Navigating the daunting world of music-making software
Now that even the world’s biggest studios have adopted the humble computer as their centerpiece, DAWs have come to rule the music-making world. While some have been around since the ’80s and try to mimic the layout and aesthetics of traditional mixing consoles, other are more revolutionary, re-designing and re-thinking the music-making process for the modern age.
With that in mind it can be confusing as to which one to choose, and how it may affect your music. In general, every DAW can deliver great results, but if you’re into making one type of music over another, there may be some features in certain DAWs that will get you making better music, faster.
Our guide will help you navigate the wild world of music software and understand what DAW is best suited for you. Remember, the DAW is only a sketchpad; it’s what you put into it that counts.
Ableton Live is different from other DAWs as it was originally designed for use with live performance, hence the name. As it grew in popularity, each version added more and more features for composing and producing music in the studio and now on version 10, it’s as comprehensive a music-making tool as any other DAW out there.
Some would argue its pure mixing features still lag behind Logic, Cubase and Pro Tools – for example, it doesn’t offer any vocal comping features – but the intuitive nature of its composition and sound design features outweigh the lack of mixing tools for many. Its included effects plugins and instruments might not match up to the likes of Logic Pro in terms of sound quality, but there are more than enough to get you started.
For getting your ideas down quickly and working with samples, it’s unlikely you’ll find a better tool than Ableton Live and with more mixing tools being added every version, it’s only going to get better. For anyone making solely electronic music, it’s got to be on your list.
- Sample editing/manipulation
- Sound design
- Live performance
- Quickly getting ideas down
Apple Logic Pro X
Originally created by Emagic and bought by Apple in 2002, Logic Pro is one of the best all-rounders for making music on a computer. With a comprehensive list of high-quality instruments, effects plugins and mixing tools, it’s a favourite among singer-songwriters, composers and electronic musicians alike.
Although it’s become less steep in recent years, Logic Pro definitely has a learning curve, and if you’ve never encountered a traditional mixing console before, its Mixing window can be daunting.
There are however, lots of tutorials both online and inside the software itself and the plugins are so good it’s unlikely you’ll need to spend much more, making the £149 price tag seem like a bargain. If you’re recording a lot of vocals or instruments, or want a more traditional recording and production platform, Logic Pro X is up there as the best all-rounder DAW. Being owned by Apple though, it only works on Mac.
- Recording audio and comping
- High quality included instrument and effect plugins
- Traditional mixing
The DAW of choice for the world’s biggest recording studios, Pro Tools grew to dominate the industry when Avid released HD – a piece of hardware that allowed users to record and mix almost latency free, at a time when computers weren’t fast enough to compete with real hardware. That revolution led studios around the world to switch to computers, with the vast majority choosing Pro Tools as their main software. Fast forward 16 years, and as computers get faster and other DAWs have matured, Pro Tools has been somewhat left behind.
There’s no doubt that if you’re purely recording audio, Pro Tools is a fantastic choice – its mixing, comping and audio editing features are up there with the best. Though its MIDI and sequencing has recently been improved, and its plugins are high-quality, if you’re working primarily with VSTs and MIDI, and tweaking samples, it might not be for you. Singer songwriters and bands though, will love it.
- Audio editing
Originally released in 1989, Cubase started out as MIDI-only DAW, that means it didn’t support recording audio or audio samples. In 1996, Cubase introduced the VST, changing the music production landscape forever.
As you might imagine, both its MIDI and VST features are up there with the best, especially their new channel strip, which allows users to mimic a mixing desk offering gates, EQs and compressors across every channel in an easy-to-use GUI. Having just been updated to version 10, which added Alignment to help snap audio in time as well updating their Retrologue analogue-style synth. It’s also further tweaked its VariAudio feature, which is very similar to Melodyne, allowing users the chance to pitch-shift polyphonic audio, auto-tune vocals and generally adjust tuning with an easy-to-use interface.
It also features a huge high-quality sample library, composition tools like Chord Track and over 90 plugins.
At £480 for the full version, it’s significantly more expensive than Logic Pro, but it’s probably the best alternative if you’re determined to stay on PC, though entry-level versions are available for cheaper.
- Audio and MIDI editing
- Multi-track recording
- Melodyne-style pitch shifting built in
Starting life as Fruity Loops, FL Studio has grown to become known as the EDM DAW, used by the likes of Martin Garrix and Avicii. Its unique interface puts a focus on composition and sequencing rather than mimicking an old-school mixing console setup. If you work primarily with sequences, loops and riffs, which is largely associated with dance music, you’ll feel right at home on FL Studio. It’s specifically designed to limit the learning curve and get you making music from the off. If you want to record audio and work with multi tracks though, we’d suggest looking elsewhere.
Having recently been ported to Mac, FL is one of the most popular DAWs in the world for electronic music.
- Making dance music
- Included sounds and instruments – thousands of presets
- Intuitive interface
In most cases any of the software we’ve mentioned will give you great results, just make sure you familiarize yourself with the program you choose. There are plenty of tutorials online and on YouTube to help you get the most out of whichever one you choose.
If you make music at home, make sure you’ve got the right gear. Read our guide to setting up a home studio to get the most out of your setup.