The best DAWs for beginners
18th Nov 2013 | 16:27
An open DAW into music making
Deciding on a DAW is difficult. Everyone has their own opinion of which is the best one, and although they're all designed to do the same principal things - to help you to record, edit and mix your music - they all operate in slightly different ways.
If you're a beginner, the market can seem particularly daunting. We have our list of the best 16 DAWs in the world today for you to consider (as voted for by MusicRadar's users), but this wasn't compiled with total newbies in mind.
So, we've put together this guide to beginner-friendly DAWs. They may not be the most powerful applications on the market - or even the cheapest - but they're ones that do a great job of demystifying the music-making process and have been specifically designed to make it as easy as possible for first-timers to get started.
While you might also like to consider Cockos's Reaper and the cutdown versions of the likes of Ableton Live, FL Studio and Propellerhead Software Reason, we've picked the products that we think offer the best balance between features and easy accessibility.
GarageBand has been the benchmark for beginner-friendly DAWs ever since it was launched in 2004.
A decade on and it's still setting the standard, shipping with a good collection of built-in sounds and loops and sporting an interface that makes it as easy as it could be to use them to create your own songs. There are virtual guitar amps, too, plus support for Audio Units plugins.
Best of all, the latest version of GarageBand is free for everyone who's running OS X Mavericks (itself a free upgrade if you have a compatible Mac), though if you want to add all the content, you'll have to pay £2.99.
This is a ridiculously small amount when you consider that among the goodies that you'll receive for your trifling outlay is the full complement of players from Logic X's Drummer. This is one of several features to have dripped down from Apple's flagship DAW - Smart Controls and compatibility with the Logic Remote iPad controller app are some of the others.
What's more, GarageBand projects can be loaded into Logic Pro X, giving you a ready-made upgrade path should you decide that you need a more powerful DAW. Similarly, projects started on GarageBand for iOS can be loaded into GarageBand for Mac.
In summary, if you own a Mac and want to make music, there's no better place to start.
Acoustica Mixcraft 6
If you're looking for a PC version of GarageBand, Mixcraft is about as close as you're going to get.
It enables you to record an unlimited number of audio and MIDI tracks (a cheaper version, Mixcraft 6 Home Studio, is available, but this restricts you to 16) and does so via a friendly and intuitive interface. A decent selection of instruments and effects is provided (you'll get more if you shell out for the top-of-the-range Mixcraft 6 Pro Studio), and you can even use the software to add scores to your videos.
Running to some 6000 loops, Mixcraft's sample library is vast, which is great news if you're looking for an easy way of making tracks quickly. There's support for the ubiquitous VST format, which means you have access to more instrument and effect plugins (both free and chargeable) than you'd ever need.
Although it's often compared to GarageBand, Mixcraft is actually a more capable DAW in certain respects - particularly when it comes to mixing. It might have made its mark as an application for entry-level users, but if you use it to its full potential, it'll be a long time before you outgrow it.
Steinberg Sequel 3
Sequel doesn't really get talked about all that much, but if you're just starting, Steinberg's beginner-friendly music production software might turn out to be very appealing.
Not simply a cutdown version of Cubase (if that's what you want, check out Cubase Elements 7), Sequel has a look and feel all of its own. It enables you to record both MIDI and audio parts, and comes with the obligatory library of sounds and loops.
The feature set is bolstered by some big hitters from the Steinberg stable: the HALion Sonic SE workstation (which chips in with more than 500 sounds), and the Groove Agent One drum beat production tool. Guitar players, meanwhile, will appreciate the VST Amp Rack SE.
Another option of note is the Performance mode, which enables you to define sections of your song and then assign each of them to a key on your MIDI or QWERTY keyboard. You can then trigger these live, and the fact that your performances can be recorded means you've got a nice on-the-fly arranging tool at your disposal.
On the downside, only VST 3 plugins are supported (which means many older ones won't work) and some of the icons aren't as clear as they could be, but Sequel 3 does a good job of making music production fun and accessible.
Cakewalk Music Creator 6 Touch
So you've just bought a Windows 8 laptop with a touchscreen and you're looking for an easy-to-use music production app that takes advantage of it. Music Creator 6 Touch might just be that app.
The software enables you to get truly hands-on with your software in several areas. You can scroll, swipe and pinch to zoom, trigger clips in the Matrix view, and move knobs and faders in the mixer.
That said, you don't have to use a touch device to get the most out of Music Creator 6 - all of its features can be accessed via the classic mouse and keyboard combo. Highlights include the Skylight user interface, which is lifted from Cakewalk's flagship Sonar application; a built-in step sequencer for easy drum beat creation; and the aforementioned Matrix view, which enables you to trigger your MIDI and audio loops on the fly.
You can expand your library of instruments and effects via VST plugins, and your projects can be opened in Sonar if you do decide to upgrade.
If you can live with the audio (32) and MIDI (128) track count limits (which, let's face it, you probably can), Music Creator 6 represents a great-value entry-point into the world of PC music-making.