Best DAWs: Ultimate Music Production Software Picks for 2021 - Careers in Music
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What is the best DAW?

The best DAWs of 2021 include:

  • PreSonus Studio One 5
  • Steinberg Cubase Pro 11
  • Tracktion Waveform Pro 11
  • Bitwig Studio 3
  • Reaper 6
  • Reason Studios Reason 11
  • Image Line FL Studio 20
  • AVID Pro Tools

The decision you make on which DAW to use is going to affect the very nature of your music-making and production workflow.

The Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is the very heart of your studio. It provides the environment in which you’ll be able to capture your moments of creativity. It provides the tools with which you’ll edit, sculpt, and transform your ideas into a working piece of music.

A DAW can be a blank canvas, but it can also be inspirational in how it presents your ideas and leads you to new avenues.

It’s a difficult choice but the good news is that you cannot go far wrong. All the DAWs on this list can fulfill your aspirations of turning your computer into a working studio. They provide countless tracks of audio recording and MIDI sequencing, and give you access to software sounds and plug-in effects. They expand your horizons while giving you the chance to record exactly what you’re doing, right now.

Each DAW has a different feature set and way of working and you may find one that you feel more at home in, but they can all achieve the same thing — recording and producing your music.

I’ll be talking about the top versions of the DAWs in this list but many of them have cheaper, simpler versions that will have plenty of what you need to produce music. So, if you are on a tight budget you should still be able to find what you need. Unless specified these are available for both macOS and Windows.

What DAW do professionals use?

They use the DAW that suits them best. It’s commonly believed that professional studios only use Avid Pro Tools but that’s a dated idea and actually, professionals use a wide range of tools, depending on what they’re doing and who they are doing it with. Most of the functions you use in producing music are available in all DAWs and easily transferrable.

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Which DAW is easiest to use?

PreSonus Studio One benefits from having a single-window approach that makes it very uncluttered and easy to see what’s going on. It makes good use of templates so you can be up and recording very quickly.

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Does a DAW affect sound quality?

Different DAWs do process audio differently. The math involved in combining waveforms and producing a mixed output can vary and so can the quality of the audio processing plugins. However, the differences are small and there are much more important factors when it comes to sound quality, such as your audio interface and choice of microphone.

Best DAWs 2021

PreSonus Studio One 5

Studio One goes from strength to strength and version 5 is a phenomenal piece of recording software. The single-window approach, with the ability to drag-and-drop audio, plugins, instruments, and ideas, makes it simple to navigate and quick to build up your tracks. Everything is out on the page with masses of processes available right on the tip of your mouse.

With Scratch Pads, it can let you try out new ideas without messing up your mix. You can add in song markers, key changes, chords, and structures around all your parts. You can undo changes in the mixer and work on multiple ideas and try them out against each other. It’s such a forgiving piece of software it makes you feel you can always come back to a place where it was working before you went off down some crazy avenue.

It comes with a great range of virtual instruments that covers most of what you’ll be using all the time. The audio plugins compete with some of the best third-party ones and have some really fun and creative options. You can edit your MIDI as patterns, piano roll and as a full score, so you are never short of another view.

Studio One also pushes outside of the DAW by giving you a Mastering Suite for completing your album and a performance space where you can work up and gig an entire set using the same tools you use to craft your music in the first place.

Studio One can take you from initial idea through to finished product and onto performing it live. No other DAW offers such a complete package and it feels completely competent throughout.

Street Price: $399 (subscription options are available)
presonus.com

Steinberg Cubase Pro 11

Often seen as the industry standard in creative music production software, Cubase has now reached version 11 and consolidates itself as one of the best in the business.

Steinberg invented most aspects of the DAW which everyone else copies and adapts to their own software. So, what you’ll find in here should be familiar to anyone who has ever used any other DAW software. All the major elements of recording audio and sequencing MIDI have been taken care of and Steinberg focuses on constantly re-evaluating the workflow and building in additional functionality.

It has some really cool features like the ability to pull in selected tracks from other projects or that it can retrospectively record MIDI so that you never miss a thing even if you weren’t in Record. Tools are combined within the mouse pointer and change depending on what you’re pointing at and you can build macros to control multiple things at once.

Cubase comes with an excellent array of virtual instruments and some seriously professional audio plug-ins. The Channel Strip in the Mix Console is amazingly good for crafting the tone of your audio tracks and the mixer history lets you go back and forth throughout all our mix changes. The Sample Track is a very creative way of pulling any audio from any place and using it as a sampled instrument complete with integrated modulation, slicing, and gliding.

Studio One only tops this list because it innovates more, whereas Cubase is rock solid and dependable. If I could have a tie then they would share first place.

Street Price: $579
steinberg.net

Tracktion Waveform Pro 11

Waveform Pro has evolved and improved so quickly in the last couple of versions that it’s finished playing catch up and is now crafting a path of its own. It pioneered the idea of the single window approach that Studio One uses but has a unique approach to the workflow.

Many things are reversed, like the position of the browser and the track headers. It pulls everything into the track; there are no separate editors or inspector windows. If you want to edit the audio or MIDI you just get in closer. If you want plugins on a track you just drag them in there. It has the ability to build huge plugin chains for some really creative audio processing.

Waveform does strange things to the clips and objects you’ve recorded. You can treat them as patterns and apply all sorts of ideas and concepts to them. It’s dripping with creative and open modulations and ways of applying change and evolution to tracks and functions.

It has a reputation for being a bit cerebral because it puts all the parameters and possibilities out there for you to fiddle with. But you can customize the look and see only the parts you’re interested and so it doesn’t feel quite so complicated. It’s the sort of software that rewards deeper examination.
 
Waveform comes with a great range of instruments and effects—MIDI tools as well as audio ones—and can run across multiple platforms including Linux and the Raspberry Pi. There’s also a free version that’s not a cut-down or limited version, it’s simply the full version from a few versions ago.

Street Prices:
$199 Basic
$259 With more instruments and effects
$749 For a massive collection of extra content
tracktion.com

Bitwig Studio 3

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 plugins, 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 imaginable places. But 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.

In The Grid modular environment, you can build complex CV based modulations, effects, and synthesizers, giving you a unique place to play with sound design and experiment with audio processing.

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.

Bitwig feels exciting, experimental, and intensely creative and is less about studio recording and more about making music.

Street Price: $299
bitwig.com

Reaper 6

Reaper goes from strength to strength as the almost free fully-fledged multi-track audio and MIDI DAW built through community feedback and aspiration.

The power of Reaper is remarkable. It has a tiny installation footprint and comes with none of the fluff or baggage of the main DAWs. It’s focused, clean, and is compatible with every system, interface, and plugin format you can think of. It has, at times, felt dated and behind the curve but with Version 6 they’ve brought it back into contention and up the charts.

This is all about straightforward music production with a very versatile arrangement window that can mix audio, MIDI, video, and still images for multi-media productions. It comes with a whole host of plug-ins for sound processing that are extremely efficient on the CPU. You can even farm out plugins to other computers over a network.

The interface is completely customizable to your requirements where everything from the color to the graphics and the layout can be changed and tweaked.

Reaper is always an underdog and does suffer from looking a bit basic in places. But it has an enthusiastic user base that makes it one of the best supported DAWs out there and for much less investment than any of the others.

Street Price: $60
reaper.fm

Reason Studios Reason 11

Reason from Reason Studios (formally called Propellerhead) has come full circle. It started as a virtual synthesizer workstation, developed into a rather tasty DAW, and has now made its synth rack available as a plug-in for other DAWs. But it’s still a surprisingly good DAW and music production suite with the biggest selection of built-in sounds and generators.

The synth rack is immense. It’s full of vintage synths, samplers, wavetables, polysynths, loop players, and drum machines. You can create an entire studio of electronic sound within this software. You can route synths through mixers, apply modulators, and mix them with other possibilities.

It has step sequencing and drum programming, arpeggiators, and chord machines and it all works with its own internal CV based signal routing. Reason was working this stuff long before modular synthesis became popular again.

The audio recording side is also impressive with a massive mixing console packed with audio processors and great sound effects. You can mix your synths and samples alongside your live audio tracks all in the same mixer. It looks superb and is one of the most intuitive DAWs out there.

All that power in the rack is now available as a plugin for your other software. This means that if Reason doesn’t really work for you as a DAW you don’t have to sacrifice all that analog-style synthesis magic, you can work the two together. This used to be done via a protocol called ReWire but it required some careful setting up and the running of two DAWs together whereas the Reason Rack Plugin is so much simpler.

Reason is all about that rack and if you like massive synth workstations then this is for you.

Street Prices:
$399 Reason 11
$599 Reason 11 Suite
reasonstudios.com

Image Line FL Studio 20

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 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 never-ending 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 that 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.

Street Price: $189+ depending on bundle
image-line.com

AVID Pro Tools

Pro Tools considers itself to be the industry standard in recording software and with good reason.

It is probably the DAW most widely used in professional studios. It was designed to replicate a hardware studio and integrate with it to become the recording center and so the way that it works is comfortingly familiar to people who are used to working with professional recording gear.

Pro Tools works with two views; the Mixer and the Arranger/Editor. Everything you ever want to arrange or edit can be done in the same view that lists all the tracks and all the recorded audio and MIDI. You have a simple toolset that tackles all the most common tasks and the workflow is very fast and logical.

The Mixer is fast and powerful with multiple inserts and routing options a button click away. It doesn’t have the slick looks of many other DAWs but it has the power to handle huge projects with ease.

It comes with a wide range of professional-grade plugins to process and sculpt your audio and a handful of virtual instruments for sound sources. Although Pro Tools’ forte is audio it does have a comprehensive MIDI creation and editing side that has come along in strides over the last few versions.

AVID has pioneered the online Cloud Collaboration format where you can share projects online securely with other Producers so that they can add to your work wherever they may be.

Pro Tools is a comprehensive recording and producing solution that’ll always be a good choice for experienced engineers and producers.

Street Prices:
$34.99 Monthly subscription
$299 For 1 year upfront
$599 If you just want to buy it
avid.com

All street prices listed at the time of writing.

FAQ

Which DAW is easiest to use?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

Most people will agree GarageBand is the easiest DAW for beginners to use. If you’re ready to venture beyond GarageBand, some other good options include Audacity, Reaper, Pro Tools First, and FL Studio.

For a more detailed review of each, check out our blog on the best DAWs for beginners.

Which is better: Pro Tools or Ableton?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

Whether Pro Tools or Ableton is “better” is largely a matter of personal preference. Pro Tools is the industry standard, a total powerhouse fit to meet the demands of a professional recording environment.

Rival DAW Ableton also has its devotees. It’s suitable for pro studio recording as well as live performance, with a focus on creativity over utility. So if you’re just looking for raw recording capability, check out Pro Tools. But if you want a DAW that’s built for experimentation and songwriting, as well as recording, Ableton seems the winner.

Do professionals use Ableton?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

Absolutely. Ableton is the DAW of choice for professional DJs, Producers, and other electronic music artists. It works equally well for recording and live sound environments.

A caveat: if by “professional,” you mean recording professionals, they’re much more likely to use Pro Tools.

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