If you make music on a computer, your DAW - or Digital Audio Workstation, to give it its full name - is the most important tool in your creative arsenal. Yes, you’ll likely have a MIDI keyboard, audio interface, set of studio monitor speakers and possibly a microphone or two in your home recording setup as well, but your music production software sits at the centre of everything.
As such, it’s important to get a DAW that you’re happy with - and, perhaps even more importantly, a digital audio workstation that will enable you to turn your ideas into music as quickly and painlessly as possible.
To help you find it, we’ve put together a guide to what MusicRadar users have voted as the best Digital Audio Workstations on the market today. In truth, any one of these products will enable you to make music, but they’re all slightly different in the way that they operate, so it’s worth taking the time to consider your options carefully.
What are the best DAWs?
As noted, the countdown below is based on your votes, but if you’re coming into the DAW world cold, we have a few recommendations of our own.
If you want the best DAW for beginners, it’s hard to look past Apple’s GarageBand, which is free - and a no-brainer - if you have a Mac. Acoustica’s Mixcraft is probably the closest PC equivalent, though you’ll have to pay for that one.
In terms of value for money, Cockos’s Reaper is hard to beat - this is a serious DAW at a stupidly low price - and Logic Pro offers significant bang for your buck, too (again, that’s Mac-only, though).
Then there’s Image-Line’s FL Studio, which is notable for its impressive lifetime free updates. This could save you some serious money in the long term.
Finally, we have to mention Ableton Live, undoubtedly the big digital audio workstation success story of the past two decades. Whether it’s the best DAW is open to debate, obviously, but with its fast and fluid workflow it’s certainly made a massive impression, and is used by more artists than we’d care to mention.
Best DAWs: buying advice
As we’ve already noted, the best DAW for you is the one that you find it easiest to make music with, so it’s worth trying demos of all the software that you’re considering. Think carefully about how you’re going to work, and the elements of the digital audio workstation that are most important to you.
A DAW can be used throughout the music production process: for recording, editing, arranging, mixing and even mastering. If you can, try working through this process so that you can test the workflow. If you frequently find yourself struggling and are constantly consulting the manual, the software you’re using probably isn’t for you, and it could be time to look elsewhere.
It goes without saying that, before you buy, you should also make sure that your prospective DAW is compatible with your computer, any other hardware that you might have, and any plugins that you consider essential to your workflow.
The best DAWs
Originally launched as FruityLoops, Image-Line's DAW holds near-iconic status for a certain generation of producers, particularly in the hip-hop and EDM realms.The headline feature in version 20 was a native 64-bit Mac version, meaning that FL Studio can now be used on macOS (as well as PC) without the need for a clunky workaround. Pleasingly, licenses are shared between both Mac and PC versions.
Image-Line offers lifetime free upgrades to FL Studio users, meaning that all existing users of the software now automatically own upgrades to version 20 on both platforms. And the updates just keep on coming: version 20.5 brought in Flex, a new preset-based soft synth, while 20.6 has added a variety of new features. 20.7, meanwhile, gives you the tools you need to make a social media-orientated music video.
There will always be those who claim that FL Studio isn’t as ‘serious’ as some other DAWs, but the facts suggest otherwise, and it has some notable fans in the pro community, too. The thousands of votes it received in our poll suggests that this really is ‘the people’s DAW’, a title FL Studio shows no signs of relinquishing any time soon.
Read review: FL Studio 20
Studio One has been gaining ground for several years, and it's now a DAW of real power and maturity, not merely matching its rivals in most respects but going beyond them in a few areas.
Version 4 added “Harmonic Editing” of monophonic and polyphonic audio and MIDI tracks, enabling a song or individual elements within it to be automatically shifted to a user-defined key and chord progression. New MIDI editors for drums and patterns were included, too, along with a good assortment of workflow enhancements. Version 4.5, meanwhile, includes more than 70 new features, many of which have been implemented in response to user requests.
Studio One has long been a DAW with the potential to genuinely change your musical life, and version 4 only reinforces that position. If you’ve still yet to try it, there has never been a better time.
Read review: PreSonus Studio One 4
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.
The eagerly-awaited Live 10 was a deceptively extensive update, making plenty of meaningful changes, most of them to the Arrangement View. There were some new plugins too, of course: the Wavetable synth and Echo, Drum Buss and Pedal effects.
Live 10.1 represented another well-judged update, adding some significant new features and - notably - the long-awaited support for VST3 plugins.
Of course, users will inevitably have a long wishlist for Live 11, but for many, Ableton’s software already sets a standard that no other DAW can match.
Read review: Ableton Live 10
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.
This is one of the most customisable and affordable DAWs around. What's more, it's wonderfully responsive, with everything from scrolling and zooming to fader moves and item editing feeling quick and fluid. The recently-released Reaper 6 continues the good work of previous versions, offering subtle refinements that you’ll appreciate on a daily basis.
Factor in some budget for the soundware of your choice and Reaper makes for a top-class music production environment.
Find out more: Cockos Reaper 6
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.
With such a long history, you’d think Cubase would have every feature under the sun, and indeed, there are few it lacks. With an emphasis on improvements rather than a rack full of shiny new toys, Cubase Pro 10 provided a faster workflow and a more enjoyable user experience, while the 10.5 update picked up where that left off, refining things further and adding a new plugin or two.
We admit to missing the days when each new edition of Cubase brought with it a massive pile of flashy new toys, but 30 years is an eternity in the fast-paced world of music technology, and we have to say that Cubase has aged very well indeed.
Read review: Steinberg Cubase Pro 10
It’s been a while since we had a ‘full’ new version of Logic Pro - version X was released way back in 2013 - but numbers can be deceiving. Version 10.5 is Logic Pro 11 in all but name, turning this most traditional of DAWs into a truly contemporary music-making platform.
Central to this overhaul is the addition of Ableton-style Live Loops, which enable you to jam with ideas before recording them to the main timeline. There's also a new step sequencer, completely overhauled samplers and new tools for electronic beatmakers.
Even though Apple is largely following trends here rather than setting them, this is the modernising step up that many Logic users have been waiting for.
More than all that, though, Logic Pro remains superb value for money - this is just the latest of many well-judged free updates - and, for the price, Mac users won’t find a more comprehensive set of music production tools anywhere else.
2019 was a big year for Reason. Its developer, Propellerhead Software, became Reason Studios, and version 11 of the rack-based DAW was released. This introduced the Reason Rack Plugin, which enables the DAW’s core tools to be used as a VST 3 or AU plugin within another DAW.
A second smart addition to Reason 11 is the ability to use elements of the DAW’s SSL-modelled mixer as individual devices. Having them available alongside Rack instruments is a great touch, and works particularly well in the Reason Rack Plugin.
Of course, you can still use Reason as your main DAW, but with the stock instruments and effects now available to use anywhere you like, and version 11.2 adding a new MIDI Out device for controlling your external gear, this is the most attractive that the software has looked in years.
Read review: Reason Studios Reason 11
Back in 2018, online DAW vendor BandLab announced that it was acquiring the Cakewalk IP, which was then in the hands of Gibson, and that the Sonar DAW would live on as Cakewalk by BandLab
Better still, it's now made the software available for free. The third-party content that was bundled with the paid-for version has been removed, but the DAW's key features, such as the Skylight user interface, flexible ProChannel modules and 64-bit mix engine, are all here.
So, if you're a PC user on the lookout for a new DAW, you've got literally nothing to lose by trying this one.
Find out more: Cakewalk by BandLab
It’s a little over five years since version 1 of Bitwig Studio first hit hard drives, which makes it a relative infant in DAW terms. The application has come a long way in that time, though, throwing off the shackles of its inevitable Ableton Live comparisons - the two share a number of original developers and some significant workflow similarities - by adding multiple features that have bolstered Bitwig’s reputation as possibly the most inventive DAW on the market.
Now we have version 3 - an update very much focussed around just a single new feature, albeit a significant one. We’re referring to The Grid, a new type of device that brings a fully modular environment to Bitwig Studio’s toolkit.
This, along with some nifty pitch enhancements in version 3.1 and the addition of new EQ and saturation options in version 3.2, further cements Bitwig Studio’s existing stake as the creative producer’s DAW of choice.
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 eight major updates, Mixcraft has evolved from a basic starter app to a genuinely impressive DAW, taking on features normally associated with costlier alternatives.
Mixcraft 9 has a sleeker interface with detachable panels, as well as new automation features, vocoder tracks, new effects and instruments and the option to convert audio to MIDI with a single click.
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, and beginners will find it very approachable.
Read review: Acoustica Mixcraft 9 Pro Studio
It’s hard to know where to start with Pro Tools, which remains an industry standard in recording studios around the world. The software has never had quite the same impact in the home recording market, but knowledge of it certainly puts you at an advantage if you want to work in the industry.
Recent updates have seen Avid improving Pro Tools’ workflow. You can now update tracks and timeline sections during playback, so you can experiment with effects, presets, loop points, etc, without ever stopping the music. As such, your creativity can flourish uninterrupted.
There's also Avid Cloud Collaboration, for cloud-based project storage, while the Avid Marketplace, which is designed to connect you with others in the audio community.
Whether all of this will be enough to significantly grow the Pro Tools user base remains to be seen, but existing fans are unlikely to look anywhere else.
Find more more: Avid Pro Tools 2020
More than 15 years after a young-looking John Mayer helped to launch it at Macworld, GarageBand has matured into a pretty capable DAW. Sure, it’s great for beginners but dig a little deeper and you’ll find some rather more advanced features, too.
Non-musicians can simply sequence the supplied audio loops, but a decent collection of software instruments comes supplied, too, as does multitrack recording functionality and a good selection of virtual guitar amps and stompboxes. 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.
As a further bonus, projects are compatible with Logic Pro, GarageBand’s big brother, and also with the iOS version of GarageBand, giving you a mobile option. And the fact that it’s free means that every Mac owner should try it.