The Ultimate Guide to DAW Software for 2021

Let’s start with a quick intro for beginners! DAW stands for a Digital Audio Workstation, where music composers and sound engineers spend a majority of the time these days. The time when music was one dimensional using a piano or guitar is long gone, because sound mixing is of vital importance if you want to create exceptionally great commercial music. The ultimate guide to DAW software for 2021 will help you find the right software that suits your budget and the kind of features you like to have.

Free DAW versus Paid DAW Comparison

As a matter of fact, there are no free software programs available or at least the ones that call themselves free don’t provide enough plugins and tools to do professional sound mixing. Audacity is one of the most popular choices available and WavePad is considered a viable alternative. At some point you will obviously come to a dead end where it no longer allows you to compose the music you want to. Going for trial or limited version of a paid software is a recommended solution. It’s a cheap alternative where a beginner will get all the necessary tools and you can always choose to upgrade to the full version when there is a professional requirement.

The List of Most Popular DAW Software

  • Apple Logic Pro X
  • Avid Pro Tools
  • Presonus Studio One 3
  • Steinberg Cubase Pro
  • Propellerhead Reason
  • FL Studio 20
  • Ableton Live 10

Apple Logic Pro X

Most music professionals are probably aware of the fact that Logic Pro X is an Apple exclusive product and works only on Macintosh, not on Windows OS. Yet, it has managed to become a huge name because Apple creates MacBook Pro and other products which scream of premium quality.

When their Macs are paired with Logic Pro X, you get the best sound recording and MIDI studio with a host of amazing stock plugins that some audio professionals are addicted to. The plugins are fantastic and you may not be able to find them in other DAWs which make Logic Pro X a must-have, especially since it is capable of being an all-round complete software for your recording studio.

Pros

  • Excellent collection of built-in plugins
  • Supports both MIDI and sound recording with a host of effects, EQs and drum kits
  • Macs are built to last longer and help you make the most out of your investment in the long run

Cons

  • Exclusive only to Macintosh
  • Macs are expensive and on top of that you have to spend $199 to own Logic Pro X

Recommended For

  • Mac users and studio professionals who need an all-rounder software that works great with all kinds of music

Avid Pro Tools

Talk to any sound engineer or a professional working in the film industry, they will definitely be familiar with Avid Pro Tools at some point in their creative career. The software is known for its familiarity with the film industry and it is easy for a beginner to find lots of helpful advice or professional guides available.

You might also come across a huge collection of YouTube tutorials and becoming a professional in Pro Tools will ensure you gain recognition in the sound industry. The DAW isn’t without its fair share of drawbacks too, as the range of stock plugins available is considered lesser compared to Logic Pro X. However, Avid’s software works on both Mac and Windows platforms.

Pros

  • A free version named Pro Tools First is available for beginners
  • Considered the industry standard DAW and gaining knowledge would make it easier for you to work in any studio
  • A range of bundled plugins and compatibility with all types of instruments makes it a versatile software

Cons

  • Some professionals complain of a missing multiband compressor
  • Plugin collection even though large is not considered impressively huge by music composers

Recommended For

  • New sound engineers and composers who like to start off with the best DAW in sound production
  • A great free alternative if you aren’t ready to spend a huge budget           

PreSonus Studio One 4

Unlike many other DAWs that require a lot of time to understand the complex plugins, tools and setup, PreSonus Studio One 4 is easy to learn. That’s how it made its way into the ultimate guide to DAW software for 2021 and is here to stay. The software is ideal for sound recording, mixing and uses an intuitive drag and drop interface.

The product has come a long way and the latest version Studio One 4 has introduced some exclusive features such as the Harmonic Editing and Arranger Track. The feature relies less on user input and automatically organizes a song based on instrument arrangement without having to cut, paste or move it. The newest version can detect chords automatically and is fully compatible with all MIDI devices. Studio One automatically converts your MIDI sounds to hi-res 32-bit internal format to avoid distortions.

Pros

  • Studio One 4 strongly focuses on ease of use and newcomers will find themselves right at home
  • It saves a lot of time and manpower as you can easily search to find effects, instruments while spending less time on the arrangement
  • A free version is available and the updated single interface to start composing is very intuitive

Cons

  • Professionals may suggest popular alternatives like Logic Pro or Pro Tools as they find the simplified interface constraining their movement
  • Focused more on loops, remixes and EDMs rather than original sound production in other genres

Recommended For

  • When you want to directly jump into professional sound production with no hassles, Studio One 4 is the way to go
  • An amazing lineup of free, entry level and pro level price range makes it ideal for sound producers of varying experience
  • If you are looking for a drag and drop interface with automated tools to simplify sound recording

Steinberg Cubase Pro 9.5

Cubase Pro 9.5 is the latest version available in 2021, which brings in a whole lot of improvements to the already amazing software that is loved by home studio owners and professional sound engineers equally. The newest interface in the Cubase Pro is very intuitive, easy to use and it provides a large collection of instruments to bring your music to life.

Some unique highlights of the product include its Reverence convolution reverb, multiband compressor, envelope shaper and the Frequency EQ, which is very responsive. The Cubase Pro also has VCA faders, Control Link Groups making it easier to record and mix sound in a professional style. Throughout the years, Cubase has also set itself apart from the competition with its Chord Assistant feature that becomes even better when combined with Chord Track and Chord Pads to bring your music to life.

Pros

  • Chord Assistant is a unique feature which makes Steinberg Cubase Pro 9.5 stand out of competition
  • Provides an excellent range of instruments, MIDI VST effect processors such as VST Amp Rack and VST Bass Amp
  • Different sounds from instruments and an intuitive interface that makes audio recording fun

Cons

  • Professionals complain about new bugs that pop up whenever updated versions are rolled out and it takes time to fix them
  • VST instruments are not considered to be of professional quality

Recommended For

  • When you look for a DAW which has an assist feature, the Cubase Pro does it best with its Chord Assistant feature to shape your music
  • The appealing user interface and different instrument choices will impress creative music composers who want a change from the conventional professional environment
  • An all-rounder software suitable for all kinds of composition

Propellerhead Reason 10

Propellerhead Reason 10 is the latest version you should consider from the ultimate guide to DAW software for 2021 and the first thing that will probably capture your attention is the studio-grade mixing console provided in it. The output is on par with anything that you could create in a real studio with real instruments, making it the perfect choice for home studio setup done on a limited budget. At first look, it won’t be surprising if you are new to this and feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of effects available in the software.

Reason 10 has further increased the number of instruments and effects available, making it the number one software to get any kind of music done, without having to use actual instruments. All you might need is a MIDI controller to compose, record and mix using the virtual instruments and effects. The UI may be a bit complicated for some users, but considering the professional quality sound it produces, it is worth spending time in learning it.

Pros

  • Propellerhead Reason 10 provides an overwhelming number of instruments, effects and utility FX to choose from
  • A great modular tool with a large UI to support whatever you want to compose using the program
  • Capable of producing industry standard music with VST and Rack extension support

Cons

  • A large number of choices may sound very difficult to learn for newcomers
  • A cheap version is available, but there’s no free version to make use of

Recommended For

  • Offers a suite of virtual instruments which you can use with other DAWs making it easy for users who use another DAW for their recording, mixing needs
  • Visual representation is very analog-like providing an authentic feel for retro lovers
  • A smart pick for composers who love virtual instruments and capable of completing entire recording sessions virtually  

FL Studio 20

FL Studio 20 is the newest version of the popular software which was once known as Fruity Loops and it has come a long way since the past. The software now features a more intuitive user interface than ever and audio professionals suggest it as the top pick for anyone looking to understand more about sound recording, editing and mixing in a safe, convenient environment.

The DAW is equipped with all major features such as multi-track audio recording, time shifting, pitching and stretching. It also supports MIDI recording, linear workflow, automation control and VST plugins. While the interface looks similar to what you would find on most high end composing software, it doesn’t intimidate new users and has a friendly design. The basic version has more than 80 pre-built plugins. A surprising addition is that FL Studio Mobile is an app available on iOS and Android, allowingyou to produce music on the go.

Pros

  • Easy to learn user interface that is loved by thousands of professionals worldwide
  • The software receives lifetime free updates, making it a budget-friendly long-term investment
  • A great choice for all kinds of recording, mixing and editing  

Cons

  • FL Studio 20 is not considered a big name in the professional fraternity
  • Some advanced functionalities may not be available

Recommended For

  • Music lovers interested in understanding the nuances of sound production
  • An easy software which young musicians and sound engineers can learn which also supports MIDI supports and basic sound effects

Ableton Live 10

Ableton Live started off as something else but has now become one of the most celebrated music software of them all. The interface has tons of customizations, but at the same time it is designed to fitwith a laptop screen allowing you to operate it on any system. The newest version available is Ableton Live 10, which still has a lot of customization geared towards live performance and instrument recording, and also suits studio recording.

The developers have introduced new additions such as the Wavetable, Echo, Drum Bass and Pedal to help enhance individual instruments. All the professional grade feature such as live MIDI capture, editing, mixing and arranging tools can be found in Live 10. The DAWs interface may not be as colorful or appealing as other popular programs available, but from a professional’s perspective, it’s the best that you could get.

Pros

  • Supports multi-track audio recording and is certified by professionals
  • Effects and sounds are fully compatible with most instruments
  • Seamlessly supports MIDI besides being easy to use single window interface

Cons

  • The UI is very intuitive, yet not as colorful or appealing as other audio software programs
  • The sheer amount of advanced features may intimidate beginners

Recommended For

  • A perfect companion for professional artists who expect a large amount of sound libraries and original sounds
  • Different usage scenarios such as multi-track audio recording, real-time stretching and advanced wrapping

Other Popular Alternatives

  • Cockos Reaper – A really cheap alternative at just $60 and works on both Windows and Mac. It comes bundled with recording, mixing and mastering tools required to get the job done.
  • Bitwig Studio – The modular system used in this DAW makes it popular among live performers as it supports sound mixing and performance in live on-stage performances.
  • Mixcraft Pro Studio – Another affordable option out there for audio professionals vying to learn basics of recording and sound mixing in a comfortable, semi-professional user interface.
  • MOTU Digital Performer – One of the oldest DAWs which gets all your tasks done in a singular workflow environment. The software is of professional quality and will allow you to create world-class music once you have learned to make use of the tools, instruments bundled in it.

Choose Recording Software Based on Experience

For Beginners – FL Studio 20 is your perfect companion,as the colorful interface, easy to use tools and plugins have a very simple learning curve. Any newcomer can get into music production to learn more about recording, mixing and mastering. Besides, the software is a cheaper option rather than investing on a professional product in which you may hardly use all of its features as a beginner.

For Intermediates – Cubase Pro 9.5 by Steinberg is strongly targeted towards intermediate users who have solid experience in recording and composing. They might require more features and in-depth customization optionswith a variety of instruments. Cubase is capable of withstanding such demanding user requirements, besidesallowing you to create impressive professional quality music.

For Professionals – Once you have reached the professional stage, there is no space for any compromises and the investment should be much higher. There are obviously some great choices at this level. Professionals in the movie and music industry often stick to Avid Pro Tools and Apple Logic Pro X. The more affordable and reliable variant would be Ableton Live 10 which lets you get everything done with the comfort of your home studio without breaking the bank.

Conclusion

Choosing the right DAW software is just the beginning because you have a lot to learn after installing it on your preferred system. The ultimate guide to DAW software for 2021 will be a useful reference material that you can use to identify some of the most popular audio software available and where it best fits. There is no one perfect software and musicians have generated amazing songs and background scores from DAWs that were considered less professional compared to the more expensive ones. In the end, it’s up to you to decide how much time you spend in learning it and tapping into the true potential of the software you feel comfortable with.

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