The Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) For Home Recording
Choosing your DAW
Digital recording has come a long way since its inception in the late 1970s. As with all technologies, it has grown rapidly alongside the ever-increasing ubiquity of the personal computer. Early recording software was limited to two tracks and had basic editing capabilities, but today we have more digital processing power on our phones than the most expensive recording facilities of the past.
Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic, Steinberg Cubase, and Ableton Live are a few examples of the modern Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This is the software your computer uses to record, edit, mix and master your audio. The majority of popular DAW software have similar—and many of the same—capabilities, so which one is right for you? We have a few key points below to help you make the best choice.
Most professional-level DAW environments allow for as many audio tracks as your computer can handle within your session, but what if you only need a handful? Say you’re recording an acoustic guitar, a vocal and a couple overdubs. You may not need all the flexibility a full-priced DAW has to offer. For those of you in this situation, we recommend Cakewalk Sonar Home Studio. It’s under $50 and is limited to 64 audio tracks, but we have a sneaking suspicion 64 will probably be enough. If you need more functionality, Cakewalk Sonar Artist is under $100 and introduces the ability to create auxiliary busses, an extremely powerful tool for mixing.
Plugins are the various processing and virtual instrument tools you can insert on a track in your DAW. These include equalizers, compressors, reverbs, delays, saturators, filters, transient designers, etc. All DAW systems come with at least some plugins, but there are countless plugin developers making new instruments and new processors every day. Many are free, the greatest value of all, but most are available from a third-party developer, like the powerful Spectrasonics Omnisphere synth plugin.
Most plugins come in multiple formats like VST3, AAX, and Audio Units (AU), but VST3 is the most prevalent in recording software. Keep in mind, though, that Avid Pro Tools is unique, because it only uses its proprietary AAX format. It is optimized for use within Pro Tools and implements your computer’s resources a little differently. If you already own VST3 plugins, you will not be able to use them inside Pro Tools without a special software workaround called a wrapper.
Can I get pro sound if I don’t use Pro Tools?
Absolutely! Your DAW software doesn’t have an effect on the overall quality of your audio. That said, in traditional studios, Pro Tools remains the most popular DAW for capturing live performances. Pro Tools truly shines as a tracking medium, as its “playlist” function and editing features are extremely fast and tactile. Playlists allow you to record multiple takes on the same track, and to access them all you need to do is select your desired playlist on the track. This feature also simplifies the process of “comping,” or creating a composite take from multiple takes.
If you like the workflow of Pro Tools but would like to try something else, Steinberg Cubase and PreSonus StudioOne are both excellent alternatives.
Okay, but what if you’re using software synths and other virtual instruments (VIs) as the basis of your music? Pro Tools has great MIDI and VI functionality, but Apple Logic and Ableton Live have proven to be the most adept at hosting virtual instruments. This is partly because DAW software like Logic comes with a wide array of high quality virtual instrument plugins. They’re also compatible with the endless supply of VST3 plugins currently on the market.
For the most dope Beats
For all you hip-hop and electronica deviants out there, traditional DAW systems are certainly an option, but there are plenty of other ways to get your ideas into your computer.
Propellerhead Reason has a ton of sequencing functionality for beat makers and DJ artists. The newer versions have included multi-track recording for tracking live instruments, too!
Native Instruments Maschine Mikro is a great foray into loop- and scene-based production. It comes with a hardware controller with 16 touch-sensitive pads and a wealth of sounds, including the popular Massive synth plugin. It can run as a standalone DAW or as a plugin itself inside another DAW (Pro Tools, Live, etc.).
However, if you’re just starting out, we recommend trying Imagine Line FL Studio (also known as Fruity Loops). Relatively inexpensive, FL Studio has everything you need to start producing and recording beats and hip-hop tracks.
Playing your sounds Live
We focus on the recorded side of music production, but Ableton Live has a special place in the music world. It is designed to be used not only for multi-track recording, but also as a live host for your virtual instruments or track playback. This means all those special synth plugins and backing tracks that make your recording awesome can be played live on stage! No other software in the world is as popular for this function.
Brands like LogicKeyboard offer USB keyboards that have all your DAW’s recording, editing and mixing shortcuts displayed on the keys. This can be a really great way to speed up your workflow and to learn new functions. They come with different shortcuts for all the major DAW systems:
LogicKeyboard for Avid Pro Tools
Logic Keyboard for Apple Logic
Logic Keyboard for Steinberg Cubase
An iLok is a special USB stick made by PACE that holds all your purchased licenses for your software. For some DAW systems, like Pro Tools, the software will not run unless an iLok with a valid license for the software is connected to the computer. This extends to many plugins, as well.
We recommend the PACE 99007120900 iLok3 USB Key Software Authorization Device, which is a robust metal USB stick that tends to hold up better than the standard plastic model.
When it comes down to it, you should be able to produce great music with any of the above options without sacrificing the quality of your audio. Get to it!
1. Avid Pro Tools (Mac/PC)
2. Steinberg Cubase Pro 9 (Mac/PC)
3. Steinberg Cubase Elements 9 (Mac/PC) – lite version, under $100
4. PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist (Mac/PC) – under $100, lots of functionality
5. Image Line FL Studio 12 Producer Edition (Mac/PC) – beats
A DAW is only one piece needed for a home recording studio. Here are some other things you may need: