One of the most essential components of the home studio is the program that you will be primarily working with when doing recording, mixing or mastering. This program is known as the DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation. If you are in the market for a DAW you have probably read a number of online opinions on which is the best DAW to choose. This article is intended to help you fine tune your research to choose the best DAW for you.
Choosing a DAW
There are many DAW choices on the market ranging from free, to thousands of dollars. In the past, Pro Tools was considered the industry standard, but today even the pros use different platforms, choosing the one that best suits their needs and workflow. Choosing what DAW you will operate is a very important decision. All DAWs have their strengths and weaknesses, so it is important to consider your intended use and align that with the appropriate DAW. Some DAWs like Ableton Live or FL studios may be best suited for electronic dance music or hip-hop, while a program like Logic may be better suited for a singer/songwriter, due to its vast library of virtual instruments. To choose one of these as the outright superior DAW for you is no longer realistic without knowing its OS compatibility, creation style, features, plugin compatibility, and supported files. Through careful analysis of these categories, a more tailored decision can be made to suit your DAW needs.
If you have chosen a dedicated computer to run your home studio on, you will need to check what prospective DAW software is compatible with your setup. You don't want to make the mistake of spending a large sum of money on a DAW, only to find out the .exe install files are incompatible with your Mac computer. Save yourself the misery and narrow your options right away. If you haven't chosen a dedicated computer to run your DAW on, then choosing the DAW first may help you decide on what operating system you'd like your studio to run on.
DAW software can either be linear, pattern-based, or a hybrid between the two. A linear style DAW will be familiar to anyone who has experience with multitrack recording. With this style of DAW, tracks are recorded and layered on top of each other to create a complete composition. The recorded audio or MIDI is viewed and edited in a linear, time-based main window. There is also typically a mixer view which would be familiar to those used to working on a mix board. In this view there are faders, pan pots, inserts, routing, and many other features for both instrument and auxiliary tracks. These views are equally useful to the recordist who uses a linear style DAW.
Pattern-based DAW software is characterized by the layering and manipulation of programmable sounds. These sounds are viewed and edited in a non-linear, pattern-based window. The patterns are arranged and stacked on top of other sounds cycling through their loops. This gives a completely different experience to the recordist, and is useful for certain genres or workflow applications.
Some DAW software is capable of a hybrid of the two creation styles, allowing you to flip between the two as needed. Typically, these hybrid DAWs are more capable at one of the two creation styles, and tend to lag behind the competition in the other. For this reason it would be advisable to choose a DAW that can fulfill your primary creation style needs first, rather than to choose a hybrid software just for versatility. It might prove useful for you to try a demo of each creation style if you are unsure about how you would rather work. This will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of each style in relation to your needs, allowing you to make an informed decision on what type of DAW to implement into your setup.
The included features of a DAW are the next biggest influence on choice between programs. This also happens to be the category where any given DAW may deviate from the majority, further specializing it as a unique product. While most DAW software on the market has audio and MIDI recording, basic plugins, virtual instrument libraries, MIDI notation capabilities, and rewire connectivity for external programs, they can deviate in other areas. Some DAW software may be better equipped with plugins or virtual instruments, while others may shine in function, design, customization or usability. Some DAW software may have extensive editing built in, while others may be less equipped, forcing the user to rely on 3rd party plugins. The unique features between different DAW software is too great to build an accurate comparison, especially with how frequent software updates can be, so the best advice is for you is to take a look at what's currently on the market and see which prospective DAWs excel where you need them to.
Not all plugins are universally compatible. If you are someone who has purchased 3rd party plugins or instrument software and expect to use them in your sessions, you will need to check the compatibility between the 3rd party software and the contending DAWs that remain on your list. Firstly, you will need to check that the DAW can support the bitrate of your plugins. Plugins that are made 32bit will not work on a 64bit DAW without the help of additional software. Some 3rd party software manufacturers are pretty good about free updates for plugins to support advances in technology, but others will charge for their updates. These updates, free or not, can take a long time to develop, slowing your workflow down to a halt if you've become dependent on their use. Choosing a DAW that support both 32bit and 64bit plugins can save you some money, but if the DAW you choose only supports 64bit and you still want to use some 32bit plugins, a program called 32Lives can get you out of a pinch. Next you will need to check what extension type your plugins are, and match them to a compatible DAW. Plugins can be made as VST, AU, RTAS, or a whole bunch of lesser known extension types. Bigger name plugin brands typically cater to these three major extension types, but lesser known companies tend to be less compatible. If you don't have a library of 3rd party plugins it is still advisable to choose a DAW that is compatible with at least one of the major plugin extension types mentioned above. This will increase the likelihood of compatibility between your DAW and any 3rd party software you may want to purchase in the future.
DAW software also varies in supported read/write files. If you are expecting to work with specific file types, or are collaborating with anyone else who is tied to specific file types, it may be a good idea to check what DAW software can read and write those files. In most cases, all major DAW software is capable of reading and writing a few common file types, so choose to export as one of these when sending session stems from one DAW to another. Some common files types are ACC, AIFF, Ogg, WAV, and MP3. Many other less common file types exist as well, but are less likely to be an influence when choosing a DAW that works for you.
Whenever the time comes to choose a DAW, feel confident in the fact that you have the knowledge to make a decision that will serve you well for years to come. Experimenting with DAW demos can give you much more insight into a software and its capabilities, so be sure to try before you buy. After committing to a DAW it will be time for you to buckle down and really learn everything there is to know about it.