What is the best DAW?
Go back 30 years and the DAW - Digital Audio Workstation - as we know it today simply didn’t exist. Sure, we had MIDI sequencing software, which could be used to trigger synths, samplers and the like, but the computer was just one part of a much wider music-making setup.
As technology progressed, these sequencers became more powerful, with the introduction of larger and faster hard disks enabling us to record audio into them. The scene was then set for PCs and Macs to become the centrepieces of our studios; early versions of Steinberg’s VST standard made it possible to add plugin effects, and it wasn’t long before virtual instruments became a thing, too.
Still, even at the end of the century, there were those who scoffed at the idea of a wholly software-based studio, but we don’t hear them scoffing now (although, to be fair, they might just be scoffing very quietly). Yes, there’s still something to be said for involving a hardware synth or drum machine in your electronic music-making, but the fact that you can Do It All within a single piece of software is now undeniable.
Spoilt for choice
As far as DAWs go, the class of 2018 is certainly the most powerful yet. What’s more, these applications are getting more and more accessible, and offering alternative ways of working that will appeal to both beginners and diehard producers who are looking to change their creative ways. But the fundamentals of the DAW remain the same: fire one up and you can record, arrange, edit, mix and master your music right there on your computer.
These are the basics, but it’s also true that every DAW enables you to go about your music-making business in a slightly different way, and the right software for one person won’t be the right software for everyone. Ultimately, the best DAW will be the one that enables you to get your music-making done as effectively and painlessly as possible.
However, what’s life without a bit of healthy competition? This year, as in others, we asked you to pick the best DAW in the world right now by voting for your favourite, and you did so in your thousands. What follows is a ranked rundown of all the contenders, so you can get a good idea of each DAW’s strengths and weaknesses and see exactly what other musicians are using.
20. Magix Acid Pro
It may no longer be a leading light in the DAW world, but when it was launched in 1998, its automatic audio timestretching and pitch shifting marked Acid out as revolutionary.
Now in the hands of Magix, which acquired the application from Sony Creative Software, Acid has finally got the update it desperately needed, for version 8 has now been released.
Thankfully, the interface has been given a much-needed revamp, with the old ‘Windows 95’ look replaced with a “sleek and modern” GUI that’s designed to work well in dimmed environments. The software now has a 64-bit architecture, and you can make 24-bit/192kHz multitrack recordings. Advanced MIDI and audio editing features are also promised.
Magix says that Acid Pro 8 comes with more than $1000-worth of plugin instruments and effects, including the DN-e1 virtual analogue synth, Vintage Effects Suite, Vandal guitar processing plugin and Vita 2 sampler. You also get a 9GB library of ACIDized loops and samples.
All of which sounds promising, but it remains to be seen if Acid will ever be able to make up the ground that it’s lost to the likes of Ableton Live.
FIND OUT MORE: Acid Pro 8 is finally here, but has the DAW world moved on?
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.
18. 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 8 was released in 2017, with big new features for video game audio developers, a Sampler track, additional effects and instruments and a whole lot more.
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 8
17. 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
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
15. 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
14. MOTU Digital Performer
Previously a Mac-only DAW, Digital Performer is now on Windows, too. As such, its hardcore fanbase now includes a select number of in-the-know PC users.
Version 9 seemed, 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 were also five new effect plugins, and some significant workflow and feature enhancements.
DP 9.5 takes things even further with the addition of advanced timestretching and pitchshifting features.
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)
13. Tracktion Software Waveform
Waveform is the new name for Tracktion, the ‘upstart’ DAW from Tracktion Software.
The first thing that existing users need to know is that this is still very much the software they know and love. In fact, upon launching Waveform, apart from the tweaked colour scheme, you’ll be hard pushed to tell the difference between it and Tracktion 7.
It still centres on the single-screen interface that’s fundamental to its workflow, where contextual menus and panels give access to everything you need in a unified space, MIDI clips are edited directly on their host tracks, and a left-to-right ‘inline’ signal flow stands in for a dedicated mixer.
That mixerless single-screen workspace has been one of Tracktion’s biggest selling points since version 1 (2003), but Waveform sees the GUI spreading its wings with the addition of not only a ‘proper’ mixer but also a dedicated MIDI Editor panel, both of which can be housed within the main screen and/or their own separate windows.
Even more interestingly in the MIDI department, the all-new Pattern Generator enables musical note sequences to be conjured out of thin air.
The recently-released Waveform 9 (it seems that old versions of Tracktion are still being counted) goes further still, adding a new modulation system, drum loop construction kits, a multi-sampler and a Modular Mixing Tool.
Waveform elegantly normalises Tracktion’s workflow without compromising its famous creative focus in any way, and easily goes toe-to-toe with rivals costing several times more.
FULL REVIEW: Tracktion Waveform 9 review
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, the most recent, 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. 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.
2017's Bitwig Studio 2 feels like a fully-rounded, mature DAW that’s capable of holding its own against the market leaders. In terms of creative workflow, however, in many respects it's actually a cut above the competition.
The modulation system is hugely inspiring, creative and implemented in a way that makes it accessible. Combine this with the new hardware functionality, along with pre-existing highlights such as the flexible controller API, cross-platform compatibility and flexible effects chains and signal splitters, and Bitwig begins to look like a serious contender.
As of version 2.2, you also get Ableton Link compatibility and new sound content, sweetening the deal still further. Version 2.3, meanwhile, adds the Phase-4 synth and more flexible timestretching, and Version 2.4 heralds the arrival of a much-improved Sampler.
FULL REVIEW: Bitwig Studio 2
10. 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
(Review is of a previous version)
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 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.
Pro Tools 2018, meanwhile, puts the emphasis on workflow, adding features that are designed to speed up the music-making process. These include Track Presets, retrospective MIDI record, MIDI editing enhancements and Playlist Comping enhancements.
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.
Better still, Reason 9.5 added VST plugin compatibility - yes, it's finally happened - while Reason 10 gives you two brand-new synths, three sampled instruments, and a couple of other devices, boosting the capabilities of that legendary rack considerably.
All told, now's a pretty interesting time to be a Reason user. Version 10.2 includes various workflow enhancements that have been implemented based on user feedback, but it remains an extremely creative platform new newcomers, too.
FULL REVIEW: Propellerhead Software Reason 10
7. BandLab Sonar
It's been a tumultuous year for Sonar; in fact, it looked for a while like it would cease to exist.
In a shock move, previous owner Gibson announced in November 2017 that it was “ceasing active development and production of Cakewalk branded products,” which include the Sonar DAW range for Windows and various well-regarded plugins and apps.
It seemed that the game was up, but earlier in 2018, online DAW vendor BandLab announced that it was acquiring the Cakewalk IP, and that Sonar would live on.
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.
FULL REVIEW: Cakewalk Sonar
(Review is of a previous version)
6. PreSonus Studio One
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.
We're now at version 4, which adds “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. There are new MIDI editors for drums and patterns, and a good assortment of workflow enhancements.
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.
FULL REVIEW: PreSonus Studio One 4
5. 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-named Plug-In Sentinel is on-hand to scan plugins on startup and ensure stability.
Version 9.5 wasn't a particularly radical update - though Direct Offline Processing is a great way to apply effects to audio - but, after all these years, Cubase is still going strong still heading in the right direction.
FULL REVIEW: Steinberg Cubase Pro 9
4. 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. Roll on Reaper 6, we say.
FULL REVIEW: Cockos Reaper 5
3. 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 offered 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.
2018's version 10.4 update is also significant, adding a new 'smart' tempo detection technology and additional plugin effects (including the return of Camel Audio’s CamelPhat and CamelSpace plugins, which have been revamped and reborn as Phat FX and Step FX). Even version 10.4.2 is notable, as it enables you to move Logic's sizeable content library to an external drive.
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
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.
The eagerly-awaited Live 10 is a deceptively extensive update, making plenty of meaningful changes, most of them to the Arrangement View, which has long been in need of some developmental love.
While the Wavetable synth and Echo, Drum Buss and Pedal effects have been grabbing the headlines, the most profound draws of Live 10, for us, are the workflow-related improvements: souped-up audio and MIDI editing, Nested Groups, automation, zooming, Push 2 functionality and loads more minor but effective tweaks for the power user. Honestly, Live 9 already feels archaic in comparison.
Live 10 is an essential update for existing users, then, and also one that’s likely to convince even more people that Ableton’s DAW is the one for them.
FULL REVIEW: Ableton Live 10
1. Image-Line FL Studio
Taking our top prize by a nose - there were just a handful of votes on it - FL Studio's fanbase remains as passionate and vocal as ever.
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. However, while it undoubtedly has legions of fans, historically, FL Studio has been a PC-only affair.
All that changes with FL Studio 20 (which, confusingly, is actually version 13, but titled for the software’s 20th anniversary). The headline feature here is a native 64-bit Mac version, meaning that FL Studio can now be used on OS X without the need for a clunky workaround. Pleasingly, licenses are shared between both Mac and PC versions.
Image-Line already 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. Because of this, and some excellent additions - the Playlist and Pattern improvements are great, while the Arrangements feature in particular is a bit of a revelation - version 20 is a complete no-brainer for existing users, and a great starting point for beginners, too.
FULL REVIEW: Image-Line FL Studio 20