A DAW or digital audio workstation is something you’ll need if you’re going to use your computer for any sort of music creation or editing. A DAW can work as a sequencer, audio recorder, instrument, effects processor and mixer. These days there’s not much it can’t do!
I’ve had quite a bit of experience of making music with computers, going back to 1981, I bought a Sinclair ZX81 computer kit and built an interface from a project magazine (Electronics and Music Maker) and used it to control a Sequential Circuits Pro One. Back then it seemed like magic so what you can achieve with today’s Daw’s is truly amazing!
Why would you want to pay for a Daw when you can get them for free?
Good question, it all comes down to how good the best paid for ones are and the amount of time you’re going to be spending using them. For me if I was going to use software to do a simple job and only use it for a couple of minutes a week I would probably just use free software. What would be the use of paying for something I was only going to use for a few minutes if free software was available?
As I’ve grown up with computers making music from the early eighties, I’ve seen the progress that’s been made and what’s now achievable, so for me the prices you pay compared to what you can do with the software still seems to me to be a total bargain!
My mates thought I was going crazy when I spent £500 on HiFi loudspeakers when you could buy some for £60. The fact was though the amount of time I spent listening to music, £500 wasn’t a lot to pay for the quality of sound they emitted. Even my mates admitted they did sound brilliant so why put up with £60 ones? If I had put a £1 coin in a pot every time I listened to music on them I could probably afford £1000 ones next time!
That’s my point with DAW’s. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time using them, and if your serious about music believe me you will be, than why not get something that’s excellent from the start, then the time you invest in learning to use it won’t be wasted. I’ve seen people use free software and get so far before they realise it won’t do what they want it to do or it does something in a long drawn out way when someone shows them how they can do it on their system. They then go out and get a top of the range paid for DAW but then have to learn a new system again. I honestly don’t know anyone who tried a free DAW and still uses it. All my friends have paid for DAW’s and I don’t hear anyone regretting it.
For me Cubase was and still is the industry standard, I know a lot of people will disagree and say Pro Tools is but I see Pro Tools as the industry standard for studio engineers and the like, people who play and edit sound and songs. Cubase is the industry standard for musicians, the people who create the music.
I have tried a lot of DAW’s, even going back to the days when they were known as “sequencers”, before the days of the windows PC when they ran on the hardware of the day the “home computer” loading software from cassette recorders!
The massive breakthrough was probably the Atari ST with disc drive, mouse and MIDI. It was begging to have a sequencer written for it and there were quite a few but the one that thrived more than the others was Steinberg Pro 24. This became Cubase on the Atari St and then Cubase on Windows when that became available. So apart from the fact that it already had a base of users, it had already had countless upgrades and additions so had a massive head start over everything else. I became an avid user and the improvements came thick and fast. Being able to record and edit audio and having VST instruments and effects transformed it beyond recognition, no wonder the name “sequencer” was deemed beneath it as it transformed into a Digital Audio Workstation!
There seems little that Cubase can’t do! We used to use sequencers to control all of our hardware and complete songs used to be crafted sending out digital note information to play our synthesizers and drum machines. The DAW has become the synthesizers and drum machines, not to mention the multitrack recorder, mixer and audio effects processor.
I wasn’t alone in starting to produce complete tracks that used nothing more than Cubase to record the vocals to and VST instruments, effects and its mixing capabilities and had songs that just came from out of the computers optical drive in the shape of a CD.
Cubase can of course full integrate all of your audio hardware, if you have any, as more and more people see the benefits on using hardware synthesizers again. Because of its flexibility there are many ways of using it, it’s very frustrating having to do something a certain way because the software won’t let you do it the way you want to, this is something that can’t be levelled at Cubase. Also everything works seamlessly; you know you are using a quality product, crashes are very rare and to be honest I can’t remember the last time this happened to me.
I still use Cubase from time to time but my everyday needs in the world of DAW have been taken over by Ableton. I became aware of this software several years ago. It was creating something of a stir in the music magazines and having seen it decided to buy it and give it a go. I must admit to not being overly impressed when I first started using it but this was probably more to do with me than the product. I had become very set in my ways with DAW software because as I had grown up with it I expected it to work in a certain way, but Ableton works in a more flexible and intuitive way that took me a while to get my head around. Once I had got used to using “clips” my way of working became a lot quicker. With all the updates there’s not a lot that you can’t do with Ableton either.
Using clips on the arrange page is a very quick way of trying out new arrangements and I, like many users have got used to moving the clips around to try out things on the fly. With how quick it is to record little ideas and move them and combine them with other bits you’ll quickly find that Ableton becomes your composition tool of choice. That was the main reason I swapped to it as it became so easy to write and try stuff out with.
I got into using Reason after trying Rebirth (which is now available for free here) I wouldn’t have believed what was possible with Reason if I hadn’t of downloaded the demo and tried it for myself. Although Ableton live is now my main DAW a wanted something to run on my laptop and give me the ability to make music on the move. Unfortunately my then laptop wasn’t blessed with a great deal of computing power and Reason used by far the lowest overheads.
Also the fewer modules you used the less overall computer power you consumed so whatever machine you ran it on you could usually come to some compromise and still end up with a workable system. Using a small portable MIDI keyboard like the M Audio Oxygen 8 which is the one I use and a laptop running Reason you have a very powerful and total compact and portable music creation system.
Reason is like having virtual devices that make up your recording studio. You can start out with a synthesizer and put it in your virtual rack and there are some pretty powerful ones for you to use in any way you like, basses, leads you name it you can do it all. I don’t think anybody would argue the fact that each is different with its own strengths and you could play around for hours with one alone!
My favourite is probably Thor, shown in the picture below.
Another of my favourite features is the ability to patch the individual inputs and outputs as you want. This was one of the great experimental areas for me when I started getting into synths, sequencers and drum machines.
I used to patch the control voltage output of a mono synth into the control voltage input of another two and patch the trigger inputs from individual outputs from a drum machine, then by programming the drum machine the synths would play the same notes but be rhythmically triggered by the drum machine. By playing around you could come up with all sorts of stuff.
This is one area that is still the source of loads of original ideas and Reason gives you the ability to do stuff like that.
You can flip the rack around and you get access to all sorts of inputs and outputs you never knew existed.
The picture below shows the rear of the Thor Synthesizer, you can see that you have CV and gate inputs so the note, and when it’s triggered can be separated out.
You can patch devices in to so you can take advantage of this and produce rhythmic and pulsating grooves way beyond anything that comes pre-programmed. The RPG-8 pictured below can produce some clever effect on its own but when patched to other inputs it becomes even more fun.
The Analog Pattern Sequencer again is another device that can maximise the patching capabilities that are on offer and if you want to take it to the extremes you can split and merge control voltages using the spider.
Propellerhead couldn’t have made the patching any easier or intuitive you simple flip the rack around using the tab key and the mouse routes the cables where you want.
There are also many supporting software packages that are available to add even more like extra sound packs and tools for creating in specific styles see here.
One thing is for sure and that is that if you buy Steinberg Cubase, Ableton Live or Propellerhead Reason you can rest assured that you are getting an absolute bargain. All three products have been meticulously developed and updated over years and have all been taken to a level of performance that I would consider exceptional, they have all been tested on a huge number of systems and combinations so you won’t have to worry about crashes and the like.
I can say from using each of these products myself for several years that I can’t remember having any technical issues and all have performed admirably. I can honestly say that I’m continuously surprised and impressed at what each of these DAW’s can do! I grew up with some of the first software sequencers so you’ll have to forgive my enthusiasm for the modern DAW. I still haven’t got over them.
If, like me you can remember seeing the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument) and immediately wanted one (like me!) the power you get with a decent PC and one of the above DAW’s would blow away a Fairlight! That’s why I think they are all bargains for what you get for your money. You are literally assembling a recording studio with effects and instruments that is comparable to professional studios of a few years ago for a few hundred pounds!
Which one is best all depends on what you want to do, if you want a standalone music making system you can’t go wrong by going for Propellerhead Reason. It’s more forgiving on computer hardware so if you haven’t got a powerful computer you can still run it and if you’re starting up you will probably find Reason easier to grasp then the other two. Don’t be mistaken in thinking that it’s just for beginners though because you could spend years with Reason and still feel like you’re only scratching the surface of what you can achieve.
You can certainly use it to produce profession results, ask Liam Howlett from the Prodigy, well you probably can’t ask him personal but you can read what he thinks here.
Trial version and demo Versions
I can highly recommend that you get trial versions of the software. You have nothing to lose cost wise and you can properly try them out to see what truly suits you. You can get Cubase Elements 7 Trial Here.
There is also Reason Demo Download here that is fully functional but will only open demo songs and can’t export audio; it will certainly give you a feel for what you can do.
Ableton Live 9 is also available here to try free for 30 days and again you should be able to try out its functionality and suitably assess it.
One area that isn’t often considered is the use of lite versions of software. While it’s great to have all the features of a full package do you really need them?
Ableton offer a lite version with less tracks and stripped down features but what you get for your money is still a bargain you may find that it’s all you need. If not you can upgrade from the lite to the full version.
Reason is also available as a lite version and is called Reason Essentials, again a cut down product but with the ability to do an awful lot when you look at the price!
Not to be left out with the cut down versions, Steinberg gives you Cubase Elements
Manufacturers really are helping in this ponderous decision, you can get a trial version to see if the products really for you than you can get a cut down version and then upgrade to the full version if that’s what you want and get your money back from the lite version, what more could you ask for?