The best digital audio workstation is the one you're most comfortable working in. It's really that simple. But how do you know which one you will be comfortable in if you have never used one before? This guide will show you the most popular ones, typical uses of each, and some recommendations based on the experience of our writers at MSCGR.
We get a lot of questions about what digital audio workstation (or DAW) readers should use for audio production, demo recording, dj, or voice-over work.
Just that sentence alone shows the wide range of uses for your audio production software.
In this guide, we are not going to do “deep dives” into the features. We’ll save that for more specific Guides in the future.
Because, if you’re just starting out and don’t know what DAW to get, an endless parade of technical specs and audio production terms is not going to help. If you are very familiar with DAWs, you probably already know what you like, and why.
So instead we are going to touch on a handful of DAWs most people use (there are many more not covered). As you go down the list, think about the kind of music you are trying to make, and narrow down your choices that way. I’ll try and mention if the DAW is more DJ or EDM-centric, acoustic songwriter-friendly, and any other interesting things that might help you narrow down your choice.
You’ll need a computer to run your DAW. If you are looking at laptops, check out our various Guides:
Once you’ve mastered one DAW, you’ll be able to learn other ones much more quickly.
No matter what DAW you ultimately settle on, you’ll need to be recording, miking up instruments, singing, playing virtual instruments, EQ’ing, compressing, limiting. These things are generally the same across all audio production software.
True, you’ll get faster with your DAW the more you use it. But you should give a few of them a try. The process of writing and recording your songs is the most important part, and you need one that complements your writing and composing style. So you’ll need to get your hands dirty with a few of them to find the one that works well with you.
If you are just starting out, you really should consider some of the free or trial options:
Here’s a few that are free, mostly free, or free with caveats:
This is the one most people start with, so I felt obliged to at least mention it. Usually this is because you’re impatient and you just want to get some sounds into your computer.
My recommendation is to skip Audacity, unless you just want to get some ideas down to record better later. It’s simple, but not entirely intuitive or user-friendly. It is a free super basic DAW. That’s about it.
My daughter is using Reaper with great success. She also has virtual drum software, some free VSTs, and is able to make pretty great recordings.
It is very stable, works on both Mac and PC, is very frequently updated, and does everything the big guys do at ridiculously small fraction of the cost.
The trial version IS THE FULL VERSION. It’s just that if you don’t buy it, a nag screen pops up, reminding you your trial has expired. But the software is still fully functional and complete in every way.
Get this if cost is an issue, but you would like the functionality of the bigger players.
Many current acts, including bands like Alt-J wrote and recorded a lot of their early stuff in Garageband.
Originally, Garageband was it’s own simple DAW, more geared towards a guitar player that would like to have a the ability to add other instruments easily.
In 2014, Apple jumped from Garageband v6 to v10, and completely revamped it to what is now, essentially, a stripped down version of Apple’s Logic X. In fact, it is so similar many people are dubbing it “Logic Express”.
(FYI, Apple’s Logic X is a full-fledged, professional quality DAW, and we talk about it a little further down this page.)
This is good for you. Now, you can get the basic workflow and essential features of a professional DAW similar to Logic X, bundled with your laptop. If you were one of those guitar players that simply used Garageband as a backing band you might be disappointed. But if you want something that is simple with the potential to grow into a full-fledged professional DAW like Logic X, this is a great way to get started at minimal cost and grow into professional audio production.
Don’t believe me? Check out this article and listen to the music: “How One 19 Year Old Used Garageband, Stock Plugins, And Some $100 Speakers To Gain Thousands Of Fans And Potential Management Deals”
Moving up in price will get you into the industry standard DAWs. If you are already doing lots of audio production, you probably know which ones I’m going to talk about.
“Industry standard” is a silly notion I suppose. What I mean is that these next couple of DAWs are what you will typically see in production houses and large studios. You will also see these in many home studios as well, which is why “industry standard” is a bit of a misnomer.
This is what many would call the “industry standard” DAW, although it is used by both professionals and hobbyists alike. The majority of professional studios these days will have a Pro Tools HD Core System or some variant. And of course, their version of Pro Tools will probably be on steroids, with a huge mixing console (instead of using your keyboard and mouse to do everything in your home studio). But you can move projects from your your version of Pro Tools, say, on your laptop to their studio Pro Tools with minimal fuss.
If price is not a factor, and would like a DAW with which you can grow, Avid’s Pro Tools is the one to get.
Apple’s Logic Pro X is the other large software ecosystem you might find in full-on production studios. It has a huge user base of hardcore fans, which means there is tons of help online in the form of tutorials, support, and training.
The downside, if you are on a Windows computer – is that it is only available for Apple computers, so there’s that too.
On the plus side, there are a lot of really great audio interfaces for Apple users that are tightly integrated with Logic Pro X.
There are many other great DAWs out there. Here’s a couple worth keeping in mind as you pick:
Created by developers who used to work on Ableton Live, Bitwig 1.0 was released in September 2014 to the public. It released version 1.1 shortly thereafter, fixed most of the bugs from the first release, and the general census from the music community was that it seems to be poised for greatness. Within a year it was included for FREE with Microsoft’s publicly and critically lauded Surface Book.
Bitwig is also touchscreen native, from the ground up. Check out this promo video from the makers, showing Bitwig in action:
So far been welcomed with open arms, in particular, by those who like to compose on a computer, but aren’t fond of the “Ableton way” of song composition. Others have said it’s like the perfect combination between Pro Tools and Ableton.
Since it is so new, there’s not much of a track record on quality and usability yet. However, reviews from users and reviewers alike are overwhelmingly positive. Microsoft likes it, so …
On a personal note, this is the next DAW I will be looking at closely. That is why, despite Bitwig being relatively new, I’m even mentioning it on this list. Expect to hear more on these pages from me about Bitwig.
It’s not just a Windows DAW either. Bitwig runs on both Windows PCs and Macs … as well as Linux. Bitwig is definitely the best DAW for Linux.
One of my good friends swears by Propellerhead’s Reason, for good … well … reason! It comes with tons of virtual instruments already loaded up and ready-to-go. It also has some really nice graphical flourishes, where each plugin is depicted as a piece of hardware on the screen. You can even connect virtual patch cables to the back of each piece of gear, just like you would a real preamp, compressor, or amplifier.
The other cool thing about Reason is you can use it as a suite of virtual instruments in ANOTHER DAW! So, imagine you created some really cool electronic riffs in Reason, and you’d like to put it in a song that you are working on in Pro Tools, or Reaper. You can open Reason on a dedicated track in another DAW, access your creation, and mix it into your song-in-progress. This is an amazing feature.
The downside is that it is a closed ecosystem. This means that you can’t use virtual instruments (VST) created by other manufacturers. Other manufacturers instead make virtual instruments specifically for sale to Reason users. If you’re one of those people who likes to collect lots of free virtual instruments and effects from around the web in lieu of actually getting some songs done, a closed ecosystem might just the thing to keep you focused on finishing things.
PreSonus Studio One is also great. It gets rave reviews from people like Graham Cochrane, although I’ve never used it.
Studio One comes in two main flavors, the Artist version (for $199) and the full version (for $399). It also comes bundled with many of PreSonus’s audio interfaces, so you might be able to kill two birds with one stone, buying a interface with the DAW already included.
Ableton Live was initially built for live performances, and since then it has become .
If you know you are going to be playing live, in a DJ scenario, Ableton Live is what you should get.
The hardware controller (with all the glowing buttons, above) is Ableton’s own hardware, called PUSH. But you can get less expensive ones from other manufacturers which work just as well.
We’ll expand on DJ DAWs in a future guide.
Don’t listen to people who suggest the “Lite” versions of Ableton, Pro Tools, or whatever aren’t any good.
The “Lite” versions contain 90% of the full versions, and the stuff that is missing from them is not stuff you’ll be using anyways while you’re learning and are mostly features used by professionals in full-fledged professional studios.
So get the Lite version if it’s right for you. In fact, grab as many as you think you might be interested in. Figure out what works best for you, or complements your workflow the best. If you already know you’re going to be primarily using it as a DJ, then you already narrowed your choices. If you are looking to be a professional audio engineer, then you will want Pro Tools or Logic X. If you’re just recording personal demos, then maybe PreSonus Studio One or Reaper is good enough to get the job done.
Many digital audio interfaces come with a DAW bundled with them, and you might be able to save a few bucks by choosing an interface wisely. For instance, the PreSonus AudioBox comes with Studio One Artist Edition bundled with it. Most of the Focusrite Scarlett audio interfaces (great gear!) come with Ableton Live Lite. Many of the M-Audio interfaces come bundled with Ignite by AIR and Ableton Live Lite. Avid’s Fast Track Studio comes with Pro Tools Express.
And as mentioned, you have DAWS bundled with hardware too: Garageband comes with your MacBook, and Bitwig comes with the new Surface Books.
Instead of focusing on the DAW (they’re all generally great, anyways), do this.
Focus on learning audio production principles. If you master the concepts of compression, EQ, and gain staging, you’ll pretty much be able to use any DAW efficiently in a matter of hours. Your greatest challenge at that point will be finding where certain settings are, and maybe a slight variation in technique. But those sort of questions you can easily find the answers to on Google.
Regardless of which DAW you ultimately choose as your main production environment, your success will be determined by how often you use it.
So get recording! 🙂
If price is not an option, and you want a DAW you can grow with, Pro Tools from Avid is the one to get. It runs well on both Mac and PC. It's also essentially an industry standard, in that pretty much any large production house worth it's salt will be using Pro Tools.
“The redesign isn’t just a new look. The entire application feels snappier, with sessions, patches, and instruments loading up quicker than ever before. Apple didn’t highlight many performance improvements in that regard, and perhaps its just the improved navigation, but big sessions with lots of tracks seem to be a little less sluggish in Logic Pro X.”
“For multi-touch devices on Windows and Linux (yes, Linux) – plus a specially-optimized profile for Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Book – Bitwig has a lot of new touch features. They aren’t just responding to touch events; they’re going further.”