The world of audio production continues to get more inexpensive, opening up the often reserved practice to anyone who takes an interest. However, with a price drop comes a significant amount of options, and weeding through all the different pieces of software can be quite the chore.
We tried out some options to bring you the best music production software for beginners. While some options on this list are paid, each is meant to sit at an obtainable price point for most consumers. Additionally, we were sure to check that, if a piece of software was inexpensive, that it had a clear path of growth.
Before we made our pick, though, we needed to establish some additional criteria.
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What Makes Music Production Software Best for Beginners?
Outside of cost, there were a few other things we looked at when making our decisions. Music production software, or DAWs (digital audio workstations), can be quite complex pieces of software, meaning a solid entry point is necessary.
That was the first area we looked at, that the software was easy to use. As productions continue to grow more complex, the software often does too, so finding a DAW that was intuitive was a top priority.
However, we also wanted to ensure that it was powerful. Going in with stripped-down software for the simple sake of learning is usually not a worthwhile tradeoff in the audio world. All DAWs have a learning curve, so knowing what you’re getting upfront is generally the most effective route to take.
Of course, we also took a keen look at cost. While the range is pretty wide here, there aren’t any options in the multiple thousand dollar ranges. Take, Pro Tools HD, for example. There are, however, options that have more expensive tiers should you choose to stay on that path.
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Garageband – Free
If you have an Apple computer, congratulations! You have one of the best beginner pieces of audio software already. Garageband isn’t nearly as powerful as options we’ll present later in this list, but, for starting, it’s hard to go wrong with the Apple DAW.
While not as powerful, there is still quite a bit you can do with the software. It’s a full, multi-track recording DAW, meaning you hook an interface up to your computer and recording multiple tracks simultaneously.
Of course, with the lane-like presentation, you can do this as many times as you need to, layering over new sounds until your vision comes to life. To help with that, Garageband has a fantastic suite of virtual instruments that you can program with midi. A PC user like myself looks at that and, honestly, becomes a bit jealous.
The sounds inside are quite good, especially considering they’re free. You get everything from synths to pianos to drum machines. Garageband even has virtual drummers built in that will automatically play grooves in their respective styles.
Once you’ve recorded, there are some basic mixing tools as well. You’ll get the basic suite of EQ, compression, delay, and reverb to learn the ropes, with full Audio Unit support to add third-party plugins down the line.
You are, however, missing out on a few things. Editing tools are very basic, making it difficult to, for example, quantize multi-track drums. Additionally, there is little in the way of mastering tools built-in. Still, as a basic DAW or writing tool, it’s hard to go wrong with Garageband.
If you ever grow out of the kit, you can easily upgrade too. Logic X is one of the premiere DAWs on the market, for only $200. It’s a bit more difficult to learn but shares many common features with Garageband. For Mac users, this is the most cost-effective route that we’d recommend.
See how GarageBand compares to:
Cubase Artist 9 – $49.99
Cubase is one of the best DAWs on the market, striking a chord between electronic music production and live recordings. It can do a bit of everything, and the German engineering behind the kit ensures it’s done with ease.
Artist is a stripped-down version of the full Cubase software. It sits in between that and Elements, a bundled version of the DAW that, honestly, isn’t very good. Artist is a nice middle ground, providing enough features to make the price tag worthwhile, without throwing you in the deep end.
You’re still getting the award-winning Cubase sound engine that recordings clips at 64-bit floating-point, at up to 192 kHz. Basically, this means that your audio has enough headroom to never actually clip (become distorted) inside the DAW. It doesn’t mean your mic preamp can’t, but once the clean audio is recorded, it’s going to stay that way.
Cubase’s suite of composition tools is in full effect as well. You get a key and drum map editor that makes programming virtual instruments a breeze, chord tracks for easily sketching up a song, and full instrument expression control either throw a controller or drawing directly on the midi line.
The full version comes with over 90 different effects and, while you’re not getting everything, you’re still getting most. Over 70 different effects are included with Artist, from basic EQ and compression to the VST Amp Rack and Quadrafuzz bass pedal.
Artist is a fantastic entry point for anyone serious about getting into audio production. It can just about anything, with a fantastic audio engine to back it up. The $50 is well worth it as well, considering you can apply that towards an upgrade to the full version. It supports PC and Mac as well, so it doesn’t matter which platform you run.
Studio One 3 Artist – $99.95
Going slightly up in price is Studio One, specifically the Artist rendition of the software. Much like Cubase, this piece sits in between the full Studio One and a free version of the DAW. You can pick which is right for you depending on your budget, but this middle ground is a good starting point for most.
The most striking thing about Studio One is how easy it is to use. PreSonus manages to hide the complex elements of a DAW enough to severely lessen the learning curve, without sacrificing too much power.
You get nearly the whole suite of included effects, down to 30 over the usual 37. They’re much better than the stock plugins you get with, for example, Garageband as well. The EQ and compressor are both excellent, plus you get the same number of virtual instruments.
Unlimited hardware I/O means you’ll also have enough ins and outs for recording, and single and multi-track editing tools make managing that audio a breeze. You have the full power of a DAW for a low cost.
For beginners, this is an ideal starting point, as you have all the tools you need to be successful without going too over budget. However, an upgrade to the full version of the software should seriously be considered if it suits your fancy.
The full version brings with it fully, 64-bit floating-point audio processing, ensuring nothing even clips once it’s recorded. The artist version includes 32-bit which, in most cases, is more than enough, but clearly PreSonus is on the cutting edge in its full version.
You also get the Project page. This all-in-one mastering solution is something that no other DAW that we’ve seen has. It’s a dedicated part of the software for mastering, fit with tools to burn CDs, create digital releases, and make DDP images.
FL Studio (Fruity Loops) – $99.99
So far, we’ve focused on what we would call “recording software” meaning that, while it can serve other purposes, it’s mainly used to record, mix, and master audio tracks. FL Studio, or Fruity Loops, is definitely not in the same vein. This software is completely built around creating electronic music.
It uses the same timeline view but is much more focused on midi and sequencing. Samples are easily found with a built-in navigator, making it a breeze to layer in the effects to create something completely new.
You also get an insane amount of plugins built-in. FL Studio comes with hundreds of copyright-free samples to start toying around with, and full VST support for any virtual instruments you’d like to install.
Of note, the most impressive part is the built-in sequencer. You can quickly draft up drum beats with it, interchanging any of the samples you want. Additionally, adding your own samples is as easy as putting them in the directory where FL Studio is pointed.
While it’s not on par for recording, quite a bit of mixing can be done here. Full VST support means your favorite plugins can come in, and a mixer view is a quick way to see an overview of how your mix is shaping up.
You can record, yes, but FL Studio is designed to only handle this lightly. If you’re an aspiring electronic producer or someone who just likes tinkering with virtual instruments, then it’s a great choice. However, don’t expect complex features like multi-track editing, comping, and mastering options.
Thankfully, there is no upgrade path for FL Studio. The full version of the software is only $100, and you’ll get free updates for life. If it sounds like your cup of tea, it’s a bit difficult not to recommend Fruity Loops.
See how FL Studio 20 compares to FL Studio 12 here.
Avid allows you to take your sound further with software and hardware that let you focus on what you do best, that's why we partnered up to bring you an Exclusive Offer: Get 33% OFF on Avid Pro Tools when paid upfront! Only for New Subscribers.
Get 33% OFF on Avid Pro Tools when paid upfront! Only for New Subscribers.
Getting into the audio world is very exciting, and our hope is that one of these pieces of software made the process easy. There is also a learning curve, so don’t get too frustrated if it doesn’t seem apparent at first.
For those interested in recording, we’d recommend Cubase as it’s the most versatile of the bunch, and definitely well-suited for this area. For electronic production, though, it’s hard to beat Fruity Loops.
Which software are you going with? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.