You know that saying, you can’t paint without a canvas, right? The same theory applies to music production, i.e. if you have the gear, but you don’t have the best DAW, you’re kind of doomed.
Hence, today’s article is about the best music production software money can buy. By the way, before diving into today’s article, check out this piece about recording softwarerecording software, it may help a bit.
Before you ask, the DAW acronym stands for Digital Audio Workstation, and, to use the aforementioned metaphor, a DAW is for music production what a canvas is for painters, i.e. it’s a computer program which helps you get the most of your audio files: recording, editing, mixing, mastering and what have you. It’s also worth mentioning that not only total “noobs” with home studios are using DAWs; most semi-pros and professional musicians are totally dependent on music production software nowadays, when everything is digital.
With all this in mind, put your headphones on, play your favorite rap song or whatever helps you stay focused and check out a few things to consider before choosing the best DAW.
How to Choose the Best Music Production Software
If you’re serious about music production, you should consider the DAW as one of your instruments and regard it as a long-term investment. There’s always free stuff out there, but long-term speaking, you’ll have to spit out a few hundred bucks if you’re serious about making music. Free stuff will only get you so far.
Level of Experience
Consider your experience level: if this is your first encounter with music production software, don’t go spending hundreds of dollars on pro tools right away, but start with something easy to understand (read freeware) and build your music-making skills from the ground-up. However, if you have the money and want to start big from the beginning, be our guest.
Mac or PC?
There’s the never-ending debate regarding music production: Mac or PC? If you already own a dedicated rig for making music, that’s awesome. If you don’t, you’ll have to invest in a computer that’s powerful enough to support your DAW of choice.
The Mac vs PC thing is very subjective anyway, as both platforms can be used for music production. Some software are only available for Mac, yet most work on both Mac and PC.
Think About the Future
If you’re a beginner yet serious about music, think about the future, i.e. your first DAW should not be the most basic/entry level one, because after you reach a certain skill threshold, you’ll have to switch to better software and start the learning curve from the beginning. Our advice would be to start with a middle-tier DAW, that will provide you with advanced features when required (when you’re ready to use them).
If you perform live, look for DAW that provides easy integration with VST instruments and MIDI controllers, as well as control surfaces and basically any other gear/features specific for live performance. However, most DAWs are fine for performing live, it’s just some of them are more focused on live performances than others.
In the End
Finally, stick with what you’ve chosen, learn all there is to learn about it, don’t pay attention to what others use, remember that testing beats reading, relax, take a deep breath and check out our picks for the best music production software in 2020:
Best Music Production Software Solutions
The Best DAW for Beginners
Acid Pro, also known as the “creative” DAW, is now at its 10th iteration. Like, yeah, it’s that magic moment again, so what’s new? The first version of the award-winning loop based mixing software saw “action” more than 20 years ago, and since then it was used by sound designers, DJs, composers and various other professional categories, due to its comprehensive music features.
While we’re at it, we must mention Theo Green and the movie Blade Runner 2049. Because yes, this guy composed an awesome soundtrack using Acid Pro. What are YOU waiting for? Now, here’s the deal: with Acid Pro 10, cutting and layering audio clips, as well as creating MIDI, is a more simplified and faster workflow compared to basically any other DAW on the market, whether we’re talking sound designing or composing.
Also, the quality of the mixdowns is less colored and clearer than other DAWs. Obviously, the 10th gen arrives with new features compared to the previous version, things like STEM MAKER 2, the second version of the Zynaptiq’s AI-powered STEM MAKER Audio Source Separation technology, which delivers higher processing speed and improved separation, plus better overall sound quality.
Finally, we must mention the MIDI Playable Chopper, which gets a new transient detection feature, and allows you to play ACIDized loops, extracted samples or your own stuff recorded via MIDI keyboard, and one of the best soft synth plugins, Xfer’s Serum, which comes free if you buy the Acid Pro 10 Suite.
- Well-designed UI
- Relatively easy to use
- MIDI Playable Chopper with Auto Slicing
- Improved workflow compared to 9th gen
- Great for loop- and sample-based music production
- Free trial available
- Windows only deal
The Best DAW Software
Adobe is a big name in the software industry and its Audition suite is arguably one of the best DAWs for Windows. Adobe Audition is a professional-grade audio workstation which allows you to create, mix and design sound effects like David Guetta, and we’re not joking either. And since we’re talking about David Guetta, keep in mind that in our view, Adobe Audition is the best DJ software out there, period.
The software tools available in Adobe Audition include multitrack, waveform, and spectral display for creating, mixing, editing, and restoring audio content, but you can also use Adobe’s DAW to accelerate audio finishing or video production workflows, ending up with a polished mix boasting pristine sound. Adobe Audition meets and exceeds the industry standards in regard to audio restoration, clean up and precision editing for podcasting, video and sound effect design. The software comes with a step-by-step tutorial that guides you through all the cool features, so you can record, edit and integrate music clips like a pro.
Moreover, Adobe Audition is seamlessly integrated with other apps, including Adobe’s famous Premiere Pro and After Effects. To make a long story short, if you’re looking for a comprehensive, professional grade audio editor for podcasts, video post-production and audio restoration, this baby checks all the boxes. However, keep in mind that Adobe Audition is not free, quite the contrary: this is an expensive piece of DAW that requires a monthly subscription, yet it makes for a very special cross-platform audio editing software which, truth be told, plays in a league of its own.
- Comes with comprehensive tools for sound removal, audio restoration and noise reduction
- Great stereo waveform editor
- Features tons of visualization tools
- Professional grade audio standards
- Works on both Windows and Mac OS
- No MIDI support
- Kind of expensive (no free version) to use long term
Logic Pro X
Test DAW for Mac
If you’re a Mac owner looking for the ideal audio workstation, Logic Pro X has your name on it. Being a Mac-only kind of a deal, Logic Pro X is designed for medium-expert users and one of its main selling points is the very advanced interface, that helps with the “creative” process (read: music-making) via its instrument layering, track consolidation, a very intuitive and easy to use mixer for plug-in control, and even a score editor which comes with 9 MIDI plug-ins and allows you to create your personal MIDI.
On top of that, you’ll be able to create tracks by using just your mouse, and take a load of this: Logic Pro X offers a virtual drummer option that’s basically an interactive drum-set which helps with the visual implementation of drums, plus a programable arpeggiator.
It’s worth mentioning that Logic Pro X is not free, yet it comes packed to the brim with synths, features, plug-ins and, most importantly, an awesome interface that drastically reduces your learning curve. Even if it’s not free, this DAW is by no means hard on your wallet, at least compared to others, but then again: it only works on Macs.
- Excellent user interface, easy to use and intuitive
- Tons of effects and bundled instruments
- Great value for money
- Unlike others doesn’t have copy protection
- Features the best virtual instrument library in the industry
- Mac-only deal
The Best Music Production Software
Cubase is one of the most popular DAWs in the world, provided you’re a semi-pro or a pro musician. Its 10th iteration is a huge step forward, due to a new smart visual design and excellent features, including MixConsole Snapshots, an updated (and better) VariAudio 3 and significant improvements in regard to workflow and overall capability.
The new Cubase 10.5 boasts a fresh Spectral Comparison Equalizer mode in the Channel EQ, as well as a new video export feature that allows you to export audio and video directly from within the DAW. You can export footage within the locator range or the whole video to your collaborators and clients with H.264 video compression and 16-bit stereo audio in 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz.
There’s also a new MultiTap Delay feature, especially for musicians, plus an improved granular synthesizer Padshop 2 and colorized mixer channels for an easy and fast workflow. Moreover, the new version tracks your MIDI input, even if you’re not recording, and captures your performance on multiple tracks, being perfectly capable of bringing back your melodies and chords with just a click. There are three versions of Cubase to choose from: the full app i.e. the Pro thing, a cheaper Artist version, which comes with fewer plug-ins and instruments, and the basic version, Elements, which is the cheapest of the bunch, yet surprisingly good.
Bottom line, if you’re looking for a professional DAW for MIDI and virtual instrument composers, this is it.
- Powerful and flexible pro-DAW software ideal for MIDI composition with virtual synthesizers
- Strong post-production/audio editing tools
- Great choice for semi/professional musicians
- Excellent mixer, smart editing and automation support
- Tons of plug-ins, refreshed user-interface
- Pretty expensive and difficult to learn
The Best Free DAW
CakeWalk has over 3 decades of experience in the music-making niche, and the company was initially owned by Roland, followed by Gibson (sacred names in the music industry). In 2017, Gibson sold Cakewalk to BandLab, who continued to develop the software suite, while, amazingly enough, refusing to charge users for their product. Prior to that, CakeWalk (the studio version) was retailing for something like $400, but after 2017, this award-winning pro-recording software was available free of charge.
So yeah, if we’re talking about pro-grade DAW for peanuts money, nothing beats CakeWalk. All you need is an internet connection and Windows 7 OS (or above), and there you have it: world-leading features are at your fingertips courtesy of Cakewalk by BandLab. Here’s what you can do with CakeWalk: compose ease complete songs and performances with incredible using the software’s tools and instruments, record your music with unlimited audio and pristine quality, including MIDI tracks, edit music (fix/arrange parts, manipulate time, pitch etc.), master your finished music tracks to perfection using CakeWalk’s excellent mastering tools, mix like a pro via advanced mixing tools, and share your work (export/publish) directly to social media, YouTube, SoundCloud and more.
Basically, if you’re looking for a world of professional features for literally zero money, you can’t beat CakeWalk.
- Absolutely free with studio-quality effects
- Unlimited tracks, VST3 support, ARA support, 64-bit mix engine
- Award winning user interface (touch enabled for Windows 10)
- Best engine in the industry
- Excellent tool for producers, song writers and composers
- Doesn’t work on Mac
The Best DAW For EDM
FL Studio is a serious DAW that’s formerly known as Fruity Loops (no kidding) and until recently, it was a Windows-only deal. Since 2018, FL Studio is also available for Mac and it makes for one of the most famous and popular DAWs out there, being used by some of the most creative artists in the world. Truth be told, FL Studio is not the ideal tool if you’re looking for an all-around digital audio workstation, but it’s awesome if you’re shopping for the best DAW for EDM.
Allow us to elaborate further: to make it real simple for our readers, FL Studio has been developed for over 20 years now, as it started way back in 1998, and since its inception, it was (and still is) geared towards electronic music production. Using FL Studio, you’ll be able to create or record literally any type of audio project one can think of, i.e. you can compose, arrange, record, edit, mix and master professional quality music. And if you doubt that, you have Camo and Krooked, Deadmau5 and Afrojack, or Martin Garrix and Tim Berg (Avicii) vouching for its quality.
FL Studio 20 marks the company’s 20th anniversary and it comes with a revamped vector user interface, plus new bells and whistles and buttons, that on top of landmark Mac compatibility. Without boring you with a list of special effects and things of that nature, you must learn that FL Studio 20 would make for the perfect companion even if you’re a beginner, and that’s due to its intuitive and well-designed interface. On top of that, since the DAW has been around since like, forever, you’ll find tons of YouTube video-tutorials for virtually any feature you need explained.
- MIDI keyboard support
- Comes with all the standard mixing/editing features, including recording with a mic
- Features all sorts of advanced features
- Very user friendly and offers amazing value for money
- Works on both PC and Mac
- None we can think of
Avid Pro Tools First
Good Option for Both Professionals and Amateurs
As the name suggests, Avid Pro Tools is a DAW aimed at expert/professional users and the good news is that it works on both Mac and Windows machines. If we were to describe Pro Tools by Avid in a few words, we’d say that if you’re shopping for the industry standard in regard to mixing and mastering, you’ve just met your match, i.e. this is the software to buy. And truth be told, there are entire school programs dedicated to Avid Pro Tools, and here’s why (the TL;DR version):
This professional grade DAW gives you the ability to record, compose, edit, mix, master and more, but what’s very special about Avid’s baby is its proprietary/in-house made Audio Engine, i.e. you’ll get a super-fast sound processor that never lags/freezes due to its 64-bit memory capacity, plus it comes with a built-in latency input buffer that eliminates delay, plus built-in metering. Moreover, there’s a cool feature dubbed Elastic Pitch which allows you to change the tempo with time-stretch of any track; this thing works similarly to autotune, as it helps with correcting harmonies.
Avid Pro Tools also comes with no less than seventy plug-ins and effects, including compressors, reverb, channel stripping, EQs, you know, the whole nine yards. It’s worth mentioning that Pro Tools works a little bit better with Mac, since it was initially designed for Apple devices. Finally, if you become an expert in Pro Tools, you’re set for life, i.e. you’ll never require another DAW, yet be advised: the learning curve is pretty steep.
- Pro Tools First is free of charge and will get you started
- Delivers impeccable audio editing workflow
- Industry-leading 64-bit recording and mixing engine
- Feature-rich for freeware, supports high-end hardware
- Comes with 16 audio and 16 MIDI tracks
- None we can think of
The Best Open-Source DAW
Here comes the Reaper, another digital audio workstation designed for semi-pros and up and boasting cross-platform compatibility, i.e. it works on both PC and Mac. To make it real simple for our readers, Reaper’s main strength is that it offers unparalleled mixing and mastering flexibility. Moreover, after you download the software, you have sixty days of free trial, and that’s great as the free trial comes with all the bells and whistles of the full version.
Another unique feature of the Reaper is that it’s coded by a small group of nerds who focus on delivering the mere essentials of a pro-grade digital audio workstation, and that means you’ll get all the “good stuff” and less of the “fluff” you’ll never use anyway. Reaper allows you to drag and drop your FX and VSTs, or to seamlessly map your MIDI controllers, paste/cut/split/edit individual tracks, and offers plug-in support for the vast majority of music creators.
Basically, Reaper is an open-source no-nonsense software that supports a wide range of plug-ins, audio interfaces and effects, and then again, just download it and use it for 60 days for free, this is a win/win situation.
- Heavily customizable, works on both Mac and PC
- Very fast and light on hardware resources
- You get mixing, multichannel audio recording and mastering at bargain prices
- 60-day free trial (full version)
- Amazing value for the money
- You don’t get built-in instruments or loops
- The user interface leaves room for improvement
- Lacks MIDI List Editor
The Best DAW For Windows
Ableton Live is the stuff legends are made of, and it’s been around since forever, or more precisely, since 1999. Needless to say, Ableton Live is a hugely popular DAW, and there are plenty of reasons for that. Moreover, this baby works on both Mac and PC, and we would recommend it as the best DAW period (for most of our readers). And here’s why: first, you’ll get the now-obligatory multi-track recording that features limitless MIDI/audio tracks for songs, and that’s awesome in our book; then, you get the standard cut, paste and slice thing, but what makes Ableton Live stand out from the crowd is the seamless MIDI sequencing software and hardware.
On top of that, Ableton Live comes with included sound packages, more precisely up to 70 GB of sounds spread between 23 sound libraries, a feature that’s awesome for starters, as it allows you to make music right away. Another cool thing about Ableton Live is that it’s absolutely fantastic for live performers, and, to make a long story short, you can’t go wrong with Ableton Live, regardless of your “niche”.
- Strong automation
- Well-designed UI for fast navigation
- One-of-a-kind all-in-the-box solution for live performing and composing
- Outstanding for electronic music
- Tons of sample material included in the suite
- No comping
- The latest version lacks in innovation (not worth to upgrade)
PreSonus Studio One
The Best DAW For Hip Hop
Next in line we have a very stable DAW coming from a reputable brand, PreSonus respectively, a company that is also known for its Studio One DAW and AudioBox iTwo audio interface. Studio One is a standalone DAW that offers unlimited tracks, drag and drop functionality, VST, MIDI, FX channels and buses, not to mention mastering integration, cool reverb features, and a Melodyne interface, among other things.
Compared to other DAWs on the market, PreSonus Studio One is easier to work with in terms of workflow, however, the downside is that its user-interface kind of lacks in “bling”, yet we’d take workflow over aesthetics any day of the week, and so should you. Even if the interface is not impressive as per 2020 standards, it looks pretty nice and gets the job done without drama.
This DAW boasts the obligatory 64-bit sound engine and that translates into studio-quality recordings, and comes loaded with all the essential features required from a digital workstation. The mastering tools will take a bit to learn properly, but the good news is that Studio One works great both on PC and Mac, so there you have it, just go for the free version and see if it fits.
- Impressive workflow for audio recording and music composition
- The free version is great for beginners
- Excellent mastering features which include DDP import/export
- Unlimited audio and instrument tracks, wide selection of effect plugins
- 64-bit resolution and support for up to 384kHz audio
- Some users complain about the difficult installation process
- One window interface feels dated
A Small but Powerful DAW
Speaking of DAWs and cross-platform compatibility, Audacity comes to mind almost instantly. Basically, if you’re looking for audio software that’s open-source, free and works on PC, Mac and Linux, Audacity is the answer to your prayers. This basic DAW is incredibly easy to use and makes for a no-nonsense multi-track audio editor that can record live audio through a microphone or a mixer, digitize recordings from other media, import, edit, export and combine sound files, export recordings in various file-formats (multiple files at once even) and many more.
Audacity is not a professional-grade DAW though, yet you’ll get comprehensive plugin support: LADSPA, LV2, Nyquist, VST and Audio Unit. Basically, if you’re on a tight budget and trying to get started in recording music or podcasting, Audacity would make for the sensible option, being an open-source/free yet powerful audio editor.
- Free, open-source, works on any OS
- Lots of editing options
- Features multitrack audio and batch processing
- Ideal tool for voice recording for podcasts
- VST plugin support, tons of effects
- Destructive editing is a mixed bag
- No tech support
The Best Free DAW
The best things in life are free, or so we’re told; enter WaveForm Free, the best free DAW out there and all that jazz. Seriously now, the Waveform Free is absolutely awesome if you’re making your first steps in the music production software business. Despite its “affordability”, Waveform is fully featured and completely unlimited, which makes it perfect for young music creators.
So, here’s the short story: even if Waveform is not meant to be used in professional environments, unlike other so-called free DAWs this one features unlimited track count, and there are zero restrictions, plus you’ll benefit from a very capable feature set and a number of popular plugins. All in all, it’s very probable that you’ll get more features and capabilities than you’ll ever need as a music enthusiast, and you can take that to the bank.
Moreover, this amazing free DAW runs on anything: Linux, Mac OS, Windows and even Raspberry Pi, supports MPE as well as the latest gen of software instruments, comes with cool features like a MIDI pattern generator to allow you to sync chord progressions, melodies, basslines, what have you, plus the highly popular 40SC Virtual Synthesizer and Micro Drum Sampler.
You can load as many plugins as you like and if you get confused along the way, you can find a ton of good tutorials and song starting templates, for tasks like band recording and mixing, EDM production and more. Bottom line, if you’re not making top dollar from music just yet, the Waveform Free would make for the sensible choice. And if you want more, you can always go for the paid-for Pro version anytime.
- Free, Linux compatible
- Easy to use, unlimited track count
- Tons of features
- Well suited for modern music production
- Clean and clear UI
- Full audio and MIDI recording, editing and mixing
- Lacks some high-end features
Finally, we close today’s article with one of the most popular (and oldest) DAWs out there, and yes, we’re talking about the iconic Apple GarageBand. The thing about GarageBand is that it already received legendary status among beginners and for good reason: like all Apple products, GarageBand is extremely easy to use even for first-timers, and it’s excellent for those who are in the starting stages of their music career.
Hence, if you’re a young “future musician” looking to lay down your first tracks and mix some cool tunes for your buddies, the ease of use for recording and its simplicity make GarageBand a safe bet. The user interface is very friendly and designed to help you visualize what you’re creating (synths, keyboard, percussion). This DAW also offers great presets for guitar and vocal recording, plus a couple of good amps and effects for the mic or guitar.
There’s also a built-in lesson for piano and guitar lovers, i.e. you can use GarageBand as a substitute teacher of sorts, that if you’re looking to learn to play real instruments. This baby also maps out the chords and teaches you what they are, so you’ll end up with solid music-theory knowledge. Bottom line, Apple GarageBand is a no-nonsense and solid DAW for beginners, and on top of that, it’s free.
- Well-designed interface
- Incredibly easy to use to mix/record music
- Loop and built-in sound library is impressive
- Free instrument lessons included
- Supports 3rd party plugins and 24-bit recording
- None we can think of