Finding the right Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for yourself is always a difficult task. Every engineer, editor, artist, musician, composer and producer will have a preference that has all been determined by what they have learnt from others and from their own past experiences with software. Ultimately what you want to use a DAW for will determine which software best suits you.
This article was written by Jamie Loggie, a good friend of mine, who taught me much of what I know regarding audio related fun, live sound, and hardware.
Audio software are used for a multitude of things including recording, editing, mixing, writing, sequencing and live mixing. All, some or just one of these procedures will be what an individual requires a DAW for. This article aims to help you determine which kind of DAW software is best for you, providing information on some of the leading products and comparing details on pricing, system requirements and usability. This doesn’t mean that you should go ahead and empty your bank account on a DAW because you read this one article. Information in this article is strictly from my own experiences of using various workstations.
The process of finding the write workstation for yourself requires in depth research, experience with the workstations if possible and an understanding of what your current machine and hardware is capable of running. So please feel free to take on board or completely ignore what you take away from this article. In this article, we are going to be looking at three of the most diverse and professional standard DAWs including ProTools, Ableton and Logic Pro X.
Each of these workstations are all more than capable of assisting any musician, engineer or producer in creating and editing quality audio. Each is tailored towards different methods and techniques when working with audio but individually, they have pros and cons in the fields of recording, editing, mixing, writing, sequencing and live mixing. I have used each of these software all for different purposes with great outcomes of the finished work. From recording bands in a studio, to programming visual based coding, creating my own virtual instruments and to composing and edit music, I have applied these DAW abilities to achieve a professional level of audio.
You may have experience with these and other workstations yourself and disagree with the points made in this article which is more than expected. We are after all not identical machines that follow popular opinion….or are we?
ProTools by Avid
Let’s kick off with Avid’s very own DAW of ProTools. ProTools is without a doubt the leading professional recording studio and sound production DAW. Walk into almost any professional studio and you will no doubt see ProTools on the monitors. This powerful DAW allows producers and engineers to record, mix and apply in depth and effective editing to audio. Multi-track recording being its primary role, ProTools allows its user to edit audio and to create and manage large-scale sessions when recording and producing music. Therefore, this DAW is best suited when recording bands and live sessions with numerous musicians.
The software comes with a moderate sized array of plug-ins that can all be utilised effectively. And along with a plethora of plug-ins on offer to be bought or outsourced, users can have a very deep ‘Mary Poppins’ bag of editing tools at their disposal. Additionally, to use the DAW, a USB iLok dongle is required with a valid license applied so that ProTools can be opened and used correctly. This is so Avid can keep track of its valid users and to combat cracked copies of the DAW. However, this can be a bit of nuisance if you are already short of USB ports or are in anyway prone to misplacing or forgetting where you have put things.
One of the highlighting features of ProTools is the detailed and highly user-friendly combination of the Mixer and Edit window. The Mix window digitally displays an interactive version of what you would see with a multi-track recording/mixing interface desk. Each individual channel is displayed as a channel strip with a changeable array of features on display. These include a volume fader, panning, plug-ins, input/output, sends and returns, automations, input/record enabled, solo/muted, notes, channel type and more.
From this window, an engineer or producer can make multiple changes and alterations in quick succession just as you would with a multi-track desk. In turn, this provides a fluent and efficient method of living mixing.
The Edit window displays all tracks horizontally with the basic channel controls to the side. Here, audio, MIDI and other elements can be edited with precise alterations, aiding the user in organising and manipulating the audio and arrangement. Cutting, fading, duplicating, automating, block volume control, universal controls, elasticising audio, sorting, grouping and many more techniques can be applied.
This provides a workspace where users can finely manipulate their audio to make every beat and second sound just right. Furthermore, ProTools can be connected to a multi-track mixing interface such as the SSL XL desk. Any changes on the desk or in the DAW can then be set up to be reflected to the other. For example, when soloing, altering the fader level or panning on the desk, the change is synchronised in the DAW. Along with a motorised interface desk, any changes in the DAW will then be made to the desk as well, providing a spooky element of faders moving by themselves. This ability helps visualise the user’s changes and keeps the session settings consistent.
The overall user interface of ProTools is highly efficient and user friendly. The professionally styled interface providing a gratifying work flow to the DAW. All primary functionality is displayed along with the look and feel of the interface being pretty straightforward and self-explanatory. You have a list of the channels, the audio or MIDI displayed in blocks from left to right and also all major information that you would need to record, mix and edit is shown.
Saying this, however, there is a lot of features and buttons that aren’t labelled or visible. This means it does take a while to learn your way around ProTools. Practice makes perfect with ProTools but after a short while, you will be able to take advantage and enjoy the satisfying workflow ProTools can provide.
Once you learn the essential shortcuts (Ctrl/Cmd +Z being imperative) and technical processes, you will become a highly functioning audio engineer with the satisfying ability to edit audio proficiently and swiftly. Furthermore, it is handy to know that there are almost always multiple ways to do something in ProTools. So after trying out each method, you will have a preference to the process that best suits you and your workflow.
A ProTools Studio Setup
· Detailed editing capabilities
· Powerful recording and sound production tool
· Professional look and feel
· Fast and fluent work flow
· Lacks in efficient MIDI sequencing
· One of the most expensive DAWs
· Very little virtual instruments included
One interesting fact about ProTools is that ‘Offline Bouncing’ was only available in ProTools 11 which was released in June 2013. This meant that prior to version 11, bouncing down audio meant it had to be done in real time. A majority of the other DAWs have had this ability for years prior to ProTools.
Also, the creators of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the producers of the Foo Fighters utilised ProTools and other Avid products in order to create their high quality audio.
Price: ProTools 12 - £499
Previous versions being cheaper and discounts available.
Basic Requirements: PC or OS X
USB iLok with an authorized account assigned (comes with product).
8 GB RAM
Core i5 or higher
15GB disk space for installation
Full details here
A professional and powerful DAW for multi-track recording and detailed audio editing. Using this software, an audio engineer, musician or producer can record, edit and create high quality audio.
Ableton Live by Ableton
Up next is Ableton Live, the programming and sequencing master of DAWs. Built with C+ coding, Ableton has been created to allow use of a diverse number of practices including programming of MIDI and audio, sequencing, composing, arranging, mixing, mastering, coding and multiple uses in live performances. With these various applications of the software, it isn’t a surprise that it is utilised by a broad array of users including musicians, coders, DJs such as deadmau5, developers, composers, producers and engineers. The multitude of things you can do with Ableton Live makes it such a useful DAW.
Ableton Live comes with a plethora of pre-tailored loops and samples (over 3000 in the Suite version), a variety of FX plug-ins and also some intuitive virtual instruments. And of course there is also the option to source further loops and samples, virtual instruments and plug-ins to add to your arsenal.
One of the highlighting features of Ableton Live is its abilities and compatibility to be applied in live performances. Just about any MIDI, DJ, electronic instrument, software or mixing external device can communicate and work in conjunction with Ableton. You can use Ableton as an FX machine, drum loop, sampler, live sequencer and more in real time for whatever purpose. And the highlighting feature of this is the visualisation of your mapping and adjusting of your external device where you can make precise tweaks and changes that are graphically fed back in real time.
This is a highly favourable application for DJs and live musicians where they use a diverse spectrum of audio, FX and devices in real time. Within the DAW there are even in-built generic user interfaces to connect and use with devices to track beat-matching, turntables, mixing, sampling and more.
Another great feature of Ableton Live is its help tags that appear whenever hovering the mouse over any button or area of the interface. A small box appears giving information on the button or area to aid users in better understanding the interface and how to utilise it.
The user interface of Ableton Live is of an intuitive one, consisting of the Session and the Arrangement view. The overall interface is slightly complicated, however, in that almost anywhere you click will do something. Again, practicing with and learning the interface is imperative to fully operate the DAW.
The Arrangement view is the generic DAW view where time is displayed from left to right and tracks are stacked vertically. All primary controls and elements are displayed here for all your editing needs. The Session view is like the Mixer window in ProTools with its channel strip controls but can also display all audio or MIDI as interact able blocks. The Session view is the primary interface for DJs, musicians and performers. With the use of MIDI and electronic instrument devices, the interface can be connected with the device to communicate to visually display and feed audio back and forth in real time. Both windows are customisable with the ability to re-arrange and display or hide UI elements and sections, letting you orientate your projects and help improve your work flow.
What Ableton Live’s user interface does so well that is seen in both views is the amount of information and feedback that is displayed neatly without obstructing the user’s view of other features. With any selected track, all plug-ins and FXs or instruments is displayed tidily, allowing interaction with all the controls easily. Any animation from the plug-ins is displayed in real time that adds a great visual effect and sense of life to your mix. Also, the individual MIDI block or audio clip in WAV form can be displayed where all your detailed cutting, quantising and fading can be done.
· Multiple applications of the DAW including for live performances
· Can communicate and work with multiple hardware and software
· Customisable user interface
· A lot of information and feedback can be displayed in real time
· Helpful information tags over every element once hovered over
· Slightly complicated interface to get used to
· Visually difficult to compose and accurately edit audio due to other elements taking up space on the interface
· The numerous samples included means a lot of disk space is required
Ableton Live have developed ‘Link’ which connects different versions of Live and other software over a local wireless network and ensuring they run at the same tempo.
Ableton developed and released a USB MIDI Controller to use in conjunction with Live 9 back in 2003. Called the Ableton Push, the interface features 64 velocity sensitive pads, touch-sensitive encoders and navigation controls. More information on the Push here.
Price: Live 10 Standard - £349
Previous versions being cheaper and discounts available.
Basic Requirements: PC or OSX
4 GB Ram
12GB disk space for installation
Full details here
A professional programming and sequencing DAW that can be effectively utilised with various other hardware and software. With its various applications for live audio in real team, Live is a DJ, musician or live performer’s best tool.
Logic Pro X by Apple
Lastly we have the hybrid between the other two DAWs, Apple’s Logic Pro X. Logic is capable of professional recording, editing, programming and sequencing at a professional level. Note however that the DAW is only for Mac OSX (sorry PC users). Having one of the most attractive interfaces, Logic Pro allows you to record, mix, edit and create audio at an industry standard with intelligent, responsive and satisfying processing.
Whether it be to multi-track record a session, compose and produce a song or to create and manipulate your own music, Logic is a great tool to use. Being an Apple product only compatible with OS X does mean that it is highly user friendly and efficient when used with any other software or hardware compatible for Mac OS X use. The Logic Remote on an iPad for example allows you to use the touch technology to manually change the settings and controls within Logic Pro. This gives the user a greater feel of control over their mixes when working with Digital Audio Workstations.
Included with Logic Pro is a large assortment of instruments, loops, sequencers, plug-ins and FX that are all visually attractive (full list here). The DAW requires no disc or other piece of install device so is easy to get and dive into.
One of the best features of Logic Pro is that it prioritises the high power and performance provided by the Apple machines in order to apply multiple processing seamlessly. This can really help deliver speedy and fluent work flow so that alterations, applying plug-ins, editing and processing can be applied without having to stop the audio or any latency or jump. Another great feature that Logic Pro shares with Ableton is that processing is visualised in real time providing detailed and animated feedback of your audio and the applied processing.
But by far, the highlighting point of Logic Pro X is the quality level of the plug-ins, processors and instruments that are included. There are an array of highly capable and intuitive tools to create and edit audio are available. These consist of everything from EQs, Compressors, Instruments, Synthesisers, Drum Machines, Modulators and Harmonic processors. Most notably however is that Logic Pro X is one of the cheapest DAWs at £199. This means that you gain great value when acquiring the software with the high-end built-in suite of plug-ins and processors.
The interface of Logic Pro, as described earlier, is pleasing to the eye. The broad pallet of rich colours of tracks, buttons and plug-ins along with the dark background present an elegant interface that all blends together nicely. The fader and knob design unsurprisingly looks like something you would find on an Apple piece of hardware and therefore fits very well. Other than the look, the interface provides a good mix of various interfaces displaying channels, audio, MIDI, tracks, processing and automation similar to Ableton. Within the main window, there are various interface windows. This displays the selected track’s audio or MIDI in a larger and detailed format, displays the channel strip, any automation and all applied plug-ins or processors very gracefully.
Furthermore, in the channel strip window, a small box above the plug-ins/processors will represent, in a basic form, the setting of an applied EQ to the track. This provides a very helpful quick view of what the current processing of your EQ is applying. One downside with Logic, however, is the complex routes you have to go to complete some action. For a lot of the features and abilities to be used, drop down lists and menus have to be searched through. This can break up your workflow and may bring out the little Hulk that is inside us all.
· Attractive interface
· Intuitive built-in suite of plug-ins and processors
· Being on a Mac means you can rely on the machine’s own sound card to run the DAW
· One of the cheapest DAWs available
· Has a steep learning curve
· Only available on Mac platform
· Complex methods in performing some actions
Any project or audio created in the free DAW of Garageband that comes with any Mac machine, can be transferred seamlessly over to Logic Pro X. This means that anyone looking to expand their interest and ability in audio engineering, can simply pay for a professional DAW and carry over all their past work from Garageband.
Price: Logic Pro X - £199
Basic Requirements: OS X 10.12 or later
4 GB RAM
6 GB disk space for initial installation
Full list here
Logic Pro X is a very powerful and affordable DAW tool that even though is only available on OS X, is one of the leading and professional standard of Digital Audio Workstations. A stunning design along with its real time and intuitive visual feedback gives a great feel and sense of fluency to the user.
So, there you have it, three of the top Digital Audio Workstations. Hopefully at least one of these DAWs appeal to you as the tool to help you best create a wonder of audio. Whether you are a producer, DJ, musician, engineer, programmer, an artist or are just wanting to have some fun, one or more of these DAWs are tailored to your prerequisites of working with audio. Now of course, there are many other DAWs out there available that may be better suited to yourself. For example; there are other DAWs including Steinberg Cubase, Audacity, Bitwig Studio, Cakewalk Sonar X3, Propellerhead Reason and Cockos Reaper and more. There are some for professional and detailed work like Cubase (used by Hans Zimmer) and there are others for more basic needs such as Audacity where only simple and quick audio editing work is required. There are also other programming DAWs such as Reason that even allow you to create your own sampling machines. But with a large array on offer, it is a process of researching and even experimenting with each to find the right DAW for you. Luckily, most DAWs offer free trials to allow you a period of time in order to do this.
So, I suggest for you to go out and try them for yourselves. There will no doubt be online video tutorials and manuals detailing how each DAW works and what can be done with them. Happy hunting and above all, have fun.
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