What's the Best DAW (For You)?
Digital audio workstations are one of the most integral tools in modern music production. They combine the recording and editing capabilities of a tape machine with the mixing power of digital signal processors in an easy-to-use software format. But with so many options to choose from, each with their own unique features and workflows, it can be hard to find the right one for you. In this blog, we'll break down the most popular DAWs on the market to help you find the perfect program to suit your workflow.
What Is A DAW?
A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is a software program that allows you to record, edit and produce digital audio files. Engineers began experimenting with digital audio as early as the 1970s, but it wasn't until Digidesign released Pro Tools (originally known as Sound Designer) in 1991 that DAWs would become prevalent in pro recording studios.
While each DAW offers a different set of features and proprietary processors, they all share the same basic components. Typically, DAWs include separate windows for recording, arranging and mixing. The recording window is used for recording and editing audio or MIDI data on individual tracks, much like a traditional multi-track tape machine. The arranger window allows you to move and edit clips, write automation and adjust session parameters like tempo and key. The mix window is modeled after an analog console, with channel strips for each channel that allow you to adjust levels, panning, inserts and sends.
How To Choose The Best DAW
Choosing a DAW is a big deal. It takes a long time and a lot of commitment to really learn the ins and outs of any software—especially if you want to be efficient. So how do you make the decision of which DAW to commit to? For most people, it comes down to three things:
Obviously, the first barrier is price. It's important to find a software that won't break the bank. When you're first starting out, it's a good idea to experiment with a free DAW like Audacity or GarageBand. Additionally, many DAW manufacturers offer free trials or even light versions of their software (like Pro Tools First or Ableton Live Lite) to give you a chance to learn the ropes before you commit.
Next, it's important to select a DAW that has the features you need. For instance, if you're looking to perform live electronic music, you want something with a clip-based playback system. If you're into making hip hop beats, you might try something with a built-in step sequencer. And if you're mostly recording live instruments or working on post production projects, a DAW with robust editing capabilities is your best bet.
Finally, it's also important to consider functionality when choosing a DAW. Does it integrate with all of your software? Is it compatible with your MIDI controller? Does it require too much processing power for your laptop? Be sure to consider your workflow before making a final decision. Your DAW should be a tool that allows you to make music more quickly and efficiently, not another barrier that keeps you from being creative.
Versions: Live Lite (free), Live 11 Intro ($99), Live 11 Standard ($449), Live 11 Suite ($749)
Compatibility: OS X 10.13 or later, Windows 10
Ableton Live is a versatile DAW with an intuitive interface that's great for producing and arranging. Ableton's biggest draw is its fast, creative workflow and vast arsenal of virtual instruments, loops and samples. Arrangement view lets you record and arrange views from start to finish, while Session View lets you trigger clips independently of the timeline. Best of all, Ableton always keeps all of your tracks in sync, making it ideal for brainstorming, experimenting with arrangement and live performances.
Ableton also includes an array of versatile audio editing tools that give you the power to extract harmony, melody and rhythm from samples, slice and stretch audio to match any material to your tempo and more. Plus, it comes bundled with plenty of mixing and mastering tools to finalize your productions.
Ableton seamlessly interfaces with other software and devices, making it easy to work the way you want to with external control surfaces, synths and drum machines. Ableton also supports link-enabled software, making it easy to connect multiple devices and jam with a friend.
Versions: GarageBand (free)
Compatibility: macOS 10.15.7 or later.
GarageBand is a great DAW for those just starting out on Mac. In addition to being included free with all Macs, GarageBand is extremely easy to use and comes fully equipped with everything you need to start making music right out of the box.
One of the most unique features in GarageBand is Apple's Drummer Tracks, which are perfect for quickly laying down a beat played by a professional drummer in virtually any genre—everything from EDM, Dubstep, and Hip Hop to Latin, Metal, and Blues. Choose from 28 different drummers, each with their own unique style. Additionally, GarageBand comes loaded with more than 100 EDM and hip-hop inspired synth sounds. Simple controls make it easy to morph and tweak sounds to your liking.
GarageBand is also great for recording live instruments, and even includes built‑in lessons for piano and guitar. Effortlessly edit your performance with easy-to-use tools like one-click quantize, pitch correction and more. And with iCloud, you can continue working on your project from any Apple device. And when you're ready, Apple makes it easy to upgrade to Logic Pro X.
Versions: Logic Pro X ($200)
Compatibility: macOS 10.15.7 or later
Logic Pro X is GarageBand's big sibling and comes loaded with professional production tools at a surprisingly affordable price. In the latest update, Logic Pro X introduced a number of new features, including Live Loops—a dynamic layout that allows you to trigger samples independent of the timeline, similar to Ableton's Session View. The new Step Sequencer makes it easy to quickly build drum beats, bass lines, and melodic parts.
Logic Pro X also comes with an array of great-sounding virtual instruments. The new Sampler and Quick Sampler plug-ins make it easy to integrate samples into your session. Quickly load your favorite recordings or capture new sounds to experiment with. Powerful drum machines like Drum Synth, Drum Machine Designer and Drummer Tracks are ideal for building the perfect groove.
And of course, Logic Pro X includes plenty of audio editing tools for live recordings. Smart Tempo makes it easy to mix and match music and beats without worrying about the original tempo. Simple one-click correction tools like Flex Time and Flex Pitch make it easy to perfect your performance.
Versions: Audacity (free)
Compatibility: macOS 10.13 or later, Windows 10, Linux
Audacity is a free, open source, cross-platform audio software for Windows, macOS and Linux. It is an invaluable tool for those who are just getting started with audio engineering or just need basic audio processing functions like recording, editing and mixing. It doesn't offer much in terms of additional features, but it's fast, efficient and easy to use on any system.
Versions: Pro Tools First (free), Pro Tools ($30/mo), Pro Tools | Ultimate ($80/mo)
Compatibility: macOS 10.14.6 or later, Windows 10
Pro Tools has been the industry standard for decades, and is often credited with pioneering the modern DAW. If you plan to work as a professional audio engineer, learning Pro Tools could be very helpful. It's used in countless professional recording studios around the world. However, that doesn't mean it's right for everyone. Pro Tools offers impressive editing and mixing capabilities, making it ideal for large scale recording and post production.
Don't let that deter you though—Pro Tools is used by plenty of professional musicians, artists and producers as well. The Standard version includes 119 stock plug-ins and virtual instruments, including the new UVI Falcon 2 synth. Plus, with AvidPlay you can distribute music directly to sites like Apple Music, Spotify and more.
Cloud Collaboration makes it easy to collaborate remotely with friends, while Avid Link helps you find new musicians to work with. Additionally, Pro Tools interfaces seamlessly with many professional hardware devices and control surfaces.
Versions: Bitwig Studio 16-Track ($99), Bitwig Studio ($399)
Compatibility: macOS 10.14 or later, Windows 7, Ubuntu 18.04 or later
Created by a former member of the Ableton team, Bitwig uses an innovative modular interface that's perfect for experimentation. Bitwig offers both linear and non-linear workflows, optimized for sound design, recording and live performances. Bitwig comes stocked with 90+ instruments, effects and creative tools to get the creative juices flowing, along with 10 GB of loops and samples to get you started.
Thanks to Bitwig's modular design, there's no limit to the creative possibilities. Its unique grid layout allows you to effortlessly create complex patches. Modulate instruments and automate effects to customize your sound. Seamlessly interfaces with external hardware devices like synths, drum machines and more. Combined with the built-in sampler, which features several playback modes, dynamic note-based modulations, and a powerful multisample editor, Bitwig is a virtual playground for sound designers and synth heads.
Versions: REAPER ($60 for Discounted License, $225 for Commercial License)
Compatibility: macOS 10.14 or later, Windows 7 or later, Linux x86_64
REAPER, an acronym for "Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording," is a fast, efficient and stable DAW with nearly unlimited customization options. In addition to the standard recording, editing and mixing features you would expect, almost anything that REAPER can do can be triggered by a keystroke, toolbar button, or external controller.
Ideal for those who are working with limited processing power or budget, REAPER offers a fully-functional 60-day evaluation, which is extendable indefinitely. However, it's suggested that you purchase a Discounted License ($60) for personal use, or a Commercial License ($225) for professional use.
Versions: FL Studio Fruity Edition ($99), FL Studio Producer Edition ($199), FL Studio Signature Bundle ($299), FL Studio All Plugins Edition ($499)
Compatibility: macOS 10.13.6 or later, Windows 8.1 or later, Linux x86_64
Formerly known as Fruity Loops, a Windows-exclusive program, the new FL Studio is now available on Mac, giving Apple owners access to one of the most popular music production tools of the past decade. FL Studio features an intuitive interface that's tailor-made for producers and musicians.
The Playlist window is perfect for quickly sequencing clips. You can even place multiple types of data on the same track, such as MIDI, audio and automation. The Mixer interface makes it easy to see what you're working on with unique vertical-scrolling waveforms on each channel. And the legendary piano roll is often regarded as the best in the business for its versatility and ease of use. Plus, the built-in Channel Rack makes it easy to quickly load samples and sequence beats.
Best of all, FL Studio includes a huge array of native instruments, effects, loops and samples to work with, making it an excellent choice for hip hop artists and EDM producers.
Versions: Studio One 5 Prime (free), Studio One 5 Artist ($99), Studio One 5 Professional ($400)
Compatibility: macOS 10.13 or later, Windows 10, Linux x86_64
PreSonus Studio One is a great all-around DAW. It offers versatile recording, editing and mixing options, as well as super-simple routing for fast workflow, smart tools for fast audio editing and analog-modeled plug-ins for pro-level mixing and mastering. Studio One also comes bundled with tons of virtual instruments for creating custom sounds.
For even more plug-ins and effects, check out the monthly PreSonus Sphere subscription, which includes Studio One Professional, Notion, and nearly all PreSonus plug-ins in addition to masterclass videos, collaboration tools, exclusive Studio One features, and more. PreSonus also offers a number of upgrade discounts, making it easy to level up your DAW as your studio grows.
Versions: Cubase Elements ($100), Cubase Artist 11 ($310), Cubase Pro 11 ($560),
Compatibility: macOS 10.14 or later, Windows 10 or later
Cubase is one of the oldest DAWs on the market, originally released in 1989. With a legacy dating back more than 30 years, it's no surprise that Cubase specializes in recording and editing audio, making it ideal for music composition and live tracking sessions.
Used by some of the biggest sound designers in the world such as Hans Zimmer, Cubase offers a number of enticing features including versatile editing tools like audio warp quantize, chord pads for one-finger performances and lighting-fast comping to help you nail the perfect take. Cubase also excels at mixing with built-in channel strips for native processing, along with plenty of analog-inspired plug-ins.
Additionally, Cubase offers a refined workflow that integrates seamlessly with a variety of file types, including video, making it one of the premier DAWs for audio post production as well.
The DAWs listed here are some of the most popular on the market today, but there are plenty of other options to choose from as well. Here are a few more honorable mentions worth checking out:
Harrison Mixbus 32c
Mixcraft Pro Studio
MOTU Digital Performer
Now that you've seen what all of these DAWs have to offer, the only thing left to do is download a free trial and start making music! Check out our blog for more tips on how to get your music sounding radio-ready.