- Looking to get started with music production but don’t know which DAW to buy?
- We compare 4 of the most popular DAWs for music production.
- Find out which music production software is right for you.
Choosing The Right Music Production Software Can Be Tough
I was 13 years old, walking through a clothing store with my mom, when the song Bounce by Calvin Harris came over the radio.
It was the same feeling as jumping headfirst into a lake, a complete and total shift in the entire world around you. For just a moment, space and time mean nothing; there’s no up or down. This submerged state is your universe.
I knew, with perfect clarity, that I wanted to make music like that song. It was my passion in life. Unfortunately, as my head poked back above the water, a problem quickly emerged. I had no idea what I was doing.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already made it through that first stage of complete ignorance, and done enough research to know you need some sort of computer program designed for music production.
That program you’re looking for is called a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, and there are many to choose from.
Considerations When Picking A DAW
Before you can even start making music, you need to have a think about:
- What computer operating system you intend to use
- Your budget
- The style of music that you make
- Whether you intend to perform live with it
Altogether, the most important thing to realize is this: There is no one size fits all DAW.
With any professional level DAW, and lots of time spent studying and practicing your craft, you can produce excellent music. Still, don’t dismiss this choice flippantly. There is likely one DAW that will fit naturally for you, and that’s what we will help you find going forward in this article.
Let’s start with one of the most popular DAWs for electronic producers in today’s music landscape.
Ableton Live Review
Pro Tools may be the industry standard for a band recording their rock album at an established studio, but the Ableton logo is the sigil of the electronic musicians.
Its user base alone provides a compelling testimony, being the DAW of choice for Deadmau5, REZZ, TYNAN, KSHMR, Gammer, Skrillex, Dillon Francis, Kill The Noise, Angerfist, Au5, Vorso, Illenium, and many, many more. So why is it so well-loved?
Ease Of Use/Learning Curve
The layout makes sense, and it offers helpful tips in the lower-left corner of the screen for a novice user.
It’s an easy DAW to fall into and never walk away from. KSHMR used Reason, switched to Ableton, and never switched away. Deadmau5 made the same jump from FL Studio. These dance giants favor Ableton because it welcomed them with a simple, but powerful design, and incredibly effective tools.
A lot of Ableton’s power comes from its stock plugins, and their ease of use. Unlike most DAWs, you don’t have to open up a separate window to use the stock plugins in Ableton.
Granted, all of your third party plugins will still require it, but this one tiny step saved results in hundreds or thousands fewer clicks before your song is finished if you use the tools Ableton offers, and it honestly makes a difference.
When you don’t have to open up your graphic EQ to notch out some of those low mids because the controls are presented to you right in the plugin chain, you feel it. It feels good.
Stock Plugins & Sound Libraries
Ableton Live’s stock plugins are absolute powerhouses. For example, look at Corpus. Corpus is a plugin included with the Suite version of Ableton Live that “simulates the acoustic characteristics of seven types of resonant objects,” per the Ableton manual.
To put that into layman’s terms, it gives any sound the same sonic characteristics as a pipe, or a marimba, or a string, and more. The sound design possibilities with Corpus are both unique and exciting, and there’s not a lot of software that does what Corpus does as well as Corpus does it.
Beyond just Corpus, Ableton plugins like Operator and the cleverly named Sampler are well-loved software due to their ease of use and powerful versatility. These are just a few of the many innovative and incredible stock plugins that come with Ableton, as long as you’re willing to dish out your hard-earned cash.
Along with the wide selection of plugins and midi effects, the full (Suite) version of Live comes with an impressive collection of over 5000 individual sounds and samples, over 70GB of data ready to be used in your latest and greatest productions, more than enough samples to get you on your way to your goal of song creation, although it is worth noting that as you move down the tiers of Live bundles, you are offered fewer sounds.
Typically referred to by the brand name, Ableton, the software is actually called Live, and that’s very telling regarding its focus.
It was designed with performers in mind, and has an entire view mode designed for cueing and playing tracks in a live setting.
It works tremendously well with audio files, pitch shifting and time stretching where necessary with very few artifacts, thanks to some well designed proprietary algorithms. This performance-driven ideology is well-honed, and actually lends a lot of benefits to its production abilities as well.
Its workflow benefits from this priority of audio information over MIDI. While its MIDI capabilities are not lacking by any means, freezing a track and flattening to audio occurs very naturally.
Reversing a sample is one simple tap of the R key. Stretching, warping, fading, mutilating audio to suit your needs seems to happen as soon as you’ve thought it.
Ableton is often praised for its workflow, and with good reason. Once you’ve learned it, this DAW becomes very efficient, and ideas go from conception to reality in seemingly no time at all.
Oh, by the way, Ableton’s expensive. Ableton Live 10 Suite (check price here) is the one with all the bells and whistles.
But if you just want to try out the workflow and record a simple singer-songwriter track with vocals, guitar, and maracas, try out Ableton Live Lite. It’s free, and is a perfect way to dip your toes into the pool and see if you like it.
It’ll only allow you to have 8 tracks, plus 2 send/return tracks, and it has limited plugins, but it would be fully capable of building a professional quality song, as long as the production is simple enough.
So, you tried Lite, and you decided you like Ableton, but Suite is a massive monetary commitment. There are two more options to explore though, Intro (check price on Amazon) and Standard (check price on Amazon).
Intro is a lot more powerful than Lite, but still with a limited track count (16 now), and a lot of the finer tools are saved for Intro’s bigger brothers.
Intro is a reasonable next step, but for the serious producer who wants to make music professionally, Standard is probably the lowest step you should go to.
The Standard version offers unlimited tracks, 13 more audio effects than Intro, and 256 mono audio inputs and outputs (contrasting Intro’s 8). Ableton Live Standard is for the producer who’s serious and wants to cast off their limitations. Suite is for the producer who wants all that, plus all the toys.
Is Ableton Live Right For You?
Ultimately, Ableton’s an incredibly effective DAW, and it’s hard to go wrong with it, but it may very well be cost-prohibitive. If you’re willing to budget enough to purchase Standard or Suite, however, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
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- Real-time warping of audio: automatically sync music and loops, regardless of tempo
- Unlimited audio and MIDI tracks
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Pro Tools Review
Have a conversation with any music producer and at some point, you are almost guaranteed to hear the words ‘Pro Tools’. In fact, have a conversation with any musician and you will probably find out that they are familiar with the Pro Tools name, and if they’ve ever recorded in a professional studio, they have more than likely used it.
Pro Tools is arguably the ‘go-to’ DAW of choice for many professionals out there, but is it really all it’s hyped up to be?
Ease Of Use/Learning Curve
As a beginner opening up a Pro Tools session it can be difficult to know where to start. Like any musical craft, Pro Tools takes time to learn, inevitably you will end up having to read through manuals and probably consult google for your answers, but isn’t that part of the fun after all?
It is widely argued that Pro Tools is not the most user-friendly DAW out there.
Something that is quite easily achieved in Logic/Ableton, like creating a send, can be quite daunting in Pro Tools. Frustrating at first but processes like this, i.e. manually linking your signal chain, creates a steep learning curve that actually becomes really rewarding as you learn the program’s intricacies and functions which once mastered are often translatable to other DAWs.
Stock Plugins & Sound Libraries
While Pro Tools is one of the pricier DAWs, once you purchase it you will also receive a selection of plugins which are of industry standard quality.
The great news is regardless of whether you opt for the free ‘Pro Tools First’ or the full software you will be able to use Pro Tool’s own EQ, Compressor, Limiter and Gate.
There are arguably better plugins on the market, but these plugins have gotten some of the best producers by for decades. It’ll also give you an idea of how these types of plugins work and how they affect your mix.
You’ll also get a D-Verb and Mod Delay included with each package which gives you the basics to begin creating great mixes. Upgrading your Pro Tools package gives you a bigger selection of plugins (such as chorus, phaser and more) but this isn’t a necessity if you’re just starting out.
If you decide to opt for a paid-for version of Pro Tools you’ll also get access to a good selection of software instruments, such as the AIR Mini Grand Piano, and over 2GB of loops and samples which are sufficient for starting ideas and building tracks. Depending on the genre you write, you may find this selection quite limiting though.
It’s not the prettiest interface, but it is efficient in its layout. You have your basic play, record, stop functions, a tracklist and your regions clearly displayed. You can quickly tab between the record and mix window where you’ll see your tracks laid out clearly, and you can insert plugins in either of these windows.
It can be a little confusing at first when creating bus or auxiliary tracks as Pro Tools won’t immediately link your signal path so spend some time getting to understand how these work and why you would use them.
Once you get a better understanding of the screen layout then it is worth reading up on shortcuts and functions within Pro Tools that will speed up your workflow. Like anything, you get out what you put in and with a little bit of effort you’ll soon be using keyboard shortcuts which will save you clicking in menus constantly and certain shortcuts will become second nature.
Aside from being just recording software, think of Pro Tools as a way to edit your tracks during and after the recording process, which is where the selling point really lies.
Are your drums not quite synchronizing with the click track? Hit CMD+8 on Mac (or CTRL+8 on PC) and bring up Beat Detective. A simple few clicks and you can transform your ‘not quite perfect’ drum takes into professional sounding, locked in beats.
In fact, Pro Tools will even allow you to lengthen, shorten and add fades to your regions without even having to select each region.
Once you get to grips with its shortcuts and time-saving functions Pro Tools quickly becomes second nature.
Of course, cost needs to be factored into any purchasing decision and your wallet will take a hit if you choose to invest in Pro Tools.
A perpetual license will currently set you back a fair bit (check price here), although there are subscription options at a less intimidating rate.
If you are unsure then Pro Tools First can be downloaded for free, great if you don’t want to commit financially right away but this does restrict you to a maximum of 16 tracks of audio.
Is Protools Right For You?
There are undoubtedly cheaper DAWs out there such as Logic.
Much like learning a musical instrument Pro Tools takes time, but the rewards and sense of satisfaction you gain from it are huge. As the industry-standard software, learning Pro Tools puts you in good stead should you decide to pursue production professionally but also much like learning a musical instrument, the hobbyists will still have a lot of fun using and getting to grips with the program.
So consider your budget, your preferred styles to listen to and mix and what your typical session will look like. If it’s physical instruments you are recording then Pro Tools should be a serious consideration for purchase.
There are other DAWs which you may over time find to suit your needs more but you can be certain that Pro Tools will be a huge asset when it comes to your recording, mixing and mastering.
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Logic Pro X Review
Despite it only being available for Mac users, Logic remains as one of the most-sold DAWs out there. It is used professionally by electronic experts such as Armin Van Buuren, Above & Beyond, Audien, Disclosure, Eric Prydz, Swedish House Mafia, and more, as well as world-renowned pop sensations like Coldplay, Pharrell Williams, Owl City, and Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy.
Let’s examine what makes Logic worthwhile.
Ease Of Use/Learning Curve
First off, if you already have Apple products, and especially if you’ve used GarageBand, the workflow will probably be a pretty natural fit for you.
Their designs tend to incline towards simple, attractive interfaces that provide a shallow enough learning curve to have fun with from the start, without sacrificing the power necessary to do the heavy lifting.
Logic exemplifies this ideal, allowing the beginner to assemble tracks from loops, or stock instruments, and also giving the ability to mangle those loops beyond recognition and process the instruments to oblivion.
Stock Plugins & Sound Libraries
First of all, Logic has a wide variety, cultivated, developed, and improved over its many iterations, some of which have further variety within.
The stock compressor, for instance, has 8 different algorithms, because sometimes you’d rather have a VCA compressor than a FET sound, and just one algorithm won’t get you through a whole track. 8 should do it, though.
Upon using the plugins, it’s clear by the interfaces which ones are most up to date. The newest ones, like Chromaverb, are visually pleasing, responsive, and easy to use. Others, like Space Designer, have been around for a while, but recently had their performance updated, and their appearance along with it. Then there’s the third category, for plugins like Stereo Spreader and Pitch Correction, which look old because they are old.
Logic gets free updates, and plugins often get improved in these updates, but until it’s done comprehensively, some of the lesser-used plugins might lack a little of Logic’s modern charm.
The stock library of sounds in Logic is a hidden treasure. There are thousands of loops and FX: drums, synths, basses, guitars, world instruments, etc, and they’re all reasonably high quality.
The one thing notably missing is vocals.
There’s not a lot of vocal content to play with in the stock Logic library, but there’s tons of other stuff, and it’s good stuff. It’s especially useful for seeding inspiration and helping newer producers understand the different components that go into building a track.
It’s also worth noting that, like many Apple products, an attractive interface is a high priority. As a friend of mine once said, “If I’m going to be looking at this for 20-40 hours per week, I want it to look good.”
And Logic looks great.
At the end of the day, you can make music in the ugliest DAW out there, but is it really what you want?
When I open a new Logic project, it makes me feel inspired. It feels inviting. And then there’s Reaper. One look, and inspiration wanes. Visual pleasantries aren’t what’s important. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.
That said, if you have the opportunity to date a wonderful person that you think is properly beautiful, or a wonderful person that looks like a bad drawing of a human, it seems to matter a bit.
Logic is more than just a pretty face. It’s highly capable, and allows for some truly great workflow opportunities.
Take its bus routing, for instance. Logic has 256 busses, which can be routed to either as sends, or as outputs, allowing for complicated split routing.
This provides the ability to do things like outputting all of your leads to a bus, but also sending them each to a reverb, and having that reverb outputting to the same bus to be processed as a whole.
While this can be achieved in other software, Logic makes it easy, and the parallel processing opportunities that are afforded are pretty incredible.
$200. Logic has one version, and it costs $200. That’s why I got it, initially.
Despite being hundreds of dollars cheaper than Ableton Live Suite, Logic is a full-featured DAW that can compete with the best DAWs out there.
Is Logic Pro X Right For You?
Overall, Logic is excellent, and should not be dismissed because of its lower price point. It is a fully capable DAW that’s easy to use, hard to master, and tremendously powerful. You certainly can’t go wrong with this fantastic software.
FL Studio Review
One of the biggest issues for a lot of new producers is getting their head around all the new lingo and detail that you find literally everywhere in any DAW.
Things like ‘room size/shape’ on your reverb unit, parametric EQ, compression and side-chaining can be overwhelming for new producers, but FL Studio (formerly fruity loops) can make the transition easier.
FL Studio is a fantastic program created by the team at Image-Line.
Ease Of Use/Learning Curve
Upon opening up a blank FL Studio project file you might find yourself a bit overwhelmed, but its a good thing.
There are a lot of features right in front of you and the linear aspect of sample searching and sound creation really shine in this DAW, and the full version comes with a fully produced track inside a project file that allows you to open up a finished song and pick it apart to figure out how things work.
It is worth noting that recording instruments into FL Studio is extremely easy.
Provided you have an understanding of the audio interface you’re using, it’s extremely easy to sync up and create channels that record straight to the playlist via the floating mixer window.
Stock Plugins & Sound Libraries
FL Studio comes with a plethora of dope, heavy-hitting synths. These include Sawer, Harmor, PoiZone, Sakura, Toxic Biohazard and Harmless to name just a few. The synths available through the FL Studio software are second to none and are highly regarded throughout the production industry as some of the best synth VST’s on the market.
You’re able to create rich and immersive sounds from the ground up, so there’s little need to go shopping around for 3rd party plugins.
FL Studio also provides the end-user with a rich and vibrant library of sounds and samples at their fingertips, doing away with the need for expensive outboard gear, the need to purchase large libraries of samples or even the use of instruments themselves.
A good example of this is the FPC; a stock VST that allows the user to map computer keyboard keys to the pads of an on-screen version of the classic Akai MPC.
Probably the most useful feature, when getting started in FL Studio, is called the step sequencer.
Most users of this program will be able to identify the step sequencer as one of the ‘staple’ tools within this DAW. The step sequencer functions as a ‘beat-grid’ of sorts, allowing for any sound or sample to be placed on the grid and be triggered as a part of a sequence.
The length of the grid can be as short as 2 steps or as long as 64 steps, and the samples themselves can be double-clicked on in the step sequencer window to open up the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release) functionality of any specific sample. This allows for time-stretching, reversing, pitch shift and a whole host of other interesting features and effects accessible from within the step sequencer.
FL Studio’s biggest feature above all else and perhaps one of its most overlooked features – is that it is highly visual.
The application itself has a heavy focus on the way its native plugins interact within the DAW, and there are a LOT of native plugins, I believe there are 30+ all up.
The visual features allow you to use your eyes heavily in conjunction with your ears, so if you find yourself not sure about the sound of something, in particular, you may find that the right audible adjustment comes from a visual adjustment.
The mixer window is one of FL Studios hidden gems, similarly resembling the mix window in ProTools, when used properly this tool can give a distinct sonic advantage when mixing audio in FL Studio as opposed to something like Ableton or Reason.
The user can add sounds from any track of the playlist window or any sound on the step sequencer to a channel on the mixer, and from there can access panning, FX, side-chaining (which can be a little convoluted) and a whole host of other features such as the FL Studio inbuilt mastering program named Maximus (multi-band maximiser) or your other mastering programs of choice.
This ‘copy to next pattern’ function can help the user create a fluid and interesting beat progression in no time, these features combined with the ability to paint these patterns straight onto the playlist makes for a super easy and customizable workflow. The playlist window itself is also an integral part of the software.
Literally, any sound or sample can be dragged directly onto the playlist (the same as the step sequencer) and be placed anywhere along the timeline.
The list of tools along the top of the playlist window such as the slice tool can be used directly on the audio to chop up patterns, sounds or samples that you have added, into smaller bits to use for arrangement or differentiation.
The tools along the top of the playlist function almost behave like similar tools found in image-editing software in the way they intuitively interact with end-user and the audio clips.
Samples on the step sequencer can also be right-clicked and transitioned into a piano-roll format, allowing for heavier syncopation of drum hits and the pitching and playing of samples on the keyboard that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
It is also worth noting that there is an FL Studio iOS application that allows you to save FL project files and transfer between your device and your computer, meaning you can work on the go, AND use the touch screen for things like filters and FX, for a much more natural and organic sound than you would be able to achieve with your classic right click automation.
FL Studio is currently available across 4 different pricing schemes, with a one-time payment and a lifetime of free upgrades available, meaning: you only pay once and every time they update the core software, you get the new version for free.
Do note that you can buy any individual plugins from the Image-Line website, so if you’re only after a few bits and bobs, you can customize your own bundle and choose only what you specifically think you need, although, there are several other big-hitting package options available.
Is FL Studio Right For You?
The overall feel of the software is intuitive and exciting to use, whilst not dumbing down any of the important technical aspects that can be found (sometimes glaringly) in other DAW’s, FL Studio manages to maintain a certain level of professionalism whilst also opening up more possibilities to the end user via its use of fun and visual stimuli.
The sum of the functionality, pricing and visual aspects of this DAW equal out of a really great DAW for beginners, delivering everything that every other DAW can deliver but with a fraction of the stiffness and dryness of its competitors.
This means you can get stuck in and be able to learn and create at the same level as the full version which is close to 10x the price, although it is recommended to purchase the producer edition just so that you have the maximum functionality from the get-go.
All of the aforementioned features make this program a one-stop-shop for anyone looking to get their head around electronic music production and sound recording.
All up this DAW comes highly recommended for beginners looking to get stuck into it and professionals looking for something fun and different from the other more stale DAW’s on the market.
- Powerful mixing and automation
- The best Piano Roll in the business
- Flexible Browser and workflow features
- Support for all VST standards
- Over 80 instrument and plugin effects included
Last update on 2019-12-12 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API