can do that, nothing is stopping you from mastery.

It’s also never been essential to learn everything a DAW can do – even Zimmer admits he only uses a portion of Cubase! If you can make the commitment, educate yourself, and spend some time on YouTube learning what you need to know, then you’ll have at your fingertips one of the most powerful ways of making music that has ever existed.

Good luck, have fun, and if you have any questions, get in touch!

 

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