Best DAW (Digital Audio Workstations) for beginners

Once upon a time we used to make records using magnetic tape machines. Owning your own studio was expensive and took up a lot of space and required significant skill and knowledge to run and maintain. Meanwhile, with the dramatic improvement in computer technology in recent years, it has become feasible to record and mix good quality tracks from home using just a computer, a reasonable quality sound card and the software used to record, edit, process and manipulate your recordings… Otherwise know as a Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW for short.

What follows is a list of commonly used DAWS for home use. Prices range from free to several hundred pounds. They all have the same basic functionality, with more bells and whistles the more you spend. The free ones let you dip your toe in to recording and mixing for very little cost. You will need to buy an audio card to be able to get audio in to your DAW… Watch out for another article about audio cards soon… I’ve made my way through quite a few different ones overs the years 🙂

Audacity https://www.audacityteam.org

Audacity is an easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, macOS, Linux and other operating systems. Developed by a group of volunteers as open source. While you are unlikely to be recording and mixing a top 10 hit with this DAW, it has a host of useful tools and is definitely worth installing.

Reaperhttps://www.reaper.fm

Reaper is one of the better low cost DAWs on the market. You can download a free, fully functional 60 day evaluation copy from their website and if you wish to continue using it after that, it costs a very reasonable $60 for non-commercial use. It is also popular in Schools, and such may be many peoples first introduction to DAW software. It is available for both Windows and Mac OSX.

Cubasehttps://www.steinberg.net/

This was the first DAW I ever used. I still have copy of it installed in my studio, though it’s a couple of versions old now. It comes in four versions… LE comes free with many audio interfaces. Elements, Artist and finally Pro versions are available with prices ranging from £85 to £499. For your average home user, Elements or Artist is more than adequate.

Pro Toolshttps://www.avid.com/

Pro Tools is perhaps the de-facto ‘professional’ DAW. You will find it in pretty much every major studio in the world. In the last couple of years Avid have made a free version available called Pro Tools First. It is quite limited in functionality compared to its big brothers, Pro Tools and Pro Tools Ultimate, but is a useful way of learning the Pro Tools interface before splashing out on the full price software. Avid are pushing the subscription model quite heavily these days which, depending on your views is either fantastic value for money, or the main reason to look elsewhere 🙂 Available for both Windows and Apple’s OSX. Prices start at £25 per month for a subscription, or £499 for a perpetual licence.

Garagebandhttps://www.apple.com/uk/mac/garageband/

Garageband comes free with every new Apple computer. It is Logic Pro’s little sister, with the same look and feel as it’s bigger sibling, although there are quite a few limitations in comparison. The first and most obvious one to me was that you can not use it to control external Midi devices. Like Pro Tools First, it’s a great way to learn your way around the full product before spending your hard earned cash. Being an Apple product, it is not available for Windows

Logic Prohttps://www.apple.com/uk/logic-pro/

Hot on the heals of Pro Tools in the race for most used ‘Professional’ DAW, a significant number of professional studios and sound engineers are now using Logic… Either along side Pro Tools, or sometimes replacing it. Once again, as it is an Apple product, it’s only available on OSX, but it is an attractive option if own an Apple computer. It is arguably more fully featured than Pro Tools and it has an attractive price… Only £199 for a perpetual licence… No subscription model here.

Below is a few other notable DAWS, that I don’t really have any experience with just yet…

Abletonhttps://www.ableton.com

Reasonhttps://reason.com

Bitwighttps://www.bitwig.com

Studio Onehttps://www.presonus.com/products/Studio-One

How much do you charge per track?

There’s a challenging question! … Be prepared for a list of questions if you ask this of a sound engineer. It’s best if you provide them with as much detail about your project as possible up front. Here’s a few pointers:

  • How many and what type of instruments do you want recording/mixing ?
  • If recording, do you need to hire a studio or do you have a suitable space already available to you? (Obviously, if the Engineer has their own studio, they will almost certainly want you to use that)
  • How many songs do you want recording/mixing/mastering?
  • Do you want some help with song arrangement/production? ie. Do you want the Engineer to contribute their creative ideas to the songs?
  • Do you need to hire musicians?
  • If you have recorded your own songs and just want it mixing and/or mastering, to avoid additional costs you should take a look at this article I wrote about preparing stems for mixing.

I know everyone wants to get at least a rough idea of prices when they go searching for something on the internet… me included. So as a (very) rough guide, my own prices start at around £80 a day for a mobile recording and mixing project at a place of your choosing. Dependent on the number of people in your band and if you are organised and well rehearsed, you can probably get three songs recorded in a day with another day to mix them. Prices increase if you want to hire a professional studio or you need me to source additional musicians for example. Please get in touch with the details listed above for a personal estimate for you project.

Learn how to Prepare your stems for mixing

If you have recorded some tracks in your home studio and would like them mixed by a professional sound engineer, here are a few tips for preparing the files. It will save the engineer valuable time (and money for you) if they can simply import them in to their DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) ready for mixing. See the end of this article for links to specific instructions for different DAWs.

  • Make sure all files (stems) start at the same point even if the instrument doesn’t actually play from the start. This makes it quick and easy to line up all the tracks when they are imported in to the engineers DAW, meaning everything plays in time from the offset. See the end of this article for some instructions on how to do this in a selection of common DAWS
  • All files should be the same format, sample rate and bit depth. WAV files with a sample rate of 48khz and a bit depth of 24bits are ideal, 44khz and 16 bit are acceptable if that is how they were recorded. MP3’s are not at all acceptable, the quality is too low to do your recording justice. Converting MP3 files to 48Khz 24bit does not increase their quality, the audio needs to have been recorded at the higher rate in the first place.
  • If the track was recorded to a click, tell the engineer what the BPM is. It’s useful for time base effects like delay, but also useful to help correct any slight timing issues in the recording
  • Avoid ‘clipping’ audio during recording. Make sure you do not record your instruments too loud in to your audio card, this will create digital distortion, which doesn’t sound nice. You can identify ‘clipping’ by zooming in to the waveform. If it is squaring off, then you are recording too loud. Turn the gain down on your interface, or turn your instrument down.
  • Do not add any processing to your files such as normalising, compression etc. This maintains the dynamics of the performance and leaves all options open to the engineer during mixing.
  • Give your files meaningful names. ‘Kick Drum’ rather than ‘Audio1’, ‘OD Guitar’ rather than ‘Dave’ etc. It means the engineer doesn’t have to waste time checking what each track contains (once again, saving you money).

Here we have a few links for DAW specific instructions for exporting stems correctly:

Reaper – How to Properly Export Multi-tracks for Mixing – Render tracks, Glue, & Consolidating in REAPER by The Reaper Blog

Logic Pro X – Prepping Stems for a Mix or Remix by Macpovideo.com

Cubase – How to Export Stems Quickly in Cubase by Blackus – Music for Media

Studio One – How to Export Stems in Studio One by Studio One Expert

Garageband – GarageBands Stem Sharing Solution by TheGarageBandGuide

Never stop Learning… Every Day is a Schools Day

Like most, if not all creative vocations, there is always something new to learn in the world of sound recording and mixing. All of my tutors over the years have told me that they are still learning new things in the studio, even those who have been in the industry for decades. This is what keeps things fresh and interesting, it’s what creative people thrive on!

Of course, it’s important to know how to correctly use a compressor, gate, reverb or delay: To learn what each control does and how it effects the audio you are treating. But, it’s also important to ignore all the rules and experiment every now and then. In the modern world of DAWs and Plugins, it’s a lot easier to chain a bunch of effects together, turn their dials and come up with some weird and wonderful effect… Once in while, it might even be useful in a mix 🙂 Don’t be afraid to try it for yourself… Happy accidents will happen from time to time and you’ll have learnt a new technique in the process 🙂

Finally, don’t think that you can’t learn something new from anyone and everyone around you. From the seasoned pro to the novice bedroom mixer, they all have the potential to teach you something new, something that you might never have thought of by yourself. New dogs CAN teach old dog new tricks if their minds are open!

To tune or not to tune – Do you love Melodyne?

Imagine this… You are in the studio recording your next single. You’ve just given the performance of your life. The passion in of your voice is clear… and emphasises the lyrics of the song perfectly. But, as you listening back to the recording, you notice a couple of phrases are a semi-tone or so off. You could perhaps leave it that way and hope that nobody notices? Or maybe you should try a re-take of the whole song or just the phrases you noticed? The problem with re-takes is that they often will never match the original performance you made you heart bleed for. The third option, and I would argue, the most logical one, is process the recording using a tuning tool.

Melodyne is my software tool of choice. While it can do all of those extreme vocal tunings you hear on pop records across the world, it can also be very subtle. Nudging a note here and there, either up or down the scale, or perhaps to tighten up the timing a little. What you end up with is all the passion of that almost perfect performance, tweaked to correct the small issues. It can be done in a relatively short space of time, arguable less time than it would take to re-record another perfect take.

Here’s another example of how I might use Melodyne. My vocalist has finished recording and gone home. I’m sat in my studio listening to the track, and as is often the case, I hear a counter melody in my head. Wouldn’t it be great if we got the singer back in to track these harmonies? Of I could just use the original melody, feed it in to Melodyne and create the harmonies from that. As long as it isn’t too high in the mix, or the harmony is several octaves away from the original vocal line, it usually works well. Obviously if it’s noticeable, perhaps it wouldn’t be of use. With a small amount of training, it’s a quick thing to try in your mix. If it doesn’t work… well lets try and get the vocalist in again… or maybe you could sing the harmony yourself 🙂