The short answer might be: Well, it depends…
Long answer: There is quite a lot to consider when choosing an audio software — or DAW which stands for Digital Audio Workstation — as these pieces of software are called.
Some people say, it does not matter which Digital Audio Workstation you choose, and I guess that is partially right. The most important piece of the equation is definitly the person sitting behind the desk. But that statement might be based on the belief that everything we use as musicians are just tools to express ourselves through sound waves. Of course it is absolutely crucial to be — say — a skilled carpenter to build a beautiful piece of furniture, still you cannot neglect the importance of choosing the right wood, sledge and nails. And there are some striking differences to be found within the software products the various audio companies are offering you.
First off, what are some of the choices we have here? A possible subdivision of DAWs could be into “allrounders”, software specialised in production and performance of electronic music and those with a focus on audio editing, mixing and sound design. There are more products around but let us just focus on the probably most well-known and established ones here:
- Cubase (Steinberg)
- Logic Pro & GarageBand (Apple)
- Studio One (PreSonus)
- Digital Performer (MOTU)
Electronic music production and performance:
- Ableton Live
- FL Studio
- Reason (Propellerhead)
- Bitwig Studio
Audio editing and mixing:
- Pro Tools (Avid)
Each software has its distinct field where it shines. In this article, we will mainly focus on Cubase, Logic, Studio One, Ableton Live and ProTools as I am most familiar with these pieces of software and they are very popular in general.
Cubase is available on Mac and Windows and is great for software instruments which you program with a protocol called MIDI (musical input digital output) and score editing. But it also is quite versatile for audio recording and mixing, too.
With Cubase you get an all-trick pony at the cost of a learning curve due to the myriad of functions available. As a starter I would recommend just using Cubase LE which might already come with your sound card or external MIDI keyboard. Instead you might want to get the Elements version. This version still offers plenty of options for audio production well beyond just the start. One downside of Cubase is that you have to pay a fee for every major version upgrade of Cubase though major updates are delivered very reliably on a strict schedule every year.
Logic Pro has become sort of a “pro” version of GarageBand with its latest incarnation Logic Pro X. I was an avid Logic user for some time but the “X” version has driven me first to Ableton Live and then to Steinberg Cubase.
One major pro is the price and features you get here. It is significantly less than the “Pro” version of Cubase, ProTools or Live and you get a lot of content, great plugin-ins, decent software instruments and life-time free upgrades. In case you are a Mac-only user, it is a good idea to start out with the free GarageBand and switch over to Logic Pro X later on.
Studio One is a already not a fresh-faced newcomer to the scene anymore but it has found a loyal fan-base. Studio One has recieved a bit of hype over the internet recently with professionals claiming they switched over from ProTools to StudioOne.
Visually it looks like a distant cousin of Ableton Live with its minimalistic interface (actually even for me as a long time Live user too stripped down for my taste) combined with the handling of ProTools and Cubase. I tried to make it my Digital Audio Workstation of choice but unfortunatley could not bear the interface and general workflow but maybe you have more luck which might be quite likely. They even offer a free version called “Studio One Prime” but it does not support external audio plugins and software instruments.
Ableton Live is a great choice for everyone solely making electronic music. It is unparallelled in its on-the-fly audio and MIDI manipulation features. For example, you can seamlessly slow down and speed up all the audio tracks in your projects on the fly. In case you want to manipulate parameters of your synthesizers and plugins, there are plenty of hardware options in order to tinker with real knobs instead of dialing software wheels as well. As great as it is for software-instrument only workflows, Live has very limited functionality for audio recording and editing making it pretty much unusable for anybody doing additional or just audio recording. It is great as a live playback system but you might also want to look at Digital Performer which has better editing options.
ProTools is been sort of been the gold standard for audio recording and still is broadly used in film, TV and radio. I really like the workflow of this DAW and it also has very decent MIDI functionality despite its reputation as an mixing and audio software. In case you have some spare time, just try out the free version ProTools First to get an impression. I would love to use it as well but the licensing model where you rent the software keeps me from using it (I know you can purchase a full version as well but pricing here is also quite high compared to what you get and what you still have to buy additionally).
Honorable mentions we could not discuss further here are:
REAPER, a very mature and extensive piece of software which is very popular with game audio sound designers. Digital Performer, mainly used by established film composers in the US which has a very unique work flow. FL Studio, a good piece of software for electronic music production. Bitwig, which sort of tries to rival Ableton Live or Reason which also has its focus on electronic music production with a very strong following as well.
But as always, each use scenario and taste is different. So it is best to narrow down your possible choices by getting demo versions of the DAWs you are interested in and build a song with each of them to get a feeling which interface and workflow works the best for you.