If you’re looking to use your computer to start producing or recording music, you’re going to need a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation to do so. But with so many options available, it’s hard to know which one to choose!
At the end of the day, whichever DAW you decide to use is going to give you the tools to get the job done. However, they all operate slightly differently, so some options might be more suitable than others if you’re just starting out.
In this article, we cover exactly what a Digital Audio Workstation is, what it does, why you need to use one, as well as round out the best DAW’s for beginners.
- What is a DAW?
- What to consider?
- Trial & Lite Versions
- Best FREE DAW’s for Beginners
- Best PAID DAW’s
- Ableton Live
- FL Studio
- Logic Pro X
- Cockos Reaper
What is a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation?
You’re here because you’re curious about learning how to produce or record music/audio. You might have heard the terms DAW or Digital Audio Workstation being thrown around, but what exactly is a DAW, and why do you need one?
In short, a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation refers to your music production computer software. So forget the need for copious amounts of expensive hardware, you can do it all right on your computer.
Whether you’re looking to produce, record, edit, or mix music; without having a DAW installed on your computer, your USB MIDI controller and studio equipment will be rendered useless. Thanks to the help of the right DAW, you’ll be creating original compositions, making sample-based beats, recording instruments, and performing creative sets in no time.
In a nutshell, DAW’s are a piece of recording and audio editing software with a built-in mixer. Typically including a selection of functions including the following:
- Audio Editing
- MIDI Editing
- Audio Processing
- Built in Plugins & Support for external Plugins and VSTs
- Live Performances
- and so much more
Choosing a DAW
When it comes down to it, every single DAW is going to give you the capabilities to create amazing-sounding audio. So there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for everybody. What matters most is going to be choosing the DAW that appeals to you most and offers the right functionality for you. While also catering to your needs and budget. Then, it’s just a matter of putting enough time and effort into learning it as much as you can.
While every DAW has powerful capabilities, the main differences usually include price, operating system requirements, and the included plugins/virtual instruments (or lack of). It’s also worth taking into consideration your intended use for your software. Because you’ll find some DAW’s cater more towards electronic music production and live performances, while others are more focused on tracking and mixing.
Most importantly, you want to choose a DAW that feels natural to you. There are so many options out there that are often branded as the best DAWs, and even the easiest to learn. But sometimes different programs will resonate with you more than others. So you might find that the DAW regularly dubbed the most difficult to learn, comes most natural to you. That’s where trial versions come in handy!
Almost every single DAW available has either a free/demo version or a trial of the full version available. A good idea would be to choose a handful of DAWs that takes your interest, then, download the trial versions of each. This will allow you to try out and get a feel for a few different solutions before committing your hard-earned cash.
Don’t spend too much time trying to figure out which DAW you like best. The idea is to get a little bit of a feel for each rather than learning each DAW in its entirety.
This way, you’ll be able to work out what you like, and what you don’t like. You might find one particular piece of software comes naturally to you and offers a workflow that makes music making a breeze.
What do your friends use?
If you have friends that are into music production, recording, mixing, or the like. It’s likely they also own a DAW themselves, and they probably also know all the ins and outs for using it. I definitely don’t recommend just going out and buying whichever DAW your favourite producer or friend uses. However, it’s definitely worth adding it to your list of software to try out.
One of the biggest factors for most of us when choosing a DAW is affordability! If you’re just getting started and you’re using a small home studio, it’s likely you’re not going to have the money to fork out for the most expensive DAW.
But that’s okay, most DAWs also offer a selection of tiers that accommodate for all budgets and needs. So rather than getting the premium edition, you can get the same piece of software but typically with fewer sounds and features. Then, you can upgrade when your studio/budget calls for it. If you’re a student, even better, you might be eligible for a student discount as well.
All in all, DAW’s are almost never dirt cheap, but the costs can definitely be justified. You’re paying for high quality and professional software that will stick with you throughout your entire music career.
There are some cheap DAW’s on the market, those of which will offer a great solution for simple audio recording like podcasting and voiceovers. Although if you’re looking to get into music production, more often than not you’re going to benefit from forking out a little extra money for one of the bigger guys like FL Studio or Ableton. That way, you’re going to get a host of included sounds that you’re not as likely to find on a cheaper DAW. As a result, you’ll notice your music production progresses a lot quicker, rather than then having to fork out even more money for sounds and plugins.
The Best Free DAW’s For Beginners
This wouldn’t be a complete DAW guide without mentioning the FREE DAW’s available on the market. There are heaps out there, but Audacity and Garageband are definitely the most popular. While Cockos Reaper also offers a heap of capabilities within the limitations of their free version if you’re a little bit more technically inclined.
Now if you’re someone just looking for a DAW to record a podcast, I’d definitely recommend jumping on one of the above free versions. Because you’re not going to need all the advanced functionality you’ll find in an expensive DAW that’s focused on music production. We’ve even put together a how-to guide that will help you navigate your way around audacity below.
Alternatively, if you’re serious about music production, spending your time learning a free DAW before having to relearn a new program can be a very time-costly exercise. So it’s important to value your time, skills, and the craft you’re passionate about learning. Then you’ll have plenty of room to grow as your skills progress!
So let’s get into the best-paid software!
The Best Paid DAW’s for Beginners
First up, we’ve got Ableton Live. What makes this software so unique is the fact it was originally designed primarily as an instrument for live performances. Since then, it’s transformed into an all-in-one complete recording package. Alongside FL Studio, Ableton is one of the most popular DAW’s thanks to its simple UI and streamlined workflow.
There are also a number of Ableton specific controllers that make integration a breeze.
Ableton is renowned for having its unique Session View & Arrangement View. Using its Session View is perfect for getting your ideas out quickly, which you can then use to play your music live. Alternatively, Arrangement View gives you a more traditional, linear view that’s perfectly suited for arranging and mixing down your tracks.
As we touched on before, many DAW’s offer different tiers to accommodate to everyone, Ableton is no different. This means you can pick up the intro-version for a little over $100, and you’ll have everything you need to start putting together melodies and grooves. With the Intro version, you’ll get a sound library over 5GB, as well as 21 built-in audio effects and 8 MIDI effects. You’ll also have capabilities for 16 audio and MIDI tracks, 8 scenes, 2 send and return tracks, as well as 4 mono audio and input channels. On top of that, the Intro version gives you 4 software instruments including Drum Rack, Impulse. Simpler, and Instrument Rack.
Above all, Ableton Live Intro will give you everything you need to record, mix, and perform professional sounding music! It’s also one of the most affordable options.
Previously known as Fruity Loops, FL Studio has quickly become one of the go-to DAW’s for music producers worldwide. Offering a simple and easy to use navigation and interface, FL Studio is now the number one choice for beginner and intermediate producers. For years, one of the biggest drawbacks of FL Studio was the fact it wasn’t compatible with Mac. However, since the FL Studio 20 update, Mac compatibility has been included, allowing FL Studio to reach the workstations of even more consumers.
As a result, FL Studio is now being downloaded over 30,000 times PER DAY and is used by some of the biggest names in the industry. Whether you’re producing Hip Hop, EDM, or you’re a DJ producing mashups, you’ll have no problems creating professional sounding music.
Centered around its renowned piano roll and trademark step sequencer, FL Studio is incredibly easy to wrap your head around and offers a number of powerful production tools to suit your workflow. There’s also an intuitive arrangement view that allows you to easily arrange your audio, automation, and pattern clips.
What’s more, given that FL Studio is so popular, there’s a massive online presence within forums and youtube tutorials; so you’ll be able to find everything you need to get started and learn the ins and outs of music production.
Like Ableton, FL Studio offers a number of different tiers with their Fruity Edition, Signature Edition, and Producer Edition. For most beginners, the Fruity Edition will have everything you need, though this one doesn’t double as an audio recorder. So if you’re lookin to record vocals within FL Studio you’ll have to upgrade to at least the Signature Edition.
Another important note worth mentioning, FL Studio is the only DAW on this list that offers free lifetime upgrades. So you’ll always be up to date with the latest software without having to fork out even more money!
The good news, FL Studio offers a trial version that allows you to test out the complete version of the software. The only downside to this is that you can’t save your projects and revisit them later. But it’s the perfect solution for testing the waters before you decide if it’s the best beginner DAW for you.
FL Studio was long disregarded by many in the industry due to its extremely user-friendly interface. However, that opinion has now changed for the most part with many of the most prominent producers swearing by the software as their go-to DAW.
When it comes to designated controllers, there’s not as many software specific options as you have for Ableton. But in saying that, you’ll find nearly every single keyboard with MIDI capabilities will work just fine. If you are looking for a software-specific solution, the Akai Fire gives you a grid-based FL Studio controller that offers a fun way to immerse yourself in the music.
Steinberg’s Cubase is the oldest DAW on the list and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. In previous versions, there’s definitely been room for improvement with its user interface. However, the latest version seems to have upped the game and made it much easier to wrap your head around. You’ll find all the standard features on a typical DAW, as well as some amazing MIDI editing tools that you won’t find on some of the other options.
One of the biggest downsides to using Cubase is the fact it relies on having a dongle to activate and use it. So you’ll have to make sure you have enough USB ports available at all times when you want to create within your DAW.
Another little known fact about Cubase is that Steinberg themselves are responsible or creating the popular VST plugin format that has been adopted by almost every DAW and music plugin you’ll see today.
Above all, Cubase is an all-rounder Digital Audio Workstation with pristine audio quality. Again, Cubase has a range of tiers to choose from including Cubase Elements, Cubase Artist, and Cubase Pro. You can also find Education versions of each which can save you a little extra money if you’re a student. As well as cross-grade options that give you an incentive to switch over to Cubase if you’re not happy with your current DAW.
But above all, if you’re looking for the best DAW for beginners, Cubase Elements provides the perfect starting point for intuitive songwriting, studio-grade recordings, and finalizing your mix. There’s also a 30 Day trial so you can get a feel for the software and see if you like it. As well as dedicated Steinberg tutorials that run you through all the basics to get you started.
Another great DAW that’s a perfect solution for beginners is Reason. Originally developed by a company called Propellerhead, they then changed their name to Reason Studios with the release of Reason 11. Dedicated to focusing on the Reason DAW and building a powerhouse piece of software that’s sure to be at the top of the industry for years to come.
The most notable feature about Reason is it’s unique “Rack style” layout that is the only one of its kind in terms of DAWs. Thanks to its modular nature, you can essentially route any one of your plugins or instruments to one another just like you would with MIDI, CV, and gate. So if you’re already hardware inclined, this will be the perfect gateway towards digital production.
If you’re not well versed with traditional hardware, no need to stress. The user experience is super intuitive and will help you learn and understand how things connect to each other more than alternative DAWs.
One of the biggest drawbacks with Reason in earlier versions was the fact it didn’t support any external VST plugins. Meaning you had to do everything you wanted to inside the DAW. Or, bounce your tracks and open them up in another audio editor together to add finishing touches or additional VST instruments to your creation.
Thankfully, Reason 11 has finally introduced support for your VSTs. It even has the ability to use the Reason Rack as a plugin itself with other DAW’s such as Pro Tools.
If you’re just starting out, the best beginner DAW option is going to be Reason Intro; which should have everything you need to start producing. There’s also Reason Standard and Reason Suite when you’re ready to upgrade to the full version.
It’s worth noting that there are not as many resources and tutorials readily available online as there are for DAW’s like FL Studio. But in saying that, there’s still plenty of videos available to help you learn the basics and set you on your way.
Logic Pro is a piece of software developed by Apple. So it’s no surprise that it’s only compatible with Mac. Even so, Logic Pro X has been a staple piece of software for electronic music producers for years. Designed with producers in mind, Logic has a super simple looking interface combined with a library full of presets and sounds.
While Logic Pro is perfect for producing music, its also loaded with features for different applications. So no matter what your end audio goals are, you’ll find plenty of features that will help you get the job done. Boasting a number of powerful plugins that are said to be among the best stock plugins available. Some of the most notable Logic Pro users include Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, Disclosure, and David Guetta among many others.
Unlike the other DAW’s on this list, Logic doesn’t have a string of versions for you to choose from. So you’ll be forced to fork out the roughly $320 which is a fair bit more than some of the alternative intro editions. Thankfully, there is a trial version available so you can get accustomed to the program and see if it’s for you.
Started by a collection of ex-Ableton employees, Bitwig was created as a solution to rival Ableton Live with expanded functionality. Most notably, Bitwig has a number of incredible modulation devices built straight into the software. Functioning similarly to the renowned devices on Live such as LFO, Envelope Follower, and Expression Control. Although what makes Bitwig stand out is the fact you’ve got 30 different modulators at your disposal.
Another similarity to Live is the fact it shares a similar concept based on ‘clips’. But differing again, Bitwig offers four primary layouts for you to choose from. It’s a bit different and will take some getting used to, but once you do, you’ll find there’s heaps on offer.
There’s also a fair bit of included content with over 9GB of presets, instruments, and sounds to get you started. However, Bitwig is only available in the one version and will set you back a bit more than the intro editions of some of the others mentioned. And, since it’s a fairly new piece of software, there’s not a whole heap of resources online to help you work things out. Although you can run Bitwig in demo mode, but you’ll just have to deal with saving and exporting disabled. But it’s a great way to see if you like it or not!
Cockos Reaper is one of the most affordable DAW’s on the market. It quickly grew in popularity thanks to its once infinite free-trial, and ever since it’s since accumulated a huge following. The evaluation period is no longer free, however, you’re still able to test out the full version of the software for up to 60 days. Then if you like it, you can get your hands on a full license for under $100 bucks.
Reaper has all the standard features of a DAW, although it’s less focused on electronic music production as some of the other options on this list. So you’ll have to have a range of plugins and sounds at your disposal to start producing sounds.
If you’re not looking to produce music and are strictly looking for a DAW to record, mix, and master your audio; you can’t dismiss the power of Reaper as a beginners DAW. So I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for a DAW to record vocals, podcasts, or voiceovers, or you’re recording external instruments such as guitars.
Best Beginners DAW – The Final Say
At the end of the day, the best DAW as a beginner producer is going to be the DAW you end up buying. All of the options we’ve mentioned above are going to give you the tools you need whether you’re producing or recording.
So it’s not going to matter if you choose Ableton, FL Studio, or Cubase; the secret is investing enough time in your chosen DAW so that you learn the ins and outs. Whichever one you choose, you’re sure to find plenty of free resources online that are going to help you learn how it works.
Above all, I recommend downloading a couple of trial versions for the ones you like the look of. Give them a test drive, and choose the one that comes easiest to you!