The best beginner DAWs will be easy to use compared to their grown-up siblings, and will offer just enough of a track count to handle any newcomer’s needs.
The Digital Audio Workstation has become the foremost essential component in any home or project studio, with the very best DAWs becoming the nerve centre that combines all your hardware and software instruments into a central hub.
Within this hub is where you record, edit, mix and master your projects, taking them from scratch demos to finished tracks.
If you’re just starting out on your music production journey, however, how do you choose the best beginner DAW for you and what are the main points to consider?
To help you find your perfect starter DAW, we’ve put together this guide, talking you through the features you’ll likely need, and the ones you can ignore for now.
The best beginner DAWs: Our top picks
If you own a Mac, you already have access to GarageBand, which comes free with every Apple machine. Quite frankly, unless you really hate it, not only is it the best beginner DAW, it could also be the only one you’ll ever need.
GarageBand’s easy upgrade path to Logic Pro makes it the logical choice when you’re ready to take things to the next level.
For PC users, the choice isn’t quite so clear-cut, but we feel that Ableton Live 11 Intro wins out, making it the best beginner DAW with a PC setup.
Hugely popular, especially amongst dance music producers, Ableton Live’s cross-platform support also makes it an equally good alternative for Mac users. Its fast, fluid workflow and spontaneous approach to composition, arrangement and performance help it stand out from the beginner DAWs crowd.
Best beginner DAWs: Product guide
GarageBand should in no way be dismissed as merely a cutdown version of Apple’s flagship DAW, Logic Pro. Beneath that approachable exterior, GarageBand is incredibly powerful and feature-packed, though lacking a few of its big brother’s more advanced features, such as a proper mix page and 5.1 surround mixing capability.
Supporting up to 255 audio tracks with full automation, a Drummer track, guitar, bass amp and pedalboard emulations, plus a vast library of hundreds of synth sounds and Apple loops, GarageBand is a fully capable DAW in its own right. It even had the Live Loops update before Logic Pro did.
For an app that comes free with every Mac, GarageBand is a no-brainer for beginners. Even better, if and when you choose to upgrade, Logic will happily load all your GarageBand projects.
Easily the best beginner DAW – and one for more seasoned music-makers, too.
Read our full Apple GarageBand review
Arguably the most popular DAW amongst the DJ and dance music fraternity, Live’s famously quick and easy workflow, coupled with the propensity for live performance that give it its name, make it a worthy presence on the bestseller lists.
Live Intro gives you more than just a taste of what’s on offer, being a fully-fledged workstation with more than enough power to produce a finished track from scratch. You get over 1,500 sounds, four software instruments, 21 audio effects and 11 MIDI effects, along with over 5GB of sound library content and presets.
Now that Live 11 is available, with new features including comping and MPE support, there’s never been a better time to check out what all the fuss is about.
Read our Ableton Live 11 Suite review
Image-Line’s erstwhile Fruity Loops DAW, now rebranded as FL Studio, has a large and loyal fanbase amongst PC users, particularly amongst the hip-hop and EDM fraternity. Since version 20 it’s also been cross-platform, so Mac users can get in on the fruity action, too.
A completely customisable interface and lifetime free updates are big bonuses, and its drag-and-drop functionality makes it easy to use for beginners. There's also an app, IL Remote, that enables you to control elements of the software from a mobile device.
Although occasionally dismissed as not the most ‘serious’ DAW on the market, FL Studio is as feature-packed as any other app on the list. It has also benefited from a flood of recent updates; just one of the reasons why its users love it - and why we rate it as one of the best beginner DAWs.
Read our full Image Line FL Studio 20 review
Steinberg’s Cubase has been around since the dawn of digital audio workstations, pioneering the now-ubiquitous region-based arrange window, so you know you’re in good hands with the entry-level version of one of the most widely-used and respected DAWs available.
Despite its price point, Elements serves up a sizable chunk of content, with over 1,000 instrument sounds, 64 MIDI and 48 audio tracks and almost 50 VST effect plugins, which is no less than you’d expect from the inventors of VST technology.
Unlike pricier versions, Elements thankfully doesn’t require a pesky e-licenser USB dongle, but does enjoy a wide selection of more desirable features, like the MixConsole, sampler track, chord pads, chord track and chord and scale assistants, together with a basic score editor.
Read our full Steinberg Cubase 11 review
Still a relative spring chicken, Bitwig Studio has quickly impressed thanks to its general ease of use and innovative approach to modulation and connectivity to external hardware. These alone make it one of the best beginner DAWs.
This approachability also filters down to the entry-level 8 and 16-Track versions that offer a reduced feature set from the range-topping Studio edition for a more affordable chunk of change. Of the two, we’d go for the 16-Track, as with double the number of tracks, it represents a more usable compromise between price and performance.
You get 16 hybrid audio/instrument tracks and the ability to host unlimited VSTs, 11 instruments (including the new Polymer Synth), 30 effects processors and 17 modulators, plus the Essentials Collection of content, delivering a great starting point for beginners.
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Now at version 5, Presonus Studio One is offered in three versions: Prime (free), Artist, and Professional, all combining the software’s trademark intuitive single-window working environment with quick and easy drag-and-drop functionality in a cool and contemporary package.
Although Prime is perfectly adequate for newbies looking to dip a toe in the water, we’d go for the Artist version. Although Presonus Studio One Artist may not have the shallowest learning curve, it is incredibly feature-rich, offering unlimited audio and instrument tracks, buses, and FX channels.
You get five powerful virtual instruments including the Impact XT drum sampler, Presence XT virtual sample player, Mai Tai polyphonic analog modeling synth, Mojito monophonic subtractive synth, and Sample One XT live sampler and editor - more than enough for beginners to explore.
Cockos’ affordable cross-platform DAW Reaper is often praised for an intuitive and highly customisable interface that's ideal for beginner producers. Swift and responsive with a tiny storage footprint, it’s an often-overlooked solution, despite having bags of potential.
Nonetheless, Reaper has plenty of advanced features to get your teeth into, such as drawable MIDI CC envelopes and a sophisticated visual patchbay system for routing MIDI and audio. There’s even a built-in video editor for social media aficionados to explore.
There’s no version hierarchy as such, but the demo version is free for a 60-day evaluation period, after which a $60 license fee applies. End-to-end 64-bit resolution and unlimited free updates from Reaper 6 up to version 7.99 add to the appeal.
Although not free, Mixcraft springs to mind whenever PC users enquire about Windows-compatible equivalents to Apple’s Mac-only GarageBand. This is due to a similarly intuitive and approachable interface coupled with copious amounts of production power.
Mixcraft has great support for third-party plugins, audio interfaces and hardware controllers, and the latest version adds new toys like syncable automation, vocoder tracks and a massive library of over 7,500 loops, effects and samples.
The cheaper Recording Studio version nets you 15 software instruments, unlimited audio and MIDI tracks plus an Ableton-esque Performance Panel, and it even has a built-in video editor! With all this taken into account, if you’re on a PC, Mixcraft 9 makes a compelling contender for the best beginner DAWs.
Based on another DAW with a long pedigree, Reason Intro is an easy-to-use and fast-to-learn piece of music software for composition, recording and mixing, containing all the necessary editing tools, effects and instruments for music production.
Your $99 gets you 16 audio and instrument tracks, 10 virtual instruments, 9 effects, 3 MIDI effects and 8 utilities, plus a 3GB factory sound library with an impressive selection of over 20,000 patches, loops and samples - everything you need to get started making music.
Reason is based around a virtual studio rack that can be integrated as a VST3/AU/AAX native plugin in compatible DAWs. This means if you ever decide to upgrade to a different system, you can still access all your sounds from Reason by running it as a plugin in your new DAW.
Read our Reason Studios Reason 11 review
In the Summer of 2020, Akai took the extraordinary step of launching a free DAW aimed at beatmakers, inspired by the functionality of its classic MPC range of samplers and drum machines
Integrating the classic 16-pad MPC workflow into an app that runs either standalone or as a plugin, MPC Beats features 8 MIDI tracks and 2 stereo audio tracks, and comes with Akai’s Bassline, Tubesynth and Electric instruments, over 80 onboard effects and a 2GB content library.
There’s a piano roll for MIDI notes and a sample editor for chopping and editing audio. While the arrangement features are limited - songs are treated as just one long sequence, with no region editing to speak of - the included content is great and there are some cool composition features that allow you to play chords from the virtual pads.
Aimed squarely at DJs who want to get into production, Serato Studio draws on the company’s years of expertise creating DJ hardware controllers and the world-beating Pitch’n Time time stretching software by building the technology into a free, entry-level DAW.
Deliberately designed to be quick and easy to use, Serato Studio definitely has a DJ-esque feel, with an interface based around the idea of two decks and a library. Drag audio in and it instantly snaps to the key and tempo of your project.
The free version is limited to one audio track, but if you want the paid version with more features, such as automation and unlimited tracks, decks and scenes, you can either subscribe for $9.99 a month or pay a one-off lifetime fee of $199.
Best beginner DAWs: Buying advice
First and foremost in your best beginner DAW-cision should be the computer platform you’ll be running it on. Some workstations are PC only, some are Mac only, but many can run on both systems. What does this mean? Platform compatibility is the first thing you should check. For instance, don’t go for Acoustica Mixcraft if you have a Mac.
Aside from making sure your computer meets the minimum system requirements for RAM, processor speed and hard disk space, choosing the right level of DAW is important if you’re a beginner. Many offer free or trial versions, so you can try these first to see whether or not that particular beginner DAW is the best one for you. However, we’ve tended to focus this guide mainly on the mid-range, paid versions that offer a little bit more to get your teeth into for a much lower outlay than the full, pro versions.
Some of the products in our round-up have a steeper learning curve than others, but ultimately it’s about finding one that suits the way you want to work. If you’re just starting out, you’ll likely find that a track count of 16 will be sufficient. This doesn’t refer to the number of songs you can create with a workstation, it just means the number of individual parts you can have in each song.
Most also usually come with an array of software instruments loaded with preset sounds, plus a library of bundled or downloadable content to get you started.