Picking the right DAW is essential for your productivity, so make sure you get the best one for your needs.
Okay, so you fancy yourself as a bit of a Jean Michelle Jarre and have decided you want to give this whole electronic music thing a bash, after being inspired by our recent upsurge in music technology coverage (and rightly so), but after doing a bit of looking around you’ve found yourself stumped as to which DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or sequencer is right for you. Don’t worry, it happens to pretty much everyone when they’re starting off, and it can be very tricky to find unbiased information as to which products you should be looking at due in no small part to the bizarre tribalism that seems to exist with users becoming staunchly loyal to their weapon of choice while thrash talking all the others (it’s petty, childish and completely inexplicable, but for some reason it goes hand in hand with the territory), so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to give you a low down on some of the most popular options on the market today...
Logic Pro (OSX)
If you’ve got a Mac (or if you’re particularly nerdy and you’re rocking a cheeky Hackintosh) then Apple’s Logic range should probably be your first port of call when it comes to serious considerations for your DAW. Currently standing at version 9.2, Logic has long been established as one of the premier DAWs available on any system. If you’re into creating electronic music, then any of the more “serious” bods in the industry will generally point you in the direction of this particular piece of kit.
Where Logic comes into its own is the fantastic suite of plug-ins that work straight out of the box – there’s no need to spend even more of your hard earned cash buying bits and pieces to actually get use out of this as a DAW, everything you need to get started is right there from the off, ranging from samplers to virtual synthesisers to effects units; and they’re all of an exceptionally high standard. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from rushing out and buying various plug ins to supplement what’s on offer here, with Logic supporting RTAS and AU as standard, and VST by virtue of one of the various VST to AU converters available today.
But it’s not only for synths and drum machines – Logic offers a perfectly capable platform for recording your own instruments in as audio and arranging, editing and mixing them into your first smash hit (or not).
However, being one of the more “high end” packages around, you’re going to be faced with quite a steep learning curve if you’re coming in fresh. You’ll have to have a working understanding of signal flow (or at least be able to figure things out really fast with just a manual to help) to even get so much as a squeak out of the software, and understanding a little bit about how MIDI works would do no harm either.
Logic Pro 9 can be picked up for around the €420 mark, although if you’re canny, you might be able to save a few quid by shopping around. A “light” version of the software (with less features), Logic Pro Express, can be bought for €199 from the Apple Store.
If that all sounds a bit much for you, you could also take a look at...
For those of you who just want to jump straight in, playing with audio loops and not really getting into any of the heavier stuff, Apple’s iLife software offers the perfect solution in Garageband, a no nonsense application for recording, editing and arranging audio samples. It’s got plenty of neat stuff to keep you busy including effects units and tons of versatile samples. It might not be for the serious musicians amongst you, but it offers a fantastic entry point into the world of digital audio production and can be picked up for a meagre €79 from the Apple Store (and with that you’ll also get iPhoto ’09, iMovie ’09, iWeb ’09, iDVD, and QuickTime, which really isn’t a bad deal at all!).
Steinberg’s Cubase range has been around since the heady days of the Atari ST with the first release coming way back in 1989 and since then the brand has gone from strength to strength. Similar to Logic Pro, you’re going to need to put in a lot of time and effort to figure out exactly how to make this baby purr, but if you’re serious about your musical endeavours then it’s worth it in the long run.
And also like Logic, Cubase offers a fantastic recording format if you’d like to play your old fashioned instruments instead of these new fangled virtual ones (although you’d be advised to look into purchasing yourself a decent audio interface if you’re going down that route... the soundcards you get built into computers these days really aren’t worth a toss when it comes to anything more serious than listening to your MP3s or watching a movie – we’ll be doing a buyers’ guide for audio interfaces next month, so stay tuned for that).
The big downfall with Cubase is that the bundled instruments and effects pale in comparison to those found in Logic (although the bundled instruments and effects of everything pale in comparison to those found in Logic), so you’re going to be looking at considerable investment in VST instruments and effects if you want some fresh sounds to play with. That’s not to say that the bundled stuff is bad, it’s really not, it’s just that there’s not really enough of it to be of any real value to anyone.
With a clutter free and straightforward (once you’ve learned the basics) interface, Cubase definitely ranks ahead of Logic for ease of use, but both offer an almost identical quality across the board for more experienced users.
Cubase 5 can be bought for somewhere in the region of €535, or those of you on a budget might want to take a look at the stripped back Cubase Essential, available for around €140.
Ableton Live (PC/OSX)
Ableton Live is fast becoming the main tool of a new generation of electronic musicians. Its sleek, crisp, unique interface offers a far more welcoming experience to newcomers than that of either Logic or Cubase, and its versatility as both a production powerhouse and a live performance tool mean that it ticks all the right boxes for many artists.
Live suffers much the same way as Cubase from a lack of bundled instruments of any real high standard, but can be supplemented by VSTs purchased separately. Its audio time stretching engine makes sampling and remixing as easy as counting to four, and cuts out the need for intricate editing and resampling – something which can sap your creative juices away before you’ve even played a single note.
Live can tend to fall down a little for those moving to it from another DAW however, since the interface is more than a little different, and it can be extremely frustrating to relearn the basics all over again, but for new users there’s probably no better place to start. It’s got it all, assuming you can get past the different interface.
Ableton Live 8 Suite (offering additional instruments) can be purchased for around €590, while the basic Ableton Live 8 costs slightly less at €390. A stripped down budget version of the software, Ableton Live Intro, can be bought for as little as €85 if you shop around.
Propellerhead Reason & Record (PC/OSX)
Reviewed in the last issue, Reason and Record aren’t really DAWs as such, but they do offer a fantastic armoury of sonic weapons. Far and away the most aesthetically pleasing of all the software mentioned in this feature, Propellerhead have built up a hugely versatile, all inclusive production suite over the past decade.
Both programs are very quick to learn the basics of, and offer a huge range of sonic possibilities. However neither of them offer support for external plug-ins, and many find their sequencers to be lacking somewhat (although this has been addressed in their latest iterations).
Curiously, both pieces of software seem to offer most to novices and experienced users alike – intermediate level users seem to lose their way because of the modular nature of the programs, but there are plenty of tutorials available online for anyone who finds themselves stuck in a rut.
We haven’t covered all the options on the market, there are still plenty of great tools out there for those of you who are interested, such as Sonar, FL Studio and ProTools (the industry standard for all things recording, we left it out because, to be honest, if you don’t know what it is you’ve not really got any use for it), as well as some great free software like Reaper and Jeskola Buzz.
This software is hugely expensive stuff, so be sure to do your research before you splash the cash. In particular, ensure that your computer is up to the task of running a DAW plus a generous smattering of plug-ins comfortably, and that your soundcard/audio interface is up to the task or you’ll simply be wasting your money!