Monday, March 21, 2011

Which Daw? A Beginner's Guide pt. 2

.... Continued from pt. 1

Okay, now for the real deal.  You want to make music, which daw do you choose?

First of all, you MUST demo a daw before you purchase it.  This is a long term commitment, so it helps to get it right from the start.  All the daw's now have demos.  If a company doesn't want to give you a demo, don't even bother, they're trying to hide something.

Unfortunately, if you don't know the first thing about music production, evaluating software like this through a demo is going to be really difficult.  I'm not gonna lie on that one.  But, when you are trying out the demos, definitely watch the included introductory videos.  You'll notice some daws don't include video tutorials, that should tell you something about the company behind the daw.

Also, there are millions of tutorials (both written and videos on youtube) on the basics of most of the daws.  As you're trying the demo, and using these tutorials, try to determine which daw has the most vocal user support.  You will need help learning production and your daw.  The availability of information and communities online should play a role in selecting a daw.

So my opinions on the major daws:

Logic Studio

If you are on a Mac, you should seriously consider Logic.  This daw is made by the company that makes the hardware (sort of!) and operating system that you are using.  There is no tighter integration than that.  Also, the plugins are generally regarded as some of the best that come bundled with a daw.  Good audio and midi round it out.

The downside of logic is it is on the Mac platform.  That means the price will be much higher and there will be much less software available to you.  If you are a Mac person and already own a Mac, and only will ever buy a Mac, Logic is probably for you.  (Please keep in mind that Ableton Live is also on the Mac.  See pt. 3 of this series for a look at the extremely powerful and innovative Ableton.) But if you haven't figured out your hardware yet, I would not recommend shelling out for a Mac just to go with Logic, unless you have a large disposable income.  If you do have a large disposable income, why not literally save someone's life with that extra cash, and still produce dope tracks on the PC platform?

In terms of hardware costs, for towers, the Apple mark up over homebuilt pc's is around 4x.  You'll pay 4 times the cost of an equivalently powered home built pc!  That is a lot.  Apple laptops are around 2x the price.  In terms of value, the laptop route does make more sense than towers from Apple.  Also, the MacBook Pro can be a very effective prop in the elaborate courtship rituals of affluent western art minded youth.

In terms of software availability, some of the cool stuff will be available to you; some will not.  Almost all of the really interesting, quirky, experimental freeware will NOT be available to you as it is Windows only.  Please do not underestimate this.  There are absolute freeware gems out there (see future series covering this topic) and to miss out on them is really a shame.  Yes you can boot into windows... but that doesn't really do you any good when you make music in Logic.


If you like an extremely cut up sound or if you think base 10 is for idiots.  Renoise can produce any type of music, but due to its legacy tracker format, it heavily lends itself to a highly chopped up sound.  Also, with the exception of Reason, all the other daws can easily produce this sound as well.  But when I think Renoise, I think Venetian Snares.  Many of the daw centered technical skills that you learn in Renoise will not be transferable to other daws because, for all intents and purposes, it is the only tracker left amongst the majors.  Of course, what you learn about music, arrangement and processing and mixing sound will hold true across any daw.

My personal opinion is that Renoise is useful for producing beats or phrases, but those segments can more effectively be combined in another, more fully featured daw.  Many producers either rewire (a method of sending audio from renoise into another daw) or just render beats to audio, which are then imported into another daw.  Renoise is also very inexpensive.  Around 40 euros now, something like $50, not a bad deal at all.  I honestly recommend Renoise to those that have mastered their own daw and want to consider a new way to make beats or engage in sound design from left field.


If you have an extremely weak computer and don't ever plan on upgrading, OR if you like working in a very limited environment where your creativity will be tested just to produce a halfway decent sound.  Propellerhead revolutionized computer music way back in the day with ReBirth, software that emulated two 303's (Roland bass line synth from further back in the day) and an 808 and 909 (Roland drum machines)  Before this, there really was no software emulation of electronic hardware like this.  This really did revolutionize music making, and personally changed my life.

And so it is such a shame to say that Propellerhead stopped innovating entirely after they introduced Reason.  Reason's pluses are that it uses comparatively less computer resources.  That means if you have an old computer from 2002, and don't ever plan on upgrading, Reason might be for you, other daws will choke you out before you even get a beat going.

The thing to remember about Reason is that it doesn't allow third party plugins.  There are millions of really interesting and powerful plugins out there, both free and commercial that really allow you to create new and innovative sounds.  None of them will work with Reason.  Reason has a few synths, a few samplers, and a few fx.  You have to create everything with that.  That is both good and bad.  The good is that you won't be tempted to go out and try all million of those plugins, so you can focus on making music. (see The Mind Versus Vst) The bad is that you will be forced to work really hard patching up device after device just to get to something that is mostly as good as a free plugin.  Compression and equalization are also just baseline deficient in Reason, and there is nothing short of rewiring that can fix that.

The above was supposed to be my positive paragraph about Reason.  Guess it didn't work out.  Let me try again.  Because Reason is such a limited environment it excludes external distraction as mentioned above, but more than that it fosters, or even forces a certain type of creativity.  Reason forces you to learn its tools, and its tools alone to achieve the sound you want.  There is nothing else, no magic synth that will save you.  So you really start to dig in and learn.  And as that happens, as you start to see all the potential in a synth like Thor, the possibilities explode.  Playing with those possibilities is a great source of inspiration in electronic music.  And beyond the scope of just a synthesizer, in a modular environment like Reason, where devices can be patched into other devices in just about any structure, the potential combinations and connections become just staggering, and Reason itself turns into a hugely fertile environment.

My caveats for Reason: it can be rewired (a technology invented by Propellerhead to get the sound out of ReBirth and into a real daw) into a daw alleviating some of the deficiencies of Reason's internal sound engine.  Also,  Propellerhead has released Record, a separate, and separately purchasable ($$$) application to mix and work with audio.  Reason slots nicely into Record.  Together they form about half of a real daw.  I would also like to point out that Propellerhead has been very careful not to call Reason a daw.  I include it in this analysis because it is a very interesting piece of music making software, despite its actual classification.


If you are doing serious multitrack recording.  This software is for recording bands, and that type of thing.  First off, if you don't have 10 mics, you probably don't need ProTools.  There was a time when protools was the "industry standard" in recording studios.  That is because early music software and hardware was notoriously unreliable, and ProTtools worked relatively well.  Now however, ProTools is less relevant because recording studios are disappearing, and because other daws are just as reliable, or more so than ProTools.

Beyond multitrack recording, ProTools' other main focus has been mixing, so includes a very powerful set of tools and workflow dedicatd to those tasks.  (Mixing is the art and science of combining or layering different elements of a track together, a lot harder than it sounds)  I know some producers who like to design and write everything in one daw, and then mix  in ProTools. For a new producer though, I feel that mixing is less important than developing musicality and learning the fundamentals of sound creation and arrangement.  Really if you have 10 mics and a recording studio, ProTools might work for you, but I doubt that type of person is reading this, so I'd say fuggetaboutit.


Cubase was the big daddy of pc daws for a long time.  Pretty good midi editing, very good with audio.  But there are problems.  Cubase was a very early player in the computer music software scene.  Way back then, the idea of making music on the computer was new, and software developers didn't really know how best to go about it.  There were a lot of different ideas at the time.  You saw the same thing with cars.  Back in the day, there were all sorts of funny ideas about how to move people around with motors.  Steam, electric, gas, some cars didn't even have steering wheels.  Over time some ideas have proven to be less effective than others.  Unfortunately, Cubase has kept many of those old ideas around.

On top of that, Cubase remains an extremely buggy application.  Steinberg's customer support is atrocious, going so far as to insult their customers for Steinberg's flaws.  Cubase also requires a dongle.  I can't recommend any software that requires the use of dongle. To cut this short, in this day and age, with better alternatives out there, there is no reason to get started with Cubase.

Okay, there is one.  Cubase allows extremely tight editing of audio in its arrangement page (this is where you put all the different bits of audio and midi together).  This means you can zoom way in on one or two bits of audio and make very tight edits.  This is extremely powerful and I sincerely wish other daw developers would allow this type of visual precision.

If you are a fan of Cubase, feel free to comment on why you think it is a good daw.  I personally know many incredible tracks that have been made in Cubase.  But I believe that is because there was no alternative to Cubase back in the day.  That is no longer the case.

Footnote:  Nuendo is like Cubase's bigger brother that is into video.  If you are solely interested in putting sound to video, Nuendo might be worth investigating.  I really don't know if Sony's Vegas is equivalent, but it is something to check out if audio for video is your thing.


Like Studio One, Reaper is another new kid on the block.  Just as Cubase is stuck with early computer music paradigms, Reaper has thrown them off and started from a relatively fresh viewpoint.  Reaper is a highly flexible, powerful daw.  For example, you can combine audio, midi and automation in the same channel.  This may not mean anything to you now, but it is a pretty good idea that other daws can't implement because of their old code.

Reaper is also very actively being developed.  If you have a problem, or wish there was a feature, you can post it on their forums, and if it is a good idea, it really might show up in an update (which come often).  Also Reaper has an excellent demo.  You can use a fully featured demo with no restrictions to evaluate the daw.  At the end of the demo period, the demo doesn't expire, but Reaper will nag you to pay for it.  And why wouldn't you, if you're using it and you like it, why not pay $60 for it?  Yeah that's right, it only costs $60!  That's crazy inexpensive for such a powerful daw.

I've tried Reaper a couple of times through its development.  I personally haven't liked it enough to switch, but that statement really is meaningless to someone who is just getting started.  When you learn a daw for the first time, the daw's workflow just kind of sinks in, and you get used to working in a particular manner.  After a few years, other daws tend to feel backwards or unnecessarily difficult.  But I will say that over the two times that I've tried Reaper, it has improved incredibly, and I expect that not to stop.  Reaper is strong, and getting stronger every day.

Okay, check: Which Daw? A Beginner's Guide pt. 3 for Fl Studio and Ableton Live (hint, I saved the best for last).


  1. I'm in a bit of the rush, it being the morning and all, but will be reading this one later! Looks tidy, mate.

  2. I've never used cubase, but the ease of audio editing does sound really good, and I've heard other people talk about it before. I'm still getting the hang of editing audio precisely in my preferred DAW (not telling which), so would really appreciate that whole process being a little simpler. I think I might give Renoise a go for some beatmaking in the near future off the back of this little review. Sounds interesting. Great post too by the way!

  3. "ProTools features many mixing tools that are unmatched in other daws."

    I'm curious as what these are, I mean I've used it on and off for uni stuff coming up for 3 years now and I haven't found anything that Cubase or Logic couldn't match.

  4. Excellent article. Looking forward to the next park, too. My limited experience of music making has been in FL Studio so I'm intrigued to see what you have to say.

  5. @Wrig, you know, I may have overstated that. Lemme see what I can do.

  6. Good write up! Can tell you're not a Reason user haha...

    You've forgotten that Reason has two amazing samplers, which can sample audio outs from other VSTi's... it's an extra step but gives you full range of any sound within Reason, just no real-time crafting using the sequencer, but anything can be imported.

    Also it's worth mentioning that Reason has thousands of ReFills for all of its instruments, some of them are free, and there are excellent ones for relatively cheap. With these it's impossible not to get the sound you want. the NNXT reFills you can find are staggering. I found a free refill with basically every Moog setting possible in it, I still have yet to try them all.

    Once you learn to program combinators, the whole musical spectrum is open.

    Reason is also the only system that gives you the feeling of working with real synths, so it's great for analog-heads, it's not just a bunch of circles squares and numbers like Massive or FM8

  7. I was annoyed you didnt include FL studio, then I saw the last line at the bottom ;)

  8. base10 is definitely for idiots :P
    i use renoise, in exactly the capacity you stated, i use it basically as a sampler, make a few loops then bounce the audio into another DAW, trying to find one that suits my needs exactly, FLstudio ableton or reaper. each has its pros and cons.

  9. Great guide, would of been handy to have when I was starting out. Nice stuff

  10. cheers this is pretty handy thinking about starting out soon, probably gunna start with FL though since i've already got it

  11. Nice, bookmarking this for future reference.

  12. Good read dude, looking forward to part two. Although I feel a bit bad for being a Reason user now.

  13. haha shame on you! IF you find something that produces good results for you, ain't nothing wrong with that, movin on up!

  14. yeah, as a reason user I am in a constant dilemma as to whether to abandon the software that I have spent so long learning the ins and outs of just to see what a 'real' DAW is like; I love reason but at the same time I fucking hate it too, and its hard to tell how much is down to my own failing creativity and how much is down to the oddities of the program itself. Do other people get as annoyed with their DAWs as reason users do?

  15. I've been using reaper for a while now (definitely switched over after hearing it was 'cubase but better'), and I'm glad to see it got thrown in there. Its gunna be big

  16. Been using FL Studio for just over 2 years now and really like it but might move to Logic once i get a Macbook.

    Kind of in two minds about it though.

  17. Check this out:

    May change your mind a bit?

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