Music production software changed music. It’s no secret.
When digital audio workstations (DAWs) came on the market, audio recording, editing, mixing and creating became a lot more accessible.
Since then, the recording software market has grown exponentially. Computing power and design innovation have pushed DAW programs into unimaginable areas of creation.
Whether you’re just starting a track, or about to reach that final mastering step, you’re gonna need a good music recording software at some point in your process.
This guide will give you everything you need to pick the best one for you.
What is a DAW?
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is a hardware device or software app used for composing, producing, recording, mixing and editing audio like music, speech and sound effects. DAWs facilitate the mixing of multiple sound sources (tracks) on a time-based grid.
Maps to the DAWS
But what makes the best DAWs ‘the best?’ With so many options out there, what’s the best DAW for beginners?
We all deserve the best possible tools for our music-making needs. So we can turn ideas into music everyday. That’s why we created this essential music recording software guide.
It’ll give you all the basic info you need to venture into the wide world of DAWs. And find the one that’s best for you.
What DAW is best for you?
If you start with something advanced and dive in head first, it’s easy to get discouraged. So start simple.
Always ask yourself ‘what am I trying to make?’ Let your DAW answer that question. If your DAW isn’t powerful enough to answer anymore, then it’s time to switch to a new DAW.
Everyone has an opinion on which recording software is the best. But the only question that matters is ‘which DAW is best for you?’
So do your research and educate yourself on which DAW softwares are available. Explore the features and try some free trials.
The Music Recording Software Checklist
Before we get into specific DAWs there are a few things to consider.
Are you looking for free recording software? Going for the free option will limit your DAW choices, but you can find free recording software out there. They’re perfect for just starting out.
If you are planning on in investing some money into a DAW, you should know exactly what it can do before you buy.
Try a Free DAW first
Many DAWs offer monthly subscriptions to their services or free trials. Use them and test the capabilities before you purchase.
Free trials are your best friend when it comes to selecting the right DAW. So dig deep into each music making software and make an informed decision when it comes to buying.
Remember that your DAW should give you some room to grow in. Don’t pick something that you’ve already outgrown as an artist just because it’s cheaper.
Every Music Recording Software You Need to Know
Now that you know what to look for in a DAW, let’s look at some of the best recording software out there and discuss some of the features.
This guide will give you the facts you need for picking the right DAW.
Bitwig is new in the music production software scene. But don’t let their age fool you. Bitwig is a powerful music production software.
Bitwig studio was launched in 2014 after an extensive testing period. Which means it was great before it even came out.
The layout and workflow is similar to Ableton Live—Bitwig was created by former Ableton developers.
But upon further use it’s plain to see that Bitwig has tweaked the overall feel and functionality. What’s left is a distinct and capable DAW that improves on Ableton in many ways.
Bitwig offers the familiar arrangment and mixing windows typical to most DAWs.
But the arrangement and mixing windows contain a central project display surrounded by easy access editing panels. This enables a smooth workflow while switching between mixing, arranging and editing tasks.
Overall Bitwig offers the best of all worlds. It’s easy to learn if you’re just starting out with recording software with plenty of room to grow in.
Despite its young age Bitwig’s quality has already surpassed many of the established DAWs. It’s a serious recording software that will only get better in future versions.
- Our Favourite Bitwig Feature
The Bitwig VST ‘Sandboxing’ ensures that no plug-in ever interrupts or lags your project while you’re creating. That means you’re computer won’t freeze just because you’re running a synth plugin.
Each VST runs independently so you can run all your favourite plugins side-by-side with no latency issues.
It’s great for lowering CPU usage while you’re working on a project. And ensuring that you don’t crash your project because of one little plug-in.
2. Studio One 3
Studio One 3 is a DAW juggernaut. They describe their software as ‘the most inspiring production and sound design tool.’ Frankly, we can’t really disagree at all.
The overall Studio One 3 workspace is streamlined and easy to navigate. The workflow makes it easy to go from blank DAW to full mix session quickly. And the editing capabilities make it perfect for testing out ideas on the fly.
The interface is even touch screen optimized so you can navigate your session on any screen with touch capabilities.
Plus it comes packed with a ton of pre-loaded sounds and instruments right inside the DAW—everything you need to get your ideas down quick and effectively.
Overall Studio One 3 strikes a perfect balance between accessibility and power which makes it the perfect DAW to grow in as a producer.
- Our Favourite Studio One 3 Feature
Studio One 3 has a nifty and useful feature called Scratch Pads. They allow you to make quick sketches of ideas that you might drag and drop into your project.
They duplicate areas of your mix in an easy to use side panel. Apply effects, EQing or anything else you wanna test out before you actually put it in the mix.
It’s perfect for finding out how edits will sound in a non-destructive way.
3. Cakewalk Sonar Platinum
SONAR Platinum is one of the best production softwares on the market. Since its initial release in 1991, SONAR has grown into an extensive and powerful DAW software.
SONAR Platinum’s interface is called Skylight and is separated into 5 easy to navigate regions. Each region can be moved or hidden depending on what you’re working on.
Platinum has a ton of useful automation including Drum Replacer for beefing up drum tracks, VocalSync for easily syncing different vocal tracks together, and a handy control bar for one-click access to all your tools.
Cakewalk is easy to get into and offers everything other DAWs do and more.
- Our Favourite Sonar Feature
SONAR’s ‘Paint with MIDI’ function is insanely useful for composing.
You can select a MIDI performance and ‘paint’ with it into the rest of the arrangement window. It’s great for pasting multiple loops, batch duplicating, and repeating specific MIDI events.
4. Ableton Live 9
Ableton has set a benchmark when it comes to recording software. Their Live 9 software is used all over the place in music production.
Whether it’s mixing a project at home in your bedroom, or using the ‘set’ window to sequence live on stage, Ableton Live is a powerful recording and editing tool for musicians of all skill levels.
Originally launched in 2001, Live is now on its 9th version. So you can imagine that most of the features are well thought out at this point—and they are. The basic ‘arrange’ and ‘session’ main views are easy to follow and intuitively linked for easy editing and composing.
The extensive sound packs, effects and instruments are easily accessible through an easy to use browse panel. Which is important given just how many amazing tools are already built-in to Ableton Live.
Ableton shines as a platform that is both accessible and extensive in what it allows you to do. It can be a first-step into producing or a full-blown mixing suite for professional results.
No matter what you use it for it’s clear to see why Ableton Live enjoys such a large and loyal following as a must-use DAW throughout all music genres.
- Our Favourite Ableton Live 9 Feature
Although it’s not an actual on-screen feature, the Ableton Push 2 controller is perhaps the most powerful DAW-specific hardware on the market—we love it.
With 64 pressure sensitive buttons and a whole grip of other programable and tweakable knobs, buttons and controllers, the Push 2 is every producers dream unit.
The original Push 1 was custom built for Ableton live by the geniuses at Akai. The Push 2 was built in house by Ableton. Both fit seamlessly into the Ableton Live workflow.
As far as we’re concerned, it’s a match made in production paradise.
Audacity is the workhorse of DAWs. Although it’s considerably less diverse in its functionality than other DAWs, its simplicity is its strength.
Audacity was released in 2009 as a completely free recording software. And it continues to be free to this day. It’s easily downloadable and compatible with all operating systems.
The main track view supplies a simple multi-track waveform display. Each waveform can be cut and pasted as you see fit with infinite steps of undo—but you don’t care because you don’t make mistakes right? ;)
The basic functions of Audacity make it great for mixing multiple songs together, recording and editing podcasts, and vocal isolation.
The flexible interface is simple to learn and easy to master over time.
If you’re new to producing and you’re looking for a good day 1 recording software, Audacity is the perfect stepping stone for get familiar with home-recording.
- Our Favourite Audacity Feature
Audacity is for the people. That’s our favourite part about it. It makes recording accessible to all aspiring musicians and sound designers.
It may not boast the extended functionality of bigger DAW software. But audacity makes up for it by being simple, un-intimidating and welcoming to all sound recordists.
Plus it’s 100% free. Proving that high quality sound tools should be available to everyone—something we’re big fans of here at LANDR.
6. Propellerhead Reason 8
Version one of Propellerhead’s Reason was launched in 2001. Now on version 8, Reason remains one of the most broadly used DAWs on the market and has built a loyal following of producers.
The Reason 8 workspace centres around the ‘Rack’ view. Modules, processors and instruments can be added to the rack from the browser for simple, sampling, arranging and editing.
With 13 years of development under its belt, Reason provides a heap of built in instruments, automation, one shot sounds and loops.
But their VST capabilities are their strong suit. Reason offers some of the best virtual instruments out there.
- Our Favourite Reason Feature
Reason is a DAW. But it can also be used as a standalone instrument rack for other DAWs as well.
This means that you can use Reasons rack capabilities to chain instruments and processors together for use in other DAWs.
So Reason can be used as a music production workstation or as a VST instrument companion for other recording softwares. Overall Reason is a versatile tweakers paradise.
7. Pro Tools 12
Avid’s Pro Tools is the grand-daddy of DAWs. It is considered the industry standard for professional productions. If you heard it on the radio, chances are it’s been through Pro Tools at some point.
The first version of Pro Tools was released in 1991. It offered 4 tracks and sold for $6,000. Needless to say, it’s come a long way since then.
Pro Tools is now on its 12th version and provides every single tool you need for each step of your production process. While the curve is quite high for learning all of the ins and outs of the software, there really isn’t another DAW on the market that rivals it’s capabilities.
Pro Tools uses an ‘Edit’ and ‘Mix’ view as its main windows. MIDI data can be added using piano role or score windows.
The mix window displays a familiar fader layout where various processing and automation can be applied. This layout seems to have influenced all DAW layouts since.
in 1999—well before most other DAWs even existed—Living La Vida Loca by Ricky Martin went to number one. It became the first song mixed entirely in Pro Tools to reach the top of the charts.
- Our Favourite Pro Tools Feature
Pro Tools First isn’t really a feature of Pro Tools. It’s more of a version. But it’s our favourite new offering from the Pro Tools camp.
It’s a starter version of Pro Tools that is completely free to try.
Pro Tools First limits some of the functionality that users get with the full version. But when it comes to a program that is as big and complex as Pro Tools, that’s a good thing.
Pro Tools First has a three project maximum and limits sessions to 16 tracks. It makes the Pro Tools workflow more accessible and easier to wrap your head around.
If you’re interested in growing your audio engineering skills in the future the Pro Tools DAW is something to look into. Pro Tools First makes it a little bit easier—and cheaper—to get started.
GarageBand is almost a household name at this point. The free DAW developed by Apple has done more for democratizing music production than almost any other DAW.
The accessibility and ease of use are it’s main points. You may even be surprised to know what hit records have been made on it considering it’s a free program that comes with all Mac OS versions.
But why is GarageBand good?
The overall layout is straightforward and simple to use. When you add an instrument you actually see the instrument in the arrangement tray (what a concept!).
All tracking is simple to understand and the loops, automation and instruments are easy to navigate and browse at all times.
No matter what you’re recording, GarageBand makes it easy to load-up and tweak any project. Straight-forward colour coding make the overall layout easy to follow.
And the helpful tips that GarageBand provides in the software are written in simple language accessible to all production skill levels.
Overall, GarageBand is a simple but effective tool for getting started with music production. And if you’re reading this on a Mac, you already have it. So make something today!
- Our Favourite GrageBand Feature
Entry-level DAWs are great stepping stones for new producers. GarageBand is entry level, but allows producers the option to graduate to Logic.
Logic, the more complex DAW software developed by Apple, expands on the basic concepts in GarageBand.
While most recording softwares offer different versions of the same DAW based on user needs, GarageBand is the only DAW which gives producers an entirely new DAW to graduate to—Logic.
Going from GarageBand to Logic makes it easy to grow as a music recordist and producer. It’s a one-two DAW punch perfect for starting out at any skill-level.
9. Logic X
Logic X is the latest version of the Apple developed professional level DAW.
Originally released in 1993, Logic Runs on the same engine as GarageBand. But it offers extended features compared to its entry-level music production software companion.
While most music software uses a multi-view layout, Logic simplifies its workspace opting for a single window view. This makes composition, arrangement and mixing simple because it’s all in one place.
Logic picks up where GarageBand leaves off and expands on the easy-to-follow concepts that lay at the core of Apple’s DAW offerings.
It’s easy to get started and relatively simple to learn, especially if you’re already familiar with GarageBand.
- Our Favourite Logic X Feature
Logic X comes with all sorts of new features that previous versions don’t have. But our favourite has to be the ‘Drummer’ plug-in.
It’s a virtual drummer that automatically plays along to your tracks. We’re not saying it’s better than a real drummer, but it’s a convenient alternative when it’s all you have.
Each virtual session drummer comes with a playing-style profile and some pre-set patterns to pick from.
Great for generating a backing track for other instruments, or playing along with live when you don’t have a real drummer handy.
10. Steinberg Cubase Pro 8
Steinberg’s Cubase goes waaaay back to a land before modern DAWs. Version 1.0 was made available for the Atari ST in 1989.
Now in version 8.5, It’s seen many versions and substantial redesigns. It remains one of the most widely used and respected music production softwares.
Cubase 8.5 is a full featured DAW with expanded functionality that comes packaged with heaps of built-in plugins.
It caters to a professional workflow but don’t let that scare you away: the interface is intuitive and easy to use with plenty of advanced features for super-ultra-power-users.
Cubase has also jumped up into the cloud with its DAW-centric cloud collaboration service VST Transit. It allows users to seamlessly work from any location and collaborate with anyone sharing the same platform.
- Our Favourite Cubase Feature
VST expression debuted in Cubase 5 but has been updated significantly over the years.
It lets you program the automation of each note individually. This gives your tracks greater detail and added character.
It’s to be expected from the company that created the VST and MIDI sequencing technology that’s still used today.
11. FL Studio
FL (Fruity Loops) Studio is a massive favourite among many producers these days.
FL Studio was first launched in 1997 by software developer Image-Line as a MIDI only program—but has since seen 12 increasingly powerful versions.
Version 12 boasts a fully reworked and scalable interface that extensively supports multi-touch surfaces.
It comes standard with a wide variety of native plugins including synths, samplers and virtual effect units as well as full support for VST, VST2, VST3, DX, and ReWire.
FL Studio’s appearance follows the standard arrangement and performance views; music data can be composed using the Piano roll or Step Sequencer.
Its strengths lie in the workstation’s accessibility and robustness with many artists touting how quick and easy it is to put ideas down.
Image-Line also offers sweet FREE lifetime updates to the program. That means if you purchase once you’ll have access to every version from now until forever.
- Our Favourite FL Studio Feature
Sytrus is FL’s excellent 6 operator FM softsynth. It has come standard with FL Studio since version 4.5.
Although FM synthesis can be quite a bit to chew on, Sytrus makes the process easy and satisfying to explore. Sytrus helps you sculpt versatile and monstrous sounds.
It’s a perfect synth for long journeys into the sonic unknown—highly recommended.
REAPER (Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording) comes from the same developers as the WinAmp software and Gnutella peer-to-peer network.
It’s a powerful, comprehensive and adaptive DAW without any engineering compromises.
The product comes with a free 60 day trial, while an individual license will run you 60 bucks (insane deal). It includes plenty of helpful tools including clear and helpful video tutorials.
The interface is a linear multi-track arrangement window on a timeline. The arrangement view offers easily moveable media items.
There are no track types in REAPER—each track you create can do anything you need it to (audio, midi, video, bussing)—which makes arranging super simple.
REAPER is a great option if you’re just starting out or if you’ve had your head in a DAW for as long as you can remember.
Beginners can simply press record and off they go. While experienced users can get tangled up in REAPER’s routing matrix or use ReaScript to program anything from a macro to a full-featured extension.
- Our Favourite REAPER Feature
Reapers best feature is its full customizable interface. Key commands, toolbars, menus and mouse behaviours can all be tweaked to your liking.
If you’re coming from another DAW and you’re used to a particular workflow, don’t fear the Reaper. It can adjust to you.
Create, Mix, Repeat
Music producing software has made creating accessible and easy. With all the software out there to choose from, there’s no excuse to not be creating everyday.
If you’re asking yourself how to record music better or how to edit music better, Or how to mix music, chances are there’s a DAW out there that’s the answer.
So educated yourself on each DAW, find the one that’s right for you and get started crafting that perfect sound.