Updated: Nov 4, 2019
In today's world, a Digital Audio Workstation or a DAW is a software application (or a hardware device) used for recording, editing, and creating audio files. Most DAWS also incorporate MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) creating and manipulations as well. DAWs will also use plugins which are software component that adds a specific feature to the software. Examples of plugins include equalizers (EQs), compressors, software instruments, or reverb units.
There are many DAWs on the market. Some are free and some cost upwards for $2,500 or more. Some are simple, like a digital version of a tape recorder, while others are capable of producing high-end film scores and platinum records "in the box." Each DAW has positives and negatives and much it's important to consider your goals when deciding which DAW is the best choice for you.
Audacity is a cross-platform (Mac and Windows), open-source, and free. It features a simple, no-nonsense interface. It does not have the advanced functionality that commercial DAWs feature, however, it is a great place to start if you are new to DAWs and would like to explore, especially if you are not working in Mac OS or iOS. From my experience, there have been times when I have used it for specific tasks, and I know professionals in the radio industry who use it daily. You can download Audacity on their website at https://www.audacityteam.org/download/.
If you own a Mac, you have access to GarageBand. GarageBand is an intuitive and relatively easy to use DAW. It provides you with a wealth of studio-quality digital software instruments, audio effects and access to thousands of AppleLoops. It is a great choice for a beginner. It is nearly foolproof. You can correct pitch and rhythmic errors in what you play on a MIDI controller, or even record from an instrument or voice automatically. (In the professional music world, we refer to this as "quantization.") It even provides you with a musical score option for the MIDI for those of us with a Classical music background and like to see notes on a page when we are working. What's really helpful is that is that the Apple OS version syncs up with iOS version. You can adjust the software instruments, the piano roll, or the score at the bottom of the screen. It also features free music lessons which include basic lessons as well as Artist Lessons in which well-known musicians teach you how to play some of their hits. GarageBand includes a large collection of plug-ins, sounds, and electronic drummers that "play along" with your songs—even adding fills.
The GarageBand for iOS is a great option for musicians on-the-go. You are able to create songs virtually anywhere inspiration strikes you. I've used in on a plane for example. It also offers unique software instruments called "Touch Instruments" that make use of the touch screen, such as a the Chinese Erhu or the Smart Guitar where you are bow or strum a virutal instrument simply by using your fingers on the touch screen. GarageBand comes with many useful presets, including ones designed for recording narration, which make podcasting a breeze even with little audio experience. It is also upgradable with an extended catalog of additional loops and software instruments available for download. GarageBand's ease of use make it a great choice for beginners, podcasters, and anyone who wants to create music on the go.
Apple also offers a sister-software "Mainstage 2" which includes 40 built-in instruments and features an interface for live performances.
While GarageBand is meant to be Apple's tool for the novice musician and podcaster, Logic is their tool for the audio professional. Logic has been around since the 1990s. It was originally developed by a German company called Emagic who was purchased by Apple in 2002. It is the second most popular DAW, after Ableton Live according to MacProVideo.com. Since GarageBand also functions on the same interface and audio engine, it is a great upgrade for musicians who wish to learn with GarageBand before purchasing the professional level software.
Logic is my personal favorite DAW because it offers audio recording, editing, and mixing features, MIDI sequencing, the large Apple loops library, and offers musical score capabilities. You can create a score in Logic that is just as functional as a score in Logic as you can in commercial notation software. (I use Logic's notation for my portfolio work and received many compliments on the quality of my scores.)
Like GarageBand for iOS, you can use Touch instruments if you have an iPad and install the Logic Remote app. I like this option for mixing on the screen. You can adjust the fades in real time with a touch of your fingers, it does not provide as much control as a physical mixer, however, it is a little less frustrating than trying to mix with the mouse on the screen.
Logic Pro can handle up to 255 audio tracks, depending on your computer system's capabilities. It worsk with MIDI keyboards and other MIDI control surfaces for input and processing as well as MIDI output. Advanced MIDI editing is possible though, including expression, velocity, modulation, and pitchbend. You can also make modification to MIDI data through its MIDI Transform window where you can "humanize" (by making tiny modifications to quantized MIDI data), cut note durations in half or double them, set limits on MIDI data (for example, limit how loud or soft notes are), create algorithmic modifications (such as reverse the order of the notes), and much more.
The quality of the software instruments are near those that can be purchased from third parties and the professional studio quality Apple Loop libraries are a great tool to have at your disposal. Logic offers many audio effects including virtual guitar amplifiers, EQs, and more. Considering what you get with your purchase, the music creation capabilities of Logic can not be beat. Moreover Apple has significantly improved Logic's audio recording and mixing capabilities in recent years. There was a time when the expression was "Create in Logic, Mix in Pro Tools." However, many sound industry professionals say that they are comparable in this regard.
Logic may be overwhelming to someone who is completely new to DAW. However, to someone with familiarity with the highly intuitive Garageband, it can be readily learned.
Ranked as the top DAW by MacProVideo.com, Ableton Live is my first choice for musicians who want to manipulate and create electronic music in a live performance. It is a powerful tool offering MIDI programming, audio recording, mixing, and effects processing. It can even to audio to MIDI conversion which allows you to take audio and turn it into MIDI data. In this way, you are able to audio input from an instrument or voice as a MIDI controller. Like Logic Remote, there are many apps designed to control Ableton from your smartphone or tablet. It is cross-platform, working on Mac and Windows machines.
Ableton comes in a variety of versions, Intro, Standard, and Suite. Suite comes with a large library of software instruments and loops. Ableton also comes with Max for Live. Max/MSP/Jitter is a visual programming language for music and multimedia. With its incorporation into Ableton, musicians are able to use powerful musical tool as well as create their own. (We will have more about Max in future articles.) Ableton is capable with many controllers, including its own Ableton Push. It has excellent MIDI-mapping capabilities which make assigning tracks to sliders or knobs quick and easy.
Ableton features two different modes—session view and arrangement view. Arrangment view is designed for editing music that is laid out on a timeline. It is similar to how a musical score is laid out. This is the same sort of layout that the other DAWs use. (Ableton's arrangement view is pictured above.) Session view is unique to Ableton. Session view is designed for live performance in which the order of pieces, the length of each piece, and.or the order of parts within each piece is not known in prior to the performance. In session view, the performer launches set clips by selecting them. A performer can select different clips together and experiment with how they sound when playing at the same time.
While you can record and arrange audio files in Ableton, it is primarily meant for electronic music production. It is also not as "plug-and-play" as Apple's GarageBand or Logic. However, it does come with informative tutorials which can help you get started. The customizable capabilities that Max for Live and session view offer do make Ableton stand out. If you are committed to overcoming a modest learning curve, it is a DAW that is well-worth learning.
Protools was developed by DigiDesign in the 1989. It was acquired by the multimedia company Avid Technology in 1994. It is designed primarily for audio purposes. Protools is ranked as the number three DAW by MacProVideo.com. In the world of audio engineering, ProTools is considered the standard. It is geared towards audio professionals and requires some technical knowledge to master. It is cross-platform and can be used by Windows as well as Mac users, though it was originally designed to work on Mac. It has a less-intuitive design than Logic and other DAWs specifically designed for music creation and may not be a good fit for someone is a hobbyist or less technologically savvy. Whatever music production tasks you need to do, you can do them and do them to the industry standard in ProTools. There is a free version available for users of the Focusrite Scarlett Solo. If your goal is to be an audio engineer, learning ProTools is a necessary step.
Others: Adobe Audition, PreSonus Studio One, FL Studio, Cubase, Cakewalk, Reaper, and Many More
There are many other DAWs that are great tools and can fit your needs. Doing research and knowing more than one software can greatly benefit you as as music creator. For example, I prefer Logic for my studio work, GarageBand on-the-go, and Ableton for live purposes. I often use a combination of various software when creating a piece of music. Don't limit yourself and keep learning. There are many musical tools out there, and learning ones that are new to you will only make you a more well-rounded music creator as each program has its strong points and unique capabilities.
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, songwriter, sound healer, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Visit www.PerennialMusicAndArts.com for more about music lessons and www.JanaeJean.com for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and recipes. Contact her via firstname.lastname@example.org for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.
Perennial Music and Arts – Where Creativity Blooms