The DAW Research Continues

Well, after deleting everything even remotely related to my latest toy except the basic drivers (see: ProTools, all of it’s plug ins, all of the other free software, a bazillion different versions of C++, etc), running a disk cleanup, checking for viruses, disc cleanup of both my basic files and windows files, after two boot ups, the lappy seems like it’s back to being the trusty workhorse I’m used to.

While I was at it, I also, once and for all, uninstalled Yousician from the lappy. I do still have it on my tablet. It functions reasonably on android, but on windows it remains a digital paperweight which no amount of reinstalls seems able to solve. That’s fine. I barely use it anyway, and when I do, it’s not on the PC.

So, with the laptop all squared away, the DAW research begins. I figure I’ll break down what I’ve been looking at. There are no final verdicts in this post, and I probably won’t have one for quite a while, but, I can give you a run down of the research I’ve done so far.

I’ve been chatting with a few of my fellow bloggers, but once again I give kudos to the avid internet reading of Vish from Ugly Bass Face, who directed me to a thread on TalkBass where there was some discussion on DAWs.

I took the bit of research I’d already done, and added to it all the DAWs mentioned in the thread. Then, I looked up the cost of each, because let’s face it, no matter how pretty and shiny something is, there’s not much point in delving too deeply into something I know is out of budget anyway. So, now, I’m compiling my results for you.

THE UNABRIDGED LIST OF CONTENDERS COST
Mixcraft  $50-100
FL Studio $100-200
Cubase $80-500
Cakewalk Sonar $50-200
Cockos Reaper $60
Stagelight-Open Labs $10
Ardour unknown
Studio One $100-400

From this point, I ruled a few things out off the top without ever progressing further. I will not be buying any time soon. There are other things that need to be tended to first, like financial recovery after the holidays and finding I needed pretty much an entirely new winter wardrobe, and still trying to save up to replace my couch. So, a DAW purchase is likely a few months away unless I come across a completely remarkable bargain that I can’t possibly pass up (which happens, as evidenced by my recent bodhran purchase).

Still, I know what my income is, so I know realistically I’m looking at an eventual budget of about $100 on the high end and that does present me with some limits. Mercifully, my needs at current are not extensive.

So, from there, what I’ve ruled out off the top is mostly versions. There’s not much I crossed off entirely at this step, with one notable exception: Ardour. Now, from what I’ve been able to gather, Ardour is inexpensive(with actual costs unclear) and open source. But, I’ve also sleuthed out that it appears to be subscription-based. Costs seem to be buried under the “support” tab, and even there, what you get for what you pay remains unclear. Hunting down this information makes me think I’m ready for my career as a secret agent, and I’m sorry, but no, I’m not willing to get in bed with a) another monthly fee to my list of bills or b) a company that touts being open source, but then doesn’t have it’s costs front and center. You can’t be transparent and secretive at the same time, and this contrast leaves the wrong taste in my mouth, so I’ll be sidestepping it, and let someone else who feels more okay with a company so at odds with its own motivations to look into it’s overall value. I’m going with my gut on this one.

So, from there I broke things down to what is financially possible. I was looking specifically at what I could realistically get in the $100 or less price bracket, and this is what I came up with:

ON A BUDGET – $100 OR LESS COST
Mixcraft Home Studio 7 $50
Mixcraft 7 $100
Stagelight-Open Labs $10
Cockos Reaper $60
Studio One 3 (Artist) $100
Cakewalk Sonar Home Studio $50
Cakewalk Sonar Artist $100
Cubase Elements $100
FL Studio (Fruity) $100

I know, at a glance, list 2 looks longer than list one, but that’s only because there are multiple versions of some of these that fall in the sub-$100 category.

At this point I also want to draw your attention to the obvious: Stagelight-Open Labs is legitimately $10. That isn’t a typo. That said, I also don’t suspect that it’s a DAW as you would expect DAWs to be, but I’m leaving it on the list at this moment because it’s an app, which means it may well be something worth checking out on the tablet as a ‘to-go’ sort of DAW-lite option, since -to my knowledge- there is no such thing as Audacity for Android. Admittedly, my audio interface won’t work with my tablet (yes, I have tried), but that doesn’t mean having something slightly more advanced than Sound Recorder handy on the go wouldn’t be nice, so I’ll investigate it to that end. I’m not expecting this to be something that can work at the exception of all else, but for ten bucks, it’s probably still worth investigating to see what it can do.

Alright, so this leaves me with a lot of possibilities. None of them are entirely ruled out, but for the benefit of narrowing down a starting point, I decided to break it down further and start with trials of those that I can get for under the $100 mark. That cuts back the possibilities a fair bit:

DAWs ON A BUDGET OF LESS THAN $100  
Mixcraft Home Studio 7 $50
Mixcraft 7 $80
Cockos Reaper $60
Cakewalk Sonar Home Studio $50

Next up is to look at the trial versions. I’ll be running them one at a time, forming my opinions, uninstalling, then trying the next. The reason for this is that I don’t want the data from one interfering with another and influencing my opinion. This is a lesson in caution I’m taking after PTF caused so many issues with so many other things on my lappy. I want to try these programs in a vacuum, so to speak, to see if one is more prone to bugs than another.

I’ll be trying Reaper last, because it has quite an impressive trial period. It’s also going to require the least research to figure out what functionality the lesser versions lose.

Both Sonar and Mixcraft do offer free trials (I believe both 30 day trials), but there are no trials for the Home Studio editions that land at the sub-$100 mark, and if I like the trials, it’s going to take some further research to determine what functions I would be losing if I chose these budget options. That’s just not something I’m going to have to analyze as much with Reaper, so it makes sense to save the one that requires the least in depth analysis (comparison of version) before making a decision.

On budget alone, it looks like Reaper and Mixcraft are the top contenders. These are the only two that have a full suite (not a lightened up home edition) in the sub-$100 range. That doesn’t, however, mean it’s not worth looking at the others that hit the $100 mark. I just think it makes more sense to start by evaluating the things on the friendliest budget. If none of them vibe right with me, then I can expand my search up into the slightly higher price bracket where suddenly quite a few “artist” versions become available to me. I know well from my art program days that “home” editions often have some pretty harsh restrictions, and there are definitely times where they end up costing you more in functionality than they save you in cash. That said, some “Home” or “Elements” suites offer quite a decent amount of bang for your buck if your needs are simple. I can tell you, for example, Photoshop Elements has come a long way over the years, and my recent(ish) downgrade from the Creative Suite to one of the recent versions has gone without a hitch. (Fun fact: I’m just old-timery enough that I remember buying PS Elements 1. At the time, the limits made me grit my teeth on the cost of an upgrade, but now? My needs are simple enough that Elements has every feature I need. – the lesson is this: look and read. Not all Home/Elements editions are created equal.)

So, that’s where I’m at for the moment. I’m not jumping to purchase, but I am getting ready to start running through trials to find what I like, and what lappy likes, and I’ll update you on this subject again once a decision is made.

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12 thoughts on “The DAW Research Continues

  1. If at some point you begin manipulating your sound via effects in the DAWs, or even experimenting with other virtual instruments, my understanding is that VST files are their own universal format, so if you find something you like in one DAW, whether its a paid or free VST, you can use it in the others as well. Each DAW will basically have a way to install the VST into its library. A DAW might also come with its own proprietary VST’s, on top of anything you find online.

    Also, I got curious last night and looked at Reaper again. I’ve mainly been using Audacity because my recording needs are low – just exercises I’m doing from the Hal Leonard book for the most part. I was using the ASIO interface, like with Reaper. I tested with the WASAPI interface and MME as well – they’re all just different software sound processing systems. For the most part, in Audacity, I didn’t hear a huge difference. I noticed something though – ASIO didn’t offer playback. Like, I couldn’t pick speakers for playback. WASAPI did let me do that. This might become important to you later. It might also provide a clue to correct a gripe I’ve had with Audacity – I can’t hear what I play when I record with it until I stop recording and play it, or export as a WAV or MP3 or something.

    In Reaper, if you need to do setup for your Scarlett Solo, you can go to Options –> Preferences –> Device, and its all there. To record, you right-click on that empty area to the left of the graph that will eventually show your recording and click “Insert new track” then click the red button in the new track to “arm” it. You can do the same thing below, in the empty area, as well. Pressing the big, red record button on the middle-left (it looks kind of like the Target symbol) starts recording.

    Have fun!

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    1. I suspect Reaper is likely what I’ll end up with, given the sheer number of people who love it, but I’ve started my testing with Mixcraft tonight – since reaper has that extended trial period, I’ll test the other programs with shorter trials first. Very limited testing so far-but boot time is entirely within reason and it’s amazingly user friendly – you can easily pick it up and just be like ‘bam, I’m recording’, not at all like PTF. But, the gripe I have with it is not unlike my gripe with Audacity – it picks up a fuck ton of background noise. (that said, it does seem to pick up a bit more depth than audacity, but I’m struggling to get it to register adequate volume so far). Now, I know my recording area is hardly ideal, so I’m not expecting miracles, but I also know that if my main gripe with audacity involves it picking up a crazy amount of background noise, then switching to another program with the same fault is unlikely to make me very happy, so on day 1, this is unlikely to be “the one” for me, even if the overall workflow is pretty intuitive.

      I’m nowhere near worrying about sound effects (excepting those that are built into the basic program) as yet, but I’ll keep that in mind for later.

      Also, note to self to check what I have Audacity’s sound setting set at. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever checked, trusting that the default would be whatever is right for me.

      Although, your gripe is valid. with all these DAWs I’ve been testing, you can hear what you’re doing in real time (in theory. in actual practice I don’t always plug in my headphones to be bothered.), which it never occurred to me Audacity doesn’t do.

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      1. Audacity might actually do it, and it could be that I just don’t know how. I ended up reading flame wars between ASIO, WASAPI and direct-in that didn’t mean much to me yet because I’m not recording anything significant. I do remember that people talked about an audio quality increase when moving from Audacity to Reaper. I didn’t notice it in my testing, but it wasn’t super-focused and they likely had better hardware than I do.

        If possible, can you record something – maybe the same thing – in each of the DAW’s you test (and Audacity too) so we can hear if there’s a difference at the end? I think it would make for a cool post, and you’re going to be exploring a lot more of these than I did. 😉

        Also, are you recording acoustically with the Focusrite? Like, with a microphone and the uke or acoustic guitar? Or are you plugging in, with a bass or electric guitar? I’ve only ever just plugged my bass directly into the PC with the Rocksmith cable, so I don’t yet know what difference something like a Focusrite will bring.

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      2. Well, people’s hearing also varies, and we can’t totally discount that. My dad’s a complete audiophile, and I – for better or worse – have inherited his hypersensitive ears (though I’m far less picky. I can hear differences in speakers. I just don’t always care enough to do much about it.). In this case, I happen to.

        I’m trying both. I am going to need to mic an instrument now and again – only two of my ukes are acoustic-electric. But, I do notice my guitar picks up MUCH better when plugged in, so there’s a definite difference between plugging an instrument in and using a mic. My mic seems to struggle to pick up my guitar. The bohdran, on the other hand, it picks up just fine.

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      3. I think that with audio inputs, if you plug in, it uses *only* the signal coming in, so that should completely eliminate background noise. It will pick up stuff like finger noise on the strings though, because that’s part of the signal.

        I need to standardize my testing. I mean to test Audacity and Reaper using each of the software systems they support (ASIO, WASAPI & whatever else). I might also see if there’s a meaningful difference between WAV and MP3 saves. I know when I glanced, the bitrate was significantly different (1058k vs 128k, respectively). For now though, I’m working on ex. 56 in the HLBM! 😉

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      4. It’s also worth noting I’m doing all this with CAD headphones, which makes a difference in what I hear. Laptop speakers are terrible for getting an accurate idea of what’s going on, so a decent set of headphones is a must if you’re checking sound quality.

        Pretty sure .wav have more clarity. If memory serves, .wav is a lossless format, where .mp3 is a compressed file. Mp3s are great for compatibility across devices, but, for example, I had to use wav for the poetry album because bandcamp required a lossless format to upload.

        It’s not background noise that surprised me micing the guitar. It was the massive loss of volume. Meanwhile, that same setting on the mic picks up vocals fine. It’s not a huge hindrance Now, but, for example, if I ever want to recordy tenor uke, I’m going to have problems, since it’s strictly acoustic. They don’t make an acoustic electric tenor in a left configuration. All my flipped over righties have no electronics, so there will be times that mic is my only option.

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      5. I’m on my desktop and have a speaker set with subwoofers, but I have to keep the volume down since its usually in the middle of the night when I’m doing anything bass-related (like right now).

        You’re right about WAV vs MP3. I need to record the same thing on both to see if I can detect a meaningful difference though. I know that a lot of sounds in the lower octaves on bass just don’t get heard – much of what we hear are actually overtones – but my knowledge of how that affects recording isn’t very strong.

        As an aside, I remember trying to record exercises from the HLBM on the acoustic bass. Nothing that I played got picked up. I tried on the new digital camcorder and on my phone. I think we heard when I switched strings, because I have sloppy technique and that thing is huge, but nothing I actually played was there. I didn’t try plugging it in yet, but I might do that… now that I think of it, I’d hear the acoustic stuff, and the Rocksmith cable could be used to record that in Reaper or Audacity. I’ll have to experiment with that… its a matter of getting those frets fixed and a strap button placed though.

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      6. Yeah, bass is a bit extra tricky, but I shouldn’t have the problem with guitar. Definitely had that issue with the uke bass, though.

        Get yourself some headphones if you want to check audio quality. Even with subwoofers, at that low volume you can’t hear much in terms of difference. I picked mine on a holiday sale for about $25, so fancy headphones don’t have to be much of an expense if you shop smart. Obviously not your priority right now, but by the time you get an interface they’ll be a must. Though, I suppose you can always go for an audio interface bundle that includes them.

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  2. I’d keep away from Fruity Loops as it’s mostly loops and midi. From what I’ve read, you’re in need of a DAW that essentially acts as a multi-track recorder. I’ve read the comments above, too, and while subwoofers make your recordings sound big, the mix will be off when you play it on systems without a subwoofer. I found out the hard way, as my bass fell off of several mixes when I mastered with a subwoofer. You’re spot on in regards to MP3 vs WAV. Cubase records in WAV format, which makes the song files enormous. BTW, I have some Cubase Lite versions with unused serials that I got when I bought the Steinberg CMC series controllers. I have 7 of them, so one is yours if you’d like. Not sure if it’s 32 or 64 bit, though. Aside from that, Reaper does look wonderful for the cost. Not sure if you’ve visited Gearslutz, but it’s an excellent resource. They have a Reaper forum, too:

    https://www.gearslutz.com/board/cockos-reaper/

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    1. I haven’t had a subwoofer in years, so that would never have occurred to me. Thanks for bringing it up. I’m finding most of these programs favor Wav. That’s fine. There are literally dozens of options for converting to mp3 for free. I use realplayer for that -terrible program overall, but they’re mp3 converter is an exception- it’s very fast.

      I suspect FL won’t even be looked at, but for the moment have decided not to rule out anything I haven’t read up on in any detail. You’re right, though, that what I’m really looking for is basically a beefed up, schmancy version of Audacity, which does affect my priorities.

      I spend very little time on music message boards, so not very familiar with gearslutz, no, but will take a look when I have some down time.

      As far as the Cubase lite, if you don’t have any use for them, that would be cool. It would give me something to poke at and see if a full suite would be to my liking at some point. I’m on a 64 bit system, so pretty sure it doesn’t matter, anyway. Most 64 bit systems run 32 bit programs fine.

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      1. No problem. Let me see if I can upload it to my cloud and then email you the registration info. If I can’t upload, I’ll snail mail it to you. As far as 64 vs 32, my understanding was that 32 bit Win OS allow access of up to 2 gig of ram. I know 64 bit doesn’t have this limitation. what is unknown to me is what limitations there are for a 32 bit program running in a 65 bit environment.

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      2. If uploading isn’t possible, don’t sweat it. I’m pretty sure I can trial it free anyway. It’s just convenient to not worry about an expiration period, so don’t drive yourself nuts over it.

        Usually, there aren’t significant issues with running 32 bit on 64 bit. It just requires less system resources. Rule of thumb is a 32 bit system can run 32 bit and 16 bit programs, a 64 bit can run 64 bit and 32 bit but not 16 bit, so there’s a bit of backward compatibility.

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