Making Music #1: Choosing A DAW

Making Music is where I share the process as I write, arrange, record and release my music. You’ll get to read it all: what went well, what really didn’t, the decisions I had to make along the way, and why I made them. I hope you find it useful!

I’m finally sitting down to record my music. The starting point? Deciding whether I’m going to use Reaper, Universal Audio’s LUNA – or a mixture of both.

Introduction

It’s past time to stop messing about with all this gear that I write about, and actually put it to use.

I originally took up guitar because I wanted to write and perform music. I’m not claiming for a minute that I’m any good at either, mind! It’s just that I’ve never been one for chasing other people’s tone or their music. Music for me is like martial arts: it’s a way of self-expression, first and foremost, and a means of self-discovery.

And, in the past, I’ve done that. I’ve got old recordings of my early Phase 1 and Phase 2 material going back to the mid-90s … but almost nothing after that. Certainly no full songs; just snippets of riffs and the like on my old hard-drive.

I miss it.

What Are You Planning To Record?

I’m going to be recording my original (mostly!) instrumental music. It’s mostly going to be me doing everything: writing, arranging, performing, engineering, and first mix. I’ll probably need to get some help doing the final mix, and I’ve no idea about the mastering at this point in time.

I’d also love to record my band’s first EP. We did made a start on that earlier this year. Unfortunately, we’ve had to put that on hold due to some risks associated with the ongoing pandemic. When we’re able to start doing that again, I’ll share the story here as well.

Why Do You Need To Choose A DAW?

When it comes to choosing a DAW, many articles & forum posts on the Internet will tell you that they’re all pretty much the same; that the best DAW is the one you already know how to use.

Sadly, while well-meaning, it’s not actually true.

I’ve got licenses for two DAWs – Reaper and LUNA – and believe me, they are not interchangeable. Each one has important features that the other lacks.

What Do I Need A DAW To Do?

I’m definitely going to be:

  • recording myself on acoustic guitar using microphones,
  • recording myself on electric guitar through the Axe FX 3,
  • recording myself on electric guitar directly into the DAW (ie emulating direct-to-console tones)
  • recording myself on bass guitar (maybe through the Axe FX 3?),
  • writing and recording percussion in Superior Drummer,
  • mixing in-the-box (ITB for short)

On top of that, I might:

  • record myself performing percussions using a microphone,
  • record myself via guitar synth (with the synth as a DAW plugin?)
  • record myself on a MIDI keyboard (with a virtual instrument as a DAW plugin)
  • share previews / work-in-progress of each project with musical friends / potential collaborators

Let’s break that down into a little table.

Reaper vs LUNA – Feature by Feature

Here’s a table of the features that I need, and how each DAW satisfies that need.

FeatureReaperLUNA
Low-latency tracking 1NoYes
Multi-channel virtual instrument 2YesNo
Console preamp emulation 3Not nativeYes
Console summing 4Via pluginsYes
Mix using VST plugins 5YesNo
Share with remote collaborators 6YesUnlikely
A list of DAW features that make my choice complicated

Notes:

  1. The main reason I use LUNA regularly is because of the low-latency tracking. In the past, I’ve really struggled with my performance when multi-tracking in Reaper.
  2. Superior Drummer 3 (SD3 for short) publishes all the different parts of the drum kit as separate audio channels. Reaper understands and supports this, while LUNA does not. This is a very important feature for mixing the drum kit.
  3. While Reaper doesn’t directly support UAD’s console preamp emulation, I can do this by loading up a UAD Console session first. The big downside is that the project’s settings aren’t just in one place. That said, they’re not going to be in just one place anyway: the Axe FX 3’s settings have to be managed separately.
  4. LUNA only supports UAD and Apple AU plugins. It can’t load or run VST plugins at all. I don’t think I have any VST-only plugins, so maybe I don’t need this after all? This limitation might get in the way of collaborating with other people later on in the process.
  5. LUNA is a DAW that only works if you have Universal Audio hardware. Reaper, on the other hand, doesn’t care what hardware you have, and works cross-platform. To share a Reaper project, you just have to make sure everyone has the same set of plugins. That’s very easy to do if you stick to (say) the Tukan Studio plugins for Reaper, which are free.

Hopefully, that does a good job of putting across why this isn’t a simple decision. Both DAWs have essential features that I need, and that the other one doesn’t have.

What’s Missing From The List Matters Too

Another problem are the features that aren’t even on the list: the features I’m going to need, but that I don’t yet know that I need.

I’m raising this because, frankly, LUNA is not a mature, feature-complete DAW yet. In the two years since it was first released, it hasn’t progressed as quickly as perhaps it needed to. Reaper, on the other hand, often puts out a release every week or two, containing both fixes and new features. Reaper’s also been around for over a decade; it is a very mature DAW.

Reaper v6.x Has Significant Accessibility Issues

Somewhere along the way, the programmers behind Reaper starting making user-interface choices that can make it very difficult to use Reaper if you’re not a 20-something with fantastic eyes.

The Reaper v6 default theme uses low-contrast colour (grey text on a grey background, where the two shades of grey are very similar) in several places, such as:

  • the track controls
  • the master track
  • individual tracks in the mixer
  • elements of the transport controls

Some of this is made worse because Reaper also uses very small fonts in several places. Those are bad enough on their own, but it’s made even worse when Reaper is using very small fonts with low-contrast colour.

Frankly, no matter how good your eyes are, the Reaper user interface is very tiring to work with because of these issues. It’s definitely worse for those of us who are getting a little older.

The worst thing, though, is that there’s no way convenient way to resize and recolour these elements. I believe they can be fixed by creating custom themes, but do I want to put that level of effort into Reaper?

Workflow Style Isn’t A Factor – For Now

LUNA is trying to eat Pro Tools’ lunch, and is aimed at the crowd who are looking to emulate the workflow of a physical console. Reaper isn’t constrained by that, and therefore is able to offer ways of working that perhaps are more suited to the 21st century – and certainly to home tone amateurs like us.

That’s not going to affect my decision, though.

Each workflow style can get the job done, if I stick to using just one DAW for each project. I’ve never done a full song in LUNA; there’s definitely a learning curve there. I have done full songs in Reaper, but it was so long ago, I’ve got to relearn that workflow anyways. Oh, and Reaper has moved on a lot since then, so if anything, there’s a new workflow to learn there too.

Audio Quality Of Exported Files Is A Factor

Both DAWs have features that I want to use during the tracking stage, and both DAWs have features that I want to use when I get to the mixing stage. But there is one other factor that I haven’t mentioned until now, and that’s audio quality.

Maybe I’m naive, but I expect the exported mixdown to sound nigh-on identical to what I hear when I play the full mix inside the DAW.

In the past, when I used Reaper regularly – and we’re talking 3+ years ago here – I never had an exported mixdown sound the same. I was exporting MP3s, and the resulting file always seemed to have something missing from it. I don’t mean like a missing track or anything; the mix just didn’t sound the same.

With LUNA, all I’ve done so far is export little demos for this blog. It’s not a useful test, because none of them were full mixes. But I have tried out demo projects from UAD, and they have exported just fine. So, in theory, my own mixes will too.

This matters a lot to me. Within the huge limitations of my skillset, these are going to be the definitive recordings of this music. I don’t want to come back and re-record these in the future.

The Way Forward Is A Compromise

The only reason I can’t do the entire project in LUNA is that it only has the most basic of virtual instrument support. Everything else, I can live with.

The only reason I can’t do the entire project in Reaper is my previous experience when tracking a performance. I’m also a little put-off by the audio problems I’ve had in the past. But maybe things are different now?

So I’m going to use both.

  1. I’m going to program the virtual drums in Reaper.
  2. I’m going to export the drums as audio (not MIDI) from Reaper, to re-import into LUNA.
  3. I’m going to do all the instrument tracking in LUNA.
  4. I’m going to do all the mixing in LUNA, leaning heavily on the UAD plugins that I already have – including UAD plugins that only run inside LUNA.
  5. If I need to collaborate with others, I’ll export the mix as a set of stem files back into Reaper … or maybe Logic Pro X instead?

This is extra work, for sure. I’ve got to block out / create tempo & section maps in both DAWs. I’m going to have to bounce audio in and out of both DAWs; those drums will need editing, and it’ll be a lot easier to do that if I’ve got the other instruments in the project too.

Final Thoughts

In the end, I’m sure I’ll get fed up with the overhead, and decide to compromise on using a single DAW. I’ll want to spend more time making music, and less time working around DAW limitations.

Unless LUNA addresses its virtual instrument limitations – and right now, no-one is expecting UAD to that any time soon – I think Reaper will win out. If it can’t – if the tracking and export remain showstoppers – then I’ll have to look at either Logic Pro X (which has its own problems) or Studio One.

For now, though, I’m off to get started on the first track.

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