A completely biased guide to DAWs

Your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is a matter of taste. As you have appalling taste, you are lucky that I have found time to instruct you in the matter.

Ableton Live.

Notably not called Ableton Compose, because trying to write actual music with this tool is like keyhole surgery, one little box at a time. Live was first developed for deejays to string together bits of other people’s music to a click track. Since that time, it has been encrusted with a tower of technical jiggery pokery that makes Live the premiere tool of ‘barbeque boys’ the world over. If you want to synchronise two machines, or write code that burps every third bar, or run a bassoon through a duct simulation you are well served. But the vast forehead of this thing remains built on the reptile brain underneath, and it fails at facilitating any attempt at flowing empathic music.

If you have live performances where you need six of this followed by seven of that and the whole thing must be panned just so – you will use Live. If you want to surprise yourself with a tantalising melody you will not.

Bitwig.

See Ableton Live.

Pro Tools.

If you have an uncle with a large recording studio; custom furnishings, several thousand dollars on each microphone, grand piano in room C – you may be a candidate for Pro Tools. It will slot nicely into this high-end milieu, easing your work up to the top shelf. But buying Pro Tools, in itself, does not manifest this uncle, any more than red Ferrari brings forth a trophy wife. There are many tools that will do exactly same thing for much less.

True, Pro Tools is well made. Most of their stupid bullshit such as real-time mix downs and forced hardware is gone, but there are still AAX plugins –  an industry standard unused by anyone else in the industry. They cost an insulting amount, which can be paid off every month. Or you know, you could just go elsewhere.

Reason.

The curious thing is that Reason’s illustrations of hardware racks appeared just when real hardware racks were going in the garbage. Such that many Reason users are convinced that actual hardware is a clever manifestation of the GUI (and if you don’t believe that you’ve never met a child amazed that ‘wow you have a collectable of the save icon!’).

I grew up with racks and damn, I like them in Reason. They are cheerful. I like scrolling up and down and hitting the tab key to plug wobbling cables in the back, and hitting the tab and scrolling up and down and actually… that cable thing gets tedious. You need a really big screen to see what you’re doing, and then a magnifying glass to read the controls on all those boxes you’re trying to navigate. Reason completely fails at scale, being too small and too large simultaneously.

Now I must admit I’ve never bothered to use Reason as a DAW. It’s my modular synthesiser which I plug into real DAWs and in that respect, it’s a damn fine thing, better than any eurorack.

Logic.

Platform limited is bullshit. Same goes for Sonar.

Cubase.

Like if your grandad got a hold of monkey glands or something and kept living way beyond a natural span of existence. I had CARD32 on a Commodore 64 way back in dinosaur times. Then it was on the Atari and it still gets out of the coffin every night. I guess I am Grandma, and got used to Cubase and throw my hands in the air and go “Whelp! That’s Grandad For Ya!”. (Actually, at one time I tried using Logic back when it was on PC. That was foul, like ‘locked in some taxation consultancy for weeks on end’ foul. The Environment – what the fuck.)

You are not ever going to get super excited about Cubase, but like Microsoft Excel it is going to do the job well enough, and in software that’s probably all you can hope for.

LdoXJ

Traction.

They changed the name to Waveform and added a mixer and MIDI editor. In version 8. Yeah.

Renoise.

No, typing hexadecimal into a grid is not cool, it’s the antithesis of music.

Reaper.

There’s a lot to like about Reaper as a sound editor. In an age where ambisonics is taking on increasing importance, restricting waveforms to 5.1 or stereo is shooting yourself in the foot, and the only competition are the overpriced Nuendo and Pro Tools HD. It makes serious attempts at reducing bloat, embracing formats, and providing a range of useful tools in the box. And it’s CHEAP.

But you’re not out of the woods. Once past the basics it’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies, not cute ones, but mind numbingly painful ones, the sort that drives you to scream WTF and to curse the manual which is (a) a fan written wiki and (b) always out of date with the five new versions a week. Reaper is not open source, but it sure smells like open source.

And MIDI handling is not handled well at all. It’s an audio editor with some MIDI tacked on, and you’ll need to buy a real MIDI tool alongside Reaper.

FL Studio.

I used FL Studio for ages. Then I stopped for a while, to try change my working methods. When I tried to go back to it, I found myself outside a mental wall. All the things that seemed normal before seemed weird and twisted. I could still get old projects up and running, but the thought of doing anything new with it was perverse.

Then I realised I’d been in a cult. I’d since become deprogrammed.

FL is like if you put a drum machine on steroids, lots of steroids, INSANE levels. It’s a drum machine levelled up a billionity-billion times. I mean, I scored a motion picture on FL once upon a time. It can do it, hell – it can probably do anything, but it will do it in a way that makes no sense anywhere outside the cult headquarters, because it’s built on layer upon layer of feature additions. Things rarely get designed in a holistic manner in FL, they get layered on top. Like if you want to freeze the audio on a track, there was some convoluted procedure with placing an Edison plug in on a mixer track… these days I just freeze the track.

I can’t hate on it, and hell, you might even be enthralled by it. See you when you get out.

31 thoughts on “A completely biased guide to DAWs

  1. I’m a happy “barbecue boy” coming from originally Jelinghaus on a Commodore64 through Cubase on Atari ST then on a Mac to finally Live. I’m happy we have such a choice of powerful tools at our disposal these days .

  2. I used Logic when it was still a Windows thing and before Apple bought it up. I recorded the last XLTieRack album in it. By the time I was finished I wondered why on Earth anyone thought to call it ‘Logic’, as there was nothing at all logical about it. In its favor it was free; a bootlegged copy from a friend and I could scarcely afford to pay for anything that fancy in those days. I switched to Fruity Loops not long after and I’ve been using that ever since. I liked it a lot at first, I like it less now. It’s filled with aggravating quirks and features that are in no way intuitive. I tried Reaper and I wanted to like it. It earnestly wanted to be my friend but I missed FL almost immediately and soon went back. I must periodically remind myself how little I got done when I was using 4 and 8-track analog crap, and how much half inch reel tape cost (and how little I could actually record on it). I can live with FL’s failings.

  3. The pisser is if I’m doing an audio baser project I much prefer to work in Digital Performer, but if it’s midi based I prefer Cubase. I’ve never felt 100% about a single program, but I would pick one of those two if it was a cage match where they all entered and only one DAW came out.

  4. I’m a Ableton user, and well I’ve been since 2012. I’ve tried many DAWs before that. I’ve even tried Jeskola Buzz (tracker), and finally landed in rib territory. Thing is, FL studio, I’ve wanted to like it, I’ve wanted to really like it. And talking about it just makes me want to like it more. Maybe I’ll like it one day, or start making music with obscure wave cutting techniques via old version of Cooledit pro just to be different.

  5. I’d been using Reason since version 2.0 back in 2000-2001. At the time, I had a cracked version of Nuendo that I dumped the audio files into as Reason was not a full DAW. I got a legit copy of Reason 7.0 as a birthday gift from the ex wife and friends a few years back and have been using it since. Not bad, but the rack is a bit of a jerk off.
    I’d rather rub a cheese grater on my balls than use Ableton though

  6. I use FL Studio & the obscure Orion Pro for sequencing hardware / software synths and rendering out loops… and then compose with the wavs in Audition. I cut my teeth on Cool Edit Pro back in the 90’s. I’m stuck in a time loop… but I’m comfortable there. I tried Live. Hated the sequencer. Decided I couldn’t make friends with it.

  7. I totally dig your angle on this. Analogically, about 15 years ago I stopped being an Apple Fanboi and did Windows and declared myself “platform agnostic”. Then I got into Linux and discovered what kind of a nightmare that is, and now I am no longer a platform agnostic. I am a platform atheist. THEY ALL SUCK. Same with DAWs. Of them all, I find Ableton the least offensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s some natural wonder of the world, or even all that good at some things.
    So, this is MY DAW run down:
    1. Ableton: it’s not a DAW. It’s an instrument. If you start from Eno’s “the studio is an instrument” and you make it performative: yeah – you get Ableton.
    2. ProTools: ProTools is owned by AVID, and AVID is owned by SATAN. The difference between PT and Ableton is simple: if you want to perform stuff with samples in some club full of noisy people not paying attention and use instruments you swiped from the C74 crowd, Ableton’s your baby. If you have a band with 16 mics on the drum kit and 24 more on the rest of the the “indie” band you’re recording – ProTools is your tool of choice. PERIOD. If you try to do that in Ableton, you will beat your head against the wall for three hours and then walk in front of a bus.
    3. Logic: A cruel hoax. Fuck Apple.
    4. Reason: has a number of good synths. The reverb is still shite. You are right to use it as a plug in for another DAW. The swinging cables gets old REALLY fast.
    5. Traction: No. Just walk away.
    6. Renoise: your description is more than accurate.
    7. Ardour: FAILS. It’s just a fail. I’ve tried to like it, and nope. It takes all the worst parts of ProTools and distills it into a dysfunctional heap.
    8. FL Studio: I have no experience with, so I defer to your judgment.
    9. Sonar: See Logic.
    10. Reaper: If someone said: “You must use a DAW that is not Ableton or ProTools” I would probably pick Reaper. The only problem is Reaper sucks. Not as much as ProTools but also isn’t as useful as Ableton, but then, as noted, Ableton isn’t a DAW, it’s an instrument.
    11. Trackers. Of any variety: No. Just no.

  8. Idk, it’s almost black magic quick to lay out a basic, fairly repetitive arrangement in Live and add rhinestones as required but the Cherman minimalism and ungenerous plugiage vs price get up my nose.

    I loved Renoise for crazy drum programming and the MIDI and sampling in it are pretty hot, the interface is weird but what’s weirder is coming back to a tape style DAW. That said if it could multitrack, had a decent native synth and piano roll view for the more traditional melodies, it would be my girlfriend.

    Logic has become a GarageBand XL and the amount of stuff you get with it like Reason, also friendly interface I think makes them the most cost effective for newbies, if you ignore the cost of an Apple something. Unfortunately when I use them I feel like I’m wearing an olden tiemz diving bell.

    Cubase is the bomb dig although pushing into I could’ve bought one of the cheaper Moogs territory and I like seventies furniture, although looking at even some of the lighter versions it’s still incredibly comprehensive. I don’t want to hear that you need more than 64 trax, crack is whack.

    Those of us who are still in the toys phase decry a lack of dedicated music hardware though interesting to see MPCs come back. Still weighing that up v a very basic Digitakt however sequencing my shizz and resampling it and then recording it to something is pretty DAWlike to me and I’m not sure touch screens are great for lots of things.

    TL;DR I think some of us run to the ‘hard way’ to avoid choices like this.

  9. Acid Pro Isn’t on the List. I always hated Reason with a passion compared to FL Studio. FL Studio is limitless and if you know handy lil’ re-importing loops you create it helps. It’s great for producing glitch too. FL Studio 9.0 is best version of Fruity Loops and if you have license you can go back and download older versions of FL Studio which is nice too back until version 4 I believe. I love Fruity Slicer one of the best features and great for breakcore. I also love pogo to give samples that quick vinyl scratch record ending effect.

  10. Proud FL Studio cultist here.
    A good friend of mine uses Reason and I think it looks very pretty but coming from the cult of FL Studio into it, it’s nigh unusable to me. He gets some mileage out of it though, and I’m certainly glad that it exists.
    The “drum machine on mega steroids” comparison is apt. It’s a very step sequencer driven workflow, and my word, I love it.
    Then again I just love drum machines, I have an addiction to them to be honest.

    It’s just a bit of a shame that it does complicate collaboration a bit when my friend with Reason wants to make a track with me and neither of us understand how the other one’s DAW functions.

    • Oh, and fuck FL version 12, where they took away the little piano tab for the step sequencer notes, that was GODLIKE for basslines.

  11. I’ve been using Reason long enough that it’s easy to DAW — right-click, new track, pick input, done. Then, after recording things I can treat tracks like any other modular thingie and wire them up, or just skip all that and mix and be done. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can go that way.

    I’m intrigued by Harrison MixBus. Trying it out now.

  12. Every single DAW I have used brings with it issues that are near deal breakers.

    Logic sounds great to my ears, some of the built-in noisemakers and shapers are absolutely fantastic and it works well for mixdowns and other similar tasks but the Environment is one of the most piss-awful things that I’ve encountered in my born days. That and it lacks Ableton’s clips which, despite being clearly DJ-oriented, work well for running pattern sequencer stuff for Berlin School music, which is my jam, after all.

    Which brings me to Ableton. The aforementioned pattern sequencing is good and I honestly feel that the arrange mode allows one to reasonably compose real music if one is so inclined (although I don’t use it except for recording the audio and MIDI from jam sessions in a linear format). On the other hand, real MIDI is nowhere near a first class citizen with MIDI Volume and Pan controllers being absent from the widgets on MIDI tracks (WTF? Everyone else has had this shit for more than a decade – or decades) and a complete lack of any kind of SysEx handling. Fuck that shit right there. On the other hand, routing stuff is intuitive and elegant.

    I’ve not used Cubase for nearly 10 years but the latest iteration looks clunky and ugly to my eyes. If I were to pick it up again, I might find something wonderful in there but, somehow, I doubt it.

  13. “Either bitch about something or get out.”

    I’m following this line of reasoning, though with completely different subject/topic. (I do that a lot – I’m sorry.)

    But anyway – I don’t know how involved you are in the chain of this, but I’m slowly developing a theory that the only way sites like this one exist is because somebody up, up in the clouds of “da biz” is watching out for and protecting them. What (and how much) they’re getting out of that is still the mysterious part I haven’t fully figured out.

    http://exystence.net/blog/2017/11/12/severed-heads-come-visit-the-big-bigot-1986-remastered-2017/

    But we live in a weird world now.

  14. Gah. Late to reply again. I know I shouldn’t but hey where would the internet be without another opinion?

    Used FL Studio for many years while I still a Windows user. Mostly stopped when I switched to Mac (no, I don’t want to continue *that* flame war right now, it’s just what I like to use and I don’t require everyone else to do the same) except for the very occasional collaboration. And those rare times I fire it up again I no longer have any idea of how anything works. Took me ages to remember the concept of collapsed tracks so I was wondering where all that extra audio was coming from. Not to mention that tracks kind of aren’t tracks, or is that mixer channels aren’t tracks? Usability, yay.

    Did Pro Tools at uni; loath it with a passion. Does it still treat stereo files as separate left channel file and right channel file? (Retards)

    I’ve tried to like Ableton Live and Reaper, but I just can’t. I’m not saying they’re bad, They just don’t relate well to my way of thinking about things, so they impede me. I make so little music, I don’t need things that impede. I have to test the plugins I port with those popular fuckers though.

    Bitwig and Tracktion and MUlab? What ever gave you the idea that you could build a better GUI than the native platform you are running on? (Yeah, OK, like other Mac users I get twitchy when the app menu isn’t in the right place, where I can find it.) (Actually, Reaper sins too for that matter).

    Cubase? Sorry, I don’t buy the “PACE / iLOK elicensor is stable” line. I needed the trial version to diagnose someone’s problem. While I was at it I tried demos of some uber-expensive iLOKed plugins. I have never had the spinning beach ball of death so regularly. Bite my arse, iLOK. So sorry, Steinberg, you may have invented VST but your hosts won’t be on the officially supported list of my plugin ports unless you can do an unrestricted NFR for indie plugin developers. But why would you care about them?

    Of course, the stuff I actually use is too obscure to rate a mention here. And I haven’t used them for ages anyway (creative dry spell / too busy otherwise). But I will say that I use a couple of different things, and the kinds of things I make with my different tools vary wildly with those tools: each of them encourages a different way of thinking and thus different compositional styles result from that.

    Oh, and I did end up buying both Logic Pro X and MainStage because I do need to support plugins in those hosts. On first look, they’re not as bad as I thought they would be, though some parts of their UIs are a tad inscrutable. Though not as bad as I heard Logic was in the old days. But I haven’t actually tried to make any music yet in those, so the jury is still out for me.

    (You wanted bitching? Hope there was enough here for you.)

  15. I use MuLab by MuTools.com..works just great with no bullshit. Maybe not as “feature-packed” as some of the others mentioned here..but for composing, it’s really solid and deep in a modular way..though the UI isn’t modular at all.

    Plus it costs about the same as Reaper..which is cool.

  16. Lyra-8 from Russia is a very VERY interesting synth and you should check it out. https://somasynths.com/lyra-organismic-synthesizer/ Eight voices of “organismic” orgasmic cosmic noise. I plan to get one and it’s only $600. You’d be a fool not to.
    Also check out Futuresonus Parva, from San Antonio, TX. https://futureson.us An 8 voice 8 part analog for a grand. I’m getting one of those, too. Noise is nice. Jesu Christo, it-a make-a de ganglia twitch!

  17. I miss Music-X on my Amiga. I miss my Amigas. I have Amiga Forever, the software version, which is exact and can be made to run very fast in my i7 laptop. I know I can download Music-X if I simply look for it. I’ve been a web ferret for thirty years; I can find anything. The DAW I use, though, is FL, and it is like creating music with that humongous machine in Metropolis, with the Pater Noster machine that wasn’t exactly in the movie, firmly attached to my forehead sucking out my thoughts and spitting out melody, and leaving me dry and flaking. How much cult do you need? I use Reaktor Player for some samples I have that I can’t find (or bother to buy at the inflated price) translator software for. Also Ableton Live Lite for, again, some untranslatable samples. Not for any real composing. I have the Ensoniq FīZMō sample pack, for instance, because FīZMōs disappear like snow in the Sahara. There were two on eBay recently for about $1500 each and they disappeared within twelve hours. Guys must think there are Willy Wonka Golden Tickets and Harley Quinn’s phone number hidden inside.

  18. PS–I used to have a FīZMō, but my cat chewed on the volume knob so I had to get rid of it. It was no longer perfect. (Not really, I was desperate for rent money.)
    I don’t use Logic but I have eMagic SoundDiver 3.0.5 and it works very well in Windows 10 x64. Really.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *