When we started producing music over a decade ago, we thought picking a DAW was overwhelming, we can only imagine what it's like for someone getting started now.
On the plus side, back then DAWs were way more buggy. You'd save up for 3 months to buy software that would crash and spaz out. That sucked! Things have come a long way and now the problem these days tends to be how many choices there are.
Every DAW on this list is very good. We kind of hate on one of them, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use it if it makes sense.
You need to try them to get a feel for what fits your music and workflow, but we want to help you narrow it down.
If you want to produce electronic, loop-based music, Ableton, FL Studio, and Bitwig are built for it. Start with one of those.
For producing Rock, Pop, Hip hop, Sync cues, and want a DAW that's well rounded and comes with a good library, try Logic Pro.
If you're more interested in mixing/mastering AND want to work with larger, established studios, get Pro Tools. If you don't care about big studios, Reaper is great.
Broke but have a Mac? Garageband.
Want a little of everything, done well? We like Studio One and Cubase.
We have a variety of experience with each DAW listed here, some we use every day and others only for special occasions. And they are all definitely great products, depending on your needs.
One way to describe these are different versions of awesome. If a DAW is truly terrible or we don't have experience with it, we didn't review it here.
Our approach is to be as objective as possible to help you find the one that fits your needs and budget.
A lot of what you will find to be the best comes down to personal preference. They all can do basic things like audio recording, edit audio tracks, have good sound quality, and enable you to create music.
Many of the options listed have a free trial or a lightweight version to help you get a feel for what it's like to make music.
And as you move through your music production journey, don't forget that you'll probably end up using a bunch of the major DAWs at some point. We're lucky to have such a robust ecosystem of music production software.
Let's dive in.
Ableton is a force of nature at this point. It comes with very good stock plugins, software instruments, has a full blown programming environment under the hood where you can build your own plugins (Max/MSP) and a huge community.
Unlike other digital audio workstations, Ableton is really good about keeping the user interface relatively clean. Lots of other DAWs are kind of overwhelming to look at when you first open them. This makes Ableton Live more beginner friendly than other options.
Plenty of people use it strictly as a studio too, but the fast MIDI mapping, clean UI, and innovative Session view make it stand out among other DAWs. If you plan to take your laptop out to play shows, you'll probably end up wanting Ableton anyway so starting with it makes sense.
One place where we don't like Ableton? Sessions with very high track counts or video. Mixing or producing an orchestral score, film score, or computationally intense can sometimes have plugin latency issues. But if you're a beginner, thats probably not an issue.
Although the full version isn't cheap, they offer a free version limited to 8 tracks called Live Lite (you can still build full drum racks though!)
It ships with various MIDI controllers, but it isn't uncommon for Reddit users to just give away extra Live Lite licenses.
A track limit can actually benefit beginners too. Less tracks + less features = Less overwhelm. You can upgrade later when you're ready.
Best in class for audio manipulation or sound design and very good native plugins.
Designed for both live performance and studio use
Tutorials, lessons, and mouseover help menu are built directly into the software.
Visual elements are not delay compensated, but audio is. This can cause sync issues when writing music to video.
The session and arrangement view setup is confusing, even for pros. Plugin organization is more limited than other DAWs.
Live Lite - Free
Intro - $99
Standard - $449
Suite - $749
If you're already on Mac OS and played around in Garageband a bit, Logic Pro X is a much more powerful DAW to upgrade to, but the workflow and layout will feel familiar.
It's Apple's flagship DAW so unfortunately for PC users, you're forced to buy a Mac if you want to use this one. While it has some very sophisticated, powerful features, it's more of a "traditional" DAW compared to something like Ableton or even FL Studio.
Another area where Logic makes a lot of sense for beginners is the giant library of loops and sounds it ships with. They're very high quality and can help inspire you when you're still fighting the learning curve. Many other DAWs are basically just a toolbox. They don't ship with as much (or any) material.
If you end up getting Logic, you'll also get a little laugh every time you hear a stock Apple loop in some commercial. They're everywhere.
Very big, high quality sound library of Apple Loops and good virtual instruments (including powerful sampling and drum programming abilities) to get you started.
Very approachable price point (for Mac users).
Possible to use the Logic's virtual instruments for live performance with additional purchase of MainStage
Mac only. PC users are out of luck. Expensive if you need to buy an Apple machine, to then buy Logic.
Less of a feeling of community, despite being very popular.
Bitwig is the new cool kid DAW in some ways. It's a relatively young DAW compared to everything else on this list founded by a group of former Ableton employees.
This is both good and bad for beginners. The good part is you get to jump on a moving train! It's getting better, fast. Other recording software probably won't change much year to year. You'll get to see it grow and evolve very quickly.
However, the community is smaller and some of the things it excels at is more confined to electronic music production, not other genres.
That said, if you are into electronic music, Bitwig is totally crazy in the best possible way.
The built in virtual instruments sounds great and it's much more modular than Ableton Live.
While not the cheapest DAW here, it is less expensive than Ableton and if you don't need or want unlimited tracks, there's a 16 track version that's $99.
Great stock virtual instruments, powerful sound design capabilities.
Quickly evolving. Expect new features often.
Some similarities to Live, since Bitwig was founded by ex-Ableton employees.
If you're new to music in general or haven't worked with modular synths at all, this will be a steeper learning curve and maybe a bit overwhelming.
16 track version - $99
Full version - $499
While we try to avoid saying that a DAW is best suited for a particular genre of music, the FL Studio midi sequencer is legendary in a lot of hip hop circles. If you make modern hip hop, you shouldn't have a hard time finding community or getting help with learning FL. Definitely worth demoing this one if your main musical interest is to create beats.
One of the reasons we suspect it's so popular (especially with beginners) is how easy it is to make music with just a mouse. FL Studio has some very clever features that allow you to take a pretty basic, clunky chord progression and spread out the MIDI notes in interesting ways. Want to stagger that chord like a harp player? Highlight, click, done.
This is ideal for a beginner who had to save up just to afford the laptop and the DAW, but doesn't yet have the other bells and whistles like MIDI controllers or external hardware synths.
This is actually older, more mature software than people realize too. Back in the 90s it used to literally be called Fruity Loops and all you could do was make loops on Windows 95 with the mouse.
The company is very value forward too. FL Studio always works hard to accomodate electronic music producers of all levels. There are 4 pricing tiers, starting at $99, going up to $500, with a nice catch: most DAWs require an upgrade fee when the latest version is released, usually $150-200.
Not FL Studio. You get free upgrades for life once you buy in. Sometimes new synths or plugins will cost money, but the core daw software is always a free upgrade.
Intuitive user interface, with lots of friendly drag and drop functionality.
Lifetime free upgrades.
Lots of very useful MIDI quantization functionality
Not the best choice if you eventually want to use a lot of external hardware.
Not the best DAW for audio manipulation and doesn't offer audio quantization common in other DAWs.
Multiple Tiers from $99 - $499. Free Trial is Available
Studio One is a digital audio workstation that has been gaining popularity in recent years because it gets a lot of things right where it counts.
While it may not come with as many virtual instruments as other DAWs on the list, the ones it does come with are really well done. Same goes for its loop library. Not the biggest compared to others, but they're solid. Included plugins are very musical and not hard to figure out, like the Impact Xt Drum Sampler.
And it's priced reasonably with a few different tiers and payment options. We wouldn't be surprised if this starts to become a serious Logic Pro competitor down the road when the ecosystem is more developed.
And if you decide to stay with it, the advanced functionality is there too. When we tested how latency compensation is handled, in our opinion Pro Tools, Reaper, and Presonus Studio One do the best job handling it without too many headaches to the user.
Well balanced set of features at a reasonable price.
Designed to be easy to use quickly and offers helpful extras, like a Melodyne integration for vocal production and drag and drop user interface.
Included library is limited, but good. This is helpful to not overwhelm beginners.
Some users report installation process to be tedious.
You will need extra VSTs and samples for certain genres of music. You don't get quite enough in the box.
Professional - $399 or $14.95 per month subscription
Artist - $99
Prime - Free
The OG digital audio workstation. The "industry standard". We mostly decided to include Pro Tools here for the sake of completeness, but it isn't the most beginner friendly.
Why? It's expensive and not really suited for music production. It's always been a mixing and recording focused tool, not a creative laboratory like Ableton Live or Bitwig. Also, why lock yourself into a pricey subscription software product if you don't have to? Lots of studios have switched away from Pro Tools for this reason alone.
If you're just getting started, there are plenty of other options that are just as (if not more!) powerful and simpler to use, like Logic Pro or Ableton Live.
There's one big exception. If you have aspirations of working as a mixing or mastering engineer in large, institutional-size recording studios that use Pro Tools.
You'll be forced to learn it so you might as well start early.
You'll know the software large, institutional studios use.
High quality built in plugins.
Very precise timing and pitch editing capabilities.
Designed to interface with lots of external hardware.
Expensive, subscription based pricing model.
Clunky UI. Not as easy to use right away.
Advanced features may be confusing to a beginner.
Artist - $9.99 per month
Studio - $31.99 per month
Flex - $99.99 per month
For some reason Garageband (a.k.a. GarbageCan) gets left out of a lot of these best DAW lists.
We like Garageband. It may be small, but it is mighty.
While is isn't suitable for hardcore audio engineering, if you want to understand the basics of making dance music or the recording process, there's absolutely no shame in using the DAW already installed on your Mac.
Since its already there you might as well fire it up and get to making music if you're curious.
The same goes for people using an iPad or even a phone. Garageband is a good place to get your feet wet, even if it is kind of a basic DAW. It's an amazing tool for beginners that doesn't get enough credit.
That said, the plugins, sound library, editing features, and piano roll, are not nearly as comprehensive as those found in DAWs like Logic Pro or Ableton Live. So you will certainly outgrow Garageband and at some point and need to upgrade to something else on the list.
Logic Pro would be the closest to Garageband if you like the workflow or you could jump into something totally different like FL Studio or Bitwig Studio to give yourself a different perspective.
Already on your computer if you have a Mac.
Very simple to learn and use.
Features are limited so you will eventually outgrow it.
Free and already bundled with Mac OS.
Reaper is one of the most value packed DAWs for making music, period.
As far as performance, it's measurably one of the best DAWs. It uses the smallest amount of memory of anything on this list and will run on nearly any operating system (including Linux!) and is coded very efficiently, so it performs well even on older computers.
There is a very enthusiastic and helpful audio community around Reaper. And thank goodness for that because while it's worth the struggle, Reaper is not the easiest DAW to setup and doesn't behave as smoothly as others out of the box.
Some menus are downright terrifying.
Exhibit A. This looks like the work of Satan.
But the hassle is worth it. Reaper is one of the most powerful and customizable DAWs out there.
You can even download skins to make it looks like other DAWs and code custom scripts to automate parts of your production process. Don't like setting up a session over and over? If you're comfortable coding you can write a script to make Reaper do the boring work for you.
Its light on software instruments, but comes with a decent amount of built in plugins that have very bland user interfaces. This is not an insult. These bland UIs are good for beginners.
They force you to use your ears and develop a real skill. Ableton Live also does a decent job at this with their native plugins.
Whats the problem with cool looking plugins like what Logic Pro or FL Studio use? They trick you into listening with your eyes and you don't always make the best musical choices.
And Reaper is a rare gem in terms of pricing. There's a free trial. When that's over, it doesn't disable anything, it just nicely asks you to pay. And a basic license is $60 for everything. Unlimited MIDI tracks, unlimited audio tracks, full piano roll functionality, the works.
It's so affordable for the amount of value in this DAW, we're kind of concerned they aren't making enough money. The people at Reaper are doing the Lord's work as far as we're concerned.
Affordable, easy to understand pricing
Clever editing and quality of life features like a render queue and drawable CC parameters on MIDI tracks.
Light on software instruments. Might not be the best choice for electronic producers.
Beginners may find audio routing confusing.
Personal Use - $60
Commercial use - $225
Free trial is very generous.
Out of all the DAWs here, Steinberg Cubase has some of the most interesting roots and is a bit of a cult classic. It's more accessible to the beginner than it used to be, especially since the latest version doesn't require a dongle for authentication anymore, just a Sterinberg account.
The average FL Studio or Ableton Live user might consider it obscure, but it's been around a long time (the company got started in the 1980's with MIDI sequencing products) and they have a rich history of technical innovation. A lot of electronic producers don't realize the VST format was created by Steinberg, despite VSTs being everywhere.
Also, the people who use Cubase tend to really really love Cubase and think its the best DAW ever so there's a good community around it if you have questions or want to learn from tutorials online.
If you have plans to do a ton of MIDI editing, Cubase is offers an excellent experience, especially if you aspire to write music with a ton of instrument tracks like in an orchestral score. On the audio side, they also are known for creating very clever features first that the rest of the industry eventually catches up.
It's not the cheapest of the DAWs (don't worry it's not as bad as Pro Tools) but they offer a few tiers, including a beginner friendly version under $100.
Extremely responsive audio engine. Want to edit a clip while you're recording through your audio interfaces? No problem.
Very comprehensive MIDI editor.
Rich history of being ahead of the curve. They tend to invent cool features that the rest of the industry copies a few years later.
Installation may be tedious and messy for a beginner.
A lot going on in the user interface. Can be overwhelming. Some people feel it is too crowded and dated.
Elements - $99
Artist - $329
Pro - $579
Everyone knows that people can crack software, including the people who make DAW software.
We're not going to tell you not to do it, because its pretty typical for people to learn on a pirated copy somewhere in the musical journey, especially if you're just starting out. Many of us were broke college students at one point who couldn't afford to throw down $500 for music software that takes months to learn.
You might as well be informed though so you understand the risks.
The main reason not to use cracked software instruments, DAWs, plugins or anything else is the risk of malware.
Your machine could get hacked. Or it might just get really buggy and slow because a hacker is running some process on your machine in the background.
The other big reason not to use cracked software is sometimes you actually need help from support.
You'll find some weird bug thats screwing up a big session or the DAW will start crashing for no obvious reason. In these situations, sometimes customer support will save your ass.
You're much better off using a free daw or saving up for one you can afford.
We saved this option for last because its the wildcard option. The "DAWless" trend is to use hardware other than a laptop to record music, even if you plan on sending it off to someone else for mixing or mastering.
A good example of this is the Akai MPC ecosystem which is legendary in hip hop. The MPC has only gotten more powerful over the years and is basically a music focused computer, even though it might not feel like it. Modern MPCs can connect to WiFi, download samples from Splice, and have full blown synth plugins now.
And unlike a laptop, it will probably get better over time as updates are released that extend it's functionality, versus a computer which usually tends to just get slower as new software outpaces what it can do.
Another approach used here is to build a system of hardware synths and samplers, then instead of using an audio interface and computer to record, a basic stereo recorder or hardware multitrack recorder is used.
We felt the need to include the no DAW option mostly because so much amazing music has been made in this way and many electronic music producers still work like this.
We're lucky to have so many great options for producing music so we hope you now have a better idea of what best options are out there and what each DAW's advantages and disadvantages are.
Now, the rest is up to you! Get started on that free trial to get your feet wet with the DAW that resonates with your vision.