We tested seven of the leading Digital Audio Workstations (DAW), and we found Avid Pro Tools to be the best DAW for beginners.
A quality DAW is the centerpiece of any studio. When you consider how powerful and versatile the software needs to be, it’s no wonder why choosing the best DAW is such a hot button issue for new audio engineers. So, we set out to field test some of the most popular options on the market to help anyone new to audio engineering select the best digital audio workstations for beginners.
Selecting a DAW is a deeply personal choice, and it will vary depending on the type of music you enjoy making or producing. But, considering how versatile and feature-rich it is, you can’t go wrong with Avid’s Pro Tools.
Pro Tools has been an industry leader for nearly 30 years, and they’ve helped revolutionize audio recording as we know it. Whether you’re an aspiring producer chopping up tracks and making beats with software, or you’re more interested in engineering live bands, Pro Tools is one of the most solid platforms you can choose.
When it comes to tracking live instruments, Pro Tools is second to none. In recent years, they’ve also made it much easier for electronic producers to leverage the powerful software in their music, as well.
Read on, as we cover everything you’ll need to know about Pro Tools and other digital audio workstations for beginners. We’ll also dive into everything you’ll need to consider to help narrow the field and select the best DAW for you.
Digital Audio Workstation Mini-Reviews
Without further adieu, let’s jump right into our reviews of the top seven digital audio workstations for beginners.
1) Avid Pro Tools: Best Overall
Avid Pro Tools has been the industry standard for audio engineers for nearly three decades, and they aren’t showing any signs of stopping.
Compared to some other options, Pro Tools has a steep learning curve. The software possesses so many capabilities that it’s going to take any newbie lots of time to fully grasp. However, it’s still easy enough for the completely green to wrap their heads around basics. Pro Tools also offers the most customization for aspiring producers at any stage of their development.
Pro Tools includes all the tools you’ll need to grow into your role as a music producer, and Avid boasts the most expansive library of plug-ins and add-ons available. No other DAW offers as much flexibility or power to expand in the future, making it the ideal choice for aspiring professionals who will need a top-of-the-line solution as they grow their skills.
While Avid’s Pro Tools has been the industry standard for professionals for so long, the software hasn’t caught on as much with home engineers. It looks like this is something Avid is conscious of, and they’re trying to raise their appeal with features like the Avid Marketplace, which connects aspiring engineers to other professionals and hobbyists from the audio community.
The latest version of Pro Tools adds some much-needed workflow improvements, such as real-time track and timeline updates. This feature allows you to add effects, presets, loops, and more without stopping the music to apply the change. This way, nothing is getting in the way of your creative flow.
Pro Tools is the best choice for audio engineers who spend the bulk of their time recording, mixing, and mastering live musicians. It’s also an excellent choice for film scoring and hobbyists who are considering a career in audio production.
2) Reason Studios: Best Virtual Instruments
Reason spent much of the 2010s between staying true to their roots and trying to keep pace with the groundbreaking features of rival DAWs, but they’re back on the right track with their latest offering, Reason 11.
Reason is known for having some of the best sounding native instruments in the game, and that remains true with Reason 11. They also maintained the familiar “virtual studio” workflow they’re famous for, down to the fake patch cables and rack units.
Reason has long been lauded for its virtual instruments and plug-ins, but it’s fallen flat from an audio engineering perspective. With Reason 11, users can now use Reason as a DAW or as a plug-in within other software. This way, you’ll be able to take advantage of all the iconic effects and instruments of Reason in another DAW that might be better suited to the way you work.
Reason is an excellent choice for aspiring producers who need a DAW to create music from scratch using virtual instruments and effects. This DAW is also an excellent choice for newbies who would like to try out a workstation before purchasing it since they offer a free 30-day trial through their Reason+ subscription plan.
3) Acid Pro Suite: Best for Beatmakers
Acid has always been a popular tool with beatmakers (from the creators of Magix Music Maker), and the new Acid Pro Suite will only serve to solidify this DAW in those circles.
Acid’s workflow has always been ideal for beat producers, but it lacked many features that would make Acid a viable full-fledged DAW. The Acid Pro Suite changes all of that, adding a suite of virtual instruments and recording features beyond its already world-class features for sampling, looping, and making beats.
The most notable feature is a newly redesigned Stem Maker plug-in from Zynaptiq. Stem Maker allows users to easily separate elements of a track to use in samples and loops. For example, you can quickly isolate the song’s vocal melody or drums and sample it. This feature has existed for some time, but the latest version greatly improves the isolation and overall sound quality.
Acid Pro Suite also includes a copy of Serum, one of the most highly-regarded synth plug-ins on the market.
Acid Pro is an ideal DAW for beatmakers and electronic musicians. The latest version makes it easier than ever to flesh out complete songs in less time, and the new Stem Maker is incredibly useful, and its ease of use makes it one of the coolest creative tools of any DAW. But, if you’re most interested in recording live musicians or scoring for film, there are much better options.
4) FL Studio: Best User Interface
Fruity Loops has been a go-to choice as one of the best DAWs for beginners since 1998, and it’s only picking up steam since rebranding as FL Studio. For the first time, Mac users can get in on the fun, too.
FL Studio offers one of the most well-designed user interfaces of any DAW, and it’s easy to read and digest despite its complexity. The UI also has multi-touch support, which is a godsend for engineers with touch screen monitors. You’ll notice plenty of small flourishes that improve the user experience, like incredibly responsive metering and a glowing song position marker.
Recording new tracks is a breeze either within the box or with the help of a MIDI keyboard. Users can create beats within the pattern window, record new tracks, and quantize the tracks to the beat with a single command. For the first time, FL Studio is also compatible with time signatures beyond 4/4.
Recording guitar and other live instruments is a bit of a challenge, and it’s one area where FL Studio falls flat. There’s no support for recording live in the most affordable version of the program, and the support for recording live instruments in the pricier versions is still clunky and difficult unless you’re recording short clips or vocal parts to use as samples.
The native instruments are a bit thin and simplistic sounding compared to other DAWs. Fortunately, there’s so much room to manipulate sounds that you can still create amazing music with some tweaking. While the synths may be simple, they’re all tailor-made for modern dance music, so aspiring electronic producers should still feel right at home with FL Studio.
Overall, FL Studio is an excellent choice for electronic producers and beatmakers. For recording live, it’s not a strong fit.
5) Ableton Live: Best for Live Production
The newest version of Ableton Live rolls out some useful enhancements that greatly improve its usefulness for live recording and performance. These upgrades pad out an already excellent DAW that’s popular with producers and engineers from every genre.
Ableton Live 11 includes several upgrades for tracking, live performance, sound processing, and sequencing. Ableton also includes three new excellent-sounding virtual instruments; upright piano, string quartet, and brass quartet.
There are also some noticeable improvements to the quality of effects. Redux and chorus effects were given additional parameters and features while flanger and phaser have been joined into a single (more powerful) effect.
This version also offers support for MIDI polyphonic expression with compatible instruments, allowing you to bend individual pitches and add more nuance and feeling to your playing.
Live 11 offers much better support for recording live instruments, which helps solidify Ableton as a viable DAW for any producer. No longer is Live the go-to tool for electronic producers who perform live direct from Ableton. This powerful DAW is now one of the most versatile options available, and it’s ideal for recording engineers and producers alike.
6) Steinberg Cubase: Runner-up Best Overall
Cubase is one of the original DAWs and the most direct competitor to Pro Tools from an engineering perspective.
Cubase is an absolute powerhouse that manages to perform admirably for almost any pro audio task. In particular, Cubase is an excellent tool for composing in MIDI, and the Key Editor remains the most functional and intuitive editing tool for composition. Cubase also boasts an incredible library of virtual instruments, with plenty of multisample synths that are fully fleshed out in all their glory.
Cubase also offers impressive harmony tools that help suggest chord progressions or vocal harmonies that are surprisingly musical. Cubase is on the cutting edge in this regard, and very few DAWs offer a comparable tool.
Beyond MIDI composition, Cubase is an effective tool for recording live instruments, editing, scoring, and post-production. There are no restrictions on instruments, tracks, or MIDI, which can’t be said for other DAWs, including Pro Tools.
While some professionals still prefer the overall feel and deep editing capabilities of Pro Tools, Cubase is a clear 1A to Pro Tools number one spot, and this latest version closes the gap even further.
Cubase is an ideal DAW for aspiring producers who need a jack-of-all-trades workspace that allows them to seamlessly transition between live recording instruments, MIDI composition, beat making, or anything else for that matter.
7) PreSonus Studio One: Best for Live Bands
As one of the newer DAWs on the market, PreSonus had their work cut out for them to compete with the heavyweights. Studio One had its share of growing pains at first, but the latest version, Studio One V5, manages to address many of the workstation’s shortcomings while also adding some impressive and unique features.
For scoring and composing, Studio One is almost without equal. The DAW leverages PreSonus’ Notion software, which now integrates via an edit window in Studio One. Many of the edit windows have been revamped to improve workflows within the DAW.
This latest version doesn’t add any additional instruments or plug-ins from Studio One V4, but many have received graphical redesigns and the PreSonus State Space Modelling treatment, which delivers incredibly lifelike analog saturation to any plug-in.
The most notable addition to the latest version is the Show Page, which is a godsend for bands and live performers. Using the Show Page environment, you’ll be able to take projects and arrange them into live sets which incorporate backing tracks, live effects processing, mixing, MIDI control, and more.
PreSonus Studio One is the best DAW for beginners who are looking for the best composition tools they can find. Live bands are also bound to love the new features of Studio One too. While Studio One might not be the best choice for beatmakers, audio engineers and composers are sure to fall in love with this powerful workspace.
Before you rush out to purchase your first DAW, there are some important factors you’ll want to consider that can make your search easier. Read on as we cover the ins and outs of what you’ll need to know when shopping for a DAW.
What Is a DAW?
A DAW, or digital audio workstation, is the interface where recording, editing, mixing, and mastering occur. More accurately, a DAW is your entire ecosystem of outboard gear, hardware, and software that allows you to create or record music.
A central component of any DAW is your computer. The speed and power of your computer are going to dictate a lot of what you’re able to do with your DAW. The speed of your CPU dictates how many plug-ins you’ll be able to run simultaneously, while the disk speed affects how many tracks you’ll be able to record at one time. You’ll also need plenty of memory to facilitate recording and playing MIDI instruments.
Another critical piece of your DAW is an audio interface. Audio interfaces facilitate recording, control how many tracks you can record, recording resolution, and sound output. An interface will also provide your mic preamps, display control, and headphone distribution.
The last required piece of equipment you’ll need are studio monitors, which provide transparent playback of what you’re recording or editing.
Depending on the type of engineering you do, you may include other pieces of hardware in your DAW setup. These include things like microphones, processors, preamps, MIDI controllers, a control surface, and so much more.
While all of these components are critical pieces of a DAW, the way engineers understand the term today is much different. In modern times, when someone refers to a DAW, they’re almost always speaking of the software that facilitates recording and editing.
Critical DAW Features
While every DAW is built to serve the needs of different types of musicians and engineers, they all tend to have many of the same crucial features, which we’ll explain below.
Perhaps the most important feature of any DAW is the virtual effects plug-ins available.
Virtual effects are software approximated versions of musical effects, like reverb, equalization, compression, delay, and more. You’ll also find emulations of specific hardware units, such as the ludicrously expensive compressor units that are built into the SSL consoles that run north of five figures.
Today, these virtual effects are so capable that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a virtual effect from the hardware it’s based on.
Virtual instruments are sampled versions of actual instruments, like a piano, strings, brass, or drums. These days, the technology has advanced to the point where it’s difficult for even the most seasoned ear to differentiate between a recording of a real instrument and a virtual one.
All of the higher-end DAWs include a strong selection of virtual instruments, with some offering more than others. Users aren’t tethered to the virtual instruments or effects that come with the DAW, either. You can easily add new virtual instruments and effects to your DAW with additional plug-ins, although the costs can add up quickly. Add-on packs are rarely cheap.
Pitch correction effects have become a staple for any engineer over the past few decades. Today, virtually every DAW comes with a suite of pitch-correction tools that can either be used as an effect or smooth out a pitchy vocal performance.
Some DAWs include autotune, which has become so ubiquitous that its name is used to describe pitch correction on the whole. Other DAWs include different pitch correction tools, such as Melodyne, which is included with PreSonus’ Studio One recording software.
Elastic audio, or time-stretching, is an incredibly useful tool that can adjust the tempo of a track or loop you import to match the tempo of the other tracks in the session. Many high-end DAWs can even allow you to speed up or slow down a session without altering the pitch.
Beyond their use in music, DAWs are also used for film scoring, and special effects work, too.
High-end DAWs like Pro Tools will allow you to import video files into your session and lock them in sequence so you can score and edit directly from a single workspace.
Choosing the Right DAW
All of the features in the world won’t matter if the DAW you select doesn’t fit into your workflow well. Here’s what you’ll want to consider to ensure the DAW you select is a strong fit for how you’ll use it.
In years past, most serious recording engineers and electronic producers used Mac computers almost exclusively. The reason was two-fold. Mac computers were always a stronger fit for creative applications, and many software manufacturers leaned heavily on Mac’s OS because their users preferred it.
Today, Windows has closed the gap significantly, and their operating systems provide every bit of the technical flexibility as Mac. What you choose to use is a matter of personal preference.
Keep in mind that there are still a few platforms that are exclusive to one OS or the other. For example, Logic Pro is exclusive to Mac while Samplitude is only for Windows machines.
One of the most critical things to address when evaluating DAWs is whether or not your computer can meet the needs of the software. Carefully check what’s required to effectively run the program and ensure your computer will be able to handle it. If not, consider whether or not you’re willing to upgrade your computer to make it compatible.
As a basic framework, you’ll want a computer with plenty of solid-state storage, 2GB or more of RAM, and ample connections for the interface, audio card, additional storage, and other hardware needs.
Today’s operating systems use 64-bit system architecture almost exclusively. Meanwhile, if you have an older computer that’s still a powerhouse, it may be running 32-bit. DAWs typically allow you to switch between 32 and 64-bit modes, while plug-ins are written for one or the other.
You’ll want to ensure that the DAW you choose is compatible with the software architecture you use and ensure that there’s a bridge program available for any plug-ins that aren’t compatible if you use a 32-bit OS.
Your Future Needs
Before deciding on a DAW, it’s important to consider your plans for the future. Are you interested in recording or producing music as a part-time hobby? Or, are you considering a future in music or audio recording?
As a beginner, it’s tempting to purchase an inexpensive DAW or use free software. As your skills progress, you’ll quickly outgrow the limited features and mediocre plug-ins and editing capabilities of a free or cheap program. Once that happens, you’ll be back to square one, and you’ll need to decide on a new DAW and learn how to use it effectively.
If you’re serious about recording or producing, your best bet is to save up for the DAW that best fits the way you work and the music you produce, rather than opting for a cheaper solution.
A quality workspace will be enjoyable for you to use as a beginner while still having plenty of power and features for you to grow into as you become more competent behind the boards.
You’ll find DAWs across every price range, from free and inexpensive to thousands of dollars.
Even a free DAW will provide all the functionality you need to get your start, but you’ll find that they lack the advanced features and plug-ins you’ll need to take your work to the next level.
If you’re serious about your future in audio, the best thing you can do for yourself is to spend what you need to purchase the best DAW for you. If it’s not in the budget yet, put off buying until you can afford the right DAW.
Thankfully, many of the most popular DAWs are available in several different versions at varying prices. This is critical for budget-conscious beginners who know that the right DAW for them is out of their price range.
For example, the current iteration of Pro Tools is available in three versions. There’s a free version to get you started, a standard version that’s affordable and provides all the basic functionality you’ll need, and the pricier Ultimate version, which unlocks every feature.
If you’re on a budget, opt for the cheap or free version of the DAW that’s the best fit for you. You can jump to the next version when your budget allows.
The question of what is the best DAW for beginners boils down to use cases and personal preferences. One thing is for certain, any of the seven incredibly capable DAWs on our list is a capable performer that any aspiring audio engineer will be able to work with.
There is no one-size-fits-all best DAW for beginners because the tasks that different engineers and producers use a DAW for are completely different. The user who spends most of their time producing live bands and the user who uses a DAW to create beats are likely to prefer completely different platforms.
All things considered, one DAW is our choice as the best DAW for beginners, and that’s Avid Pro Tools. While Pro Tools may not be the easiest DAW to master, it’s the choice of more professionals than any other platform.
Still, even the completely uninitiated will be able to pick up the basics of Pro Tools. Once you have the basics under control, an entire world of possibilities will open up for you.
Whether you’re an aspiring audio engineer, a producer, someone who makes beats, or anything in between, Pro Tools is the powerful solution to take you to the next level in pro audio. Click here to take a closer look at Avid Pro Tools.
As the Head Editor at Music Grotto, Liam edits content produced from over 30 professional music/media journalists and contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.