Even if every DAW helps you create music on a computer, they have different looks and workflows. There are tons of music production software packages to choose from, and it’s important to get a DAW that enables you to sketch down ideas as painlessly as possible. Today we round-up the best DAW available!
At a Glance: Our Pick of the Best DAWs
- Best Overall: FL Studio
- Best For Live Performances: Ableton Live
- Best Suite: Logic Pro X
- Best for Beginners: GarageBand
- Best for Mixing & Recording: Pro Tools
- Best All-Arounder: PreSonus Studio One
- Best For Film Scoring: Cubase
- Best Customizable DAW: Reaper 6
- Best Rack-Based DAW: Propellerhead Reason
- Best Modular Environment: Bitwig Studio
The past few decades have ushered in an incredibly diverse range of production equipment that can elevate any home studio into an epic music production suite. Not that long ago, aspiring producers were left to struggle with cumbersome multitrack recorders that produced sub-par recordings unless they had thousands to shell out on expensive studio time.
These days, there’s no shortage of digital audio workstation (DAW) options, and many of them provide the tools and functionality that can turn anyone into a super-producer. Today, we’re going to take a look at the best music production software available, so you can choose the best DAW for the music you make.
Launch Price: $199.95 Producer Edition
- Expansive sample, plugin, and preset libraries
- Lifetime updates for free
- Mobile version for on-the-go production
- Can be used as a VST plugin within other DAWs
For over two decades, FL Studio has been one of the leading DAWs on the market. Initially, FL Studio, then FruityLoops, launched as a user-friendly production suite for beginners and novices. Today’s version is arguably the most full-featured and expansive DAW on the market, and it’s still as user-friendly as ever.
For electronic producers, FL Studio is a clear choice as the best DAW overall. While most DAWs provide a limited plugin library, FL Studio includes tons of professional plugins as part of the DAW, so the plugins and the rest of the interface flow together beautifully. Working in FL Studio is intuitive, and no other DAW stimulates creativity quite like this one.
While not every plugin is a winner, the synths are all famously excellent, and FL Studio supports VST1, 2, and 3, so there’s no shortage of additional plugins you can add.
The interface is incredibly intuitive, and it’s vector-based, so it can be scaled to suit an array of monitors. On retina displays, the view is exceptionally crisp and immersive. Each of the different views integrates beautifully with one another, so it’s easy to control every aspect of a session from one monitor, if necessary.
FL Studio is still one of the most affordable DAWs, and while many software developers have moved to a cloud-based product, FL Studio users pay a one-time fee and enjoy lifetime updates of the product.
- Unbeatable user interface that’s highly customizable
- Excellent synth plugins come stock
- Easily swap files between Windows and Mac
- Still clunky for live recording
- Automation features could be better
Launch Price: $749 Ableton Live Suite
- New MIDI devices, including Hybrid Reverb
- MPE protocol allows for unparalleled expression
- More than 5,000 sounds in Suite versions
- Integrates beautifully with Push 2 controller
For live bands or DJs with elaborate stage shows, no DAW on the market offers a more natural feel than Ableton Live. Beyond performance, this DAW is a powerhouse that’s useful in most production scenarios.
Compared to other workstations, Ableton Live is perhaps the easiest to manipulate samples and effects. Everything within the program feels incredibly organic, and it’s an incredible tool for bands and musicians when composing new music or arranging a live show.
Compared to previous versions, Ableton 11 provides much-improved versions of most plugins and effects and several new offerings, including an excellent string quartet and upright piano and the immersive Hybrid Reverb effect.
Beyond the polished new effects and plugins, Ableton 11 adds much-needed features for track linking, so you can edit multiple tracks at once and comping, which is a necessity when recording several takes of a song passage or sample.
For sequencing, Ableton Live is more powerful than ever with more MIDI control than ever before. You can select note probabilities, control individual note dynamics, and much more. The new MPE protocol allows you to control virtually every other note parameter – creating MIDI patterns with more expressiveness and emotion than ever before.
Ableton is available in three versions, ranging from $99 for the ‘intro version’ to $749 for the Suite.
- Unbeatable for live performance
- More control than ever over MIDI composition
- Finally offers comping features
- Poor plugin management
- Requires higher computer specs than many DAWs
Launch Price: $199.99
- Expanded plugins, presets, and loop library
- Live Loops tool for composing and arranging in real-time
- Step Sequencer for melody and beat construction
- Quick Sampler allows users to quickly build playable instruments
Apple’s sleek and flawlessly designed DAW is a breath of fresh air for design-conscious users, and this workstation offers an impressive suite of features to go with the most elegant design of any DAW.
The latest version of Logic Pro takes some direction from Ableton Live, adding new features like Live Loops and a non-linear editing window for loop creation that’s much more intuitive and adaptable for live performance. There’s also the new step sequencer and a bevy of new sounds and synths that are sure to get any Logic user excited.
The Live Loops feature is what really makes the Logic Pro stand out. It’s intuitive and easy to use and a welcomed addition that Logic users have been asking for. With Live Loops, users can quickly flesh out new ideas and try them out in real-time before committing them to the timeline for recording.
The step sequencer is incredibly easy to use, with each block in the visualizer corresponding to a different loop or sample. Electronic producers and beatmakers are sure to appreciate these new features, as they help narrow the gap significantly between Logic and other DAWs with a focus on electronic production.
- Unbeatable user interface
- Over 2,500 new loops and starter grids
- Excellent sounding synthesizers and samples
- Excellent price
- Only available for Mac
- Steep learning curve if you’re unfamiliar with the program
Launch Price: Free
- Virtual session musicians
- Built-in piano and guitar lessons
- Available on iOS and iPad
GarageBand is an excellent choice if you’re brand new to the DAW world, especially for Mac users. It’s a free DAW on Mac devices, including the iPhone and iPad. While using it on the small screen is surprisingly feasible, you’ll need a computer to unlock its full potential.
The default interface is quite similar to Logic, although much of the more dizzying concepts inherent to Logic are simplified here to make it easier for beginners. Recording is easy and intuitive, and it’s as simple as arming a track and pressing the record button. There’s no limit to the number of simultaneous tracks you can record, and there’s ample room for manipulation on each track.
While the samples and effects here aren’t quite as polished as some other DAWs, a few of them sound truly amazing. The acoustic base and Steinway piano are both fantastic, and there’s no limit to the number of third-party plugins you can add to make use of even more instruments and samples.
The price is certainly right with this DAW, as the program is entirely free. While there are other free programs, very few offer the features or compatibility with third-party plugins such as GarageBand.
- It’s free!
- Over 100 synths, many of which sound excellent
- Share finished tracks with a single click
- Only available for Mac and iOS
- Lacks the polish of the pricier DAWs
Launch Price: $600 Pro Tools Perpetual License
- Beat Detective
- 64-bit system architecture
- 119 studio-quality native plugins
- Avid Cloud Collaboration makes it easy to connect and collab with other users
Perhaps the most aptly named DAW, Avid’s Pro Tools has been the favorite DAW of professional engineers for several decades, and they’re still the go-to choice for live recording, scoring, and sound design.
Pro Tools offers a clean workflow, and it’s surprisingly easy for beginners to grasp. From the edit window, it’s easy to record instruments or samples, comp together takes, and polish up a rough version of an idea or song to bring to the mix window.
There’s practically no limit to your options from the mix window as far as plugins are concerned. All Pro Tools versions include a solid selection of native plugins, and this DAW is compatible with virtually every third-party plugin on the market.
Beat Detective continues to be a standout feature of the software for recording live or MIDI instruments, and it fixes many of the minor timing issues that are inherent with other DAWs. Unless you’re an excellent musician in your own right, Beat Detective will be able to quickly analyze the groove of a track to fix minor timing issues across several instruments.
- Unparalleled control over recording and mixing
- Flexible purchase options
- Easy to use two-window interface
- Just as well-suited to video editing as it is for audio production
- Perpetual license only includes 12-months of updates and support
- Not compatible with many popular plugins
Launch Price: $399.95 Studio One Professional
- Score Editor
- Show Window
- Intuitive drag-and-drop workflow
- Harmonic editing
Studio One is one of the newer DAWs on the market, and it’s improved in leaps and bounds from its initial release. While it’s always been a powerful tool for recording live, scoring, and composing, the new Show Window view is every bit the live performance tool as Ableton 11.
The Show Window allows users to take studio sessions and visualize them as complete sets, allowing performers to add backing tracks, additional instrumentation, or effects to their stage shows.
The Score editor continues to be one of the most attractive options for scoring and composition, although you’ll probably find yourself relying on third-party plugins. The latest version of Studio One doesn’t include any additional native plugins over its predecessor.
Studio One offers plenty of flexibility to users, as well. There’s a free version of the DAW, while Studio One Sphere includes the professional version and virtually all Pre Sonus’ other software for about $15 per month.
- Easiest DAW for mapping out live sets
- Notation window which allows you to score compositions in real-time
- Excellent mixer scenes
- Single window graphic interface can feel overwhelming
- Tiny icons are difficult to click
Launch Price: $587.98 Cubase Pro
- VariAudio 3 pitch and time correction
- Powerful Score Editor
- Audio Alignment features maps harmonies to the reference track
- 3,400+ instrument patches
Cubase is one of the oldest and most popular DAWs, and it nearly rivals Pro Tools in its usefulness for live recording and mixing. Still, it may be best suited to film scoring and composition, as it offers one of the cleanest and intuitive ways to edit MIDI tracks with the Key Editor.
Cubase includes plenty of native instruments, multisample synths, and more, so it’s also an excellent choice for users who aren’t interested in adding tons of instrument plugins. When it’s time to record, the 64-bit architecture ensures immersive, studio-quality sound.
Whether you’re recording live instruments or compiling a track from MIDI, the Cubase edit window remains one of the best in the business, with intuitive comping tools and powerful tools for pitch and time correction to ensure everything sounds professional.
The score editing features native to Cubase may be most impressive, and they make it incredibly easy to score an arrangement, no matter the complexity. The notation editor makes changes in real-time, and it’s remarkably accurate at capturing the nuances of your playing. It’s also easy to make manual changes to the score.
- Excellent Score Window
- A generous selection of native plugins
- Powerful pitch, time, and harmony correction
- Fairly steep learning curve
- Shortcuts aren’t intuitive
Launch Price: $60 personal-use license
- 64-bit audio processing
- Auto-Stretch Time Base
- Incredibly tiny installation footprint
Reaper 6 is one of the most attractive DAWs on our list for a multitude of reasons. It’s dirt cheap, you can customize everything about the display interface, and it offers a complete mix window and multi-channel recording and mixing.
Unlike other DAWs, which lock you into a reasonably rigid display, Reaper allows you to change everything about the macros, menus, and toolbars, so you can create a look that’s perfectly suited to the way you make music.
You could argue that Reaper 6 is best for recording live, but only because there are no native instruments here. However, there’s no limit to the number of third-party instruments you can add. Once you do, Reaper 6 becomes equally as powerful for MIDI composition and scoring.
Thanks to its limited instrumentation, effect, and plugin lineup, the installation is minimal and perfect for machines that don’t have the specs to run higher-end DAWs. While it may be bare-bones, you can coax some amazing sounding projects from Reaper 6, and there’s a dedicated user base online to help get you up to speed with this DAW.
With the exception of free DAWs like Audacity or GarageBand, Reaper 6 is the next most affordable. A personal or small-business license is only $60, and it includes free updates through the next full-point version of the DAW.
- Extensive plugin support
- Bargain price
- Extensive updates for new features and bug fixes
- The interface isn’t as slick or intuitive as pricier DAWs
- No native instruments
Launch Price: $399.99
- Can be used as a standalone DAW or a plugin
- Pitch Edit native pitch correction
- Virtual Rack interface
- 64-bit audio processing
Reason spent much of the last decade floundering as a once-popular DAW that was lagging dramatically behind the innovations of its peers. The latest version of this powerful DAW changes all that and restores Reason to its former glory.
One area Reason always got right was their Virtual Studio Rack view, which provides a more organic approach to managing instruments and plugins. Reason provides plenty of effects and native instruments, and there aren’t many DAWs that provide more excellent tools in the box than Reason does.
The views are highly customizable, and the virtual rack can be placed on a second monitor for ease of viewing. For creating in MIDI, Reason’s tried-and-true rack interface is still an excellent choice, and it’s a favorite among sound designers and older musicians who long for the classic feel of an analog studio.
- Unbeatable native instruments
- Beautiful user interface
- SSL analog mix modeling
- Editing is a bit clumsy
- Doesn’t include scoring features
Launch Price: $399
- The Grid modular environment
- MPE support
- Detail Editor for intuitive granular editing
Bitwig Studio is far and away the most creative DAW on our list, and its modular environment provides a virtually endless canvas for expression.
The modulation system is at the heart of this DAW, which allows you to take any virtual instrument or input device and attach an unlimited number of their more than 30 different modulations to it. Macros, note expression, and an assortment of filters are covered, and this feature is virtually unheard of with other DAWs.
The Grid feature is the latest modular environment for Bitwig, and it opens a new world to sound designers that no other DAW can offer. Within The Grid, there are more than 150 different modules you can explore across 16 different categories.
It might not be the most practical DAW, but if you’re interested in building your own effects and instruments, Bitwig is impossible to beat.
- Exact control over instrument and effect sounds
- Industry-leading time stretching with eight different algorithms
- Plenty of free sound packs
- Prone to crashing and freezing
- Poor performance when working with multiple tracks