More and more tasks can be accomplished entirely on your computer. From business meetings to animation to, yes, music production.
The computer offers a solution to almost any problem. However, all of these tasks require programs to accomplish, and at the professional level, these products can get pretty pricey.
This is no truer than when applied to digital audio workshops, also known as DAWs.
Moreover, to make matters more complicated, each program comes with its own suite of features that make it more appropriate for use with different users.
Of course, figuring out which features are vital and which are simply bells and whistles can be difficult.
That is why we have scoured the internet in search of the 10 best DAWs as well as a buyer’s guide to make your journey through the sonic soundscape as seamless and easy as possible.
- 1 Top 10 Best Music Production Software
- 2 Music Production Software: Buying Guide
- 3 Conclusion
Top 10 Best Music Production Software
1. Image-Line FL Studio
FL Studio is a legacy DAW, and as such, has had plenty of time to refine the music-making program it provides.
Of course, this has also given it plenty of time to accrue opponents, but when it comes right down to it, FL Studio offers a DAW that can do it all for every level of experience.
FL Studio may have limitations, but its higher-end programs alleviate those concerns–at a cost.
Still, even the introversion provides a wealth of tools to immediately start making music.
With a large range of loops and plugins, you will rarely be left wanting for a sample or voice.
In fact, this feature is so well-developed, FL Studio actually offers it as a plugin for other DAWs.
The fact that it is MIDI-based can be both a blessing and a curse. Depending on the genre you plan to produce, this will make mixing and mastering a breeze or a nightmare.
However, it does offer the ability to purchase plugins that alleviate these issues if so desired. Still, for beat making, this DAW is hard to top.
Love it or hate it, FL can do it all. It holds a relatively unique position of being comfortable in both professional settings as well as at home.
Its features are as equally robust as many of its top competitors, though it may not specialize as well as some of the others.
It can carry through all levels of experience and offer a great DAW every step of the way.
- Comfortable pricing progression that allows version upgrades at a steady rate
- One of the more user-friendly DAWs perfect for beginners
- Probably the most all-around value, though users needing high-end ability for specific tasks may want to look elsewhere
- Exclusively a windows OS program
- Has a somewhat, undeserved, shaky reputation based on its early years
- May feel like you are being nickel-and-dimed with micro-transactions
2. Avid Pro Tools
This DAW has quickly become the go-to standard for professionalism in the music-making industry, regardless of their needs.
Its features and functionality are relatively unparalleled and allow music-making at every stage to be painstakingly crafted with the most precision available.
However, all of that ability comes at the cost of complexity. Quite simply, Pro Tools has the greatest barrier to entry out of all the high-end DAWs on the market.
The rewards for overcoming that obstacle of experience can yield impressive, captivating returns in regards to making music, but do not expect to get there anytime soon.
In terms of loops, plugins, recording, mixing, Pro Tools can do everything and do it extremely well.
However, users of windows may find this claim a bit more questionable than Mac users, since it was developed for Apple products.
Still, if you intend to produce music at the same level as top-40 radio hits, this is the program you will use.
If you take the time to figure out every nook and cranny of Ableton, you will be left with a DAW that can handle pretty much everything you could ask it to do.
However, there are literally classes dedicated to learning all of the functions of this computer program, and as such you need to be willing to put forth the investment of sweat equity to reap the returns.
- Perhaps the most depth in terms of features and functionality for any DAW
- Pretty much “the industry standard” allows you to work in any professional studio
- Different payment methods offer flexibility
- An incredibly steep learning curve means you need to already know what you are doing
- Many people have a love/hate relationship with it
- Though it is compatible with Mac and windows, windows users find it buggier
3. Apple Logic Pro X
While Pro Tools may have started as the Apple DAW, Logic Pro is currently the king of that domain.
Pro Tools may not have lost a step, but with seamless integration of numerous Apple apps dedicated to music-making, Logic Pro has still been able to overcome and surpass any prior advantage held by Pro Tools.
Not to be outdone, professional music producers who prefer Apple products swear by Pro Logic, and in this regard, Pro Logic can be seen as the direct competitor of Pro Tools in the professional music-making program market.
However, this should not be taken as a true sign of parity, since Pro Logic does find itself incompatible with some plugins that Pro Tools can incorporate.
The look and feel of Logic Pro is also something that users rave about, with a fairly unique design and a simplified workflow that allows on the fly tweaks, additions, and manipulations.
Still, it only offers good, not a great depth of features–though, its inclusion of apple exclusive 3rd party developers means that it may soon be an issue of the past.
Logic Pro is probably the best option if you are using an Apple computer. When it comes right down to it, there is no substitute for native hosting.
Like most Apple products, Pro Logic aims for ease of use while still providing a wealth of features. While it may not necessarily be the most robust DAW on the market, it certainly does not lack for much.
Here is the Forum for Apple Logic Pro
- The use of the DAW is intuitive, which can be helpful for beginners.
- Integrates numerous music-making apps and easily transitions from Garageband.
- Only has a single version to make selection easy
- Explicitly designed to be used for Apple products.
- Hefty system requirements when compared to other DAWs
- Some plugin compatibility issues depending on what you want
4. Ableton Live 10 Suite
Ableton Live 10 Suite is an excellent tool for all parts of the music making process, but as the name implies, it truly shines in the realm of live recording.
This actually expands its speciality in two direction. First, if you need to record voices or loops, there is no better alternative.
However, if you plan on using the DAW in a life performance setting, it shines brighter than its competitors here too.
With such a focus on live recording and mixing, the program needs to have a stable and thorough set of features that are used most often in that setting.
In this instance, that generally translates to MIDI manipulation, and Ableton comes out as the head of its class here as well.
The ability to map sounds is relatively easy and straightforward, while the live mixing never misses a beat.
With all of this power, it is a shame that Ableton has not put more focus on some of the less functionally determined qualities of DAWs.
Namely, its user interface leaves a lot to be desired as it is both unattractive and not at all easy to use when compared to other DAWs.
This issue is compounded further by the fairly steep learning curve required to master the program.
If you intend to produce music in front of a live audience, there really is no other reason to keep looking.
The compatibility with various MIDI controllers makes this one a no-brainer for live performance.
However, if you are not already relatively familiar with the basic functions of DAWs, Ableton may not be the easiest introduction to the field.
- Probably the top DAW for live mixing and recording
- Compatible with both macOS and Windows
- Likely the strongest MIDI manipulation on the market
- Steep learning curve means you should know what you are doing ahead of time
- May have one of the worst user interfaces out of the top DAWs on the market
- The jump from introversion to mid-tier is fairly steep compared to competitors
5. Steinberg Cubase
This is another “oldie but goodie,” however it has started to fall by the wayside in terms of professional use.
Where FL Studio kept a continuous stream of updates to compete with new entries as they appeared in the market, Cubase languished for a while without significant improvement.
However, that has all changed as Cubase seeks to once again re-enter the market as a top competitor.
Still, Cubase has a long way to go if it wants to separate itself from its competition. However, that should not necessarily be seen as a knock against it.
The rate at which it has caught up and come within parity of the top-end, professional DAWs is fairly impressive in its own right, and should this course of progress continue, Cubase will soon regain a top position in the world of music-making.
One way Cubase intends to do that is from the ground up by providing high-quality tools not simply to mix and produce music but to meter and monitor that process.
This allows beginners and experienced users alike to make music quicker without sacrificing precision or quality.
This is further strengthened by an ability to tweak without destroying the original as an ingrained feature.
Cubase is an excellent DAW for mid-level music-making. It cannot yet quite keep up with big boys at the highest levels of functionality, though if you are dedicated and experienced, it can come close.
However, the leaps and bounds in terms of progress already achieved in a short time make this a DAW worth keeping an eye on.
- This DAW features no major flaws that will leave you pulling your hair out
- With a parent company that literally invented a plugin standard, plugin compatibility is prime
- Convenient voice manipulation allows worry-free tweaks
- Unfortunately, this DAW can also not boast being the leader of any feature either
- Channel limits can present issues for numerous voiced productions
- A lack of real-time functionality limits its settings
6. PreSonus Studio One
A relative baby in the professional DAW market, Presonus has begun to capture a small, cult-like following of rabid fans who overlook its flaws in favor of the novel ways it solves some of the more popular DAW’s failings. For one, DAWs are not really known for their user interfaces.
They can be difficult to see and cause strain on the eyes after hours of use. Moreover, many DAW UIs are just plain unattractive.
Couple that with an often unintuitive layout to the uninitiated, and many people take one look at a DAW before deciding it is not worth the investment of time to figure everything out.
However, as a product that is still being developed for truly professional use, PreSonus has some glaring blind spots that definitely limits the type of music producer who will be drawn to it.
First and foremost, Presonus’ loops and instruments are far skimpier than DAWs used by professionals. While corrections for this issue exist, they come at a price.
PreSonus is an ideal product for mid-tier music-making. It may not be the best software for the job out on the market, but it does a lot of things well that other DAWs have overlooked.
Moreover, if you already have some background experience with music-making, this program will feel right at home and will provide one of the smoother, more stable experiences.
- Designed by audio engineers, offers an award-winning industry-standard user interface
- A great price for the high-end version which is balanced well by the available features
- One of the most stable DAWs out there which suffers from little to no latency issues
- Loops and instruments are not as plentiful
- Not able to produce and mix on the fly
- A relative newcomer that is not as integrated within the industry
7. Cockos Reaper
Reaper is more of a dark horse entry that climbed higher than most would have believed. Certainly one of the reasons for Reaper’s success has to be its compatibility.
It seems as though Reaper is designed to be used with any system, including Linux, and compatible with most 3rd-party plugin producers.
Moreover, it can also competently serve sound editing and mixing outside of the music setting.
That being said, Reaper is still not truly on par with professional DAWs in terms of functionality.
For instance, you can add numerous layers but will be relegated to an inalterable master track.
With far more flexibility on other DAWs, this can be a frustrating flaw that requires the user to understand Reaper’s approach intimately.
Whereas you may be able to jump from one professional DAw to another with a slight learning curve, Reaper will expect you to learn certain fundamentals all over again.
This is probably why Reaper has found it difficult to gain purchase in the professional world where busy people under extreme workloads are less willing to devote time and energy to learning a new way of doing things.
It does not help that Reaper sells a DAW tool, but most plugins have to be purchased separately.
If you are looking for a fully customizable experience, Reaper can provide that to you. However, you will have to pay for many things that come standard in other DAWs.
As such, Reaper is most suited for the music producer that has an affinity for his or her own way and does not appreciate how other DAWs force the workflow in specified directions.
- Works with pretty much any computer
- Potentially the most stable DAW on the market
- Great price makes this a worry-free purchase
- Not used at the professional level somewhat limits its settings
- 3rd-Party plugins must be purchased separately
- May feel a bit light in functionality to users of more professional DAWs
8. Propellerhead Reason
Being placed so low on this list will likely ruffle more than a few feathers, however, Reason’s piecemeal presentation is the cause.
In terms of pure function and features, it is every bit as good as any of the other entries in the middle of this list.
Unfortunately, it chops its functionality more than most and sells them back individually.
Whereas most other DAWs include at least some decent support for all functions that improve with each upgraded version, Reason leaves most functions in a barebones state until you buy that addition separately.
In fairness, the top-end, the full version is still cheaper than most other competitor’s full-version, but that means you have to be willing to commit to Reason from the beginning.
This would be fine in theory if there were not also major flaws in its actual compatibility with 3rd-party, non-industry plugins.
Moreover, one of the most basic functions of DAWs that is expected to be an afterthought–beat making–is not as easy or smooth as with competitors.
Keep in mind, it is still fully functional, it just feels wonky when using it. Also, since live recording is a relatively new feature for Reason, it is not the most well-developed.
The Reason is a solid DAW but does not really stand out in the crowd. This is especially true in a professional setting where some of its functional limitations make it a hard pass.
Combine that with the pricing which forces an all-in commitment or piecemeal features, and you have a perfect storm for a DAW that still needs to tinker with everything but the actual program.
- Great user interface for peripherals
- Top-end version is half the cost of top competitors
- Allows quick, if somewhat shallow, mixing on the fly
- Limited support for non-VST instrumentation
- Splits functions into different versions that must be purchased separately
- Beat making is more frustrating
9. ACID Pro
Acid Pro is by no means the greatest DAW on the market, as its position on the list should indicate.
However, it does still have its uses and settings, and in that regard, it edges out some other candidates which might be better all-around DAWs, but do not offer a specific niche in which they can truly shine.
With Acid Pro, that niche is the beginner, and by “beginner,” we really mean that “undecided music producer.”
All of the other options on this list are for consumers that know they want to make music and are willing to put in the appropriate investment to do so.
Acid Pro’s niche is for those people who have kicked around the idea of making music as an amateur but have not truly put forth the effort or commitment to give it a fair shake.
However, that is where Acid Pro’s relatively easy user interface and tools combined with its rock-bottom price for the full version given the fickle consumer a chance to see if the actual task of mixing and making music suit their interests without dumping a load of time or money into something they may simply decide is not right for them.
This DAW is likely designed for those who find themselves in a financial pickle.
If you are interested in sticking your toe in the DAW pool but not yet ready to commit hundreds of dollars to production software, this is the DAW for you.
Keep in mind, if you get hooked, you will likely quickly move on to a more capable DAW in the future.
- Incredibly budget-friendly when compared to other DAWs
- Offers a decent introduction for beginners
- Solid track integration makes voice manipulation easier
- The depth of features are not as robust as other DAWs
- While better than it once was, could be more stable
- Updates are slower in development than many other DAWs
10. Cakewalk Sonar
Cakewalk Sonar cut its teeth in the early 90s, allowing Windows users to mess around with music production in a similar way that FL Studios’ Fruity Loops did.
However, Cakewalk saw the future earlier and made the jump to building a DAWs before many of its other competitors caught on.
Unfortunately, it did not catch on like its competitors, but that could be argued because it was ahead of its time.
With a user interface that was once messy and difficult to read in a world of amateurs, Fruity Loops’ ease of use and cleaner design attracted more followers.
However, that has not stopped Cakewalk from improving on their DAW and making a solid piece of software for amateurs and professionals alike.
For instance, Sonar was one of the first single-platform DAWs on the market and it still is.
Where other DAWs are content to nickel-and-dime their customers with numerous specialized apps, Cakewalk provides the whole package in one fell swoop.
In another sign of their attempt to reach a wide market, the requirements for Cakewalk are modest enough that most computers can run its full program.
Moreover, if someone does not have the cash to pony upfront for the top-end version, which is still remarkably affordable compared to the competition, Cakewalk offers a subscription payment model.
This is an up-and-coming DAW that continues to improve. While it may not be an industry standard at the moment, its continued innovation makes it a great product to become familiar with.
However, if your needs lean more towards the established professional, you will likely do better purchasing a product that is already integrated within the industry.
- The top-end version is far more affordable than most comparable competitors
- Offers both a one-time purchase and a subscription model
- An award-winning user interface makes use not only easy but enjoyable
- Only supports Windows OS
- Not as common among industry professionals which may limit the professional application
- While the user interface is nice, navigation itself can be laborious
Music Production Software: Buying Guide
There is simply no point in purchasing a DAW that can often cost hundreds of dollars if it is incompatible with the operating system of your PC.
Most programs will use windows as the standard OS since the majority of computers and brands come preinstalled with that OS.
Of course, Apple is not a niche brand, and millions of consumers use whichever OS comes installed on the Macbook or other Apple computer models.
More and more makers of computer programs seek to offer solutions for both OS, but it is not a given practice.
Unfortunately, this is still an issue with DAWs, which often do not translate from one OS to another.
As such, you will need to know ahead of time which OS your PC uses or risk spending a great deal of money on a program that is incompatible with your computer.
This should not be a problem for Windows users as the overwhelming number of DAWs is compatible with that OS.
Apple users will a tougher time, though they still have legitimately good options.
Not everyone has a top of the line PC on which to run their DAW, but that can, and sometimes will be a primary consideration when it comes time to choose one.
Thankfully, very few DAWs require your computer to truly be top of the line in order to function.
However, many of them, especially depending on the version used, will still require a relatively contemporary PC or suffer major functionality issues.
Still, the range of minimum system requirements is more vast than one might imagine in seemingly similar pieces of software.
The primary factor in this regard will often be the RAM. Some DAWs require as little as 1GB of RAM while others will need at least 8GB.
That is a huge difference in terms of price and PC capability. Moreover, hard drive space will also be a factor depending on the version purchased.
As each of these DAWs often have different versions depending on the needs of the client, you have the luxury of picking the one that suits you.
However, if you want a full-package DAW with every voice, loop, and plugin available, you will very likely find yourself needing 30GB of hard drive space–or more.
Finally, the CPU rarely needs to be top of the line, with models over 5 years old often being acceptable.
Still, there will be an errant DAW here and there that requires a beefier processor, the show is sure to figure out what you need ahead of time.
Oddly enough, an onboard soundcard integrated into the motherboard is generally sufficient for all DAWs.
As with every purchase, this is a major factor.
With DAWs, figuring out what to actually spend your money on can be made even more difficult due to different versions, post-purchase microtransactions, and subscription plans.
The most immediate and obvious decision in this regard will be the version of the software. Most of these DAWs have at least 3 different versions, each with their own range of features and their own price tag.
This cost can range anywhere from under $100 to almost $1000. With such a wide berth, it is absolutely vital that you understand both what you intend to use the DAW for and what features you need from your DAW.
Often, the difference between versions is little more than more of the same features, or added support to ancillary tasks.
However, just as often, all versions will be able to complete every task, but the more expensive one will simply provide more tools for doing such.
Moreover, some DAW producers still require you to purchase plugin patches, though this is quickly becoming an outdated practice that different companies are phasing out in different ways.
More likely, these days you will simply need to upgrade a cheaper version to a higher-end version to obtain the additional resources.
Finally, some DAW producers are starting to flirt with the subscription model. This can be both a good and a bad thing.
It offers access to a higher-end version you may not be able to afford all at once, but you will never actually own the DAW.
Though, the subscription plan will include all updates which often add features other owners may have to purchase.
While the DAW is definitely the engine that gets the whole car moving, the plugin is pretty much everything else that allows you to produce music at the highest levels with the widest range of options.
Quite simply, this is likely the second most important quality of a DAW in terms of the possible music you can create outside of the base program itself.
Plugins usually come packaged in one of two ways.
Either, you purchase the plugins or you download them after the fact. To make this more complicated, different DAWs are compatible with different sets of 3rd-party plugins.
Granted, the most popular plugin will generally be compatible with most DAWs, but for lesser-known plugins, you may have to really dig to figure out whether your DAW can support it or not.
Thankfully, pretty much every DAW at least offers a full-range of plugins, though you may need to purchase or upgrade your version to be able to use them.
With many DAWs offering up to 3000 plugins or more, it is unlikely you will not be able to find what you need.
However, the actual functionality of those plugins may play a bigger role in your decision.
For instance, the mixing options of different DAWs may be broken up into all or nothing or they may be provided at limited to full options.
The same concept applies to records, synthesizers, and live production. As such, identifying exactly what you need your DAW to do and when will play a large role in determining which version and how much money you should invest in your DAW.
There is no easy way of putting this: DAWs are complex programs, and all of them involve a steep learning curve. However, the specific grade of that learning curve will vary from DAW to DAW.
Some are noted as more “beginner” friendly than others. For instance, Avid Pro Tools is known in the DAW industry as being far more forgiving to new users than to say FL Studios.
This specific knowledge generally takes one of two forms: programs and principles. The first is relatively straight forward and mostly involves familiarizing yourself with each DAW.
Of course, this means that after you have spent countless hours figuring out all the different features and user interfaces of a given DAW, you might be disinclined to throw away all of that hard work simply to learn another format.
In fairness, once you figure out one DAW, it does become far easier to figure out another.
Still, transitioning from one DAW to another still takes a fair amount of time and effort, so it is important to know which one your experience level suits ahead of time.
The ease of using the program will often inform your consideration of the second, and more fundamental, level of experience with music-making: actually understanding the principles of sound. Keep in mind, this is a separate knowledge than understanding the principles of music.
It is expected that you know those ahead of time, or else, why would you be purchasing production software in the first place?
No, the principles of sound focus on how tweaking the properties of a specific voice will alter the way that voice sounds.
Pretty much every decent DAW on the market will provide some form of control over the sound.
However, different DAWs allow a greater range of freedom, which can be a blessing and a curse.
If you are intimately familiar with the principles of sound, the ability to tweak a voice along a dizzying range of dimensions provides supreme freedom to craft your music.
On the other hand, if you are less comfortable with the principles of sound and how they affect a voice, it is easy to get in way over your head and become lost in the possibilities.
Those DAWs noted for the ease with beginners often come with more and more common prearranged voice distortions for those who are unfamiliar with the principles of sound.
Where exactly do you plan to use your DAW? If you intend to produce music in the comfort of your home, every one of these DAWs will provide more than enough tools to suit your needs.
However, take your DAW outside of your home setting, and some will be unable to keep up with the new change in venue.
A prime example of this, that does not also involve being a true professional, would include playing live music.
If you are a part-time DJ looking to make and mix tracks on the cuff in front of a modest but dedicated audience, you will need a DAW that is capable of doing such a feat.
Some DAWs have a built-in plugin to assist you with performing music live.
Other DAWs maybe just a powerful in terms of producing music, but their functionality for quick adjustments and sonic tuning are simply not up to the task of live production.
On the other hand, the ability to produce music to the most refined degree, as one might expect to do in a professional music studio setting, requires a very different set of tools than being able to perform live music from a DAW.
The consummate professional will be far less worried about speed and far more concerned with absolute control and precision.
Granted, most DAWs do offer professional-grade versions, but the price tag and functionality of each will vary from product to product.
In this instance, the specific music produced will play a heavy factor.
If you focus on a single genre, you may not need every bell and whistle available, and thus, not have to break the bank on your DAW.
Conversely, if you produce music for a wide range of genres and maybe even mix non-musical tracks, you will likely require a wider breadth of tools to do so.
Unfortunately, as with every factor when choosing a DAW, there is no real “standard” approach to updates.
By this, we mean the different tweaks in the DAW the company makes to provide a better product after it has been put on the market.
Unlike most types of computer software that automatically update your computer software as the company refines the code, DAWs will vary from one to another how updates are rolled out.
If you are looking for the convenience of passive updating, that is available. However, different versions of the same DAW may have different policies of updates.
Obviously automatic updates are preferred, but that may not be a big enough factor to be worth choosing your DAW.
Instead, you may fall in love with different quality and be willing to purchase future updates, inconvenient though it may be.
This latter approach has been made integral to those payment plans that rely on subscription models instead of one-time purchases.
Moreover, if a DAW offers both the subscription and the single purchase payment model, the way one updates may differ from the other.
Ultimately, updates are rarely a deal-breaker, but knowing how they are handled ahead of time can save you a lot of headaches and potential buyer’s remorse in the long run.
While this may seem to be a purely aesthetic consideration, long-time users of DAWs understand that this quality alone can help you fall in love with a DAW or bring you to hate it over time.
If you intend to spend hours at your computer, meticulously refining and mixing music, you do not want to have to worry about the strain it will place on your eyes.
From a functional standpoint, the user interface, or UI, can also play an important factor in ease of use with the DAW altogether.
In this light, the UI may be inextricably tied to the experience level required to efficiently and most effectively use the DAW.
A messy UI with difficult to see functions will increase your user time to accomplish the same tasks as other DAWs until you are intimately familiar with it.
While this consideration is far more in line with updates in terms of importance, if you feel about the same regarding the more important factors between two or more DAWs, this may very well be the tie-breaker to push towards one product over another.
As we can see, there is no true best software for making music. Each of them has its advantages and disadvantages, and whichever one is right for you will depend on a whole host of factors including your familiarity with music-making, your specific needs when producing music, and your hardware limitations–both with a PC and peripherals.
However, with a robust knowledge of what makes the top DAWs tick and a thorough examination of distinguishes one from the other, you should feel more than confident that you can see both the forest and the trees when determining which DAW is right for you.