Best DAW 2019
Looking for this year’s list? Be sure to read Best DAW (2020).
The Digital Audio Workstation is the heart of our studio, the center of musical operations. It can be everything from a depository of ideas through to a creative workflow of musical happenings. They help us record, mix, produce and can contribute to our creativity in a myriad of ways. DAWs continue to evolve, building in musical tools, expressive control and production devices that take us forward. But which DAWs bring the workflow that frees us to make the best music we can?
It’s a great question and one that only you can answer. But here is my list of the best DAWs available in 2019:
- Steinberg Cubase 10
- PreSonus Studio One 4
- Image Line FL Studio 20
- Bitwig Studio 2.5
- Avid Pro Tools
- Ableton Live
- MOTU Digital Performer 10
- Cockos Reaper
The Best DAWs of 2019
1. Steinberg Cubase 10
Street Price: $99 – $552 (depending on bundle)
A monumental version of the original DAW. Steinberg invented most of the software music technology that we all take for granted: MIDI and audio synchronization, the VST effects and instruments plug-in format and the ASIO audio engine, all of which make DAWs possible.
In recent versions, Cubase has become more fluid, refined and focused. Reducing the clutter of windows and seamlessly moving from audio editing, to mixing, to loading instruments, to browsing samples, to creating sample instruments. Version 10 consolidates the workflow while pushing the professional production facilities to the max.
A new audio alignment tool automates the synchronization of multiple takes. Variaudio 3 gives you complete control over the pitch and timing of your vocal tracks with micro -pitch editing, smoother drifts, formants, and transitions. In the mixer, the Channel Strip has been completely revised. What was once a mass of different windows or tiny integrated controls has now become a consolidated window displaying the core mixing elements needed in a professional channel strip. There are new metering elements for direct visual feedback and detailed views of the compressors. The whole mixing console gets snapshots so you can go to and from different mixing ideas.
On the creative side, Cubase 10 fully supports MPE multidimensional controllers with full editing of the performance data they generate. Groove Agent SE, the included drum machine, goes up to version 5 with gigabytes of sounds and a fully resizable interface. There’s a load more content generally throughout Cubase in terms of loops, media, presets and sounds.
Rounding it off is Steinberg’s first step into sound production for virtual reality. A suite of VR tools and plug-ins allows you to create for immersive environments, from audio capture to final mixing. Seamlessly integrated functions, such as a third order Ambisonics bus, an HMD connector for head tracking, a fully integrated Binauralizer and a VR panning device are included in the VST Multipanner.
Cubase is one of the oldest DAWs on the block and has a maturity and self-assurance that others can lack. They’ve made some bold choices in the last couple of versions and now version 10 brings it all together.
*At time of writing
Studio One will detect the key your music is in and let you change the type and quality of chords of both MIDI and audio. You can experiment with substituting chords and changes, streamlining your songwriting and creative processes.
2. PreSonus Studio One 4
Street Price: $99 – $399.95 (depending on bundle)
One of the newer DAWs, but one that has very quickly established itself as a major player in music production and content creation, Studio One has stolen many a loyal customer from other DAWs with its clean lines, smooth workflow and lack of clutter. Where Cubase can perhaps get overwhelming, Studio One offers a breath of fresh air along with many ideas of its own.
PreSonus came up with a largely single window approach to music production. Where all the recording business happened in the middle, your mixing and editing fitted neatly below and browsing and track information framed it on the sides. That clean vibe has carried them through to their game-changing version 3 where they began pushing beyond those self-imposed boundaries. Version 4 retains their established format and brings in all sorts of elements that support the creation of music from first ideas through to remixing.
The first big change comes in the shape of a pattern and step-based version of the piano roll. If you want to program drums then this is a proper electronic drum machine. It has rolls and ratchets, sample tuning and per step modulation. A probability engine evokes all sorts of unexpected rhythms and when engaged with instruments (rather than drums) can start coming up with inspirational melodies. This partners up perfectly to the new Impact XT sampling drum machine where you can pull samples from anywhere and use them in your patterns. Or pull up Sample One XT which works like an old-school hardware sampler — drop in a sample and it becomes an instrument, instantly.
To help you find the right arrangement you can now change the tone and quality of entire sections with Harmonic Editing. Studio One will detect the key your music is in and let you change the type and quality of chords of both MIDI and audio. You can experiment with substituting chords and changes, streamlining your songwriting and creative processes.
Studio One 4 has all the production tools for serious audio tracking and mixing but it also has innovative creative tools to help generate ideas and keep you in your workflow.
*At time of writing
3. Image Line FL Studio 20
Street Price: $99 – $299+ (depending on bundle)
FL Studio is a great DAW because it works differently. The whole vibe of this software emerges from the simple form of a step sequencer. It has been step sequencing way before anyone thought it was cool and has been the favorite music software of underground electronic artists for decades. In fact, FL Studio turned twenty last year, which is why it leaped from version 12 to version 20 in one bound. It’s also the first time it has been available on MacOS as well as Windows.
In the mixed media of the DAW, it can’t all be about step sequencing and version 20 bears little resemblance to the early incarnations, but it carries a lot of what makes it awesome through to today. It’s a very visual program, using color in unexpected places, animated displays and the fabulous plug-in picker which throws up a scattering of thumbnails to help you choose the right effect or instrument. And it comes packed with both. There are more included instruments than any other DAW, from fierce synths to glowing pads, authentic instruments, drum machines, and samplers. It’s a dance music paradise and so much more.
The last few years have seen FL Studio embrace and build up the audio production side. The mixing console goes from strength to strength with innovative routing and combination options. The track view is neverending and completely adaptable. You can treat audio as linear or as clips, loops or one-shot samples. It doesn’t have the tight structure of other DAWs and prefers to give you the freedom to layout and process your audio and MIDI in whichever way you choose.
There are performance elements that let you take this on your laptop and remix your music in a live environment. But this also encourages a way to remix and generate new ideas in the studio.
FL Studio doesn’t perhaps have all the hardcore audio production tools of Cubase or Studio One but it oozes creativity and encourages experimentation. It refuses to be a blank canvas or a tape machine, it’s your partner in music production.
FL Studio is a great DAW because it works differently. The whole vibe of this software emerges from the simple form of a step sequencer. It has been step sequencing way before anyone thought it was cool and has been the favorite music software of underground electronic artists for decades.
4. Bitwig Studio 2.5
Street Price: $399 (at time of writing)
The strangely named Bitwig Studio continues to push the boundaries of internal creativity in terms of sound manipulation and modulation. It will do the audio tracking thing and the MIDI sequencing without any trouble but its strength lies in the internal devices that generate a very creative space. It’s like the software becomes one huge synthesizer. A whole range of modulation devices can be employed to play with your sounds, regardless of the source. Manipulation of the included instruments is very easy but this also extends to audio processes, effects plug-ins and external sound sources.
Simply adding a filter to an audio track has become an exercise in manipulation. In other DAWs, you might draw in some automation or record MIDI control movements. In Bitwig, you can plug in a randomizing stepped LFO to carry the cut-off to unimaginable places. You can do the same with reverb, with compression, with EQ — any parameter is up for grabs and you can chain these modulators up in amazingly complex ways.
Bitwig has some other advantages too. It has a clip-based performance engine that seamlessly flips back and forth with the arrange page. You can pull in clips, samples and MIDI patterns and have them ready for live performance. Bitwig is fully multi-touch compatible and so with a touchscreen or hybrid laptop, you have full control over your live set without the need of a MIDI controller. But they’ve also got that tied up as well. Bitwig directly supports MPE multidimensional MIDI control so you can pull off some brilliantly expressive performances with compatible instruments.
Like FL Studio, it lacks a bit in the serious audio production tool department but has a similarly creative heart that becomes part of your writing process.
Link to Website: www.Bitwig.com
2019 Honorable Mentions
Our list would feel barren if we didn’t tip our hats to some of the best DAWs from 2018. Though they didn’t make our list this year, they definitely shouldn’t be ignored. Our honorable mentions for best DAWs of 2019 includes:
5. Avid Pro Tools
6. Ableton Live
7. MOTU Digital Performer 10
8. Cockos Reaper
I think this year’s top 4 DAWs are the best at what they do. Cubase aces the whole professional production scene, while Studio One offers a calmer and more innovative workflow. FL Studio is a whole party of creativity while Bitwig maxes out on versatility and modulation. They have their strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of other options and naturally, you’ll have your favorites. For instance, many people swear by Ableton Live as the best software for live performance, Pro Tools is an industry standard and got into VR mixing before anyone else, Reaper is a cost-effective option that’s built on community feedback and there are plenty more. We live in a time of extraordinary software tools and so you can’t really make a wrong decision.
Photo credit: PreSonus Studio One 4.
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