For the artist who is just starting to record or for the musician who wants to switch to a new DAW, choosing the right DAW can be difficult. Downloading and installing a DAW, making sure you have the right audio interface that is compatible, possibly waiting for a USB key, and then learning a new program can take a huge chunk of your time.
Choosing a new DAW can be a stab in the dark, and you will not know if you are comfortable with a program until you have taken it for a lengthy test drive. Once you have started recording in a program and you have become invested in it, it will be difficult to switch later which makes it even more important to try to choose the right DAW the first time.
Here we have tried to answer some of the questions you may have, and we have compiled the strengths and weaknesses of ten of the most popular DAWs that are currently on the market.
In the past, I have worked with studios that mixed or mastered the music I was recording, but now I do my own mixes and masters. For each DAW listed below that I have not personally used, I have reviewed information that is available online, and I have talked to artists I know that do record with each program.
What Questions Should I be Asking About DAWs?
There are so many DAWs to choose from, but, when you consider the features of each compared to your needs as an artist or engineer, the list will become much shorter. Different artists or engineers have different needs and operate in different recording environments.
Some questions that may help to narrow the field include:
- How much can I afford to spend on a DAW?
- Am I going to be primarily recording and editing audio or am I going to be focused on beats and electronic music?
- Do I want a DAW that I can use to prepare for live performances?
- Am I recording in a home studio or am I building a professional studio?
- Will I be collaborating with other musicians and will my DAW be compatible with programs they are using?
- What DAWs will be compatible with the hardware that I am using? (i.e., is my audio interface compatible, can my computer handle the DAWs software, and am I using Windows or Mac?)
Some DAWs are free. Most competent DAWs cost money. Some cost more than others. Most paid DAWs will allow you to download and try a free version before paying. Many have free or less expensive versions that will have some features locked.
REAPER is the only DAW with an open-ended trial period that allows you to use the software without restriction and without having to purchase a license. However, it isn’t actually “free”. It has a $60 discounted license fee if you intend on using it for personal use, and a $225 commercial license fee for professionals (usually those making over $20,000 per year using it). At any rate, the DAW that is going to serve you the best will be the one that does what you want it to. What I have found is that all of the DAWs listed here are the best DAW for someone depending on what the user’s goals are.
After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.
|Including automatic beatmatching and the ability to create tracks using loops or automation||$499.00|
|Has many of the features and capabilities of the higher end paid DAW's||Out of stock|
|allows users to record and edit audio with a simple interface.|
|Now offers a powerful DAW that rivals the early industry giants like Pro Tools or Cubase||$399.95|
|allows users to record and edit audio with a simple interface|
|More advanced functions and powerful engine have also made it the choice of many professionals||$569.00|
|Come nice extra features like Drum Replacer for cleaning up drum tracks, VocalSync for syncing vocal tracks||Out of stock|
|Has flexible piano roll and some automation functions that are incredibly helpful when composing||$199.00|
|Can function as a virtual instrument suite used with other DAW's||$338.99|
|Developed for use by professional audio engineers in a studio setting||$589.00|
Our Recommendation: Ableton LiveView on Amazon
*Ableton recently announced the upcoming release of Ableton Live 10. Details of the new features are being leaked out slowly and we will revisit the new version once it is officially released.
For the reasons discussed above, it is impossible to recommend one DAW for every user across the board. For a professional studio set up, there is no question that Pro Tools 12.8.3 is the best available. For a semi-professional or home studio set up for recording but not performing, my recommendation would be old school Cubase or the newer Presonus’ Studio One.
However, in the end, our final recommendation for quality and versatility has to be Ableton Live. Ableton Live offers a different workflow and a different focus for users who need a DAW that can also be used for live performances.
The workflow in most DAWs follows a standard format of 1) record, 2) mix, 3) master. Ableton has instead taken this in a different direction that focuses on live performances and encourages creativity.
Ableton Live has many innovative features that set it apart from other DAWs including automatic beatmatching and the ability to create tracks using loops or automation. Like many DAWs, Ableton can be deceptively expensive.
Although Intro versions of the program can be purchased for under $100, Ableton Standard currently sells for $499.00 on Amazon, and Ableton’s Push 2 audio controller sells separately for $799.00. Ableton’s website also has a huge selection of plugins and effects packages available that are sold separately.
- The best DAW for live performances
- Unique workflow designed with stage performances as the end goal
- Push 2 is one of the best audio controllers available
- Ableton has some of the best native samplers, plugins, and packs
- Ableton Live can be expensive if you want it to reach its full potential
- Although Ableton excels at creating and editing electronic music, it lacks some functionality for editing audio tracks
Runner Up: Cockos REAPERView Manufactuer's Website
REAPER (Rapid Environment for Audio Prototyping and Efficient Recording) is in my experience the most widely used “free” DAW and is probably the best choice for anyone who is serious about recording and editing music but does not have the resources to buy one of the more pricey programs.
REAPER has many of the features and capabilities of the higher end DAWs, but it can be a steep learning curve for someone who is just getting started. It comes with tools for multitrack audio and MIDI recording, editing, processing, mixing, and mastering, and anything that you need but don’t have can be added with third party software. More information and downloads are available on their website.
- almost free – they ask for a $60 licensing fee for home users following a 60-day trial (although as far as I can tell there is no mechanism for enforcing the fee – you are on your honor to pay them)
- much of the functionality of higher-end paid DAWs
- releases frequent updates with constant improvements based on user suggestions
- customizable and can be set up to mimic most other DAWs that a user may be familiar with
- comes with hundreds of native instruments pre-installed and ready to use
- compatible with most vst’s and third party plugins
- steep learning curve for new users
- not many cons, if what you are looking for is the best quality in a free or low-cost DAW for home recording and editing.
Other DAWs to Consider:
Audacity is one of the few truly free DAWs that are available. It is not just free for a trial period or free with many of the features locked like many other DAWs. It allows users to record and edit audio with a simple interface. Although it allows the user to adjust settings like pitch, bass, and treble, and it offers some basic effects like reverb and phasing, its functionality is very limited.
I have had Audacity on my computer for over 10 years, and I have used it only a handful of times. It is useful for basic editing of single tracks, but it is not built for mixing or mastering complex audio. More information about Audacity and a download link are available on their website.
- full version of Audacity is 100% free
- more functionality than most truly free programs.
- not a true DAW and is not useful for mixing or mastering tracks
- requires multiple plugins to be even remotely useful
- no export function – the user cannot export MP3’s or WAV files without using a plugin
- uses destructive editing – changes are made to the original file and cannot be un-done later
Studio One is a relatively new DAW that has been improving it’s functionality and building a customer base since 2009. Although the earlier versions of Studio One were reportedly lackluster, Studio One 3 has reportedly improved greatly and now offers a powerful DAW that rivals the early industry giants like Pro Tools or Cubase.
Its newest version offers a wide variety of native plugins and VST’s and includes new and innovative features like a “scratch pad” function that allows the user to experiment, try out ideas and have different versions of a song in the same project.
- streamlined and easy to use interface
- pre-loaded sounds, VST’s, and effects “out of the box”
- scratch pads – allows the user to create various versions of a song inside the same project
- may not be compatible with some audio interfaces – Presonus Audio Box can cost anywhere from 99$ to a few hundred dollars
- issues with latency
Apple Logic Pro XView on Apple
Logic Pro is another well-established DAW that is not only solid, but it is also the DAW built for Apple users. Logic Pro is made by Apple for Mac users, and is a natural progression for users who began with Garageband, a limited but free DAW that may come pre-installed on your Apple computer. You can download Logic Pro X for $200 from your Mac computer on the Mac App Store.
- if you’re a Mac user, you’ll know it is compatible with Apple software
- a huge selection of professional plugins, samples, and VST’s that are included in the price
- a built in Drummer beat generator
- comes with Alchemy, a very nice sample manipulation synthesizer with a built-in library of sounds, effects, and filters
- Logic Pro X is not available for Windows users
Cubase is one of the oldest surviving DAWs, and a MIDI-only version of Cubase was first released by Steinberg in 1989. Steinberg continued to be an innovator in DAW technology by being the first to integrate VST plugins in 1993 and then introducing VST instruments in 1996.
Cubase also designed MIDI sequencing technology that is still used in most DAWs today. Cubase offers three levels of software for different prices but lacks many of the functions in the less expensive versions. Cubase is as simple or as complex as you need it to be. It’s intuitive design makes it a great choice for beginners, but it’s more advanced functions and powerful engine have also made it the choice of many professionals.
- intuitive, easy to understand design and workflow
- cloud service allows users to remotely share projects and collaborate with other users
- huge library of quality plugins, instruments, sounds, loops, and beats that are available for purchase in separate packs
- although Cubase comes with a large selection of instruments and tools pre-installed, purchasing upgrades and higher quality instrument or sound packs can become expensive
- ideal for recording, mixing, and mastering but does not have the live performance potential of some other DAWs like Ableton Live
- included plugins, sounds, and instruments are often not professional quality, requiring the user to spend additional money on plugins and instruments
*Cakewalk has recently closed and announced that it has ceased development of Sonar. While it still appears to be able to purchased, you do so knowing that you are purchasing it as is, without any further development. A free version, Sonar Home Studio, has starting being made available only in audio magazines such as Computer Music and Future Music.
Cakewalk Sonar is another old-timer that was first released in 1991. Cakewalk is still a very popular DAW with Windows users, but it is not compatible with Macs which makes it inaccessible for many artists and may cause issues for collaborations with artists who are recording on a Mac. Although there is a bit of a learning curve, Cakewalk can be a good entry level choice for a home studio.
It also has most of the tools and functionality of the more expensive DAWs along with some nice extra features like Drum Replacer for cleaning up drum tracks, VocalSync for syncing vocal tracks, and a “Paint with MIDI” function that is useful for composing.
Cakewalk is offered in three levels, with some features locked in the less expensive tiers. Cakewalk Sonar Artist is the least expensive at Out of stock. Cakewalk Sonar Pro comes in at Out of stock, and the full version of Cakewalk Sonar Platinum is currently Out of stock.
- uses serial numbers to unlock the program instead of the annoying USB dongles many other DAWs uses
- unique functions like Drum Replacer, VocalSync, and Paint with MIDI
- customizable Skylight interface
- Cakewalk is not compatible with Macs
FL Studio was originally named “Fruity Loops,” but they changed the name to FL Studio due to the unlikely possibility of confusion with Kellog’s trademarked Fruit Loops cereal. FL Studio was originally designed as an MIDI-only program but has since expanded to include audio recording and editing features.
It is popular with DJ’s and artists who compose electronic dance music. FL Studio has flexible piano roll and some automation functions that are incredibly helpful when composing.
The “Fruity” edition is the least expensive and is currently $99.00 but it does not allow audio recording. The Fruity version is strictly for editing pre-recorded audio tracks and composing and editing electronic music.
The next step up, the FL Studio Producer version, is $199.00 currently and allows recording of audio tracks as well as some additional features.
The full version, FL Studio Signature Edition, comes in at just under $300.
- offers free lifetime updates once you have purchased the product
- FL Studio’s FM Softsynth comes with the program
- ease of use in live performances for DJ’s and EDM artists
- the less expensive Fruity version does not allow audio recording
- missing a lot of the audio editing functions contained in other DAWs
*Reason has recently been updated to version 10 with a host of new features. The information given here is still valid for those who are still using Reason 9.
Reason can be used as a standalone DAW, or Reason’s virtual instruments can be used in conjunction with other DAWs via the Rewire protocol. For example, if I am using Cubase as a workstation, but I want to use Reason’s instruments, I can open those instruments up inside Cubase and use the two programs together. Although Reason can stand on its own as a DAW, it is known for having some of the best virtual instruments available.
You can also chain instruments and processors together in Reason and then move them to whatever DAW you are using for your project. Reason 9 Essentials is selling for $76.96 and the full version of Reason 9 $338.99is .
- can function as a virtual instrument suite used with other DAWs
- Reason’s interface looks like a real studio rack which is kind of cool
- excellent virtual instruments and a decent sized library of sounds and loops
- Reason’s interface is somewhat unusual and takes some getting used to
No matter where you look or whom you talk to, you will hear that Avid’s Pro Tools is the “industry standard.” Pro Tools was developed for use by professional audio engineers in a studio setting, and the Pro Tools HD system comes with hardware and software that, along with plugins, should be able to handle anything you need in the studio.
On the other hand, most artists setting up a DAW outside of the studio will not need and can’t justify the cost of a Pro Tools HD system. Pro Tools HDX, for example, costs up to $5000 for the software and HDX card but does not include the audio interface or other hardware.
For the home recording studio, Pro Tools also offers Pro Tools 12, which includes just the software download and license, $579.00. A monthly payment plan is available. There is also Pro Tools First which is a free download with some features locked. In my opinion and that of other artists that I have talked to about Pro Tools, other DAWs like Cubase, REAPER, or Ableton are easier to use and achieve better results in a home studio setting.
- used in most professional studios – if you intend to work in or with a studio, Pro Tools may be the best choice for compatibility
- free and non-HD paid versions allow the user to learn the system before deciding whether to drop a small fortune on Pro-Tools HD
- HD system probably the most reliable and durable system on the market
- Pro Tools HD is probably the most expensive system on the market and is out of reach of most artists
- complex and more difficult to learn than most other DAWs