The 15 best DAW software apps in the world today
10th Oct 2012 | 10:00
As many of you have pointed out, it’s not credible for us to say that one DAW is better than all the others. There are loads of great music production applications on the market for PC and Mac, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses and function in slightly different ways.
What we have done, though, is ask, once again, MusicRadar’s users to vote for their favourite DAW so that we can build up a picture of which music making packages are currently the most popular. The following countdown is based on your votes in our 2012 poll: you might not agree with 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 is an updated version of the one that we published in 2012, and kicks off with Apple’s GarageBand.
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 bought on its own for the ridiculously low price of £8.99 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.
GarageBand ’11 adds more of these, plus Logic’s Flex Time and Groove Matching technology. Enhancements have also been made to the software’s Learn To Play features: this is the only DAW that can teach you to play guitar or piano.
FULL REVIEW:Apple GarageBand ’11
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 it 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 5
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 7
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
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
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.
FULL REVIEW: Cakewalk Sonar X1
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, with version 10 supporting more file formats.
FULL REVIEW: Avid Pro Tools 10
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.
Apple might not update the software quite as regularly as some other developers, but it already contains everything you need to put together a complete track, and when new features are added, the majority of them feel so well-thought-out that you quickly wonder how you ever got by without them. What's more, the software is now available for a ridiculously cheap price.
Who knows when we'll see the fabled Logic Pro X, but one thing's for sure: there's certainly a demand for it
FULL REVIEW:Apple Logic Pro 9
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.
As such, Reason now feels truly comprehensive.
FULL REVIEW: Propellerhead Software Reason 6.5
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 6 represented a substantial update. It addressed the gripes of many existing users (in the area of multitrack editing in particular), and had some innovative new features (vastly improved tempo and beat detection capabilities and Note Expression, for example). Version 6.5 takes things even further, adding a couple of great new synths, enhanced comping/audio warping and more.
FULL REVIEW: Steinberg Cubase 6.5
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
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.
If you’re coming from an old-school sequencing background, Live might take a bit of getting used to, but give it an hour and you’ll be hooked.
FULL REVIEW:Ableton Live 8
Image-Line FL Studio
For the second 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, so you can kick off projects anywhere.
BUY: Image-Line FL Studio 10 currently available from Thomann
FULL REVIEW: Image-Line FL Studio 10
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