Tech \ Technique \ Gear Tips

Choosing a DAW

Music on computers? It'll never catch on...

2018 Sep 08     
2 Bit Thugs

If you're taking your first steps in music production, choosing the right DAW is a big part of the battle. Chris Lyth picks five of the best...

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. It’s essentially the engine where we write arrange and mix our music, so finding the right one for you is important. As with most things in life there is no best DAW, just the one that’s best for you. So here's my selection of five that deserve your attention. 

Do note that this is by no means an exhaustive list - Cubase, Cakewalk (free and superb) and Pro Tools are all great DAWs, but for me at least, these five are the ones that work very well with the particular demands of electronic music-making.

If any DAW was made with electronic music solely in mind, it’s Reason. It’s an entire electronic studio with synths, samplers, FX, drum machines, sequencer and mixer all under one roof, and the instruments and sound processors are very much built with electronic experimentation in mind.

Instruments such as Synchronous will have you mangling sounds for hours on end, while Klang includes tuned percussion and Europa gives a Waldorf-style wavetable synth with a stack of modulation options. There's an absolutely overwhelming amount of sound design here - I could write an entire article on the synths and plug-ins alone. This is where the real strength of Reason resides, it’s a creative playground for electronic music, full of the zeitgeist sounds and tools.

If I was to mix a project from scratch I probably wouldn’t use Reason, but if I wanted to create a track quickly without any fuss, then absolutely: it’s a very slick recording, sequencing and mixing package that you can finish off your ideas in. The price is £299 for the full package, but the stripped-down intro version is £69. Sometimes it pays to start small, and I’ve always said limitation brings its own rewards...

Pros: Packed full of sounds, SSL-style compressor
Cons: Rack patching a bit clunky, editing not as slick as Live or Logic

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Reaper is something of a Jekyll and Hyde, as it's a contradiction in so many great ways. It costs £60, but is leagues ahead of some more popular stalwarts. It’s fairly simple (albeit not the simplest) to use, but has huge power under the hood once you become more familiar with it.

Reaper is so deep, it’s likely you will never get to the bottom of it. While it doesn’t come bundled with hundreds of plug-ins and loops (it’s £60 FFS), its built-in compressor is possibly one of the most transparent and easy to use there is, and the EQ is sweet-sounding yet precise. One of the more powerful aspects of Reaper is its hyper-flexible routing functions: its routing matrix is arguably the most sophisticated of any DAW on the market. You can also customise the layout, look and functionality to suit your own workflow. It runs other plug-ins and synths without complaint, has good MIDI implementation and is generally rock solid.

The only thing wrong with Reaper is that its advertising is practically non-existent and it relies on word-of-mouth. But that word is spreading, and the news is good...

Pros: Price, stability, depth
Cons: Lack of sounds and small learning curve

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Do you want to party like it’s 1975? If so, take a look at Numerology. Retailing for £74 for the SE edition or £114 for the Pro version, this is a DAW that's very much off the beaten track: it’s essentially a virtual, multitrack take on analogue-style note generation sequencers that used to be as big as a car.

Numerology is a highly structured modular sequencing environment and there’s no doubt that it’s an incredibly deep program, but it’s also very intuitive - just watch a few of the tutorial videos and you'll be up and running in no time. It’s all about multiple step sequencers (five different types) that you can make go backwards, skip steps, add probability and generally warp and transform your patterns. There are also some amazing modulation options, which are graphic and flexible.

In short, it’s a creative’s retro sequencing paradise rather than a super modern DAW. If you're looking to use loads of audio and plug-ins with super slick editing, then look at Logic, Reaper or Live. But if you want to knock down the walls and get seriously adventurous with synths, Numerology shines brightly.

Pros: Nothing as deep and different on the market
Cons: Need to rewire to another program to run audio tracks

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Ableton Live
The most ubiquitous DAW on the list by some margin, Live has a workflow that lends itself perfectly to electronic styles and comes rammed with sounds, loops and plug-ins that fit that aesthetic to a tee.

Live comes with some great plug-ins supplied as standard, so much so that it could be said you would never really need to spend any money again as everything you need to make music is here. Just add imagination. Its layout is intuitive, with two environments to work in: the Arrange Window and the Clip View. The Clip View is better for generating ideas and jamming them down, then flip to the Arrange View to tidy them up.

As the name suggests, Live was originally conceived as a seamless live performance instrument, but has since evolved into a sophisticated DAW with which you can control and navigate complex arrangements with ease. It comes at various price points: €79 for Intro, €349 for Standard and €599 for Suite.

Pros: Easy and intuitive
Cons: Pricey

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Logic Pro X
It may sound harsh, but if you can’t make a track using Logic Pro X and a controller keyboard, then production may not be your forte.

Logic Pro X is more user-friendly than ever. Like Live, it comes rammed with instruments, drums loops and plug-ins (nearly 35GB of 'em). It has a 64-bit engine (like Live) which is great, but may mean some older plug-ins won’t run. Mixing a track in Logic is a joy, as the mixer window has everything laid out, er, logically! The same with the Arrange View: you can zoom in until you can split atoms, or hide things away if complex arrangements are looking busy.

The quality of the plug-ins is jaw-dropping. The ESX Sampler is rammed with sounds from real symphonic strings to the SH-101. The Alchemy synth is awesome, as are the compressors and EQ. The Reverbs are the best you will get without spending a small fortune and the new virtual drummer, which is loops played by top session drummers, is great for giving a real acoustic feel and you can alter the style and kit types to suit your track. A virtual drummer won’t sleep on your sofa for a week, either.

The price for Logic is unbelievable at £139, and it's probably the cheapest way for an aspiring producer to literally have it all.

Pros: Price, great synths, drums and FX
Cons: Mac only

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Words: Chris Lyth





Tags: DAW, digital audio workstation, production for beginners, production advice, studio tips, Ableton Live, Logic Pro X, Reaper, Numerology, Reason