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The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 3 - Choosing Your DAW

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So far in this series we have looked at the typical plug-ins and processors you will need to mix your music and we have also delved into the world of hardware. So far you should be pretty clear on some of the kit you will need to get the job done.

In this instalment we are looking at software again but this time we focus on the very heart of your productions, the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). There is a huge amount of choice here with an ever growing number of different products on the market begging for your attention.

As this is a pretty general and often misunderstood subject I’ll attempt to break things down a little bit and really get down to the details you should be looking at when choosing this incredibly important and often expensive part of your recording set up.

Also available in this series:

  1. The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 1 – Choosing The Essential Processors
  2. The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 2 - Essential Studio Kit
  3. The Perfect Production Tool Kit Part 3 - Choosing Your DAW

Step 1 - What Is A DAW?

Digital Audio Workstations are essentially the living, breathing heart of your studio set up. In the last section of this series we discovered how the computer is now arguably the most important piece of hardware in a modern production setup and this is only because it carries the vital task of running our DAW.

The modern studio may still use some hardware but it’s heart is the DAW.

The definition of a DAW has changed over the years somewhat, but now an application that carries this label is expected to handle pretty much every aspect of the production process. From conception to mixing and editing to mastering you should be able to stay within the confines of your chosen DAW throughout the entire process.

So really your DAW is your recording system, it’s a MIDI sequencer, it hosts software instruments, plug-ins and is capable of summing, mixing and mastering your entire project. This is pretty impressive considering once upon a time you would need a room (or two) full of hardware to get all these jobs done.

DAWs now sport all the tools you’ll need to get the job done.

So let’s assume you have a well configured, reasonably powerful computer at your disposal and the right audio interface. What’s the next step? Well, it’s as simple as choosing the right DAW for you and installing it. Let’s start to think about the decision process when selecting your DAW.

Step 2 - How Different Is Each DAW?

One of the most regularly asked questions that appears in my inbox goes something like, “What’s the best program for making Dubstep?” Or “Is Logic Pro the best application for house music?” The real truth is there is no one-stop solution for specific genres.

DAWs maybe different to look at but they all get the job done.

As technology moves relentlessly forward DAWs become more and more similar. Sure, the graphical interfaces may differ pretty drastically and some companies might advertise ‘special, unique features,’ but when it comes down to it they all do more or less the same job. Often the difference is in workflow and operation as opposed to the result.

So when you are choosing the right app for you please don’t get hung up on hype that you’ve heard about a specific program being better at one thing than another. At the end of the day the most important thing by far is how comfortable you are in a specific working environment. If you enjoy making music in a specific DAW then that’s the right one for you, regardless of what others might think of it.

Step 3 - All In One Solutions?

There was a time when some manufactures would shop there applications as ‘one stop‘ solutions for music making. Propellerhead’s Reason was probably the best example of this. As it has never used third party plug-ins to extend it’s capabilities the Reason user would expect everything they needed to be included in the app.

Now Reason 6 includes full audio support and a host of new effects and processors it offers the musician a truly all in one solution. Saying that most DAWs now come with a whole host of really impressive instruments and effects processing right out of the box.

Reason 6 is probably the only truly self contained DAW out there

There was a time when I would suggest my students steered clear of bundled DAW effects and instruments, but as competition in the marketplace grows the quality of these included plug-ins has really improved. Cubase, Ableton Live, Pro Tools and Logic have all really upped their game when it comes to what they include and they are now approaching the quality of some of the best third party software.

In reality any DAW you buy know is capable of producing music from start to finish from the moment it’s installed. Of course if you DAW supports Audio Units and VST tech then you’ll be able to expand your sonic arsenal but if you are a beginner the stock software may just do the trick.

Most DAWs today are able to produce music straight out of the box

What I’m trying to get at here (and you may of guessed this by now) is that most of the features or claims made by the manufactures or fans of a specific software title shouldn't really have a huge amount of impact on your decision. Let’s think about a few things that really should.

Step 4 - Does Price Matter?

For many people (especially novices) price is an extremely important factor. If you are limited in your decision by a finite budget, don’t panic. I’ve seen amazing music made on extremely cheap DAWs and pretty terrible music made on the most expensive ones.

The price of a DAW will often be linked to things like its feature set and intended market. Applications such as Logic Pro, Steinberg’s Cubase and Pro Tools have traditionally been the most expensive but due to market saturation and fierce competition prices of all products have come way down.

Logic Pro is now very reasonably priced

This is great news for the average consumer and gives us a huge amount of choice, even on a tighter budget. If you are extremely limited by the funds you have then there are even cheaper options such as GarageBand that will allow you to make entire projects for around £10/$20. I’ve seen some truly impressive projects put together with basic apps like this and of course there is even an iOS based version for your iPad if you are on the move.

An affordable interface maybe all you need to get going.

If you have a modest budget and are looking for something simple then you couldn't really go wrong with Reason 6. There are even a couple of options here Reason Essentials will give you ‘what you need’, while the full version will give you ‘what you want’!

Many of the software manufacturers take this approach now offering slightly trimmed down versions of their flagship products for the novice and budget conscious alike. This allows you to get a taste of what the full product will offer without breaking the bank.

Pro Tools now free of expensive hardware is now a more affordable option.

When it comes down it, actually trying the software yourself is the real acid test when it comes to choosing the right app for you. We’ll look at this next...

Step 5 - The Importance Of The Test Drive...

OK, so let’s say you have narrowed down your choice to a few DAWs based on price, reviews and some solid recommendations. Ultimately the best way to get your head around what’s going to work for you is a test drive.

Unfortunately not all the manufacturers supply demos but luckily a few do. Ableton Live and Reason 6 will both run in demo mode. Live will work for 30 days, while Reason just puts some heavy limitations in place. It’s well worth trying both of these.

For other DAWs that don’t offer such luxuries you might want to see if you can get into a friends studio that has the software installed. This way you can have a play about or at the very least see the apps in action. You can also get advice from someone who has experience with the title in question.

I really can't stress how important this is. Even if you just get a glance at the app, it's better than nothing. Think about it. If you end up choosing this DAW you could be using it for hundreds of hours and I you hate the way it looks you’ll be unhappy. Plus, you could be £300-500 lighter for the pleasure!

Step 6 - Ask Yourself Some Questions

OK so let’s say you have thought about budget, you’ve tried a few apps out and you are still not sure which one to buy. You really have to find something amongst all the applications available that stands out for you.

It’s best to ask yourself some questions at this point. What will you be doing with the software? Will you primarily be making electronic beats or will you be recording bands? Maybe you are heavily into synthesis or do you need great loop manipulation.

It’s only at this point when you have really narrowed things down that these stand out features should tip the balance for you. For instance let’s say you love Cubase, Reason and Ableton Live, what questions would we ask?

Let’s say you were looking to record bands. Cubase maybe the obvious option due to it’s open-ended mixing capabilities and mature audio support. But on the other hand, if you were after some great synths you could opt for Reason 6.

Cubase will be the obvious option for some who want to record audio.

If you are more of a DJ and interested in creative manipulation and live triggering of loops, then Ableton Live would probably be the best option due to its legendary elastic audio and performance based effects.

Ableton might be more suited to a DJ/Producer

One thing to remember is that most of these apps will take care of all of these tasks, so if you buy one that shines in one area and you want to change direction at a later date it’s extremely likely that any modern DAW will cater for your needs in the new area.

Step 7 - Summing Up

So all in all it’s really likely that most of the DAWs available today will cater for most peoples needs most of the time and are the majority are flexible enough to take on most tasks in the studio.

My real point here is that you will be with this app a long time and it pays to take your time when making a decision. Look at all the pros and cons and above all get some hands on experience.

Coming from a person that has every DAW commercially available on both Windows and Mac platforms, you truly can make great music with any of the apps out there. Getting the right sound is more about experience than the DAW you are using. Choose one you feel comfortable with and enjoy. Follow this simple advice and hopefully you’ll have hours of fun making music.

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