The RIGHT DAW CHOICE FOR YOU
When it comes choosing the best DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for you there are many ways to get you to the right decision. Some choices are easy such as which platform you are using (Mac/PC). Others are more subtle such as what type of workflow you prefer.
While some choices may be quite obvious (eg. You produce loop-based dance music and all your collaborators use Ableton Live), there are many other situations that may guide you down multiple paths. The great news is that there are no really bad choices out there...just maybe some that may be less than a perfect fit given your needs.
There may be more DAWS out there than the ones I list here, but here are the main ones that we'll use in our assessments (in alphabetical order).
- Ableton Live (Mac/PC)
- Bitwig Studio (Mac/PC)
- Cubase (Mac/PC)
- Digital Performer (Mac/PC)
- FL Studio (Mac/PC)
- Garageband (Mac)
- Logic Pro X (Mac)
- Mixcraft Pro Studio (PC)
- Pro Tools (Mac/PC)
- Reaper (Mac/PC)
- Reason (Mac/PC)
- Studio One (Mac/PC)
Now that we see the main contenders, I'll move from choice to choice to narrow down the best DAW for you. The choices go from very defined down to the more subtle choices. You'll find the decisions in the first few choices come very easily with the subsequent choice becoming a little more fluid as we progress.
CHOICE # 1 (PLATFORM)
This will be the easiest as some DAWs are only available on one platform through the majority are cross platform. While there are ways to get around this with OS emulators, it's best to use a DAW that is compatible with your operating system. See the listing above to see which platform each DAW operates under.
CHOICE # 2 (COLLABORATION STYLE)
I set this as the 2nd choice as it is an easy one to make and it has major consequences if you are working with others. I'll make this easy...if you have collaborating partners who all work with Logic, then it stands to reason (no pun intended) that this would be a major influence in your decision making process.
While you can migrate tracks from one DAW to another, the tracks will most likely be "dumbed down" as either WAV files or MIDI tracks that will need a certain amount of massaging to make them work within another DAW. However, if you are both working within the same DAW, then collaborating is a piece of cake! Just save the project and all settings, patch choices, automation and a myriad of other nuances are faithfully transferred across.
So make it easy on yourself if you do a lot of work with other producers who all use a particular DAW...jump on board and make collaboration no hassle. If you predominantly work alone then you can skip this choice.
CHOICE # 3 (PRICE POINT)
We all live in the real world where price can determine our choices. Here are the low, mid and high price points. If you are on a budget Garageband, Reaper and Mixcraft Pro Studio are solid choices. Also keep in mind that some DAWs have stripped down entry level versions that are very low cost.
Garageband, Logic Pro X, Reaper, Mixcraft Pro Studio
$200 > $500
Studio One, Ableton Live, FL Studio, Reason, Bitwig Studio, Digital Performer
More than $500
Pro Tools, Cubase
CHOICE # 4 (WORKFLOW STYLE)
Now we get into perhaps a less defined choice. Some of you might have workflows that are completely obvious like creating dance music with loops. If so...Ableton Live, FL Studio and Bigwig Studio would be great choices.
Keep in mind that there is a great deal of overlap in terms of workflow. I'm just organizing in broad categories to help you choose a direction if you have a specific workflow in mind.
Ableton Live, Bitwig Studio, FL Studio, Reaper
Multitrack Recording with real instruments
Pro Tools, Studio One
Songwriting with virtual instruments
Cubase, Digital Performer, Garage Band, Logic Pro X, Mixcraft Pro Studio, Reason, Studio One
Scoring for Film or TV
Cubase, Logic Pro X, Digital Performer
CHOICE # 5 (APPLICATION)
Our final choice in terms of choosing a DAW comes down to what you are using it for. I reject the idea that Pro Tools is the only choice if you are a professional. Plenty of Grammys have been won by artists using Logic Pro X or even Garageband. Don't get sucked into the notion that there are "Pro" and "Amateur" DAWs.
That being said...let's look at the 4 main applications of DAWs and how you might be using them.
If you just like to make song for yourself and friends and are concerned with budget, get started with Garageband or Logic ProX if you are on a Mac, Mixcraft Pro Studio or Reaper on a PC. Also take a look at Studio One Artist for under a hundred bucks too. It's got a lot of bang for the buck.
The main feature you want to look for as a songwriter is the ease of use and also wide variety of internal instruments. Great choices for songwriters would be Garageband, Logic ProX, Reason or Studio One.
If your application is to be a creative music producer and sell others on your ability to produce beats and tracks, then a powerful DAW that has a bunch of options and possibilities should be on your list. Strong contenders would be Ableton Live, FL Studio, Logic Pro X, Reason and Studio One.
The 800 pound gorilla has always been Pro Tools when you are working professionally. It's always a good plan to be somewhat proficient in Pro Tools as a significant part of the industry uses it. The better road would be to reach out to others in your particular genre and ask them what folks in your industry are using. If you are scoring for TV and film then look at what the heavyweights are using (probably Cubase, Logic Pro X and Digital Performer). If you are heavily into loop based dance music then Ableton Live and zReason would be solid choices.
There are many ways to decide which DAW is right for you. It ends up being a personal decision based on the 5 choices above but don't let anyone tell you that this particular DAW is awesome and this other DAW is junk. Nobody makes a junk DAW nowadays. It's just too competitive out there for any software developer to make a bad product.
Don't be afraid to kick the tires on these DAWs! Many have demos that you can try with a limited time or with limited functionality. Try each one for a week and see how you go.
Finally...when you finally commit to the DAW you want, then drive the others out of your mind and get deep into the workflow of the DAW you chose. Learn it inside and out, then strip it down the few things that you do over and over again. Learn the shortcuts for creating a new track...adding automation...inserting effects. All the stuff you do over and over again. Make a cheat sheet with your most common tasks and you'll soon become a master of your workflow.
And don't ever get sucked into the endless debates that fill up every forum on the internet. If the Beatles had ANY ONE of these tools, it would have blown their minds! Music is about being creative with the tools you have available. Go out and make some :)