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Which DAW Should I Use?

When it comes to music software, there are a ton of different options out there. While it seems like there's a mountain of software to learn, most applications actually follow the same type methodology. Most DAW's operate basically the same with variations in functions and features. Then there are other types of software that don't fit our definition of a DAW but 'specialize' in specific approaches and functions. We've talked about the basics before here. Today we're going to discuss the similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses of the various applications.



Most of the time we refer to music applications as DAW's but this can misleading, and in some cases just wrong. Some of the software is geared more toward either working with loops, with soft-synths, and/or just creating 'beats' ('beats' implies not only the beat but the instrumentation (and basic harmony). Some work specifically with score, while others are meant to provide backing and play-along tracks.

What's A DAW?

The official title is 'Digital Audio Workstation'. There are a few things that make the difference between a software program and a DAW. First of all, it has to be able to record audio and MIDI. It has a built mixer and various forms of connectivity through the program. Most (if not all) DAW's now come with built in VST instruments and plug-ins to varying degrees. They all now include automation, group channels, MIDI channels, FX sends and returns, audio and MIDI editors,  and various built audio processing. Some software programs (like Reason, FL Studio, Band-In-A-Box and others) don't follow these criteria; even though they have other features not found in 'regular' DAW's. Other programs (like Ableton Live, Sony Acid) started out just working with loops but have developed into much more. Some producers now use these as their primary DAW.

Workflow

It's really just a question of work-flow. The thing that differentiates all music software is the features and how the interface is laid out. Reason can't record audio; which you would think would be a big drawback but it has a very intuitive interface which is great at creating beats, and trying out ideas.. Ableton had the same thing going for it when it started. It now has a ton more features but it's still very easy to get going on a track; just drag and drop. DAW's on the other hand are usually quite complicated. People complain about this but it's pretty much the point; you want your DAW to do a ton of things for you, and to make all of these features work the program needs to have some depth. That said, they're usually all laid out in exactly the same manner. You have a track window that has all of your tracks laid out vertically showing all of the activity and basic track info. There's also another mixer window that has the traditional mixer laid out showing all of your tracks in horizontal rows. 'Loop' programs (like Ableton and Acid) forgo the mixer layout and focus more on different track views. Reason and FL Studio have the mixer and track view but not exactly the same 'two window format' as the traditional DAW.

Which One For Me?

So which do I want to use? You know that there's learning curve with any software so you're hoping to pick the right package right from the get-go. While there are differences, each one has it's own strengths and weaknesses. Some are better suited for certain applications than others. Here are a couple of standards that you should know and then you can pick from there.

The Standards

The standards are of the 'regular' DAW's that we all familiar with. The most well known ones would be Logic, Cubase (or Nuendo), Sonar, Reaper, Digital Performer, Audition, Propellerhead Record,  and Samplitude. Logic is the standard on the Mac. That along with Digital Performer are only available on that OS. It's also extremely popular throughout Europe. Pro Tools is the defacto standard for post-audio, and professional studios. Programs like Cubase and Sonar are popular with different groups of producers in all types of styles. The difference between Logic, Cubase et al. is really in the various features and extras included into the work-flow. For most, it's really just a matter of personal preference. For example Logic has more plug-ins right out of the box than any other program. Digital Performer is great manipulating different tempo maps into your work-flow. Nuendo has great post production features. Sonar has recently come out with a new upgrade that includes many new features. Reaper has almost all of the features of the major players yet at a fraction of the cost (incredible value for your money). It also takes very little CPU compared to the others. Pro Tools has arguably the best plug-ins and connect-ability but comes at a high price. However, Pro Tools now works with virtually any soundcard; proprietary hardware is no longer needed (a big plus).There are also now a ton of other programs available (like Traktion, Studio One) that are on the market. Some of these come packaged when you purchase the manufacturer's hardware so there's no need to spend extra on a DAW.

The Rebels

The rebels would be the ones that don't neatly fit into our definition of a DAW. These would include programs like Ableton Live, Sony Acid, FL Studio (aka Fruity Loops), Propellerheads Reason, and Garageband.  These programs are really popular with DJ's, dance and hiphop producers because they meld into their work-flow quite nicely. Most have all that is needed (tons of sounds, synths, drum machines, loops, presets) to create a finished track from scratch, without the need for any other plug-ins or instruments. Garageband has become standard for a lot of users because it's built right into the Mac OS. Ableton Live is popular with sound designers and composers because it's very effective at manipulating audio. It has so many levels of automation that you can pretty much automate anything. These programs usually have functions and features which aren't found in your typical DAW.

Notation Programs

Another type of DAW is the notation programs. These are used by composers who are used to the score layout more than the typical piano roll. The two best known are Sibelius and Finale. While most DAW's have built in score capability, they don't compare in depth and features as much as these. Notation programs make it easy to see your whole arrangement like you would on a printed score. Some of them have extra features like 'auto arrange' which will take a basic piano arrangement and turn it into a string quartet or a full blown symphony if you like. Although very useful once you get to know the program, most of these suffer from having a huge learning curve. They also suffer from some limitations as far as plug-ins, recording and mixing features.

We're Jamming

Another type of software program is 'jamming' or play-along software. The most notable of these is Band-In-A-Box but there are others. These have built in styles and templates that mimic different genres of music. For example; want to jam some blues? There are a number of built in styles and songs to jam to. It's very easy to change the key, tempo or arrangement. You can even create your own styles and use them over different chord progressions. Since these have to change so many parameters, the tracks are all MIDI generated. There now includes various loops to make your track more realistic but most of the tracks use your built MIDI sounds.

Which Ones Do I Prefer?

Over the years I've pretty much tried every one of these products (except Digital Performer) at one time or another. I like using dedicated DAWs like Logic, Cubase and Sonar because they're easy to work with (once you get over the initial learning curve) and pretty much have all I need. Each of these have their little niggles (and features) that I've hated (or missed) when trying out another.While Pro Tools has great connectability and is pretty much the industry standard, I find the other DAWs more intuitive when putting tracks together. At the same time, I find the other programs irreplaceable in their own ways. I use Ableton for quickly putting together ideas, manipulating audio and creating beats. I find I come up with completely different ideas than I would have using my regular DAW. I use Reason in the same way. I also love using jamming software. Taking a standard blues progression/jazz tune/whatever and putting my own changes in makes a great starting track in no time. I always end up importing these files into my dedicated DAW, ripping it apart until I come up with something that I like. I always end up importing the files from these programs into my dedicated DAW. I try to keep all of the different files together but having it all imported into my DAW, it can be archived properly. The same goes for notation software. For creating symphonies, there's nothing like seeing the printed score right in front of you. If you're working this way, then go to a DAW and try the same thing,  you may be disappointed in the results. Because of the limitations of the program (plug-ins, instruments etc.) I always have to export it into my DAW to polish off the arrangement. While this may seem like too many steps for most, I find that it's the best of both (...many worlds).

The More The Merrier?

The truth is that most producers I know have gone through a couple of different programs in their professional life. Sometimes, you'll start with one program and migrate to another. Some people I know started out with one program and have pretty much stick with it. I've found that it's best to use one DAW a majority of the time. This way you get used to the program and use it without thinking too much. This lets you get down to the business of making music and not spending your days trying to tweak software. I also find that when trying out other software programs, new ideas and sounds just pop up. It's always good to have a couple of different tools at your disposal. Also when working in different genres (eg a dance track as opposed to a guitar/vocal track, versus a full blown symphony) I use different programs.

In The End

In the end it really becomes a personal choice. It comes down to what style of music you create, what your work habits are and what you want to accomplish. One good way to see the problems with any program is to go on the various forums (just do a search 'your DAW' forums) and see what people are talking about. You'll see some issues that people are having on a regular basis as well as some features that you may not know about. Many users will go into detail about how one DAW is better than the other; just do your research and make your own decisions. Also, if you work with a group of musicians, it's usually best to get the same DAW so projects can be exchanged with little effort. There is an exchange format but it's still unreliable; some setting will get lost. One major drawback with most DAW's (that they never seem to address) is the fact that they're not backwards compatible. That is, if your friend started a project in the newest version of your DAW of choice, odds are you won't be able to open up the file (in your older version) until you've updated your software too. Another caveat, is updates. Most users will tell you to always update your software. While this is a good idea for small updates, I find it's not always best when dealing with major updates. New versions usually have great new features but they will often take features away (that you found irreplaceable), and the new version (with all of it's bells and whistles) will usually tax your system more. If you have an older computer, you might want to keep working with the DAW you have until you can upgrade your entire system. It's always a let down when you see your old projects (which worked fine on the old version), now max out your machine. Also, there are always some bugs with every new version.  Above all, find something you like, then get to work!


*Disclaimer: These are all just personal views. I have no affiliation and receive no compensation from any software provider.