DAWs of opportunity
2013 was the year in which almost all of the biggest DAWs on the market took a generational leap forward, so it's perhaps unsurprising that, for a lot of developers, 2014 was all about consolidation.
The latest versions of Live, Logic, Pro Tools and FL Studio (to name just a few) have all had chance to 'bed in', and users have got to know them intimately.
But, just as some things have stayed the same, the market has also moved on. Bitwig Studio is finally with us, Tracktion has been welcomed back into the fold, Cubase got an unexpectedly sizeable point release update and Cakewalk is now owned by guitar giant Gibson.
When we asked you to choose your favourite DAW in the world today, then, you had a lot to ponder. But ponder you did, and thousands of votes were cast.
Here, then, are the results or our poll to find the top music production software on the market in 2014. And when you're done here, make sure you also check out the 54 best VST/AU plugin synths in the world today.
MuLab is one of those DAWs that operates slightly under the radar: lots of people will never have heard of it, but its users are passionate about it.
If you want to do the basics - record/edit MIDI and audio, mix, use plug-ins etc - and like the idea of a simple, no-clutter interface, MuLab is certainly worth trying. Those who are prepared to dig a bit deeper will also find a powerful modular sound system under the hood.
Version 6 was released earlier this year, bringing a fresh look and feel and a good number of new features. A free version is available.
FIND OUT MORE: MuTools MuLab
Sony Creative Software Acid
It may no longer be a leading light in the DAW world - its interface is looking seriously dated - but when it was launched in 1998, its automatic audio timestretching and pitch shifting marked Acid out as revolutionary.
These features remain Acid’s key strengths, though it should be noted that the program can now handle MIDI, too (and, as of version 7, video). It may not be the flashiest app on this list, but Acid remains fast, capable and easy to use. If you want a cheaper taste of it, try Acid Music Studio 10, which was released earlier this year.
FULL REVIEW: Sony Creative Software Acid Pro 7
You’ll have to search long and hard to find a more beginner-friendly DAW than this one, which ships with all new Macs and can now be download for free by all OS X Mavericks users via the Mac App Store.
Non-musicians can simply sequence the supplied audio loops, but a decent collection of software instruments comes included too, as does multitrack recording functionality and a good selection of virtual guitar amps and stompboxes.
The latest verison of GarageBand takes features and design cues from Logic Pro X. Drummer is great for automatically generating beats, Smart Controls make for more pleasant editing of sounds, and you can even use the Logic Remote iPad all to control the software.
FIND OUT MORE: Apple GarageBand
Although it's primarily designed as a post production tool, some of you have told us that you also use Steinberg's highest-end application as a good old DAW.
That said, we suspect that the vast majority of musicians will be more than satisfied by the features offered by Cubase - to which Nuendo has a lot of similarities - but if you're intrigued to find out what an extra £1,000 gets you, take the free trial for a spin.
FIND OUT MORE: Steinberg Nuendo 6.5
Magix Samplitude Pro X
You’ll probably know Magix from its entry-level Music Maker and Music Studio applications, but it also produces this beast of a DAW. It started life as an audio editor, but is now a fully-fledged music production suite that offers some superb effects, an excellent object-based editing system and sophisticated features such as Melodyne-style Elastic Audio.
As of Samplitude Pro X, the software also added 64-bit support, a docking system that allows you to customise the interface, spectral editing, surround sound mixing and a whole lot more. The Independence sampler workstation is also built in.
FIND OUT MORE: Magix Samplitude Pro X
If you've ever worked with an old-school tracker, Renoise will look instantly familiar. Music is made in grid-based patterns, and these patterns can be arranged to create songs. It might look and sound like quite a techy workflow, but for a lot of people, it works.
Of course, this kind of interface isn't going to appeal to everyone, but if you do buy into the tracker philosophy, you'll find that Renoise implements it superbly. It comes with its own audio processors and supports plugins; it's OS X, Windows and Linux-compatible; and you can ReWire it to other DAWs.
Version 3 has brought a completely rebuilt GUI and a whole load of new features; it is, without doubt, the most powerful tracker in existence.
FULL REVIEW: Renoise 3.0
Tracktion Software Corporation Tracktion
Tracktion was originally developed by UK designer/programmer Julian Storer, but was then taken on by Mackie. Development seemed to have stalled in the late noughties, but in 2013, it was announced that the software was back in the hands of its original owners.
Since then, it's become a viable music making proposition once again, with version 5 and even Melodyne integration arriving in 2014. If you're looking for a traditional-style sequencing application that ships with a massive bundle of content then Tracktion probably won't appeal, but if other DAWs are leaving you scratching your head, this one might just make sense.
FULL REVIEW: Tracktion Software Corporation Tracktion 5
The DAW market is a difficult one to break into. Convincing long-term users to quit their current software in favour of yours is always going to be difficult, and newbies will inevitably be drawn to the best-known applications.
Bitwig Studio, though, seems to have taken a foothold. Given its look and feel, comparisons with Ableton Live are inevitable, but this new kid on the block has got some fresh tricks up its sleeve. The Clip and Arrange views integrate beautifully, and the modulation and automation systems are genuinely innovative.
Bitwig is off to a great start, then: up next, an integrated modular system that be used to create your own devices, and advanced collaboration features.
FULL REVIEW: Bitwig Studio
MOTU Digital Performer
Previously a Mac-only DAW, Digital Performer has just made its debut on Windows (cross-platform support came as part of the version 8 update). As such, its hardcore fanbase may now expand to include a new swathe of in-the-know PC users.
Make no mistake: this is a first-class piece of music making software that stands comparison with any of its rivals. Getting to know it might prove to be a fairly intense experience, but once you’re over the hump, you’ll be richly rewarded.
FULL REVIEW: MOTU Digital Performer 8
Acoustica Mixcraft Pro Studio
When PC users ask us if it’s possible to get a GarageBand-style application for their operating system, we tend to point them in the direction of Mixcraft.
This is no mere copycat software, though: Mixcraft actually trumps Apple’s software in some respects, providing you with a proper mixer and effects sends. It also comes with a useful plug-in bundle, while version 6 (pictured) adds the likes of effects chains, ReWire hosting and even a guitar tuner on every channel.
There's also a standard version that costs $75, and an entry-level Home Studio version that can be yours for $50.
FULL REVIEW: Acoustica Mixcraft Pro Studio 6
BUY: Acoustica Mixcraft Pro Studio 6 currently available from:
USA: Full Compass
Avid Pro Tools
Among laymen, Pro Tools has practically become a byword for the whole process of recording a piece of music on a computer, which says something about its strength as a brand and ubiquity in studios.
Make no mistake: this is still the professionals’ choice, and now that the ‘proper’ (as opposed to LE) Pro Tools software can finally be run on a PC or Mac without the need for any external hardware, it’s become a much more viable option for the home musician. Pro Tools is gradually becoming a more 'open' DAW, too, and as of version 11 it's a 64-bit one that performs better than ever.
FULL REVIEW: Avid Pro Tools 11
It’s reasonable to suggest that Sonar is the most popular PC-only DAW in the world. A couple of years back, it was given an almighty overhaul and rebranded as Sonar X1. This heralded the arrival of a much cleaner and clutter-free GUI, a powerful built-in channel strip (the ProChannel) and many more features that greatly improve the workflow.
The most recent version is Sonar X3 - the first to be released since Cakewalk was acquired by Gibson - which refines the software to deliver smoother, faster performance and some well-implemented new features (the comping facility and Melodyne integration are particularly noteworthy). It provides confirmation, if we needed it, that Sonar is still keeping pace with the pack.
FULL REVIEW: Cakewalk Sonar X3
Propellerhead Software Reason
Propellerhead’s Reason has always been a great self-contained music production package for people who want to do everything ‘in the box’, but early versions were limited in that they couldn’t record audio and couldn’t be expanded with plug-ins.
Both of these issues have now been addressed; as of Version 6, Reason was combined with Record, Propellerhead’s short-lived audio recording software, and version 6.5 heralded the arrival of Rack Extensions - bespoke instrument and effect add-ons that can be purchased through Propellerhead’s online store.
Version 7 upped the ante still further with the addition of MIDI Out, deeper editing of audio recordings, the ability to convert recordings to REX files, a number of mixer tweaks and the new Audiomatic Retro Transformer effect. As if this wasn't enough, we've got less than a week to wait before we can get our hands on Reason 8, which promises a redesigned user interface and faster workflow.
FULL REVIEW: Propellerhead Software Reason 7
Image-Line FL Studio
FL Studio began life as Fruity Loops, the phenomenally popular step-based beat/groove maker that’s been used by aspiring producers the world over (Deadmau5 included). However, full-on DAW status was achieved some time ago - if you think that this is merely an entry-level application that only allows you to create loops, you need to take a second look.
FL Studio might not be for everyone, but if its workflow agrees with you, you’ll never look back. There's even an iOS version now, and version 11 has kept the desktop version moving forward by adding a Performance mode, multitouch support, new synths and new effects. What's more, you get the feeling that there are even greater things to come.
FULL REVIEW: Image-Line FL Studio 11
PreSonus Studio One
Eyebrows were raised when, a couple of years ago, audio hardware manufacturer PreSonus announced that it was releasing its own DAW.
No one should have worried, though: the resulting product, Studio One, felt pretty mature from the moment it was launched, and anyone who’s tried one of the traditional DAWs (Logic, Cubase, Sonar) should feel right at home with it.
Studio One 2 is an even more enticing proposition, offering built-in Melodyne audio editing and proper comping. All of which reinforces the impression that this is a DAW that's really going places.
FULL REVIEW: PreSonus Studio One 2
On the market since the days of the Atari ST (ask your Dad), Cubase has been around for the advent of audio recording, plug-in effects and instruments (Steinberg actually invented the VST standard) and every other major DAW development.
2014 might not have brought a 'whole' new version of the software, but the 7.5 update is surprisingly feature-packed. Not only does it add a selection of whizz-bang instruments and effects, but there are also some less obvious tweaks and additions that are sure to please the Cubase faithful.
FULL REVIEW: Steinberg Cubase 7.5
For the benefit of those not in the know, Reaper is a remarkably affordable cross-platform DAW that has a tiny footprint and sophisticated MIDI/audio routing capabilities. What’s more, the demo is fully-functional, though if you want to keep using it after 30 days, you’re required to pay the license fee.
Version 4 brings an assortment of new features including pitch envelopes, surround sound support, and an improved, skinnable interface. In terms of bang for your buck, nothing can touch it.
FULL REVIEW: Cockos Reaper 4
Apple Logic Pro
A Mac running Logic is almost an expected find when you head into a professional musician’s studio - it’s a supremely elegant music production solution that just works.
Allaying fears that Logic Pro X would just be 'GarageBand Pro', the latest version of the software draws on Apple's junior DAW to just the right extent and is unafraid to take inspiration from the competition (Ableton Live, mainly). X marks something of a 'reset' for the Logic Pro series - and one that was unquestionably overdue.
Apple has consolidated and refined just about every significant pre-existing feature without unhinging any of them, then added a number of welcome new features - a redesigned interface, the Drummer plugin, Flex Pitch, MIDI effects and more - that feel instantly at home.
FULL REVIEW: Apple Logic Pro X
NEXT: Your winner
When the first version of Live was released in 2001, few could have predicted the impact it would have on the music software marketplace. Here was a DAW that threw out the traditional design rulebook and established itself not just as a recording program for composers, but also as a performance instrument in itself.
The updated version 9 hit the spot nicely. Its MIDI editing refinements are a big hit and the audio to MIDI conversion is brilliant. The new Browser is fast and smooth and the search function is great.
Live 9 can also be used with Ableton's new Push controller to give you an even more hands-on music-making experience.
FULL REVIEW: Ableton Live 9