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Best DAWs for Beginners: Learn Music Production for Cheap

Author: Caleb J. Murphy

Last updated: Jul 17, 2020

Reads: 1,453


Caleb J. Murphy is a Songwriter/Producer based in Austin, TX. He is the founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog to help part-time musicians succeed. He is also a contributor to CD Baby's DIY Musician blog, Sonicbids, and Bandzoogle. His work has been shared by ASCAP, Hypebot, and Music Think Tank.
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So you’re looking to get into home recording, eh? Well, today is the day to do it. It’s never been a better time to be a home Producer.

But to do that, you’ll need recording software called a digital audio workstation (DAW). Fortunately, there are DAWs built specifically for newbie Producers.

The best DAWs for beginners:

  • Audacity
  • GarageBand
  • Reaper
  • Pro Tools | First
  • FL Studio

What Is a DAW?

A DAW is a piece of software that allows you to record, edit, mix, and master music.

It mimics physical audio workstations that Audio Engineers used back in the day. You know those big boards packed with buttons, knobs, and sliders that you see in recording studios? That’s the original audio workstation.

Today, with DAWs, any beginner with a laptop can make music that sounds just as professional as the music coming out of big-time studios.

How to Choose the Right DAW

Before you decide on the best DAW, you have to know what you’re working with. There are certain things to consider before you pick a DAW so you know you’re picking the right one.

First, make sure the DAW is compatible with your operating system. For example, some programs work with macOS and not Windows, and it’s important to know that.

Next, you’ll want to look at the audio plugin capability. There are three main formats for plugins: VST (Virtual Studio Technology), AU (Audio Units), and RTAS (Real-Time Audio Suite). These aren’t the only ones, but they’re the most common.

The AU format works with macOS and some DAWs that work on macOS. RTAS works only with Pro Tools DAWs. And VST plugins work with any DAW on any operating system.

Once you know your OS and what types of plugins you can use, it’s time to look at your budget. Many capable DAWs are free or very inexpensive, which I’ll go over below.

And last of all, make sure the DAW you choose best fits what you want to do. For example, certain DAWs lend themselves to EDM Producers while others are better for acoustic Singer-songwriters.

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The Best DAWs for Beginners

Now let’s talk about the best DAWs for newbie Producers. With each program, I’ll list the OS compatibility, audio plugin capability, cost, and who the program is best for.

Audacity

Audacity is an open-source DAW, meaning it’s completely free (although they ask you to donate what you can). And it’s as simple as you can get. I started with Audacity at about age 15 — so if 15-year-old me can do it, anyone can.

It lets you do all the basic stuff — recording, editing, using effects, exporting at professional-level quality. But one cool thing it includes is an analysis mode. This shows you a frequency visualizer, just to make sure your production is balanced.

“Spectrogram view mode for visualizing and selecting frequencies,” says Audacity’s website.3 “Plot Spectrum window for detailed frequency analysis.”

  • OS compatibility: Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Audio plugin capability: VST and AU (also LADSPA, LV2, and Nyquist)
  • Cost: Free
  • Best for: Producers who have never recorded before but want to learn the basics

GarageBand

After using Audacity for a few years, I graduated to GarageBand. I say “graduated” just because GarageBand offers a lot more, which is ideal for someone who already gets the basics of recording and producing music but wants a few extra features.

If you have an Apple computer, GarageBand comes preloaded on it for free. And that’s pretty amazing considering what you get. You get hundreds of instrument loops, amazingly professional effects, easy MIDI editing, and you get it all in a simple interface.

“I just started recording [on GarageBand], without having to learn a new program,” says Patrick Stump, 2frontman of Fall Out Boy. “Which was always one of the scariest things about music.”

  • OS compatibility: macOS
  • Audio plugin capability: AU
  • Cost: free with every Apple computer
  • Best for: beginner Producers who know the basics and want to up their music production game

Reaper

After several years with GarageBand, I got a Windows computer and discovered Reaper. Even if it’s your first DAW, it’s simple enough that you can get the hang of it quickly. They even have a library of videos to help get you started.

Reaper is simple enough for a beginner, but it also has plenty of features and more complex tools you can try as you become more familiar with it. I still use this DAW and I can say it does pretty much everything the “big guys” can do.

  • OS compatibility: Windows, macOS, Linux (experimental)
  • Audio plugin capability: VST
  • Cost: free download of full version, then $60 or $225 on the honor system, depending on how you use it
  • Best for: beginner to intermediate Producers who want room to grow with their DAW

Pro Tools | First

Pro Tools is pretty much the standard in any professional recording studio. Even if it’s not the main DAW of a pro studio, they at least have it available if they want it. And Pro Tools First is like the beginner version of it.

If you’re producing a song with 16 or fewer tracks, you’re good to go. If you need any more than that, you may need to upgrade to Pro Tools. But for a free DAW, this one is perfect for new Producers.

  • OS compatibility: Windows, macOS
  • Audio plugin capability: RTAS (also AAX)
  • Cost: free
  • Best for: beginner Producers who eventually want to master the full version of Pro Tools

FL Studio

Image-Line created FL Studio to help Producers easily make beats. FL stands for “Fruity Loops,” as in instrument and beat loops. It comes with virtual instruments so you can start making music right the moment you get it.

The interface is very simple and has a Garage-Band-esque feel. The most affordable edition is $99, and with that, you get all future updates of the DAW.

  • OS compatibility: Windows, macOS
  • Audio plugin capability: VST and AU
  • Cost: $99 up to $899
  • Best for: beginner to intermediate Producers who want room to grow with their DAW

Pick any one of these DAWs and you’ll be good to go. These programs span the spectrum of the different types of home Producers, and any beginner can master them.

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FAQ

Community Question

What is the easiest DAW to learn?

GarageBand is the easiest DAW for beginners to learn. The workflow is intuitive and the interface is clean and uncluttered. Plus, there are tons of tutorials online to easily help you learn.

FL Studio is another great DAW option that beginners have found easy to learn and use.

Community Question

Is Ableton Live good for beginners?

If you’re a total beginner to music production and home recording, Ableton Live might be a bit tricky. This DAW is very in-depth–which is why it’s a favorite of pro-level Producers–but it can be difficult for beginners to figure out. FL Studio, Cakewalk, and GarageBand are generally considered to be the more beginner-friendly DAWs.

That said, there are loads of great Ableton tutorials online that are appropriate for beginner-level users. As your abilities grow, so will Ableton’s functionality.

Community Question

Is there a free Daw?

Yes! Some of our favorite DAWs for beginners are free, including Audacity, GarageBand, and Pro Tools First. Another great DAW option for beginners, Reaper, has a free trial but isn’t technically free once the trial period is over.

For more free DAW options, including some software programs that are a little more advanced, check out our blog on the year’s best free DAWs.

References

  1. 1. " “Features.”". Audacity.. published: . retrieved on: Retrieved 14 November 2019.
  2. 2Wang, Amy X.. "“Inside Garageband, the Little App Ruling the Sound of Modern Music.” ". Rolling Stone. . published: (16 March 2019). retrieved on: Retrieved 14 November 2019.
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