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Buyers Guide: How Do I Choose the Right DAW Software?

In this Buyers Guide, we'll take a look at the differences between various DAW packages and the most important features of DAW software.

A lot has changed since computers became true multimedia machines. In music studios in the '80s and early '90s for instance, computers were primarily used as separate sequencers for synthesizers. Today, computers are used as synthesizers themselves, and it's this sort of functionality that has lead to their phenomenal integration. Nowadays, there's no real need for huge, expensively-assembled music studios full of cables that are linked up to a mixer. The computer has become both sequencer and sound source in one and is all you really need.

While the above is true and many people are making music using nothing but their computer these days, that doesn't mean that there is no place for equipment like synthesizers. In fact, computers and synthesizers go together pretty well. Extra equipment always gives you more options and it's no surprise that many people don't rely on their computers entirely.

The emergence of DAW Software

Before the term DAW was coined, the word sequencer was used. Early examples include Cubase that ran on the famous Atari 1040 computer. This software made it possible for computers to work with MIDI data, sending instructions back and forth between MIDI enabled devices. As computers became more powerful, it became possible to send real audio files, and eventually computers got the ability to handle multiple files at the same time and generate sound. From this moment on, computer integration into the world of music exploded exponentially. So called 'in the box' music production programs allow you to carry out every stage of the production process (composing, recording, mixing and mastering) on your computer. Because computers and software have become so central to music production, the term DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) came to be used.

Further developments

A few big players have emerged on the DAW scene since it began. As one of the original names in the sequencing world, it's no surprise that Steinberg Cubase is one of the best known. Avid Pro Tools, eMagic Logic and Cakewalk Sonar are also packages that can be found in many studios. That's because you can make any style of music with them, from jazz to dance to pop or even classical. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. These days there is entry-level software, more simple or more comprehensive packages or software for producing a particular type of music. That's why you'll need to spend some time thinking about exactly what you want.

Simple software

The existence of relatively simple software is quite logical. Not everyone wants or needs an expensive software package with a bunch of bells and whistles that they're never going to use. Not only that, but some of the more comprehensive DAWs can take a good while to master. If you use your computer for more than making music, you probably don't want a program that's going to take up excessive space on your hard drive either. If your main goal is to make music for fun, therefore, you'll probably be better off with a simpler software package. Mostly, these will be good enough to let you try things out, practise your skills and create original music. You might just be surprised at how much you can do with software at this level.

The biggest differences between packages are the features, the functionality and the virtual instruments included. Features refer to things like the number of tracks that are available to use, while functionality is more about what you can do with those tracks. The number of sounds and effects you'll get access to really depends on the software package. In some cases, it may possible to upgrade certain parts of the software you've purchased. While this level of software isn't really suitable for professionals, it will give most people more than enough to dip their toes into the world of music production.

Entry-level software

It's not gone unnoticed by the bigger names that simpler DAWs have a share of the market. That's why, in most cases, entry-level versions of the top programs are available to buy. Naturally, these come at a lower price at the expense of the features and functionality they offer. While they may not be as comprehensive as the fully-fledged versions, they should give you more than enough to get started. There are other advantages too. This is a cost-effective way to get to know a piece of software and decide whether it's right for you before purchasing the full version. Normally, you'll be able to upgrade to the full version at a reduced price.

Genre & purpose specific software

Certain DAW packages are aimed at producing a particular type of music. Ableton, for example, is very popular with producers of EDM (Electronic Dance Music). While it's certainly very comprehensive, it's probably not the best choice for those who want to produce orchestral music. Nothing is set in stone however, and the border between certain music genres is becoming increasingly blurred. When it comes to software as popular as this, there are even products like controllers available that make it easier to work with certain functions and free you from your computer.

A good example of software that has a specific purpose is notation software. While this wouldn't really be referred to as a DAW, most do let you compose music. It's not uncommon for these types of software packages to include a selection of virtual instruments these days either, which is why we are also mentioning them in this DAW guide.

The packages mentioned above all have their origins in traditional music composition, based on musical notation and classic structures. There are other genres out there however, that do things a little differently. Music concrete for instance, uses recordings of everyday sounds to make music, often in the form of tape compositions, as well as other new forms. While this genre of artistic music certainly isn't mainstream, it has always been about producing music using audio files. Packages like Sony's Acid (Sony took over the original company Sonic Foundry), as well as many other packages that let you make music using beats and loops (and dynamically matching them to the tempo), also make music primarily using audio files and these sorts of packages are very popular.

The information above is primarily about the different types of DAW software available and which may be right for you, but what requirements should DAW software meet?

The user is always right!

Thousands of words can be (and have been) written about the various features, functions and endless possibilities of DAW software. In the end though, there's really only one thing that matters above all else - that you want to work with the software. No matter what it can do, if you don't like working with the software, it's going to make everything else that much harder. There's no such thing as a perfect DAW, only the DAW that's best for you. Most DAW packages with similar functionality around the same price do pretty much the same thing, but it's how they do it (i.e. the interface) that makes the most difference.

Characteristics

You can work out how well a DAW will match your requirements by looking at a few of the most important characteristics.

Number of tracks

The best way to think of this is how many instruments or players you want to have in your band or orchestra. Simply put, more tracks give you more possibilities. For most people, 16 - 32 MIDI tracks or instrument tracks is probably enough, which most of the simple and entry-level software will have. If you're someone who needs or wants 64 or more tracks for more complex arrangements, however, then most of the simple and entry-level software will probably be too limited for you, and you'd be better off investing in professional DAW software.

Virtual instruments/effects and plugin formats

Virtual instruments and effects are often included with a program to make it more attractive and to increase its value. If you're just starting out as a producer, these handy extras are a welcome addition. Many producers, however, choose to buy virtual instruments and effects from third parties who specialise in developing this sort of software. Be aware, that not every DAW is compatible with external software from other developers though. In some cases, you are restricted to add ons and plugins that are made by the same company that developed your DAW software. The upside of this is that these packages are designed to work seamlessly with one another. If you want a DAW that is compatible with software from other developers, look for one that supports VST plugins. This well-known and popular format gives you virtually endless possibilities and pretty much all of the most popular virtual instrument and effects packages are available in this format.

Exporting and importing

Naturally, you'll want to share your music with the world. To do that you'll need to export your project as audio which, as luck would have it, every DAW has the capability to do. Where they do sometimes differ, however, is the format types that can be exported. While the .wav format is very common, if MP3, for example, is important to you, it's best to check your DAW can do this first. Another consideration is the export file's quality. Does this meet your requirements? With budget software the quality is sometimes limited, so you might not get the sound you're looking for if your file is not of the 24-bit, 192 kHz quality you expected.

The questions relating to exporting above, also apply to importing. Can you import files in the format you want for further editing or remixing, or are those functions not possible or only possible as an add on?

Editors

Most DAW software tends to work in much the same way, using blocks of MIDI data that can be edited on a timeline. Many young composers and producers have grown up copying, cutting, pasting and editing files to make music. It is difficult not to assume that this is the best method, but nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to inputting musical information, there are many ways to do it and it's up to you to decide what works best for you.

We touched upon it earlier, but for musicians who can read music, using music notation is one possibility. It may not be the fastest way, but it may be best for those who are used to thinking like this and working in this way. High-end DAW software usually has a score editor, however, dedicated notation software tends to be even better.

The Ableton method is something else altogether, and one that is geared towards live applications. The user can decide during performances how they would like to build the track up. This flexibility works really well for EDM, which is one of the reasons Ableton has a lot of fans in this genre. For pop music, it doesn't work quite so well.

With key roll or piano roll, each note is shown as a bar on a grid. It looks very much like a punch card that contains the music for an organ. It's a handy editor for adjusting the length of notes and sorting out problems with timing. It's also good for drawing or editing curves for pitch bends and other controller functions.

Advice in the context of music production requirements

"I want to make large EDM or orchestral music productions."

In this case, you should be looking at some of the bigger software packages like Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar and Avid Pro Tools. The choice of professionals, these DAWs will give you everything you need and more. It's also worth looking for a decent sound library.

"When I see others making music, I think that's something I should be doing. I already know something about music, but not much about the technology used to produce it"

Here, the choice is really between simple software packages or entry-level versions of the bigger DAWs. The simple software packages are less likely to bombard you with lots of new jargon that you need to learn before you can get started. Entry-level software, however, gives you the chance expand upon it at a later date should you wish to do so.

"I'm reasonably familiar with musical jargon, I'm good with computers and my music is not overcomplicated. Mostly I use vocals, guitars, keys, bass, drums and perhaps something like strings to make my music".

The entry-level versions of the bigger DAWs should suit your needs here. You may even get away with one or two of the better simple software packages. If you're up to date with all of the production terms however, and you're even a little bit ambitious, the entry-level packages will probably be more worthwhile investing in.

"A friend of mine makes music with a library full of orchestra sounds and it's amazing. I want that too!"

The larger versions of DAW software should support this and possibly some of the entry-level software too. Many of the more simple packages aren't designed to work with third-party plugins. Bear in mind that a good library of orchestra sounds opens the door to all sorts of possibilities, and it's very easy for these sorts of projects to grow exponentially, rather quickly. Don't be surprised if you end up using more tracks than there are instruments in an orchestra! This is because experienced producers tend to give not only each instrument their own track but the different sounds of that instrument also. Because of this, you should really pay attention to the number of tracks or channels a software package offers. It's also common that something like the string sections from different libraries are layered or combined with each other, which also takes up a certain number of tracks. Some Kontact libraries have instrument sounds that can be controlled via their own MIDI channels. Other libraries use one MIDI channel and control instrument sounds using key switches. It's not unreasonable to think that a virtual orchestra could have around thirty instruments with five slightly different sounds for each. If you plan on using all of these, you can see just how quickly the available tracks can fill up. If you've ever wondered why developers of DAW software often play up the fact that they offer an infinite number of tracks, this is why!

If you're planning big productions, go for a big DAW! Sooner or later you'll discover the limitations of smaller software versions for productions like this.

"I don't want to get bogged down with music arrangement, I really just want my own music to be nicely arranged for me. Can't computer software do that for me?"

If you're looking for software like this, then you're in luck. PG Music's Band in a Box contains recordings of real instruments that you can use to create your own music. Simply enter a few parameters including the instruments you'd like to use and the type of music you want to create and Band in a Box will take care of the rest. Strictly speaking, this isn't DAW software but it is a legitimate way to produce music and as such, it would be remiss of us not to mention it here.

"I've been asked to make a piece of music for a film. The mixing studio called me and asked me about the delivery of a Pro Tools session".

This refers to a project in Avid Pro Tools. Of all the DAW software packages, Avid's Pro Tools has been the most successful at positioning itself in the professional media world. Almost all studios, film schools and journalistic courses work, at one point or another in the production chain, with Pro Tools. Many people use it simply because it's already being used by everyone else. As we've already said, there's no such thing as a perfect DAW, only the DAW that's best for you. So, in this case, what should you do if you don't have Pro Tools but the mixing studio is demanding a Pro Tools session? The first option available to you is to export the separate tracks as high-quality audio files and deliver those (if acceptable), bearing in mind that they won't be mixed. That means that the studio will have to spend time (and money) putting the session together themselves. The second option is to invest in Pro Tools yourself so that you can deliver the session as requested. Obviously, neither solution is perfect. In the first, you're not delivering what's being asked and in the second you're having to spend money (and time) on another DAW. If you face this situation, you really have to ask yourself what the best solution would be. Your answer may well depend on how often you think you may find yourself in this situation.

"I work with lots of musicians, so I need to be able to write musical notation. What's best for me?"

For this, there are a few options available. Sibelius, which coincidentally is also by Avid is one choice. MakeMusic Finale is another. Both are specialised music notation software packages that produce professional sheet music. Many DAW programs contain a notation module too and in some cases they're quite comprehensive and certainly worth a try. Professionals tend to use the aforementioned specialised software, however.

"Dance! Beats! Loops! Yes, please!"

In theory, any DAW software will give you the tools you need to make danceable music. Many of today's hits have likely been produced on DAWs like Cubase and Sonar. One DAW however, is geared towards this sort of music like no other. Ableton Live offers an enormous number of possibilities and what's more, there are numerous Ableton Controllers on the market to make producing music even easier. The real beauty of Ableton Live however, is that it's really designed for live use. It lets you react in real time, meaning that you can develop your show around the reaction of your audience. While it's also great in the studio, it's this ability to adapt to live situations that really sets Ableton Live apart.

"I only need to record instrumentalists on top of a piece of music that's already been completed"

You can certainly do this with a DAW, but something like Sony Vegas is among the other options available.

The right computer

The multimedia development of computers has been great, especially for the creative spirits amongst us. As they've become faster and ever more powerful, we've found plenty of great uses for them.

If you work with samples, and pretty much everyone does these days, there are three things you should really have. Firstly, an enormous amount of memory, secondly, an SDD (solid-state drive) and thirdly, a great processor.

Of course, it's possible to use a hard disk drive instead of an SDD, or preferably two linked in a RAID 0 configuration for double the speed. Even then though, the difference in speed between this setup and an SSD is day and night.

When it comes to memory, there's no such thing as too much. Here at Bax Music, we have an extensive range of virtual instruments and normally you'll find the amount of memory your computer needs stated in the product specifications. Bear in mind that this is the amount of memory required to run that specific product and if you plan on using more than one virtual instrument package at a time, you'll need even more memory. These days, those who use samples a lot are likely to have a system with a memory of no less than 8GB, and 16GB or 32GB of memory is even better! This might seem like a lot, but memory is becoming increasingly affordable and if you want a system that works flawlessly, it's certainly worth the investment.

The processor you have is important too, particularly if you're planning on using a lot of heavy effects in your music or planning to make elaborate multi-layered productions. For something like virtual orchestral music, investing in a good processor will be worth your while. Something like an i7 processor should be more than enough.

While these sort of computer specifications may seem high end, it's important to remember that a better system will benefit you enormously in the long run. Fortunately, costs are not nearly as high these days as they once were either.

Of course, you'll need a few other important bits and pieces to go along with your powerful PC. Most music producers have at least two computer screens in front of them, which is not surprising considering the number of options, functions and adjustable parameters you'll be working with in your DAW. It is possible to work with just one screen, of course, but working with multiple screens will make things a lot easier. Whether you want an easy life is up to you.

Audio interface

When it comes to making music on your computer, an audio interface is another important device. These days, the sound card in computers is normally incorporated into the mother board, which means the outputs are usually at the back. While this is fine for standard use, it's not ideal for producing music. Connect a good audio interface to your computer via USB and you'll have a number of easily accessible high-quality inputs and outputs at your disposal. Audio interfaces come in all shapes and sizes, with some being very affordable and others being much more expensive. If you buy one with both jack and XLR inputs, you'll be able to connect Hi-Z instruments like a guitar, as well as a microphone. It's likely that your audio interface will have a headphone socket too and possibly MIDI connectors. It's best to consider exactly what type of connectors you'll need and do the appropriate research before making your choice.

It's down to you!

We realise that there is a lot of information here, but we hope that it will help you to make an informed choice when buying your DAW. We'd recommend trying free trials of any software you're interested in whenever possible before you buy. Good luck with your choice.


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