The decision to put together a digital home studio is a big step. There have been so many recent technological advances that you can but together a studio, for very little upfront cost, that would have been unheard of in even a professional studio thirty or forty years ago. Home studios today are becoming less expensive, easier to use, and more powerful all the time. This article will discuss how to select a digital audio workstation (DAW) without spending a large amount of money.

What Is a DAW?

The digital audio workstation, or DAW, is the central piece of software that joins everything together. It is, essentially, a virtual multi-track recorder. Every part of your studio will have to interact with the DAW in some way. It will decide how you set up your microphones and instruments and even decide the types of virtual instruments and effects you can use. The primary deciding factor for which DAWs are available to you is your computer's platform. In this article we will be looking at three platforms: Apple MacIntosh, Windows PC and Linux.


For Mac Users Only

If you are using a MacIntosh computer, then the obvious choice for an inexpensive solution is Apple's own GarageBand software which comes bundled with every new MacIntosh computer with the iLife software suite. With GarageBand's release in 2004, the bar was raised for budget recording software. With it's multi-track recording capabilities, included virtual instruments, MIDI editing, and built-in music lessons for guitar and piano, GarageBand is truly a contender in the DAW market and the obvious choice for anyone looking to make music on a Mac. Another feature worth mentioning is its portability. Should you feel the need to upgrade to GarageBand's big brother, Logic Pro Audio, then all of your GarageBand projects can be imported with no trouble at all.

Windows Options

Windows users have a few more options available to them, and one that is quickly gaining popularity is Cockos's REAPER (Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording). REAPER is a shareware program that you can legally download and trade for free. Most programs that have a shareware version disable key features,  such as the ability to save or export your work. With REAPER, you can use an unrestricted version of the software that only differs from the licensed version in that when you start the software, the shareware version features a moderately annoying “nag screen” that reminds you of the various ways to buy the software. Even if you decide to buy a license, it is ridiculously inexpensive at just $40 for a personal license or $150 for a full commercial license. However, even with its low price tag, REAPER doesn't lack in the features department! It has full mult-track capabilities, flexible MIDI routing, compatibility with major plug-in formats, and complete customization options. Aside from the low price, the ability to fully customize the workspace is one of REAPER's best features. You can change everything about the user interface -- from the color of the work space to the control scheme's layout. If you are an experienced Perl, Python, or C++ coder you can even develop your own scripts for use within the software

FLOSS and Open Source

Another option that is gaining popularity, especially among those on a budget, is free and open source operating systems such as Linux. While there are many, many options in the realm of Linux, I will be focusing on a Linux distribution called Ubuntu Studio. Ubuntu Studio is specially tailored for computer musicians and comes included with a suite of software for computer recording as well as software for digital artwork and video manipulation. Ubuntu Studio's audio software includes: recording software, an audio editor, a virtual drum machine, several virtual synthesizers, a MIDI router, DJ software, an audio programming environment, and others. The software included is of excellent quality, but it is generally less full-featured than commercial options, such as GarageBand.  It can also be a little less stable, because open-source software is usually programmed by an amateur coder, or a professional coder in his or her spare time.

Lite Versions of Professional Software

The last option that I will discuss is OEM or “lite” software. OEM stands for “original equipment manufacturer” and refers to software that comes bundled with certain hardware devices, such as MIDI keyboards and audio interfaces.  OEM software is typically a stripped down version of a full-featured, professional piece of software. Some examples of OEM software are: Ableton Live Lite, Cubase LE, and Cakewalk Sonar LE. This option is an excellent choice if you think you may want to upgrade your software in the future, as importing your project files from a lite version software to its professional counterpart is typically very quick and painless. Also, learning how to use the pro software will be easier because you will already be familiar with the user interface, albeit in a simplified format. Another great thing about OEM software is that you will most likely receive some of this software free with the MIDI keyboards or audio interfaces that you buy.

Before you decide to pay for any piece of software, be sure to do your research. Visit company web sites as well as third-party review sites. Download a free trial version, if there is one available, so you can test drive it for a little while. There is a multitude of DAW software for every type of production style imaginable. The most important thing is to find a DAW that fits your personal style and budget, and that you can have fun with.