Though all great production and composition may begin with an ambitious idea, sometimes the execution of that idea will require the right toolset. Of course, what “the right toolset” means exactly is highly subjective and will vary according to the producer’s genre, tastes, methods, and overall level of proficiency. Thus, in this article, we will attempt to guide producers of all stripes through the complicated and overwhelming process of finding the right Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
Firstly, it’s probably worth establishing some definitions. So what exactly is music production software and how do DAWs fit into this definition? Music production software is simply a digital means of composing, recording, editing, and producing music. Another phrase commonly used for this is “Digital Audio Workstation,” or DAW. Whether we are talking about Logic Pro, Ableton Live, FL Studio, Pro Tools, BandLab, or even GarageBand, these are all mainstream examples of DAWs. But which of these options is right for you?
Alongside considerations about price, learning curve, and workflow, certain apps will be favored by a particular genre of producer. A hip-hop producer will require a very different set of tools than an EDM producer. A live DJ will have very different demands from a studio producer.
Below is an in-depth exploration of each major Digital Audio Workstation along with a discussion of whether each one will be right for you and your specific style.
Logic Pro will be the most familiar DAW to users of Apple products and to those already acquainted with GarageBand. Produced by Apple and designed exclusively for the MacOS system, Logic Pro is essentially an evolution and expansion of GarageBand’s interface. This means that for amateur young producers, the learning curve is notably less steep than with some other DAWs. But Logic is much more than just a beginner’s application. Before going any further, it’s worth running through some numbers. In total, Logic has a massive 5,953 patches for audio, auxiliary, output tracks, and software instruments. They also have 70 effect plugins, and 25 excellent software instruments.
In addition, one of the unique advantages of Logic Pro is its detailed and immensely useful Score Editor. This allows for both the writing of detailed notation as well as a translation of your MIDI compositions into written scores (for producers who don’t know notation). Thus, Logic Pro is best suited to composers and producers looking for an uncomplicated workflow and an accessible layout. It also has a notable emphasis on audio recording and editing. At a relatively modest $200, it’s a top-quality application.
According to Tracklib’s user survey, Ableton Live is the most popular DAW. That’s understandable considering the versatility, live functionality, and vast sound-molding abilities afforded by the software. But there is a caveat here. Ableton is available in three versions: Intro,
Standard, and Suite. The Intro version, coming in at $99, contains only 4 software instruments, 1500 sounds, 21 audio effects, and 11 MIDI effects. The Standard edition ($449) comes with 6 software instruments, 1800+ sounds, 37 audio effects, and 14 MIDI effects. Finally, the Suite edition ($749) has 17 software instruments, 5000+ sounds, 60 audio effects, and 16 MIDI effects. But as well as its catalog of included plugins and VSTs, Ableton’s strength is in its capacity for on-the-go production.
Through its brilliant Session View, Ableton is perfect for live performers and DJs. It’s also renowned for enabling detailed and highly-controlled sound design. Paired with the precision of the automation editing, this makes it perfect for EDM artists and producers looking for a high level of detail in their sonics.
$99 / $449 / $749
Known for its intuitive, innovative design and well-loved by a certain generation of hip-hop and EDM producers, FL Studio is a top-of-the-line DAW. It should be noted that despite its reputation and widespread popularity, FL Studio is not the easiest to adapt to. Unlike Logic Pro, this is a DAW that markets itself towards the seasoned beat-maker. Producers who are used to the conventional left-to-right style of composition may struggle with FL Studio’s non-linear workflow. On the other hand, this loop-oriented approach is what attracts so many hip-hop and EDM producers. After the initially jarring adjustment, this pattern-based style allows for a uniquely streamlined and highly-customizable experience.
$99 / $199 / $299 / $499
As a young producer, browsing through the various DAWs can be a disheartening task. After all of the extensive research, many will look at the price tag and realize that an incredible piece of music production software is simply too expensive. But there is another option for the amateur producer: BandLab is a free and online DAW that is a great fit for artists working on a small budget. Shockingly, the software doesn’t make many sacrifices in quality for its price and accessibility. Though the included VSTs are fairly unexceptional and the general flexibility is far from the pricier giants of the DAW market, for beginners and hobbyists it's well worth a try.
Alternatively, other free options include Soundtrap and Soundation Studio. Both are also included in the top 5 of Best Free Online Beat Makers (Including Samples). You find a more detailed rundown in that feature.
Produced by Avid Technologies and often touted as an industry standard, Pro-Tools is a much-loved and hugely powerful piece of software. Arguably, if a producer is attempting to enter the music industry and collaborate with experienced professionals, it’s worth knowing your way around Pro-Tools. But given its wide use and expansive capabilities, there is a hefty price. Pro-Tools, unlike the aforementioned DAWs, is subscription-based. This means that—aside from the cheaper and stripped-back “Pro-Tools Artist” edition—producers will have to pay upwards of $100 per year for the comprehensive Pro-Tools Studio edition. That being said, even a brief rundown of Pro-Tools’ strengths reveals how astonishing the DAW is.
Firstly, we have the ability to convert audio into MIDI. This is very important for producers who want to layer certain tracks. There is also a regular series of updates to the app. Pro-Tools also has one of the most efficient workflows on the market. On the other hand, some critique has been directed towards the quality of the VST and plugin library. This means that producers may end up paying even more for good third-party additions. All in all, despite the recurring cost, Pro-Tools is worth it for producers already working at a professional level.
$9.99 Monthly / $31.99 Monthly / $99.99 Monthly
Ableton has long been a favorite among EDM producers and live DJs. This owes itself to several important factors. Firstly, Ableton has a brilliant non-linear, loop-oriented production option. This session view—with its use of “clips”—allows for easy and dynamic live performances and is vital for the loop-heavy requirements of EDM.
Secondly, Ableton has some of the best sound-molding capabilities among the major DAWs. Considering the genre is so dependent on texture and sonics, that’s a must-have. And finally, the automation software is top-notch, giving producers enormous control over the movement of their sound.
The general consensus regarding the ideal hip-hop DAW leans towards two options: Logic Pro and FL Studio. This gives producers a choice between a linear arrangement (Logic Pro) and a non-linear, loop-oriented approach (FL Studio). Thus, a hip-hop producer who prefers simple, recurring beats will prefer FL Studio.
A producer who prefers a multi-phased track with development and complex structure will probably prefer Logic. In addition, along with the capacity for intuitive sampling, both plugins have extensive virtual instrument libraries, allowing for a diverse sound palette.
For any aspiring producers, it’s vital to consider that all DAWs essentially do the same things. Though there are certainly differences (which we have outlined above), there is nothing decisive.
The main thing that determines the right DAW for you is the overall “feel” and workflow of the software. Even though some DAWs are considered ideal for certain genres, this does not mean that you can only produce hip-hop with FL Studio or EDM with Ableton. These are all top-quality DAWs and the only major difference will be your instinctual reaction to them. In order to test this out and see what works for you, simply download the free trials, start making beats, and see what you think.
Now we want to hear from you. What do you think of this list? Or did we miss any of your favorites? Tell us in the comments.
We are unfortunately unable to offer support in the comments. If you have any questions, reach out to us here!