This is the fourth article in a multi-part series designed to help you build a home recording studio. Whether you are a beginner who has never recorded before, or if you are more advanced with years of experience, I hope you find value in the series. If you have any questions or would like me to cover a specific topic, please drop a comment at the end of the article. I read them all and will respond!
In this article, I will review some of the most popular DAW software solutions. Most, but not all, offer free versions or free trials, so you will be able to determine which is the right one for you.
So Many DAWs, So Many Opinions.
Ask 10 home recording enthusiasts about their recording (DAW) software of choice and you are likely to get several answers. My recommendation, ignore them all and find the one where you feel most comfortable. The last thing you want is DAW software that does not jive with how you like to work. Your DAW software is a personal choice and it should support your creativity, not hinder your process. No matter which recording software you decide to use, just remember that hit records and songs have been produced using any of the options I’ll cover below, so you’ll never be alone.
So, let’s get started. I’m going to cover what I consider to be the top five choices for beginners along with a few honorable mentions for those who want to try everything under the sun. As I mentioned, these are all extremely capable software solutions. It will come down to personal preference and a few technical caveats that I’ll point out along the way.
1) Avid Pro Tools
I start off with Pro Tools, not only because it’s my personal DAW software of choice, but because it has widely been considered the industry standard for almost two decades. It’s also Mac and PC compatible.
Walk into any professional studio and you’re likely to find Pro Tools at the helm. For many years Pro Tools could only be used with Avid / Digidesign audio interfaces and was therefore limited to commercial facilities. A few years ago Avid decided to open up the platform for use with any 3rd party audio interface, and as a result, you will find Pro Tools in countless home studios around the world. You can do virtually anything you want with it, from recording a simple podcast to recording and mixing an entire song with dozens of instruments, samplers, loops, and more.
What separates Pro Tools from the rest?
In my humble opinion, it is the most mature platform compared to other DAW software solutions. Sure, the basics of recording, playback, and editing are virtually identical across all the recording software out there, but as you become more advanced, you may find that Pro Tools is ultimately the most capable.
For one example, and without getting too deep into the weeds, Pro Tools does an incredible job with Automatic Delay Compensation* in a way that I have yet to see in other DAWs. This becomes particularly important if you start working with increasingly complex sessions where you are doing advanced routing of your audio, using tons of plugins, and seek to automate much of your final mix. I also find that Pro Tools simply offers the most options when it comes to routing signals, whether ITB (in-the-box) or in a hybrid way with external hardware inserts. This can become crucial when you start using advanced mixing techniques.
Automatic Delay Compensation (ADC) is an option that makes sure that the playback of all the tracks in a session happens in sync. As you add plugins and virtual instruments to your session, they will all add different amounts of latency (delay) to the audio you hear out of your speakers. This is because it takes time for your computer to process the audio through each plugin, depending on how complex a plugin is. A good implementation of ADC will calculate how to make sure that all the audio is played back in sync, regardless of how much latency your plugins introduce into any particular track in your session.
If you didn’t follow all of that, don’t worry. I think the main takeaway for a beginner is that Pro Tools is the industry standard for commercial recording studios, and is often considered the first and only choice for many home studios.
Ok, we get it Josh. You love Pro Tools. How much does it cost?
There are currently three versions available.
- Pro Tools First (FREE) – Download Pro Tools First Here
- As Avid puts it, “A streamlined toolset to get you started.” That’s true, this feature-limited version gives you everything you’d need if you’re just getting started. Your sessions will be capped at 16 tracks, but you’ll still get 23 included plugins to play with and over 3 GB of sounds. You’ll definitely outgrow Pro Tools First in short order, but it’s a great way to find out if the Pro Tools platform is right for you.
- Pro Tools ($29.99 / month)
- This is probably the most popular Pro Tools version. It is highly unlikely you’ll outgrow it, as you get “the essentials for native music and post-production”. There are a few limitations that are really unlikely to affect most people; up to 128 tracks, 80 plugins, and over 5 GB of included sounds. You can choose to subscribe and pay monthly or pay a one-time fee of $599 for a perpetual license which includes 1 year of software updates. You’ll have to decide which license option is the right option for you.
- Pro Tools Ultimate ($79.99 / month)
- If you’re just starting out, this is probably more than you need. However, maybe you’re the type who has to have the best of everything and that’s cool, I get it. :) With Pro Tools Ultimate, you get additional simultaneous tracks, up to a whopping 384, more advanced automation, and a host of other capabilities beyond what’s included in “regular” Pro Tools.
2) Apple Logic Pro X
If you’re a Mac user and already familiar with Garageband, Logic Pro X from Apple might seem like a natural upgrade. It includes an impressive amount of extras, like surprisingly useful plugins and great-sounding virtual instruments. I can confidently say it has everything you need (and more) to get started making music on your own. I personally find some of its advanced features a little limited compared to Pro Tools, but it just comes down to personal preference. If you really like Garageband but are ready to take the next step, Logic Pro X might be the perfect fit for you.
While there isn’t a free version or trial available, the pricing model is simple; $199 via the Mac App Store. That’s it, one version to rule them all.
Little tip, you can save some money by finding deals on iTunes gift cards on the web. Sometimes you can buy a $100 card for $80 or $90. #lifehack
- Similar workflow to Garageband makes it a perfect upgrade for Garageband users
- Highly integrated with MacOS
- If your interface works with MacOS, it works with Logic, easy.
- Tons and tons of plugins including emulations of vintage gear and instruments
- The user interface is nicely polished
- No iLok protection required
- All future updates to Logic Pro X included at no additional cost
- No free version or trial version available
- Limited advanced audio routing options compared to Pro Tools and other DAWs
- Automatic Delay Compensation is not as mature as Pro Tools
- This is really unlikely to affect you unless you’re an advanced user who is going to be doing a bunch of intricate automation with plugin parameters.
- No integrated search for selecting plugins in your session (a nice feature in Pro Tools and others)
3) FL Studio
While I don’t have much experience with FL Studio, I would be remiss if I did not include it as part of this list. It is one of the most popular platforms for EDM, rap, hip-hop, and DJ producers. For years it was PC-only, but there is now a MacOS version, making it easy to move between platforms.
A minor note of technical caution here:
FL Studio is coded in a language called Delphi, whereas most DAW software is coded in C or a variant thereof. C and its variants are more efficient in running the type of code that is behind audio software, so you may find FL Studio to be more resource-hungry compared to its competitors.
Originally called Fruity Loops, its name often turned off experienced engineers and producers. However, it has been around for years and has matured into a very capable music production platform.
If you’re focused on producing electronic music, this may be an option worth checking out. It sports impressive automation capability, and offers a ton of options and plugins for producers who are working mostly “in-the-box”.
But don’t take my word for it, FL Studio offers a free trial so you can try all of the features it offers.
There are four versions of FL Studio available, with additional sounds, plugins, and instruments as you upgrade to higher tiers.
4) Ableton Live
Ableton Live is the only software on this list that was originally designed with live performances in mind. If you think there’s a chance you might end up performing your arrangements in front of a live audience, Ableton Live may be the best option.
Because of its unique approach, the workflow and interface come with a bit of a learning curve. However, it’s likely a worthwhile endeavor if you’re a live performer looking to incorporate electronic elements into your act. Don’t let the learning curve deter you, as Ableton offers plenty of videos to help you learn the workflow.
5) Presonus Studio One
After years of manufacturing audio interfaces and hardware, Presonus entered the DAW software market. Since being introduced in 2009, Studio One has seen impressive growth, in part because Studio One Artist edition is included free with several Presonus audio interfaces.
Studio One has evolved into a very powerful platform for a full-range of music production requirements. It has great search functionality, an integrated scratchpad to try out ideas easily, and easily editable automation parameters.
If I were starting anew, I might consider Studio One as my primary DAW software. It is constantly being developed and upgraded, and arguably gives Pro Tools a run for its money with the vast amount of capabilities it has out of the box.
As with any DAW software, there will be a learning curve, but I find myself regularly coming back to Studio One to see what the latest updates have brought.
I consider Presonus Studio One to be a mix between Avid Pro Tools and Apple Logic Pro X. You get very powerful audio editing and mixing features combined with an impressive collection of effects, instruments, and more. It also seems as though Presonus has figured out a good implementation of Automatic Delay Compensation.
Other DAW Software Options
With so many options available, I thought it would be best to focus on the five above. For those who are interested in exploring other options, here is a shortlist of other popular solutions.
- Cakewalk SONAR
- PC only. And in a world where most studios are on a Mac, you’re just asking for trouble. Well, if you’re a loner, check it out. ;)
- Propellerhead Reason
- A capable DAW solution, but most people think of it for its vast collection of virtual instruments. You can even use Reason within another DAW of your choice if you want access to those instruments.
- MOTU Digital Performer
- Similar to Presonus, MOTU also makes audio hardware. Originally created as a midi-only solution, Digital Performer has been around since the 1980s and is now a full-featured DAW compatible with MacOS and PC.
- Steinberg Cubase
- Around since 1989, Cubase has a loyal following. Cubase was responsible for developing the VST plugin format, which is one of the universal standards for plugins to this day (though consequently not supported by Pro Tools). They also offer a free trial if you want to take it for a test drive.
- Cockos Reaper
- Their motto is “Audio Production Without Limits”. With that in mind, Reaper is a great solution if you are the type to tweak settings and preferences. It is highly customizable, but with that capability comes complexity… and that’s time I would rather spend just working on music. Reaper offers a 60 day fully functional trial and has a discounted license available for $60, making it the most affordable DAW software in this list.
I hope this has given you a place to start from in choosing your DAW software. I personally use Pro Tools on a daily basis. I know it well, it just works, and I know that I’ll be able to bring my sessions from studio to studio with ease.
If you’re working with a lot of “real” instruments and audio, I’d recommend checking out Pro Tools and Studio One.
If you’re doing a lot of arrangements and using virtual instruments, Logic may be a good choice for you.
If you’re a DJ or working exclusively with electronic music, FL Studio or Ableton Live may be worth exploring.
The great thing is that almost all 10 of the solutions I mentioned here offer a free trial or free version. Go out there and play!
I’d love to know your favorite DAW and why, so feel free to share in the comments.