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Published Jul. 31, 2021

Music and technology are two constants in human society, so it’s fitting that most of today’s artists satisfy their creative drive and the public’s insatiable appetite for sound by making music on computers. The basic setup includes a digital audio workstation (DAW) program for recording and mixing tracks, which may come free with your computer or cost a few bucks. And those DAWs often offer generous toolkits. But producers with a vision should complement their DAW with the best music production software to suit their specific goals. Are you essentially a one-person show like Tyler, the Creator? Will you stay behind the scenes, mixing and mastering songs for the next Post Malones and Ariana Grandes of the world? What about writing musical scores? All those new Netflix shows aren’t going to compose music for themselves. Fortunately, there are outstanding music-creation software options for every artistic agenda. 

What to consider when choosing the best music production software

Assuming you have DAW software, which is the foundation for production, this guide concentrates on the best music production collections of audio plug-ins to complement that main software. There are some options, like Reason Studios’ Reason, that actually function as both a plug-in and a standalone DAW, but we’re primarily going to look at the best music production software for specific use cases. 

If you’re in a band and your focus will be on mixing and mastering songs that are mostly recorded from instruments, there are packages that emphasize tone cleaning and sculpting plug-ins over virtual instrument plug-ins. If, on the other hand, you can’t get enough synthesizer sounds or are obsessed with ’80s-esque retro-wave music, there are very synthesizer-focused collections. Composers will use a lot of virtual instrument plug-ins but need sample libraries that are based on acoustic orchestras rather than otherworldly tones, and there are options for that.

Big plug-in collections are investments in your musical career, but you can opt to make that investment as a single upfront price or try one of the growing number of subscription music software packages. Subscriptions allow you to get started producing music now if you don’t have the budget for the full-priced software, and they give you the latest updates to everything. However, many people prefer to pay once and not think about it again, and not all the best music production software is available via subscription.  

If you’re using a hardware controller to work with your DAW software, that same hardware may be able to also give you seamless, hands-on control of your music production plug-ins, as well. Both Native Instruments and Arturia make keyboard controllers that come pre-mapped to work with their music production plug-ins and also offer control over many of the best DAW programs too. 

You keep mentioning DAW software. What, exactly, is it?

Digital audio workstation software is sophisticated, deeply featured software for recording, editing, arranging, and mixing multiple tracks of audio for music, movie/TV productions, podcasting, and so on. They’re names you likely recognize, including Ableton Live, Apple Logic Pro X, FL Studio, and Avid Pro Tools. Most DAWs also support multiple MIDI-note tracks, which use virtual instruments such as synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers. Along with that comes support for third-party effects and processing plug-ins, as well as external hardware controllers. The DAW is what you use for framing the song’s structure, while plug-ins are great for the detailing.

OK, so what should I know about plug-ins?

The plug-in software that DAWs support are individual programs that work inside of the DAW. The producer “plugs in” these programs to an audio or MIDI track in the DAW. Instrument plug-ins generate sound either as digital synthesizers or by triggering audio files such as drum sounds or sampled acoustic instruments. Effect plug-ins treat a DAW track’s audio to some form of processing, such as adding echo or filtering the audio frequencies. Other MIDI plug-ins, such as an arpeggiator, determine how notes are played back, and some plug-ins are strictly visual, such as frequency spectrum analyzers, which present a display of audio waveforms.

Most plug-ins must be used within a DAW program, but some also work as standalone software. There are several common plug-in formats—such as VST, AudioUnits, and AAX—and your DAW software must support a plug-in’s particular format to work with it. All the plug-in collections in this guide support multiple plug-in formats and both Mac and Windows computers, so they will work with all the major DAWs.

The best music production software

In addition to complementing the built-in features of your DAW software of choice, the best music production software complements your creative goals as well. The number of interesting individual plug-ins and virtual instruments for music-making runs into the thousands, so rather than piecing them together one by one, some of the best music production software options bundle together cohesive groups of excellent professional plug-ins for much lower prices than purchasing them separately. Each product here is a winner, so choose according to your own situation.

The best music production software for fully realized soundscapes: Native Instruments Komplete 13 

Band in Your Hand

The variety and quality of tone generators in this set could be all you need. Native Instruments

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Germany’s Native Instruments was an early pioneer in integrating software instruments and sound effects into complete production suites. As its name implies, Komplete 13 ($599) supplies a comprehensive collection of 68 digital instruments, sounds, and processors for producing and mixing music. Thirty sample-based instruments outfit you with not only a full band’s worth of guitar, bass, drum, piano, and classic keyboard sounds, but also orchestral horns, strings, and the traditional instruments from cultures all around the world. More than a dozen synthesizer plug-ins cover recreations of classic synths and many synthesis styles, such as virtual analog and FM, and the Massive X wavetable synthesizers have been very influential in the worlds of dubstep and trap bangers. The REAKTOR modular environment lets you build instruments that haven’t existed previously. Komplete 13 finishes off with something of almost everything in the realm of audio processing, including the Guitar Rig 6 suite of amplifier emulations and guitar-style effects, as well as a complement of reverb, delay, EQ, compressor, distortion, modulation, and other effects and dynamics plug-ins. Komplete 13 comes on a portable hard drive packing more than 36,000 sounds and 320GB of material. The high-end Komplete 13 Ultimate ($1,199) package adds another 50 instruments and effects and more than 500GB of additional audio material. Most of that comes in the form of orchestral and cinematic instruments providing brass, woodwinds, strings, mallet percussion, and complex soundscapes for modern professional scoring. All Komplete 13 plug-ins can operate within the included Komplete Kontrol software, which allows perfectly mapped hardware control from Native Instruments keyboard controllers such as the Komplete Kontrol A49 ($219) or S49 MK2 ($669). 

The best music production software for mixing and mastering: iZotope Music Production Suite 4 

Rise of the Machines

Super-impressive processors are infused with machine learning to help improve finished productions. iZotope

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Audio plug-ins like the graphical waveform-based Nectar for vocal processing, Neutron for mixing, Ozone for mastering, and RX for audio cleanup and repair were already industry favorites before iZotope imbued them with machine-learning AI assistants. Now, the latest versions in Music Production Suite 4 come with “Assistant” functions that automatically perform certain audio processes based on your input and the analysis of a growing database of thousands, if not millions of other tracks. But don’t worry, you can change any of the automated suggestions they make, whether you want to tune-up or intentionally trash a frequency. Your creativity drives the process. The music mixing software suite also includes Tonal Balance Control 2, another of iZotope’s AI-assisted breakthroughs, which works with all the Neutron and Ozone plug-ins within a DAW session and adjusts them to meet the optimal levels of 12 tonal balance zones based on the optimal levels for different musical genres or any of your chosen reference songs. Rounding out the suite are VocalSynth 2 for beautiful-to-bizarre vocal effects and vocoding, Insight 2 for detailed track metering, three professional reverb plug-ins, and Stutter Edit 2 for rhythmic effects. All told, Music Production Suite 4 is the best place to start for musicians who want to try mixing and mastering their own music for distribution. If its upfront price of $999 is too steep and you’d rather pay a monthly subscription, iZotope’s Music Production Suite Pro ($24.99/month) gives you most of the products in the Music Production Suite 4, including all of the AI-assisted mixing and mastering products, with the added bonus of Melodyne Essential, which can perform the kind of vocal trickery popularized by T-Pain, Kanye, and Future.

The best music production software for synth addicts: Arturia V Collection 8

“Analog” Heaven

Timewarp back to “the day” with these faithful emulations of beloved vintage analog (and some digital) synths and keyboards. Arturia

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Imagine a studio filled with 28 of the most famous vintage analog and digital synthesizers, organs, and electric pianos that fueled your favorite music from the ’70s to today: every Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock funk classic, every Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode synth-pop gem, and most of the glowstick-powered rave jams. When you wake up from that dream, feel good knowing that you can pack that fantasy studio into your laptop for $599 with the Arturia V Collection 8, a bundle of 28 instrument emulation plug-ins with a total of more than 8,000 preset sounds covering the best-loved timbres from beloved classic keyboards like Moog Minimoog analog synth, Yamaha DX-7 FM digital synth, the Hammond B-3 organ, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, Mellotron, and much more. Arturia’s KeyLab keyboard controllers, like the KeyLab MKII 49 ($499), are designed to seamlessly manipulate the vintage emulations in V Collection 8 with their knobs, buttons, faders, and pads.

The best music production software for one-stop shoppers: Reason Studios Reason+

Back in Racks 

This subscription loads up Reason 11’s rack with every device, to be used as a plug-in or standalone workstation. Reason Studios

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Since it added multitrack audio recording several versions back, Reason Studios Reason 11 really qualifies as full-fledged DAW software. But it stands out with its one-of-a-kind interface that arranges its analog-style mixer and all of its many instruments and effects into a fully configurable Rack, whose backside view allows you to connect and reconnect any of the individual devices together in infinitely creative configurations with virtual patch cords. Its unique, self-contained workflow and constantly expanding add-ons shop has made Reason a favorite among DIY music producers and songwriters since the dawn of the millennium. But these days Reason 11 is not only self-contained beat maker software but it also works as a plug-in workstation inside of any other major DAW software, allowing you to route whatever you’ve recorded through Reason’s expansive signal chain. With the Reason+ subscription ($19.99/month), subscribers get the Reason 11 standalone/plug-in workstation; 80 instrument, audio effect, MIDI effect, and audio utility devices; plus weekly sound pack downloads. The instruments comprise dozens of versatile, powerful, and fun synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines that when combined with the productivity-friendly Reason workflow, make up a musical laboratory perfect for discovering modern pop, hip-hop, and dancefloor-filling hits.  

The best music production software for Hollywood composers: EastWest ComposerCloud X

Sweet Symphonies 

This subscription for scoring levels the playing field for aspiring and established composers. EastWest

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Like most areas in music and pro audio, scoring music for pictures (movies, TV, video games) is a hyper-competitive field where composers would do well to differentiate themselves. One possible way to do that is to use the absolute highest-quality sound libraries for composing with the most realistic and meticulously recorded samples of orchestral instruments available. Anyone can hear a stark difference in realism between the brass and strings instruments included with Apple Logic Pro X, for example, and those of a renowned company like Spitfire Audio, which constantly strives to make more comprehensive and realistic virtual instruments that run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars per title. Even if composers of moderate means acquire a few libraries covering the basic orchestral needs, what do they do when they need something rarer like a sitar or a dulcimer? Enter EastWest, one of the first music-making software companies to embrace the subscription model for ComposerCloud X ($29.99/month), a collection of 70 orchestral, choir, and piano sound libraries all aimed squarely at professional scoring. In all, it grants access to more than 40,000 virtual instrument variations covering brass, woodwinds, strings, vocals, drums/percussion, guitars/bass, pianos/keyboard, and world/ethnic categories. EastWest, and its associated brand Quantum Leap, make some of the most revered products in the business and ComposerCloud X includes all newly released products as they come out, such as the recent Hollywood Orchestra Opus Edition. 

The best music production software for zero upfront cost: MeldaProduction MFreeFXBundle

Plug ’n’ Don’t Pay

Surely a plug-in collection this large and this good must cost something…surely. Melda Production

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While all DAW software now comes with at least some stock plug-ins for adding audio effects or often-crucial dynamics processors like EQ and compression, not every DAW includes every type of plug-in. And sometimes the stock plug-ins are light on perks like visual representation audio waveforms in their interfaces. Also, every reverb, distortion, or other effect plug-in is unique in some way, and it can only help to collect a few of each kind and choose your favorites (without going overboard and neglecting the actual work of making music). MeldaProduction makes a vast array of quality instrument and effect plug-ins, but you can pick up 37 of its very useful products for no cost in its MFreeFXBundle. There are no instrument plug-ins, but this is still the most generous free bundle available. Its plug-ins cover the effect bases with the essential reverb, compressor, distortion, flanger, phaser, filter, ring modulator, and more, but there are also more rare and very useful utilities that your DAW may not include. For example, there is a stereo image widener, an instrument tuner, pitch correction, a visual metronome, a text-editing notepad, and quite a bit more. Also unusual for free plug-ins, the MeldaProduction plug-ins provide waveform displays for almost every effect that deals with audio. For example, the MAutopan performs the programmed panning of a track from left to right in the stereo image, but you can also see and adjust the waveform of the panning oscillator visually. MFreeFXBundle limits you in certain ways—the biggest being the inability to save your own presets. However, you can upgrade the entire bundle to allow preset saving, resizing of the windows, and several other features by paying a whopping $59.  

FAQs

Q: What is the best music production software for beginners?

Beginners have different goals and different tolerance levels for the difficulty of music programs. But a good place to start is always with free music-making software. You can always pay for something later if you catch the music-making bug and need something better. For Mac or iPad users looking for a starter DAW, the natural choice is Apple GarageBand, the free DAW included with every Mac computer and iPad. And Windows users should check out the free DAW Cakewalk by Bandlab for Windows 7 or higher. Then add in the MeldaProduction MFreeFXBundle and see where the muse takes you without shelling out a cent. However, Bandlab also makes its free, browser-based DAW that anyone can use regardless of their computer’s operating system and without having to download and install anything. Just sign up for an account and the Bandlab online DAW lets you create multitrack songs using a surprisingly large variety of good-sounding virtual drum machines and keyboard instruments, or you can record vocals and other tracks from your computer’s built-in microphone. The DAW’s features are basic enough to not overwhelm beginners but advanced enough to actually get somewhere with your musical ideas. You can play the instruments from your computer’s QWERTY keyboard, and the response time from online DAW is quite fast with a good Internet connection. You can even save your finished song as a stereo MP3 or WAV file. 

Q: What do I need to produce my own music?

When it comes to software-based music production, the most basic setup is simply the software and the computer (or tablet) that runs it. Any DAW software, such as those discussed above or the beginner-friendly Image Line FL Studio, is self-contained enough to allow you to produce complete music with it. You can use the computer’s built-in mic for recording audio and the QWERTY keyboard for playing notes and drums from the software’s virtual instruments. Should you want to expand your setup from there, the most basic and common additions would include a MIDI keyboard for playing instruments and controlling other aspects of the DAW software. Another basic addition is an audio interface and a microphone, like the legendary Shure SM7B, for recording better-quality audio than what you get from a computer’s built-in mic. A USB microphone is essentially an audio interface and a microphone in one piece, so is a good basic option for a new music producer experimenting with home studio vocal takes.

Q: What DAW does Kanye use?

Like many other professional music producers, Kanye West uses Avid Pro Tools software, which is the closest thing to the industry-standard DAW there is, especially among big-budget, large-studio musicians and audio engineers. The highest level of Pro Tools software, Pro Tools Ultimate, is also the priciest DAW out there, setting you back $799/year for a subscription. However, Avid actually offers a free version of the software: Pro Tools First. This version limits the feature set of Pro Tools significantly, but it still carries with it plenty of power for you to get started making music, including 16 tracks of audio recording, 23 included plug-ins, and high-quality audio resolution of 32-bit/96kHz. Plus, you’ll be using the same software as a real-life presidential candidate. Now, if only someone made a free version of Yeezy’s shoes…

The final word on the best music production software

There are so many amazing music plug-ins for using inside your DAW to polish your songs into professional-sounding gems. Choosing the best music production software for you, therefore, comes down to factors other than just quality: your budget, your musical or pro audio focus, and even the compatibility of a plug-in collection with your music controller hardware. If you’re not sure, trying one month at a time of a subscription could help you narrow it down to your final choice. Just make sure you don’t sign up for a yearly commitment if you do that. You’ll soon discover that the biggest drawback to some of these plug-in collections is not enough hours in the day to enjoy them.

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