Digital Audio Workstation (DAW): Battle Royale!

Choosing a DAW: There are many DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) out there, when you’re starting out it can be difficult to choose which one will be the best pick for YOU – and it’s important to pick the right one, as there can be a hefty financial investment, an investment of your time and effort and it can be a challenge to transition later on if you have built up a library of virtual instruments, samples, and recording projects developed. 

The first question you have to ask yourself is: Who am I?

Don’t get too existential, but do you intend on only recording analog audio?  Or do you plan on using virtual instruments? Composing music within the DAW?  Using the DAW as part of your live performance?

Once you know what you plan on using the DAW for, you can decide which one will best work for you using the comparison below:

Ableton: 

Workflow: This is the DAW that really does it all, and while it can look intimidating at first, it’s actually quite simple and has depth once you begin to explore its capabilities.  This is the best DAW for electronic music makers because chopping, splicing, stretching and abusing audio (while keeping it in time) is what it does best.  On the other side of that coin, if you are someone who likes to break out of the quantized box, you do have circumvent Ableton’s workflow (which is why critics of Ableton often accuse everything that comes out of it as being derivative).

What separates Ableton from the rest is the vertical clip view – this is very useful for people who use it to DJ and for live performance playback - but it’s not a very exciting songwriting or production feature and as you are only triggering loops that you’ve already made – and while you can record these loops live, it’s probably only useful if you’re make house music (bootsn’bootsn’bootsn’boots….)

Support: Another compliment to Ableton is all the support they offer, whether it’s finding a tutorial or an answer on their forum, solutions are readily accessible.  The hardware out there that is dedicated to Ableton is unparalleled: the APC MKii, Push, or Launchpad are all useful for Dj’s – but don’t get the idea that Ableton can be used like an instrument; no matter how hard they try, if you use Ableton as a composition tool, chances are you’ll end up using your mouse and keyboard…

It does have a session view that works like any other DAW which is oriented around live recording – so if you are not planning on using Ableton’s unique features, I would save the money and get a more traditional style DAW that has better VSTs for virtual instruments.

VSTs: It has strong synthesizer plugins, and it’s samplers are the most capable that I have seen, it’s drum rack provides the user with a virtually limitless capacity to customize how they trigger samples – whether it’s adding side-chain compression, stacking samples to one pad, or customizing a keyboard to play melodies and rhythm.  It can function as well as any MPC drum machine, or something entirely new… A++ for the virtual instruments.  However, the plugins that you would use in mixing are so-so… multiband compressors, EQ, compressors, limiters, reverb and others have to be finessed.  On good analogue gear or even good VST’s it’s hard to get a sound you don’t like, but I find myself trying to coax that “right” sound using Ableton’s mixing plugins – which is why many electronic artists use Ableton for composition and ProTools for mixing.

ProTools:

Workflow:  The standard session workflow will be familiar to anyone who has used any DAW.  If you walk into any “legit” recording studio, this is what they will be using – and for good reason – it’s straight forward, rock solid, has great plugins, and unlike Ableton, it does not try to control your song.  Here’s an empty track: GO.

VSTs: The mixing plugins are fantastic.  Users who deal with recorded audio, as well as general mixing and mastering will be very pleased with the results they can get from these plugins.  What else can I say?  This is why the professionals use it.

Support:  There is plenty of support for ProToolers: tutorials, forums, customer support etc.  Though it has MIDI functionality, composing music “inside the box” is limited by the workflow and the lack of hardware controllers dedicated to ProTools (other than a mixing board).

 Reaper:

Workflow: This is the DAW I would recommend to almost anyone trying to record analog signal (as opposed to primarily using VSTs – though it does have MIDI functionality).  While it has gained a reputation as “the poor man’s ProTools”, that moniker is more indicative of the price than of the quality.  The workflow is identical to ProTools and is only differentiated by the plugins.

VSTs: The VST’s while not as strong as ProTools actually come close – and considering that Reaper is only $60 or so (and free to start using), it’s a no-brainer for just about every user.  Your basic VST’s are covered, and their delay and reverb are significantly better than Ableton’s in my opinion as they feel more like outboard gear (get FAR OUT results).

Support:  Support online is limited compared to the big dogs, but because Reaper has a traditional workflow and is gaining popularity, it isn’t too hard to find resources.

Audacity:

Not sure if this is considered a DAW, but I come across plenty of people who use this to record and it’s not bad for FREE – especially considering you can export as any file type you want.  But Audacity became irrelevant once Reaper hit the scene.

Fruity Loops:

You may want to dismiss Fruity Loops for all the derivative junk that comes out of it, and you’d be right to do so.  Ableton’s b*stard cousin… slightly more capable than Garage Band, Fruity Loops feels more like a toy than anything else.  That being said, I am sure that SOMETHING decent has come out of fruity loops – but I haven’t heard it.

Conclusion:  If you’re only interested in recording analogue and using MIDI on occasion, go with Reaper.  If you’re a pro, you already have ProTools.  And if you’re making electronic music – it’s time to join the Ableton bandwagon in spite of its flaws.  I did not cover Reason, Maschine, the MPC or some of the DAW’s and tools that are notable for their part in mainstream Hip-Hop and electronic production because I have never used them.

I hope you found this useful and will choose you’re DAW wisely. 

Thank you for reading and lookout for some very exciting things we have in the pipeline…

Grant LoughranComment