If you make music on a computer, be that a PC or a Mac, your DAW - or Digital Audio Workstation, to give it its full name - is the most important tool in your creative arsenal. As such, finding the best DAW for you is vitally important.
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, and if it's not working for you, your level of creativity is likely to be compromised.
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. Put simply, the best DAW for you is the one that makes it easiest for you to make music, and inspires you to keep creating.
To help you find that DAW, we’ve put together an expert guide to what we consider to be the best Digital Audio Workstations on the market today, including full reviews for many of our choices. In truth, any one of these products will enable you to make music - and we're not saying that any one is definitively better than all the others - but they’re all slightly different in the way that they operate, so it’s worth taking the time to consider your options carefully and try out demo versions wherever possible.
Best DAWs: Our top picks
If you want a great entry-level option, it’s hard to look past Apple’s GarageBand, which is free - and a no-brainer - if you have a Mac (or, indeed, an iOS device). 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: Product guide
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 long-awaited Live 11 takes things to the next level, adding much-requested features such as an elegant comping system and support for MPE. There are new devices, too, along with updates for existing ones. Further updates have added native support for Apple's M1 and M2 Macs and AUv3 plugin compatibility, so you can now run certain iOS synths and effects within Live, too.
While some of the changes in Live 11 might require a little getting used to for veterans, Ableton has again managed to enhance the software's capabilities without adding bloat to its famously streamlined workflow. It retains its place at the cutting edge of DAW technology.
Read the Ableton Live 11 Suite review
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 can download new versions on both platforms without paying a penny extra.
And the updates just keep on coming: FL Studio 21 was released towards the end of 2022 and added new audio clip envelopes, themes and plugins.
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.
Read the FL Studio 20 review
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 was Logic Pro 11 in all but name, turning this most traditional of DAWs into a truly contemporary music-making platform.
Central to this overhaul was the addition of Ableton-style Live Loops, which enable you to jam with ideas before recording them to the main timeline. There was also a new step sequencer, completely overhauled samplers and new tools for electronic beatmakers.
It's also worth noting that, as of Logic Pro 10.7, Apple's DAW enables you to create tracks in the company's Dolby Atmos-powered spatial audio format. There are new mixer and panner controls for this, and 12 other Logic Pro plugins are now spatial audio-ready, too.
More than all that, though, Logic Pro remains superb value for money. For the price, Mac users won’t find a more comprehensive set of music production tools anywhere else.
Read the Apple Logic Pro 10.7 review
Steinberg has spearheaded music software development for over 30 years, and through Cubase, which started as a MIDI sequencer, introduced a whole generation to the block-based arrange screen now used in the majority of today’s DAWs.
Along the way, the company also invented virtual studio technology (VST), developed a class-leading audio editor (WaveLab) and survived the dark days of software piracy.
Despite increased competition, Cubase is still up there at the head of the DAW pack. The latest version, Cubase 12, offers yet more new productivity features, along with the ability to sign in to the software with your Steinberg ID and native support for Apple's silicon Macs.
For new purchasers, the many excellent plugins, extensive sound library and massive functionality continue to make Cubase worth the price of admission, and it's worth noting that the more affordable Artist and Elements editions come with decent feature sets, too. An oldie but a goodie, then.
Read the Steinberg Cubase Pro 12 review
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.
Following the 'coming of age' release that was version 5 - this included a fully developed score editor and Clip Gain Envelopes for surgical region-based volume automation - version 6 added Smart Templates that are designed to quickly get you started on a specific task, the ability to customise the interface, lyric support, a Global Video Track and new plugins.
Fuller, fatter and more versatile than the majority of DAWs out there, version 6 takes Studio One to the next level, and ably re-configures itself to suit your needs.
Read the PreSonus Studio One 6 review
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. 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
Reason has undergone some big changes over the past few years. In 2019, 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.
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 a new MIDI Out device for controlling your external gear, this is the most attractive that the software has looked in years.
Reason 12 sweetens the deal still further, with a more powerful and flexible Combinator, hi-res graphics and a new sampler. The software is now available on subscription, too, via the Reason+ service.
Read the Reason Studios Reason 12 review
Has it really been almost nine years since the launch of the first version of Bitwig Studio? It has indeed, though that still 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.
That said, version 4, is most notable for the introduction of a pretty fundamental feature: comping. This is handled in a typically elegant, 'Bitwiggy' way, though, and if you're looking for new 'creative' functionality, consider Operators, which add a new and very powerful dimension to how and when MIDI or audio events are triggered.
In true Bitwig style, we've had several point release updates since then, which have added new Note FX and new modulation, convolution and delay effects. There's support for the nascent CLAP plugin standard, too, which Bitwig developed alongside plugin specialist u-he.
Read the Bitwig Studio 4 review
More than 17 years after a fresh-faced John Mayer helped to launch it at Macworld, GarageBand has matured into a pretty capable DAW. Sure, it’s great for newbies, 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.
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 newcomers will find it very approachable.
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.
2022 saw the biggest update of the Pro Tools line in years, with a new free version - Pro Tools Intro - using the same installer as the full software, meaning that it's fully compatible. This version added ARA 2 support for direct integration with Melodyne, and Aux I/O, a macOS-exclusive feature that enables flexible routing of audio between Pro Tools and other software/hardware.
The takeaways, then, are that Pro Tools is still getting the development love, and that it's never been easier (or cheaper) to get a taste of what all the fuss is about.
Find more more: Avid Pro Tools
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
Best DAWs: Buying advice
What is a DAW?
DAWs - or Digital Audio Workstations - are programs you can use to create, record, edit and arrange music.
At the heart of almost every DAW lies something called a sequencer - in fact, sequencers are such an integral part of DAWs that you'll often hear a DAW simply referred to as a sequencer.
Early sequencers were big, clunky hardware devices used to tell other hardware devices (such as drum machines and keyboards) what to play, using a type of performance message called MIDI.
You would first program the sequencer, which would in turn send the MIDI data (containing instructions for what notes to play and when) to outboard devices, which would then interpret the data and turn it into sound.
Indeed, you would 'sequence' a whole song in this way, which would be played back and then recorded to tape.
Modern sequencers are not fundamentally different, but because they're software-based and incorporated into a powerful DAW, they're much more flexible. You can change parts and move them around far more easily, and record actual sounds (audio) as well as sending and receiving MIDI. You can also play software instruments - you usually get some of these with your DAW - and apply effects (again, you usually get some of these bundled in)
Sequencers are used to organise several instruments or parts, and each of these parts is loaded onto a 'track'. Therefore, a 64-track sequencer would enable you to have up to 64 different parts playing in unison.
The performance information for each track is usually mapped out on a timeline, a space in which time is displayed horizontally and tracks are displayed vertically. When you press play, a vertical line called a playhead moves through the song from left to right, and when it reaches an event within a track, the associated sound is heard.
The transport controls contain everything from the standard play, pause and record buttons to repeat (or looping) controls and more.
To adjust the volume of each of the tracks, your DAW also contains a mixer. A hardware mixer is a device used to balance the volumes of separate sound sources, and combine or 'mix' them all to be played through just one set of speakers.
The software equivalent in a DAW works on exactly the same principle. Each of the sequencer's tracks has something called a channel strip, and each track's channel strip is where the volume, panning (where the sound sits in the stereo field, ie, left or right), routing (where the sound comes from and goes to) and more are all controlled.
Each channel strip also has a few buttons such as mute, solo and record arm/enable.
Almost all DAWs also support plugins - additional effects and instruments that can be loaded in used in your productions. These come in a range of formats and can massively expand your sonic horizons.
How do I choose a DAW?
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 - demo versions of many DAWs are available - 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.
Find out more about how we test music gear and services at MusicRadar.
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