Updated: Oct 12
Are you an aspiring bedroom producer? Or perhaps you would like to start up your own studio but don’t quite know where to start? If either of these is true, then this is the blog for you! It’s Tom and Joe here, teaming up to bring you a rundown on some of the most popular DAWs on the market.
Are you ready to dive into the world of music production and create your sonic masterpieces from the comfort of your own space? Awesome! But before you hit that record button… Before you even start looking at microphones or plugins, you need to choose a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). It’s important to choose the right DAW for you - one that matches your style and workflow. Don't worry; we've got your back. In this friendly guide, we'll walk you through the key considerations to help you select the perfect DAW for your studio setup. We’ll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of many DAWs so that hopefully by the time you’re done reading, you’ll be one step closer to pulling the trigger on purchasing your first DAW. Just to be clear upfront, this is not an exhaustive list of all the available DAW options, it’s just a comparison of some of the most popular ones.
Budget: Finding the Right Fit for Your Wallet
Let's start with the basics: your budget. DAWs come in various price ranges, from free options to hefty investments. The good news is that you don't need to break the bank to make great music. Some affordable and even free DAWs offer excellent features. It's all about finding the balance between your wallet and your needs. The prices of some of the more popular DAWs include:
Ableton Live: $149AUD to $1099AUD
ProTools: $99USD/YR to $599USD/YR
FL Studio: $149USD to $759USD
Studio One: $100USD to $399USD
Logic Pro: $300AUD
Cubase: $149AUD to $868AUD
Reaper: $60 - $225USD.
Bitwig: $99USD - $399USD
It’s worth ($$) noting that if you’re a student, or teacher in an educational institution, many companies offer educational discounts - often around 50% off!
You will also find that some DAWs will offer you lifetime updates for your product once you’ve purchased it - Logic Pro has always been a leader for this. Whereas other DAWs will offer you limited updates to their platform for your purchase fee.
Pro Tools comes with one year of updates as standard if you have purchased a perpetual license (one that allows you to use the software forever). If you’re on the subscription plan, then you will need to pay your yearly subscription to keep updated, and just to be able to use the software.
Albeton will allow you to update your software within the current version. For example, if you own Ableton Live 11, you will get all updates to that version included. However, when Ableton Live 12 is released, you will need to pay to upgrade.
DAW User Interface and Workflow: The Comfort Factor
Picture this: you're in your cosy studio corner, ready to get into the zone. Your DAW's interface should feel like a comfy chair for you to sink into, not a puzzle.
Take some time to explore different DAWs and see which one clicks with your creative process. Some like it sleek and modern (Ableton Live), while others prefer a classic, traditional approach (Pro Tools).
Many DAWS have adjustable themes/colour schemes, just as a nice little cherry on top. Have a look online at the interfaces. The workflow within each DAW naturally prioritises different aspects of music production. I’ve found that ProTools is a real workhouse, with its workflow designed to prioritise recording, editing, and mixing, while the workflow in Ableton makes “beat-making” a breeze, and really shines in the MIDI realm.
Logic Pro is known as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades type DAW, and is another DAW with a nicely formatted interface. Garageband is essentially the free watered-down version of Logic Pro from Apple.
We also know some first-time DIY home recording enthusiasts who have found Studio One very comfortable to work with. The User Interface within Studio One is now quite customisable so you can get it just right for your workflow.
But of course… the “aesthetic” of your DAW is far from the be-all-and-end-all - let’s get into the nitty gritty of Digital Audio Workstations.
Track Count and DAW Performance: Thinking Big or Keeping It Simple?
Are you dreaming of epic orchestral arrangements or just want to record your acoustic guitar and vocals? Consider the project size that you’ll be likely to record. Larger projects with many tracks and plugins might require a DAW with robust performance capabilities.
It’s not a bad idea to start smaller and upgrade when needed. Most DAWs will allow you to upgrade without being financially penalised. Another consideration to make is the track limits within a DAW. I (Tom), use Ableton quite a lot and I’ve found the DAW’s 12 return track limit to be a bit of a nuisance when trying to get creative/tricky. Fortunately, there are workarounds within the DAW, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
Here are a few stats for how many tracks you’ll be able to record in some of the popular DAWs.
Reaper and Studio One have no maximum track count, along with the top two tiers of Cubase and Ableton.
ProTools has an audio track limit from 8 at their bottom tier, up to 2048 at their top tier - not including instrumental MIDI tracks and auxiliary tracks for effects sends and busses.
The Logic Pro maximum track count is a little elusive to find, but some sources suggest it boasts a limit of 3000 tracks.
If you’re looking into other DAWs, do a bit of research into their track limits and decide if that’s what fits you. Keep in mind, that the more tracks you have = the more hardware processing power you will need! As expected, as you move up from one tier to the next in a DAW, often the track count will increase with the price.
Virtual Instruments and Third-Party Plugins: Spice Up Your Sound
If you're a fan of electronic music or see yourself mainly working with MIDI (i.e. not recording “real” instruments, then pay attention to the virtual instruments and effects that are bundled with the DAW.
Having a variety of built-in options can save you money and inspire creativity. Logic and Ableton seem to be accepted as the “better” DAWs in this area. They both offer some excellent virtual instruments/sound libraries, including synthesizers, keyboards, virtual drummers, and orchestral libraries.
They both also include some extremely capable stock plugins (EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays etc.). That’s not to say other DAWs don’t come to the party - Cubase is known to have some handy stock plugins, as is FL Studio. Logic Pro, Cubase, and Reaper all even offer their own take on pitch correction. We’ll reserve judgment on how “good” said pitch corrections plugins are…
In recent times Pro Tools has also considerably upped their bundle of included plugins. In the past year, they’ve also released ARA 2 Melodyne integration, which means that you can now use the world-leading vocal tuning software (Melodyne), fully integrated within Pro Tools - no more waiting around waiting for Melodyne to record in the vocals you want to tune in real-time.
Once again, if you are on a tighter budget for your recording setup, then finding a DAW that is bundled with great virtual instruments and plugins can help you hit the ground running. Third-party plugins and virtual instruments (ones not included with your DAW) can be great, but they can also come at a heavy cost.
Here at Island Studios, I’d estimate we’ve accumulated close to $20k worth of third-party plugins over the years. It adds up quickly once you start looking at virtual instruments such as those from Spitfire Audio, where single orchestral bundles cost $1000 USD. If orchestral scoring is going to be your livelihood, then this steep price will definitely be worth it for the quality of the samples you’re receiving. However, if you’re just starting out and only want to dabble in some background strings for your music, then finding a DAW that has them included is the way to go.
MIDI Capabilities of Your DAW: Unleash Your Inner Composer
Do you love crafting melodies and intricate arrangements? Make sure your chosen DAW offers robust MIDI capabilities. A comprehensive piano roll editor and MIDI recording tools are must-haves for electronic and orchestral music enthusiasts.
A few standout DAWs come to mind. Ableton Live, for instance, is celebrated for its intuitive MIDI sequencing, and real-time performance features… on top of its aforementioned extensive array of MIDI effects and instruments. Logic Pro X is another powerhouse, favoured for its comprehensive MIDI editing tools, an extensive library of high-quality virtual instruments, and seamless integration with Apple's hardware. Steinberg's Cubase also boasts excellent MIDI functionality, including advanced scoring and notation features, making it a great choice for composers. Furthermore, Propellerhead Reason is known for its innovative Rack Plugin system, which allows users to create complex MIDI-derived music with ease. Almost every DAW features MIDI integration, but the best DAW for MIDI functionality depends on your specific needs and workflow.
Every DAW Has Its Own Strengths
Pro Tools is universally praised for its excellent editing tools, such as Tab to Transient, Beat Detective, Strip Silence, and Elastic Audio modes. You may hear that Pro Tools is the “industry standard” software, and this is correct in essence. However, one of the main reasons for this is because Pro Tools has been around the longest. As a result the majority of the world’s big studios adopted it in the early days and are still using it. It is of course still a powerhouse for recording, editing and mixing. Other DAWs are quickly catching up in many areas now though. t
Ableton Live is at the cutting edge of music production. Its “drum rack” concept combined with the dozens of MIDI instruments and effects makes for boundless creative power. Not only does it serve as a great recording and production DAW, it has excellent Live capabilities too. Ableton brought out it’s own MIDI controller, Push, to make sure its users get the most out of the live aspect of the DAW. It also features many excellent built-in instruments - you certainly won’t find yourself bored.
Garageband is great when you’re starting out (because it’s free and user-friendly) and to get rough ideas down. It has some really cool in-built virtual instruments and synths and you can even record straight to your iPhone or iPad.
Logic Pro is essentially a more advanced version of Garageband. Like most Apple products, it is quite an intuitive program, especially when compared to something like Pro Tools. Like Live, Logic Pro also features many fantastic built-in effects and instruments, making it great for the trifecta: recording, production and mixing.
Reaper is known to be extremely powerful and customisable. Many users say it is extremely easy to make the switch from another DAW to Reaper, due to its customisability. It is extremely stable and is great for most aspects of production. Not only is it a great DAW, but it’s extremely affordable too! One of its most unique features is its built-in headphone monitoring system that artists can control from their phones.
Studio One is referred to by some as “second” to Pro Tools when it comes to recording. It’s a great DAW to learn the ins and outs of recording music. The on-board plugins might not quite be at the level of some other DAWs, but if you can look past this, Studio One is a solid choice.
Cubase is an excellent choice if you’re going to be primarily working with MIDI and VSTs. It is thought of by many to be geared towards song-writing and creativity. It is very easy to learn, with a clear and clean interface. Because of its creative focus and its video compatibility, many choose Cubase as their DAW of choice when scoring films. Saying this, Cubase is still loved by many for standard audio recordings.
Bitwig is the new kid on the block (relatively). It is another DAW that doubles as a Live player. It features a tool called “clip launcher”, which allows you to trigger clips in a non-linear fashion… similar to Ableton Live’s session view. Bitwig is also great for recording and mixing, with great comping capabilities and more.
Collaborating, Community and Tutorials
One thing to consider is if you’ll be likely to collaborate with a friend or group of friends on projects. If that’s going to be the case, then it will be much easier to do so if you’re all using the same DAW. So get together and work out what the best approach and best DAW will be for you.
Pro Tools has add-on features that allow you to collaborate on projects. However, these come at quite a hefty additional cost if you’re going to be doing it regularly.
Many DAWs have strong online communities, be it on forums or just a good old Facebook group. If this is an important factor for you then be sure to have a Google search and check on Facebook to see what communities are out there for the DAWs that you’re choosing between.
Some DAWs will also have a myriad of online tutorials to help you get going. These may be from the manufacturers themselves or from other producers on YouTube doing their best to help out the next generation.
Mac vs PC: How Does The Age-Old Debate Relate To Your DAW?
This discussion may divide a few people. Ultimately, both Mac and PC are excellent machines with operating systems that are evolving all the time.
Straight off the bat: Logic Pro and Garageband will only work with Mac. Unless you plan on running a virtual machine, this is just the way it is. So, if you’re hell-bent on picking up Logic Pro… you’ll need to get yourself a Mac first. And if you do you'll get Garageband with it for free.
Let’s step away from the direct discussion of DAWs for a minute. Each Mac/PC device will boast differing amounts of RAM, HDD (Hard Drive Disk) vs SSD (Solid State Drive) setups, processing power, storage, portability, ports… the list goes on. The more expensive PCs will operate more efficiently than the cheaper Macs, and vice versa.
I (Tom) have personally always used a Mac, and I have no complaints. Specifically, I have run some pretty large sessions off of my 2018 15” Macbook Pro with very limited issues. I love the size of the screen, and the portability and it is compatible with all the software I need. I have been considering upgrading from an internal HDD to an SSD to improve performance, however, I have yet to find myself frustrated enough to put this into practice. SSDs are much faster and quieter (perfect for storing sample libraries) however they are much more expensive than a standard HDD. Another option is to purchase an external SSD (substantially cheaper than internal) and run your samples/libraries off of this.
It’s worth noting that most Macs now are not upgradable after you purchase them, so you will need to consider how much storage and RAM you’ll need for the coming years. These definitely come at a steep cost with Apple. PCs on the other hand have much more flexibility with building the exact computer you want to start with, and being able to upgrade it at a later point in time.
Conclusion: Which Daw Will You Choose?
By now, hopefully, you can see that choosing the right DAW for you is quite a subjective process that depends on your individual needs and preferences. Each DAW offers its own unique set of pros and cons, whether you shoot for the user-friendly interface of Logic Pro, the industry standard of Pro Tools, or the flexibility of Ableton Live. Ultimately, the best DAW for you will align with your musical goals, workflow, budget, and level of expertise.
It's essential to thoroughly research and, if possible, try out different options before making a decision. Remember that the DAW is just a tool, and your creativity and hard work are what truly matter in producing outstanding music. So, have a look around, watch some YouTube videos, and pick the DAW that best suits you and complements your music-making journey.
Here's a table summarising some key DAW considerations.
8 to 2048
Audio Editing Tools, super powerful
Recording, Editing, Mixing
Industry standard workhorse
16 to unlimited
Live capabilities, Instruments, Sample Libraries
Music Production, Creativity, MIDI
Wireless monitoring system, cheap!
Configurable, audio workhorse
16 to unlimited
Great mixer interface, good built-in effects
MIDI, Film Scoring, Orchestral Arrangements
Composition tools, Live capability
Up to 3000
Stock plugins and instruments
$315AUD for a bundle of Apple software
Easy to learn, beat-making
Clip Launcher, adequate built-in effects
Versatile DAW, with Live capabilities
Great mobile version
Starting out and learning the basics of a DAW
What’s Next For You In Your Production Journey?
Hopefully, this article has helped you weigh up the options out there so that you can feel more confident in choosing the DAW that will be best for your needs.
However, once you’ve chosen the DAW, there will still be a few more decisions that you’ll have to make before you’re up and running and ready to record some hits.
Please note: We will dive deeper into discussing the following bits of gear in a separate article. But for now, we’ll give you an overview of what you’ll need and what each piece of gear is used for.
The next main piece of the puzzle you’ll need to invest in is an audio interface. Interfaces are perhaps the bit of hardware that has come the furthest over the past decade or so. This is great news for you because it is an essential part of the home studio, and if you’re looking to record real instruments will have a huge impact on the recorded sound of them.
Here’s a quick rundown of the basic features you’ll find on an audio interface:
Converters: These convert the audio from analogue to digital when recording, then convert it back from digital to analogue on playback.
Microphone preamps: These boost the level of the microphone’s signal to the required level for recording audio.
Monitor outputs: To connect your interface to studio monitors (speakers) for playback.
Headphone output: To listen to your music through your headphones.
DI input: Allows you to plug in your electric guitar or bass guitar directly for recording. You can then apply virtual guitar amps inside of your DAW.
Here are some audio interface recommendations to get started:
If your goal is to record live instruments and vocals (not just MIDI), then you’ll also need to invest in the following items. We’ve included some recommendations for each item.
Microphone - One decent microphone will be enough to get started, and typically a large diaphragm condenser will be best