Best DAW (2020)
The Digital Audio Workstation, the heart of our studios, 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 really only you can answer. But here are my picks of what’s really doing the business in 2020.
The best DAWs of 2020 include:
- Steinberg Cubase 10.5
- PreSonus Studio One 4
- AVID Pro Tools
- Bitwig Studio 3
- Ableton Live 10
- Reason Studios Reason 11
- Image Line FL Studio 20
- Reaper 6
The Best DAWs of 2020
Steinberg Cubase 10.5
Street Price: $552 (at time of writing)
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 10.5 consolidates the workflow while pushing the professional production facilities to the max.
The strength of Cubase is that it doesn’t specialize, it gives you all the tools you need regardless of what sort of music you’re doing. And far from being a Jack-Of-All-Trades, it’s really good at everything. For audio multi-tracking, you’ve got detailed on-track editing, a fabulous mixing console with undo history, channel strips, and colorization to keep things organized. On the MIDI side, there’s key and drum editing seamlessly moving to score editing and then MPE expression editing. You can create chord tracks and chord pads. It even has the ability to retrospectively record MIDI by always having recording enabled in the background. So if you played something amazing and forget to set Cubase recording — that’s no longer a problem.
It comes with a range of fantastic virtual instruments covering drums, synths, workstation sounds and a sampler where you can drop in audio from anywhere, any track and just start getting creative. The included effects are top quality and include multi-tap delays, spectral EQs, channel strips and everything you need to process your audio.
If you are doing sound-to-picture you can now export your music directly mixed with the video. Or you can work in projects intended for Virtual Reality with a complete suite of environmental and spatial tools.
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 remain the leader in this field.
Link to Website: www.Steinberg.net
PreSonus Studio One 4
Street Price: $399 (at time of writing)
One of the newer DAWs but one that has very quickly established itself as a major player in music production and content creation and is now up to version 4.6. Studio One has stolen many loyal customers 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 its 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 a 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.
Link to Website: www.Presonus.com
AVID Pro Tools
Street Price: $34.99 monthly subscription, $299 for 1 year upfront or $599 if you just want to buy it (at time of writing)
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.
Link to Website: www.Avid.com
The strength of Cubase is that it doesn’t specialize, it gives you all the tools you need regardless of what sort of music you’re doing. And far from being a Jack-Of-All-Trades, it’s really good at everything.
Bitwig Studio 3
Street Price: $299 (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 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.
Link to Website: www.Bitwig.com
Ableton Live 10
Street Price: $499 (Live Standard) & $749 (Live Suite) (at time of writing)
Ableton Live has been the choice of electronic music performers ever since this loop-focused DAW arrived. It’s smart, neat, easy on the eye and has a minimalist approach to the interface that works brilliantly on laptops. It’s less interested in full-scale studio recording and more interested in creative ways of building tracks and discovering ideas through performance.
It is full of little devices that can act as effects, instruments, rhythms, and patterns to keep your music moving and animated. It loves to mess with things, modulate, crush and bounce sound around. It mixes audio loops with MIDI loops and takes in automation at the twist of a knob. It’s the sort of DAW that you play like an instrument rather than use as a tool for recording. But it’s also full of tools for doing all sorts of things including routing CV in and out for integration with external modular gear.
Live has two views; one for loops and scenes and triggering clips and another for proper arrangements that you can build on their own or record in your performance from the Scene view. Live was the first DAW to come up with retrospective MIDI recording so that you never miss a bit of genius even if you’re not in record.
Ableton Live continues to expand and develop with lots of third-party support for its unique sound design environment. Whether working in the studio or out in the world performing, Ableton Live is a great companion.
Link to Website: www.ableton.com
Reason Studios Reason 11
Street Price: $399 (Reason 11) & $599 (Reason 11 Suite) (at time of writing)
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 analogue 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.
Link to Website: reasonstudios.com
Ableton Live has been the choice of electronic music performers ever since this loop-focused DAW arrived. It’s smart, neat, easy on the eye and has a minimalist approach to the interface that works brilliantly on laptops.
Image Line FL Studio 20
Street Price: $189+ depending on bundle (at time of writing)
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.
Link to Website: www.image-line.com
Street Price: $60 (at time of writing)
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.
Link to Website: reaper.fm
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, you’ll enjoy last year’s post covering the best DAWs of 2019.
Image via Steinberg Cubase.
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