The digital audio workstation (DAW) is the heart of the modern studio. Whether we're running a small home studio or a big-time professional studio, a DAW (or multiple DAWs) will be required.
Long gone are the days of cutting and splicing tape; having to bounce down recorded tracks to free up new tracks for overdubs; having to manually adjust mix parameters as the final mix is recording, and the like. We're in the digital age now and DAWs make our studios run so much more efficiently!
Choosing a DAW, then, is a big choice for a studio owner or a beginner in the craft of audio production. Usually, we make our decisions based on industry trends, familiarity, compatibility and price.
With so many DAWs to choose from on the market today, it can be tough to single the all-time “best” option. In this article, we'll use the loose criteria mentioned above and talk about the top 7 best DAWs.
The Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations In The World Are:
- Avid Pro Tools
- PreSonus Studio One
- Apple Logic Pro
- Ableton Live
- Image-Line FL Studio
- Steinberg Cubase
- Cockos Reaper
Of course, any article of this nature will have some objectivity and some subjectivity. I, like everyone else, am biased as to what I like about a DAW. However, I believe these 7 DAWs to be the best on the market, based on the following criteria:
Note that, in an effort to keep this list evergreen, I won't get into too many specifics of each digital audio workstation. Many DAWs are regularly updated and so I do not want to give any incorrect information about the most recent versions nor do I want to give outdated information. That being said, if anything would change to remove a brand from this list (or cause a brand to break the top 7), I'll be sure to change this article!
How many functions is the digital audio workstation capable of doing? We're looking at things such as:
- Audio recording
- MIDI capabilities and editing
- Audio editing
- Stock plug-ins & virtual instruments
- Mixing capabilities
- Channel strips
- Routing capabilities
- Import/export options
- Automation protocol
- Windows (mix, arrangement, performance, etc.)
- Video options
Many DAWs will be “full-featured” (like every one on this list). However, some software labelled as digital audio workstations will be either specialized or simply lack key features that we may need in our studio.
Compatibility is a concern when picking the best DAW for a studio. This could mean a few different things.
First and foremost, is the DAW compatible with the computer? We can't use a Windows-only DAW on Mac OS and vice versa, for example. It's also critical that the computer matches or exceeds the system requirements of the DAW (which are subject to change with each new update).
There could be potential issues between the DAW and hardware though these issues are relatively rare.
It's also important to have a DAW that is compatible with any other DAW you're working with. It can be a pain to try getting sessions cleanly from one DAW to another (especially when you're sending or receiving sessions from another person in another studio).
Also, it's important that the DAW is compatible with your goals and workflow. This ties into functionality and it also ties into our next point: user-friendliness.
Choosing a DAW that's easy to use and compliments your workflow will make life so much more enjoyable. A few “user-friendly” factors are:
- Hot keys
- Overall workflow
Updates & compatibility issues are certainly objective ease-of-use problems. It's a pain to have to troubleshoot, even if the program is otherwise a superb choice.
Complex software, like digital audio workstations, can be glitchy. Each update has to meet compatibility with numerous operating systems and with so much functionality comes a great deal of code.
On top of glitchiness, we should watch out for any warnings of built-in bugginess including issues with data processing; system errors; latency; etc.
Much of this can be solved with a quick google search and a few tweaks or a call to the software support team. However, if a DAW is overly buggy, it can quickly eat up your time for being creative or (arguably worse) cause you to miss your deadline while you attempt to troubleshoot the issue(s).
This kind of ties in with compatibility and is more of a professional studio issue.
Picking an industry-standard DAW will get you comfortable working with professional tools. This is great if you're getting into the industry and nearly a must-do if you're a studio owner.
Price is always a factor. Some DAWs are completely free, which is great for a beginner, though the free software may be a bit too glitchy or restricted for the professional using a DAW to pay his or her bills.
Other DAWs have a one-time fee which may or may not be in your budget.
Of course, software will eventually require updates to either improve functionality or compatibility with the software and hardware it interacts with. Some companies offer free updates with a purchase; others use a subscription model, and some others require users to pay for each and every update.
Knowing the initial and recurring costs should be factored in when choosing the best DAW for you!
With that out of the way, let's get into each of the 7 best DAWs!
Also, be sure to read to the end to get a list of all the DAWs on the market today.
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Avid Pro Tools
Want to learn Pro Tools? Check out my article The Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn Avid Pro Tools DAW.
Avid's Pro Tools is the industry-standard digital audio workstation for professionals in music, film, video games and broadcast. This powerful DAW is used by musicians, engineers and producers around the world. Initially released in 1989, Pro Tools has been the standard for quite some time and its longevity as the choice of professionals around the world is a testament to how great this DAW is.
Pro Tools offers three main versions of the DAW:
- Pro Tools First
- Pro Tools Native Version
- Pro Tools Ultimate
Pro Tools First is free but hardly worth mentioning with its limitations (16 audio and MIDI tracks; only 4-track recording at any time; limited project saving, which must be in the cloud and accessed via an Avid account, etc.).
Pro Tools Native Version (simply called “Pro Tools”) is a fully functioning digital audio workstation. There are limits on the number of tracks but these limits are beyond what most people would use the program for. This version also supports video for those who need it.
Pro Tools Ultimate is, well, the ultimate version of Pro Tools and can be run natively on the computer or with Avid's high-end I/O and converter hardware like the Avid HD I/O 16X16.
With Pro Tools Ultimate, we get more than enough in terms of audio track count. We also get support for multi-layered video editing; surround sound mixing; broadcast, and much more. This DAW is extremely functional for all of your studio needs and more.
Being the dominant DAW in the audio industry, Pro Tools will give you compatibility with a large number of other studios around the world. The company does a great job of maintaining project compatibility across all versions.
When it comes to plugins, Pro Tools is only compatible with AAX (Avid Audio eXtension) plugins and not with AU (Audio Unit) or VST (Virtual Studio Technology), which are the two most common types. That being said, Pro Tools' juggernaut status has lead many plugin companies to produce AAX versions of their plugins to get a piece of the Avid market.
Avid is notoriously slow at certifying Pro Tools for new operating systems and computers. When running Pro Tools, it's often best to hold off on updating your operating system to maintain full compatibility. I've personally experienced the bugginess in my professional career after an iMac automatically updated and it's not a fun experience.
But with such powerful functionality, there's a lot that can go wrong. I'm not blaming Avid for this issue, though it is frustrating.
Avid is also a bit behind the curve when it comes to adopting new features that many other DAWs have integrated. Again, I think the philosophy is to develop the DAW slow and steady to ensure the best results.
In my opinion, Pro Tools is the best DAW for editing, mixing and mastering audio and for working with video. However, it lags behind with MIDI and is a poorer choice when it comes to producing/scoring/writing music.
It's a superb option in the studio and on the road and is always an option for recording in broadcast situations.
Pro Tools is an expensive digital audio workstation. Avid has both subscription and perpetual licence options for its DAW. Upgrading comes at an additional cost. Even the perpetual licence only comes with 12 months of support for upgrades, at which you'd have to switch to a subscription model if you want upgrades.
I used Pro Tools exclusively at the audio engineering school I attended. This program was also the main DAW at the audio house I worked in professionally for 5 years. However, I've never purchased the DAW for myself. I believe there are better options for my “bedroom studio”.
Operating system(s): Windows & Mac
PreSonus Studio One
Want to learn Studio One? Check out my article The Top 9 Best Online Resources To Learn PreSonus Studio One DAW.
PreSonus's Studio One is another popular digital audio workstation. This DAW has been around since 2009 and is the youngest DAW on this list. Since its introduction, PreSonus has been putting in work and this impressive digital audio workstation has been gaining popularity amongst professionals and amateurs alike.
Like Avid's Pro Tools, Studio One comes in three main versions:
- Studio One Prime
- Studio One Artist
- Studio One Professional
Studio One Prime is a free digital audio workstation with unlimited audio and instrument tracks but otherwise limited capabilities.
Studio One Artist allows users to record, produce and mix all from a single DAW. It has some great virtual instruments, an intuitive single-window work environment and unlimited audio/instrument track (CPU/RAM permitting). There are some limitations (such as no mastering section/project page)but is a superb choice for home and bedroom studios alike.
Studio One Professional is at the top of the line and is reasonably priced (especially compared to Pro Tools). This DAW is a full functional tool for composing, recording, producing, mixing and mastering.
PreSonus is known for its ease of use and fully customizable user interface. This intuitive DAW is a great program to get started with and perhaps the best DAW to switch to from another DAW (it even has customizable hotkeys with presets that match other DAWs).
This user-friendly DAW is capable of complex functions with simple drag-and-drop actions.
Though the DAW is certainly original, it plays well with other DAWs and plugins (AU and VST) and includes many of the features found in other top-performing DAWs.
A big part of Studio One's success as the youngest DAW on this list is that it's consistently being updated. Incremental updates are regularly offered for free, making this a DAW that keeps on giving.
One standout feature worth mentioning is the Studio One mastering suite that comes included in the DAW itself. This gives users a complete system for mastering audio directly within the DAW and Studio One was the first to accomplish this.
What draws a lot of people to Studio One is that it combines linear and pattern-based workflows into a single DAW. Many other DAWs focus on one of these two basic types (Ableton Live is mainly pattern-based while Steinberg Cubase is mainly linear) but Studio One combines both seamlessly.
The included plugins (effects and instruments) are superb as is the case with all the DAWs on this list. Choose the Professional version to get all of these excellent plugins.
Presonus has priced Studio One Professional at a very competitive point for how functional the digital audio workstation is. The DAW comes as a digital download and is sold as a one-time payment. Upgrading to this version from an older or Artist/Producer version is discounted. Note that the PreSonus Sphere membership includes Studio One Professional.
Admittedly, my experience with Studio One is rather limited other than a few times at a colleague's home studio. My takeaway was that the layout is easy to maneuver and the DAW seems highly functional to get any job done.
Operating system(s): Windows & Mac
Apple Logic Pro
Want to learn Logic Pro? Check out my article The Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn Apple Logic Pro X DAW.
Logic Pro is perhaps the best value when it comes to digital audio workstations so long as you're running a computer with macOS. This is Apple's DAW and has been a go-to choice for veterans and beginners since its initial release all the way back in 1993.
Unlike many of the DAWs on this list, Logic Pro has no alternate versions. There is only the full digital audio workstation.
Apple is well-known for its aesthetically-pleasing designs. It's no wonder that Logic Pro has such a polished and organized interface. This DAW is well laid out and easy to use and the windows are easily adjustable.
This powerful DAW is among the best when it comes to MIDI tracking and the utilization of virtual instruments. It's also a great choice for editing and recording, though many would argue Pro Tools is the king (including myself). That being said, holistically speaking, Logic Pro is one of the best tools for composing to film and for producing any genre of music.
The hotkeys and commands of Logic Pro are second to none. They are very intuitive by default and fully customizable to your liking. The powerful tools of this DAW can be accessed very quickly, making this workstation a breeze to learn and to use in professional and amateur settings alike.
Apple offers incremental updates Logic Pro several times a year (for free), fixing bugs; keeping the program up to date with the latest macOS, and improving functionality and workflow.
It goes without saying that, like the other DAWs on this list, Logic has some amazing stock plugins including pretty much everything you'd need to mix and some awesome virtual instruments to get you started.
Logic Pro is, hands down, the best value when it comes to professional digital audio workstations. The DAW only has one type (the full version) and it's priced below the top versions of the other major DAWs on the market. The one-time fee is small and will get you everything you need. Inter-version upgrades are made free though upgrading to a new version (9 to X, for example) will cost the full price.
Logic Pro is my personal favourite for music production, bar none. I love it for scoring to picture and even for editing (though Pro Tools takes the cake on that one). Logic Pro is my main DAW in my studio.
Operating system(s): Mac
Want to learn Ableton Live? Check out my article The Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn Ableton Live DAW.
Ableton Live is an impressive digital audio workstation that combines the power of a studio-grade DAW with the creativity of a live performance instrument. This DAW has been around since 2001 and has garnered a large base of users particularly in the realm of electronic music production and performance.
Ableton Live comes in three main versions:
- Live Lite
- Live Intro
- Live Standard
- Live Suite
Ableton Live Lite is a limited version of Ableton that comes with various hardware devices and apps that have a relationship with Ableton. It's a decent DAW but is rather limited in functionality.
Ableton Live Intro can be bought via Ableton or other sellers. It's limited in the number of tracks, channels, scenes and stock sounds, virtual instruments and effects but works in the same flow as the other versions.
Ableton Live Standard is the middle-of-the-line version of Live and features unlimited tracks and scenes. It also has additional virtual instruments, effects and sounds built into the DAW. This version is fully functional.
Ableton Live Suite is the complete deal with Max for Live (build your own virtual instruments and effects). It also features all of Ableton's sounds, effects and virtual instruments. It's a fully-functional DAW for studio and live performance with unlimited creative potential.
Ableton Live is best known for its fluidity between the studio and stage. This DAW was the first to go mainstream with two effective modes: an Arrangement View to produce music on a typical timeline and a Session View to trigger different clips, in sync, during writing sessions or live performances. It's this functionality that has made Live a go-to for electronic music producers around the world.
This music-centric DAW is deeply inspiring with a great variety of powerful tools for music production including standard and unique virtual instruments, audio manipulation tools, superb MIDI functionality and more. The DAW also has awesome mixing and mastering tools to get a track release-ready without having to leave Live.
Ableton Live is designed to be at the centre of a studio or live music setup. It works well with outboard gear and can either control or be controlled by other external hardware.
Whether you're recording a record at home or improvising in front of a live audience, Ableton Live is a flexible and powerful DAW for you.
$749 Ableton Live Suite is a relatively expensive DAW that can be purchased in one payment or over a series of smaller monthly payments. Upgrades to Standard or Suite (or to the next version) are available at a discount.
Ableton Live is the favourite of pretty much every electronic musician I know in my hometown. I've tried my hand at it several times but never got the hang of it even though I know how powerful it is. Throughout my learning of Ableton, I began mixing up my Logic and Pro Tools hotkeys in professional sessions and that was ultimately my excuse to stop learning. I really enjoy Ableton when I get to use it though!
Operating system(s): Windows & Mac
Image-Line FL Studio
Want to learn FL Studio? Check out my article The Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn Image-Line FL Studio DAW.
FL Studio was originally released in 1997 as ‘FruityLoops' by Image-Line. This powerful DAW is easy to get around and is particularly popular amongst EDM and Hiphop producers.
FL Studio comes in 4 different editions:
- FL Studio Fruity
- FL Studio Producer
- FL Studio Signature
- FL Studio All Plugins Edition
The FL Studio Fruity edition is rather limited. It doesn't even allow audio files or audio recording whatsoever.
The FL Studio Producer Edition is the most popular of the four and is a fully functional digital audio workstation. It's great for recording, producing and mixing but lacks some of the features and plugins (editors, effects and instruments) that the next editions have.
SL Studio Signature takes things a step further with additional plugins, including mastering plugins. It also features a video player for working with video.
The FL Studio All Plugins Edition contains all of Image-Lines plugins and is the ultimate version of FL Studio. This DAW is as powerful as they come.
This DAW is extremely powerful and is one of the most versatile workstations on the market. It's no wonder it's made so many “best DAW” lists, including this one. There are several ways to achieve practically any outcome within the DAW, making it easy to use in your preferred workflow.
FL Studio has an easy-to-use pattern block workflow that can be used in producing music. It also has arguably the best piano roll of any DAW with powerful yet easy controls.
FL has its classic Playlist mode, where any track, pattern or audio clip can be put on any of the 500 tracks. It also has Track mode, which will allow it to work like a traditional linear timeline DAW. Performance mode is a pattern-based style that makes live performance and jamming easy.
FL's virtual instruments are also among the best in the world. Make sure you get the All Plugins Edition to access all these superb instruments. My personal favourite is the additive synthesizer/re-synthesizer Harmor (I wish there was a macOS version)!
The mixer of FL is a bit different and can be a bit tricky to use but is very powerful and flexible once understood.
Image-Line has priced all of their FL Studio editions at reasonable price points though the full edition is the most second-most expensive on the list (after Pro Tools). What's even better is the company offers lifetime free updates for whatever edition you buy and discounts if you'd like to upgrade the edition, making it so you don't lose money as you improve your set up.
FL Studio was what started it all for me back in 2009. I had no clue what I was doing at the time but really grew with the software. I really dig the built-in plug-ins and MIDI capabilities but loathe the mixing portion of the software.
Operating system(s): Windows
Want to learn Cubase? Check out my article The Top 9 Best Online Resources To Learn Steinberg Cubase DAW.
Steinberg's Cubase has been around as long as Avid's Pro Tools (since 1989) but never quite reached the success of Pro Tools. That being said, this powerful DAW is the go-to workstation for plenty of professionals around the world and shouldn't be overlooked just because Pro Tools happened to become the industry standard.
There are three different versions of Steinberg's Cubase:
- Cubase Elements
- Cubase Artist
- Cubase Pro
Cubase Elements is the basic version of Cubase but is still a fully functional DAW. Its limitations are notable compared to the other version (track count, number of plugins, editing capabilities, etc.) but it's still a good program.
Cubase Artist features pretty much all the tools required of an artist or producer but lacks the extra tools that would be needed in a professional client-facing studio.
Cubase Pro is the most powerful version of Cubase and includes superb tools for the professional including advanced import/export support, meter and top-of-the-line plugins.
This DAW is a popular choice for audio professionals and for the home studios of musicians. Cubase offers a notably smooth workflow and interface that, once understood, is deeply powerful and fast to use.
Though many people love Cubase for its superb MIDI functionality and the ease at which it handles virtual instruments, it's also a superb tool for recording, mixing and video scoring. The DAW has been, for a long time, one of the best systems for recording and editing MIDI information.
In addition to excellent MIDI, Cubase offers an incredible score editor which transposes MIDI into notation within the DAW.
Recording is made easy and routing is a breeze with the mixer and Control Room functions.
This wonderful DAW has plenty of powerful tools for recording, mixing and mastering. It's been a top competitor for a long time and Steinberg continues to keep up with the trends of musicians, producers and engineers in order to offer one of the world's top-performing digital audio workstations.
The full version of Cubase is a bit pricey but comes down in price if you own other Steinberg products. This means that upgrades are relatively affordable once an initial purchase is completed. This DAW is not on a subscription plan.
Cubase is another staple. I messed around a bit with this one in the early days on a friend's laptop but never really dug too deeply into all its functionality.
Operating system(s): Windows & Mac
Want to learn Reaper? Check out my article The Top 9 Best Online Resources To Learn Cockos Reaper DAW.
Reaper (an acronym for Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording) was released in 2006 and is a popular DAW for its great value (low cost) and customizability. You may not find this DAW in professional studios but it deserves a spot on this list for its flexibility, functionality and superb value.
Unlike many of the DAWs on this list, Reaper has no alternate versions. There is only the full digital audio workstation.
Reaper is a bit different than the other DAWs in the list. It's a very customizable workstation but looks a bit less polished. It also comes with a limited amount of plugins which means that you'll likely want to pick up some third-party VSTs or AUs.
The basic user interface uses barely any CPU and starts off pretty bland. However, by adding and customizing the DAW, we can build it up to a professional-level digital audio workstation at a fraction of the price.
So Reaper gets the final spot for its ability to grow along with the beginner/hobbyist into a fully-functional DAW. It's not the prettiest straight out of the box but it's super easy to use and to upgrade. On top of that, a licence is very affordable and you get lifetime free updates.
Reaper is incredibly affordable with a low price point for the commercial licence (business use) and a large discount for a discounted license (for personal use). Logic is a bit cheaper than the commercial licence but not by much. There's only one Reaper DAW and a licence will get you all the updates.
I was put on to Reaper in my university days, again, by a friend who had it on his laptop (a different friend this time). I was immediately drawn in by the customization that was possible. I got it for myself and used it enough to get the hang of it. Ultimately, I preferred FL Studio and stuck with that DAW (for the time) instead.
Operating system(s): Windows, Mac & Linux
Full List Of Digital Audio Workstations
I've put together a comprehensive list of digital audio workstations to offer other options besides my top 7.
Please note that, while these are “digital audio workstations”, some software programs offer more functionality than others.
While some of the following DAWs offer everything we could need (recording, playback, editing, MIDI, plug-ins, mixing/mastering), others are specialized in a select few.
Some of the following DAWs have been releases to the market by software companies for profit while others are open source and free-of-charge. Some run on multiple operating systems while others are limited to Windows, Mac or Linux operating systems.
I've added links to the official websites of each DAW if you're interested in checking them out.
With that all being said, here's a comprehensive list of the digital audio workstations:
- Ableton Live
- Acoustica Mixcraft
- Adobe Audition
- AIR Ignite (discontinued)
- Apple GarageBand
- Apple Logic Pro
- Audiotool (online)
- Audio Mulch
- Avid Pro Tools
- Bandlab (Sonar) Cakewalk
- Bitwig Studio
- Bosca Ceoil
- Brainmodular Usine Hollyhock
- Bremmers Audio Design Multitrack Studio
- Cockos Reaper
- Experimental Scene Darkwave Studio
- Harrison Mixbus
- Image-Line FL Studio
- Jeskola Buzz
- LMMS (Linus MultiMedia Studio)
- Magix Acid Pro
- Magix Acid Music Studio
- Magix Music Maker
- Magix Samplitude
- Magix Sequoia
- Magix Sound Forge
- Making Waves
- Merging Pyramix
- MOTU Digital Performer
- MOTU AudioDesk
- MuTools MuLab
- n-Track Studio
- Nassen RaX'n'TraX
- NCH Mixpad
- Ohm Force Ohm Studio
- Open Labs Stagelight
- PreSonus Studio One
- Propellerhead Reason
- RML Labs SAWStudio
- Sagan Technology Metro
- Source Forge Wired
- Spotify Soundtrap (online)
- Steinberg Cubase
- Steinberg Nuendo
- Steinberg Sequel
- Steinberg Wavelab
- Traverso DAW
- Tracktion Waveform
- Willow Software Anvil Studio
- Zynewave Podium
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