Choosing a DAW (21 free and paid DAWs!)
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.
Audacity – Free and Open Source
Quite basic, but has improved with recent versions. It has a simple user interface which makes it simple to use. Very popular for a basic voice over/speech recording setup. It’s metadata editing facility is also pretty straightforward and I 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 and myself used to play with when starting to record, back in the day 🙂
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 impressed!
Cakewalk by Bandlab – Free
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 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 may not have bought Cubase Pro!
Pro Tools – Free and Paid
Pro Tools First is a watered down version of the “industry standard” (yep….it was this one I was talking about before haha) recording software. 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. 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 unrivalled 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!
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, upto 24 MIDI tracks and 16 audio tracks plus support for upto 8 physical inputs makes it a great option to get started. Cubase Pro however is another beast altogether! Fantastic MIDI capabilities, superb workflow, a sheet music editor and integrated auto tune features 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.
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. It’s just a shame there is no free or trial version!
Presonus Studio One – Free and Paid
A relative newcomer when compared to Pro Tools and Cubase, but this hasn’t stopped Presonus from making their mark with Studio One. It’s 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! 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.
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. It’s 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 cross fade features for DJ’s too! The Prodigy and Skrillex are just a couple of huge name artists using Ableton Live.
Reaper – Free and Paid
Since its launch Reaper has gained a serious user base. It’s workflow was not very intuitive when I trialled 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. It’s free version is the full version! But you can only use it for 60 days….the paid versions are cheap enough though, and the in built effects and plugins are fantastic, which is another reason people are very satisfied with this DAW.
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 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.
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 and live looping facilities. It also has a huge loop library and doubles up as a fully featured video editor! The full version is actually rather 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!
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 modelled 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).
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 included. Trial it for free to see what all the fuss is about!
Stagelight – Free and Paid
Stagelight is cross platform DAW. Geared towards electronic styles and hip hop too, with simplicity as it’s main selling point. This makes it great for beginners. The free version has unlimited tracks, a handful of instruments and a number of presets. Handy!
MuLab – Free 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 free version is limited to only 4 tracks per project, so you may find that you want to upgrade to the full version sooner than anticipated!
Tracktion – Free
A completely free 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. It’s free, so why not try it out!?
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, which we will talk about shortly! It includes loads of handy features not usually found in a free program, and as it is totally free, check it out for yourself…
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, and there is a free demo for you to see if the hype is real for yourself!
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 auto tune feature by Antares, access to over 4000 loops and presets and much more…pretty epic to be quite honest! The free version is a quite limited, but the subscription model makes it quite an attractive option at roughly 5, 10, and 15 dollars depending on the version you go for. It works on pretty much every device out there so it’s worth checking out for sure.
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 makes this DAW one to watch.
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 ir 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. Good thing they have a 30 day free trial!
Whew, there we have it! I hope this guide helps you narrow down your search. There are quite a few free options, which are all good places to start for the budget conscious. Almost all the others have a free trial, so as mentioned before, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying before you buy! Good luck and feel free to leave a comment below and share with your producer friends!