When you’re making music straight off of a computer, your Digital Audio Workstation or DAW is the most essential tool within your hands. You may have the best studio monitor speakers, audio interface, or MIDI keyboard, but DAWs are the core of it all.
For this reason, you must get a DAW that allows you to create music exactly as you want, the way you want your ideas materialized.
To help you find it this 2021, we’ve put out a list of the best Digital Audio Workstations available on the market. The goal of these tools is the same, but it’s the subtle differences that make each of them unique from one another, which could be the factor why you would choose it.
1. Steinberg Cubase Pro 11
Steinberg developed most elements of the DAW that everyone else is cloning and modifying to their own applications. So, what you’re going to find here should be familiar to anybody who has ever used some other DAW software. All the main elements of MIDI recording and sequencing have been taken care of and Steinberg focuses on actively re-evaluating the workflow and creating additional capabilities.
The Cubase Pro 11 has some pretty interesting features, such as the option to pull chosen tracks from other projects or to record MIDI retrospectively so that you never forget anything even if you weren’t in Record. Tools are combined inside the mouse pointer and change based on what you point to, and you can create macros to manage several items at once.
Cubase comes with an impressive selection of virtual instruments and other serious advanced audio plug-ins. The Channel Strip in the Mix Console is wonderfully effective at establishing the tone of your audio tracks, and the mixer history lets you go back and forth across all of our mixing adjustments. The Sample Track is a very innovative way to pull any audio from anywhere and use it as a sampled instrument complete with incorporated modulation, slicing, and gliding.
- Price: $580
2. PreSonus Studio One 5
Version 5 is a remarkable piece of software for recording. The single-window approach, with the ability to drag and drop audio, plugins, instruments, and concepts, makes it easy to browse and quick to create tracks.
With Scratch Pads, Studio One 5 will help you try new ideas without messing up your mix. You can apply markers, key shifts, chords, and structures on any of your parts. You can reverse changes in the mixer and work with different concepts and test them against each other. It’s such a forgiving piece of tech that makes you feel like you should always come back to a place where it worked before you stepped out some wild path.
It comes with a wide variety of virtual platforms that cover much of what you’re going to do all the time. Audio plugins contend with some of the best third-party plugins and have some very fun and innovative solutions. You can edit your MIDI as patterns, piano roll, and full score, so you’re never short of another view.
Studio One also moves out of the DAW by giving you a Mastering Suite to finish your album and a performance room where you can work and gig a whole set using the same resources you use to compose your music.
Studio One can easily transform your concept into a finished product, as well as help you carry it out live. No other DAW can offer this kind of package that feels complete throughout.
- Price: $399 with subscription options available
3. Reaper 6
Reaper’s power is incredible. It has a small installation footprint and comes with no fluff or baggage from the main DAWs. It’s oriented, tidy, and consistent with every framework, interface, and plugin format you can think of. It felt at some point obsolete and off the curve, but with Version 6 it was brought back to competition and up the charts.
It’s all about basic music creation with a very flexible configuration window that can combine audio, MIDI, video, and still images for multimedia productions. It comes with a whole host of sound processing plug-ins that are extremely efficient on the CPU. You can also use a network to farm plugins to other machines. The interface is entirely customized to your specifications that anything from color to graphics and structure can be modified and adjusted.
Reaper is always an underdog and suffers from being a little basic in areas. Yet it has an enthusiast user base that makes it one of the most supported DAWs out there with far less investment than any of the others.
- Price: $60
4. Bitwig Studio 3
Bitwig Studio continues to explore the limits of internal innovation in terms of sound manipulation and modulation. The audio tracking thing and the MIDI sequence can be achieved without any problems, but its power lies in the internal devices that create a very imaginative space. It’s like the software transforms into a giant synthesizer.
You may use a whole variety of modulation devices to play with the sounds, regardless of the source. The manipulation of the included instruments is very easy, but it also applies to audio processes, effects plugins, and external sound sources.
Simply applying a filter to the audio track has become a manipulation exercise. In other DAWs, you may want to record any automation or MIDI control movements. In Bitwig, you can plug in a randomized LFO step to take the cut-off to imaginable positions. But you can do the same thing for reverb, compression, EQ—any parameter is up for grabs, and you can chain these modulators up in extremely complex ways.
You can create complex CV-based modulations, effects, and synthesizers in the Grid modular environment, offering you a unique space to play with sound design and experiment with audio processing.
Bitwig also has several other benefits. It has a clip-based performance engine that smoothly flips back and forth with the organized page. You can pull clips, samples, and MIDI patterns and get them ready for live-action.
Bitwig is completely multi-touch compliant and thus, with a touchscreen or hybrid laptop, you have complete power over your live set without the need for a MIDI controller. But they have had that tied up, too. Bitwig specifically supports multidimensional MIDI MPE control so that you can pull off some brilliantly articulate performance with compatible instruments.
Bitwig sounds thrilling and profoundly innovative and has less to do with studio recording and more to do with creating music.
- Price: $300
5. Tracktion Waveform Pro 11
Waveform Pro has developed and grown so rapidly in the last few iterations that it’s done playing catch up and is now working out a course of its own. It pioneered the concept of a single-window solution that Studio One uses, but has a special approach to workflow.
There are also aspects flipped, such as the location of the browser and the track headers. It pulls all down the track; there are no different editors or inspector windows. If you try to edit the audio or MIDI, you just get in closer. If you want plugins on a track, just drag them in. It has the potential to create massive plugin chains for some very innovative audio processing.
Waveform does odd things to the clips and items that you’ve recorded. You can treat them as patterns and add all manner of ideas and principles to them. It drips with innovative and open modulations and forms to add transition and evolution to tracks and functions.
It’s considered to be a little cerebral because it sets all the parameters and possibilities out there for you to fiddle with. But you can configure the look and see just the bits you’re interested in, so it doesn’t sound that hard. It’s the kind of tech that rewards a deeper analysis.
Waveform comes with a wide range of tools and effects—MIDI tools as well as audio ones—and can run through various platforms, including Linux and Raspberry Pi. There’s also a free edition that isn’t a cut-down or restricted version, it’s just a complete version of a couple of iterations earlier.
- $200 – Basic
- $260 – With more instruments and effects
- $750 – For a massive collection of extra content
Get the Best DAW For Your Studio
The decision you make which DAW to get will influence the very essence of your music-making and production workflow. A DAW can be a blank slate, but it can also be a guide on how it presents your thoughts and takes you to new frontiers.
It’s a tough decision, but the good news is, you can’t go too wrong. All DAWs on this list will satisfy your need to turn your machine into a working studio.