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.