What is a DAW or a Digital Audio Workstation?
Every beginner in his music production days must have, at some point in time, thought about the best DAW for music production.
The world of music creation seems mysterious and magical to the ordinary person. It’s challenging to comprehend the formation of something that cannot be visualized but only heard for apparent reasons. Moreover, for a long time, the recording and production techniques were too complex and expensive for the average person to experiment.
Thankfully, with the evolution of technology, we have several tools, music-making software that allow us to dive head-on into the world of frequencies and extract our creative juices.
When it comes to music production, the most important tool is Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
A DAW or a digital audio workstation is a digital user interface used for audio recording and editing. It consists of software and hardware elements. The DAW software often features virtual mixers, filters, timelines, file-management, and organization tools found in most media-editing programs.
In simple words, the DAW is a music production software through which you can create, place, organize, and even experiment with the sound you’ve ever imagined. Combining a large number of utilities provided within the DAW and the third-party tools provided worldwide, the possibilities of music creation become endless. DAW has several functions such as:
- Audio Editing
- MIDI Editing
- Sound Recording
- Audio Processing
- Sequencing MIDI & Clips
- Sample Organization
- Host Plugin
- Live Performance
When Digital Audio Workstations introduced in the 70s, they used to be hardware oriented due to the lack of computer processing power. With the evolution of technology, it has now shifted to a more software-oriented approach. There are still some DAWs that consist of hardware-integrated assets and their respective software.
There isn’t any comparison in terms of which software is better than the other. Most DAWs have their presence. At times, a specialization to focus on. They all provide the same features with a different interface. It’s more about what the user gets used to and comfortable working with.
Here we bring you the top 21 industry-leading music production software of 2021:
1. Ableton Live
Best feature: Electronic Music Production + Live sets & am
Image Credit: ABLETON LIVE
One of the most used music-making software throughout the world when it comes to production and performance, Ableton packs the ability to produce in the studio and perform live on stage using a single application. It is also considered one of the best DAW for windows as well as mac.
Conveniently segregating the ‘arrangement’ and ‘session’ views for utmost efficiency, the music production software provides the user with the ability to produce music the conventional way or even trigger clips from the session view during a live performance or to jam along with.
Moreover, there are a few CPU intensive stock instruments and plug-ins and the software which makes the whole experience a lot easier and engaging. That’s what makes it one of the best recording software out there. The only downside to it, when compared to its counterparts, is the cluttered interface; but that can be easily dealt with using bigger or multiple monitors.
Another interesting alternative is the Ableton Push 2, a hardware MIDI controller that is completely integrated with Ableton and transfers a major chunk of the functionality from the software to the controller, making the entire process more efficient the workflow a lot smoother. Anyone who purchases the Push 2 also receives the latest version of the Ableton Live Suite along with it.
2. Pro Tools
Best feature: Editing, Mixing, Recording
Image Credit: AVID PRO TOOLS
Having garnered a niche following among professional audio engineers throughout the continents, Pro Tools has now spent over 30 years influencing and enhancing the audio recording and creation process, making it one of the best recording software.
It is not usually used for production or MIDI creation purposes unless third-party instruments are used but are preferred for the optionality it offers when mixing and mastering stages. Despite that, it manages to be one of the most used music recording software because of the clean looking and transparent interface it offers.
Deemed as a ‘Big Studio DAW,’ Pro Tools is available on both Windows and Mac with various purchase or subscription options.
3. Cubase Pro
Best feature: All-around usage
Image Credit: Cubase pro
Cubase has generated a global following because of its multi-faceted music-making process. Possessing a user base that includes names like the psychedelic icons – Infected Mushroom and the legendary Hans Zimmer, Cubase has been the channel that’s provided us with many breathtaking musical experiences.
With stock instruments and sample libraries that cater to a large variety of music, there are no limitations in what genre of music can be created via this medium.
Harboring a very user-friendly interface, Cubase optimises the software making the entire music-making process a much more interactive and open experience. Arguably, Cubase has one of the best piano rolls compared to its counterparts, enhancing the workflow.
The Cubase Pro 10 is priced at GBP 559 and has multiple cheaper alternatives as well, which provide limited to no plug-ins. Other than that, one may also download their mobile application “Cubasis”, which is critically acclaimed as the ‘Best Mobile Application for Music Creation.’
4. FL Studio
Best feature: User Interface + Electronic Music Production
Image Credit: FL Studio power
Alternatively known as Fruity Loops, this DAW is usually considered a favorite among newcomers and is one of the best music production software. It’s primarily used in Electronic Music Production, mainly because of the step sequencer displayed out front and the EDM oriented sound designs the synth engines possess.
Packed with many stock instruments with considerable flexibility for sound design and an easy-to-understand interface makes most producers using FL Studio strafe away from third-party plug-ins and tools.
Considerably spread apart and less cluttered than many other DAWs, it may get difficult for beginners to find various functionalities. Thanks to the large user base, though, solutions to almost all problems encountered within FL Studio are available on forums throughout the internet.
Used by industry-leading EDM producers such as Martin Garrix and Alan Walker, the FL Studio is one of the best software for making beats.
5. Apple Logic Pro X
Best feature: All-around usage
Image Credit: Logic Pro X
Exclusively available on the MacOS platform, it is safe to say that Logic Pro is the most used DAW worldwide. Also known as one of the best DAW for mac, its implementation has reached an extent that has made purchasing a Mac device compulsory if one wishes to study any aspect of audio from renowned institutions.
Besides being recognized for its crisp and “on-the-face” interface, Logic also features a large number of stock instruments that pack the same punch as industry-leading third-party instruments, which is a big drawback for most DAWs.
Moreover, the instrument routing process, which is one of the most monotonous jobs while producing music, is made much more explicit and transparent through the interface. With the ease of access provided within one screen, Logic Pro, for obvious reasons, is the ‘go to’ DAW for most music professionals and recognized individuals in the industry.
6. Cockos Reaper
Best feature: User Friendly UI
Image Credit: COCKOS
Even though it may not be among the big names, Reaper offers flexibility for all kinds of users. Suppose one is not too fascinated by pretty looking design interfaces but tends to focus on the process’s creativity and productivity. In that case, Reaper tends to be a powerhouse of software, and that too free of cost.
From beginners wishing to understand the basics of MIDI creation and audio recording to professionals who want to accommodate a more CPU-intensive approach to their music-making process, Reaper caters to a wide variety of audiences.
People prefer its expensive counterparts mainly because of the limited visual representation offered within Reapers stock plug-ins. Despite the lack of an intricately designed interface, Reaper provides the same functionality as any DAW. Any individual who understands and masters controlling the parameters through aural means instead tends to understand better how to manipulate and control sound.
These are the best DAWs for music production, finely curated and recommended by several great artists. Here are a few review videos to get a short comparison between different DAWs.
7. PreSonus Studio One
Best feature: Ease of use
Image Credit: Presonus
It is used to be a fairly new addition to the preexisting DAWs but is now among the best DAW for beginners. Developed by PreSonus, this music-making software is compatible with both windows and mac. The prime version of Studio one is available to its users for free and is considered one of the best free music making software for windows.
With its productive workflow, ease of use and stability, modern interface, producing music becomes a much trouble-free process. Doesn’t matter if you are just a beginner or a pro at music production. This state-of-the-art software can keep you satisfied. The only drawback is its persistently busy interface.
With audio processing, input-output support, native plugins, and many functions in its newer versions, it not just giving tough competition to its competitors but is proving to be better than them in a few aspects.
8. Reason Studios Reason
Best feature: Europa Shapeshifting synthesizer
Image Credit: Reason
The developer of this, Propellerhead software, became Reason studios in the year 2019 with the release of its 11th version. IT came Reason rack plugin that is used for accessing the core tools of this music producing software.
With its unique rack-based workflow, sample and sound library, VST plugins, SSL-modelled mixer, its considered one of the best music recording software for windows out there. Out of all the DAWs, this is the only software closely resembling the graphical representation of actual hardware.
9. Bitwig Studio
Best feature: good sound engine quality
Image Credit: Bitwig Studio
Bitwig studio is a great choice for creative producers and is considered one of the best DAW for Hip Hop. Its been seven years since the launch of the very first Bitwig Studio version. The software has developed and improved a lot since then. A flexible modulation system, built-in modular environment, forward-thinking feature set are some of its significant features. But when compared with Ableton, it still is an infant.
Even though there are many workflow similarities between them, Ableton still has the edge over Bitwig Studio. The new version had a single new feature update- the grid. It’s a recent device that inculcates a modular environment in Bitwig software.
10. Apple GarageBand
Best feature: User friendly for beginners
Image Credit: Garageband For Free
The Apple GarageBand is one of the best DAWs for beginners, and it comes with all Macs. Its easy and user-friendly UI makes it the first choice of most beginners in the music production industry. It has a ready-made upgrade path and is not compatible with windows.
Beginners or non-musicians can efficiently sequence the supplied audio loops. Still, there is also a collection of software instruments that comes with it, and so does the multitrack recording functionality. Drummer is great for automatically generating beats, smart Controls make for more pleasant editing of sounds, and Logic Remote iPad app can also be used to control the software.
Apart from this, the projects made in the software are compatible with Logic Pro. The software being free means that everyone should try it at least once.
11. Acoustica Mixcraft
Best feature: Easy to use
Image Credit: View At Acoustica
It is only compatible with Microsoft Windows; this digital audio workstation also consists of a pretty good content library. Currently, there are two versions available of this software. This recording software functions as a virtual instrument host, MIDI sequencer, music loop recorder, and non-linear video arranger with no upgrade path.
It may not be the fanciest of DAWs available out there, but it is reliable for supporting production solution and a good alternative for beginners. Mixcraft used to be a basic starter application but has now developed into a fully-fledged digital audio workstation with all its costlier competitors’ functions.
12. Cakewalk SONAR
Best feature: Powerful tools
Image Credit: View At Bandlab
SONAR was a digital audio workstation by Cakewalk. Compatible with Microsoft Windows, this music production software is now available for free. Recording and manipulating MIDI data, mixing audio, using virtual instruments (synthesizers, samplers, drum machines etc.), application of DirectX special effects were some of the major features of this DAW. It didn’t have a mac version and was discontinued in 2017 and then was relaunched a free software later.
13. LMMS (Linux Multimedia Studio)
Best feature: good functionality for beginners
Image Credit: LMMS
Compatible with the windows, macOS and Linux operating system, this daw is a great option if you want to start music production at a beginner level. Its ability to add notes within the project, easy to use bundled free plugins, MIDI editor, 65-bit VST instrument support, and support for track automation are some of this digital audio workstation’s significant features. It also supports file formats in both compressed and uncompressed formats.
Best feature: Easy User interface
Image Credit: Ardour
This digital audio workstation and hard disc recorder is compatible with FreeBSD, Linux, Windows and macOS. In its recording features, there are no built-in limits in the software and recording is only restricted to the hardware its running on. It supports mixing of arbitrary number of tracks. Its editing features consist of dragging, trimming, splitting and time-tracking.
This is a free software which makes it a first choice of a lot of beginners in music production.
Best feature: Multi-platform DAW
Image Credit: Renoise
Renoise is a digital audio workstation that is compatible with all the operating systems, making it a favourable choice for many users. It is based upon the tracker software. Its key features include composing music with sound samples, soft synths and effect plug-ins. The major difference between Renoise and the rest of the software is its characteristic vertical timeline sequencer used by tracking software.
It has MIDI sync support, VST 2.0 support, sample editor and integrated sampler, rewire support, real-time DSP effects and full automation of commands.
Best feature: Recording and Effects
Image Credit: Audacity
Audacity is an open-source digital audio editor and recording application software. It is compatible with macOS, Linux, Windows and Unix-like operating systems and is available for free. It is also used for post-processing for all kinds of recorded audio for trimming, normalization, and fading in and out. One can also record an entire album and mix it on this software. Its key features include recording (MIDI, scrubbing, punch and roll recording), editing (amplitude envelope editing, single track edit and zoom, audio file manipulation), multi-track mixing as well as detection of errors.
17. MOTU Digital Performer
Best feature: An instruments soundbank
Image Credit: MOTU Digital Performer
This sequencer software package/digital audio workstation is available on macOS and windows. It is one of the first MIDI sequencer developed for the Macintosh platform. Digital Performer initially used to a pure MIDI software but slowly started including audio workstation functions. The MIDI editing is one of the best functionalities of this software compared to other industry-leading music software for windows and mac.
In addition to this, Digital Performer also supports Virtual Studio Technology (VST) and Audio Unit.
18. Harrison Mixbus
Best feature: VCA faders
Image Credit: Harrison Mixbus
This digital audio workstation is available for macOS, windows and linux. Its modern DAW model provides a traditional workflow for analog mixing. It has all the features of the Ardour in addition to functionality with proprietary DSP. Analog modeled 3 band EQ are featured in all the channel strips in Mixbus and compression, summing, and panning. It also consists of 8 stereo mixbuses having tone controls, tape saturation, compression.
Mixbus consists of “at-a-glance” metering along with peak, peak hold, and compressor gain reduction visible on every track and bus.
Best feature: Multi-track audio
Image Credit: Qtractor
Compatible with Linux, this audio/MIDI multi-track sequencer is based upon the Qt framework. The purpose of designing this software was to ease the process of music production and make it simple for any beginner or an average user at home, yet a powerful DAW for any professional in the business.
This non-destructive audio and MIDI multi-track sequencer does not modify or alter the audio or MIDI files in clip objects. It supports multiple file formats (compressed and uncompressed), supports almost all major audio and MIDI files, customizable keyboard commands and comes with a built-in Qjacktl connections dialog.
20. Acid Pro 7
Best feature: ACID real-time pitch
Image Credit: Acid pro 7
This powerhouse of a DAW has a full multitrack recording and mixing, MIDI sequencing, and ACID looping functionality for easy and seamless music production. Launched in 1998, this was a loop-based sequencer where loop files could be and dropped to adjust to the song’s tempo.
Compatible with windows, this DAW is one of the best music creation software in the industry.
Best feature: Compatible with any machine
Image Credit: Waveform
Waveform, earlier known as Tracktion, is a music producing software mostly used for audio recording, editing and MIDI. Its interface was designed to be very transparent and intuitive. It is also compared with Ableton live as its approach is very similar to that of live. Like most MIDI sequencers, waveform to doesn’t come with cluttered windows, multiples menus and modal dialog boxes. It is also known for its abstract visual representation, unlike others that resemble real hardware. It is compatible with mac, windows and Linux and the most recent version, 11.5.7 was released in March 2021.
So, these are 21 major DAWs that are available online. Aspiring producers can easily get this software from official site of any DAW. All DAWs cater same purpose just the UI and functions are different.
Stay tuned for more such blogs.