Best Music Production Software: Choosing The Right DAW For You

by Doug

March 6, 2017
Finding the best music production software is a journey all music producers have to go down.

Everyone has to start somewhere. If you’re looking for the best music production software, you have come to the right place!

In this article we will cover every little question you might want to know when picking a DAW.

An upcoming music producer asking the question,

Is there truly a “best DAW”?

Now, here’s the first question you might be wondering. Is there actually a “best DAW” out there or is it all a personal preference.

Well, it’s important to know that it’s not about the type of tool you have, but how you use it. *wink

You’ll find world renowned producers creating chart-topping hits with just about every DAW out there.

However, there some more modern DAWs with innovative features that will allow you to work much more efficiently in.

So what should you do? I recommend trying out free trials like a MADMAN. If you encounter a DAW like Logic Pro, which doesn’t have a free trial, you can get a good feel of it just through watching YouTube videos of artists producing using it.


Choosing music production software

If you ever ask around, you’ll notice recurrent patterns. Like people who work with Hip Hop prefer Fruity Loops, artists involved in 4/4-type electronic genres like Techno or House have a preference for Ableton Live, recording artists, who have a penchant for live instruments find Logic suitable. It’s all about the visual structure and general design of the software that you’re using.

The very moment you open Fruity Loops you see a grid that is very inviting to create a Hip Hop beat. Ableton works with cyclical patterns and encourages the user to create loops and from loop to loop in a playful manner, thus tracks can become 5 or 6 minutes long.

The people who design music production software work with people who know their way around cognitive sciences, thus they do concentrate on User Experience.

This is a great thing to take into account when choosing a DAW, just go with whatever looks more pleasing to your eye.

Additional purchases after buying a DAW

A lot of Music Production Software has its own add-ons, like the famous Max4Live that can be integrated into Ableton Live. An entire new world opens before you.

Max4Live has its own programming language and interface, it has a community of users that put out their instruments that they’ve coded, which vary from MIDI instruments and synthesizers to audio effects.

Some are shockingly experimental, like CUADRICULA or other similar devices that allow you to modulate effects or parameters using your laptop camera. There is an entire world of similar add-ons that you can link to your DAW of preference.

So, what additional purchases should you make? We’ll cover that in this section.

A popular audio interface that producers might buy after getting music production software.

The Scarlett 2i2, a very popular audio interface.

Audio interface?

Well I already have an audio card in my computer, do I really need an audio interface? The answer is eventually.

As comforting and accessible music production software may seem and making music is fun and intriguing, there is the Sisyphean task of mixing your music.

A large amount of producers find this task incredibly complicated, because it implies a lot of time, attention and auditory bias that you have to confront with.

Audio interfaces will allow you to have control over the sound that goes to your studio monitors (or headphones).

An audio interface is also a must if you plan on doing any sort of recording. Audio interfaces allow you to connect XLR microphones, which are much prefered rather than USB microphones.

However, if you’re a dance music producer and don’t plan on recording instruments/vocals, you don’t have to buy an audio interface right away. But you will eventually need one when you decide to add studio monitors to you home studio setup.


Studio monitors are a great piece of gear to add to your home studio.

Studio monitors?

You occasionally hear artists say that their DAW or their Sampler/Sequences is the ‘brain’ of their production, well, then studio monitors are your eyes.

Without them you’re living a constant lie about your mix.

Monitors always imply a lot of research and patience, as the topic is highly technical. The truth is that monitors don’t necessarily have to sound ‘good’ in the way you’re used to expect from hi-fi systems, which are destined to deliver a pleasant auditory experience, monitors have to sound ‘honest’ and ‘real’, take that into account when shopping for your own pair.

You will constantly hear the term flat used by audiophiles and producers. Flat is another term that mean unenhanced sound - a sound that is “honest” and accurate to what your mix actually sounds like.


Studio Headphones are great for producing music without disturbing anyone.

Headphones?

Headphones have a special role in music production. Typically it is not orthodox to actually make music in headphones, namely when mixing.

There are, of course, styles that needn’t too much detail, like, say, lo-fi Hip Hop or Outsider Techno, where the essence is in the feeling that the music offers and not the panoramic properties or the precise “display” of the musical elements.

However you may use headphones to test the mix that you’ve been working on, to see how sounds expand and try to experience your mix differently. That will offer you various hints on what parameters to tweak, in order to make your song exactly as you intend it to be.

Make sure to check out our graphic about studio monitors vs. headphones for music production.


Xfer Records Serum is one of the best virtual synthesizers around.

Xfer Records Serum is my favorite virtual synth!

Plugins?

Absolutely. It depends, of course. Nothing can stop you from becoming a successful artist or producer without them, but it’s much easier with them on board.

They offer you a different world of exquisite musical experiences. No on-board devices on any DAW will offer you things like granular synthesizers or doppler distributors. By limiting yourself in plugins you may miss out on a huge amount of opportunities to creatively approach your music.

You can always start out with free VST plugins until you can afford paid plugins. We always go over VST deals of the week here on MIDI Lifestyle. Make sure to subscribe to our email list to get notified of VST deals each week.

Tropical Deep House Sample Pack

Tropical Deep House, a recent sample pack I purchased.

Sample packs?

Most producers use samples in some fashion.

If you’re a beginner, it’s always amazing to have a lot of things to play with, because these experiments will eventually shape your approach to music, the process and the expectations.

You can start out with some free sample packs, but I recommend investing in paid packs. The site for you to find sample packs (and good deals on sample packs) is Loopmasters.

Some artists concentrate intensely on making their own packs, building their distinctive and recognizable sounds.


A very large room that has been soundproofed. Artists would go in a room like this to record.

A gigantic soundproof chamber. (Anechoic chamber) Once the doors close, this room is dead-silent on the inside.

Soundproofing? Does your room need it?

It’s quite important to define why you need soundproofing in the first place. Proofing is quite important if you want to isolate your room from other intrusive noises from the outside.

In case you’re a bedroom producer, well, it’s not going to help you stop the sound coming out of the room, because the low-tier vibrations will affect your neighbors anyways.

Soundproofing is a great thing for microphone booths, of course. If you’re a rapper, you don’t want the neighbor’s cat partake in your fresh new album, right?

If you have a great pair of studio monitors, you’re still not 100% set. You have to worry about sound reflections. Sound bouncing off your walls will make the flattest of monitors to be inaccurate. For that reason, it’s a good idea to look into soundproofing and the acoustics of your studio. You should also take your studio monitor placement into consideration.

Other gear?

The new millennium is defined by accessibility, and what took musicians literally weeks to program machines in 1995, it takes a half of an hour and DAW today.

Respectively, EDM producers are very well off a single MIDI controller and a pair of monitors to actually be able to put out great music.

Recording live instruments is what’s really expensive today, thus less people engage in this activity over the years. A decent recording studio is worth well-over $10,000 today and the prices are rising as the standards are as well.


Best Music Production Software: The List

Here’s the best music production software today:

  • Ableton Live
  • Bitwig Studio
  • FL Studio
  • Logic Pro
  • Pro Tools
  • Cubase
  • Sonar
  • Reason
  • Garageband
  • PreSonus Studio One

Ableton Live 9 software

Ableton Live - MIDI Lifestyle's #1 recommendation in 2017

Ableton Live

Ableton's Website.​

When we discussed DAW software as a virtual recording studio, the Pro Tools model and its influences represent that analogy.

The first DAW platform to emerge with an alternative to the virtual recording studio was Ableton's Live. Development started 10 years after Pro Tools' first release and in 2001 the first version of Live came on the market. While the early control surface movement formed around Pro Tools, Live proved to be the impetus necessary for affordable control surface development.

The fundamental difference that sets Live apart is the ease with which it incorporates performance. Described frequently as "non-linear," Live opens up how a creator adapts the components of a composition or performance.

Live's Session View lends itself to improvisation and performance of song components in a manner that's totally different from linear, tape-based analogs. It's Session View that opened up unique control surfaces.

The typical Live "player" hardware consists of a button grid. The Cadillac version is Ableton's own Push device, but very affordable alternatives exist from a variety of manufacturers. Using MIDI control data, these devices are often user configurable, but most strongly support Live out of box.

Non-musicians now have instruments giving control over recording and performance, supporting a DAW that makes music creation intuitive. Live still maintains plenty of flexibility for those familiar with more traditional platforms.

Ableton Live 9 Intro version starts at $100, and it can often be found bundled with control surface hardware. The full Suite version runs over $700, with the Standard version in between, around $500. Track count and effects are limited with the Intro package, with effects and content increasing for both larger versions.


Bitwig Software

Bitwig Studio

Bitwig's Website.

​We recommend Bitwig for anyone who wants a DAW similar to Ableton, but for a much more affordable price than Ableton Suite.

Despite the demand for performance tools like those in Ableton Live, few DAW makers take the challenge head-on. Then there's Bitwig Studio. Perhaps the newest and hottest DAW on the scene, Bitwig may be the freshest look at clip and loop based music creation.

If your first impression of Bitwig reminds you a little of Live, you're not dreaming. The founders of the Berlin-based software developers came from, you guessed it, Ableton. It does take a bit of digging to get into the unique workflow offered by Bitwig. Upon opening, it resembles a regular DAW package.

Bitwig Studio 2 is, at time of publication, just around the corner in early 2017. This is the first major version change since its introduction in 2014. Expanding on the powerful modulation systems of the original, version 2 points the arrow toward fully modular DAWs looming in the not too distant future.

Many of the rough edges of Studio 1 are buffed smooth. In particular, MIDI CC implementation and program changes up the hardware implementation game. This permits a wider range of triggers and control surfaces access to Bitwig's live performance features.

This is really the first DAW platform that rivals Live in terms of real-time performance. At least, that is, without extensive customizing. The Bitwig interface takes a strong performance-oriented layout that permits flexible changes. No worries about making the DAW work nice with your method.

Bitwig has a trial version and a main release, free and $299. The demo version can upgrade to the full version with authorization after purchase. Those buying the DAW in version 1 form now receive version 2 upon its release, scheduled for the end of February 2017.


FL Studio software

FL Studio

FL Studio's Website.

As Fruity Loops, this DAW emerged from its drum sequencer origins to rival Ableton Live as a champion of the live performance DAW style. As the old name implies, loops are central to FL Studio's background.

Over time, FL Studio transitioned from a simple drum sequencer into a fully capable production environment. It wasn't always a smooth ride. Some of the middle editions tended to be unfocused, trying to be all things to all users.

Currently in version 12, FL Studio still retains much flexibility and many loop-friendly attributes while expanding into a competent recording DAW.

As with Live and Cubase, there are three levels of application, the Fruity, Producer and Signature editions, featuring increasing capabilities and bells and whistles. These price at $100, $200 and $300 up the scale.

Pitch-shifting, time-stretching, beat-slicing remain critical to loop production. This is what FL Studio did early on that other DAWs either didn't or didn't support with other recording capabilities, such as MIDI editing, virtual instrument support and effects.

While FL Studio only supports Windows in its latest iteration, it's one of the most flexible DAWs in terms of interactivity with other DAWs and their sound file components. While traditionally an EDM platform, version 12 finds fans moving in from studio-style DAWs, attracted by FL Studio's workflow and flexible, scaling display.

Each version of FL Studio comes with a plethora of virtual instruments while at the same time, incorporating both VST and DirectX instruments and plug-ins you may already have. While it doesn't quite set itself up, it come very close, making upgrades or parallel moves from another DAW platform easy.

Between the packaged instruments and effects, there's really no category of plug-in missing, making FL Studio a powerful out of box DAW solution.

Reaper DAW

Budget Option: Reaper

Reaper's Website.

As per suggestion from one of our readers, we've decided to add Reaper to this list.

It's a DAW great for musicians on a budget and has all the features you need to start making music. 

The prices for it are:

  • $60 for an discounted license
  • $225 for a commercial license

You can buy the discounted version as long as you make less than $20k a year from your music, will only be using reaper for personal - non-commercial - use, or if you are an educational or non-profit organization.

Reaper can do anything you would want a DAW to do. The only catch is that it doesn't come with the greatest bundled instruments/effects that other DAWs typically come with. You can remedy that by downloading both free and paid VST plugins.

Overall, it's a great DAW - Not a kids toy by any means! There's a number of professional studios and artists that Reap the benefits of Reaper. 


Logic Pro X Software

Logic Pro

Logic Pro's website.​

Apple users can trace the origins of Logic Pro back to Notator Logic in the early 1990s. Through a series of name changes and acquisitions, Logic Pro emerged as an Apple product in 2002. Even non-music users know Logic Pro under a different name -- GarageBand.

While Logic Pro X and GarageBand remain two different products, they share a common audio engine. In fact, the current version of Logic permits adding of tracks to a project using GarageBand on iPhones and iPads. Its close relationship makes it an ideal choice for a music creator first inspired by GarageBand. Interfaces feel common and comfortable and Logic supports Apple Loops and other GarageBand features.

Logic Pro X, released in 2013, is only available through the Apple App Store, just under $200. While it only supports the OS X operating system, it's arguably one of the most affordable fully featured DAWs.

Originating when it did, Logic still maintains a strong virtual studio feel, though as with most contemporary DAWs, loop and beat creation have strong support. The music creator looking for performance support won't find strong support here. This is a recording and mixing platform, with every important processing feature available.

Video artists working with Final Cut find a similar and easily incorporated environment in Logic. MIDI editing is also well-supported, another homage to its Notator ancestry. That's also revealed in strong real-time notation.

There's lots for a traditional musician to sink their teeth into, while maintaining the user-friendliness that GarageBand introduced to the general public.


Pro Tools Software

Pro Tools

Pro Tools' website.​

One reason Pro Tools rivals "photoshop" as a generic reference comes down to the fact it was here first. Its initial release in 1989 started the revolution that moved recording out of studios and toward home users. There's some irony in the fact it's now often the DAW of choice in the very studios it came close to making obsolete.

Pro Tools is popular because it works. There are perks to being first on the scene, both in market penetration and third party support. In particular, Pro Tools has perhaps the best dedicated control surface support in the industry.

The mouse-and-keyboard method of moving faders and adjusting parameters quickly had engineers screaming for physical controls for Pro Tools. The music hardware industry responded. Digital mixing control surfaces specifically for the platform appeared.

The primary drawback of Pro Tools is its expense. While there's little it can't do, and while its penetration in the professional market remains high, it comes with the corresponding price tag.

Version 12, the most recent release at time of publication, has a variety of subscription and software/upgrade plans. While students and educational institutions can license for as little as $100 a year, the average user pays $30 per month at the low end. With Pro Tools, the learning curve starts when a user tries to determine which package best suits.

While Avid's Pro Tools remains the Rolls Royce of the DAW world, just like the car, not everyone can afford ownership.

Cubase Software

Cubase

Cubase's website.​

The early days of music creation on computer took advantage of MIDI -- Musical Instrument Digital Interface -- a control language common to predominately keyboard instruments. Synthesizers from, say, Roland and Yamaha could now communicate at machine level. The Roland could play the Yamaha's sounds and vice versa.

Computers came into the picture as a way for recording and playing back the MIDI codes. Cubase originated as a MIDI sequencer software for Atari computers, introducing graphic arranging to the scene. At this time, Cubase recorded no audio. It simply stored, edited and played back MIDI data.

Fast-forward to the digital audio age, and Cubase's parent company merged its post-production software, Nuendo, with Cubase's MIDI sequencing capability. Both products continue to exist, but this was the start of digital audio recording in Cubase.

Now in Version 9, Cubase Pro comes in under $600, with Artist and Elements versions at under $350 and $100 respectively. This may be the premiere package for music creators who collaborate in studio style.

As the originator of VST -- Virtual Studio Technology -- used for virtual instruments and effects, Cubase continues to expand the capabilities of VST through cloud-based sharing. VST Connect SE4 includes built-in messaging between collaborators, and it even helps you locate like-minded creators.

There's also support for real-world performance through integrated sample editing and libraries. The Lower Zone combined window, new in Cubase 9, places both mixing and editing views on a single screen for those preferring parallel work patterns.

Steinberg has a close working relationship with Yamaha, so Cubase is well supported in the hardware department. The Elements version frequently ships with hardware from both companies.

SONAR Software

SONAR

SONAR's website.​

Twelve Tone Systems, originator of the software that grew into the Sonar DAW, founded in 1987. Cakewalk, an early MIDI sequencer, became its early flagship program, incorporating audio in the later 1990s and finally switching to the Sonar name instead of Cakewalk Pro Audio version 10.

Moving toward, but not totally committing to, a subscription model, Sonar still offers a three-level production version line: Artist, Professional and Platinum, at $100, $200 and $400 respectively. There's also the entry level Sonar Home Studio, available for under $40.

Sonar membership introduces the subscription-style features, offering ongoing updates to the most current version of your DAW level.

Sonar is another of the recording studio-style DAW packages. Always a PC based product, this is not a digital performer's choice. This is a virtual studio with loads of features that make easy work of traditional style recording.

Its AudioSnap functions process loops during the creation phases, but Sonar doesn't rival the better performance DAWs when it comes to playback, improvisation and non-linear music making.

At nearly every turn, Sonar invokes the mixing desk model. Console, channel strips and ProChannel strips resemble their real world hardware counterparts, but the interface is modular and customizable, so it adapts to nearly any workflow you can imagine.

Supporting VST and DXi plug-ins, Sonar includes VST3 support, offering another level of sophistication and signal routing. Including both Addictive Drums 2 and Melodyne Essential, Sonar brings in some high-level third party products as well as its own collection of synths, amp simulators and effects plug-ins.

Reason Software

Reason

Reason's website.​

Reason has always stood out from the DAW crowd due to its literal interpretation of an equipment rack, both front and back. As you add synth modules, drum machines and effects, your rack fills up with the face of each module containing its controls.

The fun happens when you switch to the back. The various inputs and outputs display and each can be connected with virtual patch cords that bounce when you "spin" the rack around. For anyone who has ever been baffled by digital signal routing, Reason gives a visual for you to follow.

It's tweaker's heaven behind the rack, as you can connect any module to any other, sometimes in ways that are impossible in the real world, and there's never a risk of blowing anything up.

Reason is more than just a gimmicky rack. Version 9 continues the expansion toward fully featured music production DAW and while that means adding a bit of what everyone else has, Reason still maintains its distinct flavor and alternate workflows.

For the music creator who relies on sampling, Reason may be the most amenable DAW. Every module that plays samples also records them as well. Rather than being a side flavor, sampling is integral to the creation process in Propellerhead's flagship.

Well supported with a variety of expansion models, Reason offers two packages of version 9; the $400 full program and the $70 Essentials sampler, which is frequently bundled with other products. There are also a variety of upgrade and education licenses.

While old school engineers may scratch their heads at some of the workflow options, Reason seems perfectly intuitive to others. It's still a very unique DAW, so if other products aren't tickling your creative functions, Reason is worth a look.

GarageBand

Garageband's website.​

When it comes to affordability, there's not a commercial DAW in the vicinity of Apple's GarageBand. Five bucks at the App Store gets into a surprisingly capable recording platform.

Heavy-duty track recording musicians may find many limitations, but GarageBand isn't out to win users over from full-featured DAWs. Its mission brings recording to people who have never considered the possibilities before.

While GarageBand relies heavily on Apple Loops, and therefore runs a risk of same-sounding productions, as a user delves deeper, the possibilities expand, and external instruments, while not the key focus of the workflow, are easy enough to add.

There are two versions in release, supporting iOS and OS X operating systems. While the version for Macs has more features and a slightly more logical workflow, the mobile version is recognizably similar and users of one platform have little trouble making the switch to the other.

It's not unlike a burgeoning drug addiction. A user starts with GarageBand on their iPhone, then add it to a Mac and when that's not enough to settle the jonesing for recording power, there's the jump to Logic Pro, after which making tracks takes precedence over eating, sleeping, exposure to daylight and so on.

Presonus Studio One Screenshot

PreSonus Studio One

PreSonus Studio One's website.

Building a reputation for quality audio hardware in the home recording boom of the early 2000s, PreSonus was late in arriving in the DAW game. Veterans of Cubase and Nuendo development began working on Studio One in 2006, so what the new DAW lacks in longevity, it makes up for with pedigree.

Following the common three-level model in earlier versions, Studio One 3 seems to settle on Artist and Professional packages, around $100 and $400 respectively. Upgrades and education packages add other price points to the Studio One arsenal.

Perhaps due to the experience gained through Cubase and Nuendo, Studio One caught on quickly with experienced DAW users as an exciting and intuitive platform. PreSonus gained many converts from the Pro Tools/Sonar/Cubase group.

Part of the reason may be that shortcuts from other programs work within Studio One. There's a feeling of home from the get-go. Studio One also accepts audio transfer from iPads and features a terrific MIDI mapping utility. As with any recent release, loop and sample support plays a role.

One of the more impressive features is the new ways to find content in the browser, a huge time saver.

On the downside, the affordably priced Artist version has some major limitations. These can be bypassed, but only at the price of the appropriate add-on. It won't take long to kill the price difference with additional purchases.

Making the Decision

There is much to consider when choosing a DAW.

Take advantage of trials, demos and the advice of friends and music stores. You'll be drawn to a particular package, or your needs will define the features most important. When it comes to trends, there's always buzz about different products, but tune that out. The "cool factor" always comes out in the music.

Cheers!


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What do you think?


  • Update – 03/23/2017:
    Just added Reaper to the list of DAWs. It has great features and is available at a more than fair price.

  • I think you forgot to list Reaper in your DAW choices,which was a major oversight.Reaper doesn’t cost much and is every bit as capable as any of the DAWs you mentioned

    Some of us don’t care if our DAWs aren’t loaded w/a lot of VSTs/VSTi’s since we prefer to make our own selections and purchases,plus Reaper is very customizable and has great support groups and forums and Reaper upgrades quite often accordingly

    • You’re right. Many people love Reaper. I personally never enjoyed the software as much as others on this list. However, looking over the price of Reaper, you’ve convinced me to add it to this list. $60 for an individual license is a great deal.