A Recording Studio For Your PC
It's never been a better time to buy digital audio workstation (DAW) software. Twenty years ago, to record a music album at a professional level, you needed a sizable mixing console, several eight-track digital records (such as ADATs or DA-88s), and a good selection of outboard compressors, reverb units, and other effects, plus a two-track deck to mix down to. In other words, you were looking at about $10K to $15K worth of gear to start—and that's before you got to microphones, speakers, and other accessories.
If you were on a budget, you'd probably stick with a tried-and-true Tascam or Yamaha four-track tape recorder and Alesis compressor, get used to bouncing tracks in mono, make peace with tape hiss, and remember to clean the tape heads every week. And you'd be sharply limited in the kinds of projects you could produce. The only easy multi-track recording you could do at the time was with MIDI, with hardware synthesizers or samplers, and maybe with a Mac or an Atari ST computer attached as a sequencer.
It's an entirely different world now. Software packages that cost a few hundred dollars now deliver hundreds of audio tracks and incredibly flexible editing. And some programs are even free. You can create as many instances of effects plug-ins as you want, including spot-on emulations of compressors that cost several thousand dollars each, and attach them to as many mixer channels as you want. It's all nearly unlimited and "in the box" now.
Choosing the Right DAW
So from the standpoint of someone recording 20 or 30 years ago, using a DAW today is like a giant candy store; it's as if you can do almost anything. For the newcomer, though, it may seem almost hopelessly complex. Choosing the right audio software can be quite difficult. Most of the famous packages like Pro Tools and Logic have been around for decades. They've grown incredibly powerful, and as a result have user interfaces that are as complex as…well, professional mix consoles.
So how to decide? To help with this task, we went out and tested the most popular DAWs. Numerous venerable (and excellent) recording magazines have reviewed these applications many times over the years. That's great for the existing user base of each DAW, but maybe not always quite as clear for newcomers. In each of our reviews, we did our best to approach each product as a whole, rather than devoting the majority of the space to just the latest features that were added in the most recent point update.
Before we get to the specifics, the simplest program for audio editing is a two-track editor; probably the most famous example here is the free Audacity. While Audacity aspires to some extremely basic multi-track recording with overdubs, its real use is as a solid stereo editor. If you're recording a podcast, or editing a clip of your kid's piano recital that you recorded on your phone, Audacity is an excellent choice; you can probably start and stop there. If you need something more sophisticated, though, read on.
It helps to think about the kinds of projects you want to create. Are you planning on producing beats for hip-hop or fully electronic compositions? Do you want to record multiple musicians playing live instruments at once? Will you be using your setup to score for picture, or creating sound effects and dialogue for TV and video games? Do you need to produce fully polished, printed scores, or otherwise prefer to work with musical notes and staves? Do you plan on tuning the pitch of vocal performances? Working out the answers to these kinds of questions up front will help you narrow down your choices.
What Comes With Each Package?
The good news is all of the packages can we tested can more or less do all of the above tasks, with a few notable exceptions. The trick is that each program has strengths in different areas, and some tasks may be a bit more complicated in one than they are in another. One overarching rule to decide faster is to look at what your colleagues or friends are using, and then choose the same package. That makes it easier to share tips or even projects between each other, rather than being the lone person using a particular product and then introducing session import issues.
Another is to look at what's bundled with each program. Would you prefer a DAW that comes with a ton of virtual instrument sounds, such as synthesizers, sampled violins, guitars, and electric basses? You may want to look at something like Logic Pro X or PreSonus Studio One, both of which include many gigabytes of sounds and loops. Do you have or plan to buy your own instrument plug-ins you want to use? Reaper is a fully stripped down DAW at an excellent price, and it makes an excellent host for third-party VSTs. It's also great if you're recording a band full of live instruments and don't need much in the way of virtual ones. Do your tastes lean toward the electronic and synthesized realm? Both FL Studio and Ableton Live are inspired choices with plenty of built-in synths, though you can produce electronic music with just about any of these programs.
Often, it comes down to the details, and the editing philosophies. Do you prefer pattern-based recording for electronic music? FL Studio is going to have plenty to offer. Would you rather have a "do-it-all" DAW with a large built-in sound library at a low price? PreSonus Studio One beckons. Do you want to not just be able to bring projects into major studios, but collaborate online and also open sessions directly as you work on them with others? It's impossible to top Avid's Pro Tools for this.
How Much Do You Want to Spend?
Closely correlated to the bundled instruments and effects is price, and that's a factor that can cloud the issue a bit. Many of the top-tier packages also have less expensive (or even free), feature-limited editions available. It's not as simple as saying "Reaper is a budget DAW at $60 and Studio One 3 is a professional-level DAW at $399," because you can also buy the stripped-down (but still pretty feature-rich) Studio One Artist for $99. What do you lose? What do you gain? We try and touch on this as much as possible within each review.
Which DAW Is Right For You?
In short, read our reviews (linked below) and try some demos where you can. But otherwise, don't sweat it too much. We spent countless hours testing these products and putting together both the reviews and this guide. Despite the complexity of the software here, we've found it's honestly tough to go wrong. It's not like computers or cameras, where you can clearly see that of the latest crop of products, a few perform well and a few don't perform as well as the leaders. These are all mature, well-established products, each with thousands of fans.
As a result, most of the packages in this roundup score at least four out of five stars. You can get professional-level results with all of them. Each has some specific workflows that work really, really well for some people—hence the endless "X is the best and Y is garbage" arguments on the internet—but they all can work for just about anyone.
Even so, we single out two DAWs, one on the Mac and one on the PC, for Editors' Choice awards: Apple Logic Pro X, for its absolutely unbeatable value with its built-in instruments and effects plug-ins, and Avid Pro Tools, for its seamless audio editing and suitability up and down the pro studio chain. But we'd happily use any of the programs listed below for new projects. Choose one, learn its secrets, and get to work creating and editing amazing music and audio projects.
Featured in This Roundup
Bottom Line: Apple Logic Pro X 10.3 is a powerful update to an already-excellent digital audio workstation, and if you own Logic Pro X, it's free.Read Review
Bottom Line: Avid stays the course with Pro Tools and maintains its status as the standard cross-platform solution for professional audio editing work for music, film, games, and broadcast.Read Review
Bottom Line: Reaper offers nearly all of the features and flexibility, if not the ease of use or visual appeal, of powerhouse digital audio workstations like Pro Tools at a fraction of the cost.Read Review
Bottom Line: If you want to produce some of today's slickest beats, right up to full electronic dance music tracks, FL Studio could be the ideal key to unlock your creativity.Read Review
Bottom Line: PreSonus reinvented the common digital audio workstation in 2008 with Studio One; the latest version is the most inspired yet.Read Review
Bottom Line: In its latest iteration, Ableton Live is a powerful all-in-the-box solution for composing music, particularly electronic-influenced, but it's not for everyone.Read Review