10 Best DAW Software – Setting Up Your Virtual Studio

161-DAW-Software

DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation software, has completely changed the way we produce music today. Back in the day, recording and editing a track required you to have a whole lot of bulky equipment, instruments and various other accessories. These days, you can achieve the same results with nothing more than a laptop and a piece of software. What we have for you today is a top 10 list of best DAW software you can get right now. We’ll show you 7 paid options and 3 completely free DAWs, which you can download right now. Let’s get right into it.

Top 10 Digital Audio Workstations:

ImageStudio Headphones / RatingSummaryCheck Price
+ - Logic Pro X Logic Pro X

Total of 4.80/5  

Very clean and formidable DAW with plenty of awesome plug-ins to offer.

+ - Steinberg Cubase Pro 9 Steinberg Cubase Pro 9

Total of 4.85/5  

Newest version of a industry wide legend that brings new awesome features.

+ - Propellerhead Reason 9.5 Propellerhead Reason 9.5

Total of 4.80/5  

All the powerful tools of Reason, now with third party VST support.

+ - Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

Total of 4.78/5  

A classic DAW that has received a much needed facelift and upgrades.

+ - Image Line FL Studio 12 Producer Edition Image Line FL Studio 12 Producer Edition

Total of 4.70/5  

The good old performer which brings more flexibility to its users.

+ - Ableton Live 9 Ableton Live 9

Total of 4.67/5  

One of the most powerful live performance DAWs you can currently find.

+ - PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist

Total of 4.67/5  

A powerful DAW offering plenty of tools, samples and well optimized features.

+ - Audacity Audacity

Total of 4.55/5  

A minimalist DAW that hides an impressive amount of power and performance .

+ - GarageBand GarageBand

Total of 4.53/5  

A light but capable DAW that makes recording and arranging music easy.

+ - Pyramix 11 Pyramix 11

Total of 4.58/5  

Incredibly elaborate free DAW which brings unique features and plenty of potential.

Logic Pro X

Logic Pro X

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Apple's Logic Pro X has been the go to choice for all Apple based producers. This DAW brings the best traits of Apples ideology, which translates to impressive design and uncompromising functionality. User interface is very clean and easy to navigate. Everything feels like its right under your fingertips, making an average work flow silky smooth. That is a very important detail when it comes to getting projects done with no hiccups. The core benefit of this DAW are its incredible plug ins. You are looking at a very wide range of options, each extremely detailed and versatile. Instruments sound very authentic and even some automated plug ins are proving to be rather functional. In short, a standard Apple package.

Steinberg Cubase Pro 9

Steinberg Cubase Pro 9

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Steinberg's Cubase series have been the staple of music production for decades. This DAW is easily one of the most powerful tools you can get. Pro version, as usual, brings the most comprehensive suite of both plug ins, features and tools. Steinberg Cubase Pro 9 represents the newest addition to the already solid family. They have essentially ironed out a number of quirks that troubled previous versions and added few new features. In general, they did the same thing they always do. Take the core package, fix a few things and push it to a new level. That approach has worked before and it certainly is working now. Cubase Pro 9 is a very solid piece of music production software.

Propellerhead Reason 9.5

Propellerhead Reason 9.5

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For a long time, Propellerhead Reason was on the fringes of DAW industry. This is mainly due to them choosing to do things in a very unique way. Propellerhead Reason 9.5 brings what is probably the most important change in the development tree of this DAW. Until now, you were limited to VSTs provided with Reason. That has changed. Propellerhead has pulled the trigger on third party VSTs, allowing us to import numerous thousands of awesome instruments, effects and other plug ins. The combination of Reason's core performance, tools and features was always great. However, with this new expansion, it goes from great to epic. Reason has finally reached its apex form and it's everything we have always wanted.

Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

Cakewalk Sonar X3 Producer

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Cakewalk’s Sonar X3 Producer may not have changed the core of what this DAW is all about. However, it has brought this legendary platform to a new level of versatility. They've made the user interface fully customizable, allowing you to optimize the layout of modules and tools just the way you want them. Add to that the all new Melodyne integration and you have a mighty vocal editing platform. Sonar X3 Producer comes across as a well-rounded performer that might surprise even the experienced users of this platform. At the end of the day, it's still capable of going against its most formidable competition with a few tricks up its sleeve. We love it, and chances are you will too.

Image Line FL Studio 12 Producer Edition

Image Line FL Studio 12 Producer Edition

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If there is one DAW out there which can be described as a gateway drug into music production, it's FL Studio. The version we are looking at today, FL Studio 12 Producer, may not be as revolutionary as some of its predecessors, but it brings improvements in areas which have seen the most demand. The core performance is more or less the same, aside from minor improvements. However, Image Line has completely redesigned the user interface to a point where it scales with your monitor's resolution. In practical terms, this allows you to control your work space and decide how much on-screen real estate you want to work with. Overall, it is a rock solid DAW with plenty to offer.

Ableton Live 9

Ableton Live 9

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For years Ableton Live has been the go to DAW for those who perform live. Its MIDI integration made it very simple to connect, use and sync various controllers and other gear. Ableton Live 9 brings you that same performance but with a few radical changes. The most significant upgrade comes in form of a new browser system, which cuts down on time necessary to navigate your libraries. On top of that, the variety of built in effects has become even more powerful and intuitive to use. Those who have experience with previous versions of Ableton can expect a similar but more flexible platform. Those who don't are in for a rather pleasant surprise, especially if you're a live performer.

PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist

PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist

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PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist is one of those DAWs that does just about everything, and does it good. Despite it being the entry level version, PreSonus has loaded it up with enough tools and other goodies. If there's one benefit of this DAW that we can point out, it is organization. Everything is so put together so well, making the entire package very efficient. Those who are used to a fast paced work flow will definitely enjoy the customization options, as well as the super fast browser feature. Overall, PreSonus Studio One 3 Artist comes across as capable tool that can keep up with you, no matter how complex your projects tend to be. It delivers when pushed hard.

Audacity

Audacity

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The world of DAWs includes some awesome free versions. In that niche category, Audacity comes across as one of the most powerful and potent DAWs you can find. Once you fire it up, you will notice just how simple and minimalist everything looks. The team behind Audacity spent very little time and resources on making this thing look good. All of their effort went into performance. Audacity is great for recording as well as editing. It can get a surprising amount of work done right out of the box, while it also features VST compatibility and more. In general terms, it is a very flexible and versatile platform that can give some paid DAWs a good run for their money.

GarageBand

GarageBand

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Apple's GarageBand is a free piece of software that is accessible to every Apple user. It is a light DAW that packs a decent punch. Those who want to get into recording music or audio editing can do that rather painlessly with this software. GarageBand features a pretty wide array of different plug ins and virtual instruments whose quality is surprisingly good. With its clean user interface, you can expect to get your tracks out the door fast. Combined with a decent audio interface, recording guitars, vocals or other instruments is more than doable. GarageBand can be the core of your home studio if you're on a tight budget. It's a good way to prepare yourself for Logic Pro X.

Pyramix 11

Pyramix 11

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Pyramix 11 by Merger is a professional grade DAW that you can grab for free. The moment you start it up, you'll know that it's not just another gimmicky DAW, but rather a proper music production tool. Pyramix comes with some unique features, such as 3D modeling for speaker output. This allows you to optimize your tracks for various surround systems, including ones with more than a dozen of satellites. Overall, the amount of control you get over your mix is so impressive that it can be overwhelming for most. That brings us to our next point. Pyramix requires a lot of learning. It's a complex piece of software which can give even most pros a run for their money.

What Are DAWs?

Ever since the invention of a micro chip, people saw the potential of the emerging computer technology. We can go as far back as mid ’70s and find examples of people trying to create digital audio workstations. However, back then hardware was simply not up to the task. That leads us to a very logical question, what are DAWs? Digital audio workstation is a software designed to allow the user to record, mix, master and otherwise alter recorded sound.

More basic DAWs are geared towards recording mainly, while the more complex kind offers a much wider range of possibilities. Modern DAWs are truly an amazing piece of technology. Not only do they replace just about every piece of studio equipment, but they make music production much easier. As a matter of fact, DAWs have almost completely replaced their hardware counterparts in this business.

Are There Different Types Of Digital Audio Workstations?

The thing about digital audio workstations is that each one is unique. If you think about it, every brand out there is trying to give their users something new, or to find an easier way to get a common task done. In that context, every DAW is something completely different. However, DAWs can be classified into several categories based on what they were optimized to do.

There are ones optimized for recording music, those that are geared towards mixing and editing, and finally DAWs which were built for live performance applications. This classification is actually quite simplified, but it gives you a good enough picture of what you will run into on the market. Figuring which one of these uses best fits your needs is something you should do before you make up your mind. As you will find out quite soon, switching to a new platform is not that easy once you are used to a specific type of DAW. Despite there being a number of elements which all of them share, the controls are different and so is the approach with which the brand solved a specific issue. On top of that, this type of software isn’t exactly cheap either.

Who Can Use Music Production Software?

Despite what many might think, learning how to use a DAW is something everyone can do given enough interest and effort. With that said, there is a certain learning curve to this type of software. You will first have to master the interface of your chosen version, and then begin to grasp the basic concepts behind mixing, recording and mastering music.

If you look carefully, you will find plenty of people without any formal education in audio engineering nor music, who are currently masters of their trade. In other words, don’t let anyone tell you it is not worth getting into music production unless you have a college degree. That is pure nonsense. Reaching a level of proficiency definitely is hard, but it is far from impossible.

Things You Will Need In Order To Use A DAW

Every piece of software needs a specific complement of hardware in order to work. Same goes for digital audio workstations. To answer the question from our title there, the main piece of hardware you will need is a decent computer. As obvious as that may seem, not all computers are equal in the world of DAWs. There are specific hardware requirements that need to be met if you want to have smooth performance and unhindered work flow. Let’s check out those specs real quick.

CPU

As one would expect, CPUs are the most important piece of hardware for music productions. DAWs in general are very resource hungry and they tend to hog a lot of your CPU power even when you are running simple projects. The more effects, plug-ins and other layers you add to your project, more CPU power will be required. There are good news, though. Most modern CPUs are powerful enough to sustain the horrors of frequent music production.

For example, your average quad core processor is going to be plenty enough. Depending on which DAW you go for, a quad core might even be the upper limit since software engineers have to optimize each piece of software. Considering that a quad core is the most common commercial CPU format, most companies will make their DAWs with these CPUs in mind.

RAM Memory

RAM is equally as important, if not more important than CPU power. In context of DAWs, you can look at RAM as a temporary storage facility where you store data that you are most likely going to need on a moment’s notice. The minute you start a DAW, it is going to hog a decent chunk of your RAM. That is without even opening a single plug-in or loading a single preset. The more operations you start, more RAM is going to be tied up.

Here’s the deal. Plug-ins, effects and other elements commonly found in DAWs, are constantly evolving. In order to reach the new level of performance, software engineers are willing to trade some of that resource economy. Modern plug-ins are extremely RAM heavy and so are DAWs in general. Having more ram is always a good thing. If we had to make a quick assessment, we would say that anything less than 8GB of RAM is going to lead to performance issues. In some cases, even 8GB won’t be enough.

Input Devices

Recording music directly into your computer requires a bit more than just said computer. You can’t plug your guitar directly to your microphone port and expect it to work. Same applies to other instruments. Instead, you will need an audio interface of some kind. Most audio interfaces use USB connection to pair with your computer. These tiny devices are used to boost the signal coming from your instrument, and format it into a package that can be read by your DAW. If you plan on actually recording music, an audio interface is a must. Learn more about these devices in our dedicated guide.

Another cool thing about an USB audio interface is the fact that it offers phantom power. In other words, you can use it to plug in your condenser microphones into the system as well. Given that you have a somewhat adequate recording booth, you can actually get pretty good vocals using nothing else but a mic fed into the audio interface and finally the computer.

How To Choose A DAW?

Making a choice between various DAWs is both one of the most important decisions you can make, but also one many people spend too much time on. This is largely because new users tend to spends hours upon hours of research, trying to figure out which specific DAW gives them the best performance. While that is definitely a good thing to do, spending so much time looking into a specific piece of software can turn into a rabbit hole with no end in sight.

In order to simplify things, here is a very basic logic chain you can follow. The very first thing you need to figure out is which DAWs are compatible with your computer. If you are using an Apple machine, you will have to find software that is compatible with Apple OS. Same goes for Windows based computers.

Once you have that figure out, you need to figure out what is going to be your primary work. Some producers focus on editing music, some prefer the recording aspect, while others are mostly focused on live performance. Rarely will you find software that is capable of doing all of these things perfectly. This part of the story also has to do with the genre of music you intend to work on. Some DAWs are optimized for electronic music, while others aren’t. That is just one example of bias you will run into with these.

What Is The Best Workstation For Beginners?

This is one of those polarizing questions that tend to divide the community. On one hand, you have those who argue that picking a professional DAW from the beginning is the right thing to do. On the other, you have those who are completely against this option. The truth is somewhere in between. If you are just starting out, chances are that you will benefit from having a free DAW as your first one.

For starters, you can try it out without spending any money out of your pocket. This is important because some companies simply don’t offer refund on their software. On top of that, even the most basic free DAWs will use the same core principles as the professional software. You can use these freeware options to get familiarized with the general concept of digital audio workstations, and figure out if that is something you really want to do.

Here’s the thing, though. One of the main issues with free software is that it isn’t always user friendly, DAWs are heavily reliant on the user interface being intuitive and easy to work with. With that said, there is a good argument to be made that starting on a high end DAW could actually be beneficial. Ultimately, the choice is yours. As for specific DAW versions, we strongly suggest that you try out FL Studio.

Is It Possible To Create Music With DAWs?

Absolutely! One of the best things about the modern, resource hungry DAWs is that they are more than able to create sound. If you want to, you can record entire tracks without ever using a real instrument. The key here are VST plug-ins. VSTs or Virtual Studio Technology plug-ins are like virtual audio synthesizers that can mimic just about any kind of instrument out there. All you need to do is write the music straight into the DAW and fine tune it to your liking.

The only real limitation to this method of music creation is the quality of sound with certain instruments. For example, synthesizing guitars has always been tricky. With that said, drums, pianos, percussion instruments, keyboards, brass and other, is well within the realm of possibilities. There are some skill based requirements, though. Writing music in a DAW will mean mastering the piano key diagram. This is what most workstations use these days, which is fairly logical if you really think about it. Those who have played piano before will feel at home, but those who haven’t will definitely have to learn.

One issue that beginners tend to run into when trying to compose music in DAWs, is the fact that the end result sounds too robotic. Don’t stress yourself out over this as there is a perfectly good reason why this happens, and a very straight forward solution to how to minimize this effect. Can DAWs Sound Like The Real Thing?

There are arguments to be made about both the positive and negative answer to this question. Ultimately, it all comes down to the skill of the person mixing tracks, the quality of plug-ins used, and the time spent mastering the final project. What many beginners overlook is the fact that when you play a real instrument, you do much more than just play different notes. There are factors such as velocity, pressure and a many more, all of which play a major part in how any given note will sound.

When playing a real instrument, you perform all of these tasks subconsciously without even thinking about them for the most part. However, when you decide to program a piece of music, you have to input all of those values individually.. This is why most producers would rather record a real instrument than synthesize a virtual one. It is simply faster and less painful to do. With that said, given enough time and attention to detail, you can definitely dial in a plug-in to sound extremely close to the real thing.

It all comes down to how determined you are and how well you understand the parameters of the DAW you are using. That is what makes DAWs so awesome. They are a blank canvas which allows you to do just about anything you want to.

Music Production And Beyond

People often tend to underestimate the power of modern DAW software. Sure, it is the tool of choice for music production, but this type of software is capable of so much more. In essence, it is a strong audio editing software and audio doesn’t only mean music. You will find numerous professionals who use DAWs to restore various audio files, or to enhance the quality of damaged recordings. Music production, recording and mixing is just one aspect of what you can do with one of these programs.

Going back to producing music, at one point you will realize that software may be capable of doing something, but it isn’t necessarily the best choice. In other words, getting various controllers may prove to be the right call if you plan on doing music production as a long term gig. If you enter any professional studio today and go straight for the editing desk, chances are you will see a whole number of various controllers being used in combination with DAWs. Cool thing is that you don’t need to get all of these accessories right away. That is something you will build upon as you develop your skills and gain some experience. However, it is good to know that you have options. Generally speaking, a DAW is like a CPU in a computer. It is the core component of a much larger and highly modular system.

Conclusion

DAWs are by far one of the best things to happen to music industry. This type of software has made it much easier to record, edit and mix tracks, thus ensuring overall better product. DAWs we have shown you today are by far some of the best you will find out there. The paid ones are more or less the standard in the industry, while the free ones are also impressive on their own. Figure out what kind of music you want to make, how you want to make, and choose a DAW that fits those needs.


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