The idea that entire recording studios would be available at one’s fingertips would’ve been considered absurd fifteen to twenty years ago, but that’s precisely what has happened. With the rise of prominence of the Digital Audio Workstation - often shortened to DAW - what once took hundreds of thousands of dollars, lots of space, and hours of work from multiple staff members, now takes a few minutes, a computer with a few gigabytes of available hard drive space, and a couple hundred dollars.
- What’s a DAW, and Why Is It So Important?
- How to Pick the Best DAW for You
- How Did We Make This List?
- The 5 Best DAWs
- Other Noteworthy DAWs
What’s a DAW, and Why Is It So Important?
A DAW is important to a recording musician like a canvas is important to a visual artist. And yes, that means it’s pretty essential if you want to get your music from your head onto your computer. At its most basic level, a DAW is a program that you install on your computer which allows you to record music into it from a variety of sources (microphones, guitars, electronic keyboards, etc.), and then lets you export your project into an audio track (MP3 or WAV format for example) that can be played or uploaded wherever you want. The main layout of most DAWs is a time-based musical grid that runs left to right, with several tracks stacked on top of each other (each track being a different instrument). You can treat a DAW session or project as a simple scratch pad, or a super complicated arrangement with hundreds of tracks and instruments; The beauty is that it’s completely up to you.
This is a screenshot of Apple's Garageband, a lightweight DAW included in most versions of macOS.
The green, yellow, and purple blocks are different layers (a.k.a. tracks) for different instruments.
On one hand it’s a pretty simple concept, just like Photoshop can be thought of as a relatively simple “digital canvas” for web designers or photographers. But, just like proficient with Photoshop can tell you, a DAW has quite a bit of depth when it comes to features. Aside from the multitude of things you need to consider before you buy one (which we’ll get to in a minute), once you install it and get it going there are several different workflows and views you need to get used to. How to use a DAW is beyond the scope of this guide, but there are TONS of resources online to help you figure that out (Equipboard even recommends a few in our How To Make Electronic Music article). In this article, the goal is to walk away with a good idea of what options you have when selecting the best DAW for you, and some reasons you should go with one over another.
How to Pick the Best DAW for You
OK, so now that you understand what a DAW is, how do you go about evaluating which one to get? There are dozens of DAWs out there, with about 5 being considered the bigger, more popular ones (as measured by things like pro artists using them, big communities for support, number of online tutorials, and so forth). Like a lot of software, you can opt to get a DAW shipped to you in a box from a music gear retailer (the more traditional way), or download it from the manufacturer’s website (the more modern way).
Let’s discuss some of the things to think about when evaluating which DAW is the best one for your needs.
Operating System: The Operating System (OS) of your computer could make certain DAWs unavailable to you. For instance, Logic Pro X only works on OS X, and Image-Line’s FL Studio is Windows-only. So unless you’re willing to make a pretty drastic switch to a different OS for the sake of using a different DAW (which some people certainly do), definitely keep this limitation in mind. To make it easy, before each DAW we recommend we’ll list the supported Operating System(s).
Computer Specs: A DAW is a pretty hefty computer program, capable of bringing even a powerful computer to its knees, especially on a fully-loaded project. It’ll tax your memory (RAM), CPU, and can take up a good bit of hard drive space. If you’re able to upgrade individual components of your computer, those are the three to focus on. There are tips and tricks out there to ease the load a DAW will have on your machine, but just be aware that if your computer is already sluggish and old, you might not have a great time working on your music with a DAW that freezes or crashes because you’re too low on RAM or hard disk space.
Your Budget: An ever-important thing, you budget determines how much you can spend on a DAW. Most DAWs have different packages or editions. Ableton Live for instance comes in three editions - Essentials, Standard, and Suite, which range from $99 to about $750. That’s a HUGE price difference! In some cases, the most basic (and least expensive) edition is plenty good to get going with. The more expensive packages typically include more features, more instruments, effects, etc. As you get deeper and deeper into producing or recording music, chances are you’ll want to buy different plugins (instruments and effects) to enhance your capabilities. So you need to decide if you want to start simple and expand little by little as you go, or invest in a bunch of extras up front. We recommend different strategies depending on the DAW, so make sure to read our full reviews below.
Plugin Formats: If you’re a painter and the DAW is your canvas, plugins are like your paints. They’re bits of software within your DAW that “plug-into” it (so to speak). A plugin can be an effect like a special type of distortion, reverb or Auto-Tune, or an instrument like a virtual piano. Lots are available all over the Web as free downloads, but some of the higher quality ones need to be purchased. Unfortunately, plugins come in different formats which can be confusing. Some of the formats you’ll come across are VST, AU, AAX, and RTAS. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about this too much, as most popular plugins can be used with most DAWs. You should worry about this only if you have a specific plugin in mind that you can’t live without, and the DAW you choose doesn’t support its format.
Intangibles: There might be some reasons very personal to you as to why you should choose one DAW over another. Maybe as you were browsing Equipboard you noticed Mat Zo uses Ableton, so that’s what you want to use. Or maybe you found a YouTube channel that teaches how to make your favorite genre of music and they use FL Studio 12, so that’s the same DAW you want. The relationship between you and your DAW is important, and potentially long-term; whether you’re a hardcore music producer or casual hobbyist, the DAW is likely the first program you’ll fire up, and inevitably you’ll spend hours wrestling with issues or researching how to accomplish a certain task. If you’ve got some crazy reason in your gut as to why you should pick a certain DAW, go for it! The important thing is that you enjoy it.
How Did We Make This List?
This is an important question, since a buying guide is no good if you have no idea where the information came from. A few times we say best DAW, but that’s a little misleading, as it’s very difficult to compare them feature by feature and come up with an absolute BEST. Best DAW for you would be a more appropriate way to think about it. Having said that, some DAWs are thought to be better at some functions than others.
To make this list, we scoured dozens (if not hundreds) of forum discussions where people ask, “What DAW should I get?” We tallied up people’s responses, and took note of any trends we could spot in why certain DAWs receive more recommendations over others. We also read many reviews, and employed experts - typically full-time music producers - who gave us a rundown of each DAW’s ins and outs. We also looked at pro usage on Equipboard, to get a general idea of which DAWs pro music producers and recording engineers are using the most.
The 5 Best DAWs
We put all this research together, and came up with a list of the top 5 DAWs which we feel like are absolutely stellar choices, no matter if you’re a beginner, or advanced user looking to switch to a new one. While their starting price points can differ quite a bit, even if you go for the most basic (i.e. least expensive) edition available, you’ll get plenty of built-in tools so you have everything you need to take a song from start to finish at a reasonable price.
NOTE: You might be surprised that the version numbers on the DAWs we recommend are so high. Logic Pro is on version X (i.e. 10), Ableton Live is on version 9, FL Studio is on 12, etc. The reason for this is that DAWs have been around for a long time - decades in some cases - and their makers have been improving the software with every version. For you, the good thing about getting into the DAW game now is that you’re getting versions of these DAWs that are pretty fantastic, as they’ve have years to work through bugs and growing pains, and incorporating user feedback. Suffice it to say getting the latest available version of your DAW ensures you’re getting the best it has to offer.
Logic Pro X
The Short Version: It’s only available on Mac, so provided you’re into the Apple ecosystem, per the quality and price no other DAW really beats Logic. MIDI and Audio tasks are intuitive, and the built-in plugins are plentiful and stellar (many famous producers have gotten very far with just stock Logic plugins). Other benefits are it’s an easy transition from Garageband, and there’s only a single Logic edition available so you don’t have to waste time comparing features & prices.
Operating Systems: macOS
Editions Available: Just a single edition, $199.99.
Where to Get It: Download it from the App Store
Logic Pro X: Full Review
It might come as a surprise to some folks that one of the most capable, full-featured DAWs is also one of the most reasonably priced. Even more surprising might be that it doesn’t come from a dedicated audio company - it comes from the same people who make your computers and smartphones. After many years of no updates after Logic Pro 9, users were eager to see what Apple would announce in the next update. Apple’s Logic Pro X does not disappoint in the least; It’s a powerful and feature-packed piece of software that can be configured to work with just about any setup, from the bedroom studio to a fully stocked production house. Furthermore, if you started out with Garageband but are ready to move to something more professional, then Logic will make you feel right at home and you won’t feel lost in the new environment.
Over the course of it’s existence, Logic has grown from a computer based MIDI sequencer to a full on multi-track production suite where you can record and edit audio, play virtual instruments, route sound through effects, and finally end up with a file ready for sharing or further refinement somewhere else. Basically, Logic let’s you go from blank slate to fully mastered final product completely within one piece of software.
For recording and playing back audio, Logic will work with any audio interface that your computer supports. You can get by with just headphones and a laptop mic, or use an external interface with any number of inputs or outputs. It’s fairly simple to choose which inputs you want to record from and how you want to monitor everything. This ends up being a really powerful feature that grows with you as a producer - you can set up to record a single track to get ideas going quickly, or configure your routing to allow for very complex multi-track setups with lots of live musicians, pre-recorded tracks coming from Logic itself, even separate output buses going out through physical hardware, then routed back into Logic if needed. No matter how complicated, you’ll be able to set Logic up to route your multi-track audio exactly how you want.
Logic is already worth the price just using it like a digital tape recorder, but like any modern DAW, it supports plugins (both effects and virtual instruments) and ships with a bunch built-in. It of course supports 3rd party plugins, but part of what producers like the most about Logic is the variety and quality of the built-in plugins that come included for free. For generating sound, there are quite a few options covering a wide range of synthesis styles from virtual analog (the ES2 is a popular subtractive synth), FM, acoustic instrument emulations, sampling (the EXS24 is an excellent sampler - some people choose Logic for just for this), even into the relatively untouched world of physical modeling via the innovative Sculpture synth. So you’ve got your bread and butter sounds covered, but what really sets Logic apart is the level of detail you can go into editing these sounds. These aren’t just stripped down versions of synths crammed into the software to tick a box claiming they have this functionality... for example the Alchemy synth actually started out as a very popular piece of software in its own right that retailed on its own for as much as the entire Logic package does. It covers a wide range of sample-based synthesis itself - from basic sampling with filters, envelopes, LFOs, fx, etc - to more experimental things like granular synthesis, spectral analysis, and resynthesis of pre-recorded audio. This lets you take in any audio sample and mangle it in any number of ways, stretching time, changing pitch, jumping around in time - and this is just one built-in instrument.
We seriously can’t emphasize enough how good the stock Logic plugins are. Not just the synths and instruments, but the effects are also top-notch. You’ve got everything you need from delays, reverbs, compressors, distortions, amp simulators, equalizers, pitch correction and modulation type effects such as chorus and tremolo. As with the included synths, nothing here really seems stripped down or sub-par - each effect is as tweakable as you’d expect, and most importantly, sounds great. Coupled with the bussing and aux-send capabilities, you can really configure your virtual studio to be almost anything you want.
Finally, the audio and MIDI editing of Logic is not to be overlooked. For audio, you’ve got independent control over timing and pitch of pre-recorded material, so fixing timing issues or even re-pitching out-of-tune notes is possible. As for MIDI editing, whether triggering external devices or internal instruments, there’s an array of built-in functions for editing time, velocity, pitch, and one of the most comprehensive quantization editors we’ve ever seen. You can record or program in notes as you wish, then make them sound as rigid or as varied and natural as you want.
One potential caveat that you have to consider with Logic is the deep integration within the Apple ecosystem - it is a Mac only product, and it only supports plugins in Apple’s Audio Unit format (check if your favorite VSTs also have AU versions available - most should). In addition to this, Logic X only accepts 64-bit versions of these plugins, so if you have any old plugins that have not been updated out of 32-bit (most have), you will need some sort of wrapper / converter software. So while not compatible with all the plugins available on other platforms, there are still a large number of AU plugins available, and you might find that even without 3rd party plugins, you can get far using what’s already built-in.
Bottom Line: Logic is a traditional DAW in that it comes from the classical paradigm of a multi-track recording studio, but it has evolved with the times and is by no means stuck in the past. It sits somewhere at the intersection of a lot of other DAWs - it can do linear recording, it can do pattern based beat-making, it can do wild audio manipulation - and it does all these things well. You’ve got the power to be as professional as you’d like, at a price point that is within reach of almost any budget.
Ableton Live 9
The Short Version: One of the most popular DAWs around due to it being the undisputed master for both MIDI handling, and live performance. On the plus side you get insane MIDI and controller flexibility, the Intro version is extremely affordable, and there’s no major OS exclusivity. The drawbacks are the Intro version is limited and lacking, Ableton is not as stable and beginner-friendly as others on this list, and the jump from Intro to Standard is steep $$$.
Operating Systems: macOS, Windows
Editions Available: Intro ($99), Standard ($449), Suite ($749)
Ableton Live 9: Full Review
Without fail, a Google search will include Ableton Live in the top results for best DAWs out there. Ableton Live, often referred to as just “Ableton”, is a powerful DAW that provides excellent resources for both producing tracks or performing them live, which has made Ableton an attractive tool for producers, DJs, and other live performance artists looking to take their sound to the next level.
Ableton Live 9 currently comes in three different editions: Intro, Standard, and Suite. The biggest difference between the editions, other than price (Suite costs a staggering seven times more than Intro), is the number of sounds, effects, and instruments included in each. Intro is great if you want to record a few tracks and keep things simple, Standard offers more tracks, sounds, and effects, and Suite comes with more instruments, including the powerful Operator plug-in, as well as even more sounds and effects. Ableton offers a 30-day free trial of Suite, so if you are unsure about if you want to invest a lot of money on Suite right away definitely take advantage of it. Students should also check to see if they are eligible for Ableton’s educational discount.
The most striking thing about Ableton when you open it for the first time is its characteristic interface. Three major sections form the workspace. The main window houses Ableton’s Session View and Arrangement View. Session View highlights Ableton’s track-based approach. Much like a mixing board, each track represents different instruments, vocals, FX, etc. Want to group the drums together? Easy, just highlight your drums and select “Group Tracks.” Hit the tab button and Session View instantly toggles over to the more traditional Arrangement View. Depending on your style you can either place clips into the arrangement or record a live performance of the clips right into Arrangement View.
Ableton’s workspace is divided into three sections: Session/Arrangement View, the Browser, and Detail View.
On the left of the screen we have the Browser. This is where the 3000+ sounds, nine instruments, and forty-one audio and MIDI effects that come with Live 9 Suite are stored. The Browser also makes saving and recalling clips, presets, and samples super easy. Browser also makes adding additional VST instruments and plug-ins a breeze. Browser’s plug-ins tab automatically detects new plug-ins from your computer’s directory and updates Ableton accordingly. The third and last major section of Ableton’s interface is the bottom panel known as Detail View. This is where you’ll write MIDI melodies, side-chain audio effects, warp samples, and more.
While Ableton does have similarities to other DAWs such as FL Studio and Cubase, its stock plug-ins make it unique. Sampler is Ableton’s beastly sampling plug-in that allows users to easily manipulate large multi-sampled instrument libraries, with velocity splits being a key feature. Sampler includes options for messing with pitch envelopes, oscillation, filters, and LFOs. Pioneers of FM synthesis will have fun with Ableton’s powerful Operator plug-in. Combining frequency modulation and subtractive synthesis, Operator allows you to truly create new sonic landscapes. Four FM oscillators, predefined routings, and various filters, LFOs, and waveforms open the door to a fun yet commanding way to play with sound.
Ableton’s Operator plug-in combines frequency modulation with subtractive synthesis for virtually unlimited possibilities.
Drum Rack makes creating custom sample racks a piece of cake. You can easily drag one of many presets into the drum rack or create your own for a consolidated way to control your drums. Finally, EQ Eight is a powerful effect tool with eight parametric filters and a variety of controls for shaping your sound. EQ Eight is especially useful in mixing and mastering your tracks, as the eight pole design allows you to carve out frequencies to get as clear a sound as possible.
Ableton’s characteristic, sometimes complex-looking automation and modulation envelopes make it simple to create organic shifts in pitch, turn on/off instruments, and add or subtract filters, to name a few examples. It’s easy to think that electronic music production takes the inherently imperfect human element out of music, but Ableton also includes a “grooves” function that allows you to subtly inject “feel,” such as swing or triples, to your productions. If you want even more resources feel free to explore Max for Live, which acts as a toolkit for building your own devices and customizing the way hardware interacts with Live, and comes prepared with a collection of even more instruments and effects.
Ableton makes automating audio effects and MIDI modulation fun and easy.
The biggest differentiator of Ableton is its live performance capabilities. Ableton makes it easy to launch and loop clips, add effects, and remix original tracks live in front of your audiences. Combine Ableton Live with a MIDI controller such as Ableton’s Push or Native Instruments’ MASCHINE for an instrumental approach to live electronic music performance.
Bottom Line: All-in-all Ableton Live is a versatile DAW with a sensible workflow, powerful plug-ins, and live performance capabilities that many other DAWs don’t have. Ableton’s biggest flaw might be its initially complicated-looking interface, but after a few weeks of use it becomes second-nature to navigate. Without a doubt, Ableton’s live performance functionalities put it far and above its competitors (such as Logic and FL Studio) as far as that goes, even though its look and feel is a bit more cut and dry. Ableton is also particularly well-suited to electronic music production. Artists producing everything from house to techno to EDM go to Ableton for its unique automation, easy MIDI mapping and manipulation, and straight-forward recording abilities. Operator is also a crowd favorite when it comes to creating heavy bass lines or punchy kicks. Ableton’s creative possibilities are endless once you get past a bit of a learning curve, and it is a fantastic DAW for producing, mastering, and performing your electronic music productions.
Image-Line FL Studio 12
The Short Version: Underrated and sturdy underdog of the DAW world, FL Studio has overcome stigma to become a much beloved program used by industry leaders and promising greenhorns alike. It’s sturdy and dependable, and its included plugins range from competent to superb. On the downside, additional plugins can become costly quickly, and it’s PC/Windows-only.
Operating Systems: Windows
Editions Available: Fruity/Intro ($99), Producer ($199), Signature ($299), All Plugins Bundle ($737)
FL Studio 12: Full Review
FL Studio has been around a long time. Back in the day it was called Fruity Loops (hence the “FL”). In those days the simplicity of the application was the draw. Over the years all the major DAWs have gotten more feature-rich and easy to use. But with the FL Studio 12 release, the combination of Features, Simplicity and Value cannot be beat. We are going to look at these three aspect of FL Studio and why they make it a great choice for your studio.
Before we begin, we should state that FL Studio is for the PC users out there. Some pro producers have been spotted in the wild running FL Studio on their MacBooks, and the way to do that right now is using something like Bootcamp, or Parallels. There’s also talk of a macOS version of FL Studio in the works, but we wouldn’t hold our breath for it, as it’s still in its early phases.
Before we talk features we should discuss the various editions FL Studio comes in. Nowadays most DAWs offer several editions of their product (usually three or four editions), with the first being an inexpensive “Intro” edition and subsequent editions having more plugins included. The FL Studio editions line up as follows:
|Fruity (Intro)||Basic melody and loops, no mic recording, not a full DAW|
|Producer||Full song creating with mic recording|
|Signature||Producer features with extra plugins, most importantly, NewTone|
|All Plugins||Everything and the kitchen sink|
All editions other than the “Fruity” edition are full DAWs, covering sequencing, mixing, synthesized audio, audio recording, and effects and plugins for each of those areas. When creating your own studio setup, we recommend the Signature edition; It has a solid selection of plugins and all the necessary production features.
Speaking of FEATURES, let’s focus on a few that make FL Studio standout:
NewTone: NewTone is FL Studio’s version of AutoTune (you know, that tool that makes everyone sound in key, or that gives will.i.am his signature robotic voice). It is possible to integrate AutoTune with FL Studio, but AutoTune is quite expensive and NewTone gives you nearly the same feature set included free in the Signature Edition. We say “nearly” because AutoTune was designed originally to provide more capabilities for live tuning of vocal during a performance, while NewTone is designed to work on recorded vocals.
VST3 Support: This might sound strange considering the age of the VST3 standard, but Ableton Live does not support VST3 plugins, whereas FL Studio does. As more great VST3 plugins are available, FL Studio will be able to use them.
Sound (ASIO) Drivers: Speaking of integration, one of the larger complaints we hear when talking about DAWs on PC is the struggles with sound drivers. The predominant free driver ASIO4all works in many situations, but some common hardware is just not compatible. Some hardware vendors provide their own ASIO drivers, but if you have a mix of hardware in your studio, one vendor’s drivers may break another vendor’s hardware. The ASIO drivers that come with FL Studio are robust and should work reliably with every piece of hardware you throw at it. The time you’ll save not messing around with drivers is enormous.
New in FL Studio 12: There are a few features added to version 12 that save producers a lot of time when working. First, Real-Time Stretching of audio clips allows you to change the tempo of a clip while maintaining pitch. If you come from the DJ Controller world, you’ll find this feature very handy. Second, coming out of Solo mode now resets the channels to their last state, rather than turning every channel on. In a project with 50-70 channels, not having to reset channel state saves a lot time. Lastly, the Piano Roll will now highlight scale notes for you. This is a fantastic feature especially if you can’t remember your scales.
Onwards to SIMPLICITY. Simplicity is subjective, and influenced by what you learn first. If you’re comfortable on a PC, you’ll find FL Studio is one of the easiest DAWs to learn and work with. Here are a few things that set FL Studio apart:
Step Sequencing: The beat-making beginnings of FL Studio are still present today. FL Studio’s step sequencer intuitively flows from many of the hardware sequencing devices you may have used. Setting up beats is quick and easy. To achieve a similar feel in Ableton you almost NEED to have a hardware device.
Structure: One common complaint we hear with FL Studio from Cubase users is that FL Studio is too rigid. This can be a blessing in disguise, especially to a budding producer. Its workflow is a lot more straightforward and therefore easier to understand. There is one way of doing things so you can focus on making music. Also, FL Studio’s mixers look like and operate like actual studio mixers, giving you a head start if you end up working on physical hardware.
Help: These days any complex piece of software needs two things: quality documentation, and a robust community to help people learn. The help system in FL Studio 12 is top-notch. Rolling over any button, knob, or switch will show a short description of its use in the help window, and hitting F1 will bring up a detailed help file for the specific button/knob/switch you are looking at. Additionally, FL Studio has one of the oldest and largest communities of people to help you when you need it. Keeping with the times, YouTube has 1000s of videos on how to make music with FL Studio.
Let’s talk about VALUE for the money. We saved this category for last, as value is tricky when it comes to DAWs. On one hand, if you’re serious about music production, the difference of a few hundred dollars should not sway you away from a product as essential as your DAW. But, that’s not to say that you don’t deserve a good value! Several things stand out making FL Studio an excellent value:
Cost: FL Studio is actually a pretty good bargain compared to most other DAWs. The Signature Edition lists around $299. A comparable Ableton Live edition is $449, and Cubase comes in around $550.
Beats, Loops, and Plugins: FL Studio began as a beat maker. Over the years it has amassed a large collection of beats and loops that it provides as part of the application. Now with version 12, FL offers more included plugins and virtual synths than any other DAW at the same price point.
Bottom Line: The choice of DAW is somewhat dependent on the type of music you are creating. Let’s say for instance that you’re focusing on EDM/dance/club music, and you own a PC. The top PC options are FL Studio, Ableton Live, SONAR, Cubase, and Studio One. In a recent survey by ProducerSpot, FL Studio commanded about 21% of the market, second only to Ableton Live. You won’t go wrong with any of these choices, but a strong argument can be made that FL Studio is the best overall value.
The Short Version: A very solid, dependable, and affordable DAW, unfortunately limited to PC users running Windows. While not as ubiquitous in the electronic music production world as Ableton, FL Studio, or Logic, it’s rising in popularity. Its MIDI editing is really, really, good.
Operating Systems: Windows
Editions Available: Artist ($99 or $9.99/month), Professional ($199 or $19.99/month), Platinum ($499 or $49.99/month)
Cakewalk SONAR: Full Review
SONAR, for all its merits, has never quite achieved the same status as counterpart DAWs like Pro Tools, Logic Pro or even Ableton Live but the latest version looks to be finally addressing this imbalance.
SONAR can be bought outright or in installments using an increasingly common subscription model. Either way, you are rewarded with monthly updates and regular new features. Three versions are on offer, each aimed at different budgets, skill levels and requirements, but we will be focusing on the fully-featured, flagship release, SONAR Platinum. It's worth pointing out that Cakewalk occasionally offers specials and offers free lifetime updates to anyone who buys or upgrades to Platinum.
Currently PC only (with a Mac version in alpha stage), SONAR supports Windows 7, 8 and 10. All your Cakewalk software is managed through a single program, Cakewalk Command Center, helping you stay on top of scheduled updates.
FEATURES, PLUG-INS AND FX
Like most DAWs, SONAR's feature set is vast and certainly too large to be detailed in full here, so be sure to check out the full list on Cakewalks’s Website. It features a clean and accurate 64-bit engine and support for sample rates of up to 384 kHz. It allows an unlimited number of audio and MIDI tracks so the only restriction is your hardware's capabilities. It can handle a variety of different projects, ranging from dance music production to composing for film. It supports DirectX, VST2 and VST3 plug-ins, as well as ReWire64 and also includes BitBridge, a useful bit of technology that allows you to use 32-bit plug-ins in the 64-bit environment, saving your older plug-ins (and potentially projects) from becoming unusable.
One of the standout features is Prochannel; a customizable virtual hardware rack of effects integrated into each track. Modeled on high-quality studio equipment, from mixing consoles to tape reels, the modules deliver elements of a real-world studio, while remaining light on processing.
There are a number of native and third party plug-ins included too, ranging from the dated but useful Sonitus:fx suite to the excellent Nomad Factory Blues Tube bundle and Melodyne Essential. Bear in mind that many of the third party plug-ins are locked in to SONAR and can't be used in other DAWs that you might be running. Soft-synths and samplers are plentiful too, with Ultra Analog Session 2, Addictive Drums 2 (with a choice of three kit libraries) and Cakewalk's own Dimension Pro and Rapture included, to name a few.
Having a plethora of FX and instruments is all well and good but a great DAW also needs an intuitive, well-designed UI along with excellent editing capabilities and useful workflow tools. In 2010 Cakewalk released SONAR X1, debuting their award-winning Skylight interface. Since then it has been tweaked and refined, resulting in a beautiful, functional GUI that rivals any major DAW. The arrangement view is colourful and clear. Windows and panels can be docked, tabbed and rearranged for easy access and visibility. Multiple configurations can be saved as screensets and switched between with ease. The control panel at the top can be customized to display controls that you consider most useful. These are just a few examples of what's available to help streamline your workflow. A recent addition to SONAR, via one of the monthly updates, is the theme editor which allows you to customize a number of GUI elements. While some may find this gimmicky, it’s a nice touch, and it can be used for workflow improvements as well as aesthetic ones.
Recording and editing audio is, of course, a basic requirement for any DAW and SONAR handles it well. Clips can be chopped, stretched and looped with ease and you can utilize multiple take lanes for easier viewing and editing of overlapping clips.
There are various ways to input and edit MIDI too. There's the intuitive and efficient piano roll and the underrated step-sequencer, which is great for programming drum loops or synth patterns. It's not all glowing praise though, as the staff view really lets SONAR down. It feels clunky, difficult to use and is due an overhaul.
The console view is the virtual mixing desk, giving you an overview of all your tracks, buses and outputs, with a neat feature that allows you to pop out the Prochannel window to be viewed alongside the track strip. One gripe is that, when docked, it can be difficult to navigate in larger projects. Those with dual monitors will have a much better time with it.
Bottom Line: SONAR is an excellent, professional-grade program packed with high-quality features. Like any DAW, there is a learning curve, but Cakewalk's helpful online community and tutorial videos can make the whole process an enjoyable, rewarding experience. With enhancements and new features released every month, it won’t be long before SONAR regains well-deserved recognition as one of the top tier DAWs.
The Short Version: An oldie but a goodie, Cubase continues to keep pace amongst the top DAWs out there. While it doesn’t do any one thing spectacularly well, it’s rock solid all-around. Its plugin integration is super strong (Steinberg invented the VST standard after all), and Cubase is powerful when it comes to manipulating audio. The eLicenser dongle is a bit of a drag, but it’s a minor annoyance.
Operating Systems: macOS, Windows
Editions Available: Elements ($99.99), Artist ($299.99), Pro ($549.99)
Steinberg Cubase: Full Review
The truth is that most DAWs have now reached a point where they are somewhat comparable in terms of functionality and sound quality, and in the right hands any DAW can be used to create great music. While some sequencers have changed dramatically (even in name, such as Fruity Loops becoming FL Studio), Steinberg Cubase has evolved steadily since its first release in 1989. While maybe not as commonplace as it once was, Cubase’s rigorous virtual instrument integration and ability to non-destructively manipulate audio still present it as a top contender in today’s competitive digital audio market for both Mac and PC users.
Given Cubase’s long history, it’s obvious to see that the tool has developed first and foremost as music production software - that is to say, it does not excel at live performance or cueing (such as Ableton Live). However, over the years Cubase has refined its toolset to accomplish the things that it is built for - mixing, mastering and recording audio.
The primary arrangement view is one which will be familiar to users familiar with most other DAWs, and all track information is displayed sequentially. This may be to your taste if you enjoy seeing the overall structure of your project, although is very different stylistically from the Performance view of Ableton Live - which for some users can be creatively liberating.
Plugins - Effects, Virtual Instruments and Synthesizers
Plugin integration with Cubase is incredibly solid. Steinberg introduced the VST plugin format in 1996, and subsequently VST Instruments in 1999, and as a result almost all plugin developers offer their software in the VST format. Cubase’s bundled effects, synthesizers and drum tools are also no slouch and will allow the new user to begin working completely in the box after purchase should they not wish to splurge on additional software - but it should be noted that some of these may be not be comparable to the current generation of plugins available on the market. While some of the bundled plugins may look dated and are not as immediately forgiving as competitors (FL Studio and Ableton both shine here), Cubase’s plugins will generally serve most purposes from the get-go.
Steinberg Retrologue is one of Cubase’s bundled synths, and does a good job of replicating the warmth and sound of classic analog synthesizers.
Cubase’s bundled effects may not look particularly flashy, but they are actually very robust and customizable.
A frustrating feature with Cubase is the arbitrary 8-insert limit on all channel strips - 6 pre-fader, and 2 post-fader. While this isn’t something that is impossible to overcome, users that enjoy mangling sounds may find themselves having to send the output of their instruments to other group channels to further process the signal.
Channels in Cubase have an arbitrary limit of 8 inserted effect plugins.
QuadraFuzz v2 - multiband distortion - is one of Cubase’s most recently updated plugins and sounds fantastic.
Cubase has fairly robust audio editing capabilities. Most audio processes are non-destructive - meaning that changes made to the source files are not permanent and may be reversed by the user at a later time, while the included Media Bay allows for the easy navigation of and previewing of samples prior to project import.
Two notable strengths of Cubase’s audio functionalities lie in Render in Place and VariAudio. Render in Place is a relatively new function that allows for the rapid conversion of tracks down into audio. This is handy when wanting to save CPU overhead and makes it incredibly straightforward to resample back into Cubase for further audio manipulation. VariAudio is Cubase’s integrated pitch and timing correction tool, where audio files can be chopped into segments and individually treated. While noticeable at extreme settings, VariAudio is a fantastic tool to use in a pinch and when subtle clean-up is needed.
VariAudio is one of Cubase’s absolute strengths. While not as powerful as Melodyne, it is very powerful and can help tidy up audio.
Where Cubase’s capabilities fall dramatically short in this department however, is in its ability to manipulate audio in real-time. Cubase simply has no proprietary solution to manipulate samples easily to create gnarly pitch shifting effects that automate over time. While this can be done with a sampler (including Cubase’s bundled HALion One), this is an extra step required and isn’t as flexible as editing the audio file itself. This is one of the most commonly cited issues with Cubase, as its ability to do so as an offline render is incredibly powerful through the use of the included élastique algorithm.
Cubase’s integration with MIDI is somewhat different than that of competitors, and it truly excels when dealing with virtual instruments. VST Expression Maps are completely unique to Cubase and are an alternate view for seeing note MIDI data. MIDI modifiers can be tweaked on a per note basis, which can be particularly useful when working with performance sample libraries (such as orchestral samples and the like, which benefit from considerable expressive automation).
Cubase’s integrated Chord Tracks - while somewhat gimmicky - can be an interesting way to identify and create unique chord progressions. All MIDI track information can also be viewed in the Cubase Score Editor, which although may be nice for those that prefer to read musical notation, falls dramatically short of a dedicated offering such as Sibelius or Finale.
Bottom Line: Cubase is a powerful DAW capable of meeting and surpassing most user requirements in 2016. While it doesn’t have the flexibility in real-time audio manipulation or live-performance features of some competitors, it remains a solid choice for the musician looking for a traditional sequencer aimed at recording, mixing and mastering music.
Cubase also still requires the use of an eLicenser dongle, which may be a frustration if looking to use the software on the road. Although somewhat small and unobtrusive, the dongle will take a USB slot and is required for the software to start.
Available at three different price points, Steinberg offer three different packages of Cubase with varying feature-sets: Cubase Elements, Cubase Artist and Cubase Pro. A comprehensive comparison of the various Cubase offerings can be found here
Other Noteworthy DAWs
There are actually a LOT of DAWs out there. For our top 5, we selected the ones that have the most robust usage and existing user communities, a good mix of features, value for the money, and accessibility to beginners. However here are a few more DAWs that deserve an honorable mention:
Avid Pro Tools
Operating Systems: macOS, Windows
We would wager the layperson who knows nothing of music production has heard the name Pro Tools at some point. Pro Tools is somewhat of an “industry standard” DAW, and is found in pro studios the world over. You know all those top-40 songs everyone likes? There’s a pretty good shot they’ve all been through Pro Tools at one point.
The thing is, it’s not exactly a beginner-friendly DAW. Its depth is unmatched by most other DAWs, but you won’t see many budding producers choose it for music production, electronic/dance/house music or otherwise. If you want to try it for yourself, there’s a very limited, but free, Pro Tools First edition.
PreSonus Studio One 3
Operating Systems: macOS, Windows
PreSonus makes some killer studio gear, so it’s little surprise their DAW is also very good. They haven’t been developing their DAW nearly as long as competitors, but they sure did learn quickly. For the most part Studio One 3 can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Ableton, Logic, and SONAR. Some things are still lacking, like MIDI editing for instance.
What’s really cool is that if you buy a PreSonus audio interface like the very good PreSonus AudioBox USB 2x2, you get PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist edition free! You can of course buy the Artist Edition separately, and it’s pretty darn affordably priced.
Operating Systems: macOS, Windows
Reason’s peculiar workflow is focused around a rack design, and much of what comes included with Reason is based on existing studio hardware (and is replicated as such in each module). Instead of leaning more towards a digital-emphasized workflow, Reason makes itself a realistic companion for existing hardware buffs who already know their way around a studio - or are willing to learn the ropes.
The rack system may confuse many early starters who just want to begin adding notes and making music right away, and after a few rack modules begin to stack up it may appear as intimidating as the real thing (that is, a large mess of wires), but the engineering and studio-inclined aspiring producer can start getting the hang of Reason for $69 with Essentials, and will develop skills applicable across any studio or DAW.
Upsides: Comprehensive, accurately and intuitively recreates the studio experience, insanely customizable sounds for those willing to experiment with the rack modules. No major OS exclusivity.
Downsides: Rack-based interface may not be for everyone, very limited external plugin support compared to its competitors.
Operating Systems: macOS, Windows
REAPER - which stands for Rapid Environment for Audio Prototyping and Efficient Recording (say that five times quickly) - is a scrappy DAW that has won over a lot of users extremely quickly. It’s really good and flexible, and does a combination of borrowing tried-and-true concepts from other well-established DAWs, and doing things its own way.
This DAW is also innovating when it comes to pricing structure. They keep things simple by only offering one edition (like Logic Pro X does), you get “60 days of evaluation free, with full functionality, and no strings attached,” and after that the discounted license is only $60.