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What Is the Best DAW for Beginners?

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If you're getting started with audio production, it won't be long before you have to start making decisions. These decisions will potentially cost you lots of time and money. And one of the first of these decisions is about software - which digital audio workstation (DAW) software should you choose?

We asked the question a few months ago in an Open Mic, and the community were generous with their advice. We'll sum it up here, along with a few thoughts of our own.

But before we get started with your options, let's talk about a few issues first. Just like the shoes I wear may not fit you, there isn't one beginners' DAW that will suit everyone. Here are some questions that will help clarify which app to start with.


Issues That May Affect Your Decision

I have a few kids that are learning to drive. They need to decide whether to learn in a manual or an automatic. Learning in an automatic is great because you don't have to learn it all at once. While they are concentrating on steering, and traffic, and braking, and indicating, they don't also have to be worrying about the clutch and gear stick. But they will have to do some retraining down the road if they decide to drive a manual.

"Learning to Drive" by Tejvan Tettinger on Flickr.

You are in a similar position when choosing a DAW. There is a lot to learn. By learning the industry standards like Pro Tools or Logic Pro you'll save some retraining down the track. But the initial learning curve and expense will be much higher. Would you be better off with an app that is cheaper and less complicated?

Ultimately, that answer is up to you. These questions may help you decide.

  1. What is your ultimate music production goal? If your goal is to work in a studio, it may be better to jump right in with an industry-standard DAW like Pro Tools. On the other hand, if you will creating music at home, finding an app that fits your budget and works on your current computer may be more important.
  2. Do you learn better by taking things step-by-step, or jumping in the deep end? No one stays a beginner forever, and if you learn best by challenging yourself, consider starting with one of the big guns. On the other hand, the initial learning curve will be quite steep. Many people will find learning much easier on a "beginner's" DAW. In fact, it may have all the features you need.
  3. Are you ready to invest hundreds of dollars in software at this stage of the game? Some of the big DAWs will set you back many hundreds of dollars. And that cost is justified - see it as an essential investment in professional quality software. But the investment also comes with a level of commitment. Once you spend that much money you'll be reluctant to change programs later. In fact, you may not be able to afford to! Are you ready to make that investment at this stage of the game? Are you sure you'll stick with music production? Will you be able to make a better-informed decision once you have more experience?
  4. Would you like to do some more research before deciding? Don't feel pressured to decide right now. Before buying a car you want a chance to kick the tires. The same goes for DAWs. Many have demo versions. Some DAWs come included in other purchases, like a keyboard or audio interface. You might like to try a few before deciding to buy. Also, first spend some time reading about your options. Read users' opinions in our Open Mic post, read through some tutorials for the DAW you think you might buy, or buy a book or visit the library. Give yourself an opportunity to make an informed decision.

Did that help? From here on we'll make two sets of recommendations: some DAWs that let you get your feet wet, and some DAWs that let you dive right in. The first set are relatively inexpensive, and easier to pick up. They also have enough features to keep you making music for quite a while - and may be all you need. The second set of recommendations are industry standard apps that are worth the extra effort of jumping right into.

Naturally, these aren't your only options. If you check the comments at the end of the post I'm sure you'll find a lot more opinions. Take the time to read and weigh them.


Some DAWs that Let You Get Your Feet Wet

These DAWs are inexpensive and easy to learn, but have enough features to be useful for some time.

GarageBand

Website: www.apple.com/ilife/garageband
$15.00 in the Mac App Store, but comes preinstalled on most Macs.
Runs on Mac OS X

GarageBand is almost the easiest way to get into computer-based audio - as long as you use a Mac! Although it's designed to be ridiculously easy to use, each version packs in more features. Even if you're eventually thinking about using Logic Pro, it won't hurt to start here.

Audiotuts+ readers say:

  • Garageband. Really easy, but one may do lots of great music with it. When you grow out of it, upgrade to something more sophisticated. (jakubt)
  • Garageband (MAC). Acoustica Mixcraft (PC). Garageband is the easiest DAW for hobbyists and absolute beginners. Acoustica Mixcraft looks like an [not so great] imitation of Garageband, but it does the job. (pierre)
  • Beingna high school music teacher, I have tried FLstudio, Sonar, GarageBand and Logic. For a starter I would go GarageBand all the way. You can show/teach all the basics of song creation with multi tracking, looping and MIDI/software. My students love it. (Darrin)

Acoustica Mixcraft

Website: www.acoustica.com/mixcraft
Around $70 on Amazon ($150 for the pro version)
Runs on Windows

This is as close as you can get to GarageBand in the PC world. From their web page: "Mixcraft 5 is a powerful yet easy-to-use multi-track recording studio that enables you to record audio, arrange loops, remix tracks, compose with virtual instruments, score and edit video, and add effects to create stunningly professional compositions. Easy enough for everyone and powerful enough for the pros. Get a studio for a song with Mixcraft 5!"

Audiotuts+ readers say:

  • Garageband (MAC). Acoustica Mixcraft (PC). Garageband is the easiest DAW for hobbyists and absolute beginners. Acoustica Mixcraft looks like an [not so great] imitation of Garageband, but it does the job. (pierre)
  • I teach audio engineering to high school students. I have used FL Studio, Reason, Pro Tools and Mixcraft. I will be using Garageband next year. Many of my students come into my program having used FL Studio. They know it well. I, however, do not care for it much. Mostly the user interface is so small and somewhat confusing. I switched my beginners to Mixcraft now and they really take to it quickly. I like the built-in sounds and effects and recording through the mboxes was very easy. I like that it can edit video as well. Once my students master the basics with that I move them to Pro Tools. As has been stated in earlier posts, it is the industry standard. When I introduced Reason to my students they had a hard time with it. I think it is because they had become so accustomed to other DAWs that they had a hard time with the learning curve. My old lab was PC based, my new lab will be MAC based so I am switching the newbies to Garageband and continuing with Pro Tools and adding Logic for my advanced students. There is a great book called “Making Music with Garageband and Mixcraft” that does a great job of introducing key concepts such as importing, editing, MIDI, recording, etc. and provides great projects to make using those concepts. I highly recommend it. (ABenne66)

REAPER

Website: www.reaper.fm
$60 for personal use, $225 for professional use
Runs on Windows/Mac

REAPER is a powerful yet affordable DAW that is a favorite of many Audiotuts+ readers. From the web site: "REAPER is digital audio workstation software: a complete multitrack audio and MIDI recording, editing, processing, mixing, and mastering environment."

Audiotuts+ readers say:

  • Reaper by far. Powerful, free to trial, will run off a USB flash drive, you can skin it to look like any DAW, great user support. I honestly think that Reaper will be one of the next big DAW’s. Having said that, my main DAW is Pro Tools. (Brandon)
  • I have to agree with Reaper. I am mainly a Logic user but I have a copy of Reaper at hand at all times and I have no problems switching in between them. It has to be the easiest/cheapest true DAW to use out of the gate. When you get comfortable it also allows you to go beyond the constraints of other “DAW’s” (FL Studio). (JohnnieTech)
  • In my experience a beginner doesn’t stay a beginner for very long, so I’d go for Reaper too. It’s cheap, full featured and easy to learn. I’d tell them to stay clear of Audacity (pure and simple, it is NOT a DAW), and I’d be hesitant to recommend FL Studio because it just isn’t as versatile. (Matt)
  • Reaper is still my number one choice, lots of features and easy to get the hang of. Although I have been using GarageBand more and more on my Mac. (Bas)
  • I looked around at other DAW’s found most of them blah…eh…whatever… Reaper is good though…. Sometimes use that for fun or making music on the road or if i just wanna mess around. (Jeramiah)
  • Reaper! I hold musicproduction courses and I teach my students Reaper because it’s easy, intuitive and powerful! And cheap! (Dubious Quip)

FL Studio

Website: flstudio.com
Less than $90 for the "Fruity Edition) and $219 for the "Producer Edition" on Amazon
Runs on Windows

I have fond memories of my kids making music on Fruity Loops when they were younger. They took to it like a duck to water. This app has quite a different interface and workflow to other DAWs. While it's not for everyone, many people find it makes more sense to them. It might be worth taking for a test drive.

Audiotuts+ readers say:

  • FL studio for PC and Logic For Mac. FL Studio its like a game… There is no need of any knowledge… Just Drag n Drop. Logic is the most simple and the most powerful DAW…but you must know some stuff… Whatever fits your eye is for beginners. (Dimigo)
  • I started working with Fruity Loops (now FL Studio) back in high school and I’m still a fan. It’s not as flexible as Ableton Live but its workflow is a lot more straightforward and therefore easier for a budding producer. It’s also a hell of a lot cheaper than Live. (drrn)
  • I tried FL Studio. And instantly fell in love with it. It was the most intuitive thing I’d worked with. All of my music was produced in FL Studio and/or Audacity (which doesn’t count here since it’s not a DAW). It would be the only DAW I’d ever recommend to a newbie. Plus, it’s relatively cheap. (mingos)
  • If you’re running FLstudio, it’s just easy enough to stay encouraged, and just complex enough to give you actual cross-platform applicable knowledge. It’s far from one of the best programs out there, but for beginners sometimes less is more. It will teach you enough to know what stuff does, so when you upgrade DAWs, you’ll only have to translate your workstation knowledge, instead of build a whole new vocabulary like you’d have to do with Audacity or Reaper. It weens you in at just the right pace, with the friendly drum looper up front the first time you open the program, that you can learn just by clicking on. The apex of complexity is formula mapping. This is about as complicated as any programs get, when you factor out the utilities built it specifically for each individual DAW. Also it has a mixer reflective enough to get you started on a more professional workstation, but still friendly enough to keep things well demonstrated through your clicking. (Kurt Zimmerman)
  • I started to make music in FL Studio in 2004. it could sounds weird but I went to FL studio from Hip Hop eJay2 that I have know about in 2002. So my first DAW was Mix of eJAy and FL Studio. Through years I was tried to change my DAW – it was Cubase, Sonar, Ableton and even Project5. So I came back to FL Studio anyway 8 years ago. Less than month ago Ive got Mac and say “Good bye” to FL and now I’m on Ableton Live.
    Just my story. (Vyacheslav Breakzhead)

  • DAW for beginnier…. I think FL Studio is best DAW for beginner. (Aaron Pecker)
  • FL Studio will work the fastest and has the most possibilities concerning the price. I also use Cubase, good for deep editing but takes a long time, my mind is not mathematical enough although I can work with it it isnt fast and musical enough. Ableton Live gives me a start but confusing for me to really work things to a finished product. Sonar doesn’t make me happy. Reaper works but maybe also to mathematical for a lot of people. (electricthing)

Some DAWs that Let You Dive Right In

These DAWs are expensive and more difficult to learn, but they are industry standard.

Pro Tools

Website: www.avid.com/US/products/family/Pro-Tools
$520 on Amazon
Runs on Windows/Mac

Pro Tools has been the industry standard in studios for many years. If you're serious about music production, this should be on your shortlist.

The web site boasts, "Whether you’re in a professional facility, home studio, or on the road, nothing gives you the quality, speed, capability, ease, and inspiration to create like Pro Tools, the most widely used audio creation/production system in the industry"

Audiotuts+ readers say:

  • ProTools is also a good place to start especially now that it doesn’t require M-Audio hardware to run. It’s powerful, relatively simple to learn the basics, has the easiest bus routing of any DAW I’ve worked with, and it’s an industry standard. I only wish it supported VST plugins without using a third-party wrapper. Again it’s more expensive than FL Studio. (drrn)
  • Used Adobe Audition, Soundbooth, and Cubase along the way. Definitely recommend using ProTools. Pick up a used Mbox then work your way to a Digi 002 Unit. You will not regret it. (Tyler)
  • For begginers: To Record? Pro Tools!! To make music? Logic!! To perform live? Ableton Live or Mainstage!! (pedro)
  • I started with Slinky CD Rom, on a Windows PC, one track out of a dozen sounded okay, but they were all fun to write, practise splicing lyric loops and guitar leads, plus getting mind blown by its super psychedelic light show. Moved onto Cakewalk XL 2002, where I got absolutely no where, too confusing and damn difficult, same with Sound Studio II. Then took up Pro Tools M Box Mini 2, with Reason Adapted, the love affair started, the rest of my life went down the drain, the grass grew so high, I kept forgetting to mow the lawn, because I was constantly in either Reason, or Pro Tools or in You Tube looking at instructional videos, reading books, magazines, blog pages, dissecting other peoples’ songs to be able to see actually how they got effects. Moved on to Reason 4, then Pro Tools 8. All up great. Has worked in this old Windows XP for almost two years, with no servicing on the computer, just a diligent campaign of burning off drives, deleting and defragment and disc cleaning, plus keeping the laser part clear with CD Cleaner disks. I still have Frooty Loops 2 which I sometimes use, Cakewalk and Sound Studio, well, getting a bit dusty to say the least. Still can’t figure them out. Got a KeyRig 49 M Audio recently, now all I want to do is ditch Windows XP and get an Apple. (Nick108)
  • I grew up on Cool Edit Pro (later bought by Adobe and rebranded as Adobe Audition), and while I still play with it from time to time, there are probably more comprehensive options available to today’s newbies. Audacity is a nice option for getting one’s feet wet for free, but if you really are interested in learning DAWs, I definitely recommend jumping right into Logic or Pro Tools. (James Marshall Owen)

Logic Studio

Website: www.apple.com/logicstudio
Around $440 on Amazon
Runs on Mac OS X

Logic Studio includes Logic Pro, Mainstage, and other audio apps. It is a favorite among Audiotuts+ authors. From the web site: "Logic Studio is a set of professional applications that lets you write, record, edit, mix, and perform - without getting all technical. It's also a huge collection of plug-ins and sounds."

It's also the "logical" choice if you want to move up from GarageBand. "Ready to do more with your music? Moving from GarageBand to Logic Studio is easy - you can open your projects and start right from where you left off."

Audiotuts+ readers say:

  • I would tell him or her to go directly for Logic. Its GUI is the simplest to learn, and blimey, is it powerful! Problem is, not everyone owns a Mac. Any software similar to Logic? (bernauZer)
  • FL studio for PC and Logic For Mac. FL Studio its like a game… There is no need of any knowledge… Just Drag n Drop. Logic is the most simple and the most powerful DAW…but you must know some stuff… Whatever fits your eye is for beginners. (Dimigo)
  • The second choice to FLStudio is Logic Pro. But Quite frankly, The way the program looks and feels (in my opinion) doesn’t take the user very seriously with the cheesy instrument picture tabs and soft, grey scheme. Logic Pro feels like a choke-safe toy to me, but even still FLstudio feels more fun. (Kurt Zimmerman)
  • For beginners: To Record? Pro Tools!! To make music? Logic!! To perform live? Ableton Live or Mainstage!! (pedro)
  • I grew up on Cool Edit Pro (later bought by Adobe and rebranded as Adobe Audition), and while I still play with it from time to time, there are probably more comprehensive options available to today’s newbies. Audacity is a nice option for getting one’s feet wet for free, but if you really are interested in learning DAWs, I definitely recommend jumping right into Logic or Pro Tools. (James Marshall Owen)

Ableton Live

Website: http://www.ableton.com/
$499 on Amazon
Runs on Windows/Mac

Designed to suit live musicians, Ableton Live is another great DAW alternative if you value power. "Ableton Live is about making music; for composition, songwriting, recording, production, remixing and live performance. Live's nonlinear, intuitive flow, alongside powerful real-time editing and flexible performance options, make it a unique studio tool and a favorite with live performers."

Audiotuts+ readers say:

  • Ableton all the way. Complex, but yet so intuitive in the beginning, plus really inspiring. (Serb)
  • After mastering Garageband, Ableton is the One. Big fan of Ableton myself, I’ve been using it for years. Very intuitive, and the Session View makes it very easy to start jamming in no time. (pierre)
  • It depends on what type of music you want to do. If you want to do a lot of sampling or live performance with samples, then Ableton is my choice. You can pick up a copy free when you purchase things like a keyboard or audio interface (which by the way you should invest in). For the beginner M-Audio has some decent AI’s about $115 that come with a free copy of Pro-Tools) Another excellent DAW, especially if you’re recording live, is Presonus Studio One Artist, which I picked up on sale for $30. (Robert Jensen)
  • For begginers: To Record? Pro Tools!! To make music? Logic!! To perform live? Ableton Live or Mainstage!! (pedro)
  • I started to make music in FL Studio in 2004. it could sounds weird but I went to FL studio from Hip Hop eJay2 that I have know about in 2002. So my first DAW was Mix of eJAy and FL Studio. Through years I was tried to change my DAW – it was Cubase, Sonar, Ableton and even Project5. So I came back to FL Studio anyway 8 years ago. Less than month ago Ive got Mac and say “Good bye” to FL and now I’m on Ableton Live.
    Just my story. (Vyacheslav Breakzhead)

  • Using Ableton Live since version 3? 4? waaay back when it first came out. It’s pretty much perfect for learning audio, as everybody uses it! (Jeramiah)

Conclusion

So, there are a bunch of options to get you started towards a decision of which DAW to purchase. A wise second step would be to download demos of a few of them and try them out.

I didn't cover every opinion listed on the Open Mic, so if you would value feedback from more people, I encourage you to check it out. And if you'd like to add your own opinion, please leave it in the comments below.

To finish, I'd like to leave you with the thoughts of Audiotuts+ reader Jeremiah. He's old and wise, and I enjoyed reading his take on the DAWs he has tried. It's almost a poem. Here it is:


My path through the audio jungle was… (showing my age here)
- Amiga 500 w/ Octamed and 4 track tape recorder!
- Acid 2.0
- Fruity Loops
- Sound Forge

then…
- Acid 5.0,
- Sound Forge 4.0

Started mucking around with Cubase, Nuendo etc. Found it fiddly.
Stuck with Acid right up to the launch of Ableton Live.

then…
Using Ableton Live since version 3? 4? waaay back when it first came out.
It’s pretty much perfect for learning audio, as everybody uses it!
I looked around at other DAW’s found most of them blah…eh…whatever…
Reaper is good though….sometimes use that for fun or making music on the road
or if i just wanna mess around.

But now I use a combo of
Audition 5.5 *great for game audio dev
Ableton 8 for all music
and Pro Tools 9 for all post.

Tried just bout everything else…. become the master of a few tools I reckon
all sticks and stones of different shapes sizes can still make cave paintings in the right hands.
It’s really personal taste…lucky ?…yes we are.

Ableton is good for solo musicians/composers, nerds more experimental/electronic or mangling acoustic stuff, sound designy vibe. Messing with LFO’s automation, but yeah, everybody uses it.

Reaper is good if your keen on doing the bandy thing and using mixers and studio type setups
(poor man’s Pro Tools). Good for your average DIY studio setup. it’s pretty neat as you can play around with it to get it more suited to you, runs on crappy computers and is pretty awesome.

Pro Tools is good if your doing sound design and anything to do with audio for picture and have some decent hardware/computer/plugins. can be like dating a high class model sometimes.

Logic is like Pro Tools and Ableton had a baby.
GarageBand is just Logic’s little brother.

FL Studio is good for electronic music such as techno/trance/electro/breaks etc. strange crazy shit.
Audition 5.5 is good for game audio/file management, etc. batch processing, multi-track sound design and editing and over all audio asset management.

That’s my 2 cents, spend it how you like.

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