Best DAW Software 2021: Our Top Picks for Music Production & Recording - Careers in Music
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Whether you are recording a band, making beats, writing for film, producing dance music or Hip Hop there's a DAW for you.

Which Digital Audio Workstation should you be using for your music production? Are there specific qualities and features within a DAW that make it ideal for certain styles or types of music? The answer is most certainly “YES” and in this article we want to dig into this and see if we can steer you towards the best DAW software for what you’re doing.

I should say that every piece of software that calls itself a DAW is perfectly capable of handling every type, style and genre of music. They are a digital combination of tape recorders, mixers, effects, synthesizers, samplers and arrangers – everything you need to produce music. However, they can vary greatly in terms of specific features and workflow that can make them better suited to certain things.

So, whether you are recording a band, making beats, writing for film, producing dance music or hip-hop there’s a DAW for you.

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Questions About DAW Software from Our Community

Which free DAW is best?

Robin Vincent

The fullest featured DAW that’s completely free to use is Cakewalk by Bandlab. It’s an entire studio with no compromises on the quality or the feature set. A similar idea comes from Waveform Free from Tracktion Corporation which, like Cakewalk, is a complete studio package but using a version that’s a few years old. You cannot go wrong with either of these possiblities.


Does it matter which DAW you use?

Robin Vincent

It can do, yes, as some DAWs are much better at some things than other. Pro Tools for instance is excellent at audio recording and real studio environments but is less go at dealing with loop-based music. Ableton Live is fantastic with loops and live arranging but doesn’t have the depth of tools for tracking bands. While every DAW can do all types of music you’ll find that some tackle your sort of music better than others.


Which DAW is best for mastering?

Robin Vincent

Studio One Professional from PreSonus is undoubtedly the best DAW for mastering. It contains an entire suite of mastering tools, plugins and software designed expressly for mastering. It’s presented as a separate process from your song creation and operates in a completely different window as if it’s a different product. The tools, processes and monitoring in there will have you mastering like a pro.

Best Overall DAW

You’re after the DAW that has it all? The DAW that is completely comfortable recording bands while being at home creating beats, loops and playing with patterns. It’s a Sound Engineer‘s dream while offering score writing for Composers and Arrangers. It has song-writing tools and a mastering suite for finishing your tracks. That DAW is Studio One Professional from PreSonus.

It’s grown spectacularly over its 5 versions to become the most complete and versatile DAW on the market. The tracking, editing and mixing facilities are as professional as they come with an impressive and versatile console for mixing and route your audio. It has a long library of plugins and a great set of editing tools. The included virtual instruments offer a decent polyphonic synthesizer and well featured sampler that can run some very high quality instruments. It has a superb sampling drum machine with a stunning array of kits.

For the Composer, it has chord tracks and tempo tracks, the ability to generate patterns with randomization, ratchets and probability. It has a huge loop library and the ability to collaborate and share projects with other users right from within the software. You can edit and print a score of your music, create multiple versions and re-arrange your music on the fly.

When you’re track is complete you can master it in the Project page ready for distribution to your chosen destination. Or, if you are into live performance, then you can use the Show Page to arrange backing tracks and live input tracks for mixing together right on stage.

Nothing quite has the breadth and versatility of Studio One.

Pros:

  • Great song writing and composition tools
  • Superb mixing with excellent plugins
  • Mastering built it
  • Scratch Pads for creating alternative arrangements
  • Live performance management engine
  • Pattern and step-sequencing

Free version?
There’s a version called Studio One Prime 5 that you can use for free that has many of the key features and is totally capable of making music.

presonus.com

Best DAW for Electronic Dance Music

FL Studio from ImageLine has been around a long time and its earlier version as Fruity Loops became the sequencer of choice for the emerging EDM Producers at the end of the 1990s. It somehow has the ability to create meaningful and exciting music out of chaos and confusion with an unusual interface and masses of virtual instruments.

FL Studio is all about step-sequencing and loops. Everything gets a step-sequencer attached to it by default, everything has a groove, everything is pumping towards the same banging destination of music you can dance to. It comes with a huge range of virtual instruments, synthesizers, samplers designed to generate a massive sound. It handles loops better than most other DAWs and gives you the tools to simply paint and arrange your loops on a timeline in any way you want.

Is an amazingly freeing piece of software that’s not bound by traditional forms of music production and lets you get on with creating the biggest hit track you could ever think of. FL Studio has never forgotten how much fun it is to be making music.

Pros:

  • Dozens of very cool virtual synths
  • Non-traditional and impressive interface
  • Loves loops of audio or sequences
  • Very fast and intuitive
  • Great pattern and step-sequencing

Free version?
There’s no free version but there is a time-unlimited trial where the only limitation is that you can’t re-open projects you saved in it. So you can write a whole track, mix it down to MP3 and upload it to SoundCloud but one you close the project you can only open it again in the full version of FL Studio.

image-line.com

Best DAW for Live Performance

If you’re looking for a way to combine music production with laptop based live performance then Ableton Live is the DAW for you. Ableton Live is quirky, intelligent, elegant and creative. It deals with loop-based music like no other DAW. One side of the interface is completely devoted to stacking loops in rows and launching scenes, sessions, and breaks.

It has an interface of meticulous order and superior functions. It’s like working inside a machine where every possibility has a value and the possibility of change. A genre of hardware controllers has grown up around it to make live performance running Ableton Live a complete breeze.

Live has complex tools and fascinating ways of manipulating music and conjuring up chorus’, breaks and improvised possibilties. It has an internal programming language that pushes out the boundaries of what’s possible in a creative environment and it was one of the best abilities to record and capture events on-the-fly.

Ableton Live can come with a huge suite of effects, instruments and sounds and there’s a massive community of people sharing content and performing live with Ableton at the center.

Pros:

  • Creative loop based interface
  • Fast, intuitive recording
  • Live looping and re-arranging
  • Complex and satisfying plugins and instruments
  • Lots of hardware controller support

Free version?
No, but you often find a copy of Live Lite included with audio interfaces and other music gear. There is a 90 day free trial of Live Suite with no limitations.

ableton.com

Best DAW for Recording Bands

The DAW that’s considered to be the industry standard in your traditional recording studio is undoubtedly Pro Tools from Avid. It’s been around a long time and was designed to mirror the workflow and environment of the studio with its big mixing console, complicated equipment and direct-to-tape recording. It’s the perfect DAW for the trained Sound Engineer and no-nonsense Producer.

The beauty with Pro Tools is that it’s quick and can record all day every day without breaking a sweat. In the right hands it’s a seamless tool that removes all the barriers between the band and the finished product. Music goes in one end and a polished recording comes out the other.

It comes with professional quality plugins and processes to smooth and improve your audio. It has serious tools for serious editing and can cope with enormous audio projects. You often see entire film scores mapped out in Pro Tools.

There’s nothing quite like Pro Tools but it’s not really for the beginner or the faint-hearted. It will assume that you are a professional and treat you like one. If you are a Producer or Sound Engineer recording bands then Pro Tools is perfect. However, if you are the band wanted to record yourself and expand on your music then Studio One is probably a better, more versatile and friendly choice.

Pros:

  • Top quality recordings
  • Best plugins in the business
  • Fast precise workflow
  • Can cope with huge projects
  • Dedicated hardware available

Free version?
Yes, there’s a version called Pro Tools First which will let you record 16 audio and 16 MIDI tracks, comes with some cool plugins and 3GB of sounds. It’s missing the majority of features but is a good way to see if Pro Tools is for you.

avid.com

Best DAW for Hip-Hop

Hip-hop can find its groove in many different places and both Ableton Live and FL Studio have a lot to offer the Hip-hop Producer. However, with its classic drum machines, MPC style sampling and recycling of loops Reason Studio is my recommendation for hip-hop, beats and everything urban.

Reason is a huge rack of interconnected samplers, synths and drum machines that would put any hardware studio to shame. Everything about it is old school from the way it handles loops and samples to the step-sequencing and CV connections from device to device. You can build whole tracks within the rack without ever venturing into the comprehensive sequencing and audio recording.

However, when you do find yourself wanting to record vocals or instruments, or wanting to arrange your music more deliberately then you’ll find the DAW part of Reason more than up to the task. It also has a fantastic mixing console with pro quality dynamics and signal processing.

Reason is a massive source of sounds and inspiration with solid beating heart for grooves and is visually splendid and sonically awesome.

Pros:

  • Massive collection of sounds
  • Old Akai-style samplers
  • MPC beat making
  • Step-sequencing and 808 style drum programming
  • Superior mixing console
  • Can now run as a plugin in other DAWs

Free version?
No, but there is a 30-day trial.

reasonstudios.com

Best DAW for Composing

While Studio One would be a solid choice Cubase Pro from Steinberg has been doing it longer and is probably more frequently used for orchestral composition. Cubase is the granddaddy of DAWs, it’s where everything started and beat Pro Tools to being the first complete DAW.

Along with audio recording and sequencing it has detailed score writing facilities, great video support for sound-to-picture and a wealth of expressive tools to breath life into virtual instruments and orchestral sounds. It has an inbuilt scale assistant for quantizing melody and ramps and curves in the key editor to record every nuance of a performance.

It has unparalleled support for multi-channel virtual instruments even being able to connect up to other computers on a network to share the processing load of huge orchestral libraries. And once you get into the audio production side it has pro level dynamics and tonal plugins to craft and design the perfect mix.

Pros:

  • Probably the most features of any DAW
  • Packed with quality plugins and sounds
  • Support for multi-channel virtual orchestras
  • Precise Expression editing
  • Deep professional score writing

Free version?
No, you’ll need the full Cubase Pro version for all the scoring facilities. There is a trial version available for 30 days.

steinberg.net

Best DAW for Songwriters

For songwriting I would recommend what I consider to be the best overall DAW in Studio One. It has a range of wonderful songwriting tools whether it’s the Chord track, the Scratch Pads, Mixer undo/history the Pattern editor and the pool of awesome plugins. Studio One is the complete package for the home Producer and Writer of songs where you’re going to need top class audio recording and mixing alongside kick-ass MIDI sequencing, arranging and quality software instruments.

The interface is clear, you don’t have to be a Sound Engineer to write your album on it and there’s a huge range of training materials out there to improve your game.

If you can’t decide which DAW would suit you best then always opt for Studio One as it will do everything to a high standard.

Pros:

  • Great song writing tools
  • Chord track
  • Pattern editing
  • Lots of sounds
  • Excellent plugins
  • Scratch pads

Free version?
There’s a version called Studio One Prime 5 that you can use for free that has many of the key features and is totally capable of making music.

presonus.com

Best DAW for Modular Music Making

If you are looking for a hybrid setup that combines external synths and modular with the powerful tools of the software environment then look no further than Bitwig Studio. It has a modular engine built into the software and has the tools you need to connect control voltage (CV) into and out of your computer.

With the CV enabled devices you can route notes and modulations out of Bitwig and into your modular via a suitable audio interface. With The Grid environment you can build an entire modular system within Bitwig and integrate with internal and external synths and sound sources.

Bitwig also has an excellent loop based arranger for Ableton Live style loop triggering and live performance which is ideal for electronic music. And you can record the whole thing back in as multitrack audio and mix it down to a finished track.

Pros:

  • CV generating devices
  • Modular environment
  • Loop arranger
  • Great for live performance
  • Touch-screen friendly

Free version?
No, but you can use the demo without time limitations but you can’t save or export.

bitwig.com

Best DAW for Beginners

Being a beginner assumes that you need a helping hand, that it’s got to be simple, obvious and not full of complex terminology, concepts or functions. You just want to start making music right? You want the ability to record your voice, guitar, you want to make beats and play with some cool sounds.

If you’re on iOS or an Apple Mac then GarageBand is where you want to start. It’s fun, easy and full of surprisingly good sounds and a straight-forward and intuitive interface. It really is very good and will work flawlessly with the inbuilt sound on any Apple device.

If you’re on Windows then I’d recommend checking out Zenbeats from Roland. It has an exciting and engaging interface, lots of beat making and loop triggering tools and a whole bunch of sounds and samples. It will also work on anything so you can make some music on your laptop and then open the project on your phone (both iOS and Android) and continue to mess with it.

However, most DAWs have an entry level version which don’t overwhelm you with features and generally have video tutorials to show you how to get started. Recording music is an art form and so requires a bit of learning, some practice and commitment to do it well. However, it’s now easier than ever to get started and you never know where it might take you.

apple.com

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