Let's talk about DAWs

Yes, I know I said I wasn't really interested in considering a DAW at this time. But given all the trouble I've had with Sibelius and NotePerformer, and given that the experts can't even be sure which software component is responsible, AND given that Avid doesn't offer tech support without an added cost contract, I figure I had better start thinking about a Plan B.

So... which DAWs are people using? What are the pros and cons of different DAWs? What is the workflow like when working in a DAW? Can you enter notes in something like the way you would in a notation software, or do you have to specify frequency in Hz and duration in seconds? Will I need additional hardware to be able to compose in a DAW? Are sample libraries compatible with any DAW or are they generally matched to a particular DAW?

I'm sure I'll have more questions as time goes on, but that will do it for starters I think... apologies if these questions are naive or poorly posed - I freely admit I know very little about the subject.



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  • Think of a DAW as an enhanced multitrack tape recorder. Plug in a microphone or a keyboard/guitar, punch record and off you go, simple as that. You will need a USB/midi hardware interface to do that though, wide range of prices on those 

    Or you can stay 'in the box' with midi or digital audio and use audio library plugins, a little more involved. But first we need to know, what computer do you have, cpu and RAM, what is your operating system, 32 bit or 64 bit, and what hardware are you using for monitoring and input?

  • Hi Ingo,

    Staying "in the box" sounds more like what I'm interested in - I have no interest in inputting sound from an external source. I have a MacBook Pro, 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7 CPU with 16 GB RAM. I am currently running MacOS Mojave, 10.4.6, which I believe is basically a 64 bit OS with support for 32 bit apps. I am NOT using any hardware for input, that is what I would like to avoid if possible. I'm not sure what you mean by monitoring - I listen with a pair of Bose Companion speakers or (yes I know, primitive) Apple-issue earbuds. I do not have any other external hardware that interfaces with the computer (other than a Superdrive to burn audio CDs).


  • I use Cakewalk, one of the first DAWS made, which used to cost 600.00, but is now free, thanks to the rights having been purchased by an independently wealthy guy from Malaysia who is just giving it away, because he can. It is a fully-fledged and fully-supported DAW which receives regular updates.  

    As for workflow, you can anything with it. I work in the staff and event views. I input notes either with a step-recorder, where you choose the note value, then use your keyboard to play the notes. you can later correct for things like volume and touch. Or, you can enter notes with your mouse, just like in notation software. Cakewalk's staff view is not notation per se; it is meant as a tool for composing. What I like about it is that it allows you to scroll infinitely in both dimensions, which means you can select  any number of notes, even extending over many bars, and then apply changes to them, like velocity, length, transposition etc. Not all DAWS allow you to do this in staff view; Cubase for example makes you switch to another view to lasso notes beyond what you actually see on the screen. And some DAWS don't even have a staff view, forcing you to work in PRV (piano roll view; basically for those who don't read music). 

    So I would recommend Cakewalk. It's free, full-featured, and as good as any DAW on the market. You have nothing to lose. for someone who reads music and is used to working with notation, you can't go wrong. 

  • That sounds like an excellent computer. I'm not a Mac person but I don't think that Mojave is OSX 10.4.6.  This is an issue with Macs because some software will not run on older OSX so you need to confirm your version and update as much as your hardware will allow. Then you should try and think in terms of what audio libraries you would like to use. There are many to choose from ranging from free to thousands of dollars for complete collections. But you need to confirm that the library you want to use will run on your version of OSX. Most libraries have online demos that can help your choice.

    Libraries are plugins that require a 'player' that is usually part of the package.They come in VST, AU, RTAS  and other formats, AU is the main Apple format.

    There are many DAW to choose from and many will run on Mac and will also run the popular audio libraries. Here again your version of OSX can make a difference.  The safest DAW for Mac is Logic Pro X which is native to Apple and is widely used by pros and should run with any OSX, but again, check before you buy, about $200.  Reaper is an excellent choice at $60 and is used by many here at CF including me, but OSX version is important here as well. Reaper does have a 30 day free demo so that allows for compatibility checking but again you need to think about what library is compatible also. Reaper has a great tutorial collection too.

    Michael is recommending Cakewalk which is an excellent DAW but I'm not sure if it will run on Apple. Since it's free it's an easy compatibility check though!

  • Wonky '1' on my keyboard... that should have been 10.14.6. I try to proofread everything carefully because of it, but I missed that one. My version is the latest before 10.15 Catalina, which I cannot run because of incompatibility with 32-bit software I need for work.

    Too tired right now to reply at length, but thanks for the responses so far. Seems there is lots to digest here... more in the morning.

  • Liz, I'm using Logic Pro X by apple and I like it very much. Everything is very clear and organized and very simple to use.

    Also the price is very reasonable. 

    I have tried most of the competitors as a demo didn't like any of them. 

    Good Luck with whatever you choose.

  • I adaw my dore....Oh wait, I think I've got that the wrong way around....

    Hi, Liz,

    I started with what was little more than a midi-editor offered free with a magazine called Computer Music. "Compose TODAY!" it screamed and I thought ok, let's try it. Turned out it was pretty limited but with perseverance it did a credible job of getting me started.

    Around 2013 I discovered Reaper at a very modest price for a single-user, small business. I think it was around £60....and I've never looked back. It came with a huge number of effects and a couple of synthesizers but it was so easy to load instruments as VSTis (I think that's the abbrev for Virtual studio technology instruments.)

    I won't deny, they gave the dreads, the heebie-jeebies. I went for Vienna during one of its cheap sales (getting used to that is a different story) and I just load in the Vienna "service" VST in a track (the little button above the volume fader labelled "FX" then choose whatever instrument I want it to run.... repeat that over as many tracks as necessary. Should you want to include another effect like a filter or reverberation, just click on that FX button again and add it to the effects list - choose one you've acquired elsewhere or one of the Reaper ones.

    If you have some old samples you can turn them into a virtual instrument by way of Reaper's Samplomatic...looks complicated at first but there are Youtube videos on it and once you've done one... easy.

    It also lets me record in the way Ingo says and I can play a keyboard and it records the midi while playing the instrument. I use Pianoteq's pianos.

    Anyway, the midi editor does everything I want it to*, quickly and efficiently most times. You can see what's going on in every instrument/track in the editor and by selecting an instrument, can edit it. A few global things are possible at that level too if you 'lock' the instruments together on the little panel to the right. You can work to a grid that resolves down to 1/128 of a bar which is as good as drawing in notes freehand.

    *although not so good at handling tuplets.

    A few introductory videos are on youtube. Worth a thought at least.  

  • So a couple of questions/comments here:

    Michael and Ingo, when I google Cakewalk, I find an entire suite of products, not one product. There are several products in the SONAR series, none of which run on Macs, and none of which are free; there are Rapture Pro and Z3TA+2 which run on Macs, but again are not free. They are both "professional" products too, so although I can't find pricing info, I assume they are not cheap. And there is "Cakewalk by BandLab", which is advertised as free but is for Windows only. So it looks like Cakewalk is out for me.

    Saul, I've looked at Logic Pro X and will consider it, as it is not TOO expensive. My main reservation is that it's from Apple, which usually means that everything is proprietary and 3rd party add-ons either aren't available or are very expensive. Have you added any 3rd party sample libraries? How expensive were they? Or if you haven't, how good are the ones supplied by Apple?

    Ingo and Dane,

    Yes, Reaper looks like something I should explore. I've downloaded the User Guide but am having a lot of trouble understanding what I need to start using Reaper. The main method they describe of creating sound is with a MIDI keyboard. I do not have a MIDI keyboard, and really, adding one to my system would not be practical, for a number of reasons, but most importantly physical space. My computer desk is fairly small (about 1.2 m wide and 0.8 m deep) and I do not have enough space in my living area to replace it with a larger one. I see that there is also a "virtual MIDI keyboard", but I'm not sure how easy that would be to use. And one can also import MIDI files, so I assume I could export a MIDI file of one of my Sibelius scores and import it into Reaper? But once having done that, how does one "score" it for the instrumental combination one wants? Or does each track have to be recorded using the corresponding virtual instrument to begin with? How does one do that? Or can one create the score directly in the Notation Editor, complete with instruments? How are sample libraries like VSL used in Reaper? I couldn't find any mention of them in the User Guide.

    That's it for now... thanks for the input everyone. Dane, yes indeed, all this gives me the "dreads"...

  • Liz,

    Pro Logic Has really good piano samples, Stainway, Yamaha, Bosendorfer.

    I have incorporated the Albion 1 library from spitfire and its not that expensive.

    I was a beginner like you in the realm of DAW so I found that the best way to get started with this is something that is user friendly and not too complicated. It is a very good program to start with. It has many good samples especially for film composing. The strings are not the best that is why I got the Albion one, but yet I don't think that others offer better strings, at any rate you will need to get something like Albion 1 if you want some decent string sound.

    Pro Logic X is an amazing user friendly price friendly option for the DAW beginner.

  • Hey Liz, in a rush here as usual. Check out these tutorials on Reaper.they are pretty good.


    Saul is right about Logic, it is very good. You have to deal with third party stuff regardless of which choice and I don't think you would regret using either Reaper or Logic.

    REAPER | Videos
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