How To Choose a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) To Produce Music

If you traveled back in time 15-20 years ago and tried selling the idea that entire recording studios would be accessible to anyone with a laptop, most people would have scoffed at the absurdity of your statement.

However, the funny thing that it is, that has happened in today’s day and age. 

What is a DAW?

The Digital Audio Workstation or DAW, for short, has risen to prominence, owing to the fact that what initially took a hefty amount of money, time, space and manpower – has now been reduced to mere minutes. A computer with an available hard drive space of a few gigabytes and a couple hundred bucks will get you very far in music production.

The importance of a DAW cannot be understated; it is to a recording musician what a canvas is to a visual artist. Think of it as a tool a musician uses to transfer his creative brilliance into music.

At the most fundamental level, what a DAW does is facilitate music recording from an array of sources (microphones, drums, electronic keyboards etc.), before allowing the project to be exported into an audio track (e.g. MP3 or WAV format) that can be uploaded and played anywhere you desire.

There are two types of DAWs. A standalone/integrated and software-based.

A standalone system looks like a mixing console (a device that balances the volumes of separate recordings of multiple sound sources, and then joining/’mixing’ them) combined with an LCD screen. They used to be the go-to tool for many project recording studios, but as of recent years, because of the advancement of computer systems – this has given birth to the popularity of software-based DAW. 

We are going to be talking specifically about software-based DAWs in this post.

More reads on DAW (Digital Audio Workstations):

The Components of a DAW

A Digital Audio Workstation is an integration of the following components:

  1. A computer or portable device – provides the core power, processes information, and functions as a storage place for audio data.
  2. DAW recording software or sequencer – provides a graphical user interface “GUI” to go about the managing, organizing, editing, and playback of audio data.
  3. Audio interface or sound card – converts various audio inputs into digital audio data.

Standard features of a DAW

Multitrack recording (separate recordings of multiple sound sources i.e. mono or stereo form, to produce a cohesive whole) is the basis for a DAWs design of its GUI. That is why most software-based DAWs are inclined to have a standard layout, which includes a library manager ( to access all your sounds), transport controls (play/stop, rewind/forward, record, etc.), various track controls/navigation, a mixing console, and a workspace (timeline that maps out each track in a waveform display and incorporates performance information).

Every one of the sequencer’s tracks is embedded with a channel strip, whereby controls for volume, panning (balancing of sound in the stereo field, left or right), routing (channel input and output for sounds), and more are provided. The channel strip also contains several other controls i.e. mute, solo, and record arm/enable.

One of the features that brought about the popularity of DAWs is the ability to ‘undo’. Younger music producers might not have put much thought into this, but our more senior music producers would call this feature a godsend. Back in the days before DAWs existed, you would have to physically cut & stick a recording tape if you wanted to make an edit.

Some form of automation is also commonly present on DAWs, through what is called “envelope points”. Parameters of the output over time (e.g pan or volume) can be specified by the user, through the creation and adjustment of multiple points along a waveform,

DAW must-know: 

  1. Audio plugins – Independent pieces of code that are ‘plugged’ into DAWs to increase their functionality. Usual plugins that you might be familiar with include equalization, delay, dynamic range control, reverberation, and virtual instruments.
  2.  MIDI controllers – Devices that communicate MIDI messages (event messages exclusive for audio signals e.g. velocity and pitch, not to mention control signals for parameters e.g. volume, panning, cues, vibrato, and clock signals for tempo synchronization). Popular MIDI controllers assume the shape of a music keyboard, although there are pad or guitar-style MIDI controllers as well.

Read more on audio plugins & MIDI controllers:

Which DAW Should I Use? 

Imagine you’re learning to drive. You would have to choose to learn a manual or automatic car. Learning to drive an automatic is simple because you don’t have to acquire every knowledge at one go. You would b able to concentrate on steering, braking, indicating and traffic – without fretting over the clutch and gear stick. However, when you decide to go back to a manual car, some retraining will be needed.

The same concept applies when choosing a DAW.

There is plenty of knowledge to be acquired, and industry standards, like Logic Pro and Pro Tools, save the effort of retraining down the road. However, this would also mean a higher initial learning curve and expense for you. 

At the end of the day, the decision lies with you, and you alone. What we can advise here is to point out some key factors that might help you make a decision towards your chosen DAW.

1 – Your computer operating system and hardware

Are you on Mac OS or Windows computer? 

We’re not – going to do the comparison on which OS is better or more superior. The answer to that question is always – it depends.

Back then, Mac-based DAWs were the go-to’s for professional producers and composers due to Apple’s faster computers and the fact they more easily adapted to creative endeavors than their Windows counterpart. But today, the truth is, whatever you produce on a Mac, I can pretty much produce the same on a PC – and vice versa.

Whilst there are numerous DAWs that fit the bill for both, bear in mind some DAWs only operate on one system. For example, Logic Pro X only runs on Mac and Sonar Cakewalk only runs on Windows.

I believe a good way to ensure you’re on DAW that you want to use for a long time, is to look for a DAW that installs on both Mac and PC. Why? Because you want to be open for collaborations between music producers – as the internet today allows for more and more collaboration.

2 – Audio Plugin Compatibility

There are three types of plugins formats in the market:

  1. AU (Audio Units – native format for Mac OS X; though used in many DAWs not restricted to Mac-based DAWs)
  2. VST (Virtual Studio Technology – most popular and commonly implemented plugin standard for both Windows and Mac-based DAWs),
  3. RTAS (Real-Time Audio Suite – can only be used with Pro Tools DAW)

It is vital to know the formats your DAW utilizes as varying formats may be incompatible. For instance, VST plugins may or may not function on a host DAW that only utilizes AU plugins.

Does your favorite audio plugins offer AU & VST plugins? Does your chosen DAW support them and have 32-bit & 64-bit plugin compatibility?

3 – Your Music Production Goal

The keyword when choosing a suitable DAW to produce music in is “workflow”. In the modern world of music production & business, speed is king. 

Are you able to produce quickly on your DAW? Or do you find yourself constantly stopping your creative workflow to fix errors and figure out functions when producing on your DAW?

If you’re new, you may not be aware of your workflow yet – because you’ve not produced on them yet. That’s why we recommend downloading trial versions of each DAW you have interest in an attempt to produce a music piece. It’s only then you’ll begin to discover your favorite DAW. 

Not all DAWs are built the same (which we will explain in a little while below). Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Are you planning to do more audio recording or are you going for a full-blown synth & virtual instruments composition DAW setup?
  • Is your music leaning towards more electronic music – where you’ll be tweaking with sounds and effects? 
  • Are studio recordings what you plan to work with, or do you intend to undertake live tracks as well?
  • What is the degree of control you would like to exert over audio or MIDI editing? 
  • Do you plan to arrange & print music sheets?

4 – Your Budget

Always, always, take advantage of season sales to buy or upgrade your DAW. It doesn’t matter if your favorite DAW just spewed up an update, you can usually afford to wait.

Some of the most successful music producers I know, produce on old DAW systems. So unless you really need to spend money on a DAW upgrade, it usually pays to wait it out – for a seasonal sale, like Black Friday or Thanksgiving.

Coming back to budgets. Choose a DAW that you can afford.

A quick tip here. You don’t have to always buy the biggest version of the DAW.

Take Presonus Studio One for example. It offers three versions, from Studio One Prime (the free version), Artist and Professional. If you’re a singer-songwriter who do occasional recordings and use some instrument samplers – Studio One Artist would be good enough for you. It offers the same functionality from recording, editing, mixing and light mastering – you can do it all in the Artist version. And guess what? For only 25% of the price, you pay for the Professional version.

Besides, you can always upgrade your software later on when you feel you need more. Just another reason why I would recommend going for a DAW that offers sequential upgrades or crossgrades.

Few more advice: 

  1. Buy a genuine copy please. When you spend actual money on a DAW, you’ll use it. Plus you get a peace of mind, no crashes, no nonsense.
  2. Go dongle-free. DAWs like ProTools and Cubase require you to use an i-Lok dongle to run. I never liked that. The number of times I got nightmare thinking I misplaced the dongle somewhere is not worth it. Then again, that’s a piece of personal advice.
  3. Less is more. The more features a DAW has, the better it is, right? No. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself only using 20% of its complete features to get your music done.

Best Free DAWS for Windows & Mac

So you’re just starting out and want to look for a free DAW. No problem, here is a list of the best free DAWs in our opinion.

1 – Tracktion 7 (Mac and Windows)

  • Best overall free DAW for beginners.
  • Compatible with most VST plugins
  • Streamlined user interface that a beginner would enjoy using.
  • Tools from pro-DAW softwares e.g. Warp Time, automation and sub-mix tracks.
  • No track-limits or anything like that.

Tracktion 7 is definitely one of the best free DAW with full features in the market. It has an amazing dark GUI, which promotes more focus when you’re producing music. You can do multitrack recordings, MIDI composing and mix without limits in it.

It limitation comes in if you’re into doing heavy post-production work where it lacks multi-screen features, a proper metering mixer, and music to picture capability. However, at a free price tag, no other DAW comes close to the value Tracktion is offering.

2 – Garageband (Mac-only)

best free daw for mac garageband

  • Best free DAW for Mac
  • Lots of instrument samples, loops, and synths.
  • Multitrack recording ready.
  • Extremely easy-to-use interface and fun

If you’re on a Mac, it’s a no-brainer to download Garageband from the AppStore and start making music right away. Garageband, as we know it today, has become so user-friendly, that even a non-musician can produce music with it.

The downside to Garageband is when you need pro-features such as plugging in 3rd party plugins to process your audio and MIDI tracks, which it does not have support for.

3 – Audacity (Mac and Windows)

audacity free audio editor

  • Tons of features for recording & editing audio tracks
  • Multi-track audio recordings

Audacity is not quite a DAW but more so an audio editor, like Adobe Audition. However, don’t be fooled by its simple appearance. The audio editing ability in Audacity is quite near to what you can do on a full audio editor like Audition. It’s an audio editor that I would recommend all music producers to have on their computer, as it offers audio editing capabilities such as noise removal, key changing, etc – that is absent on some DAWs.

The downside to Audacity is that the editing stylet is disruptive. Once applied, effects are permanent and you won’t be able to undo them. The GUI is also limited in a sense and to edit in Audacity means you have to trust your ears, not your eyes.

4 – Ocenaudio (Mac and Windows)

acenaudio free audio editor audiomentor

  • VST support for third-party plugins
  • Lightweight and fast workflow
  • Better designed GUI, compared to Audacity.
  • Effects bundle that is based on real-time application and fine-tuning (reverb, EQ, and compression)

Ocenaudio is another audio editor that seems to rival Audacity. One added advantage of Ocenaudio is that it has a pretty simple and beautiful graphic user interface which makes its favorable for first-time users. Contrast to Audacity, it also allows you to preview your audio effects changes before you hit commit, something that Audacity doesn’t have in store, yet.

Doesn’t have multitrack support but if you need a good audio editor, definitely worth a try.

5 – PreSonus Studio One 4 Prime (Mac and Windows)

presonus studio one prime 4 best free DAW

  • Seamless drag-and-drop type of workflow
  • Unlimited audio & MIDI tracks.
  • Amazing DAW for freemium users.
  • Professional type of DAW. But limited in features.

Experience the power of Studio One in a smaller package. You get the same functionality but at the cost not having the full suite of plugins, effects, and instruments. So things are really basic but good enough for recording, editing, and mixing of smaller music projects.

You’ll, however, start to hit limitations after a while. You’ll quickly find the itch to upgrade in order to use 3rd party plugins or simply having more effects or instruments to produce with.

6 – Zynewave Podium (Windows only)

zynewave-podium
  • Great free DAW for MIDI compositions and editing. 
  • Multitrack ready and comes with comprehensive audio and MIDI editing capability.
  • VST support ready.
  • No multiprocessing

A true modern DAW that would excite aspiring music producers, that brings many valuable features especially the refreshing graphic user interface. Podium can feel a little confusing at first, but once you got the grasp, shouldn’t be hard to produce some of your first music pieces with it.

You could even customize the look and feel of the DAW if you like.

7 – Ohm Studio (Mac and Windows)

ohm studio free DAW audiomentor
  • Ambitious real-time collaborative DAW.
  • Modular mixing/routing options
  • Cloud-based setup. Runs on both platforms, Mac & PC.

Ohm Studio is an interesting & ambitious DAW that envisions music producers to collaborate real-time with their DAW over the cloud. The current DAW version has pretty basic functions that work – automation, 3rd party VST plugin support, and audio recording but don’t expect too much from Ohm Studio, yet. It misses some other important functions such as MIDI quantization functions and audio editing.

Best DAWs for Windows & Mac (Paid)

Ready to go for full-scaled DAWs and produce real music like the pros do? Let’s introduce you to some of the best DAWs in the music industry.

1 – Avid Pro Tools (Mac and Windows)

  • The industry standard DAW for recording & post-production.
  • World-class mixing and mastering.
  • Over 60 plug-ins, access to a library full of loops and samples.
  • Only works with AAX plugin formats.

Pro Tools is the industry standard DAW used by most pro audio engineers and music producers. The biggest Hollywood soundtracks and music pieces have a very big chance of being mixed in Pro Tools.

Choosing Pro Tools and learning it means you speak the same ‘language’ whenever you enter any recording studio in the world. Some recording studios expect that you are proficient with Pro Tools.

The learning curve to learning Pro Tools DAW might be steeper than other DAWs, but learning aside, Pro Tools offers a lot of power under it hood with complete editing & mixing capability. There are a few types of Pro Tools version for every producer with different needs. You can even subscribe a membership to using Pro Tools.

2 – Apple Logic Pro X (Mac)

  • Most complete DAW from the box, hands-down.
  • Amazing MIDI editing functionality.
  • You get over 7000 apple loops, sound library, instruments, synths, effects, and everything!
  • Best all in one DAW – recording, composing, mixing & mastering.
  • Supports AU plugins.

Logic Pro remains one of my favorite DAW to go for if you like producing with lots of loops, instruments, synths and samples. It comes with plenty of loops and samples right out the box, which you can use to produce literally any music genre. If you’re just starting out, you probably don’t even need to buy any third-party plugins to begin producing, because everything works and sounds great, out of the box.

Great MIDI editing capabilities, complete mixer support, audio editing and even a score-editor – for you arrange and print scores. It’s also pretty darn affordable, at only USD199.99, given the amount of content you get.

The downside I can think of Logic Pro is probably the lack of audio editing tools within. Some music producers also find the workflow on Logic Pro to be a little more tedious, compared to other DAWs like Studio One, for instance.

3 – Presonus Studio One (Mac and Windows)

  • Progressively popular for mastering tracks
  • Drag & drop workflow, designed to ease the life of musicians.
  • Lots of effects plugins and great mixing functions.
  • Constantly make updates based on feedback from users.
  • Samples, loops and sound content not as complete as Logic Pro.

Think of Presonus Studio One as a modern DAW that aims to simplify the process of recording, editing, mixing & mastering for any music composer or producer. At the time of writing, Presonus Studio 4 has evolved from a basic impressive DAW to what I could say an industry-ready DAW.

The interface is designed for a drag and drop kind of workflow. You can simply drag instruments, effects, loops and more into the arrange window and begin producing away. Routing capabilities are amazing, powerful automation functions, lots of plugins & tools to play with and support 64-bit mixing and mastering.

It loses out on the content it packs with. The amount & quality of the loops, synths, and VSTs instruments you get with Studio One is a far-fetch from those you get in Logic Pro. However, I think it’s a real deal, considering how well-built the DAW is and how it is constantly getting frequent updates.

4 – Ableton Live (Mac and Windows)

  • A staple DAW amongst electronic, trap and hip-hop producers & DJ.
  • Seamless integration of DAW into live sets.
  • Very fast effect tweaking, that’s why it’s used by many.

The latest version (at time of writing), Live 10 – gives an extensive update towards the whole look and feel of the entire DAW, especially the arrangement view, which is something that users have been requesting for.

Ableton Live is an extremely versatile DAW – great for both producing and performing. Because it has become such a staple in the industry, you’ll also find a lot of music hardware like the Ableton Push, Launchpad, Novation Launchkey

Choose Ableton Live if you are into electronic music, where you come into lots of sample chopping, tweaking and loop mangling.

The DAW makes you think of music composition differently, as a linear DAW – compared to most DAWs. Contrast to other traditional DAWs where you’ll build a song gradually, in Ableton you’ll find yourself putting down sound bits & ideas as clips, and then reconstructing them to form a music piece.

The best way to understand this is to try Ableton Live yourself. Download the free trial and make some music on your computer now!

5 – Steinberg Cubase Pro (Mac and Windows)

  • Filled with advanced editing features. So much that you might even use them all!
  • Great sounding effects and VSTs, out of the box. 
  • Didn’t really find the virtual instruments too impressive however. 
  • Have one of the best MIDI editing capabilities in the market of DAWs.
  • Efficient workflow once you learn it. MixConsole offers pro-mixing experience.
Electronic Music Production Courses from Pluginboutique.com

Cubase excels in MIDI editing and audio based processing. The company that developed Cubase named Steinberg – is also the one who developed VST (Virtual Studio Technology). Most of the VSTs, from virtual instruments to software effects & signal processors you use today existed thanks to Steinberg.

This makes Cubase one of the most solid DAW in the market when it comes to 3rd party VSTs and DAW stability.

Another thing I like about Cubase is that it has cross-platform compatibility – where you can run it on a Mac or PC. In contrast to Logic Pro which excels in MIDI composing but only runs on a Mac – you don’t restrict yourself to computer platforms with Cubase.

There are lots of features and advanced functionality built in Cubase, however, you may find it to be a bloated DAW software.

I personally found Cubase to be one of the best DAWs that I enjoy using. And the downside to it for me (coming from a Logic Pro experience), is the lack of good sounding virtual instruments. The virtual instruments that come out of the box with Cubase just didn’t quite click with me and I found myself using the virtual instruments from Native Instruments’s Komplete instead.

6 – FL Studio (Mac and Windows)

  • Easy to learn and make music on. Even for non-musicians.
  • Buy once, get lifetime updates. 
  • Lots of tutorials on the internet. 

One of the reasons why FL Studio is so popular is because it was pirated a lot, back then and even today. 

FL Studio offers you a way to produce beats quite easily, even without a MIDI controller – by just clicking in notes. It makes an excellent DAW for electronic music producers who wants a ‘modular’ software. 

With the most recent update, FL Studio 20 – now there is an intuitive mixer, sequencer, VSTs, and effects that we’re seeing it catching up with mixing & mastering capabilites like the ‘serious’ DAWs such as Logic Pro, Cubase or Pro Tools. 

You’ll also find a big community online working with FL Studio which you can share projects, templates, tips & tricks with. 

7 – Cockos Reaper (Mac and Windows)

  • Best DAW to consider on a budget.
  • Highly tweak-able and customisable – if you like tweaking things. 
  • Less bloat and uses less CPU resources.
  • Steeper learning curve.

When you first launch Reaper, you’ll be overwhelmed by how complex everything looks. Once you learn it however, you’ll find how intuitive and fast Reaper can be. 

Reaper is a very customizable DAW, where once you understand its workflow – you’ll find that it does everything you need it to do. You could even download scripts or even write your own scripts and add workflows and functions to the DAW. Imagine being able to change the fonts on the program itself or use a Cubase skin, so your version of Reaper looks like Cubase.

While it only costs $60, Reaper also comes with over 100s of plugin effects. And really is a no brainer, as it works on both Mac and PC. 

Conclusion

It’s my hope that this post sheds some light for you in choosing DAW to start producing music with. 

Remember to spend some time producing with each DAW, before ruling out whether you like using it or not. An experienced producer would be able to produce the same high quality of music on any DAW. 

The major difference between DAWs are usually its workflow. In terms of sound quality, you can really achieve the same world-class sound on literally most DAWs. 

Did I miss any of your favourite DAWs here? Have questions about choosing a DAW and getting started? Post your comments below and let’s discuss.

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