A Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW) is a piece of software that you install on your computer, and it lets you record and edit audio tracks.
DAWs generally require some kind of hardware as well, such as a mixing desk or an audio interface, although modern advances mean that you can sometimes just rely on the DAW itself (depending on the project).
You can use a DAW on a Mac or a Windows computer, although some are designed to be used with one or the other.
If you’re new to the world of music production and you’re trying to get into it, you might be tempted to rush straight to buying the most advanced kit you can get your hands on.
However, we’re here to say ‘stop’ – not only would this be a poor financial decision, in case you ended up not getting as much use out of it as you’d hoped, but you may also find it too tricky to use at all.
Complex DAWs are often inaccessible for beginners, because they may have too many features that can overwhelm you, or utilize confusing jargon you’re unfamiliar with.
It is best to start off with one that is designed specifically for beginners, or at least is simpler to get to grips with. We’ve put together our picks of the best DAWs that can teach you the basics from scratch.
You can then decide to upgrade your equipment further along the line, or keep it as it is and continue to make awesome music.
Let’s start off with software that is completely free to download and use. Yes, you heard that right: you can learn how to mix music easily without paying a single cent!
While some people like to spend large amounts of money on the most advanced software available, many people find that this free version is more than sufficient to tackle their projects.
You can run it via the web on either Windows or Mac, or alternatively you can install the app on your smartphone – it’s supported by both Android and iOS.
Some software experiences glitches through certain browsers, but Bandlab will run smoothly on any browser you choose.
This makes it super accessible for the majority of people; not only do you not have to buy the software, you also don’t have to fork out for expensive devices to use it on in the first place, as it will work with whatever device you’ve already got.
As far as actual composition goes, it is very simple to get started. Once you’ve created your account, you can click on the ‘create’ button to pull up a blank track.
There is a wide range of drum beats, loops and other sounds that you can put together to suit your style. The possibilities are endless, so you can populate your track as sparsely or densely as you want.
If you get stuck, there are plenty of tutorial videos to help you along.
- Freely available for all users
- Widely compatible with all devices
- Huge library of pre-made sounds that you can use in your tracks
- Minimal delay with transfer of keyboard sounds
- Can’t support additional plugins such as Flash Player or Acrobat Reader
- Users may experience glitches on iPad
- It’s entirely cloud-based, so the website may potentially go down and you may need to back up your work in another way
GarageBand is another free app, but it’s only compatible with Apple products. Therefore you will need to own a Mac, iPhone or iPad to be able to use it.
If you have one of these, you can download it and get to work straight away, since its interface is incredibly easy and intuitive to use. It may even be pre-installed, depending on when you purchased your device.
It is set up in such a way that you can clearly see all the different layers, even if there are loads of them in the same track.
They are grouped by color according to the musical section they belong to; for example, keyboards and strings form one group, and vocals another.
You can choose from various genres to inspire your music, and each has its own collection of loops for you to include in your own compositions.
As well as the sound elements it comes with, GarageBand also has the capacity to record live instruments, so you can plug in your mic or guitar and capture your own sounds.
If you don’t have actual instruments, you can use the built-in Touch Instruments feature, which lets you play digital versions of instruments that seem real in every other way.
- Clear interface, allowing you to locate the different track layers easily
- Quick Help button displays yellow boxes as you hover your mouse over different functions, which explain how to use them
- Only available to Apple users, so you can’t get it on Windows or Android devices
We’re moving into paid territory with our next DAW, which is the most affordable version in the Ableton range.
The two others, Standard and Suite, cost considerably more and have more advanced features, but Intro has everything a beginner will need and comes at a fraction of the price.
If you use it and decide you like it, you can always upgrade your purchase to unlock the extra features that Intro lacks. There is also a free 90 day trial, so you can see if it works for you before you commit to buying it.
Ableton Live Intro is compatible with both PC (Windows 10) and Mac (at least macOS 10.13), and you will need to make sure you have sufficient disk space of 8GB on either to be able to install it properly.
The layout is slightly different from the previous entries in this list, and it looks a little more old-school, but it still works a treat.
Although it is designed to introduce you to music production, it still comes with an extensive library of over 1500 sounds, effects and software instruments.
This software is very popular in the dance music community and with DJs, so it certainly has the professional seal of approval.
The ‘Live’ element of the name alludes to its capacity for handling live performances, which is part of what gives it such a great reputation in the industry.
Your workspace is color-coded and displays lots of helpful information at any one time.
- Cheaper than the advanced versions but still has all the essential features and functionality
- Works with either PC or Mac
- Allows you to work on projects quickly and efficiently
- Can be confusing to process all the information displayed at once
PreSonus Studio One was introduced in 2009, making it relatively new in the world of Digital Audio Workstations.
It has nevertheless made its mark on the industry in a big way ever since, and is now favored by students and professionals alike.
Studio One is said to have been developed by the same producers who worked on Steinberg Cubase, a DAW that was released in 1989 and has been used by some of the top names in music production – it has proven results behind it.
While it may look very professional and serious, the workstation is surprisingly straightforward to use, even if you have no prior experience whatsoever in the area.
It is set out in an intuitive way so you can get up to speed quickly and make light work of your projects. You can also customize it in various ways and make it adapt to you, rather than the other way round.
For example, if you’re used to using a different workflow on other software, you can alter this one to match. The keyboard shortcuts can be set according to your preference.
Studio One Prime is a free version of the flagship software Studio One Professional and its less advanced Studio One Artist.
Of course, the free software will have fewer features and extras than the paid versions, but it’s still great for anyone starting out.
The two others mentioned above both offer a 30 day free trial, so you can try those out instead if you want something with added functionality, such as being able to support VST (virtual studio technology).
- Considered to be an excellent all-round option, and isn’t lacking in noticeable areas in the way some other DAWs are
- Extremely versatile and can be customized to the way you like it
- You can’t load VST plugins with Prime (although you can with both Artist and Professional)
You may be intrigued by the name of this DAW, as we also were initially – we had visions of grapes bouncing across the screen and a strawberry perched at each corner as we tried in vain to edit music.
However, we soon realized that FL stands for Fruity Loops, because the original software simply played and sequenced loops.
The name choice certainly makes this DAW stand out from the crowd, piquing your curiosity about what it has to offer.
The Fruity version is the most affordable software that FL has to offer, with their other options being Producer, Signature and an All Plugins Edition, which is compatible with various plugins that you might want to use.
Fruity has limited features compared to its sister products, for example it won’t let you drag and drop audio clips into your Playlist.
You also cannot record audio with it, which could be an issue for you if you need this capability. However, it has the core functionality for if you just want to learn the basics.
As we have discussed, the roots of this software lie in loop sequencing, and the layout attests to this; there are different sections for each task, such as mixing and arranging.
You can open optional panels directly onto the screen, and minimize them when you don’t need them so it doesn’t get too cluttered.
The Playlist referred to above is the name for the main workspace, where you can put together your audio patterns. The Channel Rack is where you create audio and MIDI, as well as selecting your instrumentation.
Finally, each audio track goes to the Mixer and receives a separate channel strip so you can process and edit it.
- Less expensive than the other products in the FL Studio lineup, but still has core functionality
- Many tutorials available to teach you how to use it
- Unique workflow that divides each step into a separate section so it’s easy to follow what you’re doing
- The lower price reflects its limited features, and it doesn’t allow you to record audio
- Doesn’t have many sounds or effects available
- Can be confusing if you’re used to other DAWs with a more usual layout
While the word ‘buyer’ isn’t necessarily applicable to all products on this list, there are still certain things you should be looking for when deciding which DAW to use.
In this section, we will talk you through the main considerations and explain why they’re important.
As you can see, prices can differ greatly when it comes to DAW software, ranging from free to hundreds of dollars.
When you’re just starting out, it’s best to stick to the more affordable options, as you won’t need all the fancy additional features that can bump up the price at this stage.
Also, bear in mind that paid-for apps aren’t always better than free ones: sometimes simple really is the way to go, and you can easily venture into more complex territory once you’ve got the basics figured out.
One of the most important features to have is a user interface that is easy to navigate and understand. This encompasses everything that lets you manipulate the software and see what you’re doing.
Sometimes, interface formats are too cluttered or confusing, and users can become frustrated when they can’t achieve what they want to because things aren’t in logical places.
A certain user interface doesn’t necessarily have to be bad on an absolute scale to be unsuitable for you – it may just have features you’re not used to.
However, there are some features that are common to all successful user interface designs.
For example, the language used will reflect its target audience: an app intended for beginners shouldn’t use too much technical jargon, and should be set out in a simple way that anyone can follow.
It should utilize intuitive navigation systems, such as drop-down menus and accessible buttons for the main functions.
Equally important is that it looks attractive – while it should still try and come across as professional, there should be at least some color and easy-to-read fonts.
You will need to make sure that any DAW you choose is compatible with whatever device you are using. Many DAWs are compatible only with certain types of devices, browsers, hardware or plugins.
The compatibility of software will be stated on its website or wherever you download the app from, and you won’t be able to download it on an unsuitable device anyway.
It can be frustrating not being able to use a specific app that’s been recommended to you, just because it’s not supported on your device.
However, there are usually products available that accomplish similar things – indeed, DAWs all exist for the purpose of creating audio files, so you will be able to do this with any DAW.
There are functions that are only included with certain packages, so you may need to purposefully search for DAWs that have the features you want.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I Need Any Qualifications To Use A DAW?
You don’t need any particular qualifications with these DAWs that we have picked, because they are all suitable for beginners to use and are quite intuitive in their functioning.
We do recommend that you have some knowledge of basic music production and how different layers of music fit together, so you can have an idea of what you want to achieve.
You don’t necessarily need to know the technical aspects of music theory, since you can try stuff out until it sounds right.
If you’re writing your own songs to record and mix, you don’t need to take a special course for that either; in fact, some would argue that this is something you can’t teach anyway.
You may well have some songs already written, in which case you can just get cracking with recording them, or you may be dipping your toes into songwriting for the first time.
Write down whatever you’re thinking on some paper, then try to link the ideas so they start to take on a recognizable song format.
Of course, it is also a prerequisite to know your way around the device the DAW is installed on; this shouldn’t be a problem because most people nowadays are very familiar with technology like smartphones and laptops.
Take a few minutes to read through the help guides or tutorials that come with your specific software, as it might utilize certain functions of your device that you’re not used to yet.
With all of the above steps, the best qualification you can have is experience; the more you do it, the more adept you will become.
If you feel like it’s not working immediately, don’t panic – it’s not because you don’t have a piece of paper saying you can do it, you just need to practise.
Don’t be afraid to play around with ideas and see what works. You’re sure to improve if you stick at it, regardless o your musical background.