And The Best DAW Is…

The best DAW for you might not be what you thought.

I used to be a one-DAW man.  When it came to Digital Audio Workstations, I fancied myself a bit of a contrarian.

Back in the day, Pro Tools was even more dominant than it is now.  If you were serious about studio work, if you wanted people to take you seriously, you used Pro Tools.

Have Your Cake

The trouble for me was, I just never clicked with it.  I found it to be counterintuitive to the way I liked to work.  So I became a Cakewalk Sonar to me.  Sure, it had it’s quirks, but it did a lot of things really well, and it was actually ahead of the curve in some respects.

It was 64-bit before most others, it’s comping functionality was really advanced (and still my favorite), and it came with a great synth or two.

I felt like it fit my personality, too.  Never one to do the mainstream thing or what was considered the popular thing, I followed the path I thought best – or rather, suited me best.

And I stuck with Sonar, thought it would be all I needed for as far out as I could see.

But, being obsessed with getting as close to professional sounds as I could, I try new tools on a frequent basis as a matter of practice.  (I wrote about my champion/challenger process in my post about bus compressors.)

At a certain point, I tried out Samplitude for mastering duties.  I’d really wanted Sequoia, but it was just so incredibly expensive that it was out of the question.  I figured Samplitude was made by the same company, it would be similar.

It might have shared elements with its big sister Sequoia, but what it did not do was fit with me at all.  I haaaated its workflow!  Everything seemed to take three times as long to accomplish, even after I learned the way it was supposed to be done.

So, back to Cakewalk Sonar..

Could Studio One Be “The One”?

Then I started reading things about Presonus Studio One, after the first version was released.  Skeptical but interested, I kept an eye on it.  It was somewhere around that time that Cakewalk got purchased, and the future of Sonar seemed in doubt.  So I figured I’d give Studio One a try.

When I did, I was really impressed!  It was obviously still maturing, but Presonus seemed committed and was actively developing the product.  (In a theme common across several of the DAWs that I now use [foreshadowing!], Presonus was started by former employees of another DAW maker.)

So I made the switch permanent, and was happy to have a nice, modern DAW that did what I needed in an intuitive way (for me).

But then…

My compulsion to achieve better sound reared its head again, and led me to take a look at another DAW.

Studio One was amazing for a lot of the work I was doing – wide, open-sounding Americana music that benefitted from clean production – the cleaner the better!  But I felt like I was missing some… mojo.  Or something like that.

I’d been using console simulation plugins that helped me get closer to the sound I was after sometimes, but I still felt like I wasn’t getting all the way to the finish line with them.

Time To Get On The (Mix)Bus

Then I learned about Harrison Mixbus.  Harrison is a niche player in the DAW market – a maker of hardware consoles who made the Mixbus DAW to sound like their hardware.

When I looked into it, I liked what I heard.  But I also like that it looked and acted like a hardware mixer.  So, being a big nerd, I did a shootout.

I remixed a song I’d done in Studio One with all my favorite plugins and console emulation, and then I compared the results.  And the Mixbus version sounded better.  And all I’d done was a quick mix!

Something they weave into their DAW was adding something to the sound, and for this track at least, it was kind of magical!

So, I thought I might switch to Mixbus.  But, it turned out that Mixbus was really mostly geared towards – surprise – mixing!  You can definitely track with it, and it does things like comping quite well.  But after trying it out for a while, it didn’t feel as easy as Studio One for those things.

Further research told me that a lot of Mixbus users tracked in Pro Tools or another DAW and then either ported tracks in for mixing in Mixbus or just exported and imported.  But it sounded that good – it was worth that trouble.

So that’s what I started doing.  In fact, I liked Mixbus so much that I made an online course to teach how to use it.  When I reached out to the folks at Harrison to let them know, they were stoked about it, and helped partner to promote it.

Later, they asked me to do a course for their next version release, and I did.  To date, over 6000 people have taken it.  And the people at Harrison were incredible to work with – super nice, genuine people who believe in what they make, for good reason.

But I do think they undercharge for Mixbus!  Their big-brother product, Mixbus 32C, costs more inline with other DAWs, but they practically give Mixbus away.

At that point, I was really happy with the sound I was getting from the combo of Studio One for tracking and Mixbus for mixing, even if the workflow had a few extra steps in it.  Like I said – worth it.

But then, another change came that drove me to consider other options.  Not because I was unhappy with my sound, but because I was going to be making different music.

See, during the pandemic, after years of primarily playing acoustic guitar in Americana bands, I decided to explore making electronic music.  Actually, to be more precise, I decided to forget about whether or not anyone might like it and make whatever kind of music I damn well felt like making.. and that turned out to be electronic music.  Sort of (more on this later).

Obviously, you can make any kind of music in any DAW.  But as I researched more electronic artists that I admired, it seemed that most if not all of them used Ableton.  And I wondered why.

So I did some digging, and learned that Ableton has some things kind of built into it that make the creation of electronic music easier.  And I really liked its interface, which allowed you to see and manipulate the entire processing chain on a track without having to click to open plugin windows all the time.

A Little Bit Of Bitwig

In the course of this research, I learned of a new product in this space, called Bitwig Studio.  It seemed like more of a niche player, but it seemed to have similar advantages to Ableton and looked interesting.

It was shootout time once again.  This time, knowing that I was looking for a DAW that a) helped make electronic music creation easier and b) had a workflow I enjoyed, I decided to try to start from zero and create a quick song in each.

I figured Ableton would run away with it, being the favorite of so many pros, but things turned out a little differently.  What I found was that with Ableton, I had to keep looking up how to do things.  Which, granted – I knew next to nothing about how to use it.

It was frustrating, and I felt like I was pulling teeth.  Whereas with Bitwig, I was able to figure out how to do the basics quickly.  And in a matter of 15 minutes or so, I had created something.

Based on only that, I bought Bitwig and began working on a full album’s worth of songs.  Once I dove in, I realized that Bitwig is really part instrument and part DAW.

I felt like its built-in oscillators that you could put on literally anything and its interface and workflow actually kept me in the creative space where I wanted to be, because I wasn’t worrying about the DAW at all.

Along the way, another funny thing happened.  I rediscovered my love for the instrument that launched me down this musical road in the first place – the electric guitar.  When I did, I realized that the electronic songs I’d been developing were missing something, and that something was a strong melodic lead instrument.

They had been more along the lines of ambient music, but when I picked up a guitar and played over them, my path was clear.  Electronic guitar music.  Guitronica.

So I assumed the name Hollow Arch and started work on my new guitronica album.

The trouble was, while Bitwig is fantastic for creating (and mixing!) electronic music, it’s not as mature when it comes to things like tracking live instruments.

So Studio One got the call again.  Now, for creating and arranging electronic music, I use Bitwig. And when I need to track live instruments I fly the tracks out to Studio One.

When everything is arranged and tracked, I create a new session in Studio One and import everything into it for mixing.  This seems clumsy, but it’s for a couple of good reasons.

One is that I recently re-converted to Softube Console 1 for most mixing duties, and Studio One is one of a few DAWs that have deep integration with it.

Another reason is that I intend to mix the Hollow Arch tunes using Sony’s 360 spatial tool as well, and it is not quite compatible with Bitwig yet.

If not for those reasons, I’d most likely mix in Bitwig.  I mixed preliminary versions with it and really enjoyed it for that purpose as well.

And The Winner Is..

So, what is the best DAW, after all?

It depends on you – what music you make, how you like to work, and what helps you get into the creative space quickly and stay there without worrying about technical crap.

For me, that means I use three DAWs – Bitwig, Studio One, and sometimes Mixbus when I want that sound.  I love working in them all.

You might think, well that’s a huge pain, to have to learn how to do things in three different DAWs.

But really, all DAWs generally do the same things.  Some do some things better than others.  But if you know how to do something in one, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out how to do the same thing in another.

On that note – this is why I feel like I’ve gravitated to newer products made by former employees of older established companies.  Software is like anything else, if you keep building on something, you become more and more locked into how it works and have fewer options to change things.  Code gets outdated, things get harder to change.

When the makers of Bitwig and Studio One dreamed up their products, they obviously put a lot of thought into what they didn’t like about the products they used to work on, and what the customers didn’t like.  So they tend to make things simpler and more intuitive.

Nothing against the old stalwarts like Ableton and Pro Tools, but to me they tend to start coasting and taking their customer base for granted a little once they are established as the one everyone has to use.  Their popularity often has more to do with status and tradition than with usability and creativity.

But that’s just me.  And you need to find the DAW that works best for you!  If one does everything you need and you’re happy – that’s friekin’ great!  If using several works for you, that’s great, too!

Do what works the best and makes you the happiest, and worry less about what others are doing or might think.