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Digital Audio Workstations: How to Pick the Best DAW for You

by | Master Your Craft, Mastering

If you’re involved with music production, likely, you are already familiar with the term DAW (Digital Audio Workstation); however, if you have a newly developed interest in the field, this could be an introduction to the term.

Whatever your level of know-how, this article aims to provide information regarding some of the best DAWs available to us in 2021. Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) have been around since the 90s and have provided artists everywhere the chance to dabble in their music-making endeavors. This software is used from beginning to end in the production process (unless you’re kitted with a fully analog setup), including when recording, arranging, editing, mixing, and mastering, so choosing one that fits your needs and workflow is important. 

Keep in mind that many people use multiple DAWs for their work, and you certainly don’t have to commit to any single product. When deciding on which software you will commit to, there are a few things to keep in mind and a few things you will need to establish yourself. This article will be focusing on 10 of the top DAW contenders that 2021 has to offer for your music production needs. We’ll take a look at their compatibilities, features, pros, and cons, as well as price ranges. 

So, now that we have a rough outline of what a Digital Audio Workstation is, we can take a deeper dive into the seemingly bottomless pit of options that we’ll have to face when deciding upon a product for ourselves. Do not be dismayed, as there are a few simple questions we need to ask ourselves before we start to establish what direction we’ll go in. 

  1. What are your production needs?
  2. What RAM and processing power are you working with?
  3. What is your price range?

Some free DAWs may not be as comprehensive as some of the more refined products out there, but that can certainly get the job done. If you’re new to music production or sound design, you may not care too much about all of the fancy features and complicated extras because you just want to try it out. Well, kudos to you! I’m sure that the accessibility of the free software is one of the things that makes it appealing to anybody with interest. However, if you enjoy experimentation and want to take your skills further, you might find yourself back at the drawing board once again in no time at all looking for a DAW that will accommodate your furthered interest. Here is a list of free DAWs that are worth checking out if your mind is set on this (in no particular order):

  • Cakewalk (BandLab)
  • Audacity 
  • Waveform Free
  • Pro Tools First 
  • Studio One Prime
  • MPC Beats

However, if you’re considering starting ‘ahead of the loop,’ investing in software that will provide you with infinitely more possibilities is the way to go. Let’s begin by addressing the three essential questions that we must ask ourselves. 

  1. What are your production goals? This refers to what you are aiming to achieve by utilizing a DAW. Some of us might only need to record a bassline or a vocal take, in which case you likely won’t need to spend a fortune on advanced software. So, do you mix more, make music, or spend your time mastering, for example?
  2. What RAM and processing power does your computer have? It is important to note that most of these programs require (at least) an above-average computer that has decent RAM and processing power. Check out the product specs and requirements on the various product websites. 
  3. What is your price range? Unfortunately, this will definitely factor in at some point. Some of these options are very affordable and offer some serious ‘bang for your buck’; however, others are much more pricey (for good reason).

Now, before we ask these questions and move into more detail, here are the ten programs we’ll be focussing on (in no particular order) – clicking on each will redirect you to the product website: 

Please bear in mind these are only ten of the options out there, and this article is not meant to insinuate that they are the best but rather some of the better options for a variety of needs and requirements. Let’s begin! 

Garage Band (Apple)

Let’s start with Apple’s Garage Band. This is an acclaimed piece of software that has established a name for itself in the industry. Although aimed at beginners, it has a lot to offer in multi-track recording, editing, and music production. No DAW is genre-dependant, as you are in control. However, certain elements are included – such as sample libraries and instrument presets – might be more suited for specific genres. In this case, the loop-based production technique that is encouraged favors Hip-Hop and other similar music styles. If you run on a Mac, this could be a great starting point!

OS (Operating System): Mac

Price: Free

Mixcraft (Acoustica) 

Next up is what many people might consider as the Windows/PC competitor of Garage Band, which is Acoustica’s Mixcraft. This DAW offers a recording suite and a more expensive mixing suite in their product range and is a great option to start with. Mixcraft has become renowned for its easy-to-use software that still manages to deliver incredible production power. Like most programs, there is an extensive sample library that you will have access to if you decide to use Mixcraft, and in this case, it might be more suited for bands and live music production. 

OS: Windows/PC

Price: $75 – $150

Cockos Reaper

This incredible piece of software makes many professional DAW features available in an easy-to-use program that is almost entirely customizable. This means that you can set up your DAW to suit your production style and personalize your experience, making it very user-friendly. It offers excellent editing power, robust tools for sound design, and a powerful sound engine. It’s a new DAW on the market compared to some of these brands, but Reaper builds a great name and reputation for themselves and their products. 

OS: PC/Mac

Price: $60 – $100

Logic Pro X 

Limited to Apple users, this DAW has provided many artists with satisfying versions of their program for music creation, mixing, and other audio endeavors over the years. Since its conception in 2002, it has grown into one of the most popular DAWs on the market, which is surprising considering it excludes an entire population of PC users. Surprisingly, this is one of the strengths, as almost any audio interface that works with Mac will be compatible with Logic too – saving tons of confusion and time trying to get sound out of the speakers when using an ‘unfamiliar’ interface (as you start collaborating you might spend time in other studio environments which is when this might become an issue).

OS: Mac

Price: $100 – $300

FL Studio

Formerly known as ‘Fruity Loops’ before a run-in with Kellogs, this DAW is one of the industry favorites amongst beginner/amateur artists and producers – it has a great deal of professional support too. It’s played a significant role in Hip-Hop and Electronic Dance Music’s production worlds over the years, and its recent developments have seen it become even easier to use with greater compatibility options. One of its defining features will have to be the lifetime upgrades that you have access to as an owner of the DAW – in most cases, and upgrades are much less expensive than the full software cost. However, they still add an additional expense to your budget, so this offer by FL Studios is tremendous. Some of its more notable inclusions are its powerful MIDI editing and automation tools.

OS: PC/Mac

Price: $100 – $300

Studio One (PreSonus)

Studio One has gained a lot of traction in recent times as they have managed to develop a product that offers a well-contrasted balance of easy-to-use features and some more advanced processing abilities and power. As it becomes a more recognized and widely-used DAW, a progressive number of opinions say that it is the most ‘cultured’ or ‘mature’ program out there with many features that are ahead of the times. Arguably, PreSonus offers one of the most versatile products for audio production on the market today. 

OS: PC/Mac

Price: $300 – $500

Cubase (Steinberg)

Amongst the oldest and original DAWs available, Cubase has developed a name for itself in the audio-post production world and is considered one of the more dependable programs. Although it doesn’t offer the easiest workflow to grasp, you’ll have it for good once you’ve got it. It’s recommended for composing and writing music but slightly less effective for editing – regardless, you won’t be disappointed. 

OS: PC/Mac

Price: $350 – $600

Reason (Reason Studios)

Aimed at providing a great virtual experience around building and using studio racks, this DAW offers a unique user experience and some seriously powerful routing and mixing possibilities. It has developed quite a lot over the last few years by incorporating updated recording and mixing features, fashioning it into a more desirable product to many. It provides its users with one of the biggest libraries of instruments, presets, and samples making it extremely useful in certain realms of music production. If you’re a fan of analog gear and sound but don’t have the money, capital, or space to indulge your interests, this is the DAW for you.

OS: PC/Mac

Price: $400 – $600

Ableton Live

Ableton Live has been a leading DAW in the industry for a very long time, and to no surprise. This DAW offers a unique element that makes it so desirable – the Live feature – which is designed to work as an instrument for live performance. This revolutionized music performance and opened up countless new avenues for artists to express themselves. A single person now has the power to perform on behalf of an entire ensemble/band/orchestra – no wonder it is most popular amongst Electronic genres. Aside from this, Ableton has developed into one of the most compelling DAWs because of its ability to process and manipulate audio for many audio fields. Although some editing features may not meet all professional needs, I’m sure that these issues will be addressed in the future.

OS: PC/Mac

Price: $100 – $750

Pro Tools (Avid)

Avid’s Pro Tools is, undeniably, the industry-standard DAW. This program has been around, in some form, since the early 1980s and has been (and still is) at the forefront of technological advances in the digital audio world ever since. The audio processing power of this DAW is something to behold as it offers infinite possibilities with its powerful features. One thing to note is that this is a rather complicated software to understand without some form of training, and this makes it largely inaccessible to the independent artist/producer. I suppose its lack of accessibility due to complicated-workflows and high-price almost makes it exclusive. Audio institutions certainly can afford to commit to this; however, unless you’re either an aspiring or a trained audio engineer, this product might not be right for you. With this being said, if you are willing to learn and develop your skills, then I don’t think you can go wrong by investing your time and money into this software.

OS: PC/Mac

Price: $750

After going through the process of establishing your needs and then doing your research, you will eventually have to make a decision. If you’re committing to invest, there is one crucial thing to remember; most of these DAWs offer a free trial period, which allows you the opportunity to experience the program before you spend your money. Try out your options and see what feels right for you. 

In conclusion, there are many DAWs out there (a lot more than the few mentioned here), and after reading this, you should have a decent understanding of what you need to think about to make sure you get the right software for yourself. Depending on your specific requirements, your computer, your budget, and your willingness to explore the right program for you is out there, and your DAW to success might be around the next corner.

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