The Best DAW: Music Production Software Guide

There’s no other way to put this:

If you’re serious about music production – you should strongly consider investing in a piece of music production software or DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) as is know in professional circles.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the DAWs out there or a rundown of each of the features that each bit of software has, rather I want to give you an insight as to what the current trends are and what the professional producers out there are currently using to make their tracks.

Using the right music production software will streamline your creative workflow, helping you to get the ideas out of your head faster and ultimately finishing songs that you can share and promote.

Finding the right music production software to your needs is a bit of trial and error, some may prefer others over another but on the whole they share common similarities and workflows. Once you find a DAW that works to your liking, I personally recommend you stick with it until you start getting your plays on SoundCloud and getting those “wow, how did you make this?”, “dope” style comments.

But which DAW is right for you?

There are certain factors to consider when choosing your music production software, so bear this mind whilst reading the reviews and information of each DAW.

1) Style of Music: Certain genres will utilise music production software better than others. Some are geared more towards live recording of audio (Pro Tools) whereas others are focused on DJs and live performances (Ableton). Depending on the genre of music that you wish to create, it’s important that you learn the DAW best equipped for your specific creative requirements. I will give an overview as to what DAWs are suited for each genre, once we start looking at each software in detail.

2) Experience: Creating music on any DAW will always come with a learning curve. However, if you’re serious about making music and want to do gigs – avoid basic programs and start from day one with what the pros are using. Switching to another DAW means you can’t open any old projects and rework it in your new DAW that you’ve switched to. You will have to create entirely new songs from scratch and learn this new software in the process – boring when all you want to do is make music. So when you start to get momentum on Soundcloud or Youtube with a following and plays, you can continue to work on and improve your productions. Starting with basic software is only going to slow you down in the long run towards you becoming a musician.

3) What others are using: It makes sense to use the same software other producers out there are using. This means you can collaborate and share your productions.

In this guide I’ve put five of the top tools to the test. I’ll show you an overview of how they work, key features and a list of pros and cons that I have gathered from trialling them.

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1) Ableton
Pros: The first DAW and the one I use personally day to day in my productions is Ableton. The reason being is the workflow is second to none. There are two main screens in Ableton, session view and arrangement view. You can launch audio and midi clips from session view to get yourself jamming in a matter of minutes. You are able to map midi controls to mostly any parameter including synths and audio effects and adjust them as you play. This is great for improvisation and makes your computer become more like a real instrument.

Ableton can handle an unlimited amount of midi/audio tracks and has a grouping function, great for combining all your drum sounds and applying effects.

It has a minimalistic view, there are no fancy icons.

You can link up computers and other devices to collaborate.

Taking this software from production to a live environment is second to none.

There are custom MIDI controllers designed for Ableton that are reasonably inexpensive, which means you don’t have to tweak any settings – it’s pretty much plug and play.

Editing MIDI notes is intuitive, although not as detailed as some DAWs.

Max For Live, is a tool for the seriously advanced producer, meaning you can program your own audio effects, routings and ultimately own synths. To the people out there using Max MSP, I applause you and envy you at the same time.

Cons:
Bad audio editing. You are unable to create lanes or retakes on audio, not that great for vocal recording.
Arrangement view can get hard to navigate and understand once you start getting 10-15+ tracks.

Not as many free tutorials on youtube.com as for other DAWs – however lots of good paid tutorials from sites like SonicAcademy etc.

You can’t delete or edit audio from the clip.

Probably geared more towards House/Techno producers. Warping doesn’t tend to work very well on hip-hop tracks.

There is a free version of Ableton, call Ableton Lite and comes included with a lot of USB midi hardware. Granted it only comes with 8 tracks, but that’s how they made music back in the day and will be enough if you’re just starting out in the world of music production.

Fl studio

2) FL Studio

A favourite among many hip-hop producers due to the low cost of entry and ease of use to get started. This was my original DAW when I first started to learn how to make beats before moving on to Ableton. There are lots of free tutorials out there on YouTube for this bit of software and it’s relatively straight forward to get going.

This is one of the world’s most popular DAWs and follows the more conventional linear gird based type view. One thing I like about FL studio over other conventional music making software is its similarity to Ableton in being able to edit multiple parameters such as audio effects and synths whilst mapped. This gives you the ability to get a feel of the track and figure out how you want to automate things. It also means you can loop a region and do similar operations to Ableton with your midi controller, finding out what elements work together and what music you can add.

The built in step sequencer is a great way to start building up your drums, probably the quickest software to do so.

Editing MIDI via the piano roll is probably second to none.

However, I left because more of the advanced tutorials on how to make a track from start to finish was focussed more on Ableton.

Cons: Require producer edition to record audio with microphone

A big part of the hip-hop movement, Mike-Will-Made-IT, M16 Productions etc.

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3) Logic Pro

A stellar DAW, that has some sort of magic powder on its audio engine. For some reason any track I make with it, it just sounds better. This music production software although Mac only, has lots of great synths and sounds out the box. Once I’ve got my arrangement down in Ableton my next step is to take it into Logic and master.

One thing this DAW has over others is its built in music theory capabilities. Chords played on the midi keyboard show up in the tool bar and the midi editor can input your notes to a certain scale.

Also MIDI notes are easily edited in the piano roll and has the most functions I’ve seen in any DAW which I’ve used. It’s a bit much learning all the keys and functions – but it makes your workflow fast if you prefer to work by drawing in and tweaking note lengths.

It also looks beautiful and the software is skinnable with different themes, good if you’re looking at it all day long for hours on end and get a bit bored.

Great for working with audio files and recording vocals. Has all the functions you need to work with audio, such as vocals and recording instruments.

One thing I do not like about Logic and has steered me clear from creating tracks from scratch with it is the inability to improvise with it on the spot. You can map knobs via midi, however when you wish to play an instrument for instance – you are unable to edit another parameter on another track say a reverb on your drums. This means it’s hard to get a feel for the track as you’re in a creative flow. It’s quite rigid and set.

Another kind of bad point, is that it’s only AU compatible – meaning you don’t have access to ALL of the VST plugins available, though most of the major plugins are shipped with AU too.

There’s a steep learning curve associated with this DAW with all the tools and shortcuts, it’s getting up there with the likes of Pro Tools in the likes of complexity. It’s going to take time to get good at Logic even if you have experience, but it’s a great mastering, finishing off style DAW.

Comes with good audio effects as standard.

Ideal for synth pop, pop, rock’n’roll

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4) Pro Tools

ProTools is ultimately aimed at the audio professional, mixers and mastering engineers. As such it’s workflow is designed for a real studio environment. For the beginner, it probably has the steepest learning curve of all the DAWs and it’s proprietary AAX format for plugins means you’ll have a hard time getting creative with it if you want to create all your music in the box. Not all plugins will be available for this music production software.

Not really designed for EDM and house style music if however, you’re a rock band and you all play live instruments – this is the DAW for you. It’s audio routing capabilities and manipulation are second to none.

This music production software is present in most professional recording studios and as such if you learn the ins and outs, you will be able to take the project home and continue working on the mix. What’s more, since most professional audio engineers use this as their DAW collaboration with the pros will be easier.

I personally recommend learning something like FL/Ableton/Cubase first as they have the most widely supported system for plugins, then exporting your audio stems in to Pro Tools for mastering – this is the procedure for most professional producers serious about making music.

The reason being you should master in Pro Tools is simple – it has a better sounding audio engine. And because most professional pop songs or commercially successful tracks are mastered before release, there will be a little of Pro Tools magic on there.

The layout of Pro Tools imitates that of an SSL console and when Pro Tools was introduced way back in the 90’s this is what commercially released music was made on, so basically you’d be using a software version of something that cost thousands of dollars back in the day for a fraction of the cost!

Ideal for bands and advanced producers who have knowledge of mastering.

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5) Cubase

Considering this was the original DAW that created the VST it deserves a mention. Originally released way back in 1989, Cubase was one of the first music production softwares released. Countless dance music classics have been made with this software so why not follow in the footsteps of our heroes?

I’ve personally not used this DAW as the other 4 above have been enough for me to learn on this journey towards becoming a producer, but it made the list nonetheless due to its popularity and legacy. A bit on the expensive side and not much in the way of online tutorials, it still boasts a massive collection of sounds and classic synths.

Having seen video tutorials use Cubase, it hails something very similar to Logic Pro X for Mac, so if you’re on PC and want that Logic Pro / Garage Band feel, get Cubase, it will be an easy transition between the two. Much like Logic Pro, it has good audio recording and manipulation features as well as boasting top support for all major plugins, meaning you can be as creative on this platform as any other.

That said, this music production software is getting on now and doesn’t have the same popularity as it once had. You’re better off investing your money in to Ableton or FL Studio depending on the genre you wish to create, where there are lots of tutorials for the software and you won’t have to relearn something down the line.

Designed for EDM music, Drum n Bass.

Most skills learnt on any DAW is transferrable, however it will take time to learn the shortcuts and understand the inner workings on each piece of software to get a decent creative flow going. Expect a setback of around 3-4 months transferring from one DAW to another to reproduce the same quality of music you were making on one piece of software. So learn one DAW and stick with it.

Remember, making music is something you enjoy, if you’re happy with a DAW and the music you’re making, stay with that one and perfect it. Music is an art form, there are no right or wrong answers and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

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