As one DAW closes...
Once you’re happy with your DAW, you’re about as likely to change it as Adele is to release a thrash metal Christmas album. What’s the point of jumping ship and having to learn another application’s workflow, shortcuts and features if you’re perfectly satisfied with what you’ve got?
So, in a sense, MusicRadar’s annual search for the best DAW in the world today is always going to be a bit of a popularity contest. We asked you to place your vote - our thanks go out to the many thousands of you who did just that - and it stands to reason that, in the majority of cases, the ‘best’ DAW is going to be the one that you use.
However, not everyone is completely happy in their current music production home. Maybe you feel like your DAW has been left behind in the feature stakes, or is being taken in a direction that you don’t wholly approve of. Or maybe it feels like it isn’t being developed at all, with that long-promised new version never seeming to arrive. Perhaps you’ve got the opposite problem and you’re constantly being asked to pay for updates that aren’t necessary, or it could be that your software just isn’t as stable as it used to be?
And of course, there are new users, too - beginners who want to know which software is best-suited to their music-making requirements.
Whether you’re buying your first DAW, thinking of switching or considering investing in a second app that can run alongside your main music production software, we’re here to tell you what’s what. Based on your votes, we’ve counted down the best 20 DAWs in the world today, giving you a brief overview of what each one’s all about, detailing its most recent updates and linking to full reviews so that you can find out more.
20. Magix 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 in 2014).
What's more, the software is now under new ownership - that of Magix, to be precise - though it remains to be seen whether the company will devote any resources to updating it.
FULL REVIEW: Magix Acid Pro 7
19. 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 the substantial updates have come on an annual basis, including some innovative comping tools, zplane's industry standard élastique audio manipulation technology, and a clever freezing system that allows you to choose how far along a channel's processing chain the rendering is applied.
Better still, Tracktion 7 at last eschews the rather low-budget look that the software has had since version 1; it immediately gets off on the right foot with a classy, modern new paint job. More important than that, though, are the new functional features and technologies that have been introduced without hindering the intuitive and fluid single-screen workflow.
Further changes are afoot, too, as it's been announced that Tracktion is actually set to be replaced by a new DAW called Waveform. This will inherit the key elements of Tracktion but add a dedicated mixer page and a new suite of plugins. In addition, "all aspects" of the software are said to have been updated and streamlined.
FULL REVIEW: Tracktion Software Corporation Tracktion 7
18. Apple GarageBand
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, too.
Non-musicians can simply sequence the supplied audio loops, but a decent collection of software instruments comes supplied, too (including some new Chinese ones) as does multitrack recording functionality and a good selection of virtual guitar amps and stompboxes.
GarageBand feels more like a 'mini Logic' than ever these days. 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 app to control the software.
It feels like the iOS version of GarageBand might be getting more love from Apple than the desktop one just at the moment, but the Mac version is a great first DAW, and good enough to be quite a few people's only one.
FIND OUT MORE: Apple GarageBand
17. MOTU Digital Performer
Previously a Mac-only DAW, Digital Performer is now on Windows, too. As such, its hardcore fanbase may now expand to include a new swathe of in-the-know PC users.
Version 9 looks, in some ways, like an attempt to reach out to a different kind of audience, with the new MX4 MultiSynth coming with an EDM soundbank. There are also five new effect plugins, and some significant workflow and feature enhancements.
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
(Review is of a previous version)
Ardour is often cited as one of the best pieces of Linux music making software, but it's actually an excellent piece of software full stop.
Now available for Linux, OS X and Windows, version 5 brought us a redesigned GUI with a tabbed interface, as well as new features to help you when you're mixing, using plugins, making tempo changes and (if you're that way inclined) writing scripts.
In fact, Ardour seems more like a big-league DAW every time we look at it, but with all the benefits of being an open source application. And with subscriptions starting from as little as $1 a month, it's also eminently affordable.
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.
If you want to insert some of Renoise's features into a different DAW - specifically, its Sampler and Phrase Editor - check out the new Redux plugin, features of which have been added to Renoise itself as part of the version 3.1 update.
FULL REVIEW: Renoise 3.0
14. 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 more.
As of Samplitude Pro X 3 Melodyne Essential comes included, giving users a fine box of pitch and time editing tricks to play with. There's also an audio to MIDI feature, an enhanced mixer, tempo automation and a BPM calculator. New instruments come included, too.
This is a serious end-to-end DAW, then, and a genuine alternative to some of its better-known rivals.
FIND OUT MORE: Magix Samplitude Pro X
13. Steinberg Nuendo
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.
Version 7 adds improvements for those undertaking audio-to-picture, game audio and film/TV post production work, showing where the focus of the software really lies.
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 grand gets you, take the free trial for a spin.
FIND OUT MORE: Steinberg Nuendo 7
12. MuTools MuLab
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 plugins 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 7, released earlier this year, is a pretty big update, making it easier to record audio and adding a step sequencer/arpeggiator module (among many other things). And at this price, beginners in particular should definitely check MuLab out.
FIND OUT MORE: MuTools MuLab
11. 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.
Through its seven major updates, Mixcraft has evolved from a basic starter app to a genuinely impressive DAW, taking on features normally associated with costlier alternatives.
Mixcraft 8 heralds the arrival of a completely new audio engine, global automation recording and integration with Freesound.org. There are new plugins to play with, too.
It might not be the flashiest DAW on the market, but if you invest in Mixcraft you'll be getting a well-supported production solution that comes at a great price.
FULL REVIEW: Acoustica Mixcraft Pro Studio 7
10. Bitwig Studio
Having launched in a blaze of publicity in 2014, Bitwig Studio has started to become part of the DAW furniture.
Given its look and feel, comparisons with Ableton Live are inevitable, but this still-quite 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.
What's more, the new stuff keeps coming. Version 1.2 added group tracks, which enable you to manage multiple parts of a mix at once; a pop-up browser for all devices that's designed to speed up your workflow; and a histogram display on various effects devices. You can set up project templates and per-project controller mappings, and there's support for the new Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (MPE) standard that's designed to help you to get the most out of controllers such as the ROLI Seaboard and Roger Linn LinnStrument.
It's also worth noting that, as of version 1.3, Bitwig has been optimised for multitouch, so Windows 10 users may want to give it a particularly close look.
Better still, we'll soon be getting version 2, which offers a reworked and more powerful modulation system, enhanced hardware integration, new devices and more.
FULL REVIEW: Bitwig Studio 1.2
9. 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.
As far as the latest version (12) goes, there's arguably more on focus on how you pay for and use Pro Tools than it is new features. As well as being able to buy outright, you can now subscribe to Pro Tools on a monthly or annual basis, while new support plans are available, too.
There's also Avid Cloud Collaboration, cloud-based project storage and the Avid Marketplace, which is designed to connect you with others in the audio community.
FULL REVIEW: Avid Pro Tools 11
(Review is of a previous version)
8. 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 plugins.
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.
While Reason 8 might have felt a little as far as upgrades go, version 9 is a much bigger deal, adding three MIDI-generating/manipulating devices in the shape of 'Players'. There's now Ableton Link compatibility as well, leaving us with a package that's not just great for new producers, but also worth considering as a second DAW if you're already committed to another product.
FULL REVIEW: Propellerhead Software Reason 9
7. Cakewalk Sonar
Sonar has been around in various forms for a decade and a half, but in 2015, great changes were made, particularly in the way that the software is sold, upgraded and supported.
We haven't got space to go into all the details here, but the bottom line is that, while you can still pay for Sonar upfront, you can now alternatively sign up to a monthly Membership subscription plan. Full details are on the Cakewalk website. If you do pay outright, you also currently qualify for lifetime free updates.
You should also note that Sonar no longer carries a version number. With it now being a continuously ongoing development, to which anyone can subscribe at any point, such nomenclature is no longer relevant.
What hasn't changed is the fact that Sonar offers an astonishing amount of power for the money, however you slice it up. As promised, Cakewalk has kept the regular updates coming - it's announced the focus will be on performance and stability for the time being, which should please existing users - and it remains one of the finest Windows DAWs. It's been confirmed that a Mac version is in the early stages of development, too.
FULL REVIEW: Cakewalk Sonar
6. Cockos Reaper
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.
Reaper 5 (released in 2015) wasn't a massive step up from v4 in terms of new headline features, but it certainly consolidated the software's status as one of the most customisable and affordable DAW around. What's more, it's wonderfully responsive, with everything from scrolling and zooming to fader moves and Item editing feeling quick and fluid.
If you factor in some (possibly significant) budget for the soundware of your choice, Reaper 5 makes for a top-class music production environment.
FULL REVIEW: Cockos Reaper 5
5. PreSonus Studio One
Studio One has been gaining ground for several years, and it's now a DAW of real power and maturity.
Version 3 heralded the arrival of new arranging, sound design and composing features, and added a couple of extra software instruments, too.
In fact, Studio One 3 was a very solid update, boasting greatly improved content, a significantly more powerful and creative feature set, and a generally more professional feel. There have been further free updates since then, too, with PreSonus listening to user requests and acting on them.
It all adds up to a well-rounded DAW that, for the most part, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its far more established rivals.
FULL REVIEW: PreSonus Studio One 3
4. Apple Logic Pro
While many DAW developers like to unveil 'full' version updates on a regular basis, Apple prefers to give us a steady stream of point releases. Logic Pro X 10.1 and 10.2 were both significant revisions, and the same could be said of version 10.3, particularly if you own a Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro.
This comes with a tweaked GUI that's designed to look more contemporary and be more legible, while the Touch Bar can be used to navigate your project in a timeline overview. As in GarageBand, it gives you access to volume and Smart Controls, and you have the option to turn it into a musical keyboard (complete with various custom scale options) or a set of drum pads, too. The Touch Bar can also be customised to allow access to your favourite keyboard shortcuts.
Other highlights of the latest update include Track Alternatives, selection-based processing, 64-bit summing and the option to export bounced projects to the iOS version of GarageBand so that they can be worked on on the go before being imported back into Logic. Handy.
And then there's that price: by any measure, Logic Pro is a steal. If you own a Mac, it remains pretty hard to resist.
FULL REVIEW: Apple Logic Pro X
3. Steinberg Cubase Pro
On the market since the days of the Atari ST (ask your Dad), Cubase has been around for the advent of audio recording, plugin effects and instruments (Steinberg actually invented the VST standard) and every other major DAW development.
In December 2016, Steinberg released three new versions of Cubase on the same day (Cubase Pro, Artist and Elements 9). And the good news is that some of the big new features are available in all three iterations.
One of these is the Lower Zone, a new area in the project window that's used for the mixer and other tool panels. There's also the Sampler Track, which provides you with an easy way of playing samples chromatically. These can be manipulated with filters and controls in the Lower Zone, and the Caleidoscope library gives you hundreds of samples to play with right away.
There are some Cubase Pro exclusives, of course: a new 8-band EQ known as Frequency, for example, and up to 10 marker tracks, which you can use to specify ranges within projects so that you can export stems and group mixes.
Other features are common to both Cubase Pro and Artist, though the software's built-in plugins have been enhanced across the board, and the deliciously-name Plug-In Sentinel is on-hand to scan plugins on startup and ensure stability.
Overall, Cubase Pro feels just like what it is: a mature DAW that continues to evolve in interesting and creatively relevant directions.
FULL REVIEW: Steinberg Cubase Pro 8
2. Ableton Live
It's hard to overstate the impact that Live has had on the music software marketplace. When the first version was released in 2001 it 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. Since then, it's exploded in popularity and influenced the development of countless other desktop and mobile apps.
2016 was a big year for Ableton, with version 9.5 of Live heralding the arrival of a redesigned Simpler sampler and new Max for Live instruments. The company has also released its Push 2 controller, a superb piece of hardware that, when used in conjunction with Live, gives you a unique music-making experience.
There was even time to release Ableton Link, a new technology that enables wireless syncing between Live and other desktop and iOS apps. It's fast becoming an industry standard.
Ableton is still innovating then, and offers a fabulous DAW that's popularity, among new and existing users alike, shows no sign of dwindling.
FULL REVIEW: Ableton Live 9
1. 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.
Version 12 of FL Studio, released in 2015, represented one of the most significant overhauls to the program in years. It offers a vectorial UI that looks great on high-resolution monitors, a redesigned and resizeable mixer, and updates to several of the software's plugins. Most recently, we've had version 12.3, which brings realtime audio stretching to the party, and version 12.4, which added a 303-style synth and compatibility (via a dedicated plugin) with the latest version of FL Studio Mobile.
Is this a good point for the newcomer to jump onboard? Absolutely. FL Studio still lends itself more readily to in-the-box composition and mixing, rather than as the centre of a more traditional recording setup, but there's little it can't do in regard to the former.
What's more, in the context of what's going on in the rest of the DAW market, Image-Line's 'lifetime free updates' policy is looking more attractive than ever. The knowledge that you'll never have to pay an upgrade fee after that initial outlay is certainly reassuring.
FULL REVIEW: Image-Line FL Studio 12