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Published Jul. 29, 2021

Whether you’re gearing up to record your band’s “Sgt. Pepper’s,” you’re a DJ ready to produce festival-slaying trap bangers; or you’re a would-be Hans Zimmer composing scores to attract your own Christopher Nolan, there’s a digital audio workstation (DAW) that’s right for you. Developers have been perfecting the best DAW software for many years, to the point that every one of the many options contains the professional-quality recording, editing, mixing, and mastering capabilities to produce finished productions. By focusing on which music software matches your platform and price point, you’ll find the best DAW so you can get down to unleashing your creative visions onto the world.

What is a DAW?

A DAW can refer to hardware, software, or components of both that together comprise an audio production workstation. Most of the time, however, someone talking about what DAW they use is describing a sophisticated, deeply featured software program for capturing, creating, and sequencing audio. DAWs are often thought of as music creation software, but they’re also at the foundation of sound design for movies and TV, podcasting, and anything else that requires optimizing and organizing multiple audio tracks.

There is not a strict description for what qualifies as DAW software, and there are many programs that may or may not be considered DAWs depending on the leniency of the definition. But, in general, the best music production software is capable of recording multiple tracks of high-resolution audio simultaneously, as well as offering high-level audio editing and mixing features. Because developers have been refining DAWs for decades, today’s best music recording software also allows multiple—if not unlimited—tracks of MIDI note recording and editing, supporting virtual instruments such as synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers. Support for third-party effects and processing plug-ins and external controllers has also become a norm (check out some great software bundles here). Many DAWs can also import video for syncing sound for video. Other more advanced features may include distributing finished projects to online services or cloud connectivity for downloading audio material straight into the DAW or for collaborating remotely with other musicians and producers.

Things to consider when choosing the best DAW for you

DAW software developers are constantly improving their products, and there are a plethora of great options available, all of which will keep you busy fulfilling your music visions for years. So while it’s hard to go wrong with any of these programs, your specific needs can lead you to one program or another. 

Platform is a primary concern. Most of these DAWs, though not all, offer versions compiled for both Windows and Mac operating systems. Once you make sure your computer will support the software, think about what kind of keyboard controllers or mixing surfaces you want to use and see what the options are for hardware that interfaces with your computer and desired DAW. It’s much easier to get to work with a controller with buttons pre-mapped to the software’s functions rather than programming a control surface to work in a complex workflow.

After the platform, purpose plays a major role. Most DAWs can work for any type of music you produce, but if you’re going to be recording mostly acoustic instruments, Avid Pro Tools could be your best bet to explore. If you’re working with electronic music or hip-hop, you might skip straight to Ableton Live or Image Line FL Studio, while Logic Pro X and PreSonus Studio One are great all-around options to read up on. Sometimes it’s as simple as plugging in your Shure SM7B mic (or whatever you have at hand) and pressing record. Sometimes it’s not.

Of course, price is also a primary consideration. DAWs can run anywhere from a $60 Cockos Reaper 6 install to $2,599 for a “perpetual license” of the full professional studio-grade Pro Tools Ultimate toolset. And if your focus is on making beats—building an entire production “in-the-box” except for the occasional sample, singer, or single instrument you want alongside your virtual components—you may not even need to spring for a traditional DAW and should look at options like Akai Professional MPC 2 software, Serato Studio, or an integrated hardware/software system such as Native Instruments Maschine.

What you actually get?

Many DAWs are available in tiers from lite entry-level to full-featured suite. With the higher-priced packages, you get access to more features, oftentimes including software-based instruments, effects, and stock/sample libraries. You often will have to pay for future versions, though you may have access to discounted (sometimes free) upgrades for a limited amount of time. In Pro Tools’ case, for instance, you can pay for a permanent license but only get upgrades and tech support for one year. Pro Tools also offers a monthly subscription option in addition to the option of paying a single price upfront. Software pricing is continuing to evolve into permutations of subscriptions, temporary licenses, and so on, so while the DAW market has not become all that complicated yet, it’s worth double-checking to know exactly what you’re getting before you buy.  

The best DAW software

Modern musicians and producers are spoiled for choice when it comes to the best DAW software for completing pro-level projects whether you’re working with a laptop or a live room. There really is no bad option among the top tier, so the only challenge is choosing the best music-making software for your personal goals, budget, and musical style.

The best DAW for Mac fanatics: Apple Logic Pro X

Just Add iPad?

This tremendously versatile value supports endless musical inspiration and even multitouch control, if you’re invested in the iOS ecosystem. Apple

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Apple enthusiasts already pay enough for their hardware, but at least they get a price break on Logic Pro X, pound-for-pound the best $199 a macOS-loving musician can spend. It has the slick, intuitive interface that one would expect from Apple, but with the sophisticated mixing, audio, and MIDI editing and processing features that pros need. Logic Pro’s video integration, variable Smart Tempo adjustment, and music notation have made it popular for scoring to picture. And the recent additions of Live Loops, a Step Sequencer (shown above), Drum Synths, Remix FX, and more have boosted its following among electronic musicians as well. It comes with the classic Alchemy and ES2 software synthesizers, among others; the simple yet powerful Sampler; and 70GB of audio loops and sampled instruments including vintage electric pianos and organs and orchestral strings and brass. The Apple faithful will really love the responsive, multifaceted Logic Remote app for iPad and iPhone, which provides tightly integrated multitouch control over the Logic Pro X mixer, step sequencer, software instruments, and shortcut key commands.

The best DAW for pro studio compatibility: Avid Pro Tools

The Studio Legend

The first name in DAW software still rules the biggest industry roosts and now features remote cloud collaboration. Avid

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For many years, Pro Tools was the “Kleenex” of DAWs, synonymous with recording in pro audio and post-production facilities. Its mature interface and workflow combine the sense of working with a control room console with some of the most powerful multitrack audio editing capabilities in the world. Features like Elastic Time, splitting/joining, and comping let you treat recorded audio like a completely malleable material. While most DAWs have caught up to such features, Pro Tools offered most of them first and arguably still handles many best. 

While it started PC-only, Pro Tools is now cross-platform. The standard version of Pro Tools ($599 if purchased outright) offers probably the most impressive and complete set of stock instrument and audio effect plug-ins: 119 total plug-ins, including convincing emulations of classic hardware for signal chain mastery, UVI excellent Falcon virtual instrument, and a guitarists’ playground that pairs the Eleven MKII guitar/bass amp simulator with more than a dozen stompbox emulations. Upgrading to Pro Tools Ultimate lets you mix in multichannel surround sound and immersive audio formats. Avid also offers the unmatched Pro Tools Cloud Collaboration system, connecting musicians, songwriters, and audio engineers from around the world to work on each other’s projects. And there are integrated tools for distributing music to streaming services, plus a wealth of hardware accelerators and control surfaces for sale on the market. For those reasons and more, Pro Tools is still the house DAW for large studios tracking bands, mixing live performances, and adding atmosphere to TV and film. Yet, thanks to an entry-level Pro Tools First version—which is free to download—and subscription price options starting at $29.99/month for Pro Tools and $79.99/month for Pro Tools Ultimate, it’s accessible to everyone.

The best DAW for electronic producers: Ableton Live 11

Lord of the Dance

The leader in electronic music creation lets producers’ creativity run wild. Ableton

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Ableton Live started as a loop-based live performance program and has since evolved into a complete DAW and the most popular choice for electronic dance music producers of all genres on both Mac and Windows. Live’s dual-interface approach to music creation, which combines a traditional linear timeline of tracks (the Arrangement View) with non-linear, loop-based rows of clips (the Session View), caters to creative options and has even influenced how some electronic music is made. Live also helped make “warped” audio—which treats audio independently of pitch and time—a standard DAW feature. Its large selection of included software instruments and audio and MIDI effects can be combined in endless configurations of “Racks,” with customizable macro control that can manipulate any parameter or combination of parameters in those racks. The high-end Live 11 Suite package ($749) upgrades the Live 11 Standard license ($449) with more virtual instruments, effects, and an enormous 60GB of additional audio content in the form of loops, samples, and sampled instruments, but it also offers the Max for Live programming environment for building impossible instruments and natural law-defying effects from scratch. Live’s distinct, influential features have made it not only one of the most beloved but also one of the most copied DAWs. Combining it with the Ableton Push 2 hardware controller makes sequencing beats and melodies, designing sounds, and mixing tracks even more efficient and fun. 

The best DAW for versatile musicians: PreSonus Studio One 5 Professional

All Grown Up

With Studio One 5, PreSonus may have completed its climb into the top tier. PreSonus

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PreSonus pulled off something truly remarkable with Studio One. This relative newcomer to the DAW scene came along at a time when the market appeared to be totally saturated. However, PreSonus quickly developed Studio One into a fully featured program that seems to offer something for everyone: a traditional console-style layout for recording live instruments, along with creative flexibility and beat-production abilities that Ableton Live users crave. Yet PreSonus also carved out its own niche with Studio One 5 Professional’s ($399) brilliantly laid out, color-coded interface that aids a productive workflow. Other helpful song arrangement tools—such as the Chord Track and Chord Selector tools that suggest and sketch out chord progressions—let you even manipulate existing audio and create new accompaniments with no music theory knowledge required. PreSonus Studio One built itself a loyal and appreciative audience by striving to make music production less intimidating. And Studio One is alone among all of these DAWs because it comes from an audio company that started out specializing in hardware before it created a DAW. That now means that Studio One has a wide variety of PreSonus hardware companion controllers and audio interfaces that are specially made to work in lock-step with the DAW software, from the ioStation 24c USB audio interface/production controller ($299) to the deluxe FaderPort 16 mixing controller ($999) with motorized faders. 

The best DAW for beat makers: Image Line FL Studio 20 Producer Edition

Pattern Recognition

This beginner-friendly beat machine facilitates quick production of loop- and pattern-based jams. Image Line

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From humble beginnings where it was more game than DAW, Image Line FL Studio 20 is now one of the most favored tools for pattern- and loop-based genres like hip-hop and EDM, counting big-name users such as Mike WiLL Made-It and Afrojack. A resizable, rearrangeable interface—combined with loop-oriented features like Paint and Stamp tools and a famously robust Piano Roll—makes chord, MIDI note, and loop composition quick and user-friendly. The Producer and step-up Signature editions of FL Studio have full audio recording and powerful synthesizers, virtual instruments, and effects, but they also include unique extras like the Visualizer for rendering 4K videos with your music. Another unusual perk: free lifetime updates for the FL Studio version that you purchase. Buy FL Studio 20 Producer Edition ($199) and receive all later versions; you’d only have to pay again if you wanted to add the plugins and features of FL Studio Signature Edition ($299) or Platinum ($499). Both the Mac and Windows versions also support multitouch displays, making FL Studio one of the best DAWs for Surface and other touchscreen computers. And while FL Studio producers have been known to make hits on just a laptop with no additional hardware, the compact, inexpensive Akai Professional Fire controller is specially programmed to control the major aspects of FL Studio, including sequencing, note input, mixing, and interface navigation.

The best DAW for starving artists: Cockos Reaper 6

More for Less

This affordable DAW rewards diligent users with user-generated content and unconventional ideas. Cockos

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Cockos Reaper 6 is known as an affordable DAW with a deep feature set. After its generous 60-day, fully featured free trial runs out, it costs only $60 for an individual, noncommercial license. Going beyond simple audio recording to perform track editing tasks such as spitting, glueing, time-stretching, crossfading, and more can bring out Reaper’s steeper-than-average learning curve. However, Reaper rewards the patient musician with full-fledged audio and MIDI recording and editing, extensive customization options, and some rare bonuses. For example, any Reaper track can work with audio, MIDI, still images, or video in the timeline and there is onboard video processing as well. These capabilities won’t put Adobe Premiere out of business but are enough for musicians to make lyrics videos for their song, for example. Other advantages include fast, stable operation and a very active and enthusiastic user community that likes to supply custom layouts, advice to fellow users, and hundreds of user-created JSFX plug-ins to go along with the base package of ReaPlug effect and instrument plugins. While the number of hardware controllers featuring built-in support for Reaper 6 is limited, the software allows you to assign thousands of functions or function sequences to a keystroke, toolbar button, or external controller. And, unlike any of the other software, there are versions of Reaper for Mac, Windows, and Linux, the world’s most-used open-source operating system for desktop computers.  

FAQs

Q: Which is the best DAW for beginners?

If you are a Mac (or iOS) user, the best DAW for beginners is the one you already have loaded on your machine: Apple GarageBand. With this app, Apple has done a spot-on job of keeping the essential DAW features—multitrack audio and MIDI recording, editing and mixing, plus built-in instruments, sounds, and effects—but simplified them for beginners. If you have an iPad, GarageBand for iOS is a fantastic touchscreen DAW, and its projects transfer seamlessly to the macOS version. And once you level up, you can open all your GarageBand projects in Apple Logic Pro X.

Beginner Windows users have more DAW options, but you can’t do much better than Cakewalk by Bandlab for Windows 7 or higher, which is free to download and use. It’s not specifically made for beginners, but it is an extremely well-designed, professional DAW where you can compose, record, edit, mix, master, and publish your music to sites like YouTube and SoundCloud all from one free-to-use software. It also supports pen and touch operation.  

Q: What’s better Logic or Ableton?

Apple Logic Pro X 10.5 introduced some very Ableton Live-like features, such as the Live Loops Grid that offered a more visual way of composing and arranging nonlinearly than Ableton Live’s Session View clips, and its new, simplified Sampler/Quick Sampler instruments, which were clearly inspired by Ableton Live’s Sampler/Simpler duo. This blew the Logic vs. Ableton debate open wide. While Ableton Live always had a better reputation and larger user base for dance music production, Logic Pro X had a great reputation for usability, stability, and affordability. Logic Pro X 10.5 added other dance-music-oriented features as well, such as Drum Synths, Remix Effects, and a Step Sequencer. If you have an iPad or iPhone, you can control the Step Sequencer and many other Logic Pro functions from the free Logic Remote iOS app, which might be more attractive to some music producers than buying an Ableton Push 2 ($799) to get easy hands-on control of step sequencing in Live. Overall, Ableton Live still has the more well-rounded feature set for experimenting with digital signal processing and experimental electronic sound design, and it has more users if you’re looking to collaborate or download a bespoke tone-mangler. On the other hand, Logic Pro X has better video and composing-to-picture features and, at $199, offers a better value proposition than Ableton Live 11 Standard ($449) or Live 11 Suite ($749).

Q: Which DAW has the best mixer?

Several DAWs can claim to have the best mixer, including Avid Pro Tools and PreSonus Studio One. However, Steinberg Cubase Pro ($579) makes the strongest case for the best mixer in a DAW for many reasons, including its customizable and clear level meters and send levels, resizability, configurability, a control room section, easy mix buss creation, a history list of mix console actions, saved mixer snapshots, a mixer search field, easy sidechaining, and built-in filtering, pre-gain levels, and comparison EQ. Cubase Pro also has three configurable mixer windows that can be placed on different monitors and one-click bypassing of insert effects, send effects, and EQ. For anyone using a DAW to try to learn the techniques of a hardware mixing board, the Cubase Pro mixer works similarly to a real large-format mixing console.

The final word on choosing the best DAW for you

Now is the best time there has ever been to get started with music-making software. The best DAW programs are more capable than ever of helping you finish complete musical productions within a single program. If you’re overwhelmed with the options, don’t get discouraged. It’s very difficult to make a bad choice and if you’re still not sure about which DAW is right for you, most of them have free trials available, so try and compare them for yourself.

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