We spent more than 30 hours testing the virtual instrument selection, editing capabilities and loop libraries in seven of the best music production programs under $200 – a price point that gives you plenty of production tools with some basic editing capabilities. We believe Logic Pro X is the best beat-making software that at this price point. It has the best virtual instruments and editing capabilities of all the programs we tested, and the loop library has a good selection of loops and samples for almost every musical genre. The one glaring problem with Logic is that it is only available on the Mac platform.
Logic Pro X
Logic Pro X is the best audio editing and production program for less than $200. Unfortunately, you can’t use it on a Windows computer.
Cubase Elements 9.5
Cubase Elements costs less than $100 and has all the editing tools and virtual instruments you need to create complex and great-sounding arrangements for every musical genre.
FL Studio 12 Producer Edition
FL Studio Producer Edition has a great selection of virtual instruments and royalty-free loops and samples that work well for producing hip-hop tracks. The user interface is one of the most customizable we tested.
If you have a Mac and want to record, produce and edit audio, Logic is the best program available. It is expensive compared with some of the production programs we tested, but it has features similar to software that costs three times as much. The virtual instrument library is one of the best available and can be used for live performances as well as in the studio.
Logic’s virtual drum plug-in uses an AI algorithm to adapt a virtual drummer to the style of music you produce. It is common practice to start a song with a drumbeat, but with the Logic drummer track plug-in you can record a melody first. The virtual drummer of your choice will play along with what you’ve recorded, adapting the feel and rhythm to fit your melody. This is the best drum plug-in available, and it works well with every genre of music.
Logic’s workspace window is arranged nicely, with the transport controls at the top of the window. You can create up to 255 audio and MIDI tracks, which are more than enough to let you build an intricate arrangement and continually add new ideas to a song. The flexible mix window lets you add up to 15 insert effects and eight sends per channel.
Cubase Elements is a powerful and affordable music production program that has an impressive list of editing tools and more than 3,500 premade loops to kick-start your project. A good selection of workspace templates helps you get ready to record and produce music quickly.
The interface has a clean layout and is easy to navigate for novice and advanced users alike. You can add content to the arrangement window by dragging and dropping loops from the large loop library, recording up to 24 external instruments simultaneously, or you can use a MIDI controller with one of the three virtual instruments. Three virtual instruments might seem limited compared with other programs we tested, but the HALion Sonic SE workstation plug-in has thousands of usable presets that sound great.
The Elements version of Cubase allows you to record up to 48 audio tracks and 64 MIDI tracks per project. Some of the programs we reviewed have unlimited inputs and outputs, but you should rarely need more than 48 audio tracks in a production session. The mixer in this software supports up to 16 insert and send effects per channel that you can use to create a textured tone and coax a customized sound from the virtual instruments.
Best for Hip-Hop
FL Studio has been one of the most recognizable names in the realm of hip-hop and electronic dance music (EDM) production for almost 20 years. Its virtual instrument catalog and loop library contain all the popular sounds you need to produce professional tracks, and the Producer Edition lets you record instruments and vocals to create a finalized mix.
One advantage of purchasing FL Studio is the free lifetime updates. Most programs we reviewed require you to buy an upgrade license when a new version is released. FL Studio doesn’t charge for updates after you purchase a license, and this software has a track record, having been around for 18 years.
The workspace window in FL Studio is one of the most customizable we tested. Any of the windows in the workspace, including the mixer, step sequencer and menu bar, can be resized, detached and even hidden to help you customize your workflow and readily access the editing and production tools you use most. We tested the new user interface on a laptop screen and widescreen desktop monitor, and it fit nicely on both and saved our customized workspace in the session file. The multi-touch support and customizable workspace make this program one of the most innovative we reviewed when it comes to usability.
Best for EDM
Ableton Live has a great selection of electronic drum and synth plugins, which are the most important instruments for EDM producers.
The user interface looks markedly different from the other programs we tested, but once you get the hang of it, the workflow becomes simple and efficient. The Intro version includes the Drum Rack plugin that helps you layer multiple samples in a 16-pad grid that looks familiar to those who use classic EDM hardware instruments.
Ableton is one of the best music production programs for producers that want to take their arrangements to the stage. Once you produce a track in the software, you can use hardware control devices to launch samples, adjust tempo and record samples from other hardware instruments. The Standard version has a more comprehensive instrument selection, but the Intro version is a low-cost option to help you learn the interface.
Best for Recording Instruments
Studio One Artist is available for Mac and PC and gives you the option to add an unlimited amount of audio tracks per session.
It has a good selection of effect and mixing plugins to improve the sound of your recordings and allows for an unlimited amount of effect busses. Not only do the plugins sound professional, they’re also easy to use. There presets help you understand which parameters to tweak and give you a good starting point in the mixing process.
The virtual instrument selection isn’t as good as the best production software we tested, but the instruments sound authentic and natural. Studio One Artist has all the tools to record instruments and finalize a studio-quality mix, and you can always upgrade to the Professional version once you get comfortable with the interface.
|Product||Price||Overall Rating||Pricing||Production||Recording||Mixing||Price||Ease of Use||Royalty-Free Loops||Virtual Instrument Quality||Maximum Audio Tracks||Number Of Virtual Instruments||Number Of Effect Plugins||Effect Inserts Per Track||Effect Sends Per Track|
|Logic Pro X||View Deal||4/5||5||10||10||8.5||$199.99||A-||A||A||255||23||69||15||8|
|Cubase Elements 9.5||View Deal||4/5||9.5||8.8||4.3||9.8||$99.99||B||B+||A-||48||3||51||16||16|
|Studio One Artist 3||View Deal||4/5||9.5||8||4.8||10||$99.95||C||A-||B||Unlimited||5||29||Unlimited||Unlimited|
|Mixcraft 8 Pro Studio||View Deal||4/5||6||8||8.5||8||$179.00||B-||A-||C+||Unlimited||18||56||Unlimited||1|
|MAGIX Music Maker Premium 2015||View Deal||4/5||10||7.5||5||5.5||$89.99||C+||B-||B||Unlimited||8||20||2||2|
|FL Studio 12 Producer Edition||View Deal||3.5/5||5||7.5||9||8.5||$199.99||B-||C||B+||103||23||54||10||10|
|Ableton Live 10 Intro||View Deal||3.5/5||9.5||8.5||2||5.5||$99.00||B+||C+||A-||16||4||29||2||2|
Why Trust Us
We’ve been reviewing music and audio editing software for more than 12 years. I personally own five music production programs in addition to my main editing software, Pro Tools, and use them for different applications. I tried hard to eliminate any bias before making my recommendations because I realize everyone who uses music production software has unique requirements. Instead, I focused my recommendations on highlighting the features of each product so you can decide which one is right for you.
I talked to David Evanoff, owner of David Evanoff Sound Designs, about how he uses music production software to create award-winning music for film and television. Although he has access to all the best recording hardware, real instruments and musicians, he told me he still finds value in starting a project with drum loops and software instruments. He uses virtual drums, bass and synthesizers daily to do mock-ups and get the ball rolling.
Rha’Gene Beal, who is pursuing interdisciplinary studies in music with Berklee College of Music’s online platform, told me he learned how to use the drummer track plug-in in Logic Pro X as part of the music production curriculum at that prestigious institution. He now uses the plug-in regularly to inspire compositions and play along with melodies he writes using only a MIDI keyboard and software.
If you plan to distribute the music you produce with one of these programs, consider a membership to ASCAP, BMI or both. In the age of digital publishing, it is important to have the help of large and established advocacy groups to make sure you get paid for the music you produce and publish on sites like Spotify and Apple Music.
How Much Should I Spend on Production Software?
A full-featured digital audio workstation (DAW) costs upwards of $500. We chose to focus this comparison of music production software on programs that cost less than $200 for novice sound engineers who want to produce and arrange music on a budget. The biggest differences between some of these entry-level versions and their more robust counterparts are the editing and mixing tools. The user-interfaces look the same, and all the programs we tested accept third-party plugins and virtual instruments. However, if you plan to produce, mix and master your arrangements, consider one of the more advanced versions of the software in this comparison.
How We Tested
We spent more than 30 hours testing the loop library and virtual instrument catalog while taking note of how easy each program was to install and navigate. The royalty-free-loop grade is based on two factors: the total number of loops and the quality of the sampled instruments used in the loop. A program with a huge loop library full of bad loops doesn’t help much. Similarly, if the samples sound good but lack variety, it will be hard to use them in multiple projects.
We were able to do a side-by-side test of the virtual instrument catalog in each program by recording a short melody played on three often-used instruments and a simple beat played on an electronic drum machine and acoustic drum plug-in. We found similar-sounding presets in each program; recorded a melody on an acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and lead synth; and issued a score based on the average quality of the instruments. Our final grade is based on the average score for each instrument and drum plug-in.
Our ease-of-use score is based on how easy it was to install the software, control virtual instrument parameters, create a session and export a lossless file that was ready to send to a mastering engineer. We had no problem exporting a master-ready file using the included dynamics and equalization (EQ) plug-ins in each program, but there were significant discrepancies among them in the installation and virtual instrument control tests.
We realize there is a good amount of subjectivity involved in testing software, so we suggest determining the features that are most important to you and choosing a program that provides them. Just because a professional studio or artist you enjoy uses a particular software product doesn’t mean it has the tools you need to produce the music you want.
All the programs we tested support popular third-party plug-in formats, such as VST and AU, so you can supplement a lackluster virtual instrument selection in a program like Mixcraft Pro Studio and take advantage of its incredible editing features and effect plug-ins.
Important Features to Consider When Choosing Music Production Software
All the programs we tested provide often-used virtual instruments like piano, drums and strings. If you plan to produce a genre like EDM or hip-hop exclusively, consider a program that has a good synthesizer and electronic drum machine collection because the hardware equivalent is expensive, and you may be using several layers of each. If you write rock music, it will be important to have good acoustic drum sounds and electric bass and guitar plug-ins. Even if you plan to record real instruments, we learned that using virtual instruments to set a roadmap can save time.
Recording vocals and external instruments can be an important aspect of music production. Beat-making programs that allow you to record multiple sources simultaneously eliminate the need to rent time at an expensive studio. The total track count is important too, especially if you prefer to build an arrangement with many short samples or short recordings of real instruments.
If you plan to finalize a product that is worthy of posting on YouTube or Spotify, consider a program with a good selection of effects. Virtual instruments and samples usually don’t need too much manipulation, but it is important to compress and EQ the master bus in a project to make sure the song is at a proper volume and sounds good in headphones and larger speakers. Effects like reverb and delay are also important because they add texture and depth to virtual instruments
MIDI Controllers for Music Production Software
If you plan to use virtual instruments to build an original composition, a MIDI controller is an important tool to add alongside music production software. Here are a couple of our favorite MIDI keyboards that work with every software we tested. We recommend 49-key controllers because that size is a good fit for a desk, but both of our recommendations are available with various numbers of keys.
Novation Impulse 49
Novation MIDI keyboards are easy to set up with any music production software and have the best mapping software to help you fully integrate every button and knob. The Impulse series controllers have pressure-sensitive drum pads and responsive, semi-weighted keys. The Novation Impulse automatically maps the faders and knobs when you open the software, and the Automap software enables you to create custom profiles for third-party plugins. In addition to the USB port for connecting to a Mac or PC, the Impulse controllers have a traditional five-pin MIDI connection for controlling hardware synths.
M-Audio Oxygen 49 MK IV
If you're looking for a controller for less than $200, this is your best bet. The keyboard and drum pads don’t have as many levels of velocity sensitivity as the Novation Impulse, but the M-Audio Oxygen has the same number of faders and knobs. It doesn’t come with helpful mapping software, but the keys and drum pads automatically sync when a software instrument window is open. The Oxygen controllers have eight drum pads and come in 25-, 49- and 61-key configurations. This controller has a slim footprint that works perfectly on a desktop, where space is at a premium.
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