The 15 Best Digital Audio Workstation Software - Free and Paid
Since the dawn of the DAWs in the early 90s, and with newer versions emerging day in day out, the search for best has been a real struggle.
Well, for those of the ‘old is gold’ school of thought, Cakewalk Sonar and Cubase music production software will always be their babies and for a reason. However, if you’re looking for the latest digital audio software, the market has inexhaustible options for you.
What matters is getting audio production software that allows you to make unique compositions or edit and master your music with precision.
Are you operating on a tight budget? Cool. There’s a free universe with lots of free music making software with which you can create your music without spending a penny. This article has 10 best music recording software for your money.
We’ve also gone an extra yard to identify the best free music production software and paid DAWs both for beginners and pros. Lets now get to our tenth pick of the best music creation software. Whether you're looking for the best DAW for windows or Mac, we have something for you.
Best DAW Music Production Software 2017
Starting us off is this `big hitter formerly owned by Sonic Foundry before merging with Sony to from Sony Creative Software. Currently it’s owned by Magix. This was after Sony sold a bulk of their creative software suite including Acid Pro to Magix in May 2016
Performance and ease of use
When it was freshly released in 1998, Acid was a simple loop-based sequencer. It made creating beats and loop-based compositions not only seamless but fun too. All you would do was drag and drop a loop file onto a track. The truck would then automatically sync to the project’s tempo and key. As a result, it was commonly popular with DJs and music producers and composers.
In fact, this Acid loops technology is currently the industry standard. Several other big names including Sonar and Cubase have incorporated it in their DAWs as Groove Clips and Audio Warp respectively. Over the last few years, Sony has made several improvements on this music recording. Amongst others, the addition of audio recording capabilities, plus MIDI and VST plug-in supports renders Acid 7 a fully fledged and amongst the best DAWs for beginners and intermediaries alike. The new and improved mixer is also a success story in Acid Pro 7. Other additions include multiprocessor support, a wealth of audio effects (3000+ sounds), an Input Bus System, and a time-stretching engine.
Acid Pro 7’s mixer and general layout have been inherited from its predecessors. It’s not so beauty-oriented. The thing is that it puts all the necessities in an essential-based manner. It has a straightforward presentation, and the interface is clear and easy to use. The View Pane/Check list makes it easy to toggle different tracks on/off with much ease. Even better, its interactive video tutorials make it a great option for the starters.
Acid Pro 7 music software has received much love than hate from its previous users. Most of them are excited by its ease of use, its new additions, and its fair pricing. Others, however, don’t like that it does not work on Macs. Acid Pro is a music production software for PC.
Coming in at a slightly lower price than the Acid Pro 7 is this Ableton Live 9 Intro. As the name suggests, this software targets those who want to get their feet wet within Ableton Line 9 series.
Ableton is a Berlin-based giant that commands great respect in the music production software industry. Founded in 1999, Ableton has taken the market by a storm. Their Ableton Live is all the rage at the moment particularly with those who do live performances recording
Performance and ease of use
As I have just mentioned, Ableton Live 9 Intro is great for starters. It’s an inexpensive tool (less than 100 dollars when reviewing it) with a package of goodies for live performances. First, you learn as you explore. Its user-friendly interface has a handy tutorial on the right side that gives you a glimpse of what all the buttons do. In fact, you could start on your first project immediately after the tutorial.
It also has a helpful session view with columns. It allows you to drop audio clips into each column where you can either loop them or play them once. The best thing with this idea is that you can experiment, improvise and be as creative as you can be. It also offers over 700 sounds, 3 virtual instruments, and 26+ plugin effects. Worth noting, you can utilize up to 16 sound and 4 MIDI tracks on each recording project which is great for beginners.
As with most Ableton Live music making software, Live 9 Intro has successfully won its users’ attention too. Though this version is much limited, some experienced home-based musicians still argue that it’s enough to get as creative as you would like without spending hundreds of dollars. However, if you want an advanced version of Ableton Live, consider the Standard and Suite DAWs. You’ll be impressed.
Filling in the 7th slot in our list of the best DAW 2017 is this PreSonus Studio One 3. It’s the youngest hitter in this category yet amongst the most revered in its price range.
Presonus is a Louisiana, USA based company founded in 1995. This company is known for its music gear including studio monitors and studio headphones. It also boasts amongst the best DAWs for 2017.
Performance and ease of use
The best part about Presonus musical products is that they are designed by musicians who also take them for testing before releasing them to the market. Presonus Studio One 3 comes in 3 tiers. The prime tier has loads of free contents including unlimited audio tracks and buses. The paid version has a huge boost from the previous versions including new instruments like Presence XT and Mai Tai.
It also has new mixer enhancements and improved browser features that let you add more loops, effects, instruments, and presets. About ease of use, this DAW’s interface has an Arranger Track that makes it easy to edit, move, insert, copy, and delete sections. You also find a Scratch Pad panel on the right on which you can try out new ideas.
Its high-quality and precise editing makes it a favorite choice amongst most musicians. Its cloud integration, Project Page, and Scratch Pad are amongst other features that the users are raving about.
Cubase can be safely regarded as the Father of All Daws. It has been around for quite a long time now. Formerly known as Cubeat, later on, Cubit, this software was developed almost 3 decades ago by a German company; Steinberg. Initially, it wouldn’t run on any other computer other than Atari ST.
In this review, we have featured the entry level. If you'd want one for pro-level or intermediate level, they are available.
Performance and ease of use
Cubase Elements 8 is Steinberg’s entry-level music production software. It is several dollars below the Cubase Artist and a few hundred bucks cheaper than the Cubase Pro. However, that doesn’t make it less efficient only that it lacks several advanced features. It’s an upgrade of Cubase 7 but uses the same technology flaunted by its pricier and larger siblings. So, why should you download or upgrade to the Elements 8?
First, this DAW comes with an improved Windows handling capability on PC. Second, it makes it super easy to handle several tasks at a go, thanks to its Transient Navigation. Third, it has chord pads so you can create your projects with chords. It also offers unlimited encoding to MP3 and Asio-Guard 2 for ultra-low latencies.
This music production software boasts lots of praise from both the novice and experienced users. Amongst other things, its users like that this software is user-friendly and can handle large projects.
So far, the above 5 are the best DAWs for starters (Their premium versions are meant for professional studios). Let’s step up to some advanced units to help you through as your home studio gets more and more serious.
If you’re just starting out in music, the odds are that you haven’t heard of Reason. Though not so old in this niche, Reason is amongst those DAWs that you can rely on for those chatbusting hits.
This software is developed by Propellerhead. This company started in the 90s. However, they didn’t produce DAWs until in late 2000. Even then, their first version couldn’t record from external sources. However, that has changed over the years. Reason has evolved to be amongst the best music recording software the market has seen. Here’s why.
Performance and ease of use
Reason 9 features a 4-part interface with an arrangement window, a rack, a mixer, and a browser. What makes it unique is its studio-rack design. It allows you to expand your pool of instruments, mixers, and processors. Worth noting, Reason has no hidden menus as you work on your projects. This means that everything that you need to make your amazing hits is right on the screen. Reason 9 offers a pitch Edit paradigm with which you can give your vocals a fine tune. You also get 1000 sounds, reverbs, delays, and lots of other effects.
The few users who have reviewed Reason 9 affirm that it’s an incredible software. They appreciate not only its simple layout but its ease of installation
No list of the best music creation software for PC would be complete without mentioning Cakewalk Sonar. It’s your right to doubt the authenticity of such a list, that is, if you ever come across one. Cakewalk is a Massachusetts- based company that has been operational since 1987
Performance and ease of use
Worth noting, Cakewalk was this company’s initial midi-based sequencer. The name has since changed with the upgrading of the music making software to Sonar. Sonar Professional is a PC-made DAW that targets serious-minded artists whose projects involve lots of self-recording. The best thing about Sonar is that it can be bought upfront or in monthly installments by subscription. The thing with the upfront purchase plan is that you get lifetime free updates.
Sonar is a good performer when it comes to recording and editing audio projects. Its virtual mixing desk is the console view. It lays your tracks and buses in clear view thereby making it quite intuitive and efficient. Again, you can chop, stretch, or loop your audio projects as you wish and also carry out several tasks at a go. Among other features, you get a DAW with 50 professional FX and 18 instruments including Drums 2 Solo Bundle.
As expected most of its users approve and recommend it. However, Cakewalk’s customer service seems to be a tad poor.
There’s a huge reason why we didn’t mention the Avid Pro Tools amongst the best DAWs for starters. Besides being ideally meant for students and teachers, it has a slightly complicated setup, and a newbie wouldn’t find it so easy to use. No limitations, however. But I advise trying Pro Tools’ near-free trial edition.
Performance and ease of use
Avid Pro is ideal for creating compositions from scratch. It comes fitted with a built-in MIDI Editor for if you like to work solely with MIDI. Even better, you find the Sibelius Score Editor for projects that require strict music notation. Talking of editing, Avid Pro has 60+ effects and utility plug-ins including guitar amp emulators, Equalizers, reverbs and compressors.
This DAW’s future seems bright. Sooner or later, you’ll be able to join a community of other Avid Pro Tools users through the unique Avid Cloud Collaboration. You’ll also be able to work on a single project at the same time and also share through Pro Tools. That’s not all. You’ll also be able to connect with other musicians and sound engineers. This will make it easy to share ideas and grow your talent.
Despite it being a heavily-loaded unit, most users claim that it’s a bit hard to set it
Motu is a mature music technology company that has been around for almost 30 years now. That takes us back nicely to when MIDI sequencers were the real deal. Motu is based in Cambridge and deals with audio software, MIDI interfaces, and guitars among other things
Performance and ease of use
Motu is a first-class music production software that supports both Mac and PC (it was initially a Mac thing). It offers you the opportunity to set either AU or VST as the primary plugin. Again, it offers several themes and colors for a fully personalized setup. Though a bit complex to master, (except those who’ve used Sonar), this is an excellent package with lots of power and flexibility.
Motu 8 Performer has a Tracks View that shows not only the tracks but also the MIDI, the mixing board, and Waveform among other things. Again, it’s easy to navigate the view given that you can copy and paste things around.
This DAW enjoys impressive reviews from independent reviewers as well as users. Most of its users seem to appreciate its design and general layout
Apple Logic Studio tops our list of the best DAWs 2017. Well, I don’t mean that it’s the best of the best. It fails massively regarding flexibility, for instance, since it’s designed for Macs.
However, that slight glitch aside, this feature-stuffed Logic Studio 9 remains a top choice if you’re looking for all-round music production
Performance and ease of use
This DAW has plenty of features that make your operations easy and quick. First, you benefit from 255 instrument sounds, 255 audio tracks, 99 MIDI tracks, and over 70 plug-ins. You also get 6 fully-packed jam packs with up to 16GB and 6GB of sound effects and surround sound collections. All these make it a go-to tool with almost everything that you require to write, edit, and produce your music with.
The standout feature with the Apple Logic Studio 9 is its Flex Time. This is similar to Cubase’s Audio Warp feature but with a new and more appealing approach. While this isn’t any new to Apples Logic software, in Studio 9, Flex Time creates markers across an audio region that single out the specific beats in that audio. As such, you can easily replace it with your specific beat in a flawless manner.
Though pricey, it’s quite amazing that Logic Studio 9 has the highest rating on this list. Its customers have demonstrated a lot of love citing power, efficiency, and fair pricing as its major strongholds.
Best Free DAW - Music Making Software
As I had hinted earlier on, you can come up with superb compositions without spending a penny on music making software. Though free, you need to spend some serious time finding out which software will do and which one won’t. Here is a list of the 5 best free music making software for 2017;
It’s a bit hard for Audacity to miss out on any list of the free DAWs for music editing and mixing. Despite being totally free, this software allows you to create multi-track recordings. It also features amazing (though basic) noise removal, time stretching, and pitch correction effects. What are its downsides? First, it is too basic for a success-oriented musician. Second, it has destructive editing. As such, changes made using effects are permanent. Audacity supports almost any OS including Mac, Windows, and Linux. Get it from here
2. Reaper DAW Review
Reaper DAW is one of the most popular Digital Audio Workstations on the market today. While initially it was free of charge, today it a paid DAW. Why we label it “free” it’s because there is nowhere else you can get such a deal for less than $100. To use Reaper you have 2 options; $60 discounted licence or $225 licence depending on how you intend to use the software.
To take advantage of the $60 discounted license you must fall in one of these three categories; Be an-
- Individual looking for a DAW for personal use
- Individual or business looking for a DAW for commercial application but with a gross revenue of below $20,000.
- Non-profit organization or educational organization looking for DAW
If you don't fall in any of these 3 categories you’ll pay $225. But even at this price, it still like free, considering how much you’ll pay for other paid DAW.
Both options come with 60 days trial. This is the greatest quality assurance you can get from a software manufacturer.
What we love about REAPER
- Open-sourced compatibility with any delay, compressor, equalizer or any other software you can think of. This makes it user-friendly and expandable.
- Impressive flexibility and customizability and a lot of free plugins
- Takes less than 15MB of your hard disk space
- Compatible with Windows and Mac
Reaper DAW Video Tutorial
Reaper vs. Pro Tools
When it comes to Reaper vs. Pro Tools, the first major difference is the price price difference. Pro Tools is damn expensive. When it comes to precision Pro Tools wins while Reaper wins in customization. Pro is also one of the best DAW when it comes to editing and mixing. For Reaper it supports unlimited tracks and effects, rarely crashes, and comes with a lot of free plugins.
Surprise. Many people recommend Reaper over Pro Tools!
Ableton Live 9 vs. Reaper
In most communities and forums Ableton Live 9 is ranked first and Reaper comes second. While Reaper wins in customizability and large number of free plugins, Ableton win when it comes to advanced automation, sampling and its optimized for playing music live, making it one of the DJ friendliest DAWs on the market. It also supports dual monitor and has an impressive EQ
3. Tracktion 4
For those who are serious about producing and editing compositions totally free, Tracktion 4 would be a reliable way to go. What makes it a superb option is its super fast audio editing capabilities. This software was initially made free for Behringer customers before being made free for all in 2013. It supports both VST plugins and video files and works well with Windows, Mac, and Linux OS. Get it from here
4. DarkWave Studio
DarkWave is an increasingly popular and free DAW for Windows. This is specially designed for creating electronic music. Its sweet spot is that it supports VST plugins. Again, despite being free, it is regularly updated. It also has quite a straightforward and intuitive interface design. On the downside, DarkWave is a Windows’ DAW.
5. Podium Free
The podium is another big-name when it comes to the best free music production software. This is a fully-loaded DAW for Window. This means that you can rely on it for recording and editing both audio and MIDI. Again, it beats the Studio One 3 Prime (partially free) in that it supports VST plugins. As such, you can download 3rd party plugins as you wish. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to use Podium Free on your Mac.
Music Recording Software Buying Guide
A Digital Audio Software (or DAW in short) is a computer application used to record audios and sound effects. It can either be a computer application or a standalone electronic device. A DAW is the lifeblood that runs your music studio. Whether you are a pro studio engineer or a bedroom wannabe music starter, the best audio production software is what stands in between your ideas and other studio gear. Simply put, this is the platform through which the song in your head comes into a reality.
Assuming that you understand what a DAW is, here are a few tips to help you evaluate and find what’s good for you.
How to Choose a Music Recording Software
The road to how good your music production idea will flourish depends on how much you invest on the DAW. The best thing with DAWs is that they come in different versions/editions or packages. As such, it’s pretty easy to find one within your budget. The prices range from ‘zero’ bucks to over 1 grand. As you may have guessed, the price varies depending on what features the software offers.
Free VS Cheap Vs Expensive
Going for cheap DAWs may get your studio on its feet almost instantly. However, do know that the cheaper the software is, the more limited you are to plug-ins (instruments and effects). Therefore, as your music production intensifies, you’ll have to spend more for them. For instance, Ableton Live 9 Intro asks for around 99 dollars. On the other hand, its bigger bro Ableton Live 9 Suite costs almost 800 bucks. Sure, quite a pricey one. Amongst other differences though, the cheaper edition offers you 4GB of sounds while the Suite has 54GB of original sounds.
This limitation gets even worse if you decide to go for the free DAWs. Sure, it’s always advisable to start simple and add some more flavors down the road. However, waiting and saving a few more bucks is worth it at times. The thing with getting more extras up front is that you get used to your DAW pretty fast. This makes pumping out your ideas almost second to nature. Again, it’s also quite economical.
Plugins (virtual instruments and loops)
Simply put, plugins are tiny software that makes the DAW useful. Examples of these include compressors, effects, virtual instruments, and equalizers. Good news: Most plugins can be downloaded freely from the internet. However, some more advanced versions are sold.
On this note, plugins come in various formats. You’ll find formats like RTAS, VST, AU, and AAX amongst others. Similarly, different music recording software supports different plug-in formats. Needless to say, the more formats a DAW is compatible with, the more plugins it supports. As any other veteran music producer will tell you, go for a DAW that supports more of these.
Computer Specs and Operating System
A DAW is no good if you don’t have a computer. But, if that’s what you’re using to read this, you’re halfway done already. But wait, which is the best machine for music production? Should you use a PC or Mac? There’s a heated debate about this topic at the moment. But, in my opinion, either platform can do provided you’ve optimized its performance. Simply ensure that your computer has lots of RAM (at least 4GB) and space. The good idea is to have an external hard disc. You don’t want a system that keeps on crashing or freezing as you do your thing, right?
A common school of thought in the music industry suggests that the type of music production software doesn’t matter a lot. What matters is your preference and what you plan to do. If you’re totally green in this field, consider trying out some free versions before putting your money down for a particular full version of a DAW. Again, the internet is flooding with tutorials that you can download freely to help you through. Whether you opt for a paid or one our selected best free music making software share with us your experience.