Sunday, November 1, 2020

SOFTWARE DAW FEATURE: Freeware and Entry Level DAW Comparison and Review.


Please note: Review of Presonus Studio One Prime is also now available here.
A look at Tracktion Waveform Free coming in December.  

Every journey starts with a first step................

In this post we'll take a look at and compare and contrast some popular freeware and entry level music software programs, or DAWs as they are commonly known. 

The products here are both freeware and also the entry level versions of programs that often come packaged with interfaces. These are mostly versions with limited tracks or functionality that are designed to entice you into the larger paid versions of the programs, but which are often surprisingly capable in their own right and may well satisfy the requirements of many musicians as they are. 

Over the last month or two I've purchased some hardware devices that have come packaged with some DAW software licences so I've been able to check out a few of these and broaden my own knowledge of the different music software 'platforms' as they are often referred to. As a music software educator I thought it might be an idea to broaden my 'software base' and take a look at some of these entry level products so I can offer students or prospective students a view on what might be the best platform for them. 

So in this post I'll take a look at two 'packaged' programs:

Ableton Live Lite 10
Cubase LE 10.5

and compare them to a couple of freeware programs which can be downloaded, installed and used license free and without any other purchase:

AVID Protools First

My own background is as a musician, so I'm looking at these programs very much from that point of view. For songwriters, soundtrack composers, backing track programmers. Those sorts of users, rather than for more pure audio/broadcast type clients. 

Obviously, these programs tend to be the first step for those beginning a journey in computer music, so if you're starting out and would like an idea of what might be the best way to go to match your requirements, ambitions and musical style then stay tuned........

So What is A DAW Exactly.

Well, briefly and DAW (digital audio workstation) is computer software that offers multitrack MIDI sequencing and audio recording for music production, with recording, mixing and editing facilities. A complete studio as a piece of software you might say.  They do get used in broadcast and and video production and such, but here, as mentioned, we're really dealing with their capabilities as music production tools.

What is a VST?

A VST is an additional plug-in that adds functionality to your DAW. Most popular examples are instrument plug-ins in the shape of synthesizers or sample players, or effects plug-ins such as reverbs, delay, compressors etc that are used to process sounds. VSTs can be supplied by the DAW manufacturer or from third party companies, and they range from free to quite expensive!

Comparing DAWs

I think it's important to say from the outset that your choice of product will depend very much on what you want from it. All the products here offer something different and I tend to think your choice will depend very heavily on your priorities in terms of how 'easy' you'd like it to be to learn and use. Greater functionality tends to come with more complexity. 
I also think it's fair to say that certain product seem to suite certain types of music and musician and may well be designed with those genres in minds. Other programs may offer more 'all-round' capabilities. 

The bad news is that there are no easy answers. All these programs offer something to certain users and it's difficult for me to come up with an easy answer and say that one is the best. The good news is there's nothing bad here. All these programs offer a staggering amount for their price (even if they have one). So this will really be a look at the features and capabilities of each program in a positive and favourable light. I certainly have my favourite but it might not exactly match your requirements and capabilities. There'll be no marks out of ten or anything like that. 

Space will limit what I can say about each program in this single blog post, so the sections on each program will be relatively brief and deal with the main points. 

The Products

OK so let's take a look at the products listed above. 

AVID Pro Tools First.

I've known and used Pro Tools for many years. It's a staple product in many studios. It's high end associated hardware and broadcast and video capabilites have made it an industry standard in many pro facilities.
I must admit, I've never particularly been a fan of Pro Tools First as an entry level DAW because it has no third party plug-in capabilities and have only ever really recommended it as a training step towards the larger Pro Tools products. However, some recent additions and upgrades have lead me to re-appraise that position somewhat. 

In use, as a DAW, I really like Pro Tools. Despite the 'paid for' version being in widespread use in studios around the world, it is still a very accessible and easy to use program to learn and understand, yet offers abundant functionality. I think it's probably about the best combination of functionality and ease of use around. You can be up and running and composing music on First very quickly. 

The problem with Pro Tools First is that it does not support any third party plug-ins so your stuck with what it's supplied with or have to start shelling out in the Pro Tools plug in store. Pro Tools First has generally been supplied with an instrument called AIR Expand 2. This is what is generally referred to as a 'Rompler' offering a selection of acoustic and synthesizer sounds with some basic editing functions. And that was it. 

However, when setting up their AVID account and downloading First, users can now download and install UVI's Workstation instrument along with 2.2 gigabytes of sounds for it from Plugsounds. We are still very much in 'Rompler' territory here with Workstation only offering limited editing facilities but the choice and breadth of available sounds is now much wider.

It is also supplied with an excellent suite of effects both in terms of range and quality.  

So whilst it's not really going to keep synthesizer and electronic music makers happy, I do think Pro Tools First is now a more serious option for singer songwriters, backing track production and people writing music for their own videos. Stuff like that. 

It's quick and easy to install, all you need is to create an AVID account. There is no copy protect 'key' required, however, all 'projects' are stored remotely in your AVID cloud account rather than locally on your computer so you do need to be connected to the internet to use it.

The other thing I really like about Pro Tools First, and this may seem like a small point but for me it's quite important, is the documentation. A really nice, concise, well written manual is available specially written for 'First' so you don't have to wade through loads of information on features you don't have yet. Seem to remember it's about thirty eight pages long so once you've worked through that you've really got all the Pro Tools basics under your belt. A really bonus for career minded people using 'First' as a training tool. To put it into perspective the manual for Cubase LE is just sort of seven hundred pages, Ableton tops the seven hundred page mark.  

Number of Tracks: 16 Audio or MIDI.
Supplied Plug-Ins: 2. AIR Expand 2, UVI Workstation.
Third Party Plug In Support: No. 
Cost: Freeware. 

Perfect introduction to Pro Tools.
Excellent combination of functionality and ease of use. 
Wide selection of supplied sounds.
Wide range of great sounding effects processors. 
First class documentation/manual, etc. 

No third party AAX or VST instrument support. 
Projects are stored remotely so internet connection is required. 



Despite being a freeware (or more accurately donateware) platform, Soundbridge is a very powerful digital audio workstation and an excellent program for all types of music producers in all genres. 

Unlike every other platform covered in this piece, Soundbridge is not a cut down version of an existing product. There is no larger 'paid for' version. Download Soundbridge and you have the full version. 

Rather like Pro Tools First, Soundbridge offers an excellent combination of ease of use and functionality, really offering everything a singer/songwriter would need with a clear, great looking, colourful and three-dimensional looking interface. Despite being developed as a freeware project with (presumably) a smaller budget than the other products, I think it's the best looking of all. 

It's three section arrangement with browser on the left, a central recording, editing and mixing section and an instrument section on the right makes it quick and easy to navigate. 

Soundbridge comes with an excellent effects and processing suite more than covering what 90% of users would ever need including powerful and great sounding reverb, delay, and modulation effects and EQ and dynamics processing with very quick and clear (some might say sumptuous looking) editing windows.

What Soundbridge doesn't come with is a collection of ready to use plug-in instruments although Soundbridge have developed an excellent freeware drum machine called RitMix which also just happens to be the best freeware drum machine around.

However the great news here is that Soundbridge offers unlimited support of all 64 bit VST instrument and effects plug-ins so you have access to absolutely MASSES of third party products including free and commercial products. The only real downside of this is that you need to figure out the best instruments for you and download and learn them separately. But this really applies to all music software platforms. Very few users would simply stick to the supplied instruments/plug-ins. 

Unlimited tracks and unlimited VST plug-in support ( a combination no other platform here can boast) really make Soundbridge a contender. 

The only real downside to Soundbridge is that you're not using a fashionable widely used product which you're likely to find being used in a studio so it's not likely to be very useful to from a career perspective if your planning such a future.  

Soundbridge does require a log-in so an internet connection is required.

Number of Tracks: Limited only by CPU power. Audio or MIDI.
Supplied Plug-Ins: On board effects suite. No instruments. 
Third Party Plug In Support: Yes. Unlimited.
Cost: Freeware. 

Unlimited VST support. 
Unlimited tracks. 
Excellent combination of functionality and ease of use. 
Wide range of great sounding effects processors.  

No supplied instrument plug-ins.
Not a widely used platform. 



Cubase LE

Rather like AVID's Pro Tools, Steinberg's Cubase is one of the 'big' music software platforms with thousands (if not millions) of users worldwide. It has a long history with it's roots in the eighties. So you'll probably want to consider Cubase when starting a journey in computer music.  

Cubase LE is a popular software program supplied with a license with many interfaces, controller keyboards, and synthesizer workstations. It's actually very similar to Cubase AI (Steinberg's entry level 'paid for' version of Cubase), offering the same instrument and sound set with half the track count and a few additional effects processor. So learning and mastering LE really is an excellent grounding and introduction to the world of Cubase. But it is a powerful piece of software in it's own right and may well satisfy the needs of many musicians as it stands. 

The basic metrics of Cubase LE is that it offers 16 audio tracks and 24 MIDI tracks. The MIDI track count is complicated by the fact that you can only have 8 VST instrument tracks but this is still pretty impressive for 'starter' software and will be enough for many producers. 

Third party VST instruments are supported but limited to 2 per project or song. This is LE's major limiting factor although I think it seems a reasonable compromise. 

LE comes with a version of Steinberg's sound generation software known as Halion. LE comes with Halion Sonic SE3 which is basically a 'preset player' version of Halion loaded with 185 sounds. Another 'Rompler' if you like with some basic sound editing controls but no major synthesizer editing or sample importing. You can load and use sounds developed by third party developers. 

Groove Agent SE is also supplied. This is Steinberg's entry level drum instrument and it comes with a number of sounds and kits covering all the major genres. This has quite powerful editing, giving you control over a sound's level and pitch and you can route effects to individual sounds including an envelope shaper so you can alter a sound's 'shape'/length. You can use Groove Agent SE as a sound generator and program your drums into the main sequencer/recorder section of Cubase or you can use it like a drum machine and develop drum loops with Groove Agent SE's on board pattern sequencer. 

A comprehensive suite of effects is supplied with 23 effects generators and you can deploy 8 at a time within a project. 

Cubase Score Editing.

So a pretty powerful package. But Cubase LE has one more trick up it's sleeve that no other platform covered here offers........ a notation/score editor. If you like to edit or create musical phrases as traditional notation then Cubase LE offers this. A huge bonus for users involved in music education whether teacher or student. In fact the music notation editing of Cubase LE is only bettered by the full PRO version of Cubase. 

In my view, Cubase LE is not the 'easiest' of software packages to get to grips with. I certainly think Pro Tools First and Soundbridge offer much shallower learning curves. No dedicated LE manual is available so you'll have to wrestle with the (almost) 700 page Cubase manual. I remember the first time I set Cubase up (albeit without the manual). It took me much longer to get the hardware set up and running compared to other packages. I also don't particularly like Steinberg's 'browser' system which is common to all it's music software products. But once you're up and running and understand the basics, you do have a powerful package at your fingertips and one of the most widely used compute music platforms around. So if you're checking out interfaces or keyboards and see 'packaged with Cubase LE' it's not to be sniffed at.

Number of Tracks: 24 MIDI / 16 Audio / 8 VST Instrument.
Supplied Plug-Ins: Halion Sonic SE3, Groove Agent SE. On board effects suite.
Third Party Plug In Support: Instrument: Yes (limited to 2 per project.). Effects: No.
Cost: Supplied packaged with interfaces and keyboards. 

Powerful recording, sequencing and editing. 
Notation editor. Great for education applications.
Reasonable track count.
Third party VST instrument support if only limited. 
Wide range of great sounding effects and processors.
Wide range of supplied sounds. 
Excellent preset drum instrument. Groove Agent SE.
Ideal introduction to Cubase. Widely used software.

Limited VST instrument support.
No third party VST effects support.
Not the quickest download and setup.
Steeper learning curve. 


Ableton Live Lite

For me, Ableton Live Lite is probably the most difficult software platform to assess. It comes packaged with many hardware devices and is a successful and widely adopted music production platform. But it is a very different animal to the other programs we've discussed here. To me, the products it's sometimes packaged with don't really seem to make much sense. I got my license with a Korg Kross 2 and I'm not really sure Korg Kross 2 users would necessarily find Ableton such a great match to their creative ambitions. 

Ableton seems to use sampled 'clips' as a starting point for music creation. The ability to play samples and time-stretch, or as Ableton calls it 'warp' samples and trigger groups of clips seems to me a strange and somewhat irrelevant foundation on which to build a music production platform. From what I've been able to gather Ableton has grown from the DJ community. It has a popular hardware additional device called 'Push' which allows you to play and stop a variet of Abletons samples by pushing coloured buttons. Mmmmmm...... 

I also really don't like the way the whole thing looks. Ableton is grey and two dimensional. The thought of looking at that 'graphic' interface for hours on end does not appeal to me. 

Having said that, you can use Live Lite as a creative music platform. It is supplied with a number of instrument sounds and instruments including the 'Impulse'  drum machine instruments. And you can import drum samples in it. 

The good news is that Ableton Live Lite does support third party VSTs, the bad news is that you are limited to eight Audio or MIDI tracks. Again, since it seems to be more about triggering, stretching, and squashing samples, maybe so many tracks aren't required, but for more 'traditional' music creation I think this is going to be quite limiting.   

The fact is Ableton Live Lite really is just a blatant freeware loss-leader designed to tempt you into the full package and it really is, I think, designed almost exclusively for those looking to use ready made sampled beats and loops as the basis for their creative processes. 

Only user manual/documentation is the 700+ page Ableton Live manual, although as Ableton is such a popular platform, there are lots of third party video tutorials via YouTube and Ableton's own website. 

Third party VST support..
Decent library of ready made sounds supplied.
Powerful sample/loop/beat manipulation. 

Maximum 8 audio/MIDI tracks. 
Uninspiring 2 dimensional graphic interface. 


Freeware DAW Roundup and Conclusion. 

So all these software packages have something to offer depending on your application and the genre you're working in. Soundbridge and Pro Tools First differ from the other two packages in that they are genuine freeware and no other purchase is required. 
If you get, or are considering, a hardware product packaged with Cubase LE then it's well worth having and not to be sniffed at. 

I think I would summarise my recommendations as following: 

For Singer/Songwriter:
1st: Soundbridge
2nd: Cubase LE. 

For Education:
Cubase LE - for it's score/notation editing/printin.
Pro Tools First - for Pro Tools introduction. 

For General Music Production/All Rounder:
Cubase LE. 

For Beginner/Ease of Use:
Pro Tools First. 

For Dance Music/EDM/DJ Applications:
Ableton Live LIte (maybe)

Hope you found this post useful and informative. If you did, then why not like/follow my Facebook Page for more articles, synth patches, VST instruments, sample libraries and loops/beats as well as technical information and music technology news. 

In the coming weeks I'll also take a look at two other freeware packages. Presonus Studio One 5 Prime and Traktion Waveform, so stay tuned. 
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The information contained within this blog post is offered on an informal basis and is correct to the best of my knowledge. I accept no responsibility for outcomes arising from the mis/interpretation or use of this information and/or associated download files. Always download files via security/scanning software.

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