BEST OF 2021: Gauging the value of a DAW update can be tricky. Should you measure the number of new features, the workflow improvements, or simply how many bugs and quirks from the previous version have been ironed out?
It's a tricky question to answer, but it's the one that we posed when we asked you to vote for the best DAW update of 2021.
There were some pretty big hitters in the running, so this was always going to be a competitive category, but with the results now counted and verified, we can now reveal your top 5.
1. Winner 2021: Ableton Live 11 Suite
Ableton has a long-held tradition of incrementally improving its DAW rather than radically altering it, and this continued with the launch of Live 11. There are well-executed comping and track-linking features, support for MPE, and new instruments and effects in the full-on Suite edition.
Despite these additions, Live still feels lean and agile, and it remains a fantastic DAW and live performance tool. If you’re a strictly in-the-box type, certain enhancements won’t be of interest, but for everyone else, it’s a winner.
Oh, and if you're an Apple M1 Mac user, look out for Live 11.1, which is coming soon add will native support for these machines.
2. Apple Logic Pro 10.7
Like Liam Neeson in Taken, Logic Pro 10.7 has a very particular set of skills, most of which relate to Apple's new Spatial Audio technology.
This new version of Apple's DAW gives users the chance to mix their tracks in Dolby Atmos - regardless of whether they have a multi-speaker setup in their studio - and then release them on Apple Music.
To make this possible, there are new mixer and panner controls that enable you to access Dolby Atmos-compatible surround channels, while 12 existing Logic plugins (including Space Designer, Limiter, Loudness Meter, and Tremolo) are now spatial audio-friendly, too.
The 10.7 update also adds the Producer Packs that landed in GarageBand over the summer - users can now access beats and samples from the likes of Boys Noize, Mark Lettieri, Mark Ronson, Oak Felder, Soulection, Take A Daytrip, Tom Misch, and TRAKGIRL.
Oh, and the original multitrack project for Lil Nas X’s Montero (Call Me by Your Name)? That's here, too.
3. Bitwig Studio 4
Since its launch in 2014, updates to Bitwig’s Studio DAW have arrived at an impressive rate, and they’ve generally been pretty useful, too. Now the company has released version 4, which heralds the arrival of what the it's calling “new musical timelines”.
Version 4 adds - coincidentally - four main things: comping for audio clips in both the Clip Launcher and Arranger; a new set of Operators for changing the chance, recurrence, and more of any note or audio event; Random Spread for any expression point; and, on a practical note, Native Apple Silicon support on Mac, including the facility to run Intel and ARM plugins side-by-side.
Bitwig also found time to release version 4.1, which gives you eight new Note FX and new colour options.
Bitwig Studio 4 isn't an earth-shattering update, but the new features are excellently implemented, and it remains a highly creative DAW.
4. Reason Studios Reason 12
Reason gained a new lease of life with version 11. Having slipped behind its competitors over the years, due largely to its developers' long reluctance to accommodate third-party plugins, the 2019 update spun the rack-focused DAW on its head with the option to run it both standalone and as a plugin.
Understandably, Reason 12 is far less of a paradigm shift, but there's still plenty to get excited about.
The highlight for most users is likely to be the redesigned Combinator. As before, this enables you to combine multiple Reason devices into a single unit, but it’s now much more customisable, with options to change the panel size, knobs, faders, buttons and graphics.
Other enhancements include HD graphics, and the Mimic Creative Sampler, giving us an update that, while not essential, takes Reason another step in the right direction.
5. Steinberg Nuendo 11
Nuendo is a pro application through and through so, as you might expect, the update to version 11 has high-end features at its core.
Most prominent is the new Dolby Atmos renderer, which turns Nuendo into an end-to-end Atmos solution. There's also comprehensive metering and visualisations with Supervision, and all the updates from Cubase 11.
If your only interest is music-making then perhaps Nuendo’s feature set will be overkill. However, if you have any involvement with audio post-production, video game or VR production, or sound effect creation, then Nuendo 11 contains almost everything you need.