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Top 10 Music Making & Production (DAW) Software

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Music production software, known in the field as Digital Audio Workstations (DAW), allow musicians to actually lay down the awesome tunes they’ve worked so hard to create. Have no illusions, even the best software money can buy isn’t going to make the user a world famous DJ--talent still plays a vital part. However, the right DAW will give any artist the tools they need to maximize the opportunities for laying down an amazing track. Modern DAWs will also streamline the music making process and automate where it can, meaning the musician can focus on the important stuff, like creating! Choosing the right DAW isn’t something that should be taken lightly, and several factors should be taken into consideration. What follows is a look at what elements should go into choosing a DAW, as well as a look at 10 of the best platforms on the market today.

Digital Audio Workstations--What are they?

A digital audio workstation is a piece of computer software that allows an artist to record an audio file and then do an almost infinite number of things to it. From editing and mixing to mastering, a DAW gives the musician a vital tool for showcasing their creativity to the audio world. A good DAW will give the user the ability to not only lay down multiple tracks but also rearrange and modify them as necessary by cutting, pasting, splicing, adding sound effects, etc.

For the modern musician or DJ, the digital audio workstation is probably the most vital piece of production gear they’ll invest in. It doesn’t matter if your studio is in your mom’s basement or Abbey Road in London, a quality DAW needs to be part of your setup. Even musicians that are masters at actual instruments will still use analog setups occasionally, most commonly for drum tracks and synthesizers. The point is, digital audio workstations are here to stay and if you haven’t picked one for your own music production it’s time you started shopping.

But how do you pick the right DAW?

Well, it really depends on your personal needs as a musician. Here’s a list of some crucial elements that can influence your decision in picking out a platform.

  • Experience Level--If you’re a beginner and this will be your first piece of production software it doesn’t make sense to buy a super advanced DAW. Focus on picking software that’s easy to understand, with tools that will get the job done (the “job” being to get your creations out into the world). Some of the more advanced software options can literally take months to learn, often requiring college course work to master! If you already know your way around recording software and you’re ready to take it to the next level then making the investment in a more advanced platform might be the best bet for you. Oh, and speaking of investment…
  • Price--This is obviously a big factor in choosing just about anything, let alone a tool as vital to your music career as a digital audio workstation. In most cases, buying a DAW is a long-term investment, and like any long-term investment, the prices for some software can be steep. The key is to look at your experience level and consider the type of music you’ll be creating. When you have a list of the features and tools you must have it’s time to find software that can accommodate those needs. Don’t settle. If you need to save up for another couple of months to make sure you get the right DAW you should do it. Don’t sacrifice your creativity or the quality of your work.

Will you primarily be recording tracks or performing live?

Skilled DJs can usually use any digital audio workstation for a live show, but there are certainly some software platforms that are more suited and tailored for live performances. Those that work best for live shows will have features that easily sync with other pieces of gear like MIDIs, control interfaces and virtual studio technology (VST). DAWS that allow for easily saving presets and flexibility when it comes to supporting other pieces of equipment designed for live performances are obviously purchases you should consider if you’re going to frequently be performing live.

  • Plan ahead--If you’re just starting out it makes sense to go with a beginner-level piece of software, but keep in mind that you may eventually get to a point where you need a more advanced DAW in order to take your production to the next level. If you’re positive that you’ll be sticking with the digital production of music for a while it might make sense to invest a little more in a mid-level digital audio workstation. You might not use every feature the software has to offer in the beginning, but as your experience advances you can rest easy knowing that you’ve future-proofed your platform a bit to account for your growing talent.
  • Hang in there--Once you’ve chosen a DAW, stick with it. There will inevitably be some features that you don’t understand fully, but make a point to learn them. Your understanding of the software will grow and your music will get better. When you’re confidence has grown and you’ve mastered the software you’ve chosen it might be time to look at another investment, but the important thing is to not get frustrated as you’re starting out. Remember that a DAW is an investment of both time and money, and nobody becomes an expert at anything overnight.

Now that you’ve looked long and hard at your personal needs and considered things like price and experience level, it’s time to look at some digital audio workstations. Below are ten of the best and most popular options on the market today. To make it easy, they’re divided into categories based on experience level.

OUR TOP 10 MUSIC MAKING SOFTWARE LIST

PRODUCT

NAME

PRICE RATE

LEVEL

RATING

PRICE

Imagine-Line Fruity Loops

$$

Beginner Level

buy1
Ableton Live

$$$$$

Medium Level

buy1
Apple Logic Pro

$$

Medium Level

Apple Garageband

FREE

Beginner Level

Steinburg Cubase

$$$$

Medium Level

buy1
Avid Pro Tools

$$$$$

Expert Level

buy1
Propellerhead Reason

$$$

Beginner Level

buy1
PreSonus Studio

$$$

Medium Level

buy1
Cockos Reaper

$

Beginner Level

Sony Acid Pro

$$

Beginner Level

buy1

1/ Imagine-Line Fruity Loops

Imagine-Line Fruity Loops

PRICE RATE

$$

LEVEL

Beginner

PRODUCT RATE

This is a really solid entry level DAW. Fruity Loops has been around for quite a while, and it features a good number of the tools needed for the beginning musician to create quality tunes. You’ll be able to cut and paste tracks as needed, time-stretch, change pitch, etc. It will take a little learning to get the hang of it, but since the software has been on the market for quite some time you can find a good number of YouTube tutorials out there explaining virtually every feature the software offers.

Fruity Loops will easily integrate with any other equipment you’ve already got in your studio, like MIDI keyboards, microphones, etc. There’s a decent selection of more advanced features, too, and as your experience with the software grows you can start exploring those tools. Fruity Loops is both user-friendly and budget friendly, making it an excellent choice for someone who’s just getting started in producing their own music.

2/ Ableton Live

Ableton Live

PRICE RATE

$$$$$

LEVEL

Medium

PRODUCT RATE

Ableton Live is one of the most popular digital audio workstations in use today. Ableton Live features a multi-track recording interface where users can do all of the common cutting, splicing and pasting but it also allows for the easy sequencing of MIDI software and hardware. Generally, users feel that Ableton Live is more headache-free than other platforms when it comes to mapping sounds with MIDI controllers. This DAW also comes with a very robust sound package (roughly 50 gigabytes). Many semi-pro and professional DJs feel that Ableton live is the best option for performing live, so if that’s an option for you and your music this is definitely an option you should look at.

3/ Apple Logic Pro

Apple Logic Pro

PRICE RATE

$$

LEVEL

Medium

PRODUCT RATE

An excellent choice for users with Macs, Logic Pro features an advanced interface capable of stacking tracks (aka track consolidation), layering instruments and editing scores with the simple click of a mouse. Logic Pro’s virtual drummer feature is a fun and effective tool for musicians looking to create their own tools. This DAW boasts more advanced plug-ins and features, so it may take a while to learn and master, but your music will sound better as a result of the effort.

4/ Apple Garageband

Apple Garageband

PRICE RATE

FREE

LEVEL

Beginner

PRODUCT RATE

Another excellent choice for those who are just getting started in making music, Garageband from Apple makes it easy to start from scratch and lay down some simple tracks. The software makes it easy to create distinct files across a variety of instruments (synths, percussion, keyboards, etc.). With its built-in amps and effects studio, Garageband also makes it easy to record vocals and guitar tracks, too. The software even comes with a lesson function for learning to play the guitar and keyboards. The virtual controls are easy to understand and use, making it a great option for the beginner.

Perhaps the best feature of Garageband is that the software is free. What you’ll end up purchasing are more plugins, apps and special effects. Again, this would make a great option for the beginner, but there’s a solid chance that as a musician’s experience increases they’ll want to invest in a more robust digital audio workstation.

5/ Steinburg Cubase

Steinburg Cubase

PRICE RATE

$$$$

LEVEL

Medium

PRODUCT RATE

Cubase isn’t a cheap investment, but for those musicians looking for a DAW that they can stick with for a long time, this might just be the perfect software platform. Cubase allows for the simple editing of MIDI tracks and you also get a library full of reverb effects (one of the industry’s largest…) and incorporated VSTs. Users also get a ton of synth sounds, 30 different drum kits and some really robust sound effect plug-ins. Cubase isn’t the easiest DAW to learn, either, but from an investment standpoint, it’s got a lot of sustainability once you get the hang of it.

6/ Avid Pro Tools

Avid Pro Tools

PRICE RATE

$$$$$

LEVEL

Expert

PRODUCT RATE

Pro Tools from Avid is arguably the industry standard among professional musicians. This DAW provides the standard tools to record, mix, compose, edit, and master, but what sets this platform apart from the others is just how much of an expert you can become in these areas. You can actually receive program certifications in this particular software, so this is one of those DAWs that will take a lot of time and commitment to master. Pro Tools boasts a 64-bit memory and lightning fast processor, so lag is non-existent with this DAW. A huge library of plug-ins and effects round out the features. Rest assured that if you invest in Pro Tools and master the features there’s a good chance you’ll never have to learn another DAW for the duration of your career in the music industry.

7/ Propellerhead Reason

Propellerhead Reason

PRICE RATE

$$$$

LEVEL

Beginner

PRODUCT RATE

Reason from Propellerhead is an extremely stable platform for the beginning musician. This particular DAW allows the user to drag and drop within the interface, making it easy to lay in synth patches and special effects as needed. Most users comment on the system’s speed and efficient workflow, making it a great option for someone who is working at the commercial level as well.

Reason boasts an impressive mixing console, and it’s built in amps and speaker plug-ins make it a great option for recording guitar and bass tracks. Some of that efficiency mentioned above comes from the software’s ability to automatically cut and splice audio files as you work. Reason from Propellerhead also supports all MIDI hardware, making this one of the most dynamic options for the beginning to semi-pro musician.

8/ PreSonus Studio One

PreSonus Studio

PRICE RATE

$$

LEVEL

Medium

PRODUCT RATE

The PreSonus software is a DAW that features simple drag and drop functions, MIDI, VST, unlimited tracks and FX Channels. Users of this particular digital audio workstation feel that its workflow is more efficient than other DAWs. The recordings that come out are studio quality, thanks to the 64-bit sound engine, and you can purchase “package deals” that come with headphones, and audio interface, microphone and all the necessary hardware and cables.

9/ Cockos Reaper

Cockos Reaper

PRICE RATE

$

LEVEL

Beginner

PRODUCT RATE

Reaper from Cockos allows the user to download the software and use it for 60 days before they’re required to pay for a license for continued use. This is a great option for someone who wants to “test drive” a DAW prior to buying. The actual production features in Reaper are fairly bare-bones, but users can still play with various effects and VSTs, as well as edit, split, cut and paste tracks effortlessly.

10/ Sony Acid Pro

Sony Acid Pro

PRICE RATE

$$

LEVEL

Beginner

PRODUCT RATE

Another great choice for beginners, Acid Pro by Sony allows the user to record, loop tracks and it supports most MIDI hardware. Plug in a MIDI controller and you can play with the library of 3,000 sound loops and nearly 100 VSTs. At around $60, this is a very affordable software for the beginning musician.

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