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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 4
  • Reaper 6
  • Reason Studios Reason 12
  • Image Line FL Studio 20
  • AVID Pro Tools

How do you choose which DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is best for you? There are so many offering such a great range of features that it can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, let us take you through our top choices of DAW so that you can make a more informed choice.

Anything that calls itself a DAW is going to enable your computer to become a recording studio. This means multi-track audio recording, mixing and processing; it means MIDI sequencing, arranging and composition; it means virtual instruments, synths and drum machines. The DAW is the place where you capture and enhance your creativity, it’s where you record those moments of inspiration and build tracks, sounds and songs. All of the DAWs in this list can provide the platform for your music making and they all have their own strengths and features that might make it the perfect choice for you.

I’ll be talking about the top versions of the software but many of the DAWs in this list have cheaper, simpler versions for small budgets that will have plenty of what you need to make music. Unless otherwise specified these DAWs are for macOS and Windows.

Best DAWs FAQ

What DAW do professionals use?

Robin Vincent

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.


Which DAW is easiest to use?

Robin Vincent

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.


Does a DAW affect sound quality?

Robin Vincent

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 4

Bitwig tends to go in a lot of different and interesting directions. While it offers the same multitrack recording with all the audio processing tools you need it has some extraordinarily creative engines going on inside which transforms it into a modular playground of sound design and musical possibility. It’s less of a blank canvas and more of an experimental instrument.

Along with the regular timeline Bitwig has a clip launching performance page where you can fire off loops and arrangements on the fly. You can build scenes for performances and stack up loops for remixing and finding new ways to express your tracks. If you’ve heard of Ableton Live, which would be the next DAW on the list, then this is a similar idea.

It’s in the building of instruments, modulation and manipulation that Bitwig really shines. The ability to attach modulators to every parameter, the get things moving, to vary and change the function of a track. You can dive into the Grid environment and build synthesizers, samples and complex CV based instruments that sound like nothing you’ve ever encountered. And it’s all under your command.

New in version 4 is the ability to enable Operators which act on your notes with randomisation, repeats, and chance. You can spread new possibilities into your sequences, capture or introduce expression and then bend the sound through the modulators. Bitwig also introduced vocal comping to give the multitrack recording a more professional edge so that once you’ve finished fiddling with all the sound design you can still record the perfect vocals.

Bitwig is different, refreshing, exciting and the right choice if you’re looking for a new way to approach music production.

Street Price: $399
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 12

Reason is not just a DAW it’s an entire synthesizer workstation that gives you a huge rack of synths, drum machines, samplers and effects for generating multi-layered tracks of epic proportions. Each synth or device is an inspiration, filled with presets and possibilities that take your music to new places. The rack is a playground of electronic sound that is visually stunning and easy to use.

With version 12 Reason adds the Mimic Creative Sampler which is perfect for the modern beatmaker and designed for quick triggering, chopping, slicing and messing things about. You can combine it with drum machines in the style of an MPC or 808, you can run it through classic and modern effects and you can combine it with layers of other synths, samplers and sounds and hide the complexity behind a macro-based Combinator interface.

You have dozens of instruments and effects, all wired together, all with the potential to affect one another while being manipulated by MIDI effects and sequencer devices, LFOs and CV utilities

The rack can also be taken out of Reason and dropped into another DAW as a huge electronic sound-generating plugin so it’s great as your only DAW but also for running with other ones. All the time it has a full audio engine for sound recording with a huge console-style mixer with audio processing. In the arranger, you can lay out your tracks, re-arrange audio alongside your rack of synths.

The latest version has gone high-definition so it looks amazing on any type of screen and they also offer a subscription service so you’re never run out of content or get left behind as the software evolves.

Street Prices:
$499 Reason 12
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 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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