Best DAW 2018
Looking for this year’s list? Be sure to read best DAW of 2019.
With the right piece of recording software, your home computer can become a fully enabled music production studio. The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is an extraordinary creative opportunity. It can put professional recording studio tools right into your hands, right onto your screen, right onto your music. You might be recording bands, you might be a Singer/Songwriter. You may be banging out beats or crafting soundtracks. Which DAW is going to be right for you? Although they can all accomplish similar tasks they are not all the same. Key features are going to make the difference between a workflow that runs with your way of creating and an awkward experience that will kill your joy.
So, let’s see what 2018 has brought to the table for the best daw software. I’m looking to recommend those DAWs pushing boundaries and offering exciting, kinetic tools to take music making forward. I’ve split them into a couple of categories reflecting different approaches so you can make a more informed choice. But all of them will enable you to record and make music so you can’t go far wrong.
Here are the best DAWs of 2018.
Our 2018 Picks
The Recording Studio
The traditional DAW feature set of audio recording (recording bands, instruments etc.), MIDI sequencing, virtual instruments, mixing and effects.
Cakewalk by Bandlab
In a surprise resurrection after being discontinued and sold off by their troubled owners Gibson, Cakewalk has re-emerged with new energy and new potential from new owners Bandlab. Bandlab has taken Cakewalk’s flagship DAW Sonar Platinum and released it for free online. Cakewalk and Sonar have been running as the industry standard Windows DAW for thirty years with millions of users, including Grammy and Emmy award-winning Producers, Composers, Sound Designers, and Engineers. The fact this amazing collection of professional tools is now free catapults it to the top of the list. Because although there are plenty of alternatives there’s nothing out there Cakewalk by Bandlab can’t do — for free.
Now there are some bits of third-party content that had to be let go of but otherwise, this is a full authenticated, supported and unlimited version ready for music production. This includes the Skylight user interface, amazing Pro Channel modules and powerful 64-bit mixing engine. It will work with any additional content you already own as well as VST instruments and effects.
Cakewalk by Bandlab excels at audio recording, mixing and editing. The mixing console and Pro Channel effects give a familiar environment to anyone who has worked in a studio. The Skylight user interface is completely adaptable, and you can run it over multiple screens. It’s also touch-screen multi-touchable. It has comprehensive MIDI capabilities with support for VST and DirectX virtual instruments. It even has a loop launcher page for triggering samples on the fly.
So other than being free why should you choose Cakewalk by Bandlab?
- It’s free! Did I mention this already?
- Professional grade 64bit mixing console with Pro Channel strips on every channel.
- Excellent vocal comping and processing.
- Unlimited audio and MIDI tracks.
- Support for VST and direct virtual instruments and effects.
- A whole band of included virtual instruments.
- Mix recall – save and recall mixes at different stages.
- Matrix view remixing with sample triggering.
- In built step sequencer and drum machine.
- It’s really easy to use while having plenty of depth for the pros.
Cubase now has a 64-bit mixing engine like Cakewalk and they’ve brought in more high-end plugins and virtual instruments to give you a complete solution. It’s more beautiful than Cakewalk and easier to use than Pro Tools and so makes itself an excellent alternative.
Avid Pro Tools 2018
Avid somehow manage to keep reinventing Pro Tools so it looks current and interesting while staying largely unchanged — but that’s the beauty of it. Pro Tools does the best job of mirroring the experience of working in a recording studio. It totally assumes you know what you are doing and makes no effort to appease the first timer. It’s quick, slick with a proven workflow that has become the industry standard for audio recording. It will run happily in home and project studios while being able to handle the most enormous projects and intensive tasks of professional studios and production suites. What I’m saying is this is the no-nonsense, stable as a rock, serious piece of software that, if you know what you are doing, is going to give you excellent results.
With the 2018 version, Pro Tools has largely caught up on the MIDI features lacking in previous versions. The focus has always been on audio, on live recording and editing, but Avid has worked hard to expand into the more creative areas of sequencing and virtual instruments. It’s now a very capable music production suite. If you are looking to start out with your first DAW then perhaps this popular daw is not for you. But this all depends on the level of your ambition.
Why choose Pro Tools 2018?
- The industry standard you will find in the majority of recording studios.
- Unapologetically professional in approach, tools, and workflow.
- Precise, in-track audio and MIDI editing.
- Fast and fluid editing environment.
- Has its own plug-in format with very high-end effects.
- Automation on almost every parameter.
- Integrated online collaboration.
- Supports small audio interfaces all the way up to high-end systems.
Steinberg Cubase Pro 9.5
Last year PreSonus’ Studio One knocked Cubase off the top spot. This year Studio One has remained fairly static while Cubase has innovated and deserves a place in our new top three. Steinberg has done much to calm and smooth out what had become a bloated interface. Now it’s slick and serious about giving you fantastic recording, editing and arranging.
The new interface is all about zones, where rather than going to different windows you can slide in different things you may need access to. If you want to browse for samples then the media bay slides in from the right. Want to change levels? Then the mixer comes up from the bottom without ever having to lose your focus on the arrange page. Automation is available with smooth curves and precise detail. Cubase now has a 64-bit mixing engine like Cakewalk and they’ve brought in more high-end plugins and virtual instruments to give you a complete solution. It’s more beautiful than Cakewalk and easier to use than Pro Tools and so makes itself an excellent alternative.
What makes Cubase special?
- A long history of development and innovation. They invented the audio protocols and plug-in standards every other DAW uses.
- Built-in VariAudio pitch correction and harmony editing.
- Unlimited audio, instrument and MIDI tracks and up to 256 inputs and outputs.
- MixConsole with integrated channel strip, VCA faders, and excellent metering.
- Over 90 high-end plug-ins.
- Compositional tools like Chord Track, Chord Pads, and Chord Assistant.
- Eight virtual instruments with over 3,400 sounds.
- Full VST Expression 2 support for note expression and MPE editing.
Loops, live performance and music production
While the DAW is synonymous with the recording studio some of us produce music differently. We want a more creative, hands-on approach that requires performance and playing with sound more than recording instruments. There are a few DAWs able to do this particularly well and are focused more toward the electronic music community while still having all the usual DAW capabilities.
Ableton Live 10
After many years creeping through various iterations of version 9, Ableton Live has finally leaped to version 10. It has brought with it a smoother, updated interface, better processes, and more advanced MIDI editing to music producers. It’s a calm, un-showy place where creative chaos is free to explode and be explored.
Ableton Live’s strengths come in the intricate way you can craft songs and arrangements through the combination of loop launching and traditional arranging. Stack your loops up in the Clip View and then stream your performance into the Arrange View for more production. It’s brilliant at beat matching audio loops with MIDI grooves and mixes them together with ease. One awesome new feature is it’s always in record. So, if you are playing with MIDI sounds and come up with something you like you’ll find it has already been recording it in the background.
Version 10 brings a complex and exciting Wavetable synth that makes full use of the extended devices view that now fills the screen with detail rather than remaining trapped in the Devices area. Live 10 incorporates the Max-for-Live sound design language which is full of fascinatingly musical devices and areas of discovery you can explore. And if you do perform live then you can take your whole studio with you and perform directly from the DAW.
Reasons not to miss out on Ableton Live:
- The standard in live, loop-based performance.
- Capture: retroactive recording.
- Multiple MIDI clip editing.
- Clip View to Arrange view fluidity.
- Great curated content and instruments.
- Max for Live brings endless possibilities.
- Creative sound mangling devices.
- Achingly cool.
FL Studio is different. It comes from a different place, a place of beat-driven techno and software instruments. For many years the focus was on virtual instruments and electronic music. More recently it has adopted the traditional aspects of the DAW environment. But at its heart, it loves loops and step sequencers, filters and big sounds.
Ableton’s biggest rival covers much of the same ground while having its own moments of innovation. Bitwig’s key arrangement feature is the ease with which you can drag audio and MIDI from the clip launcher to the arrange window and back again. But where Ableton have gone for creative sound design Bitwig have emphasized modulation. There are over thirty different modulation devices able to twist and pull parameters into all sorts of interesting directions. It has a way of putting everything into motion. Effects being manipulated, filters moved, reverbs deepened, MIDI messed with and audio processed: it’s a playground where you can radicalize your project.
Bitwig also has a new synthesizer and bigger device views. But, more uniquely, Bitwig fully supports MPE (MIDI Polyphony Expression) so you can address each MIDI note independently in terms of timbre and modulation. It also supports touchscreen technology, giving it a completely touchable editing environment. If the complexity of Ableton Live doesn’t inspire you then the sense of fun and exploration in Bitwig surely will.
Is Bitwig Studio the one for you?
- Loop-based clip launching and traditional DAW arranging.
- MPE and multi-touch screen support.
- A hugely creative modulation engine.
- VST 3 instruments and effects support.
- Special modulators for CV and hardware synths.
- Excellent Phase-4 synthesizer.
- Prettier than Ableton Live.
FL Studio is different. It comes from a different place, a place of beat-driven techno and software instruments. For many years the focus was on virtual instruments and electronic music. More recently it has adopted the traditional aspects of the DAW environment. But at its heart, it loves loops and step sequencers, filters and big sounds. This has made FL Studio very versatile in its approach. You can treat clips as loops, or nonlinear evolving pieces of music. MIDI and audio get mixed and exchanged all over the place. Everything can be routed into everything else to effect things, combine things or mess things about. It’s like there are no rules in FL Studio.
It comes with a stack of plug-ins and virtual instruments and some of the fattest synths you will ever hear. The interface is totally scalable, dazzling in its use of color and as customizable as you want it to be. It loves patterns which you can create in various places and route to anything you like. There’s no explaining it really, it’s just a different experience and if you find other top DAWs a bit cold then FL Studio is the party for you.
Why should I join the FL Studio party?
- Because it’s the only DAW that’s actually having a party.
- Works with step sequencers and patterns in very creative ways.
- Does loop generation and clip launching right in the arrange page.
- Lots and lots of included sounds and instruments.
- An innovative, scalable and colorful interface.
- Easy to use but tremendously deep once you dig down.
All DAWs give you a blank page where you can sketch out your creative ideas. These ones will take your ideas to a professional finished level and inspire you with tools, sounds, modulations, and possibilities that wouldn’t have emerged in any other way. Choosing the right music software can be tricky but it’s much harder to choose the wrong one because they are all going to serve you well.
If you want the traditional recording studio then everyone should at least give Cakewalk by Bandlab a try: not just because it’s free but because it’s an awesome piece of recording software. If you want to aim high then Pro Tools should be your choice. But if you want something better looking than Cakewalk and easier to use than Pro Tools then Cubase is what you need. Of course, there are others — such as Tracktion Waveform and PreSonus StudioOne — that would make up a top five, with Cockus Reaper coming in close, as well.
For the more electronic, loop obsessed Producer then both Bitwig and Ableton give you a performance orientated environment where magic happens. Where Bitwig is a playground Ableton is a science lab. Live feels serious and professional, Bitwig feels fun and exciting. But FL Studio is where the real party is at. Other alternatives would be the likes of Propellerhead Reason as a massive synth workstation, or StageLight as a touch-friendly, wallet-friendly grooving possibility.
Most DAWs also have simpler, more entry-level versions of themselves. Do check out our article on Budget DAWs for more information.
Want to see last year’s list? Be sure to read best DAW of 2017.
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