Not that long ago, getting musical ideas down on tape required expensive studios, complicated recording gear and a small army of production professionals.
On top of that, if a recording wasn’t perfect the first time, you’d have to book more studio time to re-do things.
This was not only time-consuming, but it was also expensive. The fact is that a top-of-the-line studio could charge hundreds of dollars per hour!
While professional recording studios still have their place in the modern musical landscape, much of the heavy lifting these days is handled by computers. Specifically, most recording professionals rely on the power of digital audio workstation (DAW) software to get things done.
From recording to editing and composing to mixing and mastering, the best DAW software can take the place of hundreds of pieces of hardware and emulate expensive gear without the price tag.
Avid Pro Tools
PreSonus Studio One 5
Image Line FL Studio
Apple Logic Pro X
MOTU Digital Performer
Soundtrap by Spotify
Akai MPC Beats
Our Overall #1 Rated Pick
Our top pick is Ableton Live because not only is it great for music production, Ableton is relied upon by a vast majority of artists to handle their live performances.
Live is a fast, fluid, and flexible DAW for music creation and performances that includes a wide range of features, instruments, sounds, and effects enough to make any kind of music.
Users can either use a traditional linear arrangement or improvise without the limitations of a classical timeline, moving freely between different musical elements, without ever having to stop the music or break the flow.
What Is In This Guide
Top 5 Best DAW Software For Music Production
What is a DAW?
DAW is an acronym/term used in the music industry to describe a piece of software that combines many abilities of a traditional recording studio into a computer application.
The name came from early physical workstations which featured a mix of hardware and software built into recording consoles. Many original DAWs also featured built-in keyboards and pad controllers for recording notes directly into the software.
Today, the average DAW software includes features like virtual mixers, multi-track recording, non-linear editing, software plugins for sound enhancement and more.
Essentially, a digital audio workstation combines many of the hardware tools of a traditional studio into a convenient program to be run on a computer, laptop or even a tablet or smartphone.
How to Choose the Best DAW for You
Whether you produce hip hop, work with cinematic scoring, record other artists or anything in between, there’s a DAW out there that’s perfect for your needs. To help you begin the journey of finding the daw that’s right for you, below are a few key factors to consider:
- Compatibility With Other Programs
- Your Computer/Operating System
- How Will You Use the Software?
There are other factors to consider, but this list includes the things that I’ve found make a big difference when purchasing new studio software and gear.
Although money isn’t everything, it can be a huge factor in deciding on music software. Even though today’s options are more affordable than ever, you still need to consider your budget when deciding on which DAW is right for you.
One of the things that I run into a lot when people ask my advice about which DAW to choose, is the notion that because a certain producer or artist uses XYZ, then it must be the best.
Well, maybe it is the best for that particular producer or artist, but will it be the best for you? Can you get the features you need from a less expensive DAW? If so, go with that instead.
Budgeting for any type of musical purchase also needs to factor in upgrades and future investment.
Just like musicians will need to think about the lifespan of a particular instrument before buying, studio professionals also need to consider how much a DAW will cost now vs. how much it will cost to upgrade and update over the lifespan of the product.
Additionally, you need to think about your growth as a producer. Spending the bare minimum right now might provide you with enough to get by, but it may make more sense to purchase something that will be able to scale with your needs as you learn more.
Compatibility With Other Programs
Compatibility is a huge factor in deciding on musical software. While many modern digital audio workstation software titles have been standardized across PC and Mac platforms, there’s still a lot of variance when it comes to things like virtual studio technology (VST) protocols and version matching.
Unfortunately, even if an older version of a plugin or other tool worked with your DAW in the past, there’s no guarantee that it will work with a newer version.
VST protocols are also always evolving. Currently, VST3 is the latest version available, but some DAW software doesn’t play nice with it since older tools were programmed to work with previous versions of VST.
Incompatibility could mean that your favorite plugin won’t work with your preferred DAW or that upgrading to the latest version of a DAW could lead to issues with hardware or your operating system.
I find it’s helpful (if not a bit boring) to read the release notes for each update that comes out for the software I use. This information will usually provide instructions for upgrading and dealing with known compatibility issues.
Your Computer/Operating System
Speaking of compatibility issues, your chosen operating system has a lot to do with whether or not your DAW will function properly or at all.
These days, Windows and macOS are the two main operating systems for which DAW software is designed. This should make choosing a DAW easy, right? After all, you just go with one that works for your operating system.
The issue here is that some cross-platform DAWs simply don’t function as well on certain operating systems. Hardware can be to blame in some cases, but if something was designed specifically for use with a Mac, but then it gets ported to PC, your experience might be downgraded.
Of course, you also don’t want to have to learn an entirely new operating system just to use a DAW, so I recommend trying to find an option that works well natively with the OS you already know and are comfortable with.
How Will You Use the Software?
Choosing the best DAW software for your needs means taking a good look at how you plan to use it. If you’re just dabbling in digital audio or you’ll be using the workstation software for a personal project, you may not need to go out and buy an expensive, feature-packed title.
On the other hand, if you’re going to be producing commercially available audio or you’ll be working with clients in a studio setting, you’re probably better off looking for something with more bells and whistles. This is assuming, of course, that you actually need them.
Scalability is another factor that needs to be taken into account regarding your future plans. Maybe you’re working out of a home studio right now, but in five years, you might move to a professional studio space.
Will your DAW be able to scale with the change? Will it still provide enough usability to work with more equipment as your space and gear collection expand?
Are Paid DAWs Better Than Free DAWs?
Before I get into my reviews, I want to address the topic of free vs. paid software. Another way to look at this is limited vs. full version audio software.
There’s a notion in the music industry that free means lower quality. I mean, it does seem to make sense since you often get what you pay for. However, when it comes to software, including digital audio workstation software, this isn’t always the case.
Many DAW designers offer a trial version with limited functionality in order to let you experience the features and functions of a program for yourself. This actually boosts sales since you aren’t just taking the company’s word, so it’s a good business model.
By trying something before you buy it, you’re able to test things out for yourself, and in the end, the company has a better chance of maintaining a happy customer relationship.
On top of that, many free digital audio products are created by musicians who simply want to contribute their passion to the benefit of others who share in a love for all things audio.
Some digital audio software products are even open source, making their code accessible to others who want to improve the product or customize it.
It’s true, however, that paid products generally have a good track record for quickly addressing programming problems and issuing frequent updates.
After all, the company has a vested interest in keeping you as a customer. They not only want you to buy the next version of software that comes out, but they also want you to pass along your positive experience to others.
At the end of the day, I think the choice really comes down to what you need vs. what you get.
If a free or limited piece of software gets the job done and meets your needs, there’s no reason to purchase anything additional.
If a paid or full version is what you need, then it’s time to think about budgeting accordingly to get what you need.
Our Reviews of the Best DAW Software for Music Production
With so many DAW options available these days, finding the right recording and production software solution can feel overwhelming.
There are plenty of quality DAWs out there, but if you don’t have much experience working with digital audio software, you might not even know where to start looking.
DAW software solutions also come in a range of prices with a variety of features. This is great for those who want to have a lot of choices, but it can be a problem if you aren’t sure what you need now or what you’ll need in the future.
To help my readers out, I took the time to review 17 of the best DAW software options for musicians, producers, recording enthusiasts and professionals alike. Check out my list below:
Who It’s For: Production enthusiasts, live performers and recording engineers. Live incorporates elements from traditional DAWs and combines them with tools for live performances and on-the-fly production.
Ableton Live is one of my favorite hybrid audio tools because it offers a unique take on the traditional DAW. Aside from offering the usual recording and editing features found in many audio software titles, Live also gives me the flexibility to work within live spaces for performances and production while out of the studio.
One of the really cool things about working with Live is that I can control audio and MIDI clips using hardware. What this does is turn Live itself into an instrument.
This also makes Live a great option for remixing since it gives me the power to make new arrangements as I go along. If I end up improvising something really cool during a performance, I’ve already got it captured as long as I was recording.
While Live works well with most MIDI controllers, Akai Professional’s APC40 mkII MIDI controller has been designed exclusively for use with the software.
I’m a big fan of Akai pad controllers, and the brand is known as one of the original innovators in the pad controller space. I hooked up an APC40 to Live during my testing, and within minutes, I was already creating and recording a new track.
Live also plays well with a variety of plugins, but it comes with its own suite of instruments and effects as well. Even without using third-party plugins, I found Live offered plenty to keep me creating and innovating.
Pricing for Live is a bit on the high side as Live Suite can cost quite a bit of money. However, something I love is the fact that Ableton offers payment plans so you don’t have to incur a huge upfront bill.
Live does also come in less expensive versions like Standard and Intro that still offer plenty of Live’s signature features without the added expense.
Wide range of features for live performances
Dedicated hardware as well as integration with lots of third-party hardware controllers and software apps
Generous 90-day free trial
Payment plans to help avoid large upfront fees
- No free version, only a 90-day free trial available
Can be CPU-intensive
VST organization could be improved
Versions: Ableton Live comes in three different versions: Intro, Standard & Suite. A Live license is registered to a single user and can be installed on up to two computers
Pricing: Starts at $99US. There is also an option to buy a package that includes the Ableton Push hardware which seamlessly integrates with Live.
Payment Options: Ability to pay in full or monthly payment plans available. You own it (no subscription option).
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Avid Pro Tools
Who It’s For: Both recording professionals and home recording studio engineers alike who need an all-in-one package that receives regular updates. Pro Tools is one of the original top dogs in recording and producing, and it is more accessible to a larger audience than ever.
Ah, Pro Tools. The one, the only, the big daddy of all DAWs. Well, maybe not anymore, but at one point in time, maybe around a decade or so ago, Pro Tools was considered the must-have DAW for anyone who considered themselves to be a serious recording professional or producer.
Today, the DAW remains a staple in the music industry, and it still provides a top-notch experience for recording engineers, artists and producers.
The reason why this DAW is no longer considered king, is because plenty of other brands have come along to publish software that rivals or surpasses Pro Tools at a fraction of what Digidesign used to charge.
Today, the platform is owned by Avid and is available in several different versions for both Windows and Mac.
I’ve used the program back in the day when it was considered the top choice in the industry, and I still use it from time to time in my own studio for various projects.
Gone are the days when you were forced to use specific hardware in order to maximize the effectiveness of Pro Tools. Instead, users can interface with a huge variety of hardware components and are no longer locked into the Pro Tools ecosystem.
The platform also includes a huge number of quality plugins and is capable of recording thousands of audio inputs at once in Pro Tools Ultimate. It follows the traditional non-linear timeline model and provides advanced mixing tools to polish recordings of all types.
I like working with the DAW for recording, but I feel like it really shines in post-production due to its incorporated plugins and its ability to interface with so many third-party plugins.
Even though Pro Tools is still the industry standard when it comes to professional recording, I’m not a huge fan of its business model as of late. Avid decided to make the platform available on a subscription basis.
This may be good for producers on a limited budget, but I personally like to own the things I’m spending money on. The subscription model also provides updates as long as you continue to keep your subscription active, but again, you’re kind of tied to that relationship in order to continue using the DAW.
I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down on Pro Tools because I’m not. I just want to be clear that, while the program still serves as an industry-leading DAW, there are plenty of competitors out there that can do just as good a job.
Just because some Grammy-winning producer recommends a DAW doesn’t mean you should run out and put money down on it.
- Has a free limited version
- The cleanest audio editing workflow out there, the widest range of features in the industry and tons of included high-quality content
- Professional built-in video editor
- Controllable from smart devices
- Dedicated high-end hardware and support policies that are among the best in the industry
- Opportunity to release and promote your music on 150+ streaming outlets
- Compatibility with Avid’s other software tools, including Media Composer video editing and post production tool and Sibelius music notation tool
- Undoubtedly the most popular DAW that genuinely represents the industry standard when it comes to music recording and post-production for true professionals
- Rather limited trial version
- Subscription model may be a problem for some
- Higher system requirements than any competing DAW
- More expensive than any competing DAW
- Avid only accept credit cards as a payment method
- All versions, except the free First version, require either a permanent Internet connection or an iLok physical device
Versions: Pro Tools comes in three different versions: Pro Tools First, Pro Tools, & Pro Tools Ultimate. You have the option to either buy a perpetual license in some cases (which can be installed on up to three computers) or rent the software via a monthly subscription.
Pricing: Pro Tools First is free and the next version starts at $34.99/month
Payment Options: Avid only accepts credit card payments.
Compatibility: PC and Mac
PreSonus Studio One 5
Who It’s For: Recording engineers who own PreSonus hardware and budding producers who need an all-in-one recording solution. Presonus Studio One has quickly become the go-to DAW for home studio engineers and producers who want a lot of features without breaking the bank.
One of the things I like most about the platform is that it works seamlessly with PreSonus hardware. In fact, many PreSonus audio interfaces come bundled with a license for Studio One, and I really think this is the way to go for hardware manufacturers who want to draw customers into an ecosystem.
Presonus Studio One features a non-linear recording and editing layout that should be familiar to anyone who has worked with DAWs in the past.
What sets the DAW apart is that it contains a huge variety of tools in the box to alleviate the need for third-party plugins.
I find that the incorporated plugins included with Studio One rival top-name competitors.
When testing Studio One, I noticed I was using fewer and fewer third-party products and more of the ones included with this DAW. Whatever genre I was working with, Studio One had the tools I needed to get the job done right.
PreSonus has also proven itself to be an innovator in the audio hardware sector over the years with products like audio and MIDI interfaces, studio monitors, pad controllers and more.
With Studio One, the brand backs up its reputation for innovation with the inclusion of useful tools like Harmonic Editing through Chord Track and Scratch Pads to audition different arrangements.
Studio One is available as a standalone DAW or as part of the more comprehensive PreSonus Sphere. If you chose the Sphere option, you pay a subscription fee to access Studio One along with other add-ons like loops, plugins, effects and videos.
I’m not a huge fan of the subscription model when it comes to software, but with all that’s included in the Sphere option, it’s kind of hard to pass up.
- 30-day trial can be downloaded for the most expensive version
- The Artist version is included free with quite a few PreSonus interfaces
- Productive and intuitive drag-and-drop workflow
- Controllable from compatible smart devices
- Has an optional subscription model for those who don’t want a large upfront commitment
- The user interface may be too cluttered for some
- Only available on 64-bit operating systems
Versions: Studio One is available in three different versions: Prime, Artist & Professional. You have the option to either buy a perpetual license which can be installed on up to five different computers or rent the software via a monthly subscription
Pricing: You can access a the Prime version of Studio One for free, while the next version will run you $99. Studio One also comes with the purchase of certain Presonus products.
Payment Options: Credit card and PayPal are accepted, but no payment plans.
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Image Line FL Studio
Who It’s For: Musical artists who place a big focus on music creation in the production process. FL Studio offers a unique and innovative way to get ideas from your head to the screen quickly and easily.
I’ve been using the platform from its early days as a basic step sequencer. Over the years, FL has evolved into a production powerhouse that is an excellent choice for producers, recording engineers and hobbyists alike.
What really sets the platform apart from other DAWs is its focus on fast, efficient production. FL incorporates plenty of features found in other software (plugins, multi-track recording, etc.), but from the moment you boot up the program, you’re greeted with a channel rack for composition.
Adding virtual instruments, samples, loops and audio tracks takes seconds, and FL Studio’s piano roll is incredibly easy to use. What’s important to note is that the platform doesn’t follow the traditional timeline editing scheme most DAWs use.
Instead, channels are added to a rack and routed to a mixer. From there, you can either compose an entire track in one go or create multiple patterns that are then arranged on a timeline.
FL does take some getting used to since it doesn’t follow the traditional progression found in other DAW options, but once you understand the controls, I believe most musicians and producers actually work faster using FL Studio.
The fact that FL Studio is available in a range of price points and with a number of feature sets for different needs and budgets is another selling point.
Regardless of the version you purchase, you have everything you need to begin creating and producing right out of the box. FL Studio includes tons of synths and effects that rival third-party paid options.
Finally, I respect the fact that Image Line provides lifetime updates at no cost. You pay for the software one time, and every single new version is yours free for life.
- Offers free lifetime updates, so you buy it once and have it forever (except for the entry-level version)
- License is shared between both PC and the Mac versions
- Customizable interface and extensive automation capabilities
- Can be run as a VST plugin
- Piano roll is lauded as one of the best in the industry
- Interfaces with MIDI controllers with ease
- There are still some features and plugins that are not ported to the Mac version
- Non-standard layout may take some time to learn
- Recording capabilities may feel limited for some since FL Studio does not incorporate the traditional non-linear timeline layout
Versions: FL Studio is available in four different versions: Fruity, Producer, Signature, All Plugins & FL Studio mobile.
Pricing: Pricing starts at $99. FL Studio mobile works on both iOS and Android devices and is priced at under $13.99 for iOS and $14.99 for Android.
Payment Options: Traditional payment options, including credit cards, are accepted as well as PayPal. No payment plans or subscription options.
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Who It’s For: Producers and recording engineers who want to work with a creative suite instead of relying solely on recorded materiel. Reason includes a variety of tools to design and manipulate audio and is available for use as a plugin for other DAW software products.
Reason has been around for over 20 years, and it’s still one of my favorite DAWs to work with when I’m in the mood to experiment. Propellerheads Software created Reason in 2000, and the most recent version is designated as Reason+.
What’s interesting about Reason is that it functions as both a standalone DAW and as a plugin itself. You can use Reason inside of other DAW software to bring its functionality and tools into a separate project.
When using Reason as a plugin, you still maintain full control over the elements within Reason as well as the elements within the DAW you’re using Reason inside of.
If you choose to use Reason as a standalone application, the program still provides a great experience using standard composition and editing tools.
The real selling point of Reason is its focus on creative freedom. Over 70 modules are included with this DAW, giving you plenty of room to flex your musical muscle. Composing with Reason utilizes a traditional non-linear approach, but the layout is unique and intuitive.
Each module introduced into a project can be viewed and manipulated in its own window above the timeline, providing focus and tighter control of detailed parameters.
Once again, however, I’m a little bit bummed out about Reason’s sales model. Although you can purchase Reason outright, you’re heavily encouraged to use a subscription service that must be maintained in order to continue using the software.
As with Pro Tools, the subscription model is a good choice for people who don’t want to be tied down with a large purchase, but it also means that you’re going to have to maintain an ongoing relationship with a brand if you plan to access your projects in the future.
- Easy to use and fast to learn
- Unique rack-based workflow
- Great SSL-modeled mixer
- Large collection of stock instruments
- Reason can function as a suite of virtual instruments and be integrated as a VST3, AU, or AAX plugin in any other compatible DAW
- Reason has an optional subscription model which means there is no need for a big upfront payment (unless you want to buy it)
- No free version and very short trial version (only seven days)
- The interface may be too unconventional for some users
- In plugin form, it can’t host other VSTs or load Reason projects
- As a stand-alone DAW, it lacks quite a few advanced features
Versions: There are two versions available as: Reason & Reason+
Pricing: Priced at $399. The subscription model, called Reason+, is priced at $19.99/month or $199/year if paid upfront for a full year and offers not only Reason Studio, but also all additional content
Payment Options: Reason is available for purchase through credit card or PayPal.
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Apple Logic Pro X
Who It’s For: Mac users who want a professional recording and editing alternative to GarageBand. Excellent choice for music professionals and advanced studio engineers.
If you use a Mac, you likely already know about GarageBand (read more about GarageBand above). Well, Logic serves as GarageBand’s big brother. In this case, however, Logic is a much older, much wiser and more complex big brother.
While GarageBand is Apple’s introduction to the world of sound design and digital audio, Logic Pro X is a fully-featured DAW that offers everything you need to record, edit, mix and produce professional-grade audio.
Logix Pro X includes a non-linear timeline recording and editing scheme that is intuitive and easy to grasp. It borrows many design elements from GarageBand, so if you’re already familiar with GarageBand’s look and feel, you should pick up Logic fairly quickly.
One of the things I like most about Logic Pro X is that it provides enough simple tools to make my creative flow fast and effortless, but it also gives me technical control over the little details.
Essentially, Logic Pro can be as simple or complex as you like, making it a great option for casual users and audio professionals alike. I often recommend Logic to GarageBand users who are ready to take the next step in learning digital audio, but it’s also a really good choice if you’re switching from a PC to a Mac.
When using Logic Pro X, I often find myself editing and working with samples since the program includes a lot of sample-specific tools. The Drum Designer also gives me the power to make beats without the need to set up and mic a full drum kit. I can easily program drums myself or work with the vast amount of samples and pre-programmed drum tools included.
Unlike GarageBand, however, Logic Pro X is not free and does not come with macOS versions. It can be purchased from the Apple Store. Apple does continually upgrade and support Logic Pro X, so making a purchase now means that you’ll continue to receive updates in the future.
Also, it should go without saying that since this is an Apple product, it is exclusive to Mac computers. Sorry Windows users, but you’ll have to look elsewhere unless you’re running some type of emulation or virtual machine.
- Create simple lead sheets or complex orchestral scores with the built-in Score editor
- Loaded with tons of content – over 70GB of plugins, sounds, instruments and effects
- Generous 90-day free trial
- Compatible with all versions of Novation’s Launchpad
- Seamless upgrade path from GarageBand
- Some features can be controlled from an iPhone or iPad via Logic Remote App
- No free version
- Only available for Mac
- Layout may not be technical enough for some users
Versions: Logic Pro X is available in a single version. It can be installed on an unlimited number of Mac computers as long as they’re logged into the same account that was used for the purchase.
Pricing: Priced at $199.99
Payment Options: Payment options include credit cards, but no payment plans. Must be purchased from Apple’s online store. You own it (no subscription option).
Compatibility: Mac only
Who It’s For: Musicians and sound engineers seeking an affordable DAW that can compete with big names. Reaper receives regular updates and offers an experience on par with established DAWs in the industry.
Reaper was one of the first “indie” DAWs to hit the scene, and it has grown into a feature-packed recording and production studio solution for musicians of all skill levels. One of the things I like most about Reaper is that Cockos provides a full 60 days to try it out, and both personal and commercial licenses are very affordable on virtually any budget.
Speaking of the trial period, there are no limitations during this time. This means you can try out every single feature and function, save projects, render files and more just as if you owned a full license.
If you continue to use Reaper beyond the trial period, you will not only be nagged every time you open the software, but you’ll also see a count of how many days you’ve used Reaper without paying.
Reaper features the ability to record and edit using a non-linear timeline, so waveforms can easily be moved around and synced perfectly.
You can also record directly into the timeline and program tracks using MIDI instruments as well. Reaper includes all of the traditional functions of big-name DAWs, including the mixing, plugins, advanced editing tools and more at a fraction of the price.
One of the things I respect most about Reaper is that it isn’t supported by a big company. There’s nothing wrong with DAWs produced by big names in the industry, but I find that the larger a company becomes, the less focus it places on developing solutions for everyday musicians and producers.
Cockos is run by a small group of audio enthusiasts and includes individuals responsible for Winamp. This alone speaks volumes to me about the creative passion Cockos has put into Reaper, and this passion shows through with each update.
During my time using Reaper, I’ve found very little that it can’t do compared to other established DAWs. From MIDI CC envelopes to routing diagrams and even the ability to render files with transient information embedded, Reaper is an audio tech nerd’s dream.
- Highly customizable interface
- Very quick, responsive and fluid workflow
- Built-in video editor for social media enthusiasts
- Generous 60-day free trial and a discounted price for personal use (only $60)
- Free update towards the next edition’s life cycle
- One of very few DAWs with a Linux version (even if it’s just experimental for now)
- Frequent updates based on user feedback
- No unpaid version
- No built-in instruments or loops and a limited selection of plugins
- The interface may not be friendly to beginners
- No discounts for upgrading from earlier editions after the free update period
Versions: Either a Personal or Commercial license. You own Reaper with no limit on the number of computers it can be installed on. Each license can only be used on one machine at a time.
Pricing: Reaper is available at $60 for a personal license (which even allows commercial use as long as your gross income is lower than $20,000 per year) and $225 for a commercial license if you earn more than that.
Payment Options: A variety of payment options, including credit cards, Paypal and bank transfers are available, but no payment plans. No subscription option available.
Compatibility: PC, Mac, and Linux
Who It’s For: Producers who want a built-in loop and sample library as well as home studio engineers who need an affordable recording solution. Mixcraft offers a lot of the usual features, but its focus on loop-based composition sets it apart as an easy-to-use solution.
Back when I first started getting into digital audio production, Sonic Foundry’s Acid introduced me to loop-based production.
I fell in love with the concept immediately as it gave me the opportunity to not only make music using a computer with no instruments, but it also provided the ability to remix and chop up compositions in new and interesting ways.
Although Acid has gone on to be acquired by Sony and then Magix Software, the original concept is one that changed digital production forever. Today, Mixcraft reminds me a lot about the software that changed my perspective on digital audio all those years ago.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. Mixcraft is much more than a loop-based DAW. In fact, it features many of the usual modern functions of most DAWs, including the ability to record and program MIDI, record audio and apply effects.
The difference is that Mixcraft comes loaded with over 7,000 loops and samples as well as a variety of modular virtual instruments. This makes it perfect for musicians who don’t know how to play an instrument or musicians who don’t have the capacity to record live audio.
Basically, if it’s in your head, there’s a good chance you can manipulate a loop or program a MIDI track to match your needs.
In terms of cost, I find that Mixcraft is affordable on almost any musician’s budget. Currently, Mixcraft is available in two versions: Mixcraft Recording Studio and Mixcraft Pro Studio.
The difference between the two versions as of this review is that the Pro Studio version includes integrated Melodyne and audio-to-MIDI conversion tools. Aside from that, both versions are identical.
So, if you’re looking for a simple solution for creating music without needing a lot of hardware and recording equipment, the Recording Studio version will likely be your best bet.
If you’re planning on recording vocals and working more with instrument recording, the Melodyne tools and audio-to-MIDI features might be worth the extra cost.
- Very easy to use, especially for beginners
- Rich content library
- Built-in video editor for social media enthusiasts
- Great support for third-party plugins and hardware
- No free version
- Works only on PC, not on Mac
- Some plugins and virtual instruments look dated
- Limited to a traditional linear arrangement design
Versions: Mixcraft is available in two different versions: Recording Studio & Pro Studio. Your license is registered to a single user account and can be installed on up to three computers.
Pricing: Starts at $99
Payment Options: Payment options for Mixcraft include credit cards, Paypal or check. You own it (no subscription option).
Compatibility: PC only
Who It’s For: Professionals who want DAW software from a trusted name in recording and production. Cubase remains one of the most stable releases and boasts a track record that extends back to 1989.
If you want a DAW that has proven itself to stand the test of time, then Steinberg Cubase is right up your alley. I’ve used Cubase on and off for years, and each new version offers more value than the one before. Steinberg as a brand is one of the top names in digital audio and is the originator of the VST protocol.
Cubase was actually the first DAW to utilize VST back in 1996. Since then, pretty much every single DAW on the market today utilizes VST or has built its own plugin technology off of the foundation of VST.
This is important since the majority of plugin manufacturers utilize VST as the platform of choice when coding virtual instruments and effects.
Aside from the history of the brand, I think what impresses me most about Cubase is Steinberg’s commitment to composition tool inclusion. Plenty of DAWs provide composition tools, but Cubase really takes things to the next level with features like Scale Assistant and the advanced Score Editor.
This is why I recommend Cubase for producers and musicians who really want to focus on the technical aspects of songwriting.
If you’re the type of musician who likes to create as you go along, you might not get as much out of Cubase; however, if you want to sit down and write out a melody note for note, devise harmonic progression charts and work with different note expressions, Cubase is going to give you all you want and more.
Now, when it comes to price, Cubase can be a bit of a challenge for home studio producers and beginners. Although the Elements version is available for around $100, things start to get a bit heavier as you move up to the Pro version.
Currently, Cubase Pro clocks in at almost $600. You do get a lot from the Pro version, but you also pay for all of that audio goodness. This is why I suggest Cubase only after you’ve had a chance to try it out to make sure it’s something you’re ready to invest in for the long-term.
- Fast, intuitive and refined workflow
- Add-on content available
- The entry-level version comes with a decent feature set, and there’s a good balance of features on each of the three versions
- Integrates well into Steingerg’s other software tools, including Nuendo, Wavelabm and VST Connect
- One of the most widely-used and respected DAWs with a great history of innovation and development
- No free version
- Limited to a traditional linear arrangement layout
- All versions except Elements require a USB eLicenser dongle which costs an additional $29.99
- While Steinberg offers a 30-day free trial for all versions, even trial versions (except Elements) require a dongle
Versions: Cubase comes in three different versions: Elements, Artist & Pro.
Pricing: Starts at $99
Payment Options: Steinberg supports a variety of payment options, including credit cards, PayPal and bank transfer, but no payment plans or subscription options.
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Who It’s For: Producers and recording engineers who also want access to a powerful library of plugins and instruments. Bitwig includes some innovative features, but it is a bit pricey compared to similar options.
Bitwig is one of the newer DAWs on the market, and I first tried Bitwig to see what all the hype was about when it released. Since then, more features have been added, many of which are found in other DAWs. The difference is that Bitwig incorporates these features in a unique way that may speak to different types of producers.
For example, Bitwig includes Operators. These are functions that change the way MIDI notes are represented and played back. Using Operators, you can scale large amounts of notes at once, insert randomness for a more realistic sound and adjust other parameters. While this is cool, DAWs like FL Studio have been using these features for years, so it isn’t a huge step.
Bitwig includes the general non-linear timeline recording that you’re probably used to if you’ve used any modern DAW, and it also comes with hundreds of instruments and plugins for editing and producing.
The one sticking point for me when it comes to Bitwig is that, although I like working within the program, the price for the Studio version is a bit steep. At the time of this writing, the platform is being sold for around $400.
This wouldn’t be so bad except that it only includes one year of free updates, so after 12 months, you’re probably going to have to shell out more cash for a new version. GmbH sells a 16-track limited version of the software for about $100, but this is too limiting in my experience.
Maybe if you’re going to be working on some personal tracks or just doing some home recording for demo purposes, I could recommend the limited version. For anything commercial, the Studio version would be the way to go, but at the current price point, I’d rather look elsewhere.
- Innovative, forward-thinking features
- Very user friendly and offers a light learning curve for beginners
- Modular structure and flexibility
- Strong hardware integration with many controllers
- One of only a few DAWs with Linux support
- Offers one full year of free updates from the moment of purchase
- Able to import FL Studio, Ableton Live or Auxy files
- Extensive touch-screen support includes multi-touch with unlimited touch points, gestures, pen support and simulated pressure
- No free version, demo disables saving and exporting
- Cost is a bit high compared to similar DAWs
Versions: Bitwig comes in two different versions: Bitwig & Bitwig Studio. Bitwig Studio and Bitwig EDU can be installed on up to three computers, while Bitwig’s 16-Track version can be installed on two computers.
Pricing: Starts at $99
Payment Options: Bitwig can be purchased using credit cards, PayPal and a few other localized options but no payment plans and no subscription options.
Compatibility: PC, Mac and Linux
MOTU Digital Performer
Who It’s For: Recording professionals who fall within the intermediate to professional range. I wouldn’t really recommend this Digital Performer to beginners, but if you have some experience with DAWs, the platform is a great choice.
MOTU’s Digital Performer is another one of those DAWs that reigned supreme in the early 2000s thanks to its implementation of non-linear editing and multi-track recording. This was at a time when Pro Tools was also beginning its meteoric rise to fame and studio engineers were left with few alternatives.
MOTU is also the manufacturer of many audio interface hardware units, MIDI controllers and more, so the seamless integration of these components with the program was a big selling point.
Today, Performer is still a top-quality contender in the world of digital audio. It offers plenty of tools for both professional musicians and studio engineers, including Nanosampler and Articulation Mode.
On top of that, I really like working with Digital Performer’s Audio Retrospective Record feature. This is a recall feature that is always listening and recording (when enabled) to capture audio and MIDI notes.
Using Audio Retrospective Record, I can play around with different ideas, and if I stumble upon something amazing, I can instantly recall it without ever having to worry about missing a take.
Another nice thing about working in Performer is that it gives you the option to apply effects on a transposed basis. This leaves the original audio untouched when you transpose an effect from one clip to another. Once again, this gives me creative freedom to play with ideas and experiment without the worry of messing up a perfect take.
The layout in Digital Performer is meant to give options for customization, but one thing I’ve noticed is that things can become pretty crowded if you’re working on a small monitor. There’s so much information and so many windows to work from that you can easily get lost if you aren’t organized.
As far as the price is concerned, I think that this DAW is right around the mid-range for audio enthusiasts and those who are a few years into their studio career. When you factor in all of the included plugins that come with Performer, this DAW really is a deal.
- 30-day free trial
- A limited Lite version (not available for direct purchases) is included with many MOTU hardware audio interfaces
- Wide range of general features and rich content library
- Ability to create and manage multiple sequences for live touring
- Dedicated high-end hardware and compatibility with tons of other third-party hardware controllers as well as full support for VST1, VST2, VST3, MAS and AU plugins
- No free version
- Complex with a steep learning curve, especially for beginners
- Price point may be an issue for some budgets
Versions: Digital Performer is available in a single version. Can be installed and activated on two computers at the same time.
Pricing: priced at $499.
Payment Options: Credit card payments accepted, but no payment plans. You own it (no subscription option).
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Who It’s For: Mac users who want powerful tools for basic music creation and editing. Perfect for hobbyists and budding recording professionals.
Apple has long been known as the go-to computer brand when it comes to pro digital audio. Given the company’s history, it would make sense that Macs would support big-name DAWs like Pro Tools, but GarageBand took a decidedly different approach when it was introduced back in 2004.
GarageBand started off as a basic recording program that allowed everyday Mac users to create and minimally edit their work. Today, GarageBand is still one of my favorite DAWs to play around with since it makes recording quick ideas easy and effortless.
Now, to be honest, GarageBand is not going to be a solution for a professional studio (and it’s not meant to be.) If you’re looking for robust editing features, tight control of technical parameters and other detailed functions found in top DAWs on the market, GarageBand is going to disappoint.
If, however, you’re looking for something that will provide an introduction to the world of recording and working with digital audio in general, GarageBand is a wonderful starting point. Using GarageBand, you can record audio directly into the non-linear timeline, record and edit MIDI notes using a keyboard or other MIDI hardware and add basic effects.
The really nice thing about GarageBand is that it is included free with macOS versions, and the company continually supports the product.
Of course, this means that you’ll have to be a Mac user in order to use GarageBand, but if you’re already on the Mac platform and you don’t want to spend cash to see if digital audio is where you want to go with your musical aspirations, GarageBand is a great tool to explore the fundamentals of recording, producing and editing.
- Absolutely free
- Very easy to use
- Enjoyable interactive guitar and piano lessons, including free artist lessons
- Clear upgrade path towards Logic Pro X
- Compatible with Logic Remote App (another free tool) which means it can be controlled from an iPhone or iPad
- No mixing console/board view
- No 5.1 surround mixing capability
- Missing many advanced features
- Works only on Mac
Versions: There is only one version of GarageBand which is bundled with all Mac computers and laptops.
Payment Options: N/A
Who It’s For: Producers and sound engineers who want a proven DAW that has a sleek UI and extensive networking features. Cakewalk has come a very long way over the past 30 years, and it continues to be a pillar in the music industry for professional digital audio production.
If you’re looking for one of the oldest and most revered DAWs available, then you’re looking for Bandlab’s Cakewalk. This DAW’s history stretches all the way back to the days of MS-DOS and Window 3.1 as Cakewalk originally served as a MIDI sequencer for digital audio production. The product has changed hands over the years, ultimately ending up as a flagship product of Bandlab.
Interestingly, Cakewalk has kind of been combined with another DAW known as Sonar which used to be owned by Gibson. All of this has taken place under the Bandlab umbrella.
Basically, Sonar has been re-branded as Cakewalk, and interestingly, it’s available for free. The catch is that you have to use the Bandlab client to download Cakewalk, and in doing so, you’ll receive offers for Bandlab’s online services which do come at a premium.
What I find most appealing about Cakewalk today is its user interface. Specifically, I enjoy working with this DAW using touch-surface control products since everything was designed with intuitive control in mind.
Cakewalk features a 64-bit mix engine that pairs perfectly with 64-bit architecture operating systems, and the included effects are some of the best I’ve worked with. I especially like the focus on tape emulation effects since these give a lot of room to play around with authentic sounds of vintage studio production.
Another nice thing about Cakewalk is that it allows unlimited tracks in any number of configurations. This gives you the ability to work with audio tracks, loops, one-shot samples, MIDI, aux tracks, send tracks, VST3 instruments and more from one convenient interface that never feels too crowded despite offering so many options.
Although Cakewalk offers similar features compared to other big names in the digital audio workstation sector, one thing that really sets it apart is Bandlab’s focus on collaboration and networking.
Using Cakewalk, I’m able to not just collaborate on tracks across the Internet with other producers, but I’m also able to notate access and changes, work across a version history and even meet other like-minded creators using the Cakewalk network.
- Has the features of a premium DAW while being 100% free
- Sleek, professional-looking and customizable interface
- Effortless workflow and flexible ProChannel modules
- Advanced 64-bit mix engine with the ability to save and restore mixes
- Full support for VST3 and ARA plugins
- Direct export to Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud, and more
- Wide range of collaboration tools plus safe cloud storage for every project
- No Mac version
- Not really suitable for live performances
- Layout may be too cluttered for some users
- A small selection of stock instruments, sounds and effects
Versions: Cakewalk is available in one version
Payment Options: N/A
Compatibility: PC only
Who It’s For:
Musicians and producers who don’t want to hassle with installing and maintaining software as well as producers who need a DAW solution for on-the-go creation. Soundtrap provides simple tools that may be lacking for advanced producers who need more control.
Spotify has quickly become the go-to destination online for new music and old favorites, and the brand is very supportive of new artists.
With all that Spotify does to broaden musical horizons, it only makes sense that the brand would create its own DAW to offer a way for musicians to create and produce.
Now, the thing about Soundtrap is that it is a DAW that lives in the cloud. What this means is that its not software that you download to a computer, but instead, it runs in your browser.
Also, Soundtrap is provided as a subscription service. Although there is a free option, this is a limited trial that may not give you an accurate representation of the full experience.
This unconventional cloud approach to the traditional DAW is both good and bad in my experience. I really like that I can use Soundtrap from my laptop and other digital devices while traveling.
I also like that there’s no software to maintain on my machine. The cloud-based approach makes it easy to incorporate Spotify’s networking and collaboration features into my workflow.
The drawback is that I have to rely on having an Internet connection in order to work with Soundtrap and access my files. While I’m rarely without a connection, there are times when service may be weak while I’m away from home.
This also means I have to rely on Spotify’s web services being available, and as any Internet user can testify, things can and do happen.
Soundtrap is free to use, but if you really want to take full advantage of the software, you’ll need to sign up for one of Spotify’s premium services. These are billed monthly or annually depending on your preference.
When it comes to the user interface of Soundtrap, I can see where Spotify tried to make things simple, but in my experience, this actually caused a bit of a snag. When trying to set up monitoring for a simple audio recording, I wound up frustrated since I wasn’t able to get direct monitoring up and running.
I could get audio to record, but I wasn’t able to monitor my progress despite changing several settings. Ultimately, this turned out to be an issue with Soundtrap not supporting low-latency monitoring outside of macOS.
I can see the potential with Soundtrap, but for now, it just doesn’t offer anything close to what is available through traditional DAW software. It does provide access to easy controls for recording and editing, but if you’re planning on fine-tuning a production, you’re going to be disappointed with Soundtrap.
- Has a free limited version and 30-day free trial
- Very easy to use with a perfect learning curve for beginners
- Can record, edit and collaborate through any device that can access a web browser
- Direct upload to Spotify saves time
- Can make and edit live recordings while away from home
- Lacks quite a few advanced features, and even the existing ones lack the in-depth customization level found in other DAWs
- Not compatible with any third-party plugins
- Requires a fast and stable Internet connection
- Subscription model means you never own the software
Versions: Soundtrap comes in five different versions: Soundtrap Free, Music Makers Premium, Music Makers Supreme, Storytellers, Complete.
Pricing: Free version available and paid starts at $9.99/month.
Payment Options: Payment options include credit cards and Paypal as well as bank/wire transfers for education purchases. You rent the software via a monthly or annual subscription
Compatibility: Any device able to run a modern internet browser
Who It’s For: Producers who are looking for a scaled-down user interface that doesn’t clutter the screen with unnecessary components. Waveform’s workflow is intuitive and works well for audio producers who don’t want a lot of distractions.
I’ll be honest, I really don’t have that much experience with Tracktion Waveform, so I had to take some time to dive in during my review. Right off the bat, the user interface struck me since it’s designed to be simplified. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your personal taste.
I feel like people who are new to digital audio production may like Waveform’s approach, but if you’re the type who wants to dig into the technical side of things, you might feel the interface is a bit lacking.
Now, this isn’t to say that Waveform itself is simple. In fact, Waveform’s use of pitch correction is something that a lot of DAWs don’t offer right out of the box.
Using Audio Chord Tracks, you can have the pitch of an audio track adjust itself automatically while it follows the changes you set. This makes it very easy to work your own sample, audio clips and loops into a track without having to manually make pitch corrections on each piece of audio.
Speaking of loops, Waveform offers access to a large number of loops through its store, and many are included when you purchase the DAW.
Waveform also has a full line of synths and effects that can be purchased as add-on plug-ins. I usually like to use third-party plug-ins, but Waveform’s solutions were designed for Waveform, so I experienced no technical issues when using them.
Pricing for Waveform is another thing I like about this DAW. You can get your hands on Waveform for free, but this version doesn’t include all of the features of the full version.
For example, you aren’t able to customize the layout or utilize the Editor Track or Arranger Track features in the free version. You can, however, use most of the general audio features in the free version, so if you’re curious about giving Waveform a try, this would be the version to pick up first before spending any money.
Waveform Pro includes all features and costs a one-time fee, but you can try it out for 90 days before making a buying decision. When purchasing Waveform Pro, you’re presented with three options: Basic, Standard and Extreme.
From Basic to Extreme, each option offers more add-on content like loops and synths. The Extreme version includes a lot, but I find that it’s a bit overpriced unless you really feel comfortable heavily investing into Waveform as your main, long-term DAW.
- Able to add on a number of great add ons like Antares & Melodyne
- Scaled-down user interface
- 90 day free trial available
- Has a free version without artificial restrictions and a generous 90-days free trial for the paid version
- License can be shared between all supported operating systems (Mac, Windows, or Linux)
- Can be a bit pricey the more you add on with the Pro option
Versions: Tracktion Waveform comes is available in three different versions: Free, OEM, & Pro. It can be installed on up to three computers simultaneously, independent of their operating system.
Pricing: Free version available. OEM can only be accessed with the purchase of select Behringer, Mackie, and ROLI products. Pro has three bundle options starting at $119.
Payment Options: They support a variety of payment options (like credit cards or Paypal), but no payment plans.
Compatibility: PC, Mac, and Linux
Akai MPC Beats
Who It’s For: Musicians and producers who value creative freedom and a streamlined workflow for quickly making beats. MPC Beats provides an easy and affordable way to get ideas down without a ton of technical knowledge or complicated tweaking.
I’ve used Akai hardware for years because the company simply knows how to design affordable MIDI solutions. From pad controllers to keyboard controllers, Akai’s products are available in a range of price points to allow beginners and pros alike the chance to make music.
I respect that about a brand because too often, music companies tend to overlook the “little guys” and end up pricing them out of access. To add to this, you can use VST and AU plugins, and MPC Beats comes with two gigabytes of free content to get you started.
MPC Beats from Akai continues this approach by offering a free DAW that is easily accessible for all skill levels. During my first session with MPC Beats, I could tell right away that it is geared toward creativity and the user experience.
Honestly, I do feel like you need to have a working knowledge of MIDI in order to use MPC Beats, but the brand provides a whole series of online tutorial videos for anyone who may be new to using this technology.
While you can record audio into MPC Beats, the program feels like it really wants you to take full advantage of its composition features. This can be done using almost any MIDI input device, but you can also insert notes manually.
From there, editing was fast and easy. Notes are displayed in their own window where you’re provided with plenty of control and manipulation options like looping and note value adjustment.
Another really nice feature in MPC Beats is the auto-mapping. This DAW supports all Akai MIDI controller hardware, and it already has the keys and pads mapped out for a variety of controller units.
Even if you aren’t using an Akai product with MPC Beats, it contains mapping for a number of popular products and brands. All you have to do is plug in your controller, select it from the dropdown list in a new channel and MPC Beats takes care of all of the internal technical stuff for you.
I was also able to run MPC Beats alongside other DAWs like FL Studio and Logic Pro X. This was done by running MPC Beats as a plugin that opens directly in my other DAWs. Once open, I had access to the full functionality of MPC Beats within the main DAW, and this gave me more flexibility and creative options.
If you’re running dry on creative juices, you’ll really appreciate the fact that Akai offers access to a huge amount of audio content for download through its store and the free downloads that come with the DAW.
Audio loops are prearranged and mixed, so using them is as simple as dragging and dropping. From there, you can edit, add effects and mix to get the perfect track.
- Streamlined workflow for quickly making beats.
- Seamless integration with Akai hardware
- Solid auto-mapping feature set
- It lacks quite a few advanced features
- More advanced users could feel restricted in what they can do
Versions: Available in two versions: MPC Beats & MPC2
Pricing: MPC Beats is Free and MPC2 is $99.99 if paid upfront.
Payment Options: Pay upfront or in monthly instalments.
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Who It’s For: Beat makers and producers who focus heavily on sample-based music. Serato Studio is easy to use and serves as a good starting point for artists who want to get ideas down fast.
Serato is a brand focused on DJs and DJ equipment, so it should come as no surprise that Serato Studio is a DAW that offers a lot of features that turntablists and producers will find helpful.
This isn’t to say that Serato Studio is only for DJs, but it’s just to point out that DJs are going to feel right at home working within this DAW. In fact, Serato Studio can be thought of as a scaled back version of Serato’s DJ Pro that heavily favors those who ride the wheels of steel.
Unlike traditional DAWs that utilize a timeline layout, Serato Studio provides a simpler approach using a sequencer that resembles a pad controller matrix. Here, I was able to add sample and select the notes in the sequencer that I wanted to play at different intervals.
When I got tired of filling in each little square that I wanted to represent a hit using one-shot drum samples, Serato Studio provided me with fill tools to automate the process. This gave me the ability to do things like fill in every other beat, change the interval up to 1/32 notes, and more.
When working with samples alongside the beats I created, I could stretch the time to match my BPM setting perfectly. This synced everything up and gave me plenty of freedom to play around with different loops that were created at different tempos.
Each channel could be adjusted individually, so I was able to even out volume levels between my drum samples and audio loops pretty easily to get a decent scratch mix.
You can record audio into Serato Studio, but recording features are quite limited, so I wouldn’t rely on this DAW for my main recording setup. Despite that, Serato Studio does offer pitch shifting abilities to match samples to a particular key.
This can be done in a non-destructive manner, and the end result blended seamlessly with the rest of my samples. I did notice a bit of warble with some pitch-corrected samples, but these things can happen depending on the amount of correction that needs to be applied. Taking something in a low C and bringing it up to a high G is potentially going to cause issues no matter what.
All in all, I think Serato Studio is a good introductory DAW for those who want to create beats fast and learn more about the world of digital audio production. It doesn’t have a ton of technical features, but this isn’t a limitation if you aren’t ready to delve into those things just yet.
- Great for sample-based music production
- Pitch shifting abilitiest
- Good introductory DAW
- Short trial version (only 14 days)
- The free version is very limited, having only one audio track and only allowing mp3 exports
- Its unique but simplistic approach to beat making may not be for everyone
- It lacks quite a few advanced features
Versions: Available in both a free and paid version.
Pricing: Paid version starts at $199 if paid upfront.
Payment Options: Pay upfront or monthly subscription option available.
Compatibility: PC and Mac
Our Top Pick: Ableton Live
Ableton is such a great value for the money, and there are options to pay in increments to avoid a large upfront expense.
If you’re looking to start your journey with Ableton, check out the price here.
The Best DAW Software is What Works for You
I know that we covered a lot of information above, but I want to leave you with one final thought: the best DAW software is the DAW that meets your needs. You may hear this producer or that producer talk about how they only use a particular software suite or specific brand, but don’t let that sway you.
It’s a good idea to learn from others, but you’re not going to know what works for your needs until you try different options. Thankfully, many of the DAWs I discussed above have trial versions available. You’re encouraged to take advantage of this and see how each fits into the needs of your recording and production.
You’re also encouraged to keep an eye out for new products. The digital recording landscape changes all the time, and new software keeps coming out to make life easier for recording engineers, musicians and producers.
It’s fine to stick with what you know, but I always like to try out new products to see how they work. You never know when you might find a new favorite that will take your music to the next level.