At their core, all digital audio workstations, or DAWs, do the same thing: allow a user to record, process, and compile audio into a final product.
While different DAWs have different capabilities and bells and whistles, what DAW you use will not affect the quality of the audio you create.
Some are easier to navigate for beginners, some are only available for certain operating systems, like Macs (macOS) or PCs (Windows), and some just have great tools to help you be creative.
In this article, we’ll go over some strengths and weaknesses of the major DAWs so you can choose which one is right for you.
These are the best DAWs for music production in 2023:
For macOS and Windows (sorry Linux users)
Ableton is one of the big three DAWs, and the most popular among electronic music producers by a significant margin. Diving deeper into what Ableton can do, it’s not hard to see why.
In addition to having an array of unique plugins that come standard with the DAW, it has an incredible sound design tool called Warp mode. You can slow down, speed up, chop, stutter, quantize, and more with Ableton’s Warp modes, giving you total control over any samples or other audio you bring into a project.
It uses a type of granular synthesis to affect audio based on transients and other data it analyzes, allowing you to stretch sounds while preserving transients, if you choose, or just sync up two loops at different tempos while keeping the pitch and formant the same – or not.
The Warp Markers used by the software serve to show where transients are in the music file, but are completely editable, meaning you can use them to correct or destroy a sample’s flow, potentially taking you down some very fun rabbit holes of discovery.
There’s so many possibilities with Warp mode, and it remains quick and intuitive to use.
Aside from this, the workflow in Ableton is a big selling point. The interface is simple and clean, though at times a bit monochromatic. Automation is always readily accessible and easy to manipulate, which is big for electronic music where drawing automation can take an eternity and a half sometimes.
Ableton also lets you search for plugins by name or software company, which is a big timesaver if you have a large catalog of VSTs.
The layout of Ableton’s FX racks are a bit different from most other DAWs, so if you have experience with other music software it might take a bit of getting used to, but overall they function very well and give you immediate access to signal processing chains, with the ability to load custom chains and to see components of plugins in the chain without needing to open any new windows.
- For both Mac and PC.
- Warp mode and other unique sound design tools.
- Plugin search.
- Not the most exciting interface.
- Geared more towards electronic music.
Logic Pro, Garageband’s older, more sophisticated brother, is an amazing DAW that is perfect for beginners to music production, but can also handle the needs of seasoned veterans.
One of the draws for Logic users is the color-coding system. Nearly anything can be colored, from tracks, to individual regions, to arrangement markers.
This makes at-a-glance project management a breeze, and you can hand off a beautifully arranged project file to someone with no context, and they will likely be able to pick up right where you left off.
There’s also a notepad, which allows you to write and reference notes that are specific to a track, available when you select that track, or for the whole project, which is just a click away when looking at any track’s notes.
This is great for keeping track of vocal comping notes during recording, while also having lyrics easily accessible on-screen, for sharing session files between collaborators, or just remembering what you were doing before your cat ran across your desk and crashed everything.
Additionally, Logic Pro comes with some fabulous stock plugins, including the synth with more sounds than you can shake a stick at: Alchemy. Alchemy’s parent company was purchased by Apple not long ago, giving them the synergy to take Alchemy from great to awe-inspiring.
Featuring additive, spectral, and granular synthesis, analog emulations, and over 3000 presets with a search function and genre browser, this synth is a powerhouse.
It has four oscillators/sample sources, tons of modulation sources like LFOs and envelopes, and most impressively, a six-square performance pad that lets you fluidly and dynamically switch between variations of a preset.
You can assign different parameters to change based on the X/Y coordinates of the pad, and then slide the pad around in real time to breathe life into every sound you make.
Not to mention that all 3000 presets come with six performance pad assignments already, which is essentially like having 18,000 presets.
Logic Pro also boasts a tool for the percussively-inept producers out there: Drummer tracks. With real samples and real recorded grooves, you can create convincing and authentic drum parts complete with fills and hits that follow your arrangement.
There are options for tom usage vs. cymbals, auxiliary percussion instruments, dynamic slider pads, and all of this can be converted to MIDI so you can use your own imported or recorded sounds.
Drummer tracks are truly a cheat code for the producers out there who can’t afford a studio drummer for every track.
Logic Pro is designed to be intuitive, yet deep, so that creatives can be less focused on the “how”, and spend more time creating.
- Color coding and project organization is amazing.
- Stock plugins, synths, and Drummer track.
- Not designed for electronic music producers. Everything is still doable, it’s just not always set up best for that genre.
For macOS and Windows
Pro Tools is the quintessential recording software for industry professionals across the globe. Go to any studio and you’re likely to find it running Pro Tools on a desktop Mac, with analog gear off to the side and a big mixing console in front of you.
For years, top players in the industry have been using this software, historically known for crashing at the end of a long session. But if that’s the case, why keep using it?
Pro Tools is made for a recording workflow, plain and simple. Both Logic and Ableton have great MIDI workflows, but Pro Tools takes the cake when it comes to capturing live sounds.
The track layout and arrangement work well to show clearly where you are and where sounds are coming from, and splitting a signal into different cue setups for the various players in live bands is straightforward meaning they can all hear each other while recording to get a tight and authentic feel.
Things inside Pro Tools feel a lot like setting up analog gear, which is great if that’s what you are used to; things will tend to just make more sense. Multitrack recording and importing is also ergonomic and easy, following a similar multitrack analog recorder flow.
It also packs in a hearty number of synths and plugins off the bat, and of course you can download any 3rd party plugins as VSTs or AUs and use them.
Notably, Universal Audio plugins and gear work like a charm with this DAW, and UA gear can take over some of the processing load, saving you CPU and letting you do more with less latency.
A big downside of Pro Tools is that the learning curve is steeper than the other DAWs above. It really functions with its own systems and they can be difficult to pick up on at first. Fortunately, so many people use it that if you have a question, there is surely an answer out there.
If living a Rick Rubin lifestyle is your dream, it’s worth learning Pro Tools anyway, even if you don’t use it as your main DAW, because odds are most of the studios you use will be running this software.
The last drawback is that Pro Tools uses a subscription-based model for payment, which can quickly outprice its competitors at $30 per month if you pay monthly, or a hefty $300 per year.
For many who aren’t spending eight hours a day at their workstations or with clients, you’re better off with a one-time payment for a DAW that gives free updates for life (thank you Logic!) or at least lets you keep using it at the current version without paying more every year.
- The default DAW in the music industry.
- Great for live recording and audio workflow.
- Works fabulously with Universal Audio gear.
- Not designed for MIDI or creativity in the DAW.
- Subscription-based payment model.
- Steep learning curve.
FL Studio, previously known as Fruity Loops, is Microsoft’s answer to Logic Pro. This DAW helped to usher in the era of computer-based music makers by providing a workflow geared towards electronic and sample-based music, and has remained true to that vision through the years.
This DAW has a great MIDI flow, with a piano roll that’s second to none with features like strums and arpeggiators built-in, and in the arrangement window it’s incredibly simple to move the building blocks of your song around quickly.
No surprise, then, that it also features a great library of loops to start unlocking your creative juices, and a nice selection of plugins and features to manipulate those loops.
The trade-off is that recording is not always as simple, and can be confusing or time-consuming to set up, compared to other DAWs. Similarly, some of the send functions can require more steps to set up correctly, so setting up busses becomes a bit more of a chore.
The layout is nice for beginners who have experience with the Windows OS, and allows users to keep using their PCs if that’s what they’re the most comfortable with.
Not only that, but all windows and view settings are customizable which means that you can move plugin menus around until everything is right where you want it on your screen.
Every DAW worth its salt has automation on some level, but FL Studio takes it to the next level. You can automate virtually anything via anything else, like if you wanted an LFO to control the master tempo, you could probably do that. It’s a vast experimental playground to create some truly ludicrous setups where the only limit is what you can think of.
In the spirit of not playing well with audio, FL Studio cannot quantize audio, even on a basic level of aligning transients to beats. Recorded audio is really not the focal point for this software.
- Amazing piano roll.
- Very affordable with lifetime free updates.
- Every single thing can be automated.
- Can’t quantize audio.
- Recording is slower and more complicated than most DAWs.
- Doesn’t always play well with analog gear.
For macOS and Windows
Cubase is the product of Steinberg, a company that seamlessly blends the creative and practical worlds together through programming and music. As a result, Cubase is a DAW that programmers, coders, and right-brained types will appreciate for its unique workflow.
Cubase confidently lays out everything you need and would expect from a DAW, including plugins, synths, and samplers, none of which necessarily outclass the other big names on this list, but it’s good to know they’re there.
The thing is, Steinberg is responsible for developing VST technology in the first place (which if you don’t know, is the tech that plugins run off of for Windows), which means that all VSTs in Cubase are incredibly stable and reliable.
You’ll almost never have a crash or something not working right, which is a huge relief, especially when Pro Tools is also an option. Furthermore, the whole program itself runs consistently and hardly ever crashes, despite being a very large piece of software.
It’s well-designed from the bottom up, giving it tons of power with a solid foundation so you don’t tear your hair out after losing five hours of work from a crash.
Logic is often revered for its comping abilities and intuitive take folders, but Cubase has a similar feature which makes putting together a perfect vocal line from a few different passes a breeze.
Recording audio in general is very doable and organized, meaning you could take it into a session with an artist and keep the flow going.
Cubase also features a way to process chunks of audio by themselves, either with a single plugin or a whole chain applied to just one part of a signal. This allows you do do things like print a reverb or delay throw to the last word in a vocal phrase, or distort the ending of a synth line, and not have the plugins drain CPU in the background. The software makes this very easy to do.
Going back to the theme of organization, Cubase once again blesses musicians with what may be the best plugin/sample management system of any DAW. You can search for keywords and tags in the browser and it will pull up samples and plugins from across folder, or even hard drives.
It’s a dream to use, and can save tons of time when you’re sample-hunting in the middle of a creative flow.
- Highly organized and logical layout.
- Works great with audio and MIDI.
- Super stable.
- Mediocre stock plugins.
- Sampler lacks features.
- Automation is not as smooth as other DAWs.
It’s worth saying twice that the DAW will only affect your workflow, not necessarily the quality of your productions; that’s up to you.
It’s important to find a DAW that lets you be creative in the way that’s easiest for you, so it can be a good idea to test out a few different options with their free trials.
Find the one you like best, and go make some music!