The Beginners Ultimate DAW Guide
This is the Ultimate DAW Guide to get you making music now. What makes it this The Ultimate DAW Guide? While being comprehensive we have centered the Ultimate DAW Guide around the fact that creativity doesn’t cost, and it’s packed with all the info you need to be making beats for free.
Don’t get me wrong, the further you go into production the more you’ll want to buy and expand. Progress = Gearlust and it’s an and addiction we all suffer…
By the time you reach the end of the Ultimate DAW Guide, you’ll have everything you need to make beats for free.
What is a DAW?
The short answer is; A music making computer program.
The longer answer is; A Digital Audio Workstation, the center of your music studio and your music making. Designed to record multiple channels of audio, for instance, multiple instruments or overdubs. Then edit this audio, removing and re-arranging sections, or adjusting timing and pitch. Lastly, balance these multiple channels together to create a final stereo audio file, a process known as mixing.
In a nutshell, DAW’s are recording software and audio editors with a mixer.
Something that no one told me when I first started my production journey is that every DAW sounds the same; it is the stock plugins that come built into them that give the defining sound.
What is a Plugin? A plugin is a tool that helps process audio. EQ, compression or reverb are essential plugins used to sculpt your sound.
Each DAW has its own a range of plugins, called stock plugins. The plugins are something to consider in your decision as the sound of the stock plugins is what is adding the character to your productions. Most modern DAW’s come with the built-in ability to produce professional mixes, it’s not the gear that matters, it’s how you use it.
The fundamentals of sound design and synthesis remain the same across all synthesizers and effects and arrangement and songwriting skills will flourish in any DAW you end up choosing.
If you want to make music and progress into a pro you need; focus.
If you stick to this rule; you have the key to reaching pro mixes in less time than it takes most people.
Don’t get caught deliberating the unimportant decisions: which DAW? What gear to buy? which plugins? What mic to buy next?
You make fast progress by focusing on what matters: your skills.
Which DAW you chose is not a make-or-break factor. Every time you are thinking about what move to make next, you could have been honing your skills, learning your DAW, and getting confident at mixing.
Research it, and decide what you think will work for you. Make a decision fast, and stick with it. Learning the art of production and the ins and outs of your DAW is a very long process.
If you aren’t happy with your first mix, don’t panic. It’s totally normal, don’t blame your DAW. You just need more experience with sound design and synthesis. Try to remember this and keep pumping out the tunes. You’ll see yourself getting better each time, you are well on your way to achieving the sound in your head.
The key to moving forward is really to learn your core skills. A small, yet diverse skillset that you are a master of will have you producing better mixes at a surprising rate. The more distractions you have within your DAW the longer it will take you to master the essential tools. Once you have mastered these tools and techniques you will have a solid understanding and be ready to launch into more advanced techniques.
What to consider?
Have a think about what your goals are.
Do you spend more time writing music, or mixing music?
Do you want a DAW that does one specific job well or an all-rounder?
What is the easiest DAW to use for you?
The answers to these questions will tell you what are what you’re looking for in a DAW. With all of that knowledge, its time choose the best DAW for you.
Keep the number of easy access resources and education that is available in mind. There are online communities and tutorials to get you started on your journey through your weapon of choice. I would recommend spending time getting deep into your software. Knowing your method deeply and developing a strong workflow, is the key to mastering the art of finishing. Learning the skill of finishing and moving quickly through the stages of production will increase your skill set tenfold. The more tracks you finish, the better they will be!
Don’t be scared to make bad music. Bad music will teach you just as much about the process as good music will.
Free DAWS; What is the best free DAW?
What sort of Ultimate Daw Guide wouldn’t mention free DAW’s? There are loads out there, Audacity, and GarageBand, are the most popular. They are free because they are limited in capabilities. This will likely leave you wanting something more powerful in a relatively short time.
In my opinion, the best bet is to start with a limited/lite version of software developed specifically to accommodate smaller home studios on a budget. Most are cheap, some free, yet they still packed with the essential features of the full version. The premium versions contain a lot of tools intended for sound engineers that you won’t need (at least, now anyway) and if you want to upgrade to a professional platform one day, the transition will be smooth, you won’t need to learn an entirely new DAW from scratch.
I feel as though spending your time learning a free DAW and then having to relearn another platform is a very expensive exercise. Value your time and skills, learn a program that has space for you to progress.
It’s said that it 10,000 hours to master something. I don’t about you, but if it’s true, I totally I wish I started yesterday.
What DAW to buy so you can start making music?
In putting the Ultimate DAW Guide together I have taken into account all the factors I’ve laid out for you so far and I came up with this list;
What makes Ableton Live so unique, is that it was originally designed as an instrument for live performances that is now a complete recording package.
Seamless live performing is where Ableton really shines, the visual interface fits entirely on a single laptop screen. And, to play Ableton in a fun and intuitive way you can use a midi controller specifically designed to do so.
These controllers are made to play Live:
Novation Launchpad (comes bundled with a Live Lite Licence!)
All of the above midi controllers work with any version of Ableton. The Live Intro version uses both views in Ableton’s unique workflow. You’ll notice they are all grid, pad based controllers. This matches the session view in Live.
Session view is for getting ideas out in a fast and fun way, then later to play your music live.
If you are intending to perform your music then Ableton Live is the software you will need.
To get your music into an arrangement and mixed down you’ll most likely use the arrangement view.
The arrangement view is a more traditional linear view that you arrange and mix your songs in.
The Intro version contains a 5+ GB sound library, 21 audio effects, and 8 MIDI effects. It also allows 16 audio and MIDI tracks, 8 scenes, 2 send and return tracks and 4 mono audio and input channels. Intro also features 4 software instruments; Drum Rack, Impulse, Simpler and Instrument Rack, with basic elements to record and edit your audio.
The Intro version contains enough tools to have you making beats in no time. One of the effects is the looper a very fun and intuitive way to let your creativity out.
So many creative possibilities for $139.
Once you have mastered these tools upgrading to the standard version is $539. You’ll then have access to a range of sound banks and virtual instruments ideal to create any genre. Live’s core library, includes vintage synths, analog drum machines, keys, multi-sampled drums, and a sampler. Along with 1800 sounds and 10+GB of loops and samples.
If you want to perform, you’ll use the session view in Live where you can trigger, re-sequence and remix your music on-the-fly. Control external hardware and improvise on your own, or process audio played by others.
Creating musical ideas, turning them into finished songs, with the ability to easily take them on stage is Ableton Live’s greatest feature.
Ableton is very popular amongst EDM producers and has a very strong online community with a tonne of educational resources online to help you get started. You can use the Ableton site itself as an educational tool, go here for there learning music site. Another great tool is Youtube.. Tom Cosm, Certified Ableton trainer has released a 10 part series of lesson’s on sound design, arrangement and techniques to get you producing. Tom is a great teacher and whatever DAW you end up choosing I highly recommend watching along while he creates a track.
Ableton Live 10 has a 30 day free trial so you can get a feel for the DAW and decide if it is for you.
FL Studio previously known as Fruity Loops has been around for 18 years and has you need to compose, arrange, record, edit, mix and master professional quality music.
FL Studio also has a strong online presence with loads forums and tutorials to help you get going. FL is a top choice for Hip-Hop, EDM musicians and DJ’s.
FL Studio 20 offers a multitude of MIDI recording and sequencing functions that are centered around its piano roll and trademark step sequencer features. Use either of these powerful tools alone, or in combination with one another to record your musical performances in either pattern or track sequencing mode, depending on your personal workflow.
Fl Studio Fruity Edition, is a MIDI recording melody and loop creation environment, the only DAW on the list that is not an audio recorder (unless you upgrade).
Multiple arrangements are possible, each with their own complete layouts of audio, automation, and pattern clips.
The fruity edition offers the same full-featured mixer that appears in the entire FL Studio 20 range.
The mixer offers, effects chains, audio sends, sidechain control, advanced automation, and multi-touch support.
Editing your music is done in the midi piano roll and arrangement view, both have powerful tools.
Make your sounds in with the 11 virtual synthesizers provided. Including great-sounding acoustic/synth bass, electric guitar and plucked strings, sampler tools including a piano, and beat-slicing.
The browser is a no-nonsense efficient way to move through your library.
FL Studio Fruity Edition is $149 with free lifetime upgrade to purchase and is proving to be a solid DAW to learn for music production.
When the time comes to upgrade the Producer Edition offers 2 more powerful synths and effects built-in, and great support for VST Plugins. With the added ability to record in audio making it a very capable audio editor.
Although it is sometimes disregarded by users of other software as being a toy because it has a far more efficient and friendly UI than other DAWs. TheFL Studio is a big hit with ‘in-the-box’ producers due to its spreadsheet-like playlist and flexible piano roll. Along with the straight-forward and fast Midi editing and automation capabilities in some ways, FL Studio is miles ahead of other software.
Akai created a dedicated FL Studio Midi Controller. Making taking your workflow out of the box a seamless process.
The AKAI Fire FL STUDIO Workstation. Also a grid-based controller… A fun way to get into your music.
The affordability and graspable interface and super fast workflow make FL a very accessible way to start producing and finishing music. The only DAW on the list to offer free lifetime upgrades!
FL Studio offers a Free trial so you can test all features and extra plugins, the Time is unlimited and no registration or is account needed. This is a great series of videos to help you get started with FL Studio.
Steinberg’s software Cubase is the oldest DAW on the list. It’s innovative, trustworthy and stable and despite having been around for a long time, it remains popular to this day. An All-Rounder of a DAW designed for home recordists, bands, singer/songwriters, creative musicians, Steinberg Cubase Elements 9.5 offers a streamlined music production environment with pristine sound quality and a multitude of possibilities. Used by star producers and musicians for composing, recording, mixing and editing music, Cubase combines outstanding audio quality, intuitive handling and a collection of highly advanced audio and MIDI tools, exceling at score creation and MIDI manipulation.
Since it’s conception in 1989 as Midi and Mac Only. The Stienberg team have continued to refine the technology, contributing several major advancements to the music industry along the way making them prolific in shaping industry standards. In 1992 they released BOTH support for audio, and Windows compatibility, in 1996 they introduced VST plugins, and VST instruments in 1999. Even today, Cubase has managed to somehow remain just as relevant as they have been for the past several decades.
Steinberg has just Cubase 10 and the Elements edition offers a streamlined music production environment loaded with features that help seize the moment when musical creativity strikes. Sharing the same pristine audio quality as its larger siblings in the Cubase family, Cubase Elements provides the perfect starting point for intuitive songwriting, studio-grade recordings and finalizing your mix.
Streamlined audio/MIDI recording, editing, scoring & mixing
32-bit floating-point Steinberg audio engine
Flexible routing and full automatic delay compensation
Includes outstanding virtual instruments
- HALion Sonic SE 2
- Groove Agent SE 4 drum machine
Comes with a 44 audio effect processor
MixConsole provides a superior mixing experience
Integrated EQ/Dynamics channel strip modules for pro-console sound
Chord track and chord pads for easy chord composing & management
Streamlined score editing features
Regardless whether you’re looking for further inspiration, a quick and easy way to play chords or try out different arrangements, Cubase Elements offers you maximum flexibility combined with a lightweight user interface to refine your ideas and get the best out of your music.
Powerful instruments and awesome sounds are inbuilt. For example, HALion Sonic SE, Groove Agent SE, and Prologue along with a vast array of high-end sampled instruments, acoustic and electronic drums with grooves, state-of-the-art synths and experimental sound design tools. The VST Amp Rack tone suite is also included with the ability to give your music a very individual tone. A lot of production power in classic software priced at $149.
The upgrade Artist 10 has Quadrafuzz v2 distortion, VST Amp Rack, and VST Bass Amp for great guitar and bass tones, REVerence convolution reverb, Voxengo CurveEQ effect processors included. Along with Instruments; HALion Sonic SE 2, Padshop granular synth, Retrologue 2 virtual analog synth, LoopMash 2, Groove Agent SE 4 drum machine, and others for over 2,600 sounds. Costing $469 Cubase Artist 10 is a large upgrade, one that won’t be needed until you have mastered the techniques in Elements.
The youngest DAW on the list it doesn’t have the same online presence in an education sense that is seen with the other DAWS on the list. Bitwig Studio was created by engineers that originally worked with Ableton and is both music production and live performance tool. Bitwig Studio shares a similar concept based on ‘clips’. It has a modular synthesis environment and networking features.
There is no Intro/Light version of Bitwig Studio, it could be a progression from Ableton Live intro if you are looking for a DAW with a modular setup.
Giving you four primary layouts for composition and improvisation; it takes some getting used to, but it’s incredibly versatile once you get your head around it. Somewhat like a hybrid of Live and Native Instruments Maschine Software. One view, a mixer-styler view allows you to preview individual clips or entire scenes, then there is an arrangement view, where you can arrange sounds on a timeline.
The interface is bright and friendly, minimal yet functional. Easy to navigate and you don’t lose your flow, the browser is fast with no navigating through folders, just type in the search and done. There is also a simplicity in the ability to drag and drop everything even dragging and dropping full tracks within open projects.
It comes 9GB of factory content including 2,000 presets and sounds, such as drum machines (808, 909, and other percussion instruments), acoustic drums, multi-sampled instruments (Wurlitzer, Rhodes, vibraphone, marimba, acoustic and electric bass), instrument loops, various sound effects, and an Artist Collection Package.
Bitwig Studio costs $429, giving you performance and production at a cheaper price point than Ableton’s Standard Edition.
You are able to download Bitwig Studio and if you don’t register it will run in demo mode with saving and exporting disabled. Go here to download it, here for a good learning hub and have fun getting deep into Bitwig.
If you already own a mac Garageband is free DAW software that you can use to start making music.
Garageband is the little brother too Logic X. Both are Mac only and Logic X is a very popular choice of DAW among many producers.
Garageband many functions you need to get started making music. The software is an Audio recorder and audio editor. You have virtual software instruments, sampled instruments and software modeled synthesizers included, tools to get you started with sound design. There are MIDI editing capabilities, you are able to Import MIDI files and then use the piano roll or notation-style to edit, playback and quantize. Recorded note, including pitch, velocity, and duration are all editable.
There is a newly released Beat Sequencer a grid-based drum-pattern creator, with velocity and slice. You can Cut and paste in your arrangement and 4 Audio Unit Plugins can be used on each instrument.
A fairly extensive Sound Library is included with packs inspired by traditional Chinese and Japanese sounds along with packs for the Beat Sequencer, new Drummers and the Tone Collection.
GarageBand can’t export MIDI sequences for other DAWs or programs without first being converted to audio. It is however basically a streamlined version of Logic Pro, and projects can be loaded in Logic Pro when you’re ready.
Point Blank recently created an informative breakdown video on how you can use Garageband. Check it out if you are thinking Garageband might be for you.
6. Logic Pro X
Of all of the options in the Ultimate DAW Guide Logic X is the only DAW that doesn’t offer a free version for you to get started. LogicX is however is seen in many studios worldwide, built by a company called Emagic in 2002 and then bought by Apple later that year. It is the only Mac-only DAW on the list and used by a lot of professionals that stand by its stock plugins. Many believing that Logic X has the best plugins and the best virtual instruments available on the market. Due to this following and how many professional applications LogicX is seen in, I felt as though deserved a spot in the Ultimate DAW Guide, despite the initial setup cost.
Logic Pro X is a complete recording and MIDI production, with everything a pro musician needs to write, record, edit, and mix.
A strong very strong compositional tool, Logic X is advanced when it comes to writing and manipulating notes, with unique midi editing facilities. Logic X is the predominant choice for film composers and writers in general.
It has one of the largest collection of stock plugin’s of all the DAW’s on the list, a very well laid out mixer and a collection of synths providing analog, wavetable, FM, additive, granular, spectral, and modeling synthesis.
The Sound Library is 63GB in size and contains over 2800 instrument and effect patches from 1000 meticulously sampled instruments all playable in the EXS24 Sampler. Plus more than 7000 Apple Loops in a wide range of genres.
There is no trial or free version of LogicX. It’ll set you back $320 for the complete version, grab it here.
There are so many ways to make music, I hope that The Ultimate DAW Guide has inspired you to get making beats! The options laid out here all have a lot of educational information that is easily accessible and often free.
Whether you go with Ableton, FL, Cubase or Logic is not of importance. The journey to become a master of synthesis and your mixer has begun.
All you need to do is to decide, get started and have fun!