Which is the Best DAW for Me?
We’re Opening a Serious Can of Worms, but It’s Worth It
A lot of people are afraid to tackle this question; to be honest, it can get messy. A lot of people have strong feelings about the DAW(s) they use and have very little experience when it comes to the competition. The truth is that DAWs really are different, especially when it comes to workflow and included goodies; and while most can accomplish all the same basic tasks, there is still a benefit from considering all the options.
A quick historical note: ProTools, Digital Performer, Logic, Cubase, and Sonar have all been around for more than two decades, with Reason, Ableton, and Vegas not far behind. All of these are deeply-established in the industry.
Note: If a DAW has multiple tiers (free, lower, upper, etc . . .), these reviews are based on the best version.
The Gold Standard: Avid ProTools has been the professional industry’s standard for a lot of years and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. ProTools gets a lot of flack from the audio community due to a lack of innovation and updates over the years. Still, it’s what the largest studios usually run. With their premium equipment and ProTools HD, hiccoughs are few and far between. Individual users with consumer-grade computers and interfaces may regularly run into issues unlike those of other DAWs.
One big thing to consider with ProTools is the lack of available free content. It comes with a suite of effects and virtual instruments, but a lack of VST support means a lot of the free plugins floating around can’t be utilized to fill in the gaps in the included stuff. For me, this is a deal-breaker (and the fact that it still hasn’t been optimized for dual displays on Windows). However, I still use ProTools often because the industry demands it, and I often enjoy it.
MOTU Digital Performer: Digital Performer (DP) has been in the game for even longer than ProTools (if you count DP’s predecessor, Performer), and it gets significant updates with each new version; DP9 won Electronic Musicians Editor’s Choice Award for Best Daw in 2016. It is the go-to DAW for Mac-based film scoring and audio for video broadcast; there is now a PC version, but it’s usually run on a Mac. Besides other video-specific features, DP is able to stream video live while running the audio from the computer. DP also now has an MXL Export function to send it’s notation data to sheet music programs like Sibelius and Finale. They recently added features that are slowly becoming common in other DAWs, like automation lanes, spectral display/editing, and retina support. Just because it has additional video features, doesn’t mean the developers skimped on the audio side of things.
Apple’s Own: Logic Pro and GarageBand are Apple’s lineup. GarageBand is a great free option for people who plan to transition to Logic Pro at a later date. It comes with lots of decent-sounding software instrument and lots of loops and effects; however, it’s crippled in a lot of ways that studios really need. Logic Pro is the solution to just about everything GarageBand lacks. It comes with even more software instruments, loops, and effects. It’s very user-friendly and has some of the best automation control of any DAW. It also has one of the best notation systems, for composers who like to see actual music notes. The main downsides of Logic Pro are that it is only available for Mac and the lack of customization. Since these aren’t dealbreakers for most people, it’s a solid option for Mac-based producers.
PreSonus Studio One: A recent addition to the DAW game, PreSonus’ offering is another one that gets significant updates regularly (which is why it’s high on the list). For the most part, it’s a great product, with many similarities to Cubase; it keeps instruments, effects, loops, and files immediately accessible and comes with quite a few. One nice feature is the built-in mastering area for processing all project tracks as an album, adding metadata, and authoring a file that is ready to send to a duplicator.
Reaper: This one gets the award for lightest and cheapest professional DAW. I’ve always called it the Linux of DAWs, due to all the customizations available (some created by the vast Reaper community) and the slightly steeper learning curve. If you need a lean program, due to resource constraints, or just love figuring everything out and customizing things, Reaper is a great option. It also has the best, non-crippled demo among DAWs, so it’s definitely worth trying out.
Ableton Live: This is the go-to DAW for live performance. It allows performers drag-and-drop, always-ready flexibility in live effect manipulation and launching audio/MIDI clips while on stage. It also has pre-built “racks” of instruments, drums, and effects for people who prefer to arrange/perform pre-made content. Note: the educational version of Ableton is cheaper on their site than anywhere else.
Steinberg Cubase and Nuendo: Steinberg separates audio production from post-production via distinct products. Cubase is definitely an audio production staple, and comes with a lot of great instruments and effects. One standout feature is the integrated music notation system for those who enjoy traditional composition; a few other DAWs have notation, but Cubase’s is among the finest. Nuendo has many features geared towards game and film post production that aren’t present in most other DAWs.
Propellerhead Reason: This DAW is uniquely able to train students on how to set up all the hardware a real studio would use; though, with improved hardware emulation, studios are largely stepping away from huge patch bays and large quantities of rack gear. Still, since the DAW emulates how everything is wired, it can be very useful in the classroom.
Image Line FL Studio: This is one of the few DAWs to succeed in changing the user interface substantially (Ableton did a good job as well), though updates have made it closer to other DAWs. Most engineers use it exclusively or never touch it; it’s one of the most popular choices for bedroom producers, especially in electronic music.
Ardour: This is the most popular, open-source DAW. Since it isn’t a commercial product, support and development run differently than the competition; anyone can see into the development process and check out the code themselves. It’s engine sounds as good as any other, it comes with hundreds of effects, and has all the essentials (including MIDI and video). One cool feature is a matrix router for getting audio around the program. It’s definitely something to test out and keep in mind, especially if it keeps being developed. If you are a Linux user, this is one of your only options without emulating or dual-booting another operating system.
Sony Vegas: This combination video/audio editor was recently bought from Sony by Magix. Historically, it has been a great option for film, due to a plethora of video tools (including spectroscopic 3D and Bluray authoring). As a DAW, it ships with iZotope-powered audio rescue tools, regularly used for location audio. It also has built-in tools for creating surround sound mixes. If you do audio for video, this may be your best option. At least for now, it appears Magix is trying to keep things the same.
Adobe Audition: This DAW is last on the list for one large, glaring flaw that keeps it from being adopted by most professional audio producers—no MIDI support. It successfully paves its own way in terms of layout and workflow and has exceptional integration into the rest of the Adobe Creative Cloud. It was also one of the first audio editors to integrate noise reduction and a spectrogram view into the program (albeit not as sophisticated as iZotope, something is better than nothing). If for some reason, you don’t need MIDI, or already have Adobe CC, Audition is a solid contender as an audio recorder/editor. If all you need is a simple audio recorder/editor, try out . . .
Audacity: This one isn’t a DAW. It records audio, allows basic editing, and can apply a lot of built-in effects. It has basic graphics, a tiny footprint, and is completely free. Since it is super stable and costs nothing, Audacity is used a lot for basic audio recording.
Cakewalk Sonar: Sonar was moved to the bottom of the list Nov. 2017, when Gibson Brands decided to cease development on the DAW entirely. The Platinum version came with more bundled content than probably any other DAW. If you enjoy large touch screens, Sonar is one of the only DAWs to include full multi-touch support for the mixer window. It’s also one of only two DAWs so far (the other is Studio One) to integrate Melodyne into audio clips.
Resources for this Section
DAW product pages on parent company websites, in order of appearance on this page.