Making music and showcasing your talent has never been easier, as we no longer need record label deals to reach wide audiences. The best music production software that has been reshaping the music industry landscape for the last three decades is a part of the reason why music production has become so accessible.
Moreover, 24,000 new songs are uploaded to music streaming platforms like Spotify, Deezer, Napster, or SoundCloud every day, or 9 million new tracks per year. The vast majority of these songs are produced with music production software such as Ableton Live or Cubase.
Choosing the right music production software is the first step you need to take when you decide to start making music. So, in this guide, I am going to take you through all aspects of the music production software selection process and introduce you to some of the best options you have at your disposal.
Read our Reaper vs Ableton comparison to learn more about the differences between these two DAWs.
- 1 Understanding DAWs
- 2 Types of DAWs
- 3 Computer Configuration and Operating System
- 4 Core Features of Music Production Software
- 5 Choosing Between Full and Stripped-Down Versions of DAWs
- 6 The Most Important Factors to Consider While Choosing the Music Production Software
- 7 The Advantages of Music Production Software
- 8 The Disadvantages if Music Production Software
- 9 Selection Criteria
- 10 The 10 Best Music Production Software
- 11 Frequently asked questions about music production software
- 12 Final thoughts
A digital audio workstation or DAW is software or, in some cases, a device that can record, produce and edit audio files. All modern versions of music production applications support various external devices such as MIDI controllers, synths, and various other electronic instruments.
Even though most DAWs are aimed at music industry professionals, some music production software is designed for beginners. Consequently, the scope of the things you’ll be able to do depends on the software product you choose.
Getting used to the DAW’s interface and learning how to use all of its functions takes time, so you should choose a music production software that is adjusted to your skill level to avoid facing a steep learning curve.
Moreover, you’re unlikely to work with more than eight channels at the same time or use advanced editing features as a novice music producer. That’s why you shouldn’t aim for the most expensive DAW available but rather choose the music production software that offers the tools you’re planning to use.
Go through our guide to the best speakers if you’re searching for the monitors you can pair with your DAW.
Types of DAWs
Categorization of music production software isn’t an exact science, and depending on the source you find music industry professionals might claim that there are between two and five types of DAWs. The easiest way to differentiate between different DAWs is to look at their components.
Depending on their elements, DAWs can fall into one of the following categories:
The availability of personal computers that offer lots of processing power has made integrated DAWs less popular. These systems contain a digital signal-processing unit, control surface, data storage device, and an audio converter. Although not entirely obsolete, integrated DAWs are mostly utilized by professional audio recording studios.
All music production software falls into this category. Furthermore, most of these software products integrate multiple functionalities so there’s no need to use a different application to record and edit the audio. Modern DAWs support a variety of input devices that enable you to record live instruments or pair them with audio control surfaces.
Check out our Audio Engine D1 review if you’re searching for a digital to analog converter and a headphone amplifier.
Computer Configuration and Operating System
A decade ago, the operating system played a huge role in the process of choosing music production software.
Nearly all modern DAWs have Mac and PC versions equipped with the same functionalities. That’s why there’s no need to change the OS you’re already using if you want to make music with a specific DAW.
Each music production software has different system requirements, and you must make sure that the computer you have meets or exceeds those requirements. The computer’s processing power and its sound card are the two most important components you need to pay attention to.
A computer’s processor can limit the maximum audio recording resolution you can get, while an entry-level sound card can lower the quality of the recording even if you’re using professional external input devices. Here are several computer models that are powerful enough to produce music:
Also, you need to make sure that you have enough space on your hard disk because some DAWs come with more than 70GB of sound content. Browse through our Sennheiser e835 VS Shure SM58 comparison to find out which of these microphones is better.
Core Features of Music Production Software
DAWs have four basic functionalities as they combine the properties of digital audio processors, midi sequencers, virtual instrument software products, and music notation apps. Even an entry-level music production software allows its users to record and edit audio or apply audio effects.
Here are some of the core features music production software offers.
- Voice or live instrument recording – Soundcard allows you to connect a microphone or an instrument to a computer and use the DAW to record the live audio. The number of instruments you can record simultaneously depends on the audio interface you have.
- Recording virtual instruments – Pairing a MIDI sequencer with a DAW enables you to create recordings of different virtual instruments. Also, you can add and arrange the notes you want to play on a virtual instrument with a mouse if the DAW you’re using has built-in virtual instruments.
- Audio editing – All DAWs allow users to remove parts of recordings they don’t want to include in the final version of the file. The audio editing tools you’ll have at your disposal depend on the DAW your choose.
- Audio mixing – This is one of the last steps of the music production process. During this stage, you can apply audio effects, adjust the positions of EQ tracks or change the file’s compression.
Browse through our Logic Pro vs Pro Tools comparison to learn more about the features these DAWs offer.
Choosing Between Full and Stripped-Down Versions of DAWs
Most professional music production apps have a free version that comes with limited functionalities. Novice sound engineers or music producers can benefit from stripped-down versions of DAWs because they allow them to get used to the software’s interface and learn how to use its core tools.
Although learning the basics of music production on free software like GarageBand or Studio One 5 Prime has its advantages, you’re likely to hit a plateau as you improve your music-making skills, which will force you to switch to another DAW.
Starting with a music production software like the Cubase LE and then moving on to the pro version of the software as you develop your skills might be a better option because it enables you to continue creating music in the environment you already know.
Here are a few MIDI controllers you can use with your DAW:
- Akai Professional MPK mini play keyboard
- Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 MIDI keyboard
- Ableton Push 2 Software Controller Instrument
- Studiologic SL88
Read our Cubase vs. FL Studio comparison to get more information about these iconic DAWs.
The Most Important Factors to Consider While Choosing the Music Production Software
Even though new music production apps are released every year, DAWs developed decades ago remain the industry standard. Hence, you’ll only have a handful of options if you need professional music production software.
Despite this, you need to consider a variety of factors while deciding which DAW best suits your music production needs. I shortlisted several aspects that can assist you in choosing the right music production software, so let’s take a closer look at them.
Your Music Production Skill Level
The abundance of tools professional DAWs offer can be overwhelming for someone who is entering the world of music production. That’s why getting the latest full version of Ableton Live or Logic Pro might not be your best option if you’re never used a DAW.
Apps like Audacity or GarageBand are better suited for beginners because they’re feature-rich and easy to use. Also, either of these DAWs can be used as a learning tool that will help you improve your audio recording, editing, or mixing skills.
The Genre Of Music You Want To Produce
All DAWs allow their users to produce all music genres. Nonetheless, producing electronic or hip-hop music is much easier if you have music production software that features a variety of built-in virtual instruments and a rich audio effects library.
On the other hand, genres like Indi Rock or Jazz require a DAW that allows the user to record multiple live instruments simultaneously or merge several takes into one file. The DAW you choose should facilitate the workflow within the genre of music you want to produce.
Scope of DAW’s Features
Even though all music production software offers the same basic functionalities, the range of features software-based DAWs offer varies from product to product. Even two versions of the same app can have a different scope of functionalities that are aimed at novice and seasoned users.
The maximum number of mono and stereo tracks a DAW can support or the number of available plugins are some of the features you should check while deciding if the music production software you’d like to get meets your requirements.
All of the leading DAW companies release new versions of their software that add new functionalities to the app or resolve some of the issues users encountered on the previous version of the app.
However, switching to the new version of a music production software isn’t always free, although old users can often purchase it at a discounted price.
Checking how often the brand updates the DAW might be a good idea if you’re planning on making it the centerpiece of your studio for the next few years as it will enable you to know how much money you’ll have to spend on updates.
Trying free versions of different DAWs can be a great way to become more familiar with their interface and their features. Unless you opt for some music production software that is available for free, sooner or later you’ll have to choose a preferred subscription method.
DAWs like Cubase or Ableton Live can be purchased for a one-time fee, and users can choose between several differently priced versions of these software products. The scope of features you’ll have at your disposal depends on the version you choose.
Some music production apps like Avid Pro Tools utilize the monthly subscription payment method that allows the user to use the software for a limited time without having to make a one-time payment or cover the annual fee.
The Advantages of Music Production Software
Adjusted to the User’s Skill Level
Music production software isn’t designed exclusively for music industry professionals. However, some apps don’t require previous audio recording or mixing experience, which makes them a great entry point into the world of making music.
DAWs replace several software products that allow producers to record, edit or mix audio files. Even entry-level music production software have all the tools you need to make a song.
Finding the tools, you need to edit audio files or learning how to navigate the software’s effects library won’t take a lot of time because most DAWs have intuitive interfaces that are easy to get used to.
All DAWs Have Free Trial Versions
Installing a trial version of a commercial DAW you’re interested in can be a good way to test its features and determine if you feel comfortable using it before deciding to purchase the full version of the software. In addition, finding free music production software isn’t too difficult.
No OS Compatibility Issues
The vast majority of DAWs on the market are compatible with macOS, Linux, or Windows. As a result, music producers can choose the version of the software that works with their computer’s OS, and they don’t have to switch to a new OS if they want to use a particular DAW.
The Disadvantages if Music Production Software
The Quality of Audio Files Depends on Computer Configuration
A computer’s CPU, RAM, or soundcards are some of the components that can affect the quality of the recordings a DAW can make. That’s why it is so important to have a computer that will allow you to get the most out of your DAW.
Professional Music Production Software is Expensive
Using more affordable stripped-down versions of DAWs has its limitations, as you won’t be able to create an infinite number of MIDI and audio tracks or have access to some built-in virtual instruments. You may have to spend more than $500 to get access to all features a DAW has to offer.
The level of confidence and comfort you’re feeling while recording or editing in a DAW is the most important aspect you need to consider while choosing music production software. I recommend downloading trial versions of a few DAWs and testing how comfortable you feel with their interfaces.
Aside from the DAW’s intuitiveness, I utilized a variety of parameters to select music production software for this article. Here are some of the most important criteria that helped me pick the best DAWs for novice and professional music producers:
- User’s skill level – Learning the ropes of music production on a commercial DAW can be difficult. My goal was to include DAWs that are suitable for novice users and music industry professionals.
- Scope of recording and editing tools – The versatility of features a music production software offers was one of my main guiding principles during the selection process. All DAWs you’ll find in this article offers a variety of tools that enable a user to go through the music production process smoothly.
Read our Audio Technica LP60 review if you need a turntable you can pair with a DAW.
The 10 Best Music Production Software
A DAW is the centerpiece of all music production setups, and it’s only reasonable to dedicate a lot of attention to choosing the DAW you’ll be using to produce music.
Learning the limitations of a music production software you want to get is probably the easiest way to determine whether it meets your needs. I’ve selected some of the best DAWs for professional and aspiring musicians that can assist you in making the music you like, so let’s take a look at them.
Even though the latest version of Ableton Live improves the software’s recording and looping capabilities, this DAW is still aimed primarily at electronic music producers. Ableton has an impressive core library that features thousands of drum kits, audio effects, and instrument racks.
Also, you can download a wide range of plugins that extend the DAW’s functionalities and enable you to experiment with different sounds. Ableton Live 11 has demanding system requirements, and you’re going to need at least 8GB of RAM and an Intel i5 processor or an M1 chip to run the software smoothly.
Go through our Pro Tools vs Ableton Live comparison to find out more about what these DAWs can offer.
Avid Pro Tools
Rick Rubin, Kanye West, and Mick Ronson are among legendary music producers who record, edit and mix music in Avid Pro Tools. A brief look at the software’s list of features reveals why so many industry professionals use it to produce music.
This DAW lets you create up to 1,024 MIDI tracks, 16 virtual instrument tracks or record multiple live instruments simultaneously. Besides making music, Avid Pro Tools also allows you to work with 4K/UHD video files to create movie soundtracks.
Check out our Reaper vs Pro Tools comparison if you’re not sure which DAW is a better choice for you.
Image-Line FL Studio
You can choose from four versions of the Image-Line FL Studio that are adjusted to the experience levels of novice and professional music producers.
Keep in mind that Fruity, the most basic version of this DAW, offers limited audio editing options because it doesn’t have built-in Newtone, Edison, and Newtime audio editors. All versions of FL studios have rich effect and sound libraries, and they feature more than thirty virtual instruments.
Browse through our FL Studio 12 vs. 20 comparison to determine which version of this DAW can provide you with a greater variety of audio recording, editing, and mixing tools.
One of the things that set the Cockos Reaper apart from other DAWs is the level of freedom it grants to its users. Besides having an easily customizable interface, Reaper is also stacked with advanced audio recording and editing features.
The app’s tracks can record audio and MIDI files, make loops from live recordings or produce stereo, multichannel, and surround audio files. Software’s impressive collection of editing tools allows you to perform any audio editing task effortlessly.
Read our Reaper vs Audacity comparison for more information about the differences between these DAWs.
Steinberg Cubase went through a significant transformation over the last three decades, and each new iteration expanded the DAW’s impressive functionalities.
Currently, there are five versions of Cubase you can choose from, so the features you’re going to have at your disposal are going to be different if you opt for Cubase Pro and Cubase LE. All versions of this DAW utilize the Cubase audio engine that ensures all audio files you create with them are in high resolution.
The software offers a broad spectrum of audio recording tools that allow you to set up unique monitoring environments or combine several takes into a single file.
Go through our Cubase vs Logic Pro comparison to find out which DAW has better audio recording and editing features.
Apple Logic Pro
The maximum resolution of audio files you can create with Apple Logic Pro is 24-bit/192kHz. In addition, you can create projects that last up to six hours at 96kHz, while reducing the sampling rate to 44.1hHz enables you to extend the duration of a project to 13 hours.
The software is equipped with a powerful score editor that lets you use more than 4,000 predefined chords. Its audio library has 1,250 sampler instruments and more than 13,000 loops. This DAW is only compatible with macOS, and you cannot use it on PCs.
Check out our Logic Pro vs FL Studio comparison to learn more about the features each of these DAWs can offer.
Recording vocals and live instruments, editing audio and MIDI files, or adjusting the compression of your recordings are some of the things you can do in GarageBand. You can download this DAW for free, but only if you’re a Mac user since the PC version of the software isn’t available.
GarageBand has an extensive library of drum kits and audio effects that allow you to create songs from scratch or manipulate the recordings you make. In addition, the DAW is compatible with a broad spectrum of plugins that will enable you to visualize EQs or experiment with different sounds.
Read our SoundTrap vs GarageBand comparison if you’re unsure which of these DAWs is better suited for your needs.
Even though it’s relatively new on the market, the Bitwig Studio is still one of the best music production software you can get, especially if you need a DAW you can use during live performances.
The app’s sampler has multiple modes that allow you to create note-base modulations, while its Grid feature lets you customize a sound design environment. Bitwig offers a variety of hardware integration options that enable you to pair the DAW with a broad spectrum of devices.
You can choose between Bitwig 16-track and Bitwig Studio versions of this cross-platform software. Take a look at our Bitwig vs Ableton comparison to find out which software is better.
You can produce any music genre you want with the tools that come with the ReasonStudios Reason. In addition, you can get the Reason + that features the Rack plugin, a creative sound design platform that allows you to experiment with different instruments or apply an audio effect to your recordings.
The audio recording, sequencing, editing, and mixing options this DAW offers are infinite even without the Rack plugin. The blocks feature lets you develop song structures quickly, while the Rex tool makes the looping process effortless.
Audacity is one of the best DAWs for novice music producers ever created. Its features aren’t impressive, but they still allow you to create high-quality recordings and apply effects to them.
The app has a plugin manager that grants you an overview of all plugins you add to the software. The scope of editing tools this DAW offers is underwhelming, and you won’t be able to use it for much more than cutting, pasting, and deleting audio files.
Make sure to check out our guide to the best FL Studio alternatives to find out if you can use Audacity as a replacement for FL Studio.
Frequently asked questions about music production software
Answer: Yes, you can, but doing so can limit your audio interface options.
Answer: No, DAWs are only compatible with a selected number of plugins, and you must check the list of plugins your DAW supports.
Answer: External controllers are an optional accessory, and you can use a keyboard or a mouse as an input device.
Answer: Music production software doesn’t take more than 3GB of hard disc space, but high-resolution audio recordings you make with a DAW can occupy a lot of space on your hard disk
Assessing and understanding your music production needs will bring you a step closer to finding the right DAW. However, versatile and powerful professional music production software exceeds the requirements of most home-based studios.
I recommend opting for a free DAW like the Audacity or GarageBand if you’re assembling your first home studio. As you develop your skills, you can switch to DAWs that offer a wider range of recording, editing, and mixing tools.
Seasoned music producers should consider getting Avid Pro Tools or Ableton Live because they’re equipped with features that allow them to express their creativity freely. Which music production software are you going to choose?
Let me know in the comments or continue reading our FL Studio review to find out more about the features the latest version of this DAW offers.
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