The single most important tool in most modern studios isn’t a microphone or a console, it’s your DAW software. Programs like Pro Tools, Logic, and Ableton make it easy to create music, work collaboratively with others, and export tracks that are ready for public consumption.
But with so many options to choose from, it can be tricky to know which one is right for you. That’s why we put together this Buyer’s Guide to help you find the perfect DAW to fit your workflow and budget. Let's start by looking at what exactly DAW software does and learn a little bit about the history of recording and mixing software.
What is a DAW?
A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is a program designed for recording, editing and mixing audio or music. Some DAWs are optimized for producing, while others are better suited for recording and editing.
Originally designed as a replacement for multi-track tape recorders, the earliest DAWs featured little more than transport controls. Today, most professional DAWs come loaded with virtual instruments, advanced editing tools, and studio-quality plug-ins for mixing.
The History of DAW Software
The first DAW was released by Soundstream in 1978. Not many recording studios owned a computer at the time, so the Digital Editing System also included a state-of-the-art hard disk drive, a built-in oscilloscope, and a video monitor for editing waveforms.
By the late 1980s, companies like Sonic Solutions began producing programs that were capable of two-track mixing and mastering, such as the Sonic System. In 1991, Digidesign released Pro Tools, which quickly gained popularity due to its 4-track recording capabilities and analog-inspired signal flow. Steinberg followed shortly after in 1993 with an early version of Cubase, which featured up to eight tracks of recording and included built-in DSP effects.
By 1996, 32-track DAWs became the industry standard. While many engineers and producers still unitize analog equipment such as consoles, outboard signal processors, and even tape machines, DAWs have become the primary means of recording, editing, and mixing, thanks to their impressive processing power and intuitive workflow.
Elements of a DAW Software
While every DAW has its own unique features, most of them include the same basic elements, the first of which is the recording window. This is where you can record and edit all of the tracks in your session. Most DAWs offer separate windows for advanced audio and MIDI editing.
All DAWs feature familiar transport controls for navigating through the session, including play, record, stop and more. You’ll also have access to basic commands like copy, paste, save, and the all-time MVP of every studio session, the undo button. Most DAWs offer a separate mixing window with the tracks laid out in a traditional console format. This allows you to quickly adjust the balance of the mix with level faders and pan pots, or add plug-ins to tweak your sound.
The DAWs covered in this Buyer's Guide include these elements, as well as a number of unique features that make them stand out. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular DAWs on the market today.
DAW Software Options For The Studio
Avid Pro Tools
Pro Tools is the industry-standard DAW, used in countless commercial studios around the world. With outstanding recording features and unmatched editing capabilities, it’s no wonder why Pro Tools is a favorite for tracking live bands and ensembles with large track counts.
If you’re planning on working in a commercial recording studio for a living, it is absolutely essential that you learn how to use Pro Tools. It may take some time, as there’s a bit of a learning curve, but it's important to have it mastered to survive in the recording industry.
Available in Standard and Ultimate (formerly Pro Tools | HD) packages with annual and perpetual licenses, Pro Tools offers a variety of options to suit any studio. For those who are just starting out or only need a few tracks, Avid offers a limited-feature version called Pro Tools First for free.
Universal Audio Luna
Universal Audio doesn't like to limit themselves, and that's why they've taken to calling their latest creation a recording system and now a DAW. With that being said, LUNA is a beefed-up DAW with lots of toys to play with and follows an analog-style production system.
Essential for those with Universal Audio Thunderbolt devices, LUNA will transform your recording process with a faster workflow, Accelerated Realtime Monitoring, integrated multitrack tape processing, and new virtual instruments. If you want to take it to the next level, the LUNA Creator Bundle comes with Neve summing, a Studer Analog Tape extension, and a few more virtual instruments, including the excellent Ravel Grand Piano and Moog Minimoog.
Universal Audio's LUNA recording system is currently free for download for owners of Thunderbolt-equipped rackmount Apollo Xs, Apollo Twin X (DUO and QUAD), Apollo x4 , and Arrow interfaces (Mac only). The LUNA Creator Bundle is also available for purchase with interfaces at Vintage King.
Apple Logic Pro
With powerful virtual instruments and an intuitive interface, Apple’s Logic Pro is perfect for quickly capturing ideas. Loaded with loops, samples, and intelligent instrument devices designed to steamroll your writer’s block, Logic Pro is tailor-made for producers.
Logic’s new Live Loop feature lets you quickly create and arrange music in real-time, while the new Step Sequencer is perfect for building drum beats, bass lines, and melodies.
Combined with a built-in sampler, a custom drum machine designer, and useful features like smart tempo, Logic Pro has everything you need to create studio-quality sounds right from your laptop.
Some may recognize Logic’s sleek interface, which it shares with Apple’s free DAW software, GarageBand.
Best of all, Logic Pro has an extremely affordable price tag at just $200. Mac users can even try the full version of Logic Pro free for 90 days. Unfortunately, Logic Pro is only available for Mac, so Windows users are out of luck.
Originally released in 2001, Ableton Live (available in Standard and Suite) is one of the fastest-growing DAWs on the market. With a fast, creative workflow and tons of inspiring instruments, Ableton Live makes it easy to experiment and explore new ideas.
A favorite among the EDM community, Ableton Live combines a unique clip-based Arrangement view with impressive MIDI and automation features, making it the ideal DAW for live performances or performance-based music production.
Ableton Live is easy to learn, so you can start creating music quickly, especially when paired with the Ableton Push MIDI controller. Bundled with an array of built-in samples and effects, it’s easy to see why Ableton Live is the DAW of choice for so many of today’s top producers.
Highly flexible and easily customizable, Cubase allows you to create templates, key commands, and macros that are tailor-made for your workflow. Combined with powerful plug-ins, virtual instrument, and samples, Cubase is a solid choice for any task—from recording and editing to mixing and producing.
Cubase offers full surround sound support, making it a popular choice for film composers, post-production engineers, and producers interested in immersive formats. Steinberg also offers Nuendo, a DAW specifically designed for post-production.
Known for its intuitive interface, advanced MIDI features, and lightning-fast clip-based sequencer, FL Studio (available in FL Studio Producer Edition and Fruity Edition) is perfect for quickly writing and arranging songs. FL Studio is easy to use and affordable, making it a popular choice among new producers as well as icons like Avicii and Martin Garrix.
Start making professional-sounding beats right out of the box with an array of modern samples, loops, and virtual instruments. The built-in mixer offers advanced routing options for building complex signal chains. FL Studio’s legendary piano roll makes it easy to create and edit MIDI tracks, while advanced features like automation editing and ReWire support let you fine-tune your sound.
And for those who prefer using hardware, the Akai Professional Fire MIDI controller is tailor-made to work seamlessly with Ableton Live, giving you complete control over your performance.
Great for analog-lovers and synth heads, Reason (available in Reason 11 and Reason 11 Suite) recreates the experience of patching equipment by hand, making it a great choice for those who learn visually or have a background in analog signal flow.
Packed with dozens of studio-quality virtual instruments and effects, including an analog-modeled SSL console for routing and mixing, Reason has everything you need to create professional-sounding music. And if that’s not enough, you can easily expand your plug-in library with additional Rack Extensions from Reason Studios and other popular software developers in the Reason Store.
PreSonus Studio One
Studio One is a solid all-around DAW for recording, editing, mixing, and music production. With an intuitive single-window workflow and a streamlined interface, Studio One is fast and easy to use.
Throw in unlimited track counts, built-in Melodyne editing, and a whole studio’s worth of virtual instruments and effects, and it’s no wonder why artists, engineers, and producers all around the world are using Studio One.
Created by a group of former Ableton developers in 2014, Bitwig Studio combines the flexible clip-based production of Ableton with the linear editing features of a traditional DAW. Perfect for those who love exploration and experimentation, Bitwig provides an innovative new way to create.
With a unique modular interface, Bitwig offers an inspiring new workflow for creating music. Designed for live performances, Bitwig features a suite of controls for beatmatching, crossfading, and other effects commonly used by DJs.
Motu Digital Performer
MOTU's Digital Performer is another DAW that has been crafted with the hope of inspiring creativity. It has all your typical DAW features but gives you plenty of tools for building tracks and making unique sounds, including live triggering, looping, and Stretch Audio.
One of the latest additions to MOTU Digital Performer is the new Clips window. This introduces loop triggering to the DAW and allows users drop MIDI clips from the Content browser into the Clip window and trigger them in realtime for live performances. Using Clip Record mode, you can do the same for your studio tracks.
Originally launched in 2006, Reaper is another DAW option and this one puts you in control of creating a look and flow that fits how you like to work in the studio. There's a lot to learn, but you can build out own menus and toolbars, in addition to changing the entire color scheme of the DAW interface. Reaper has some other additional features that make operating within the DAW very simple. No matter what kind of track you're about to record, be it MIDI or audio, there is only one kind of track to select in Reaper. This makes flying through and creating tracks extremely streamlined.
Finding The Right DAW For You
As you can see, there’s no clear front-runner for “best DAW.” It all comes down to your preferred features and workflow. Thankfully, you don’t have to commit just yet. Most of the DAWs on this list offer a fully functional trial so you can test them out before you make up your mind. Vintage King Audio Consultants are also always available to talk about your workflow and make sure that you select a DAW that accomplishes what you want to do.