There has never been a better time to buy digital audio workstation (DAW) software. Twenty-five years ago, to record a music album at a professional level, you needed a sizable mixing console, several eight-track digital records (such as ADATs or DA-88s), and a good selection of outboard compressors, reverb units, and other effects, plus a two-track deck to mix down to. In other words, you were looking at about $10K to $15K worth of gear to start—and that’s before you got to microphones, speakers, and other accessories.
It’s an entirely different world now. Software packages that cost a few hundred dollars deliver hundreds of audio tracks and incredibly flexible editing. Some programs are even free. You can create as many instances of effect plug-ins as you want, including spot-on emulations of compressors that used to cost several thousand dollars each, and attach them to as many mixer channels as you want. It’s all nearly unlimited and “in the box” now.
How to decide which one is right for you? To help with this task, we tested the most popular DAWs. Numerous venerable (and excellent) recording magazines have reviewed these applications many times over the years. That’s great for the existing user base of each DAW, but maybe not always quite as clear for newcomers. In each of our reviews, we do our best to approach each product as a whole rather than devoting most of the space to just the latest features added in the most recent update. Read on for our top picks, followed by everything you need to know about picking the right DAW for your recording needs.
How to Pick the Right DAW
From the standpoint of someone recording 20 or 30 years ago, a DAW today is like a giant candy store; it’s as if you can do almost anything. For the newcomer, though, it may seem almost hopelessly complex. Choosing the right audio software can be pretty tricky. Most famous packages like Pro Tools, Cubase, and Logic Pro have existed for decades. They’ve grown incredibly powerful and, as a result, have user interfaces as complex as…well, professional mix consoles.
Before we get to the specifics, the most straightforward program for audio editing is a two-track editor; probably the most famous example here is the free Audacity. While Audacity aspires to some fundamental multitrack recording with overdubs, its real use is as a solid stereo editor. If you’re recording a podcast or editing a clip of your kid’s piano recital that you recorded on your phone, Audacity is an excellent choice; you can probably start and stop there. If you need something more sophisticated, read on.
It helps to think about the kinds of projects you want to create. Are you planning on producing beats for hip-hop or fully electronic compositions? Do you want to record multiple musicians playing live instruments at once? Will you use your setup to score for videos or movies or create sound effects and dialogue for TV and video games? Do you need to produce fully polished, printed scores, or do you prefer to work with musical notes and staves? Do you plan on tuning the pitch of vocal performances? Working out the answers to these questions upfront will help you narrow down your choices.
What Comes With Each DAW?
The good news is all of the packages we tested can more or less do all of the above tasks, with a few notable exceptions. The trick is that each program has strengths in different areas, and some tasks may be a bit more complicated in one than in another. One overarching rule to help you decide faster is to look at what your colleagues or friends are using and then choose the same package. That makes it easier to share tips or even projects among each other, rather than being the lone person using a particular product and then introducing session import issues.
Another option is to look at what’s bundled with each program. Would you prefer a DAW with many virtual instrument sounds, such as synthesizers, sampled violins, guitars, and electric basses? You may want to look at something like Logic Pro, Cubase Pro, or Studio One, all of which include many gigabytes of sounds and loops. Do you have or plan to buy your own instrument plug-ins? Reaper is a fully stripped-down DAW at a low price, and it makes an excellent host for third-party VSTs. It’s also great if you’re recording a band full of live instruments and don’t need much in the way of virtual ones.
Do your tastes lean toward the electronic and synthesized realm? Ableton Live and FL Studio are inspired choices with plenty of built-in synths, though you can produce electronic music with just about any of these programs. Digital Performer is a perennial favorite for film scoring, although several other DAWs can also do it (if not quite as ably). If you’re interested in mastering finished recordings or classical music editing, the high-end Magix Sequoia is unparalleled.
Often, it comes down to details and editing philosophies. Do you prefer loop-based recording and live playback for electronic music? Ableton Live has plenty to offer you. Would you rather have a “do-it-all” DAW with an extensive built-in sound library at a low price? PreSonus Studio One beckons. Do you not only want to bring projects into major studios but also collaborate online and open sessions directly as you work on them with others? It’s impossible to top Avid’s Pro Tools for this. Is the music already done, and do you work in post-production and want to produce more professional podcasts or videos? Adobe Audition is a prime contender for those tasks. And if you’ve got a Mac, it’s worth giving the free GarageBand a spin, if only because it’s more potent than ever and you already own it.
How Much Should You Spend on a DAW?
Closely correlated to bundled instruments and effects is price, and that’s a factor that can cloud the issue. Many top-tier packages have less expensive (or even free) feature-limited editions. It’s not as simple as saying, “Reaper is a budget DAW at $60, and Studio One is a professional-level DAW at $399,” because you can also buy the stripped-down (but still pretty feature-rich) Studio One Artist for $99. What do you lose? What do you gain? We try and touch on this as much as possible within each review.
Which DAW Is Right for You?
In short, read our reviews (linked below) and try some demos where you can. Otherwise, don’t sweat it too much. We spent countless hours testing these products and compiling the reviews and this guide. Despite the complexity of the software here, we’ve found it’s tough to go wrong. Unlike computers or cameras, where you can see that of the latest crop of products, a few perform well, and a few don’t perform as well as the leaders. These are all mature, well-established products, each with thousands of fans.
As a result, more than half of the packages in this roundup score at least four out of five stars. You can get professional-level results with all of them. Each has specific workflows that work well for some people—hence the endless “X is the best, and Y is garbage” arguments on the internet—but with some acclimation time, they all can work for just about anyone.
Even so, we single out two DAWs, one on the Mac and one on the PC, for Editors’ Choice awards: Apple Logic Pro, for its unbeatable value with its built-in instruments and effects plug-ins and Avid Pro Tools, for its seamless audio editing and suitability up and down the pro studio chain. Despite those conclusions, we’d happily use any programs listed here for new projects. Choose one, learn its secrets, and get to work creating and editing fantastic music and audio.