Find the perfect DAW for your home recording project with our reviews of the best available right now. We take a close look at Pro Tools, Ableton, Reason, Cubase and more.
Recording music in high quality is no longer a privilege solely for the rich or famous. With the advent of digital audio, now anybody can record music in the comfort of their home.
The key tool in this is a good digital audio workstation or DAW. A DAW makes recording, editing, and producing music accessible to anyone with a decent computer and a microphone.
In this post we review the best DAWs available right now. We've chosen a selection of software that cover the whole spectrum of what's available. Should you be into making beats for EDM or hip hop, multi-track rock recordings, or even editing audio for film, we've got you covered.
Looking for the best DAW for beginners? Be sure to check out our review of PreSonus Studio One.
DAW Software Comparison
Take a quick look at our DAW software comparison table, before we review each program in more detail after. The table can be sorted in each category. Click on the image to check the latest price.
The Top DAW Reviews
Before you go any further, be aware that a DAW doesn't have to cost you any money. There are free tools available.
None of them quite match the features and power of the paid market leaders, but they can do a decent job, depending on what you're looking to do.
A free program that I used a lot at university is Audacity. I wouldn't choose to record with Audacity as the interface is quite dated, and it lacks real time effects, but as an editing tool it is quite useful. I guess the catch with the free programs is that you might end up with a decent production in the end, but it will take much longer and the process won't be as smooth.If the free tools won't do it for you, then take a look at our DAW software reviews.
1. Avid Pro Tools The market leader & trendsetter
Pro Tools has been the market leader for a long time. I first used it 15 years ago and it is just as common in studios around the world now as it was back then. As a DAW for home recording, Pro Tools has lost its grip in recent years, as prior to version 9 you needed an expensive audio interface that was limited to a 48kHz bit rate. These days you are no longer bound to the M-Powered interface, and Pro Tools is more accessible than it has ever been.
Avid have recognized their mistakes of the past, and they now offer a free version of Pro Tools 12 called First. Now, it only allows three projects to be in progress at any time, and it's limited to sixteen tracks and four inputs, but it's a cool window into what Pro Tools offers.
There is also now the awesome option to rent Pro Tools with a monthly subscription, as well as buy it outright. These different levels of entry make this one of the most accessible premium DAWs on the market.
The latest version of Pro Tools comes with over 60 virtual instruments, plug-ins, and effects. This gives you the creative freedom to tinker and change your sound until you get just what you're looking for. It offers real time effects so you can get things exactly as you want before you start recording. The array and quality of the effects is really impressive.
For the more ambitious composers, it can handle up to 128 audio tracks, 512 instrument tracks, and 512 MIDI tracks. But, you better have a fast processor if you're thinking about using them all.
You can customize the layout of the tracks according to what works best for you. The scope to which you can edit the tracks is very impressive. Avid really have the interface nailed here, and this makes Pro Tools one of the better DAWs for being creative with your post recording work. It uses a "smart tool" that combines a trimmer, selector, and grabber tool. This makes editing easier and faster in Pro Tools than other DAWs. If you spend long times editing then I'm sure this would make your life a little easier.
A cool feature is the ability to incorporate your iPad into the mixing process. The app allows you to record and mix quickly and easily utilizing the touchscreen interface. This lets you free up monitor screen space, as well as offering a more intuitive method of controlling the faders. The app is free to Pro Tools users, and is surely a glimpse into the future of home recording.
Another new feature in this iteration of Pro Tools is Avid Cloud Collaboration. This feature embraces the modern, super connected world we live in and gives you the means to collaborate with other artists all around the world.
You can now communicate with other Pro Tools users and work on each others projects. If your bass player stands you up before an important recording session, you can get in touch with someone in the online Avid Artist Community and record with each other just like you are in the same studio. The creative possibilities in collaborating like this with people all around the globe are really amazing. You can even work with each other in the mixing and editing processes too. This feature is pretty amazing and one which I'm sure we'll see Avid invest a lot of time into in future releases of the software.
The Pros and Cons of Pro Tools
- The best option for recording and editing
- Well designed user interface
- Amazing audio effects
- Capacity to record large multi-instrument recordings
- It's probably the piece of software used to make your favorite record of the last 20 years.
- Not the best option for composing/creating music
- Native support of VST plug-ins is missing
Pro Tools is probably the best DAW software around if we're talking about purely recording.
Yes, the user interface can be overwhelming at first, but it's intuitively designed and works really well, especially when you get a handle on the keyboard shortcuts. It's a really powerful editing tool too, due to the different modes it offers. For creating beats and compositions it isn't as good as Ableton Live. But, you wouldn't want to try recording a big multi-track recording with Ableton.
It's still the benchmark DAW and any prospective recording engineer or producer would be wise to get acquainted with Pro Tools at an early stage. It's a really powerful piece of software which is best suited to those who are thinking about larger scale audio productions.
2. Ableton Live A must for electronic music production & performance
Ableton Live is the premier DAW for electronic music and live performance. It is more than just a recording tool, and excels in helping you create and compose new musical ideas. It is even used by many top DJs as a live performance tool, where it works seamlessly with many 3rd party MIDI controllers, but especially with Ableton's own push controller.
What separates Ableton Live from other DAWs is how your session is presented. Instead of working with the traditional workflow of each separate track in a row going from left to right Ableton have done things differently.
Ableton present the tracks in columns with a combined representation of the overall piece of music at the bottom of the screen. If you add a new track to the composition then it is added like a channel strip to the top portion of the screen. Click it to hear it, then click others to add them into the mix too.
What really makes this work is how the tracks are combined together. If you play multiple channels at different times the audio automatically syncs together. This means that you can experiment effortlessly with different sounds without having the time consuming job of synchronizing things yourself. You can "demo" new sounds so easily in this way, and it makes Ableton Live a really powerful creative tool for creating electronic music. Wherever you drop a piece of audio into a song, you can rest assured that it will play at the right time and at the right tempo.
This feature is also what makes this DAW work so well in live performances. As the interface is so seamless and allows you to add and delete new sounds at will, it can add an extra element to DJ performances. A DJ can add new sounds and layers to their music in real time. Sensing a reaction from the crowd, they may want to tinker with their sound to take their set in a different direction, and this software gives them the ability to do that without worrying about synchronization. The sounds can be set to play just once, or looped until you wish to stop them. As a live performance tool it works best with a MIDI controller, especially Ableton Push.
The full version of Ableton Live is the Suite edition. This comes with an enormous 50 gigabyte library of sounds ready for you to play with, and 40 different effects. However, you are still able to record and use your new sounds in the Ableton session window. This can also be done in real time too. The Suite version is also the only version that can be used as a live performance tool. The other versions available are Ableton Live Intro (Basic version, limited to 16 audio tracks), and Ableton Live Standard (No live capability, less synths and samplers).
The Pros and Cons of Ableton Live
- Perfect workflow for moving from an idea to a finished piece
- Amazing live performance tool
- Specially designed to work with Push MIDI controller
- Uses some awesome samplers and synths
- The best option for electronic music
- Great MIDI editing tools
- Interface doesn't lend itself to multi track recording of bands or editing
Ableton Live bucks the trend of traditional DAWs and in doing so makes it the clear choice for those making electronic music. If you mainly record bands then give this a miss as the interface doesn't lend itself to multi-track recording. For all things electronic, the interface is slick and intuitive, and can even improve with the aid of a good MIDI controller. This is an amazing creative tool, and one which no serious DJ or electronic music producer can afford to be without.
3. Reason One for the synth fans
Reason has been around for a while now and is now in its 10th iteration. I first used Reason to make electronic music 10 years ago, and the newest version is better than ever. The program I used to know didn't have the ability to record from external source, but that has all changed. Reason is still primarily a music creation tool, but it now offers the functionality of a traditional DAW and can be used to record external instruments. What sets Reason apart from other software programs is the quality and versatility of the software instruments it provides
The Reason session screen contains the usual musical arrangement view and mixing channels that are common throughout pretty much every DAW software. What Reason does differently is incorporate a browser window and an effects/instrument rack too.
The browser is found on the left hand side of the screen (it's removable) and gives the user quick access to the effects and software instruments at their disposal. This makes adding layers to your compositions really quick and easy, as it can be done without leaving the mix screen.
The rack is one of the coolest things about Reason, and it displays all the software instruments and effects that you are currently using. They are represented as the physical pieces of hardware that they simulate, and give the whole Reason experience a recording studio feel. Furthermore, pressing the Tab key on the keyboard turns the outboard instruments and effects around to show the signal flow of your operation. The instruments and effects are connected with virtual cables and can be routed in any way you desire. This means you can manipulate sounds in any way imaginable, giving you complete creative control over your equipment. In the same way you would have in a studio with all this expensive hardware at your disposal. The possibilities are endless as you link synths to effects to create unique new sounds.
The rack effects and instruments offer a huge variety of styles. Hip hop and electronic music are well represented, but more subtle sounds of classical music are also available. The downside is that only Propellerhead's extensions are available to use. If there's a favorite compressor of yours that's not in their library then it's not available to use. There is a huge library available though so you should find something that you like the sound of. Extensions to the library are also available to buy as extra packs.
The quality of Reason's software instruments and effects is also a huge draw. The huge library of audio includes sounds that have been crafted by producers of Death Cab for Cutie and Black Eyed Peas to name a couple. The synths are amazing, and loops, drum kits, samples, and effects all sound great.
The Pros and Cons of Reason
- Awesome rack interface gives an authentic recording studio feel
- High quality effects and software instruments
- Huge library of sounds
- More of a composition tool than for recording and editing bands
- Not compatible with 3rd party effects
Like Ableton Live, this isn't the DAW you want for recording multiple external instruments. It's an amazing creative tool, that has a unique feel to it that can't be matched by other DAWs. The diversity and quality of the software instruments and effects is top notch, and the rack interface with the virtual cables is an awesome feature. Reason is a really powerful creative tool, but also a really fun one that will have you experimenting with different sounds for hours on end.
4. Cubase Pro
Cubase is one of the oldest DAW software programs around. More in the vein of Pro Tools it is a great tool for recording and editing. It started off many years ago as a MIDI sequencer, and is a powerful tool for MIDI production. The newest incarnation of Cubase has VCA faders which means you can now control a group of channels without doing any extra routing. This makes mixing drums and any huge or complicated mixes much easier.
Cubase makes the sometimes tricky task of transferring audio from one DAW to another an easy task. It can render audio in place which is a really useful feature. Rendering can take a long time and is very CPU intensive, so with this feature you can render individual tracks (with or without effects) and make the whole process much easier.
It's great for multi-track recording and has some cool tools that make this process more straightforward than other DAWs. With the Track Edit Groups mode you can tie related tracks together to save time. For example, when recording a guitar you can group the different recording signals from different amps, mics, and distances that you might have and edit them all at once.
Cubase will also let multiple audio tracks be quantized. With the use of warp markers placed at hit points, single audio loops and even whole arrangements can be quantized with a single mouse click. Since Cubase warps the audio instead of slicing it, the audio tracks will automatically adhere to any pitch or tempo changes of the project.
With the Lane Track feature, multiple takes can easily be pieced together. Cubase automatically creates a Lane Track for each take. Each of your takes is then placed beside each other. To take the best parts from each and piece them together you simply swipe across you favorite parts and Cubase will create a new master track of it.
It's got some amazing audio effect tools too. VariAudio allows you to edit the pitch of individual notes, and means you can edit the intonation and timing until it's perfect with just a few clicks. Then there's the Chord Track feature that ensures your harmonies are always pitch perfect
Cubase now let's you harness the editing and mastering power of WaveLab. WaveLab is a really powerful tool that can be used in the Cubase window. Just select some audio and away you go. It allows you to perform spectrum editing, 3D frequency analysis, extensive audio restoration, loudness processing, and audio mastering. When your edits are finished you can update your Cubase project with just one click. WaveLab also makes creating albums or CDs really easy. After mastering you can simply drag and drop your chosen audio files into the order you'd like.
Cubase was created in collaboration with some top producers, and features professional level EQs, gates, compressors, and a deEsser in each channel. If your worried about finding the right balance, then you don't need to be as there are over 300 presets that are used by US producer Allen Morgan.
The Pros and Cons of Cubase
- Full of features
- Great for MIDI
- WaveLab integration provides powerful editing tools
- High quality effects
- Native full screen mode not yet available on OSX
- Instrument packs aren't the most interesting
Cubase goes deep into the editing and mastering process and offers some tools that might only interest those that are really serious about recording, or knowledgeable on mastering. As a recording tool it's awesome and makes the process about as straightforward as it can be. It's also an amazing MIDI sequencer that is packed full of features to make the composition process as easy as possible.
5. PreSonus Studio One The best DAW for beginners
PreSonus are long time makers of fantastic audio hardware, and have only branched out into DAW software in recent years. This is the third iteration of the Studio One program. Despite having relatively few years of experience in software design, PreSonus have create something really special with Studio One 3. It is less complicated than industry old timers like Pro Tools and Cubase because it uses a drag and drop interface. They obviously deemed this too simplistic to use in their programs, but Studio One shows that it works, and works really well too. Studio One can also come as a package with its amazing audio interfaces, which doesn't hurt either.
There are three levels of Studio One available:
- Prime - This is the free version. It only supports 32-bit audio, but there are no limitations on the number of tracks. It doesn't have any of the cooler effects and it doesn't support third-party plug-ins.
- Artist - Available to download for $100. Has a decent array of instruments and effects. Even a trial of the amazing Melodyne pitch correction software.
- Professional - The full package. It can use 3rd party plug-ins and AU (Mac) plug-ins. It has a project mode where you can record an album from start to finish. It has a huge library of sounds, instruments, and effects (including Melodyne), and a license for the new iPad control app.
The drag and drop interface is a really great way to work. It puts this somewhere between Garageband and the more extravagant programs like Pro Tools and Cubase in terms of usability. The drawback is that the screen can sometimes seem a bit overwhelming as there is so much on there to see at the same time.
Creating music is really straightforward. You can compose backing tracks that automatically sync to your song's tempo. Then to enrich an arrangement with an effect just drag it in to apply it. The Professional version comes with around 10,000 audio loops too, so there's a huge library at your disposal. While we're on the subject of the Professional version, it also records in 64 bit, features a cool new synthesis engine, Mai Tai polyphonic analog modeling synth, and the Presence XT sampler. The coolest plug-in it has though is Melodyne. This is a powerful tool used on Grammy award winning songs for precise pitch and time manipulation and correction. Melodyne is integrated into every track so you can use it quickly and efficiently.
Another innovative feature is the Scratch Pad. Scratch Pads let you experiment with different arrangements without putting your work at risk or having to mess around with saving or undos. It's like an experimentation window where you are free to play with ideas in a free flowing way. It's a really simple concept, but one that it unique to Studio One. Drag your audio into the window to start, experiment away, and then simply drag it back into the mix when you're finished.
The Pros and Cons of Studio One
- Simple and efficient drag and drop interface
- Melodyne auto tune
- 3 Different entry levels
- Some amazing effects & instruments
- 3rd-party plug-ins only work with Professional version
- Screen can seem cluttered
- Doesn't have the MIDI editing features of programs like Ableton Live
PreSonus found a gap in the market ready to be exploited and really made it work with Studio One. The drag and drop style is a real time saver, and you wonder why it wasn't adopted by the other manufacturers. Though this is a simplistic interface, this is a professional level tool. It is a really powerful DAW full of awesome effects and features. The Melodyne integration is a real bonus too.
6. FL Studio The best DAW for hip hop
FL Studio is a favorite DAW of hip hop and EDM producers. It started as program to compose beats, and the creators of FL Studio haven't forgot their roots. It makes creating beats and loops really easy by using step sequencers. Simply drag and drop audio into the sequencer, and then activate it by clicking the mouse.
Originally an entry level DAW, now FL studio has full editing, audio tracking and arranging capabilities.
There are 3 versions available at the time of writing:
- Fruity - The entry level version. Can't record live audio.
- Producer - Has full functionality , but lacks the range of plug-ins that the full version has.
- Signature - The full repertoire.
The new version of FL Studio has seen a graphics update. The interface is now vector based which means that the graphics are simpler and clearer. Now it also looks great when scaled up or viewed on big screens.
The update to the look of FL Studio is a result of a big change to the user interface. It now supports multitouch (as well as one touch) throughout the application. Now multitouch differs in that it will recognize multiple touch points on screen, as opposed to most touch screen devices recognizing just one at a time. This gives the ability to control multiple faders with your fingers, which is an awesome feature. It gives the whole process a more natural "studio" feel. The mixer can even be scaled to size to cope with larger hands. Setting the mixing console on a second multitouch monitor would be a great set up, and is easy to do with the new FL Studio interface. It also offers the more common one touch function, and this means you can hook it up to your iPad or tablet for more screen space. Now, most PC monitors don't yet support multitouch, but this is surely a sign of the direction these applications are heading in.
It's not just the interface that has improved with the latest version though. The MIDI functionality has also improved, despite being the bedrock of the program. The quality of the MIDI sequencer makes this one of the best DAWs for hip hop and EDM. There's an awesome selection of plug-ins, especially with the Signature and Producer version bundles. They tend to cater more to the electronic music crowd, but there's something for everyone. If you've got some favorite 3rd-party VST plug-ins, then they are easy to install and use too.
The library of music is also impressive. Even in the basic version there is a decent selection of loops and beats for you to play with. It really sets this as a production tool, perfect for bedroom composers.
FL Studio also includes Rewire. This allows you use it almost like a plug-in for a different DAW. For example, if you use Pro Tools to record, but love the MIDI sequencing of FL Studio then you can use it within Pro Tools. This adaptability makes FL Studio a really unique and powerful tool.
The Pros and Cons of FL Studio
- Lifetime free updates
- Awesome MIDI features
- Quick and easy to compose music
- Multitouch interface available
- Rewire capability
- Great for EDM and hip hop artists
- Not our DAW of choice for live multi track recordings
- Basic version can't record live audio
FL Studio aligns with Ableton Live as being one of the premier DAWs for electronic music and hip hop production. This program has a long history with MIDI so this is an area it excels in with this latest version. The fact that they give you lifetime free updates is a good enough reason alone to take a look at FL Studio as this is an expensive, recurring cost common to every other DAW. Also, if you have a multitouch monitor then the chance to use that in your mix is a real bonus.
That's it for our best DAW software reviews. We'll add to this page as new versions of the software come out, and also when any new software gets released that catches our eye.
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