There are so many programs out today that it can be difficult to make an informed decision. If you look at the forums you get users/fanboys who tout that theirs is the best simply because it’s what they own. Popularity does not necessarily mean it is the best. MacDonald’s….is that the best hamburger?
The real answer is that there is no single “best D.A.W.” but rather it’s a matter of which one suits your purposes and preferences best. They are all good; all of these programs have produced hit recordings. Most are available in a demo format for you to try first. Using an application that your friends know and use can be so helpful as to be a consideration. I would tend to shy away from programs which are “Mac only” or “PC only.”
Pro Tools “the industry standard” : If you believe that your future lies in working as an Engineer at a for hire studio, then this is a must. If a difference can be heard in audio quality (which I don’t believe it can) then this is the one that some say sounds the best. This of course is nonsense. All these d.a.w.s have produced hits. All of today’s recordings are listened to by the public on an inferior lossy format, the mp3.
I used ProTools in the earliest version (Digidesign Sound Tools) for digital masters and editing back in the early nineties at my studio I.N.S. Recording in Manhattan where we recorded the Fatboys, first Public Enemy album, first Wu Tang Clan single, tracks for Cole & Cliviles (C&C Music Factory), three Keith Sweat albums, the Covergirls…the list goes on and on. (All of those recording were done on analog 24 or 48 track and then mixed down to 1/2 inch stereo master tape. This would then be recorded to Adat and transferred back into the computer into Digidesign Sound Tools.) While Pro Tools is a sound and complete d.a.w. , I would not consider this for a personal use studio. If you are going to work for someone else and they primarily work for live acts; you will need this. But keep in mind , you are also going to need to have a working knowledge of more than just one d.a.w. (I also recorded the song “Dear Deborah” as heard on my album Torch Songs & Arson, at Craig Bevan’s Lo Frequencey Records studio on the very first version of Pro Tools which was only 4 tracks!)
At the other end of the spectrum is FL Studio – previously known as Fruity Loops – a name which haunts this completely professional application to this day. Numerous hits have been done on this, most recently and notably Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” All the early Deadmau5 tracks which made him famous, were done on FL Studio as well. In the world of electronic dance music -EDM – this has today’s sound. It’s cheap; the basic version starts at $99, includes Lifetime free updates, and is easy to learn. And while it is pc only – it is the most popular of all of these programs. For a home studio to create pop music; this is the one. Right out of the box ; it has a hot edgy sound. Furthermore Image Line, the makers of FL Studio say that it can be instantiated as a plugin in the d.a.w. of your choice. I wouldn’t know because I am using a mac. I have a beta test demo version of this, but it is limited. For instance the free iOS remote will not work with my version. The IL Remote app features a “HARMO” (harmony) page allowing users to play perfectly in key. Furthermore, I have seen FL Studio users create “ghost” maps allowing them to draw perfectly in key their musical parts without a midi keyboard. Excellent for the non-musician. If they ever finish writing the code for this to work on a mac, they will rule the world.
If you already own a mac that runs the latest osx Mavericks, then at $200 Logic X is a phenomenal bargain. I know Logic better than any other d.a.w. having used it for 8 years. Up until recently, it was the application of choice for U.K. dj/producers. Apple gives Logic users the most bang for the buck software wise because they are not in the software business but in the business of making and selling computers – so they virtually give this program away. Over the years Apple corp have given me many reasons to hate them, but Logic X was the last straw. I will go into a complete aniti-Apple rant in another blog but let’s just say in the long run Logic might turn out to be very pricey if you have to buy a new computer to run future upgrades (they did this twice before). Then again, there probably won’t be any meaningful upgrades to Logic for a very very long time – it’s been 5 years since the last one and in the interim most of the developers of this have been let go. You can read about that elsewhere. I would think twice about a program that only runs on one platform (mac only forever). Oh, and 32 bit plugins will no longer run in Logic X ( a feature Logic 9 had but the developers took away. For $100, a third party 32 Lives at Soundradix.com, restores this most important function.)
Steinberg’s Cubase 7.5 which is both pc and mac friendly, is what I have been using for the past 8 months and I am truly sorry that I wasted so many years using Logic. I find it superior to Logic in every way. The vocal I hear going into Cubase is what I hear coming out (not so in Logic). Of all the d.a.w.s here, it has the easiest and best Arranger Track. Unfortunately the Arranger Track is one of the few easy functions in Cubase, a very complete but dense application. It was very brave of me to buy this relatively expensive program which at $499 doesn’t include the Halion Sampler (another $350) because I didn’t personally know anyone else using this to ask for help. Fortunately, I was able to teach myself Cubase via the company’s video tutorials as well as the ones at Groove3, Macprovideo, and Youtube. This is probably the best all around d.a.w. in that you could use this to record live bands in a for hire setting as well as do electronic pop. A very professional program that I really love but….
The 21st century belongs to Ableton Live. While some think the simple GUI looks toy-like – it actually reflects a more sophisticated view; that your computer’s resources not be wasted on pretty pictures of imaginary hardware. Along with the physical interface PUSH (made by Akai specifically for Ableton Live) makes this the hands down best program for the modern composer or home studio. It’s not the one for recording a live band, but it’s what I would choose if just starting out. Ableton’s fiercely aggressive development team insures that you will be on the cutting edge of technology. I actually bought Ableton Live 4 prior to Logic but never used it. I was too impressed with the afore mentioned Brit producers as featured In Future Music Magazine using Logic. I recently purchased the upgrade to Live 9 (Logic X is such a compelling argument for switching to cross platform Ableton Live). I am just learning to use it, but what I have heard, I like. Also for me the easiest one to learn. It comes with excellent plugins and can make use of either AU or VST third party plugins. If you want to use the most popular and creative program – this is it. Strongly recommended for the serious producer.
I have 4 of the six programs I mentioned on my computer. I do not own Presonus’s Studio One, but If I was a member of a group and wanted a simple easy program to record said group and felt the need for a mixing board (16 channel starts at $999) I would give it a serious listen. Studio One also includes Celemony Melodyne – a must have essential plugn in no matter which d.a.w. you choose.
To briefly sum up:
I would not recommend you learning Pro Tools because there is no future in becoming a working recording engineer or having a studio for hire. Those are both antiquated concepts.
I really love Cubase but I feel lonely using it and am haunted by the thought of Ableton’s PUSH.
Did I mention Cockos Reaper is cross platform and FREE? ( $50 donation suggested.) I have a good friend who switched from Pro Tools to Reaper, though purely for financial reasons, but with no loss in sound quality.
I did not forget Propellorhead’s Reason; once the most popular of all. It was the first one I bought but before I opened the package I realized that you could not record audio (2005). I wrote the company and they wrote me back that “they were NEVER going to offer audio recording” in as it would cause too many problems. Well…they offer audio recording today – but if you buy this you will suffer constant aggravation over not being able to use third party plugins.
Oh…and Bitwig looks good with many unique features, but it’s only been around a very short time. I downloaded the demo but could not get audio out of it. I’m sure it’s something simple, but do I have time for this? Do you?
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As a long time (8 years) user of Logic it has been very difficult switching to Cubase. But when Logic X changed so many functions and abandoned the 32 bit plugin bridge – that was the last straw. Bought Cubase 7 (has 32 bit bridge). Coming from Logic it was so difficult to learn Cubase that I went and tried Logic X again, only to find I still hated it. While Cubase does not seem as intuitive as Logic, it appears to do so much more. The key to gaining mastery over it is to create your own key commands – especially if you are coming from Logic.
One thing I noticed immediately is; my vocals sound so much better in Cubase. I would continue to use Cubase if only for that.
Celemony Melodyne has nothing to fear concerning both programs built in vari-pitch/flex pitch.
What has now completely sold me on Cubase 7 is the Arranger Track. OMG ! So fast & easy to use and works so well. House music would have been so much better if everyone had been using Cubase. This is a must have feature for writers of real songs.
I still feel like learning Cubase 7 is like wrestling a bear – but the effort is well worth it.