If you’re here, I’m sure you are looking to get into music production for the first time, but aren’t quite sure on where to begin. In this article I’m going to discuss some of best programs to start recording with. The best DAW for beginners is certainly a question, the answer of which is mostly based on opinion, and there may not be a single best answer. But there certainly are a number of DAW programs that prove as a useful starting point before eventually settling on to your DAW of choice. For this reason I’ll give you a little personal insight, as I recollect the different music production avenues I myself traveled in the past decade and a half.
Best DAW For Beginners
My journey as a music producer started with Guitar Pro 4. Guitar Pro is now on it’s 6th edition, but I’ll always prefer the 4 engine, if only because of the amount of music I composed using it. I would compose entire albums (including a 20+ song rock opera) on the guitar tabbing software, exporting it as cheap sounding MIDIs that would fit well in your standard Super Nintendo Entertainment System games such as Battletoads or Megaman X. This is an entirely different method of composing music than performing it on instruments such as electric guitars, bass guitars, and keyboards or MIDI controllers. The composition process was not unlike using a piano roll, although it was more mathematical than visual. Programming music using tabs as the basis of composition relies heavily on an intuitive knowledge on guitar. While other instrument presets such as violins, full string sections, brass sections, or pianos could be used, each instrument is written out in guitar tabs.
Guitar Pro isn’t a digital audio workstation (DAW) though. While one can compose music on Guitar Pro, it isn’t possible to actually produce music per say, aside from very basic sounding MIDI compositions. My first venture into an actual DAW was the freeware program Audacity. Audacity is a good starting point to get used to the interface of digital audio workstation’s, but at the most basic, primitive level. I would not suggest using this for more than a few weeks than to get the hang of recording. Be sure to read our previous article A Guide On How To Start Producing Music | Part 1: The Essentials to be assured you have all the necessary hardware and software to get started making music.
The next step I made was on to Acoustica’s Mixcraft. I believe I started at Mixcraft 4, and later upgraded to Mixcraft 5. I also got down with Acoustic Beatcraft. Both of these programs were well within the budget of a teenager who had just graduated high school. Essentially, what you want to start with is a less risky investment. You don’t want to immediately drop a large chunk of cash on something like Pro Tools or the Ableton Live 9 Suite. These products could run up to nearly $1,000 (US Dollars). I believe I spent less than $200 on both Acoustic Mixcraft and Acoustica Beatcraft. Mixcraft is very much a Windows version of Garage Band, although the current version of Mixcraft has far more features than the edition I was using many years ago.
- Check out the current price for Acoustica mixcraft or check out what dozens of people have to say about it on the Amazon review page!
Another common digital audio workstation that people purchase to start their journey as a music producer is Fruity Loops Studio (or FL studio.) Fruity Loops is a fan favorite among producers who create rap and hip hop beats. In my experience, I’ve also noticed a lot of rappers and hip hop MC’s prefer to use Cool Edit Pro to record their vocals. Not saying this is a widespread phenomena, but just what I’ve noticed from personal experience.
- I recommend that you check out FL Studio on Amazon.com for his current pricing. Also check out the multiple user reviews for FL Studio to get a better idea of what other people think of it.
To make the decision easier for you, I’ve decided to make a short bullet list to focus on some of the areas you are going to want to focus on. Carefully research each option before making your final decision. Don’t rush into purchasing Pro Tools – you’ve gotta learn to crawl before you learn to walk. (Or as Meat Loaf and lyricist / composer Jim Steinman said in Everything Louder Than Everything Else off Bat Out of Hell 2: Back Into Hell: “You’ve gotta learn to dance before you learn to crawl.)
1. Ease of Use – It would be unwise to choose a more complex DAW to begin with. For starters, they’re more expensive (and we’ll touch upon that later), but also, a DAW can look very intimidating for someone who has never used one before. You can liken it to a civilian looking at all the buttons and levers in the cockpit of an aircraft – there’s no way you can immediately jump in and take off like your name is Bruce Dickinson (of Iron Maiden fame) or something like that! This is why I started with Mixcraft, and why most Mac computers and laptops come with Garage Band for free. The features are a bit more basic, but the interface is far more user friendly and can get you ready to later move on to more expensive and complex options.
2. Features – The only reason I wouldn’t suggest using Audacity for an extended length of time, is the lack of features. If you just want to record a bit of acoustic guitar and sing over it on a different track, you can do well using Audacity. But at some point, you’re going to want the production values of your tracks to increase, you’re going to want more versatility in the DAW, more options to flesh out your sound like MIDI compatibility and other features like piano rolls. You’re going to want to use VST instruments, and to import VST effects on to some of these instruments. This is when it’s time to move up a notch and actually purchase a DAW, one with the basic features and compatibility necessitated to realize tracks utilizing the modern day technology that seamlessly connects software and hardware into one recording medium.
3. Functionality – You’ve purchased all the necessary software, I imagine? You’ve got your MIDI capable keyboard or MIDI controller ready. You’ve got your speakers, your 1/4″ cables, your audio interface ready? And it goes without saying you’ve got a powerful computer with a capable CPU and a big, 24″ monitor to start producing music on? Good. See how it all connects, make sure it’s working with your computer, than do some research to ensure you’ve purchased the right equipment for music production. You want to be sure whatever DAW you choose is going to act functional with all of the hardware you purchased. Most digital audio workstation’s will work with most audio interfaces – but you’ve gotta be sure you’re getting the right hardware before you start buying the right software. Before making any purchases, research accordingly.
4. Price – Most people go into the digital audio workstation market with the wrong mindset – they’re going for the cheapest software. Odds are, you’re not going to find a DAW worth sticking to for any less than a 100 dollar investment. Tighten up those purse strings and keep your hand off those wallets and start saving up. While you don’t want to drop the big bucks on a more advanced digital audio workstation before getting your feet wet, you don’t want to get stuck on Audacity for years either. Find a good middle ground and work your way up. Many producers try out a half dozen digital audio workstations before finding one that perfectly syncs with their preferences.
5. Familiarity – What are friends using? – This is the last bullet point because it’s rather odd ball…a bit random. Do you have a network of musicians you commonly work with? Are you planning on doing a ton of collaborations, remixes, and other such actions with like-minded producers you are friends with? Do your more experienced producer buddies plan on sending you project files for you to look at, so you can get a better grasp of the program? Talk to them! Pick their brain and try and get some advice on the purchase you should make. If they’re using Ableton Live 9, and all 5 people you plan on collaborating on music with also use Ableton Live 9, chances are it’s a safe bet to go with Ableton Live 9 as well. This will save you a lot of time in the future of exporting stems, and freezing and consolidating audio.
There is no best DAW for beginners, unfortunately. But bear in mind all the points I brought up in this article are good starting points to consider before making a hasty and rash decision. Do research, test a few out (many offer trial versions), and ultimately choose the digital audio workstation that YOU feel most comfortable using. Choose the DAW that best fits into YOUR personal situation. Happy producing and happy digital audio workstation hunting!