Tracktion’s entry-level DAW is now free, making it ideal for anyone taking their first steps in production. Chris Lyth gives us the lowdown
Not everyone can afford the premium price of a high-end DAW such as Ableton, Logic or Cubase. What’s more, for many who are just starting out in production, the comprehensive feature sets that such packages offer can actually be a hindrance to getting down to the all-important activity of making music. This means there’s definitely room in the market for a DAW that’s affordable and easy to use – and they don’t come much more affordable than free!
For some years now, Tracktion has been building a solid reputation for producing innovative audio software with a slightly leftfield approach. The company has been steadily refining its Waveform DAW, turning what was a once-niche product with a small but dedicated following, into something which can stand proudly alongside the more established players, while also offering something a little different. This can only be a good thing: it’s nice to have a platform which is a slight deviation from the script!
When iDJ last looked at Waveform in 2017, when it was already a well-specified DAW that, given its modest price tag, was a worthy investment. This latest version is offered free for Windows, Linux and Mac with only a few cutbacks from the full-fat behemoth of Waveform Pro. So with money tight for many of us right now, it seemed rude not to put it through its paces.
Tracktion has clearly gone to great lengths to make sure that configuring Waveform is simplicity itself. There’s a handy guide on startup which takes you through stage by stage, from setting up your soundcard to scanning for plug-ins and sample files. This took me about 10 minutes, and once that’s done you can move on to the tutorial videos which really lift the veil on how the DAW works.
As I’ve already hinted, Waveform is a slightly odd cookie when it comes to layout and functionality. I found it a touch disorientating at first, but after a little experimentation and watching some handy tutorials, things quickly started to make sense.
The eyeball function in the top-right corner is a major player in the overall workflow, allowing you to configure your workspace by turning different sections of the DAW’s view, such as the piano roll or the mixer, on and off. You can resize a section to focus on whatever task you are working on, then quickly hide it and move onto another.
Once you get used to it, it’s a very user-friendly and sophisticate interface that’s capable of a wide range of tasks, from recording live instruments and DJ mixes to a plug-in heavy, electronic-style set up. Handily, there are also a number of templates spanning a range of disciplines and settings to get you started.
Synths and effects
Waveform Free’s built-in effects are refreshing in their simplicity – and that’s not a backhanded compliment! They’re all of a very high quality, but trimmed of all fat and rendered instantly intuitive, delivering exactly what you need quickly without a plethora of distracting options or processor-heavy graphics. Inspiration is often a very short window of opportunity, so a clear, clean user interface is a massive help!
The 4OSC synth in particular can create some fantastic sounds: everything from throbbing bass to wistful pads and cutting leads can be had here. There are also plenty of modulation options available, and once you’ve been playing for a while you realise it’s a very capable and versatile unit.
The Micro Drum Sampler is also a very nice addition that comes loaded with 808 and 909 kits ready to roll, as well as allowing you to drag and drop samples to make up your own kits. With these particular drum machines showing no sign of loosening their cultural grip on modern music, it wouldn’t be an overstretch to suggest that a decent techno banger could easily be conceived using just the Micro Drum Sampler and a couple of 4OSC parts.
MIDI still plays a huge role for many electronic producers, and Waveform Free has some great compositional tools on hand.
The MIDI Chord Player is a joy for people like myself whose keyboard skills are somewhat below concert level. It’s very easy to use, with pretty much every conceivable chord type, plus there’ the option to create your own custom chords – a great way to personalise your sound.
The MIDI Pattern Generator is also great as a springboard for generating basslines, melodies and other creative possibilities.
While Waveform Free isn't quite the feature-rich, multi-disciplinary audio environment that some of the big hitters will provide, it has an exciting design philosophy that calls out for new imaginative ways of working. It has a clean and clear interface geared to music-making and offers an unlimited track count and full audio and MIDI recording, editing and mixing, with some great-sounding electronic instruments and effects.
Obviously, some high-end features are missing, but if you gel with Waveform Free and want to take things further, then the latest version of the paid-for Waveform Pro has just been released too, and is pretty modest on the pocket all things considered. If you’re looking to start making music, this is a great place to begin.
Words: Chris Lyth
For more information on Waveform Free and Waveform Pro, see Tracktion's own website