What is the best DAW for schools?

Just so everyone is on the same page… a DAW (or Digital Audio Workstation) is the software on a computer that you use to record and mix audio and MIDI.  With the dramatic increase in computing power combined with falling costs now anyone can have a fully fledged recording and mixing system on their computer (or iPad or iPhone!).

In the past it was too expensive for schools to have recording systems (after all, who can afford an SSL, Neve or API mixing desk?) but now with cheap microphones and interfaces made in China, combined with powerful (and relatively cheap) computers any high school music department can have a recording ‘studio’.

The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.
The Control Room at Orange Studios in Christchurch, NZ.

So… what DAW or recording/mixing software should schools use?  There are so many options.

Here is your answer… Studio One Free from Presonus.

Why?  Here are my reasons:

  • It’s free (for the basic version) – students can download it to their own laptops and home computers right away and get playing around with it.
  • It’s cross platform – i.e. it works the same on Mac and Windows computers.  Therefore teachers can be assured that all students are working on the same software so they don’t need to know how to use multiple pieces of software.
  • It comes with good MIDI instruments so students can plug in a MIDI keyboard or other controller and get recording very quickly.
  • If you want to see how quickly you can download, install and record with it I’ve made a quick overview video that you can see here:

Some commons questions I get from teachers at workshops when I say this:

  1. So why not Garageband?  Well… I love Garageband (it is actually better than Studio One Free in many ways), but it only works on Mac computers so if you have students in your class with Windows laptops it creates issues in that you’ll have some students on Studio One and some on Garageband.  Many teachers are fine with that so if you’re one of those go for it (I have students using both DAW’s) but in the interest of keeping things simple… it’s probably best to keep all students on the same software.
  2. Why not Pro Tools… isn’t that industry standard?  Yes it is.  It’s my personal DAW of choice.  But it’s sooooo expensive!!  No way most high schools can afford it.  I had 12 Pro Tools 001, 002 and Mbox systems at an old school (an investment of around $15,000 at the time) and all those systems a long time ago became obsolete.  Pro Tools is much better now that you don’t have to have AVID/Digidesign hardware to use it, but for the software it’s still too expensive in my opinion.
  3. Why not Apple Logic Pro?  I also love Logic and it is now amazingly cheap.  But once again… Mac only.
  4. Why not Reaper… isn’t that also free?  I’ll get into this more below.
  5. Why not… blah blah blah?  There are many DAW’s out there and if you as the teacher are more comfortable in teaching those to your students (and your students can afford it) then go with them.  But if you’re new to this… stick with Studio One.

So what about Reaper?

Reaper is awesome.  It’s not exactly free, it just has an unlimited trial period.  But you can purchase it for your school at incredibly cheap prices (non-commercial licences are only $60 USD but you can get it cheaper if you purchase in bulk as an educational institution).  But, for working with MIDI keyboards (which is a big part of the level 1 Music Technology Unit Standards in New Zealand) it has proven to be too complicated for many teachers to setup… which is why I suggest Studio One.

For NZ teachers who are using the ‘SOND’ unit standards, 26687, 27703 and 28007 Reaper is probably a better bet.  For the level 2 and 3 standards your students need to be using fully parametric EQ’s and compressors that have ratio, threshold, attack/release and knee controls.  Studio One Free doesn’t allow you to use EQ’s and compressors (although the paid versions of Studio One that you can see outlined here do allow you to use better EQ’s and compressors) which is why if you’re wanting to stay with ‘free’ software, Reaper is a great choice.

So in summary…

  • In setting up a music technology programme at your school that uses MIDI (such as NZ schools wanting to teach the level 1 ‘MUSTEC’ standards 27656 and 27658) download Studio One Free.
  • If you’re an NZ school wanting to offer the ‘SOND’ standards 26687, 27703 and 28007 either buy Studio One Artist upgrade ($93NZD per licence currently…edu discounts may be available by emailing Presonus) or use Reaper (unlimited trial or purchase at very cheap prices).
  • If you are a school that is wanting to offer a full on studio experience then it’s probably advisable to purchase Pro Tools, Logic and Studio One Pro eventually.  But before you spend any money make sure you are absolutely certain that you need them, it’s very easy to waste money on software you hardly use!

Any suggestions or disagreements?  Please use the comments section to give your opinions on what you’ve found works well in schools.  But before you do, please ensure that the opinions you share are based on actual classroom and student experience.  I’ve had people in the past say that you must use Pro Tools with students as that is what is in pro studios and tertiary institutions, but when I’ve dug further I’ve found out these people have never taught in high schools let alone have had to juggle limited financial restrictions that most high schools struggle with.  What we are teaching should be recording and mixing, which can be done on any decent DAW.  Skills are easily transferable between software platforms.

Anyway, enough of my soapbox, let me hear what you have to say.

Oh, btw, Merry Christmas.

Duncan

4 thoughts on “What is the best DAW for schools?

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