Choosing a DAW (20 free and paid DAWs!)
by Amar Dev Sharma – 15/04/2020
DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. You probably already knew that, huh?! Well, you probably already know this too; we use DAW’s to record, produce, mix, and master audio. If you have found yourself reading this guide it’s probably because you need help choosing which one is right for you…and that’s OK! There are a number of them to choose from and you have likely heard the term “industry standard” thrown around a fair bit… but it is important to understand that we all have different objectives and preferences for workflow, so what works for one may not be ideal for another.
Essentially all DAW’s perform the same functions, some with more features than others and some more suited to certain tasks over others. So your choice of DAW will depend heavily on what exactly you need it to be able to do! With so many on the market, it’s no wonder that people struggle to pick one. Be sure to check the system requirements to ensure your device is up to the task. Almost all of them offer free trial/demos so there is no reason you cannot take your time to choose the right DAW for you.
P.S Developers are constantly updating their products so some of the specs and characteristics found in this article may have changed by the time you read it! Thanks for checking it out nonetheless, you can find more of our useful blog posts right here!
Audacity – Free and Open Source
Quite basic, but has improved with recent versions. It has a basic user interface which makes it simple to use. Very popular for a straightforward voice-over/speech recording setup. Its metadata editing facility is also pretty easy to use and I do use it a lot for that, and also to perform quick conversion tasks, WAV to Mp3 for example. It’s like a glorified Windows Sound Recorder, which is what many of us (myself included) used to play with when starting to record, back in the day 🙂
Check it out: https://www.audacityteam.org/
Garageband – Free, Mac Only
Free on IOS/Mac and a good place to get started for sure. It’s features and default sounds are not super advanced but the mobile version is actually pretty decent, especially the auto/arpeggio features. I have personally used the mobile version of it to record ideas while out and about. I have heard friends productions in the full version and I was rather surprised, considering it is free.
Check it out: https://www.apple.com/mac/garageband/
Mobile version: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/garageband/id408709785
Cakewalk by Bandlab – Free (Windows only)
In 2018 Bandlab purchased Sonar Platinum from Gibson and rebranded it as Cakewalk by Bandlab. They kept all the core features of the premium software it was previously known as, so as far as free DAW’s go it is probably one of the best. I recommend it to everyone looking to get started. It does require a fairly decent computer though, so make sure you check the system requirements! I used Cakewalk Home Studio roughly around 2004/2005 before it got resold and rebranded various times. When I listen back to demos I made with it, they still sound pretty cool, especially the guitar tones! The workflow was also very easy and intuitive, so I can only imagine that it continues to be a great option. In fact, if it had been free at the time I set my studio up, I am sure I might have chosen it over Cubase Pro!
Check it out: https://www.bandlab.com/products/cakewalk
Pro Tools – Free and Paid
Pro Tools has received a lot of criticism recently for their subscription model and payment plans etc. resulting in many switching to other DAW’s. Pro Tools First is the free, watered-down version of the “industry standard” (yep….it was this one I was talking about before haha) recording software. The free version does not have any of those issues, and allows you to have up to 16 audio tracks, and can record up to 4 tracks at a time. It also comes with some effects/plugins and a virtual instrument. It is a great program for mixing, possibly unrivaled in reputation, but perhaps not as versatile as other DAW’s in terms of MIDI and other bells and whistles. It has a great workflow and this is one of the things that makes it stand out, especially for mixing. Upgrades can be pricey though!
Check it out: https://www.avid.com/pro-tools
Cubase – Free and Paid
When you buy certain hardware products, mainly by Steinberg, you will be given a license for Cubase LE for free. This is rather handy and a good way to try out a more basic version of Cubase before you decide to get a fully functioning DAW. Plenty of plugins and a decent virtual instrument, up to 24 MIDI tracks and 16 audio tracks plus support for up to 8 physical inputs makes it a great option to get started. Cubase Pro, although rather expensive, is another beast altogether! Fantastic MIDI capabilities, superb workflow, a sheet music editor and integrated auto-tune features among many other things, make it a great choice of DAW. Great workflow and built-in effects and plugins. Like Pro Tools, the upgrades can be pricey though, which has always put me off upgrading too frequently.
Check it out: https://new.steinberg.net/cubase/
Logic Pro – Paid, Mac only
One of the most popular DAW’s with Apple users, known for being flexible, having great workflow, plugins, and sounds. Overall it is very intuitive, I can only imagine that is why they named it “Logic” :D. It comes with a huge sound library and is almost always the software used in schools to start teaching music production…. which is a good sign of how easy it is to use…If you haven’t heard of this program you must have been living under a rock! It also has a free app to control the DAW remotely from your iPhone or iPad. They offer a free 90 day trial period for you to decide if it’s the one for you.
Check it out: https://www.apple.com/logic-pro/
Presonus Studio One – Free and Paid
A relative newcomer in the DAW world (but not the hardware world!) when compared to Pro Tools and Cubase, but this hasn’t stopped Presonus from making their mark with Studio One. Its features easily rival the other 2 DAW giants at a lower price, with a great user interface and quality virtual instruments. This makes sense as the founders were former Steinberg employees/developers! It even includes a sheet music editor found in very few DAWs and .ddp export features in the pro version, which is really a fantastic feature to have built-in. Both the free version, “Prime”, as well as the full version, only work with 64 bit operating systems so be sure to keep that in mind. Many producers prefer Studio One over Pro Tools which is a huge compliment to the developers…. it is undoubtedly worth considering.
Check it out: https://www.presonus.com/products/studio-one/
Ableton Live – Free and Paid
Ableton is one of the most popular DAW’s for electronic music and live performances, and it’s especially popular for live looping. Its user interface, or workflow, can be a bit tricky to get used to, and as with most DAW’s, there are usually a few different ways to go about doing the same thing. Great sounds and features… and the free version Ableton Live Lite, although limited, is worth checking out if you have a minimal budget and it ticks all your boxes. It has beat matching and crossfade features for DJ’s too! The Prodigy and Skrillex are just a couple of huge name artists using Ableton Live. Free 90 day trial of the full version for those interested.
Check it out: https://www.ableton.com/en/
Reaper – Free and Paid
Since its launch Reaper has gained a serious user base. Its workflow was not very intuitive when I trialed it, but this hasn’t put off a multitude of producers moving to Reaper from other DAWs. As with any program, it can take some time to get used to it but once you get over the learning curve everything is more familiar and becomes second nature. I personally know several producers who use this program to make great music. Its free version is the full version! But you can only use it for 60 days….the paid versions are cheap enough though, and the inbuilt effects and plugins are fantastic, which is another reason people are very satisfied with this DAW.
Check it out: https://www.reaper.fm/
FL Studio – Free(ish!) and Paid
I have a soft spot for FL Studio. I used it extensively for a while and made my first income creating beats using an older version of this software. It has been traditionally associated with electronic production but it is more capable than ever before of making any kind of music. The free (trial) version has all the features of the most comprehensive version of the software, but with limitations like not being able to reopen saved projects, etc. A huge selling point for me is that you only pay once, and get free updates/upgrades for life! I don’t think any other DAW offers this, so it is really quite amazing… The workflow is strange compared to other DAWs but I actually grew to really like it and miss some of the features, now that I have moved on.
Check it out: https://www.image-line.com/flstudio/
Acoustica Mixcraft – Free and Paid
This one is getting a lot of attention! Glowing reviews all around and a number of awards make sense when you consider it has features usually found in more expensive DAWs, like a sheet music editor, autotune and live looping facilities. It also has a huge loop library and doubles up as a fully-featured video editor! The full version is incredibly affordable when you take these things into account, but there is a free trial if you remain unconvinced. Even I am tempted to switch over to this one!
Check it out: https://acoustica.com/mixcraft
Propellerhead Reason – Free and Paid
Reason can look rather complex at first but purposefully aims to recreate the look and feel of a real analog studio. In fact, the mixer has been faithfully modeled on the famous SSL 9000k analog desk. This is probably not a bad thing! Primarily suited for electronic music productions, but fully capable of recording audio just like any other DAW. The built-in effects like pitch edit and time stretch are fantastic too. There is a 30-day free trial, and they have 2 paid options (intro, and full versions).
Check it out: https://www.reasonstudios.com/en/reason
Acid Pro – Free Trial and Paid
Previously owned by Sony and now by Magix, this DAW has a number of high profile users who swear by it. It has had a recent update seeing a new interface, brand new instruments and 9GB of loops and sounds, autotune, and zynaptiq stem maker (extract individual instrument stems from songs!) included. Trial it for free to see what all the fuss is about!
Check it out: https://www.magix.com/us/music/acid/acid-pro/
MuLab – Demo and Paid
Cheaper than most of the big-name DAWs, MuLab can record, edit, and mix audio and program music just like any of the others. It does seem to be more geared towards electronic production, integrating world-class synths, samplers, and effects. The demo version is quite restrictive, so you may find that you want to upgrade to the full version sooner than anticipated!
Check it out: https://www.mutools.com/mulab-product.html
Tracktion Waveform – Free and Paid
A new and award-winning DAW with some impressive features and sounds. The modular rack is really cool and allows you to have a super flexible and visual representation of your signal flow. The user interface is lovely to look at and feels nice and intuitive to use. Free 90-day trial.
Check it out: https://www.tracktion.com/
Ardour – Free and Open Source
Ardour is really quite a comprehensive DAW considering the price…..it’s free! They have more recently collaborated with Harrison Consoles, who we will talk about shortly! It can look a bit basic at times, but includes loads of handy features not usually found in a free program, like video editing, unlimited tracks, and a monitor section… and as it is totally free!
Check it out: https://ardour.org/
Harrison Mixbus – Free demo and Paid
Harrison are known globally for their high end mixing desks used primarily in movie production, so it is no surprise that their DAW precisely emulates their famous 32 series analog console circuit designs. This supposedly gives the DAW a unique and warmer sound when compared to others. There are plenty of reviews to support the claims of superior sound, although it is better suited to mixing/mastering and not so much for MIDI-based production. The full version is very affordable. Mixbus 32C is the full-blown version and is a bit pricier. Personally, I have found it quite fidgety to get it up and running, but there is a free demo for you to see if the hype is real!
Check it out: https://harrisonconsoles.com/site/mixbus.html
Soundtrap – Free and Paid (subscription)
The first and only browser based DAW on this list. Everything you do is stored online in the cloud, you can use automation, it has an autotune feature by Antares, access to over 4000 loops and presets and much more…pretty epic to be quite honest! The free version is quite limited, but the subscription model makes it quite an attractive option with 4 different tiers to choose from. It works on pretty much every device out there so it’s worth a look for sure.
Check it out: https://www.soundtrap.com/
Bitwig Studio – Free and Paid
This mid-priced DAW aims to deliver super-fast workflow, great hardware integration and boasts a flexible modulation system. It has touch screen integration and you can also open multiple projects simultaneously! It is aimed at electronic producers, especially those looking to use connect their synths and other outboard gear. It also “sandboxes” your plugins so if they do crash, they are self-contained and don’t crash the program…ever! Over 80 instruments and effects, plus over 10 gigabytes of loops of content from Bitwig and their partners make this DAW one to watch.
Check it out: https://www.bitwig.com/en/bitwig-studio
MOTU Digital Performer – Trial and Paid
Another one for electronic producers, MOTUs offering has some pretty great features like Quickscribe for notation, a spectral graph view which is rarely found in other DAWs, hardware support and cool instruments like MegaSynth, which turns your guitar or any other instrument into a synthesizer! The full version is not too friendly on the wallet but is priced similarly to the big-name DAWs. I couldn’t find a demo version on their site, just Performer Lite which appears to be free if you have purchased MOTU hardware. If anyone can shed some light on this please let me know in the comments below!
Check it out: https://motu.com/en-us/products/software/dp/