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Plug-ins, Key Features, and Free Trials

How to choose a DAW that meets your needs – Part 2
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In part 1 we covered technical requirements, pricing and versions, and copy protection. In part 2, we’ll discuss plug-ins and plug-in formats, talk about some key features that could influence which DAW you choose, and look at options for demoing DAWs before buying.

View other articles in this series...

Plug-in party

These days, all DAWs come with a collection of instruments and effects processor plug-ins, and the content of these can be a factor in your decision making. Apple Logic Pro, for example, is well known for its superb and comprehensive plug-in bundle. Not only are its effects of high quality, but you get pretty much everything you need for professional music production.

Melodyne functionality is integrated directly in Cakewalk Sonar X3

If you’re into EDM, you might want a DAW that includes lots of synths, whereas someone who produces mostly acoustic music will be more interested in the quality of the compressors and EQs.

If you don’t mind spending the extra money, there are plenty of third-party plug-ins you can customize your setup with. That said, it’s useful if your DAW can provide at least some of your go-to instrument and processor plug-ins.

Another consideration is the plug-in format that a DAW accepts. Most major plug-ins are compatible with all the main formats: AAX is a proprietary Pro Tools format for Mac and Windows; Audio Units (AU) is a Mac-only format; VST plug-ins are made for both Mac and Windows and is supported by many different DAWs; and DirectX (DXi) is a Windows only format.

Celemony Melodyne is an industry leading plug-in for pitch-and-time correction, and its pitch capabilities have been licensed and incorporated directly into some DAWs, including Sonar X3, Studio One 2 and Tracktion 5. Melodyne is extremely useful to have, especially with vocals.

Many DAWs also include audio and MIDI loop collections. These can be really useful for composing and producing, in many styles. When you’re making your decision on a DAW, a hefty loop collection could be a factor that tips you towards one product or another.

Key features to look for

Depending on what type of music you produce, or plan on producing, here are some additional items to consider when you’re deciding on a DAW:

Depth of MIDI support: Most home recordists use MIDI to at least some degree. If you primarily record audio, the depth of MIDI editing in your DAW may not be an issue. However, if you’re working in styles that are heavily electronic, like EDM or hip-hop, you’re probably going to want a lot of options for editing MIDI note and control data. While virtually all DAWs support MIDI (other than Harrison MixBus, although the company says MIDI support is coming in a future version), not all MIDI support is equal. 

Notation support: If you’re used to looking at music notation when you work, or you want to be able to make lead sheets of your music directly from your DAW, you’ll want to choose software that has a robust notation section. Some titles, for example Digital Performer and Logic Pro X give you plenty of features and options for editing your MIDI recordings as notation (you can’t view audio recordings in music notation, however), and creating and printing lead sheets. Others, such as Pro Tools, have very bare-bones notation features, allowing you to edit MIDI as notation but not a whole lot more. Some DAWs have no notation support at all.

Video support: Most DAWs allow you to import and play back a video file in sync with your music. But not all DAW video feature sets have similar capabilities. For instance, most of the higher-end DAWs, such as Live, Logic Pro X, Digital Performer, Cubase, Sonar, and Pro Tools allow you to not only import a video, but to bounce your project back to video, allowing you to add music or voiceover and mix it with whatever audio is already on the video file.

If you plan to do any commercial scoring work, or just want to add synchronized audio to your video projects, make sure you can export video, as well as audio. DAWs like Digital Performer, and Logic Pro X offer some dedicated film scoring features, which might be very helpful if you’ll be working with video a lot.

Surprisingly, one of the least expensive DAWs, the Windows-only Acoustica MixCraft offers video editing features as part of its video support.

Customizable Key Commands: All DAWs let you use keyboard shortcuts to navigate their GUIs, but in some, these shortcuts are fixed, and not user customizable. In others, there’s a default set of key commands, but you can change them and even import key commands from other DAWs. This isn’t a make or break issue, but it’s a nice convenience to be able to edit your key commands.

Clip Launching: Ableton Live’s toolset is particularly tailored to electronic musical styles, and one of its most important features in that regard is the ability to launch clips in its Session View. Live lets you line up a group of loops or clips in a track (or tracks), and set them to loop or play in consecutive order and more. When you’re composing and producing loop-based music, these capabilities can be extremely useful. Sonar X3 offers similar features in its Matrix View, and Bitwig Studio also offers deep clip launching features.

Ableton Live’s Session View window gives you multiple slots for launching clips from

Pitch and Time Correction/Detection: Much modern pop music is heavily pitch and time corrected, and many DAWs offer built-in facilities to apply such processing to your music. Many DAWs have either a pitch correction system built in, such as the Melodyne technology mentioned previously, or proprietary systems such as found in Digital Performer. Others, like Logic Pro X, have pitch correction plug-ins you can apply.

Time correction, which is sometimes referred to as “beat detection, ” lets you apply quantization to your audio, so that it conforms to the grid, just like you’d do with MIDI. Again, facilities vary, but most DAWs have some sort of time correction facility. Pro Tools offers two different forms of time correction: Beat Detective lets you slice up your audio based on detected beats and then quantize the slices. Elastic Time allows you to directly quantize the audio and conform it to a changed tempo, without any pre-slicing required. If you plan to record live instruments and you’re doing pop music, you’ll likely want time correction of some sort built in to your DAW.

Try before you buy 

The DAW field has gotten so competitive that many of the manufacturers allow you to download and demo their software for a certain length of time (typically 30 days), often in a fully functional version. For example, you can get Ableton Suite 9 for 30 days; Studio One 2 for 30 days, Tracktion 5 for an unlimited time but with periodic white noise added to your audio, Mixcraft 7 for 14 days, Digital Performer 8 for 30 days, Sonar X3 for 30 days, and Reaper 4 for 60 days.

So if you’re buying your first DAW or thinking of changing DAWs, most likely you’ll be able to download and try out your prospective DAW before buying. If you’ve never used a particular DAW, trying it out it very helpful for exploring its features and seeing how you like its workflow and vibe. It’s also a lot easier to judge features like included plug-ins, if you get to try them out first.

Read part 1 of this series here.

← Previous article in this series:
Finding Your DAW
  • myconsumerclub 1 post
    New AFfiliate
    Posted on 01/18/2015 at 22:34:31
    the new sonar pricing model seems to upset some people needlessly but if you look into it there should be a lot of you who would want to take advantage of it. If you really understand what is truly being offered you will have to agree that using sonar is a total no brainer for those who want to use the best DAW out there or who lack the funds to plop down a huge chunk of change. I already have x3 producer so I can upgrade to the new offering for $149 (limited time) or pay $14.95 per month for 12 consecutive with no drop off at all to maintain my deal and own it outright after the 12 month.

    Everyone who upgrades like this or who purchases or upgrades Sonar in the new model or paying full price for it upfront we all will get what is essentially all the upgrades made to sonar for the next year. That means we all get FREE of charge what essentially would have been otherwise called X5 since the upgrade we are talking about now is what would have been called X4 had they kept the x theme in their name. X5 is what would have been released a year from now so this for me is like paying for one upgrade and getting 2.

    You can still pay up front and get whatever version for $99 Artist, $199 Professional or $500 Producer


    pay it off over 12 consecutive months with no stopping and starting in order to own it at the end of that term, if you miss a month you go back to square one, They still have the free trial I think so try before you buy is always the wise thing to do.

    So now you can pay $99, $199 or $500 and get the package you want with the ability to upgrade by paying the difference I believe or you can opt to pay for whatever package you want and do so with the following monthly payment.
    Artist is $9.99
    Professional is $19.99
    Producer is $50

    Lots of extras make it more than worth getting into Sonar.

    As generous as they are with the new pricing to help you get into a full featured state of the art DAW they have the highest quality third party developer extras in the industry of any DAW, with significant software bonuses from

    Applied Accoutics Systems ( Lounge Liz LE and Strum acoustic LE included in Sonar Producer),

    OVERLOUD 3 diferent Lite versions that are far more than typical lite versions provide
    1.TH2 sonar or the better producer version of TH2,
    2. Breverb sonar version for producer and
    3. Re Matrix solo is in both professional and producer versions)

    NOMAD A suite of FX for use in studio and platinum versions of sonar

    XLN Addictive Drums 2 plus in professional you get one additional add pack and in producer you get 3.

    Melodyne Essential is now included in professional and producer.

    True Pianos Amber

    If you were to add up the price of these third party software bonuses the dollar amount has to be more than what Sonar is going to cost you to get producer version.

    The additional new improvements made to sonar are worth the $150 I will spend to grab this upgrade and I also get 3 ad packs for use in addictive drums so again a bonus that makes it worth my investment.

    Looks like I found my favorite DAW and it seems to work perfectly for me. I play guitar and love the reverbs and amp sims, I use revalver mostly and there is no lack of quality in the amps and FX included with TH2 Producer. I also play keyboards and I upgraded to Z3ta plus a while back plus add in Dimension Pro, Rapture and I even find use for Pentagon and the strings from studio instrument strings. I have plenty of other synths to use that I paid for separately such as IK Multi Medias total studio package which I paid $100 for on sale ( so proud of that deal) and Synthmaster plus tons of FREE VST and VSTI that are available all over the internet.

    Look I know Reaper is essentially available to you FREE if you never pay for the demo as they will not cut you off. Been there done that before and left it to get with Sonar. The difference in performance and usability is to me considerable and the FX and instruments that come with Sonar are the most complete package in any major DAW bar none so if you can add and subtract and keep tabs on the value these extras represent you can only come to one conclusion and that is Sonar is the king of DAWS and all others lack the deal making muscle to knock them off that perch.

    Add in the superior core product that can do things no other daw can now do and it is game over people might as well start planning your world around using Sonar because all the smart DAW buyers are going to be spending that money with Cake.

    Look at the new technologies they introduced into Sonar this go round.

    Audio Snap Enhancements
    Mix Recall
    Control Bar Enhancements
    Expanable Sends
    Pattern Tool
    FX Racks
    Quick FX
    FX Chains
    CA Amps

    PLUS the biggie for future projects as HS sound comes out in the future
    Direct Stream Digital (DSD)
    SONAR is the first DAW to natively support DSD, a high definition 1-bit audio format commonly used to archive masters in high resolution

    HELLO McFly!!!!!!!!!!

    Are you kidding me they did it freaking again


    The Cakewalk development team is just to good for the other DAWS to compete with. Use the best or loose like the rest people. If using the best is important to you and you want to avoid playing catch up like when everyone was catching up to go 64 bit ( remember that fiasco and Cake led the pack then as well )

    Years back when I jumped from reaper to get with a real DAW I easily made the best decision of my DAW purchasing life.

    I think I covered a lot of why it makes sense to go with Sonar and perhaps the best reason of all: they have the single best forum full of helpful people that will answer questions and help you figure out how to solve problems and issues that all of us seem to have with whatever DAW we end up using. The strange part about being a musician that records myself is that we all get frustrated because we forget how to use the software and Cakewalk includes tech support that rocks and every time I had to use them they were there for me to give me the right answer to whatever problem it was I was having.

    I know I need to be patient and take it slow and learn as I go so I can do things on my own and I am amazed at how simple it is to learn the ins and outs of this program, especially with all the additional help available to me through the sonar forums and other online and optional resources. I also recommend investing in Grove 3 and the Scott Garrigus Power Books to learn it faster. I carry my copy of Sonar power with me so I have it to read when I wait in line. Then they have the blog the youtube channel and Sonar University all powerful online learning resources that are essentially free. Berkley even offers a course in Sonar if you want to go that route and add that to your professional resume.

    With the leak on new features as they are being developed we can get new technology as fast as they develop it and so far they are letting us know that in the near future we can look forward to a built in drum replacer so we can improve drums and percussion mixes.

    If it keeps up we may see all the other DAW developers just pull a camel audio and disappear without any word as to why. Though we can guess they sold out to some major player no word exists on who that would be. I was hoping it was Cakewalk but obviously that is not the case or they would have mentioned it with the release of their new version of Sonar.

    I have all the VSTI I need and I was just needing more in the way of drums so for me Sonar is a perfect fit. The amps are usable and I am more interested in using Revalver as my go to amp sim. Synthmaster has every sound I need on keys other than pianos orchestral strings and organs and the stuff that comes with sonar fills that in nicely. Sampletank and amplitube plus T Racks/ CSR also helps out there as well as with additional guitar tones and fx I can use.

    Now that my DAW is chosen and I have a few other pieces of software I can just take my time and add in other things as they go on sale without having to pay top dollar because I need to fill in a hole that was not addressed by the extras sonar gives me. Kind of like when I had that $100 sale on total studio drop in my lap.

    Still unsure? Get a roland or Tascam audio interface if you need that piece of kit as well and test the free software that is Sonar le. It also was as a freebie in a past issue of beat magazine out of Germany and they are slow to ship to the USA so not an option for most people but still a free lite version may be all some people need if they have eyes to use other FX and vsti than what is available inside sonar it comes free with some audio interfaces. Its probably the most powerful lite version of a major DAW and could be all you need.

  • Mike Levine 1065 posts
    Mike Levine
    Posted on 01/19/2015 at 15:35:11
    You sure you don't work for Cakewalk? ;) Seriously, it's great to hear from someone with so much passion for a DAW, especially considering the amount of cynicism that's out there these days. And thanks for providing so much detailed info.

    BTW, I will be visiting the Cakewalk booth at NAMM to see the new version of Sonar in action, and will post of video of it sometime during the show.

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