As a musician or producer, you’re going to come across the need for DAW (digital audio workstation) software throughout your career. Good audio recording software is exceptionally important when it comes to producing high-quality tracks, albums, and even sound effects or soundtracks, in the digital era. The question is, which application is right for you?
There are plenty of music software options out there to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, but which one you want to use will depend on what you’re looking for and how you plan on using it. This is the guide to help you learn everything you need to know when it comes to making the right investment.
Within this guide, we’re going to explore the ins and outs of ten of the best DAW audio recording software platforms available today, ultimately giving you all the information you need to make the decision that’s right for you. Get ready to take your production ventures to the next level!
No list of best-of music recording software would be complete without a mention of the powerhouse studio platform that is Ableton Live. Anything to do with music, Ableton has you covered. The Live 10 suite has everything you need for a great price and prides itself on being a stable release that minimizes the risk of experiencing bugs and errors.
Of course, Ableton audio software is renowned for being feature-rich. In the 10th edition, you’ll have access to state-of-the-art tools like session automation; an automatic system that allows you to record your music in real-time directly into a clip format; perfectly ready for editing and mastering.
Recording Made Easy
While on the subject of recording your music, Live 9 comes with three unique yet powerful ways to record your audio files while saving them as usable MIDI files. You can even extract chords or notes from individual tracks or convert any sound you need into a reusable MIDI sample. Ultimately, this gives you full control over the sounds you’re creating and how you use them.
Of course, while the recording and editing features are state-of-the-art, Ableton continues to impress when it comes everything the software is known for, including the integrated EQ and the built-in automation features and tools that help to make everything easier for you.
Optimal System Performance
Touching on performance, this is one of the main reasons why people opt for the Ableton 10 application. Whether you’re storing exported and recorded files or importing samples, plugin data, or VST information, everything happens incredibly quickly and with very little strain to your computer, CPU, or RAM.
Ableton Live 10 runs on both Mac and Windows computers and requires a multicore processor and 4GB of RAM with at least 3GB of free space to run the base software, and then whatever other space you need for audio files and plugins; although 3GB is pretty lightweight compared with most other DAW platforms.
You’ll also need a stable internet connection or DVD drive for the installation process, but afterward you can disconnect and use the software however you like! Whether you’re at home, in the studio, or practically anywhere, you can run the Ableton software however best suits you.
Every aspect of the software is optimized to run as smoothly and as beautifully as possible.
Beautiful to Use
Thanks to the complete design overhaul of the interface, meaning Live 9 has one of the cleanest browsers in the DAW industry and is incredibly simple to pick up and use. Many critics describe this software as being much pretty much flawless, which while a bold statement, isn’t far from the truth.
The Suite also comes ready with over 3,000 samples and sounds to use at your disposal, all accessible using Live 9’s innovative, fast-loading file browser. This library includes everything from one-shots and instruments to loops and synthesizers, making this a fantastic all-around studio for the musically creative.
In this version, the browser now features a much more intuitive two-column design which is far better than the predecessors, and those who have used previous versions, you’ll find this much faster, much easier to use, and much more effective.
What we like about it
Easily the best aspect of Live 10, which is why it’s so popular, is just how easy it is to use. Sure, there are a lot of features and functions to get your head around, but the software has been designed for anyone to use.
The layout is clean and simple. All the features are easy to find. A few hours of using the software, and you’ll be masterfully whizzing around with your sole focus on being creative.
If you’re a Mac computer user and a musician or producer, it’s well worth checking out the Apple-only Logic Pro X Studio. The latest in the recording software series from Apple, Logic Pro X is ideal for beginners and professional alike and follows Apple’s traditional values of being a high-performance solution with world-class usability.
Coveted Smart Tempo
For example, Logic X comes with the innovative Smart Tempo commands. Using this feature, it doesn’t matter what instruments or sounds you’re recording, everything will be entirely beat matched in post, minimizing the need for re-recordings and edits during the production phase.
In true Logic fashion, there are dozens of plugins and effects you can load straight up into the software effortlessly. From advanced reverb effects to creative EQ settings, whether you’re overhauling your recorded sounds completely, or merely making tweaks here and there, Logic Pro X puts the creative power in your hands.
Typically, Logic Pro X is used by musicians who focus on electronic music, simply because the features allow for it and the sound is excellent. Nevertheless, even as a recording artist or band, features like the 128-step sequencer and compatibility with third-party libraries and plugins is astounding.
An Arsenal of FXs
Some of the key features we do want to mention into the ChromoVerb FX, which is an algorithm-based reverb effect with variable and customizable parameters you can set and tweak however you please. The Vintage EQ collection is also a must for anybody looking to match sounds with those familiar with API, Neve, and Pultec FX.
This is a really affordable solution and provides you with excellent value for money, and it’s safe to say this is a future-proof investment that will allow you stay up-to-date and ahead of the curve for years to come.
High-Performance, Low Cost
A few details on system requirements, you’ll need to be running OS X Sierra on a system with at least 4GB of RAM with at least 6GB of space to run the base of the program; then plus any add-ons and plugins you decide to use and install.
There’s even compatibility with the latest Macbooks that come with the integrated touch-bar. This has been fully optimized so you can access and customize which tools and features are available to you, literally with the tap of a finger!
If you’re on a Windows operating system, this software won’t be for you, but if you’re looking for a powerful application that can handle everything from start to finish, the Logic Pro X studio is well worth your time.
What we like about it
For users looking into the Logic Pro X, the chances are you’re going to fall in love with the visual design of the software. Whether you’re using the base program, any of the plugins or effects, or installing third-party application, Logic Pro X actually enhances your ability to be creative thanks to the visual styles and interfaces that are simply a pleasure to use.
From the creators at Magix comes the latest edition to the ACID Pro range. Developed and released by Sony, ACID Pro 9 is an industry-leading application that also happens to be one of the most affordable. If you’re looking for powerful software on a budget, there may not be any reason to look further than this.
Looks That Can Kill
ACID Pro 9 prides itself on its clean and minimal interface that’s helps you simply get the job done. No fancy menus or buttons overwhelming you; just good old-fashioned software that gives you exactly what you need.
The platform provides full audio and MIDI recording capabilities with built-in editing functions so that you won’t need any other software. This is complemented by the fact the software uses very little system memory to run and won’t exhaust computers with low RAM or CPU.
While there is a little bit of learning curve to begin with, especially when it comes to learning what the icons are and where everything is, this is easy to learn, and can be mastered with ease.
A Powerful Windows Experience
Regarding your computer setup, you’re going to need to be running Windows 10/8/7, but unfortunately, it doesn’t run on Mac. While it will run on a 1GB system, it’s recommended you have at least 8GB free, which is pretty common from most modern computer systems and laptops nowadays.
As you can imagine, all audio file types are supported, expect several export settings, such as AA3, SND, and video exporting is disabled (although you can import video to cut the audio), but it’s going to be rare for most users you’re going to need this.
As an affordable solution and plenty of features to tick all the boxes you’ll be looking for; it’s easy to see why so many users flock to the ACID Pro line.
What we like about it
One of the highlights of the ACID Pro 9 platform is the integrated VST support. This includes both instruments and plugins, so if you’ve got a certain VST in mind, or you’re currently using one on another application, but you’re looking to move, ACID Pro 9 makes it easy to use whatever you want to use.
FL Studio has been in the audio recording and editing industry for over 20 years, making it by far one of the most experienced. With the latest release of version 20, this expertise is crystal-clear. What’s more, after two decades of requests, the application is finally available on both Windows and Mac operating systems!
The software has been used in all industries, including headlines acts including Martin Garrix, Afrojack, and the late Avicii, which should give you some indication to the potential this digital DAW studio holds.
The Perfect UI
For this edition, the UI has been completely overhauled, so whereas before it might have seemed a little overwhelming and complex, especially for new users, this is no longer the case. Everything is clean, simplified, and ensures you can get on with focusing on what’s important.
Some of the highlights of this application include real-time rendering processes to ensure your CPU is never overloaded or burned out, and support for different time signatures, even when you’re working in the same track.
Making a Comeback
Even some of the features that were removed in older versions, such as the ability to edit MIDI files from the Channel Rack, have made a return, this time with vast improvements to functionality and UI.
Your Computer is Your Limit
This even includes how lightweight the studio is. As long as you have 4GB free on your computer and have 4GB of RAM and have 4GB of free space, this software will run fluidly. Of course, the more CPU you have, the more VSTs and instruments you’ll be able to run!
All this, and you’ll, of course, have access to FL Studio’s stunning compatibility with practically any plugin and VST out there. There are literally thousands, so if you have a special plugin in mind, or you want to future-proof yourself, there may not be any need to look further than FL Studio 20.
What we like about it
The ability to customize pretty much every aspect of the FL Studio application is what makes it one of the best. With so many features, it’s only natural you can rearrange windows and toolbars to have quick access to everything you need, all depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
Cakewalk Sonar Platinum is the third and most elite version of the Cakewalk Sonar range, and for a good reason. Available for Windows operating systems only, Cakewalk is one of the first platforms to offer a pay monthly price plan, making it a very viable option for producers on a budget.
Perhaps the best feature of this version is the integrated Command Center. From here, you can manage all your Cakewalk products, including serial numbers and updates, so if you’re already a fan of the series or own another product, this makes integrating everything and sending your files across to one another a breeze.
Perfect for Beginners
Another common issue with Cakewalk was the usability and interface, but this has been dramatically jazzed up in this edition, now making it one of the easiest to learn and use versions, and even still when compared with some of the elite DAW studios on the market!
Sonar also comes with a vast selection of integrated instruments and sound kits as standard, including Session Drummer 3, DropZone, Roland GrooveSynth, and even special edition kits, such as the TruePianos Amber. This is then coupled with the dozens of FX and effect editing tools you have, and it’s safe to say you have complete control when it comes to recording and editing.
Get Started like a Pro
This level of content continues thanks to the 16 virtual custom amps included with the installation, and there’s even the Addictive Drums 2 Producer Bundle chucked in for good measure. The more sounds and plugins you have access too, the more creative you’ll be able to get.
As standard, this DAW studio comes with the ability to control all your basic and advanced MIDI functions. You can work in the traditional way using a piano roll layout, or you can select any clip you like from your file explorer and paint it into your track however and whenever you want.
The Software Does the Work
This is all made pretty simple thanks to the Smart Tool feature, which customizes its functions automatically depending on what kind of file, setting, or content you’re hovering over. However, the MIDI pattern tool and customizable VocalSync feature all give you more control and options when you need it.
Easily one of the best, and perhaps most surprising, features Cakewalk has to offer is the mixing options. You can activate this from the Control Bar which then enables you to manage different versions of a mix, including sliders, effects, and EQ; all from one place.
This is ideal if you plan on creating different versions of the same track. Let’s say you’re creating a WAV version, an MP3 version, a radio version, and a family-friendly version. Simply open the Mix Recall setting, and then make your changes. Finally, you can export all the unique versions at the same time, making your producing process effortless.
To finish off, it’s worth noting this application is only available on Windows operating systems and not Macs, and you’ll need to be running version 7/8/9 or 10. The recommended graphics cards and RAM may be a little more than usual, suggesting a 2.6Ghz Intel chip or something similar, but this should be no problem on more modern systems.
What we like about it
The Skylight system built into the Sonar Platinum platform is easily one of the best features. While super-powerful, Cakewalk has always been renowned for being not so user-friendly, which is why it fell behind some of the other leading platforms.
However, since the Skylight integration, Cakewalk is much simpler to use, so there’s less time trying to figure out what you’re doing, and more time making it happen!
The Pro Tools line has always been a popular DAW choice among all kinds of musicians within any area of the industry, so it should come as no surprise that the 12 edition of the software range is one of the most anticipated yet. Released earlier in 2019, it’s clear to see Avid have pushed the boat out with this version.
Endless Team Possibilities
Kicking off the features list with a bang, one of the most sought-after features of Pro Tools is the collaboration suite. This means if you’re working with freelancers or other team members, such as the ones in your band or company, it doesn’t matter where everyone is in the world; you can link up and work on the same project in the same digital workspace.
This, of course, opens a whole new world of possibilities up to creators and producers, providing so many more opportunities to produce the best results possible. This is backed up by the fact Pro Tools has experience in pretty much any audio industry.
From the television and film industry, to sound clip editors and record labels, Pro Tools has everything you need to produce the results and outcomes you’re looking for. Out of the box, the platform can record audio, edit and record MIDI effects, and contains a fully-featured editing suite.
Mix Like a Master
From here, you’ll have access to effortless mixing capabilities which have been designed with integration from tools such as VCA Masters, Track Freeze, and professional metering to help you maintain accuracy and full control over your sounds. You can even remote control the software from your iPhone or iPad!
Going back to the recording features, Pro Tools enables you to record a sound file in real-time, or you can record and instantly convert these recordings into loops or organize into individual track playlists. You can even combine multiple passes effortlessly to ensure you’re working with the best final sounds.
One thing you will want to consider when it comes to using Pro Tools 12 is it can be a bit resource-intensive on your computer, meaning you’re going to need something powerful to use it correctly; especially when you’re using lots of plugins, VSTs, and instruments.
Powerful, Regardless of Your System
You can run the software on either a Mac or Windows computer that has a minimum of an Intel i5 processor, or something similar, and at least 4GB of RAM to run it. You’ll need at least 8GB if you plan on using the software for video playback. For both Mac and Windows, you’ll need around 15GB of space to install the software in the first place.
Direct Uploads to Wherever
One of the best benefits of Pro Tools 12 is that everything you produce and work with in Pro Tools is shareable, whether that’s the project file itself which you want to share to the cloud or the final track. You can upload directly to the internet or your favorite social media platform for your listeners to enjoy in the best quality.
Overall, Pro Tools 12 is a complete, one-stop shop for all your recording, editing, and producing needs, all in one convenient, easy-to-use, and affordable package.
What we like about it
There’s no denying the collaborative side of the Pro Tools platform is its best feature. With the ability to add anyone to your work project, and by making it accessible at all hours of the day thanks to the cloud, the potential for each project you’re working on is practically limitless!
Coveted as a next-generation DAW platform by many, Cubase is one of the longest-standing platforms in the industry, and for many great reasons. These include the unique approach Cubase takes to make the music recording and creation process more inspiring than it is already.
Professional Clip Manipulation
There are dozens of features included in this platform that help it achieve this ambitious goal. Regarding recording audio, one of the key features here is the Sampler Track. Using this, you can take any sample of audio or any clip and manipulate it using the onboard features and filters to create anything you want.
This alone inspires hours upon hours of creative possibility, and even if you’re not sure what you want to create, this tool is going to get those juices flowing. While supporting VSTs and plugins, there are hundreds of built-in plugins, including the remarkable Caleidoscope, to get you started.
Production Made Easy
This edition of Cubase also comes with Cubase’s iconic MixConsole that makes editing and controlling your samples and tracks effortless, all thanks to the helpful UI, clean interface, and plenty of features you can sink your teeth into.
This is then backed by other leading features including the powerful VariAudio 3 software for dedicated vocal editing and variable pitch changing, whether that’s on an entire clip, or a single note.
A Powerful Audio Engine
It’s worth mentioning that all these features are only made possible thanks to the ultra-competent 64-bit audio engine that powers this hyper-functional software. In addition to fuelling the features and functions while minimizing stress to your computer, RAM, and CPU, the engine makes every process fast, whether you’re working within the workstations, locating and importing files in the file explorer, or batch controlling your clips.
To run Cubase 10, you can either a Mac or Windows computer with over 21GB of space to install everything. You need 4GB of RAM to run the software as a minimum, and ASIO-compatible audio hardware to have the best experience, so bear this in mind before you buy.
All in all, it’s easy to see why Cubase has remained such a popular choice for producers, editors, and musicians all over the world for the last two decades, and with the company still producing software like Cubase 10, it’s easy to see they won’t be going anywhere any time soon.
What we like about it
Since you’re looking for a dedicated recording DAW, you’ll be happy to know this is something Cubase 10 excels in. From the dedicated recording Control Room window to the advanced metronome click control and Retrospective Record mode, you really do have everything you need.
Another wildly popular DAW option that musicians and producers have taken advantage of for other 30 years is Reason. Now on its 10th version, Reason is a preferred choice for hundreds of professional musicians and studios around the world, and now it can be yours.
The Best All-Around Experience
From recording your sounds to editing, mastering, mixing, exporting, and everything else in between, Reason has got it all. While potentially overpowering and seemingly a bit complicated to new users, if you’re experienced, or at least serious about getting the most out of your DAW choice, Reason is an investment in yourself and your future.
The basics are easy to master, the layout is simple and intuitive, and everything from managing your tracks and clips on the rack and within the browser, installing and utilizing plugins, and of course mixing, is all easily accessible whenever you need it.
Unlimited Creative Potential
Taking a bit of a dive into the features made available to you, Reason comes jam-packed with an arsenal of instruments at your disposal, including premium packages such as Europa Drums, Grain (a sample manipulator), Kong (drum synthesiser), Dr. Octo Rex (a loop sampler), and many, many more.
This is then complemented by dozens more effect controllers and plugins, some of which include Advanced RV7000 MKII Reverb, MClass Mastering Suite, Pulveriser Demolition, and countless others. Combine these together, and you get infinite possibilities to create and edit whatever you want.
Work How’s Best for You
Available on both Windows and Mac computers, despite all of Reason’s powerful features, it’s pretty lightweight, even when running multiple plugins. You only need a minimum of 4GB of space, and roughly 8GB for other downloadable content. The more core processors your computer has, the better it will run.
Hailed by some of the best music publications in the world as being one the best DAWs out there, including Music Radar, MusicTech, and many more, there’s no denying the raw power that Reason 10 provides, and how it can single-handedly transform your music creation process.
What we like about it
Even though Reason 10 comes rammed with features and functions, one of the most-loved areas of the application is the ability to expand. There are thousands of plugins, extensions, and apps you can download, install, and use on Reason, meaning any process you can imagine, you can do.
Since the Studio One DAW was released eight years ago, it’s had an eventful journey. While avoided cautiously by some, but hailed by others, the PreSonus software has made leaps and bounds in recent years, and so brings us to the Studio One 4 Professional Edition.
New Features, New Opportunities
Easily the golden crop of the Studio One 4 feature list is the Harmonic Editing tool. Compatible with monophonic and polyphonic sounds, MIDI files, you can use the tool to effortlessly shift both the key and chord progression at your will, making it incredibly easy to find the sound you’re looking for, no matter what you’ve recorded before.
The process for doing this is super easy, and there’s plenty of help within the software itself, and a rapidly expanding online community at your service. The features continue with state-of-the-art algorithm technology incorporated into many of the tools and functions.
This allows many of the processes that you would normally have to do manually to be carried out automatically, saving you time and producing better results. Of course, as we’ve explored here, this isn’t the first DAW solution to offer this, but it is the first to offer it when being able to process and edit polyphonic sounds and files.
Complete MIDI Control
Included with Studio One 4, you’ll find two innovative MIDI programming systems. These are the Drum Editor, and Patterns. These are similar to the ones you’ll find in other platforms, which you don’t miss out of any of the functionality by choosing this as your preferred solution.
If you’ve used any of the Studio One products before, you’ll also notice a few improvements and alterations to some of the core features. This includes updates to AFF and Song Data import settings, added ARA support, an added track notepad, and even ripple editing.
While these aren’t massive improvements, the tweaks are more than enough to make a difference to your editing process. What’s more, if you’ve been using a past version, you can easily upgrade to version four from within your studio version! If you’re yet to try the software out for yourself, now is the best time there has ever been!
Currently, Studio One 4 is only available on 64-bit computer systems, so you’ll need to make sure this matches your system if you plan on using it for yourself.
What we like about it
As we’ve spoken about above, lots of improvements have been made to Studio One 4 to bring it up to date with the latest competitors, one of which you’ll love is the sample-based instrument library.
These come in the form of plugins Impact XT and Sample One XT. Impact XT alone has eight times more sample pads than the previous version, which means you would need more than two standard keyboards to map each sample to your MIDI keyboard. Unlimited creative potential.
MOTU Digital Performer is by the longest-standing DAW platform and has been about since the 1980s and has only been getting better ever since. The standout for Digital Performer is the mind-blowingly expansive inventory of plugins and instrument that are at your disposal.
From inspiring you in the first place when it comes to your musical creations to making the final tweaks when mastering, everything you need can be found here in MOTU Digital Performer 10.
Improved Clips Window
Firstly, the latest edition of the Clips Window has plenty of new features compared with the 9th version that includes trigger loops and phrases. Here, you can easily drag and drop any recorded audio files and MIDI clip into the window and use them however you want. Whether this is for triggering on a track or for playing during a live performance; all you need is MOTU Digital Performer to make this all possible.
Stretch Audio is another premium feature added to this edition of the software, and this, quite simply put, is masterful. Using the toll, you’ll be able to take complete control with precision editing tasks on entire tasks or individual samples. You can change the tempo individually or add smooth tempo changes throughout the track and timeline.
Innovative Audio Control
This is then combined with DP10’s powerful beat detection capabilities, tempo adjustment has never been more accessible or provides you with more opportunities. This works for both entire channels and individual samples and clips, all of which can be organized and managed directly through MOTU’s lightning-fast Content Browser.
Mix all these features with the lucrative tools included with your application, such as enhanced control via the advanced VCA Faders. This makes the mixing process incredibly precise, especially since you can add as many VCAs as you like to as many groups as you please.
With a streamlined audio waveform editor, you can edit both beats and waveforms expertly using simple tools. The selection here includes elastic audio stretching, tempo mapping, advanced pitch correction, and more.
We could go on and on about the tools and features available on this platform, but this article would go on all day! Available on both Mac and Windows operating systems, MOTU is pretty lightweight and only requires 2GB of RAM to run as a minimum, although the more your system has, the better.
Also, with a free trial version available to try for yourself, MOTU makes a great choice!
What we like about it
Since MOTU Digital Performer 10 only came out at the beginning of 2019; this means there’s plenty of potential for the future. From Ableton Live-style clip triggering and better beat detection, every update to the software will bring more features, better improvements, and more opportunities for you to be your best.
The Complete DAW Audio Recording Studio Buying Guide
It’s safe to say there are plenty of fantastic DAW solutions out there to choose from, but one of the biggest challenges is making sure you’re using the one that’s right for you. Fortunately, when it comes to spending your money in the right places, we’re here to help.
For the rest of this guide, we’re going to detail everything you need to know when it comes to choosing the right DAW software, and what you need to look out for when making the right investment for your production and recording ventures of the future.
Which Operating System?
Whether you’re using a Mac or Windows computer, you need to make sure you’re aware of what you’re using, and which DAW software options are available to you. Some options are available for both; some are not.
You’ll also need to consider what your current computer is capable of in terms of GPU and RAM, and how well your system is going to run your chosen DAW program. Some options are lightweight and will run on any computer, whereas some of the higher performance programs may not work correctly on more dated models.
Since you’re going to be recording audio directly into your computer, you’re going to need to think about how you’re going to do this. The chances are you’ll use some kind of MIDI controller or mixer that plugs into your instruments and then into your computer.
Since there are so many ways you can do this, it’s hard to list them all, so it’s important to make sure you’re researching what way you’re doing to do this and then find a DAW application that’s compatible with this method.
Fortunately, especially on the more modern applications we’ve listed above, you shouldn’t have any compatibility problems, but it’s well worth checking before you make a purchase.
Basic Plugin Potential
While there are hundreds of thousands of plugins, instruments, and VSTs out there compatible with DAW applications, it can pay to have an understanding of what plugins are consistent with what software before you buy.
For example, while FL Studio 20 supports a ton of plugins, this is the first edition running on Mac, which means not all plugins may be compatible yet. If you have a plugin in mind to use, or you’re using one already and want to continue using it, compatibility is a must.
Your Preferred Skill Level
If you’re new to DAW software, you’re going to want to opt for using a beginner-friendly application that helps you get started while learning the basics. There’s no point forking out hundreds of dollars on an application that’s going to overwhelm you unless you’re completely serious about what you’re doing.
Most DAW applications these days are designed by nature to be easy to use and effortless to pick up and master, but this will ultimately come down to your personal preference and how much time you’re willing to commit.
Of course, perhaps the most essential aspect you’ll want to consider is what application suits the budget you’re looking for. The DAW industry has been about for a while now, so most applications are priced depending on what they have to offer.
By this, we mean the more you spend, the more you get access to. However, most applications are considered affordable, and some even monthly payment plans to help you spread the cost. This is entirely up to you.
Hopefully after reading this you now know everything you need to know to ensure you’re making the right choice when it comes to DAW software. Take your time, research what you need, and you’ll be sure you’re spending your money in the right places.
The easiest thing to do is make a list of everything you want to achieve, and then match this to all the platforms to see which one can give you what you’re looking for and fits your budget. With the right software by your side, you can unleash your full musical potential.