Newbie’s guide to setting up a free DAW

I first dabbled with MIDI back in 1994, using Cakewalk running in DOS. That’s text-only Disk Operating System for those of you born into the current GUI (Graphical User Interface)-only world. Since then, I’ve only briefly tried making MIDI based music once again in year 2006, and that was it, until now. How the world has changed! I think most of the music you hear today are generated using MIDI and you can’t tell the difference anymore, between generated music and actual recording of real instruments.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a brand new term to me, as MIDI software was just called that, MIDI software tools. And there are so many competing products today, to the extent that you can get them for free (yay!). Plus, there are also many good quality virtual instruments available for free. This means anyone can make serious music entirely for free. Having gone through the somewhat painful process of setting up a DAW together with a decent collection of virtual instruments, I will share the steps in this post to perhaps ease your pain if you’re about to begin your journey in the same direction.

First, you need to select a free DAW (I’m on Windows btw). Initially I used PreSonus Studio One (Prime version), because it seemed intuitive, and came with a decently extensive set of virtual instruments. Very soon though, it became obvious that the instruments were inadequate, and the Prime version of Studio One does not allow you to add third party instruments. In fact, even the entry-level paid version (called Artist) does not allow you to add third party instruments and plug-ins, which is like, duh. I still keep it installed on my PC (which is a ten years old laptop mind you! runs DAW without much problem), just in case i need some of its instruments, or when i just want to churn out some music quickly, since i’m already familiar with how to use it.

Instead of Studio One, I went for Cakewalk, which has been made completely free not too long ago. From what I understand, it has no limitations whatsoever. A lot of the free DAWs limit the number of tracks you can use and you shouldn’t be bothered with them at all. It comes with a very small set of instruments and some effects, but that is not a problem because I can install any number of third party instruments and plug-ins. Moreover, from some of the YouTube videos I’ve seen, I found that it may have even better features than Studio One.

To get Cakewalk, there’s just a slight additional step of having to register an account with BandLab and first installing the BandLab Assistant App, otherwise quite straightforward. Next, grab the instruments. I work with the more conventional kind of instruments so the ones below are the most popular and recommended. If you’re into Techno/Chill/Ambient there are tonnes of synthesizers and loops available for download from just about everywhere.

With the exception of Kontakt, the others are relatively easy to install. You’ll install them at the commonly used folder locations for VSTs (e.g. C:\Program Files\Steinberg\VSTPlugins even though you don’t have Cubase at all), specify these locations in the Cakewalk VST settings and Cakewalk will scan and load them automatically.

Now, lets talk about Kontakt. It gives you a set of conventional instruments, including a Rock Guitar which is decent for use as an Electric Guitar. There are also some nice Pads, Synth (good for modern Bass-heavy music), drum loops etc. You’ll notice just about every music producer uses Kontakt in one way or another. Many virtual instruments are also made to run in Kontakt exclusively. If you’re new to Kontakt, you’ll most definitely be confused by the product nomenclature, specifically “Kontakt” and “Komplete”. So, Kontakt is the overarching name of the entire system. Kontakt is made by Native Instruments. Kontakt 6 is the current paid version, whereas Kontakt 6 Player is the name of the free version. Most of the paid instruments, whether by Native Instruments themselves or a third party, can only be used in the paid version of Kontakt. So, essentially, when you use Kontakt 6 Player, you’re only using the free bundles already included.

Now, all the free stuff that Native Instruments is offering to you is thrown inside a package called KOMPLETE START. Inside this package, there is a program called Komplete Kontrol which is more for standalone access to the instruments (e.g. for live performances) than for using as a plug-in within a DAW. Anyway, as stated in the instructions, you will still need to install and run this program first to scan and organize all the sounds/instruments, before you start using in the DAW.

To use Kontakt, first register for an account, add KOMPLETE START to your account. Download the Native Access App. Thereafter, use Native Access to install the various free bundles. You should install Komplete Kontrol, Kontakt 6 Player, Kontakt Factory Selection (the instruments are inside here), Play Series Selection (hybrid instruments) and also Guitar Rig 6 Player (contains effects and amplifiers, if you’re intending to have guitar in your music). Finally, add the VST folder location into Cakewalk VST setting (C:\Program Files\Native Instruments\VSTPlugins 64 bit). And you’re done. It took me a day to figure these out, so I hope you don’t have to go through the hassle.

Another software you may want to install is Sforzando. You will need this to use the Virtual Playing Orchestra. I found the VPO strings sounded better than Spitfire Audio’s BBC Symphony Orchestra (because the free Discover version is a very much stripped down version).

Some additional tips: You can download Cakewalk Reference Guide from here. To learn to use the Ample Guitars, which are really fantastic but also quite complex, get the manual and also check out William K‘s YouTube videos (unfortunately he stopped making new videos for a year already). There are tonnes of videos out there. I think the ones by Creative Sauce are also quite good, to guide you on using Cakewalk (he’s using the paid version of Kontakt though).

In case you’re wondering, my MIDI controller is the X6 Pro (currently only 1379 Yuan or S$282). The X6 Mini is only 909 Yuan (S$186). If you are using exclusively only with DAW then just go for the X6 Mini.

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