DAW got you down? We broke down the functions and capabilities of some of the most popular digital audio workstations—so you don’t have to.

This interview originally appeared in She Shreds Magazine Issue #16, released December 2018.

Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) are computer programs specifically designed for music production. Nearly all of them offer similar capabilities, but each one has a unique workflow that could significantly impact the user’s experience and ability to quickly translate ideas. For those interested in recording, mixing, mastering, or composing with a DAW, it’s a good idea to try the free demo versions before committing. Though each DAW has its own learning curve, different artists may find different stations more inspiring to work with.

All of these will be much easier to use with a recording interface and dedicated MIDI controllers, but that’s for another article. First, let’s find which DAW feels right.

The Industry Standard

AVID: Pro Tools

Price: Free-$2,499

Subscription option: as low as $24.92 a month

Supported platforms: Mac, PC

Pro Tools is truly the music industry standard, but it’s important to note that other industries using this DAW include gaming, television, and film. If you ever find yourself in a collaborative professional environment, you’re very likely to run into companies, studios, and producers that rely on this software.

A good place to start is Pro Tools First, the free version of the software that allows users to work with up to 16 mono or stereo tracks of audio, four of which may be recorded simultaneously. Pro Tools First also comes bundled with plenty of samples, loops, effects, and the virtual instrument Xpand!2. When used in conjunction with the built-in MIDI editor, Xpand!2 can be used to add synth and drum sounds to a track. This is an adequate set of tools for songwriters or small bands to cut a demo, for future producers to learn how to create beats or EDM, as well as anyone who wants to learn how to mix music.

One major limitation to Pro Tools First is its ability to only save three projects at a time, which basically means that if you want to make more songs, then you’ll have to delete your session file to make room.

Pro Tools Ultimate, the flagship version of the software, will allow you to work with video and create surround-sound mixes with up to 768 tracks on an HD system—up to 192 of which may be simultaneously recorded. Bundled with Pro Tools Ultimate is a massive library of sounds, virtual instruments, and effects that sound professional enough for Top 40 songs. There is much more to say about the capabilities of Pro Tools Ultimate, but the fact that AVID has had a hand in numerous top-grossing songs and films since 1999 should speak volumes.

The Electronic Musician/Hip-Hop Producer’s Dream

Ableton Live

Price: $99-$749 (free 30 day trial)

Subscription option: None

Supported platforms: Mac, PC

Ableton Live is still relatively young. Having debuted in 2001, its developers created something truly unique for the music industry: Ableton Live is a DAW that is also designed to be integrated on stages and used live, hence its namesake. The program’s ability to loop multiple clips at the same time lets the user quickly sketch and try out ideas on the fly. A clip can be as short or long as you wish (hard drive space pending) and can be made up of either audio or MIDI files.

The entire program was designed to not be taxing on a computer in order to have greater stability in a live environment. It also supports virtually every MIDI controller on the market, ranging from tons of drum pads, controllers, and keyboards, to their very own Push 2, which enables the user to control nearly every feature in Ableton Live without having to rely on the computer’s screen, keyboard, or mouse.

Ableton Live is also capable of recording and mixing any band within any genre on a professional level due to its strong editing and routing capabilities and high-quality effects. The entire Ableton Live Suite—their flagship product that literally comes with over 50 gigs (yes, gigs) of ready to use samples, instruments, and loops—is available without limitations in a free 30-day trial.

The New All Arounder

PreSonus Studio One

Price: Free-$399.95

Subscription option: None

Supported platforms: Mac, PC  

At the time of PreSonus Studio One’s debut in 2009, the pro audio world was not short on DAW options, but Studio One changed everything with three words: drag and drop. It’s really easy to overlook how much of an impact this had on the industry. With Studio One, it became possible to drag a copy of an effects chain from one track to another, complete with identical settings and with just a click of a mouse and flick of a wrist. PreSonus implemented this technology into everything within the software, and the result for many was a much quicker way of getting things done. On top of this, Studio One also integrated a true mastering suite that was not only capable of putting the finishing touches on tracks, but could also deliver all of the formats that a record plant or music distributor might need, such RedBook standard CDs and DDP files.

All of this, along with a seriously powerful MIDI editor with great sounding virtual instruments and samplers, makes Studio One worth checking out for any musician or producer looking for a DAW that is very capable of meeting the needs of numerous different types of projects.

The One for Folks Who Miss the Analog Days

Harrison Mixbus

Price:$79-$299

Subscription option: None

Supported platforms: Mac, PC, Linux  

Harrison Designs is the only company that has designed both legendary analog consoles and modern DAW software. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Harrison Designs cemented their place in music history as folks like Janet and Michael Jackson, ABBA, and Queen started using their consoles to make records. This put Harrison at a great advantage when they ultimately ventured into creating DAW software, as the company really understands how a traditional analog console should look, feel, and sound.

Tracking and mixing music are definitely Harrison Mixbus’s strong suit, and it is evident from the moment you open your first project. At the heart of the software is the mixer page, which is laid out just like an old analog recording console—this will look familiar to anyone who has worked with a traditional console before. Every channel has its own EQ, compressor, and input trim controls complete with analog-style metering and routing. The software even emulates the sound of an analog console; I find it quite nice that it even recreates the sound of tape whirring when using the transport controls. All of this means I rarely have to dive through any menus, since most of what I use is already quite visible.

Harrison’s DAW can be a little heavy on the CPU, but I also don’t have to use nearly as many plug-ins in order to add a certain warmth to a mix that I would in every other DAW. Though it has basic editing functions and MIDI as well, this software really shines when used with more traditional projects like recording and mixing a band or song, more so than when creating electronic music that would require a significant amount of editing or virtual instruments.

Free demo versions are available for both Harrison Mixbus and Mixbus 32c, which emulates a larger console with a bigger EQ section and even more routing along with effects and virtual instruments. While the demo versions leave everything unlocked, there are intermittent noises to prevent you from really making any songs, so it truly exists just for the sake of getting a feel for the software.