A digital audio workstation (DAW for short) is software that records and manipulates multiple audio sources simultaneously. These recording programs enable you to record audio for something as simple as a podcast, as well as tackle major projects like recording an entire symphony. As you search for a recording program, it's important to know that one program is not better than another for all users. It all depends on what you want to do with the program, so you need to find the one that works best for you. Arguably the most recognizable name in the recording studio software industry is Pro Tools, but it's not the only option out there. This buying guide is here to inform you on the various recording studio choices on the market today, and to give you an inside look at some of the features that make each program unique. Also, visit our Learning Center to read articles about Recording Studio Software.
It seems counter-intuitive to use a recording program for live performances, but the lines between the digital realm and live performance have all but disappeared. A DAW can be an extremely powerful addition to your live set. The one recording program that was engineered specifically for this task is Ableton Live.
Ableton Live is a unique DAW that records music just like all other recording programs. The thing that makes it special is the session or clip view.
What's unique about the session view is that audio clips are inserted into the columns. When you want to play the clip, you simply click on it. Not amazed? It doesn't sound too complex, but what makes this cool, easy and ultra helpful is that these audio clips are internally clocked. This means that if you are playing to a specific tempo or metronome, these audio clips will fire on time no matter when you click on them. If you accidentally click on the audio sample a little late or a little too early, it doesn't matter – the audio samples will always come in on time, making you sound like the greatest DJ that ever lived (probably a bit of an exaggeration).
Ableton Live doesn't limit the session view to use only with the included audio clips, which are available by the thousand. You can record and insert your recordings to be played as clips in the session view. This essentially limits your library of audio clips only to the size of your hard drive. This program enables you to create as well as perform unlike any other program. It is the best recording software available for solo acts, DJs or experimental bands looking to add a new element to their live performances.
Ableton is available in three different versions – Intro, Standard and Suite. Intro features over 700 sounds, three virtual instruments and 27 effects. Standard features over 1,100 sounds, three instruments and 38 effects. The Suite version features over 3,000 sounds, nine virtual instruments and 41 effects.
From its inception, Ableton always had a dual purpose. There are so many DAWs in the recording studio software world that just another recording program wasn't going to be enough to stand out. Ableton ventured into a realm beyond music production and down the path of live performance. Its ability to be just as integral as a live performance tool as it is a tool in the studio makes this recording program special.
For those looking to create hip-hop songs, two of our recommendations are Fruity Loops and Reason. These two home studio programs have been in the recording industry for several years and were some of the first beat-sequencing programs around. Both of these programs make it incredibly easy for producers to create bass-driven tunes.
Even though it's evolved considerably throughout the years, Fruity Loops still sticks true to its drum sequencer-style of creating music.
Fruity Loops breaks down beat creation to its simplest form. You start by dragging sounds from the sound library into the sequencer – most people start with drum sounds. Then you click on the individual buttons in the sequencer to arm the sound at that point. You can add as many sounds as you want to the sequencer and arrange them to play in any way you please by simply clicking them on and off. It's mind-blowing how quickly you can build musical loops this way. Even the most novice musician can create a drum loop within minutes.
Another cool feature within Fruity Loops is the multi-touch feature. If you have a touchscreen on your Windows laptop (this software is only available on Windows-based platforms) you can enable the touch mode and use the software like it was on a tablet. This allows you to control a handful of different aspects on the screen with your fingers. It isn't full-featured, but the functionality is solid.
Fruity Loops, like many music creation programs, is available in three different versions – Fruity, Producer and Signature. The Fruity edition can't record external audio and has fewer audio loops and capabilities than the other two. It's also the least expensive. The Producer version has the ability to record audio and features more audio capabilities than the Fruity edition. The Signature package comes in two forms: Signature and Signature Bundle. The Signature edition has a few more plugins than Producer, but doesn't feature everything that Fruity Loops has to offer. The Signature Bundle features access to all the plugins and sounds that the software offers.
The magic of Reason lies within two places – the browser and the rack unit. The browser is placed in the upper left part of your screen and holds all of the 3,000-plus loops, sounds and instrument patches that the software contains. Double clicking a virtual instrument will automatically open it up into the rack unit. Within the rack unit, you can combine any virtual instruments and effects together. When you press Tab, the rack unit flips around to reveal the backside of the rack. The rack is wired together like a real-life piece of hardware. What's cool and unique with this is that you can essentially wire or chain any instrument with any effect. You can make your chains as simple or as complicated as you'd like to create unique sounds and loops. Sound creation is truly left in your hands, and this is the only software that is set up in such a way.
There are two versions of Reason – Reason Essentials and the full version of Reason 8. The Essentials version is one of the most reasonably priced DAWs around. The full version of Reason features 4,000 instrument patches, 1,000 mixing and mastering effects as well as over 3,000 loops.
Propellerhead, the manufacturer of Reason, has been around since the mid-'90s. At the time, they were mostly known for their software samplers. It wasn't until late 2000 that Reason came to fruition. The first iterations of Reason didn't have the ability to record audio from external sources. Instead, this home studio program focused on crafting a recording program that enabled its users to need nothing but the software instruments to create music. Today, Reason offers the ability to record external sources like many other traditional DAWs, but it sticks true to its internal software instrumentation prowess. The internal instruments and effects are versatile and easy to use. With the ability to record external instruments, this makes Reason a desirable piece of software.
Imagine-Line FL Studio is one of the oldest recording studio programs around. Back in the earliest iterations of FL Studio, this music recording software was best known as a MIDI drum sequencer. It didn't possess any external instrument recording capabilities and only featured a handful of plugins to create software-based music. The FL Studio of today operates like a typical DAW with tons of recording, mixing and music editing capabilities. FL Studio has come a long way from its inception, but the drum sequencer is still the centerpiece of its music creation process.
For those looking to use these recording programs traditionally – to record external instruments such as guitars, drums, vocals and the like – Cubase and Pro Tools are industry standards. In fact, we found that these two programs have some of the best and easiest track comping abilities around.
Track comping is easy and straightforward in Pro Tools. Once you're ready to record audio, you can select a section to loop and record in. The convenient thing is, once you start recording, you don't have to stop – you can just keep recording the section that you've selected. Once you are done recording, you select the playlist option on the track and all of the audio takes are organized and displayed in a list. From there, you simply highlight the parts of the audio you like from each take to create a "master" take. This is convenient to create the perfect take with minimal effort. This is only a small portion of this program's recording prowess, but it's an important aspect nonetheless.
Another amazing aspect of Pro Tools is its time-stretching algorithm. When stretching a piece of audio out to slow the tempo, or shorting it and speeding up the tempo, it doesn’t degrade the quality, making the audio sound natural – like it was supposed to be that way. This allows you to manipulate audio in a handful of ways without ruining the sound quality. This is a unique attribute within Pro Tools.
Rendering in place is a special tool that speeds up your workflow within the program. You can turn MIDI files into WAVs and save massive amounts of time and CPU by using this feature. You can easily select a handful of MIDI audio tracks and render them into WAVs right within the arrangement window in seconds. This also saves CPU because you can choose to print all of the plugins onto the audio. This eliminates the need to have several different plugins running simultaneously – the audio will already have it on there once rendered. Rendering in place is an amazingly useful feature within Cubase.
Cubase and Pro Tools both have different versions for their software. Cubase Elements – the entry-level option –limits the number of audio tracks and effects the software offers. Cubase Artist offers up to 32 instrument tracks per project, basic notation and score editing along with 53 audio effects. Cubase Pro is the full-fledged version of the DAW. It has unlimited recording capabilities as well as 73 audio effects and an ultra-powerful mixing console.
There are three Pro Tools options – Pro Tools First, Pro Tools and Pro Tools HD. Pro Tools First is free, but it is extremely limited compared it is counterparts. You can only record four audio tracks simultaneously and it doesn't allow you to bounce audio (a deal breaker when sharing audio recordings with other people). Pro Tools offers two pricing options – a monthly subscription or buying the program outright. Pro Tools HD requires a hardware install of an HDX or HD Native Card on your computer. This is so the program operates to its absolute optimum conditions. The HD rig claims to have basically zero audio latency during playback and the ability to handle huge recording projects without devouring your computer's CPU.
You'll be hard pressed to find better native plugins in a studio recording software. Logic Pro X does an incredible job emulating real-life instruments. Whether it is the look of the instrument or the presets that capture the tone quality of your favorite artists, the realism of the virtual instruments is unmatched.
It's not just the sounds – it’s the parameters to adjust the sounds that make these plugins special. You can create full pedal boards to shape guitar sounds. You can choose which guitar amp you want to play through. You can even adjust what kind of virtual microphone and where the microphone is being placed on the virtual amplifier to create different tonal qualities. Logic Pro X provides so many different instruments at your fingertips that sound incredible.
Cubase is arguably the second most recognizable name in the recording software world (Pro Tools being the first, of course). Cubase has made massive strides from past versions. Some of the first versions only allowed for eight audio tracks of audio to be simultaneously recorded. Also, you could only add two insert effects per channel. Today, the full version of Cubase offers limitless recording and a ton of great-sounding plugins. Cubase is a giant in terms of audio editing prowess.
Logic Pro X from Apple is a recording studio program only available on Mac platforms. Apple does not offer an entry-level or stripped-down version of the software for a cheaper price. It also doesn't have upgrade pricing in case you have an older version of Logic. Even though there aren't entry-level or upgrade pricing options, the full home recording studio software is incredibly affordable, considering the editing power of the software.
While all of the home recording programs mentioned up to this point have an entry-level option and a full version, two programs feature limitless recording capabilities and are less expensive than most of the entry-level DAWs.
Reaper is an open-sourced DAW that doesn't have limitations on audio tracking or effects. By open sourced, we mean that it works with almost every type of plugin format available. Reaper is constantly coming out with new updates and minor improvements on the software. For those who are looking to build a home studio as cheaply as possible, Reaper is a solid option. You can download the application right onto your desktop for less than most entry-level DAWs.
Magix Music Maker has two options – Music Maker and Music Maker Premium. The software offers a ton of usable loops – over 2,000 for the original and 6,500 for Premium. Both have nearly limitless audio recording capabilities and great-sounding virtual instruments that are native to Magix.
Magix implements drag-and-drop functionality to make creating music simple. Grabbing loops from the massive loop library and dragging them into the arrangement window starts you off on the right path to create new and unique music compositions. Simplicity is the key attribute that makes Magix Music Maker special.
An entry-level recording studio program for under $100 is a great deal. A full-fledged DAW for under $100 was basically unheard of, until Reaper broke into the recording software scene. Initially, Reaper started as a DAW that you could download for free. Recently, Reaper has started to charge only $60 for full access to the software, and this low price alone is enough to make this program relevant.
Magix offers a collection of recording software for a range of users. Magix Music Maker is a highly affordable DAW that is simple enough for the most novice users to grasp. Music Maker comes in two different flavors – Regular and Premium. Premium doubles down on just about everything the regular version offers. If you find that you need more recording capability than the regular version has to offer, you can switch over to Premium without it costing you substantially to upgrade.
Home Studio Recording Software: The Basics
Most laptops and desktops come equipped with an internal microphone. In theory, the internal microphone and a music recording software are all you need to record audio. The issue with this basic setup is the audio recording is going to sound awful. Your computer's internal microphone does not have the potential to produce clean audio recordings like an external microphone can. If you are going to spend money on a nice home studio program, you might as well record audio the best way possible, so we'll discuss hardware in more depth later.
There is plenty of terminology and equipment components to become familiar with before you get started. Words like MIDI, condenser microphones, dynamic microphones and audio interface will often come up during your research. It's important to have an elementary grasp on these terms as they all play an important role in recording audio.
An audio interface is the unit that allows for audio signal to be transferred from the source (your voice into a microphone) to the software. The audio interface turns the sounds into data that can be read by the software.
There are many different options for an audio interface. Basic, single input/output audio interfaces can be purchased for roughly $30, while more expensive, higher-quality and multichannel units run for $2,500. A single or dual-input audio interface is a great place for a beginner to start piecing together a home recording unit.
All of the recording studio programs in this buying guide have virtual instruments built into the software. These digital instruments open up a plethora of noises and sounds you can add to your own music. The easiest and most efficient way to control these instruments is with a MIDI controller. These controllers come in many different styles, but the most common is a keyboard. With a MIDI controller, you can play the virtual instrument using the physical keyboard (or whatever the controller is) along with controlling other parameters of the virtual instrument such as volume and pitch.
In this case, we aren't referring to computer screens. These monitors are speakers that have a flat frequency response to play the music back as accurately as possible. Often times, home speakers or stereo speakers have built-in equalizations to make music sound a certain way. These speakers can give an inaccurate reading on how your music sounds while you are mixing. Studio monitors are crucial to being able to mix accurately.
There are a number of different microphone types on the market. The most common ones you'll see are USB, dynamic and condenser microphones. USB mics are powered by the USB port on your computer and are generally inexpensive. They aren't high quality and should only be used for projects such as podcasts.
Dynamic microphones generally don't require an additional power source and are great for live sound and recording applications. They are much more durable than condenser microphones but are less sensitive to high frequencies.
Condenser microphones generally require an additional power source, usually phantom power. These microphones are ultra-sensitive to high frequencies, making them great for recording drum set cymbals and other instruments. These are generally more expensive, more accurate, but less durable than dynamic microphones.
With this basic understanding of these recording components, you can start to piece together a home studio and get to recording on your own.
Recording Studio Software: Other Recording Options
If you are looking for a simpler music studio software, there a handful of different options. Audio editing programs are stripped down versions of DAWs that you can use to record and edit audio. Many of these programs can only record one or two audio sources. There are also a handful of free recording studio software downloads available. Audacity is one of the most popular programs available for free download. These recording programs don't have nearly the toolset, or recording capabilities that DAWs have, but if you want to start a podcast and have limited resources, audio editing programs are a great option.
Picking the Right Recording Studio Software for You
On paper, all of these programs do the same thing – record audio, mix audio and export the final product. While all of them are similar in that regard, their unique traits are revealed when you dive deeper into the program, and how you plan on using the recording program can make all the difference in your buying decision.
Why are you buying recording studio software? It seems like a straightforward question with a straightforward answer – to record music, right? In reality, it can be much more complex than that. Some people look for a recording program to help them perform live, while others might be looking for something to create beats or hip-hop instrumentals. Others might be looking for a program to help them record external instrumentation – a more traditional use for this type of software. All of the recording programs have unique elements to them, and this buying guide is here to shine more light on the differences between these products and how they help you achieve your recording goals. So, what is your reason for wanting to purchase a DAW?
There are many recording studio programs out there and most of them have great recording capabilities. Remember that one is not necessarily better than the other. What's most important is that you find one that is most comfortable for you to use.