The most common question you’ll hear from a novice producer these has to be, ‘which DAW should I use?’ At least once a week I’ll be asked about it in bars or clubs, and with the flurry of high-quality software over the last few years, the choice is getting harder all the time. So let’s take a rundown over some of the most popular options and whether they could be right for you!
Before we get onto the pros and cons of various platforms though, lets just throw this out there – whichever DAW suits your workflow and helps you get your ideas from your head to your hard disk with minimum fuss, that’s the best one. It’s 2012; you’ll be hard pressed to find a DAW these days that doesn’t have a decent graphical interface, high quality audio engine and VST/AU support. So when someone tries to tell you that this DAW is the best and that one is rubbish – ignore them! Let them argue it out on a forum somewhere. With that said, let’s jump in.
In my experience, the industry standard amongst electronic music producers is Logic. It’s what most of the people I work with use, and although its dominance is slowly decreasing, outside of the major studios it’s been on top for several years. MIDI and audio are handled well, you get a comprehensive suite of very impressive plugins and synths, and it looks slick and easy to use. Even more persuasively, since it’s been available as a download, it has become remarkably cheap at around £140. Compare that to the price of Cubase and suddenly the extra cost of buying a Mac doesn’t look so prohibitive after all. Add in the 40-odd GB of sounds, loops and instruments, and you’ll have enough to keep you busy for a long time. It’s not without its disadvantages – there are some bugs, and many users are worried that Apple may take it down the same road as Final Cut Pro – but in general it’s a very solid platform for professional use.
Hot on Logic’s heels, however, as one of the best DAWs around is Ableton. And for good reason. The fact that it’s available for both PC and Mac helps matters, as does its all-around versatility. If there’s an industry standard for live performance, this is it – and that’s important now so many people are playing live shows! Ableton’s key idea is warping of audio to the grid, and the way it can handle audio and MIDI ‘clips’ interchangeably. This means you can do a DJ mix, live performance, or write a new track all in much the same way – it’s very intuitive. The audio warping itself also left Ableton’s competitors in the dust; while Logic and Cubase now have their own versions, they’re still not as good. The intuitive approach to handling sounds has also won over a lot of less technically-minded producers who find Logic or Cubase somewhat fiddly – so although the bundled plugins aren’t amazing, if you want to learn and get started quickly, Ableton is an excellent choice.
We can’t go any further without mentioning Cubase. One of the longest-standing music programs in existence, it’s recently existed as the PC rival to the Apple user’s Logic. And that’s a reasonable comparison – although fans of each will insist that the differences are many and significant, ultimately they’re both extremely good DAWs with solid graphical interfaces and good plugins. They’re both easy enough to learn, but lack the pick up and play advantage that Ableton brings to the table. But they’re more than powerful enough to produce professional-sounding work at any level.
That’s the establishment candidates covered. But the last few years have seen a revolution in affordable DAWs and it would be criminal not to mention these! The most famous is FL Studio; formerly known as Fruity Loops. In its original incarnation, it was a simple but effective tool for hacking together simple samples and loops. But that was a good thing, as it encouraged a whole new generation of producers to get involved with an easy-to-learn interface. I can think of at least a couple of top 10 hits that were written in Fruity, and it’s still enormously popular today. It’s also a lot more fully featured, and is starting to rival the major players in terms of versatility. At $200 it’s impressively priced – but it is PC only.
Even more exciting, and even cheaper, is Reaper. Reaper seemed to fly out of nowhere as a little shareware app about four years ago, and has developed so fast that it’s now a major contender. Available for Mac and PC, and with a cost of around £40, Reaper is incredibly good value for money. It’s not the most intuitive to pick up – it’s so flexible and has so many options that it can appear fairly daunting, although for the experienced user this is a bonus – but when the trial version includes the entire program, with no limitations apart from reminder screens to register, you’d have to be mad not to try it out. Mad, I tell you.
There are plenty more options that we just don’t have the space to look into – Digital Performer, Samplitude (both heavy-duty options that are well worth your consideration), and of course Pro Tools. Pro Tools is the longtime industry standard for major studios, but it probably isn’t quite so well suited to the world of smaller, dance-music oriented projects (and their smaller wallets). You’ll occasionally get the odd Youtube clown insisting that real pro’s only use Pro Tools, but you can safely ignore this advice.
But if we’re going to sum up, the ultimate conclusion has to be (perhaps disappointingly) that really, there is no ‘best DAW’ any longer. Any of the dozen or so top DAWs out there today can handle more and better sound than anything that was around ten years ago – you could write a chart hit on any of these. It’s now just a case of learning your trade and figuring out a way of working that really suits you. So download some demo versions, find out which works best for you, and get cracking on that chart hit!
Categories: Tech Talk