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Choosing Your First DAW | Music-Making for Developers

Photo by Techivation on Unsplash

Check the previous post in the “Music-Making for Developers and Other Techies” series

DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation) software is the IDE equivalent in the computer music production world. It’s the hub of your music-making activities whether you do everything with software (also commonly referred to as “in the box”), use outboard gear, or record live instruments. At the end of the day, it is all controlled by, assembled, and processed by the DAW.

At this point, there are, definitely, more than ten world-class actively developed and maintained DAWs. And you can make professionally sounding music in any one of them. This is both good and, to some extent, bad news. It’s great to have a lot of choice but with no clear “default” the choice can be paralyzing. Especially when starting out.

You can focus on FREE and get Cakewalk (Windows-only), or the open-source Ardour, or start with entry-level versions of many DAWs that you can either download for free or get bundled with various pieces of music hardware (audio interfaces, controllers, etc.). But here’s another piece of good/bad news: if you get even moderately serious about this hobby, the DAW won’t be your biggest expense. Additionally, many DAWs have fairly generous trial periods (up to 90 days in some cases). So, it doesn’t make much sense to limit your choices by the cost right from the start. Unless you are dead set on not paying for anything.

But we are back to square one, you say! True. But here’s how I recommend you approach choosing your first DAW (and remember you can always switch, especially while in trial).

Instead of focusing on the price or a feature set, focus on the type of music you want to make, and the most common DAW used for educational content for that type of music. While you can make any kind of music in pretty much any professional DAW, for some genres there are clear “market leaders” (at least when it comes to education market).

Let’s cover some DAWs from this perspective and then add some more taking a different approach.

Note: I won’t mention specific prices (as this can change at any minute) but I may refer to the pricing and licensing aspects for cases when it’s a major differentiator or an outlier for the given DAW.

The most common DAWs of YouTube

I put YouTube in the title but here take it to mean any source of educational content — be it free videos, paid courses, books, or… TikTok. There isn’t any meaningful order to this list as one can’t measure this objectively, so I thought I’d approach it alphabetically.

Ableton Live

When it comes to electronic music, not many would argue that Ableton Live is a powerhouse. Sure, you can find a lot of EDM tutorials using FL Studio, Logic, or any other DAW. But when you search for information related to making any genre that falls under “electronic music” umbrella, chances are high that the person on the screen will be using Ableton Live.

While Live includes a “traditional” arrangement view found in many other DAWs, its signature piece is the “Session View” where you can mix-and-match clips on the fly or, well, live.

Ableton Live is also the most widely bundled DAW. When you buy an audio interface or a MIDI keyboard, chances are quite high that you will also get a Lite version of Ableton Live with it. Do check though if this is what you want to get. The Lite version is quite limited but is adequate to get your feet wet. It is also a good thing to have around even if you choose a different DAW as your primary.

For those who like to tinker (and what developer doesn’t?) the Suite version of Live (the most expensive one), comes with Max for Live — an environment where you can build your own instruments and effects.

Official website: https://www.ableton.com/en/live/

FL Studio

For those making (or aiming to make) “beats” and wanting to follow along with advice of an on-screen tutor, there’s no better choice than FL Studio. It is used to make tracks for the top-charting rappers and many youtubers work in FL Studio as well. Plus, quite a lot of electronic music producers use it too.

Its UI is quite divisive — people tend to either love or hate it. And its workflow is quite unique as well. Making it quite hard to get into when coming from other DAW and reversely migrate from FL Studio to other DAWs.

One killer feature of FL Studio among commercial DAWs is its lifetime free updates policy. People who bought FL Studio more than 20 years ago still get a free update to the latest version.

Official website: https://www.image-line.com/fl-studio/

Logic Pro

As mentioned above, you can make any music in any DAW and if you are a hardcore Mac fan then Logic Pro is your default choice. It’s a great DAW in and of itself but being Mac-only makes it a hard sell not only for the Windows aficionados but also for anyone who doesn’t follow the “macOS forever” religion.

It also has a solid growth path from free Garage Band to the very reasonably priced Logic Pro.

For these reasons (and simply because it’s a good DAW) there’s a lot of educational content in all kinds of genres where Logic is used as a tool. So, if you are in the Mac camp and hardly imagine switching OSs in the foreseeable future it could be a great choice.

Official websites: https://www.apple.com/logic-pro/

Pro Tools

Pro Tools has been a staple in professional studios for decades, but you would rarely see it used by modern-day producers. But when it comes to mixing it is still very popular and many professional mix engineers publishing mixing courses and tutorials do it using Pro Tools.

It is also one of the pricier subscription-only options on the market. So, unless you see yourself graduating from the hobbyist producer to a big-league mixing engineer, I would recommend choosing something else.

Official website: https://www.avid.com/pro-tools

Cubase

Cubase is the OG DAW that managed to stay relevant and feel fairly modern to this day. It is very capable and versatile. And while the top-of-the-line Pro version is pricey (plus still requires a USB dongle(!)) there are lower tier versions with more acceptable price tags. Some hardware comes with an entry-level Cubase LE version bundled for free.

While Cubase may not be the number one DAW on YouTube, you will definitely stumble on a lot of tutorials, tips, and tricks taught with Cubase as the tool. It also has great video support which makes it popular for scoring videos.

Official website: https://www.steinberg.net/cubase/

Tinkerer’s DAWs

All these popular “mainstream” DAWs are fine but since I’m writing this for developers, let me generalize and typecast my audience a bit. I assume that many of you reading these lines are not big fans of simple appliances that just work but rather like to bend things to your will. And this section is for you.

Don’t get me wrong, none of the DAWs mentioned above are “simple dumb appliances” but I would argue that they all are more focused on getting things done rather than inspiring creativity by letting you get sidetracked. The ones below are leaning in other direction (in my humble opinion).

Reaper

Structurally Reaper looks very similar to your “classic” DAW. But once you start digging you realize that it’s fully “skinnable” (hey, it was made by the guy who brought us Winamp), scriptable, and has a vibrant community of tinkerers around it.

Add to this that you can get it really cheap if you are a hobbyist and even the professional license (for the exact same feature set) is lower than most competing DAWs, and you get yourself a very interesting contender.

Official website: https://www.reaper.fm/

Ardour

Feel like messing with scripts and themes is not geeky enough for you? Meet Ardour — an open-source (GPL) digital audio workstation. Here you can get involved with developing the DAW itself, or just building it from source code, if you feel like it.

As I’m writing this, I hear my inner voice screaming “didn’t you pick music as a hobby to get away from programming for a bit!?” But to each their own. It could be fun to use the same project as both your open-source development contribution and your hobby enabler.

Official website: https://ardour.org/

Reason

Reason has brought software synthesis to the masses and was one of the main catalysts in the music-making revolution that enabled this book to make sense at all. With its semi-modular skeuomorphic design and little things like flipping the instrument rack around and rerouting cables it’s a great platform to learn how music is made in software without losing the connection with the hardware roots.

It is still going strong (maybe not getting new features as fast as its loyal community would want, which is also true for most DAWs) and is possibly one of the best investments if you want to just get one thing that would last you for a while. It comes with a solid collection of instruments, sounds, and effects. The sequencer/editing capabilities could be a bit lacking compared to other DAWs but are still perfectly adequate. Additionally, if you ever decide to switch DAWs you will not lose your investment in Reason as its Rack (the core instrument and effect part) can now be used as a plugin in other DAWs.

Official website: https://www.reasonstudios.com/

Bitwig Studio

Bitwig is a relatively new DAW that builds on what the industry has learned over the decades. It’s a popular choice among tweaking enthusiasts for its different modes and built-in capabilities.

The Grid — a built-in modular environment — lets you build your own instruments and effects.

Official website: https://www.bitwig.com/

That’s not all…

While we’ve covered a lot of ground in this chapter this is definitely not a comprehensive list, and I apologize if I didn’t mention your favorite DAW here. Still one question remains: what DAW are we going to use throughout this book?

Plot twist!

While all of the above-mentioned DAWs are perfectly capable of serving as both a learning tool and a professional environment, my personal choice, and the best option for the purposes of this book (in my humble opinion, obviously) is Studio One.

Why did I choose Studio One?

I’ve been a Reason user for many years (on and off). When I decided to get serious with this music-making hobby I upgraded to the latest version of Reason and was happy reacquainting myself with its classic features as well as learning about the new ones. The deeper I got the more obvious it became that while the instrument, effect, and sound selection in Reason is excellent, the editing capabilities are lacking behind many competing products.

Luckily (and many hardcore Reason fans find this very controversial), with version 11 Reason became a dual-headed beast. It is both a DAW and a plugin. You can use it a standalone digital audio workstation or you can load its instrument, effect, and utilities Rack (the iconic “feature”) as an instrument and/or effect in other DAWs. This made it possible for Reason to attract users of other DAWs as customers and, on the flip side, enabled Reason-faithful to explore other options without having to leave their investment into the ecosystem behind.

One day I wasn’t in a mood to make music or learn, so I used my “hobby time” to explore alternative DAWs. I will spare you from going through the description of the whole process, but here are the reasons why I ended up a Studio One user:

1. Modern and slick UI. This may sound superficial but for me personally it is important to enjoy looking at the tool I’ll use for hours a day. For this reason, I discarded FL Studio and Reaper despite the latter being themeable. Personally, I just didn’t feel them.

2. Rich editing capabilities. As I was coming from Reason and already had a solid (for a hobbyist) collection of instruments and effects, the built-in instruments of my new DAW weren’t as important. The more important part was editing, mixing, and mastering features. And Studio One shines in all three. Plus, PreSonus is adding pretty big features even with point releases every few months.

3. The right licensing model. The other two options I seriously considered were Ableton Live and Cubase. Both are around $600 in the top tier (and I knew I’d want the top tier, or I won’t feel good about my choice :). Additionally, Cubase at the time of this writing still requires a USB-dongle to run which made me dismiss it just for that.

Why I think Studio One is great as your first DAW

Now that we have my personal reasons out of the way, let’s see what I can add on top of those to persuade you that it is the best choice to use as the main point of reference throughout this book.

Modern yet traditional

While Studio One is a relatively new DAW (feels weird writing this about something that was launched in 2009 but doesn’t make it untrue), it doesn’t weir too far from traditional ways of structuring digital audio workstations.

Things like FL Studio or Ableton Live center around fairly unorthodox approaches to music-making which make them great for their respective fans but are hardly translatable to other DAWs should you decide to switch. Therefore, I think using Studio One for examples would give you a more neutral and universal understanding of the core concepts.

Less polarizing

While picking one of the DAWs atop of the YouTube totem pole could’ve scored me more points with one particular crowd it would probably alienate the “competing” camps. And more polarization is the last thing we need these days. Studio One is very popular and growing in popularity but it is never a subject of Mac vs. Windows or iOS vs. Android style debates. So, I may not have scored a point with you if you came here with a certain inclination towards some other DAW but, hopefully, I didn’t offend you by picking your “mortal enemy” either.

There’s an option for everyone

Studio One offers arguably the most flexible licensing and pricing options on the market (well, except for the totally free ones). There’s a free Prime version that you can just get from PreSonus unlike many other DAWs that have free versions that are either bundled with hardware or have to be obtained in some other indirect way. Speaking of bundled with hardware, most PreSonus (and some other) hardware comes bundled with Studio One Artist — a very solid mid-level version of Studio One — which can also be bought directly for a very reasonable price. And then we have Studio One Pro, which you can either purchase outright or get as part of the all-encompassing Sphere subscription for a very fair monthly fee.

More about Studio One: https://www.presonus.com/products/Studio-One

In conclusion about DAWs

Whether you choose to use Studio One or not essentially shouldn’t matter in the context of this book. We will try to stick to core concepts and stay away from highly specific things. The most important thing is that you feel excited when you open your DAW. So whichever DAW makes you feel that way should be your first choice and shouldn’t impede your ability to follow along with this book.

In the next chapter we talk about your first gear purchase — studio headphones.

This is a chapter from the book I’m writing. I will be posting a new chapter each week. But there’s a way to get new chapters early or even get everything I’ve written so far and support this endeavor. Click here for the details.

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Alan Mendelevich

Alan Mendelevich

I run AdDuplex - a cross-promotion network for Windows apps. Blog at https://blog.ailon.org. Author of "Conferences for Introverts"