So you’ve got the gear…but do you have the software to lay it all down with? You can’t paint without a canvas. Perhaps you’re looking to switch to a more popular, supported digital audio workstation? Some say it’s all about the musician and that the recording software doesn’t matter…we agree, but to a certain extent. Give somebody like DJ Premier or Danger Mouse a vintage Boss drum machine and they can probably still make a hit. However, in our opinion you need the proper software to give you the full capabilities of the song you’ve worked so hard on building inside of your head — something to really transfer those ideas into a reality. You also need to optimize your workflow to simplify the process of making music so you don’t even have to think anymore — you can just create. With that being said, picking the best DAW can be dependent on a few factors. Let’s review the top 10 best digital audio workstations out today and help you pick which DAW is best for you.
What is a digital audio workstation (DAW)?
A digital audio workstation is basically a blank piece of paper and the necessary paint brushes for an artist to create their works of art on. All you need to bring is some sounds, your talent, and most of all, your creativity. A DAW is a computer program designed for editing, recording, mixing and mastering audio files. You can record your various instruments, MIDI controllers and vocals, lay down the tracks, rearrange, splice, cut, paste, add effects, and ultimately finalize the song you’ve got cooking for the world to hear.
Professional, semi-pro and home studios use DAWs as their backbone for making music if their main focus is to have a digital setup. Aside from those who use real instruments, we do know of some well-known musicians who still use analog setups, such as drum machines and synthesizers with real mixing boards and the like, but a majority of people nowadays are strictly computer-based or at least have a hybrid studio to incorporate both (why not?). This trend only continues to grow as technology advances. Aside from a computer or laptop for music of course, a DAW is the most important piece of production gear you’ll need to get the ball rolling for those masterpieces waiting to be created.
How to choose your production software
To us, choosing your DAW is like picking which soda to drink. Either way you go, it won’t necessarily be wrong especially in this day and age. As you can see in the comments, this decision brings much debate (rightfully so, and we’re glad it does since it allows us to continue to evolve and learn about music production as a whole — keep them coming). However, taking into consideration your personal needs is very crucial. Here are some important aspects to keep in mind during your search that we recommend.
- Your budget – We always list this first in our music equipment guides because it’s a pretty big given, but it’s always something to think about. Our opinion and mind state is to think of this as an investment. Typically a 4-5 year and beyond one (like buying a car), so you’re going to want to get it right. We’ve been using our DAW now for more than 10 years! Why fix what isn’t broken? With that being said, there is always free music software out there you can check, but we do recommend that if it takes saving up a few more hundred dollars, it’s worth it to wait. You want to think long-term, but before you do drop that money most of these companies offer free trials (which we’ll provide).
- What is your experience level? If you’re starting out, you don’t want to get too crazy in terms of a DAW, such as going with Pro Tools right away (they have entire school programs created for this software after all). You want to start with something that you can easily understand and use in order to get your music-making skills going. In that case, we’d recommend our newly published best beginners music software guide. Getting an expert-level software from the start can not only take months to learn but also be daunting, ultimately discouraging producers from continuing to sharpen their craft. Don’t get us wrong, if you’re the type to want to go big right away, be our guest. However, as stated in our beginners recording equipment article, we do recommend starters begin with something a bit smaller. On the other hand, if you’re a bit more experienced and you’re looking to take a step up, going the extra yard and getting an expert-level software such as Pro Tools may be hard at first, but an ultimate investment when thinking of the future. Which brings our next point.
- Think about the future, too – If you are a beginner, take the previous bullet-point into consideration, but keep the long-term in mind as well. Starting with a beginner software is great for right at the beginning, but it may get boring after your first year or two and you need to keep in mind that you’ll eventually be good enough to use more functions of the software. For children or youngsters, starting at a beginner-level is most recommended, but if the DAW you chose at first has a low ceiling, you’ll eventually have to make a switch and learn an entirely new software (it’s what I did with Acid Pro…I had to eventually move on to Ableton which took me some time to learn — although I did understand the universal basics of music software, so it wasn’t too bad). We’d go with something in the middle – a software that will take some time to learn, but will ultimately offer some valuable advanced features down the road when you’re ready. Although in the end, even the “beginner” programs could last you quite a long time (well-known musicians still use software considered to be ‘entry-level’ such as FL Studio).
- Do you perform live? A few of the software we list are more optimal for performing live, such as giving us some easy integration with MIDI controllers, VST instruments, control surfaces and other live performance-specific gear and features. Live performance gear gets a bit more tricky and you’ll want to make sure all of your tools flow well together. Regarding software, there are some more live-tailored features in some DAWs, such as saving presets, matching the interface with what you’ve got in front of you, etc. Some are just more geared to live performances, while others being for when you’re deep inside of the studio well-past midnight. Ultimately however, any software is fine for performing live.
- Stick with what you’ve chosen – The more familiar you become with software you’ve picked, the quicker and easier you workflow is, the more confident you become, and ultimately, the better your music sounds. Think you’ve learned a DAW to its fullest? Learn it again. Look into hot keys, extensions, etc. Join message boards or subreddits about the software to brainstorm with others. The more you know about your software, the easier it is to get those thousands of ideas circulating in your brain during your production onto the piece of paper. It’s an investment, but once it’s as smooth as butter, pumping out that music becomes even more beautiful as times goes on (it almost becomes second nature, such as driving a car). Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
- Relax! It’s 2018 — the digital age is here, and most of the production software out there is up-to-date and very popular. Either way you go with the 10 we’ve listed, you’re getting lifetime support, huge communities with message boards, and YouTube tutorials on any of the software you choose. You can’t really go wrong with one or the other, even if you’re a beginner. So don’t panic.
Our picks for the top 10 best music creation software
Below is our list for top 10 best DAWs out there. Take into consideration the level you’re currently at, where you plan on being for the future as well as the overall capabilities you’re looking for. Visit their website or the purchase link we provide for more information. We also tried to throw in the free trials and a few video overviews. We hope this guide has helped continue your music creation journey — keep the questions and comments coming at the end of the guide.
If you’re looking for some smart device DAWs instead (some, but not many, home studio artists are starting to go with this route due to convenience, although we still don’t recommend it right now), check out our best music making apps article since we made a separate guide altogether for that subcategory.
Recommended level: All levels
Operating system: Mac or Windows
Since it’s introduction in 1999, Ableton Live has been steadily growing as a very popular DAW and for good reason. We know we’ve gotten scrutiny for listing it first, and everybody is entitled to their opinions. However, we feel this is the best digital audio workstation for most of our readers. Here’s why (and just a few reasons, considering it would take days to explain the power of this) — you’ve got the standard multi-track recording (an unlimited number of audio/MIDI tracks for songs) and cut/paste/splice features, but what’s especially great about this software is the seamless MIDI sequencing software and hardware. We’ve had so many fusses with our MIDI controllers getting mapped to our sounds through the DAW (back when we used Acid Pro in 2005-2010), but ever since the switch to Ableton it’s been extremely headache-free. Another huge plus is the included sound packages included. Although this really depends on your preferences and whether or not you have your gear and sounds up to speed, it comes with 23 sound libraries (about 50 GB of sounds), so you can make music right out-of-the-box (great for starters).
To finish off our description for the beloved Ableton, this thing is the absolute best music software for performing live with. We’ve experienced very few glitches (the biggest fear of performers…it can make or break a set). What’s even better is that Ableton has paired up with some brands to create gear specifically for the program, often matching interfaces with the software for easier pairing and remembering of sounds. Although this is an extremely simplified summary of the software, you can’t go wrong with Ableton Live, regardless of your “level” (how do you even categorize that?). We recommend trying it first to see what it’s all about — you then have two versions (intro for about a hundred bucks or standard for half a G — try intro first before you go all the way up).
Recommended level: Beginner and up
Operating system: Windows only
This is one of the best DAWs for those looking to start out and get their feet wet in the music making world. FL Studio by Image-Line has been out and about for quite some time, being one of the most popular software to date. It’s got your standard protocol with pitch shifting, correction, time-stretch, cut, paste and the works, but it’s interface is especially well-suited for the beginner. It’ll take a little bit of reading to start going, but once you’ve got the hang of it you’re good to go. There are plenty of YouTube videos out there dating back to 2005 giving tutorials for pretty much any feature you need explained. Their latest version includes over 30 synth software for out-the-box usage, so if you’ve just purchased a controller and want some sounds to start fiddling with you don’t have to spend much money.
You can use MIDI keyboards, record into it with a microphone, do your standard editing and mixing — it just gives you what you essentially need in music software with a simple interface. There are some advanced features as well, so once you become familiar with it you can delve further into these to attain a solid learning curve for the future, too. It’s very user-friendly, especially with adding some virtual instruments and playing them on MIDI. Another perk is it works great with PC or Mac. The retail price is also a lot lower than others out there, so it’s definitely budget-friendly. We’d recommend getting this if it’s for somebody younger as well. What made this program famous in our opinion and still does is the fact that 9th wonder uses FL Studio today (if anybody is a fan like us).
Recommended level: Medium to expert
Operating system: Mac only
Full Version | No free trial available!
This is an amazing digital audio workstation, particularly for those with a Mac (not compatible with PC). What stands out with Logic Pro is the interface — very advanced to help with the music making process by including track consolidation (track stack), instrument layering, an intuitive mixer for plug-in control, and a “score editor” to allow you to create your own MIDI (comes with nine MIDI plug-ins that help you transform the sounds, such as chaining multiple plug-ins together, scale velocity, etc) tracks with only a mouse (most programs have this). It has a “virtual drummer” feature which features an interactive drum set for visual implementation of drums for some fun playing and natural sounding kits. Also has an arpeggiator that’s better than a lot of software out there — it’s programmable too.
This thing is just jam-packed with features, synths, plug-ins, and not to mention a great interface for easy learning. Even if you’re a beginner, although not recommended, you can probably get away with using Logic — it’ll just take some time to learn it. Just remember, it’s worth sitting down for even a month or two to learn the basic ins and outs of this and you’re good to go for years. Logic Pro isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and their community is huge for any questions that may arise. Another plus is it comes with a sound library and loop collection with some pretty fresh out-of-the-box effects as well, so if you’re looking for some sounds for your controllers/pads this is a plus.
It’s only usually priced around $200 retail, so it’s pretty easy on the wallet compared to others. Check out our best MIDI controller for Logic article if you need some gear, too. Just remember this only works with Mac. It’s stated to give Pro Tools a run for their money — I’d recommend grabbing it if you’re just a step below Pro Tools and don’t want to spend the money or take months or *gasp* take a class to learn it. If you want an easier interface that’s geared more towards beginners, you can read further until you get to Garageband — Apple’s more simple digital audio workstation that’s free.
Recommended level: Expert\professional
Operating system: Mac or Windows
What’s there to really say about Pro Tools by Avid? Or how about, what isn’t there to say? If you’re looking for the mixing and mastering industry standard (which is now debatable, I see from our comments over the past few years), this is the software to get. Ask any professional producer or sound engineer and they’ll say that anything else in the DAW world is just a waste of time. However, a lot of them say this after becoming certified in the program — as we stated before, there are entire school programs dedicated to Pro Tools. If we really wanted to describe this software to you it would take us 100 articles, but here’s a bit of a breakdown: It gives you the standard ability to compose, record, mix, edit, master, etc. What’s advanced is it has its own Avid Audio Engine which gives you a super fast processor, a 64-bit memory capacity for sessions (never lag, freeze, etc), its own latency input buffer to help with that annoying delay, and built-in metering. Change the tempo with time-stretch of any track, and there’s something called Elastic Pitch that’s a bit like autotune in the sense of ‘correcting’ harmonies. Also comes with 70 effects and plug-ins: reverb, compressors, EQ’s, channel stripping, the works — merely anything you can think of, Pro Tools has. I can’t even begin to list everything it can do.
We also know some pro musicians who use Pro Tools only for mixing and mastering and having an additional DAW to make their music from scratch. It’s compatible with both Mac and PC, although with Mac it works a bit better (was originally created strictly for this). Please note that we’ve heard a lot of reviews out there state that it’s very buggy on Windows, so use with caution. If you go big with Pro Tools, you’re set for life. Just know it takes hours, days, weeks or even months of learning it. But once you do, it’s not only the best music-making decision for you, but perhaps a future career prospect as well. We’re not sure if it’ll ever go away.
Recommended level: Slightly above beginner to semi-pro
Operating system: Mac and Windows
Reason by Propellerhead is slightly less known in the music software community, but is one of the most stable as far as we’ve learned. Pretty nifty since you can drag and drop among the interface (such as synth patches and effects straight into the sequencer), has a relatively fast system as many have stated, and most importantly, the workflow is exceptional for those within the middle to semi-pro range. It’s not too complex but not that simple either — in our opinion right in the middle. However, I’ve heard that some of the plug-ins offered by Reason are a bit out-of-date as compared to other DAWs like Fruity Loops.
Reason has a very solid mixing console, better than a lot out there besides Pro Tools or Logic. This is also a great DAW for those recording guitar or bass since it includes amp and speaker plug-ins from Softube. These are nice for adding effects and presets to your riffs and it works well with both PC and Mac. What’s pretty nifty is the software’s ability to cut and splice audio files automatically…although I’m a bit tedious when it comes to this, it’s nice to get those files chopped before you start digging in. Pretty accurate most of the time but others I have to clean them up a bit…ultimately it doesn’t hurt. Lastly and just for some more FYI, it supports all MIDI hardware so you’re pretty good to go in terms of essential features within a workstation. Nothing too huge like Pro Tools in a sense of mastering or more advanced effects features, but for half a grand retail, Reason is really giving other DAWs a run for their money.
Recommended level: Beginners only
Operating system: Mac only
Full Version (free)
Garageband by Apple is an extremely popular DAW, especially among beginners. Extremely suitable for those in the starting stages of music, particularly younger ones or those who merely want to lay down some tracks and make some cool tunes. However, I have some friends who tour nation-wide that still use Garageband just because of its simplicity and ease of use for recording. We’d go with this over Fruity Loops in terms of starting from scratch as your first DAW if you’re on a Mac.
What’s also special about this software is its got the very user-friendly interface that helps you visualize what you’re making — keyboard, synths, and percussion. It offers some pretty solid presets for vocal and guitar recording as well, although nothing too out of the ordinary. It does have a few good amps and effects for the guitar or mic. As a cool little additive, if you’re looking to learn how to play piano, it’s got a nice built-in lesson function for both piano as well as guitar. It maps out the chords and explains what they are to help you get a better understanding of music theory. It supports your standard USB keyboard and gives you some loops built-in to mess around with (you can buy more through their app store), and there’s something called “Smart Controls” which is basically an interactive control of plug-ins — knobs, buttons, sliders, etc with images to really visualize what you’re doing behind the scenes.
Just an overall solid digital audio workstation for beginners, especially because it’s free. The way they monetize off of the software is basically purchases for more plug-ins, effects, and others; however, you can get away with what it comes with. A nice little touch is it’s compatibility with iPads if that’s what you’re looking for, a trend we’ve seen increase lately.
Recommended level: Semi-pro to expert
Operating system: Windows or Mac
You’d be surprised at how many people use Cubase music software. Steinberg has their signature key, score and drum editors included in the workstation. The Key Editor lets you manually edit your MIDI track in case you need move a note over here and there. You get your unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, reverb effects, incorporated VST’s, etc. Although it’s seen as a bit of a trend from these DAWs, ultimately trying to separate themselves from the competition, Cubase has one of the biggest sound libraries that come with the box. You’ve got something called the HALion Sonic SE 2 with a bunch of synth sounds, Groove Agent SE 4 with 30 drum kits, EMD construction kits, LoopMash FX, etc. Some of the most powerful plug-ins within a DAW. We recommend going with Cubase if that’s what you’re particularly looking for.
Some just say that it’s a bit expensive and very hard to learn — but as stated previously, once you learn it, you’re good to go for a very long time. I’d recommend going with Pro Tools or even Logic Pro if you’re going to be spending a lot of time learning a software, you might as well make it one of the more popular ones. If you buy it from Amazon you already get the eLicenser. It’s around $400 retail. Watch the videos on the Steinberg website to see what’s new in the latest version.
Recommended level: Semi-pro and up
Operating system: Mac and Windows
Reaper by Cockos has lost a bit of popularity with the emergence of Ableton and Logic Pro, but it still holds strength as far as a dedicated DAW goes, and is actually more useful for those mixing or mastering needing flexibility. You download the software and get it for 60 days and then have to pay to download a license to keep it going. We feel this is a great strategy for both the brand and user since it allows us to try it out for an adequate amount of time without having to drop some dough. Reaper is pretty unique when it comes to comparing to other DAWs out there. It’s coded by a smaller group of individuals aimed to give us the mere essentials of a DAW without a bunch of features we probably we won’t ever use. You can drag and drop your VST’s and FX, map your MIDI controllers seamlessly, cut, paste, split and edit individual tracks, plug-in support for a majority of creators. This is basically an open-source, nitty-gritty software.
It supports most audio interfaces, plug-ins and effects. When downloading Reaper, you really have nothing to lose since you get to try it for 60 days before buying. If you’re shopping around and serious about your research, we say to give it a go since you get 60 days of full usage for free. Who knows? It may be the DAW for you, or perhaps some software to add to your toolbox when it comes to finalizing tracks after you complete the recording process (many popular producers do this).
Recommended level: Beginner to semi-pro
Operating system: Mac or Windows
Here we have a very stable music software by a brand we love, PreSonus. They include Studio One DAW in a lot of their products, such as their AudioBox iTwo audio interface we recently reviewed. This isn’t just a little add-on to products, however — It’s a full on standalone workstation giving you drag-and-drop functionality, unlimited tracks, MIDI, VST, buses and FX channels, as well as mastering integration (not necessarily on Pro Tools level), a Melodyne feature, and some nice reverb effects that sound very smooth (some of the best reverb some have heard). It’s stated to be a bit easier in terms of workflow as compared to more popular DAWs, such as Logic needing a few more extra steps to achieve a certain function you need. The interface isn’t that impressive in terms of aesthetics but I’d take workflow over looks any day — pretty standard.
The 64-bit sound engine gives you studio-quality recordings. It basically has all of the essentials and we see it competing against a lot of the other more known DAWs out there. It’ll take a bit to learn the mastering tools but if you need a software for that this can get you by if you are trying to avoid Pro Tools. It’s compatible with both Mac and Windows and starts around $400 retail. Check out their nice little package called the PreSonus AudioBox Studio which gives you Studio One (Artist version, not Pro), headphones, a mic, audio interface, and necessary cables. Otherwise, go with something more popular.
Recommended level: Beginner and up
Operating system: Windows only
Last but not least, this thing will always be our baby. When I first started making music in 2001, I had an old version of Acid Pro when it was still made by Sonic Foundry. I got so accustomed to it I continued to use Acid Pro 4.0 until early 2010 when I finally made my switch to Ableton. There were pros and cons for sticking with the software for so long, one pro mainly being that I knew it like the back of my hand. If my friends were ever over making music and wanted something done, I could merely press a hot-key and had it complete, getting some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ here and there. The downside was that it was a bit buggy when it came to MIDI incorporation and other more-advanced features that are available with DAWs nowadays. Their latest version is actually very stable and we recommend this for beginners until even semi-pro like we were for the past decade.
Acid Pro by Sony just does what you want in an essential-based manner. There’s the recording ability, loop audio tracks, and MIDI support. It’s got a pretty solid sound series loops (3,000 sounds) and comes with about 90 VST’s to mess around with using your MIDI controller. The time-stretch works pretty well too, something I’ve used quite a lot if I need to slow down or speed up a sample or track I’ve recorded. It’s downloadable and very cheap, around $60 retail, so if you’re looking for a budget-friendly DAW and one that has been around for decades — this is it.