Best Music Recording Software / Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) for 2017
Navigating the world of software recording can seem bewildering. There are now so many choices and so many ways of transforming your computer into a fully enabled recording studio. The range and capabilities of the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) are amazing, but which one is best for you? Well, the good news is you can’t go far wrong. All the currently available DAWs share a great many features and cover the basics of recording sound, mixing, processing and providing MIDI sequencing, virtual instruments, and compositional tools. However, there are key differences that could be more appropriate to your way of working. Matching your intentions with the right feature set should enable the creativity to flow more fluidly.
For this round-up of the best recording software of 2017, I’m picking out those DAWs that are pushing the boundaries, which are offering new directions and comprehensive toolsets. And I’m going to place them in some general categories to give you a feel of where they might take you. Here’s my pick of the top DAWs of 2017.
The Recording Studio
For the most complete and all-round comprehensive DAW, I would recommend Studio One from PreSonus. It’s in its third version, and so is still a relative newcomer when compared to the aging industry standards of Pro Tools and Cubase. Being young allows PreSonus the luxury of picking the most appealing features, free from the baggage of supporting a long history of users. Plus, in its most recent version, Studio One has innovated and evolved in remarkably smart ways.
It has multi-track audio recording covered: no problems there. Vocal comping for combining multiple takes into a single seamless performance is all built in. PreSonus developed Audio Random Access (ARA) technology with Celemony to enable their amazing pitch correcting Melodyne software to integrate directly into an audio track. Studio One innovates in the arrangement editor with “Scratch Pads.” It’s a place where you can build an alternative arrangement or work on an idea outside of the main arrangement. For instance, you could cut and drag out the chorus section, drop it onto a Scratch Pad, work on it and drop it back. It’s a very freeing experience.
Other innovations come in the managing of effects and virtual instruments. It comes with a bunch of decent instruments, but more interesting is the ability to chain these up into multi-instruments and effects chains with their own macro controls. You could combine a couple of virtual instruments, have them zoned across your keyboard and control the main parameters with a couple of touch-friendly knobs.
The whole interface is slick and clean. They use the single window approach with the mixer fixed beneath the arrangement, and a browser containing everything from loops, MIDI files and tracks through to plug-ins and effects. And throughout, the interface is multi-touchable for touch-screen and tablet/hybrid laptop owners. To finish it all off, Studio One contains a separate mastering editor for polishing your finished track.
Studio One is comprehensive, innovative and creative; it’s ideal for recording bands, for multi-tracking huge productions and working with MIDI composition, editing, and virtual sounds. A feature set that’s hard to beat.
Steinberg’s Cubase Pro recently hit version 9 and has borrowed the streamlined workflow of Studio One which has greatly tidied up the mass of windows Cubase used to throw at you. The new comprehensive mixer history and inbuilt track sampler give a compositional edge over most of its competitors.
Link to Website: www.Steinberg.net
Increasingly we’re rediscovering sounds and synthesis outside the computer. Bitwig includes some new devices dedicated to handling external MIDI devices, but more importantly, it can now send pitch and control data out using Control Voltage CV.
Loops, Live Performance and Music Production
Ableton Live is generally regarded to be the go-to DAW for loops and MIDI programming. However, it has been languishing around version 9 for some time now. Most of its updates have been centered on their own Push hardware and so, for me, the look, feel and relevance of Live is starting to fall behind. Instead, another young upstart, Bitwig, has just released version 2 of their live looping and recording software suite Bitwig Studio. They’ve really given us something to play with.
One of the main focuses of Bitwig Studio is the clip launcher, with the idea being you have a number of loops — either audio or MIDI — you want to launch in order to perform your music. These “clips” are held in rows, and you step between the rows to trigger off different parts of your arrangement. Ableton Live does a very similar thing but what I like about Bitwig is the way the clip launcher integrates with the arrange page. In Ableton, you switch from one view to the other, from clips to arrange. In Bitwig you can have both on-screen at the same time. You can drag and drop audio and MIDI between the launcher and arranger. It integrates beautifully, keeping both the live feel and the production feel together, so they don’t feel like separate processes. But this is not new in version 2.
The innovation in the new version comes in the shape of modulation. Bitwig already had a comprehensive method of tying together parameters within instruments and effects (what Bitwig calls “devices”) and from one to another. In version 2 Bitwig has pulled out all the modulation and put them in a completely separate section. Now if you click to the left of any loaded device you can choose from over 25 modulators. These include regular things like LFO’s but also more interesting functions like Random, Select-4, and Math. This gives you an enormous amount of creative possibilities. And it’s not just with Bitwig’s own devices; you can apply this modulation to any virtual instrument and out to external instruments.
That brings us to Bitwig’s other innovation in the realms of hardware integration. Increasingly we’re rediscovering sounds and synthesis outside the computer. Bitwig includes some new devices dedicated to handling external MIDI devices, but more importantly, it can now send pitch and control data out using Control Voltage CV. This enables Bitwig via a DC-Coupled audio interface, to talk to and modulate analog modular synthesizers.
Bitwig Studio V2 has brought it up to speed from the areas that lacked in version 1 and opened up some very creative possibilities in both software and hardware.
Ableton Live, of course, should always be a consideration. It has the ability to be immensely powerful through its Max4Live programming suite and awesome in live performance with their own Push hardware.
Price: $$449 standard edition, $749 Suite edition
Link to Website: www.Ableton.com
Propellerhead Reason offers an increasingly expandable rack of analog and digital virtual synthesis, sampling and high-end effects. It follows a hardware paradigm to offer a complete world of interconnected synthesis. This world has grown considerably since its humble beginnings. Now at version 9, Reason has amassed a large library of third-party synthesizer and sampler options. The rack which once held an interesting array of virtual analog synths now contains synths within synths, folded into massively complex combinations of movement, dynamics, and sonic textures. And it continues to evolve. The latest update (9.2) brings in sample loading for third party instruments for the first time. So, you can now load your own waveforms into wavetable synths such as Expanse Hyperwave.
Compositional tools have also come on in leaps and bounds. The version 9 update focused on music creation and editing in the main arrange page. They’ve built in pitch detection technology to take any audio input and transform it into MIDI notes – so you can play your synths with a hum, or with a real instrument. But they didn’t stop there; they took the pitch technology directly into the vocal stream. You can now edit and correct the pitch and timing of vocal tracks directly in the arrange page.
On the creative side, Reason has introduced some new MIDI based devices. These include Note Echo, Scales and Chords and a very comprehensive Dual Arpeggio. They enable you to play with your performance in instant and enjoyable ways, finding new melodies and ideas stemming from a few simple note presses.
Reason is the king of virtual synthesis within its own ecosystem. Although it doesn’t support VST or AU instruments it does have the ability to run (or ReWire) through any other DAW to incorporate those if you need to. It’s a mistake to think it’s all about MIDI and synthesizers; Reason can work hard as an audio recorder with a fully featured mixing environment and pro class effect processing.
Image Line’s FL Studio has long been the go-to DAW for makers of EDM. Over its many versions, it has accumulated a huge variety of exciting and creative virtual instruments. It was built on a foundation of 4-to-the-floor music making and is a great place to push the boundaries of electronic music.
Price: Varies, $199.00 for Producer Version
Link to Website: www.image-line.com/flstudio/
My advice would be to try the demo or free versions, watch some tutorial videos and see what connects with your way of working. In my experience, all DAWs can help you make whatever sort of music you want.
When it comes to deciding on the “Best” you tend to look at the higher end of the scale. There’s a certain truth to the old adage “you get what you pay for” when it comes to DAW software. However, there’s plenty of recording fun to be had at a more pocket-friendly level. Rather than picking out a single one as the best, I’m going to point you in the direction of a few worth checking out. Firstly, many professional DAWs have entry level versions. And I should stress “entry level” is a reflection on the price and feature set, not on your ability to use it and make releasable quality music.
Steinberg has Cubase Elements as their starting point with up to 48 audio and 64 MIDI tracks with room for 16 virtual instruments. They also have Cubase Artist as a mid-range version. PreSonus offer a similar mid-range version with Studio One Artist that comes pretty loaded with effects and instruments. However, they also have Studio One Prime which is completely free. So, why not try it out to see if you like the Studio One workflow? Cakewalk have a neat version of Sonar called Home Studio which is designed to be your first recording studio. It comes with some great guitar effects and a handful of instruments to get you started.
For options that are their own product, I would recommend checking out Open Labs Stagelight, especially if you are working on a tablet or laptop hybrid with a touch screen. If you’re on Apple then GarageBand is still a pretty comprehensive entry into recording. Although it can’t touch the processing power of a desktop or laptop computer, the Apple iPad does have a comprehensive selection of music making apps which could be all you need.
What’s best for you will always come down to what you’re doing, your expectations and simple personal preference. And this list is in no way exhaustive. My advice would be to try the demo or free versions, watch some tutorial videos and see what connects with your way of working. In my experience, all DAWs can help you make whatever sort of music you want. It’s one of life’s choices where you can’t really go astray.
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