The 16 best DAW software apps in the world today
31st Oct 2013 | 22:30
PRODUCTION EXPO 2013: As is inevitably widely discussed whenever we open the voting for our annual DAW poll, it’s virtually impossible for us to say that one digital audio workstation is better than all the others.
There are countless great music production applications on the market these days, and each has its strengths and weaknesses and will inevitably offer a workflow that will suit some musicians more than others.
So rather than try and debate which application is 'best', we've asked MusicRadar readers to vote on their current favourite. As such, the results are less a definitive ranking of DAWs by quality, more a barometer of which music making packages are currently the most popular.
The following countdown is based on your votes in our 2013 poll: you might dispute the order or the winner, but what we can say with some confidence is that, if you can’t make decent music with at least one of these products, the fault certainly doesn’t lie with the software. Our list here is a refreshed and updated version of the one that we've published in the past few years, and kicks off with...
MuLab is one of those DAWs that operates slightly under the radar: lots of people will never have heard of it, but its users are passionate about it.
If you want to do the basics - record/edit MIDI and audio, mix, use plug-ins etc - and like the idea of a simple, no-clutter interface, MuLab is certainly worth trying. Those who are prepared to dig a bit deeper will also find a powerful modular sound system under the hood.
A free version is available, while others cost €25 and €75.
FIND OUT MORE: MuTools MuLab
Sony Creative Software Acid
It may no longer be a leading light in the DAW world, but when it was launched in 1998, its automatic audio timestretching and pitch shifting marked Acid out as revolutionary.
These features remain Acid’s key strengths, though it should be noted that the program can now handle MIDI, too (and, as of version 7, video). It may not be the flashiest app on this list, but Acid remains fast, capable and easy to use.
FULL REVIEW:Sony Creative Software Acid Pro 7
Acoustica Mixcraft Pro Studio
When PC users ask us if it’s possible to get a GarageBand-style application for their operating system, we tend to point them in the direction of Mixcraft.
This is no mere copycat software, though: Mixcraft actually trumps Apple’s software in some respects, providing you with a proper mixer and effects sends. It also comes with a useful plug-in bundle, while version 6 (pictured) adds the likes of effects chains, ReWire hosting and even a guitar tuner on every channel. There's also a standard version that costs £70.
FULL REVIEW: Acoustica Mixcraft 6
You’ll have to search long and hard to find a more beginner-friendly DAW than this one, which ships with all new Macs and can now be download for free by all OS X Mavericks users via the Mac App Store.
Non-musicians can simply sequence the supplied audio loops, but a decent collection of software instruments comes included too, as does multitrack recording functionality and a good selection of virtual guitar amps and stompboxes.
The latest verison of GarageBand takes features and design cues from Logic Pro X. Drummer is great for automatically generating beats, Smart Controls make for more pleasant editing of sounds, and you can even use the Logic Remote iPad all to control the software.
FULL REVIEW:Apple GarageBand '11 (review of new version coming soon)
You’ll probably know Magix from its entry-level Music Maker and Music Studio applications, but it also produces this beast of a DAW. It started life as an audio editor, but is now a fully-fledged music production suite that offers some superb effects, an excellent object-based editing system and sophisticated features such as Melodyne-style Elastic Audio.
Samplitude isn’t without its quirks, but you can’t argue with the spec.
FULL REVIEW:Magix Samplitude 11 Pro
MOTU Digital Performer
Previously a Mac-only DAW, Digital Performer has just made its debut on Windows (cross-platform support came as part of the version 8 update). As such, its hardcore fanbase may now expand to include a new swathe of in-the-know PC users.
Make no mistake: this is a first-class piece of music making software that stands comparison with any of its rivals. Getting to know it might prove to be a fairly intense experience, but once you’re over the hump, you’ll be richly rewarded.
FULL REVIEW: MOTU Digital Performer 8
If you've ever worked with an old-school tracker, Renoise will look instantly familiar. Music is made in grid-based patterns, and these patterns can be arranged to create songs. It might look and sound like quite a techy workflow, but for a lot of people, it works.
Of course, this kind of interface isn't going to appeal to everyone, but if you do buy into the tracker philosophy, you'll find that Renoise implements it superbly. It comes with its own audio processors and supports plugins; it's OS X, Windows and Linux-compatible; and you can ReWire it to other DAWs.
So, if making music on a QWERTY keyboard is more appealing than doing it on a musical one, look no further.
FULL REVIEW: Renoise 2.0 (a newer version is now available)
Avid Pro Tools
Among laymen, Pro Tools has practically become a byword for the whole process of recording a piece of music on a computer, which says something about its strength as a brand and ubiquity in studios.
Make no mistake: this is still the professionals’ choice, and now that the ‘proper’ (as opposed to LE) Pro Tools software can finally be run on a PC or Mac without the need for any external hardware, it’s become a much more viable option for the home musician. Pro Tools is gradually becoming a more 'open' DAW, too, and as of version 11 it's a 64-bit one that performs better than ever.
FULL REVIEW: Avid Pro Tools 11
It’s reasonable to suggest that Sonar is the most popular PC-only DAW in the world. A couple of years back, it was given an almighty overhaul and rebranded as Sonar X1. This heralded the arrival of a much cleaner and clutter-free GUI, a powerful built-in channel strip (the ProChannel) and many more features that greatly improve the workflow.
Sonar X2 (pictured above) was released in 2012, adding the Modular ProChannel, Console Emulator, Sonar versions of Breverb and Roland's R-Mix, automation lanes and take lanes. Sonar X3 was recently announced, with one of the highlights being the integration of Melodyne pitch editing to the Studio and Producer editions. We'll bring you our review of that one soon...
FULL REVIEW: Cakewalk Sonar X2
Propellerhead Software Reason
Propellerhead’s Reason has always been a great self-contained music production package for people who want to do everything ‘in the box’, but early versions were limited in that they couldn’t record audio and couldn’t be expanded with plug-ins.
Both of these issues have now been addressed; as of Version 6, Reason was combined with Record, Propellerhead’s short-lived audio recording software, and version 6.5 heralded the arrival of Rack Extensions - bespoke instrument and effect add-ons that can be purchased through Propellerhead’s online store.
Version 7 upped the ante still further with the addition of MIDI Out, deeper editing of audio recordings, the ability to convert recordings to REX files, a number of mixer tweaks and the new Audiomatic Retro Transformer effect. All of which adds up to one of the most enjoyable music making experiences you're likely to find as a computer musician.
FULL REVIEW: Propellerhead Software Reason 7
On the market since the days of the Atari ST (ask your Dad), Cubase has been around for the advent of audio recording, plug-in effects and instruments (Steinberg actually invented the VST standard) and every other major DAW development.
Cubase 7 represented a significant update for the software, with MixConsole breathing new life into its mixing capabilities and the Chord Track and Assistant being on hand to help you with your composing. Such improvements demonstrate that Steinberg is still innovating, bringing more power, quality and innovation to its production software.
FULL REVIEW: Steinberg Cubase 7
PreSonus Studio One
Eyebrows were raised when, a couple of years ago, audio hardware manufacturer PreSonus announced that it was releasing its own DAW.
No one should have worried, though: the resulting product, Studio One, felt pretty mature from the moment it was launched, and anyone who’s tried one of the traditional DAWs (Logic, Cubase, Sonar) should feel right at home with it.
Studio One 2 is an even more enticing proposition, offering built-in Melodyne audio editing and proper comping. All of which reinforces the impression that this is a DAW that's really going places.
FULL REVIEW: PreSonus Studio One 2
For the benefit of those not in the know, Reaper is a remarkably affordable cross-platform DAW that has a tiny footprint and sophisticated MIDI/audio routing capabilities. What’s more, the demo is fully-functional, though if you want to keep using it after 30 days, you’re required to pay the license fee.
Version 4 brings an assortment of new features including pitch envelopes, surround sound support, and an improved, skinnable interface. In terms of bang for your buck, nothing can touch it.
FULL REVIEW:Cockos Reaper 4
Apple Logic Pro
A Mac running Logic is almost an expected find when you head into a professional musician’s studio - it’s a supremely elegant music production solution that just works.
Allaying fears that Logic Pro X would just be 'GarageBand Pro', the latest version of the software draws on Apple's junior DAW to just the right extent and is unafraid to take inspiration from the competition (Ableton Live, mainly). X marks something of a 'reset' for the Logic Pro series - and one that was unquestionably overdue.
Apple has consolidated and refined just about every significant pre-existing feature without unhinging any of them, then added a number of welcome new features - a redesigned interface, the Drummer plugin, Flex Pitch, MIDI effects and more - that feel instantly at home.
FULL REVIEW:Apple Logic Pro X
When the first version of Live was released in 2001, few could have predicted the impact it would have on the music software marketplace. Here was a DAW that threw out the traditional design rulebook and established itself not just as a recording program for composers, but also as a performance instrument in itself.
The updated version 9 hit the spot nicely. Its MIDI editing refinements are a big hit and the audio to MIDI conversion is brilliant. The new Browser is fast and smooth and the search function is great.
Live 9 can also be used with Ableton's new Push controller to give you an even more hands-on music-making experience.
FULL REVIEW:Ableton Live 9
Image-Line FL Studio
For the third year running, MusicRadar users have voted FL Studio their favourite DAW.
The software began life as Fruity Loops, the phenomenally popular step-based beat/groove maker that’s been used by aspiring producers the world over (Deadmau5 included). However, full-on DAW status was achieved some time ago - if you think that this is merely an entry-level application that only allows you to create loops, you need to take a second look.
FL Studio might not be for everyone, but if its workflow agrees with you, you’ll never look back. There's even an iOS version now, and version 11 has kept the desktop version moving forward by adding a Performance mode, multitouch support, new synths and new effects. What's more, you get the feeling that there are even greater things to come.
FULL REVIEW: Image-Line FL Studio 11
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