DAWs: My top 3 “Good value for money”.


3.5 years ago, December 2009, I officially stepped into what I like to describe as “The wonderful world of (soft) synths” by picking up on Ableton Suite 8 together with the APC40 and Max for Live. The latter was especially risky for me since I basically had no idea what I was getting myself into (until then I never heard of Max before). I still consider this a ‘good value purchase’ but that’s besides the point.

During the past 3 years I also picked up on other things to expand on my gear of software synthesizers, so now I’d like to setup a top 3 of the products I use to determine which ones I think to have offered the best value for their money, and why. Do expect a little bias, but I will backup my choices with solid comments and facts.

Determining ‘best value’ ?

Please keep in mind that this is of course in the end best determined by the user. And here the first problem immediately surfaces; what works for me doesn’t necessarily have to work for you, and vica versa. That’s where the bias comes in a little. And if you do feel I show too much prejudice or leaving important stuff out: please let me know!

Also: I’m well aware of products such as FL Studio which give you a lifetime update subscription. And there will probably be plenty of other products like it. That’s why I decided to keep this limited to the stuff I use since I know very well where the customer stands there.

1 – Ableton Live 8

I stepped into Live when update 8.0.x had been released. In the mean time we’re up on version 8.3.2 and a lot has been added and is still going to be added. For example; we got the Amp and Cabinet effects, right now you can upload your Ableton material straight to SoundCloud, obviously quite some fixes along the way but also specific enhancements; reducing latency, adding support for new controllers right down to specific updates for Max for Live (allowing access to chains in a rack for example).

Oh; and the upcoming 8.4 update is most likely going to provide 64bit support.

Yet us customers didn’t have to pay zip for updates. Added up to several extra’s (free downloadable goodies, good tutorials, several freely available sound material, etc.) I think it should come as no surprise why this gets the #1 place in my list.

Keep in mind: There is a little controversy here. The launch of Live 8 didn’t go very smoothly, it caused a lot of commotion and I strongly belief that this is also one of the reasons that we’re here now. Still; IMO it doesn’t change the fact that we got very good value for our money.

2 – Max / Max for Live

When Max for Live (‘M4L’) got released it gave users of Ableton Live a good taste of the Max visual programming environment. And better…  A product provided for roughly E 300,- (not sure what the exact price was back then) gave almost full access to a product normally sold for around E 650,- (same applies as mentioned earlier): while you didn’t get access to all the features of Max (for example; you couldn’t create stand-alone programs) you could fully utilize it.

Max provides a freely available runtime, thus people who want to use your Max patches (‘programs’) don’t have to buy into Max. M4L provided all the features Max had to offer (not the runtime) but within the confines of Ableton Live obviously. But nothing stops you from using M4L for creating Max patches; which you can then use outside of Live with the use of the runtime. I’ve made quite some patches this way; the ‘Rewire’ patch which you can see on the Max tribute page was actually made with this goal in mind.

Another important detail is that although Ableton sells M4L licenses the two companies obviously worked closely together. Thus Max users were entitled to discounts on purchasing M4L while M4L users got discounts on picking up Max licenses.

3 – Propellerhead Reason

When I picked up Reason 4, now 3 years ago, I picked up on something I still consider to be awesome. However; in comparison to regular DAWs one could argue that the product was “lacking”. An opinion I don’t share, but to name an example: Reason didn’t have any support for audio back then. You couldn’t record nor process audio and some audio related processing was a bit limited. In my opinion Reason 4 was a very specific product. It couldn’t record audio back then, but it could do so much more in other areas.

In the time between Reason 4 and the current version 6.5 some considerable changes were made. For starters; the Reason counterpart ‘Record’ (made for providing audio support) has become part of Reason. So upgraders basically got 2 programs for the price of one.

And I think that’s pretty heavy. Reason 4 was sold for approx. E 300,- but Record was also sold for approx. E 300,- back then (Reason owners got discounts, they only had to pay around E 150,-). And for that same upgrade amount Reason 4 / 5 owners are now entitled to both Reason and Record rolled into one package.

And something less impressive…

It is a shame but the way Komplete Elements is evolving continues to puzzle me. First there was the “feature strip” where the price of the product was cut but so were most of the provided sounds thus turning from a very good money value into something I’d actually recommend against picking up.

Yet now it also turns out that the “lasting value” of the original product is also something debatable. Worse: this also directly reflects on every individual instrument or sound you may have picked up in order to use in combination with the freely available players.

No continuance and no support

You could pick up Komplete Elements 7 for approx. E 100,- which got you the freely available players combined with a very impressive library which gave a very solid insight into the world of Komplete. The advantages should be obvious here: next to some great sound diversity the several players also provided you with the opportunity to pick up on individual instruments which could then be used to expand on your gear.

And I was personally also quite impressed that every one of the ‘bigger players’ (Kontakt and Reaktor for example) also provided a demo option. Approx. 30 minutes to do with the product what you want except for saving your data. And the freedom to repeat that 30 minutes by restarting it; thus really allowing you to explore these environments.

Yet here the problems arises…

You’re still working with the free players and Native Instruments is very clear on this matter: “NO support is given on free software”.

Unfortunately the players have all been upgraded to match the current version of Komplete 8. So what if you’re interested to purchase one of the current available instruments or sound effects?

You obviously won’t be able to use these with the current players since all major products have been upgraded to support the new versions. So if you get a new instrument you’ll also need to upgrade your player.

But can you do that if you have Elements 7?  I’m quite convinced that it won’t work. When I had Elements 7 installed I also once installed one of the free players separately which directly resulted in the Elements library disappearing. I had to re-install and re-activate it.

This tie-in is also clearly shown in the Native Instruments Service Center:

Screenshot of the Native Instruments service center.

As you can see Komplete 7 Elements seems tied into Guitar Rig 4 Essential, Kontakt player 4, Kore player and the Reaktor 5 player.

So I think its safe to assume that if you try to install any of the new players you’ll lose access to your Elements library.

And that would mean that it now becomes impossible for Elements 7 users to buy and use any of the currently available instruments and effects. Doesn’t sound like a very smart business model to me; locking your customers out of buying your products.

In all fairness: this is based on some assumptions combined with some experiences I picked up. I’m going to present this to NI support to see what they think, but something tells me that I don’t have to expect a quick answer, if any at all. But we’ll see…


When it comes to buying software or electronics I always apply a rule of thumb: “Is the product worth the money to me the way it is now?  And what would my opinion be when I pick up the product and next week the company behind it goes bankrupt?”.

Sounds pretty drastic but IMO its something you should consider. If you buy a product and rely on upcoming updates, what happens if you’re wrong and you don’t get any ?

I always try to approach a product “as is”. Great if you get updates and extra’s, but if you don’t I couldn’t care less either.

And I think the situation with Native Instruments clearly shows you how important such an approach can be.