I’d firstly like to caveat this blog by saying that all these DAWs are effective music and audio production tools. Your choice of your DAW will probably come down to three key points – cost, platform, and what your friends or influences use.
I’ve used about half of the DAWs on this list over the years, and I can honestly say my preferences have come down to ease of use, and feature set. Most DAWs follow a similar style of interface, have similar plugins and effects, and generally, the same workflow.
Each is different. They are shaped by the developer’s vision for the software, and also the influence of the userbase of that DAW. While it’s true to say learning one will make it easier to learn the rest, you’ll soon need to choose your preference.
So, instead, I’ve compiled a list of the top DAWs on the market at the moment and my opinion of who they’re best for. This list focuses on the flagship versions as well – there are plenty of companies that offer Lite/Artist/Free versions of their software.
First of all, why not take this quick quiz for suggestions on the best DAW for you?
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Apple Logic Pro X (Mac only, £199.99 Perpetual)
Best For: Music Producers and recording engineers who need more advanced features
Advantages: Decent interface, comes with a ton of fantastic stock plugins, instruments and samples
Disadvantages: Mac only
The definitive king of Apple music production, Logic X is a fantastic DAW. The interface works well, and the learning curve is relatively light. There’s also a huge amount of tutorial material available on YouTube, which is great because the built-in help isn’t comprehensive. It’s a true all-in-the-box solution, with high-quality virtual instruments, drum machines, samplers, and plugins. It also has some great songwriting tools such as virtual drummer, quick sampling, and step sequencing, as well as a massive loop library.
The downside is that the UI can be a bit daunting for new producers and those who have never used a DAW before.
Arguably, for serious engineers and musicians, Logic is the best way to go on Mac.
Avid Pro Tools (PC/Mac, £299/year)
Best For: Big recording projects, studio engineers, audio post-production
Advantages: Hugely powerful, scales better than any other DAW, Avid hardware
Disadvantages: Expensive, not well suited to loop-based or MIDI production
Pro Tools is often hailed as the ‘industry standard’ DAW. This is mainly due to the way it’s designed to scale for large studios. Avid offers a suite of audio and visual software for media production, powerful hardware, timecode management, and cloud services.
Pro Tools really comes into its own with multitrack recording, editing, and mixing. The workflow is designed to feel like an analogue recording environment which is particularly helpful to studio engineers. It’s also keyboard shortcut heaven – or hell – but those who master them earn lightning-fast workflows.
The Pro Tools interface is designed to appeal to recording engineers, and this is probably where it sits best – in large studios that need this sort of power. It lacks intuitive looping and MIDI editing, and has a lot of functionality that home producers don’t need.
Ableton Live 11 Standard (PC/Mac, £319 Perpetual)
Best For: Singer/Songwriter producers
Advantages: Intuitive workflow, lots of sound options, simple arrangement
Disadvantages: Expensive, poor scoring/notation options
Similar to Logic, Ableton Live comes with a whole suite of sounds, plugins, and effects. The different price points between Intro, Standard and Suite determine how much of this you have access to (rather than Logic, which gives you the full package). Its strength has always been in versatility.
The Session view is also particularly helpful for songwriters. Rather than making changes to one version of a song, different arrangements can be created, making it possible to try different drum beats or melody lines in sections of a track.
Clip-based workflows and good hardware support have made Ableton particularly popular as a live tool, but the most recent versions have brought Live 11 in line with other DAWs.
Apple Garageband (Mac, Free)
Best For: Production newbies, songwriters, non-technical producers
Advantages: Free, simple, comes with a great selection of sounds, instruments and plugins, ipad version is highly mobile
Disadvantages: lacks some of the advanced features of other DAWs, not great for mixing/mastering
If you own a Mac and you’re just getting into music production, your best choice is Garageband. In fact, singer-songwriters and self-recording musicians may never find a need to upgrade. It can record high-quality audio or MIDI, is packaged with a good selection of instruments and plugins, and has third-party plugin support.
Garageband is designed to be super easy to use. You can select from a palette of pre-installed instruments including guitars, pianos and drums. Most of the instruments have a ‘chord mode’ which lets the user create backing chords automatically. It also allows tweaks in performance.
Audio can also be recorded into the app for vocalists, and mixed in accordingly. For quick songwriting and hassle-free production, Garageband is a clear winner.
It’s still a little weak on the mixing and advanced editing side, so some users will eventually want to upgrade to Logic X, or start make friends with a mixing/mastering engineer.
Cockos Reaper (PC/Mac, $60)
Best For: Technically-minded producers, editors, audio post
Advantages: Inexpensive, incredibly stable, works well with video, highly customisable
Disadvantages: steep learning curve for more advanced features, no built-in instruments/loops (though it does have great stock plugins)
Reaper is a hugely flexible DAW and is well known for being rock-solid in terms of performance. It’s become particularly popular in video game audio, as well as post-production due to how well it works with video. It’s also one of the cheapest commercial licences available for a paid DAW.
Its biggest strength is customisability – new skins, scripts and macros can supercharge the production process. The problem is a lot of this functionality is buried behind menus or under the hood. This can be daunting to less technical producers, although there is plenty of support and suggestions available in Reaper’s forums, and the support and guidance available is excellent. The mixing process is fluid and intuitive to engineers, which makes Reaper great for multitrack recording.
It also comes bundled with some great plugins, but not much in the way of instruments, which means it’s not necessarily the best choice for new producers, singer-songwriters, or those who are looking for simple workflows.
Image-Line FL Studio Producer Edition (PC/Mac, £153)
Best For: Electronic music producers, hip-hop artists, loop junkies
Advantages: Strong loop and pattern-based composition
Disadvantages: Cluttered UI, poor live recording/editing capabilities
FL Studio’s feature list has expanded over the years as the software has grown. That being said, the UI is still arrangement based, and it caters heavily towards loop-based music like electronica and hip-hop. Its audio recording and editing abilities are the weakest on this list, but that’s not the target market. If your music is based around grooves, riffs and loops, you’ll find FL studio to work for you.
The most recent version allows for different Arrangements of a track, to easily try out new ideas without breaking a track. You’ll also find plenty of great plugins in the box as well.
If you like the ease of use and practicality of Garageband but you’re producing electronic or hiphop music, or you want something a little more in-depth, FL Studio might be the best choice for you.
Steinberg Cubase (PC/Mac, £185)
Best For: MIDI based composers, producers who use a lot of VST instruments
Advantages: VST support, MIDI-based composing and scoring
Disadvantages: Not as much depth in audio recording as Pro Tools
With another deserved comparison to Logic, Cubase has long been known as a DAW that caters to producers and composers who use a lot of virtual instruments, synths, and MIDI. It’s true to say that other DAWs have caught up in this regard, but Cubase users will argue that for scoring and producing virtual instrumentation, it’s still king.
The company behind Cubase, Steinberg, are responsible for some important tech, including VST (Virtual Studio Technology) and ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output), which gave Cubase a headstart with virtual instruments.
Aside from this, Cubase uses an intuitive interface, similar to other DAWs, so the choice will come down to whether you want the industry-standard VST-based application.
Presonus StudioOne (PC/Mac, £298)
Best For: Band recording, live integration
Advantages: Intuitive interface, lots of useful features for producers
Disadvantages: More expensive for the plugins, instruments and loop libraries
StudioOne is effectively a simpler, stripped-back version of Pro Tools for recording – none of the complexity that smaller producers need, all the tools they do. Studio One excels at recording and editing audio. It also supports drum sequencing and MIDI editing, covering all bases when it comes to home music production.
Overall, StudioOne is a great all-rounder for recording engineers and producers.
The downside is the lack of instruments in the lower tier versions, which makes this weaker than Logic or Garageband if you have a Mac. It also lacks the power of Pro Tools. The caveat is that it’s a perfectly capable recording and music production DAW at a fraction of the price. Consider Studio One if Pro Tools feels a bit too much for your needs.
Reason Studios Reason (PC/Mac, £399)
Best For: Producers with a heavy leaning to rack-based production and synths
Advantages: Can be used as a plugin in other DAWs, rack-based virtual studio feel
Disadvantages: A bit limited as a DAW compared to rivals
Reason (formerly from Propellerhead Studios, now Reason Studios) has been around for a long time. Older producers will fondly remember it as a rack-based virtual studio, complete with virtual cables you could plug in and around at the ‘back’. Producers who are well versed with hardware synths and analogue studios might find this workflow familiar, if not convenient.
It’s got some classic software synths too, that are still usable and sound great. The ability to run Reason as a plugin turns it into one of the most powerful, multipurpose synths available. While I struggle to recommend Reason independently unless the interface and workflow is your thing, it’s worth looking at as part of a larger electronic production studio.
Bitwig Studio (PC/Mac, £299)
Best For: Electro or synth-based producers and live DJs/producers
Advantages: Great for live music, designed with touch devices in mind
Disadvantages: Cluttered UI
Bitwig’s one of the newer DAWs on this list and is often compared to Ableton Live. The key differences are probably that while Ableton has more built-in effects than Bitwig, the latter has far more features overall.
It works particularly well for live electronic music, and those who are familiar with Ableton’s interface will find it easy to get into. It’s also a great tool for synth building, compared to older DAWs that don’t focus on this area. This makes it one of the most creative DAWs available for electronic music producers.
Acoustica Mixcraft (PC, £150)
Best For: Producers who like Garageband and Logic but don’t have a Mac
Advantages: Huge amount of loops, samples and plugins, great interface, intuitive mixing
Disadvantages: PC Only, comes with unnecessary additional software
Mixcraft might not be the biggest name on this list, but it’s a fantastic option for those who are looking for a PC equivalent to Logic. The two versions, Recording and Pro, come with a great feature set for recording audio, adding loops/samples, editing and sequencing MIDI. The mixer is also intuitive and easy to use.
It has a particular strength in mixing, where there’s a vast library of first and third-party plugins to get mixes up to scratch. The UI is customisable as well, though the interface is already highly familiar if you’ve used a DAW workflow previously. Home producers and recording artists who are tied to PC will struggle to find better.
Cakewalk by Bandlab – Free, but PC only and feels old, as it’s just a re-release of a stripped-down version of Sonar.
Spotify Soundtrap – An online, collaborative solution that’s quite simple. Can’t recommend it as a full DAW compared to this list, but could work well as a sketchpad.
Traktion Waveform – Leans heavily towards the ‘creative’ feel, and very heavily focused on music production.
Ohm Studio – Pretty standard in terms of functionality – audio and MIDI production – but sets the standard on collaborative music production with a growing community of artists to work with.
Soundbridge Studio – A free, modern DAW with a similar interface to Ableton and Bitwig, but designed with touch screens in mind.
SADie – Yes, there’s a higher ‘high end’ than Pro Tools – a hardware-supported post-production DAW for field recording, and audio for film and TV. You may not have ever heard of it. You have now!
I’m still confused – which DAW is the best?
Bad news – there isn’t one ‘best’. All the DAWs on this list are great, and even this list isn’t exhaustive. The good news is, at least initially, it doesn’t matter that much. All DAWs will allow you to input and playback your ideas in one form or another.
Start with the list above and the Quiz. Moving between applications later can be a pain, but it’s not impossible, so don’t feel tied to one choice forever. But honestly – most of these DAWs offer free trials or cut-down free versions, so set a couple of weeks to download a few, try making your style of music on them, and see which one is easiest. Ultimately that’s what will be most important; finding a DAW that supports, not inhibits, your creativity.
Want more information? Got something to share about your favourite DAW, or feel like something’s missing from this list? Drop a comment below!