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Best DAW 2023: Digital Audio Workstations to create tantalising tunes on Mac and Windows

There are a number of distinct DAWs that musicians use for their craft and deciding the best from the rest isn’t an easy task

If you ask an artist, producer, or other audio professional which DAW is the best, it’s likely that they’ll simply recommend the one they’ve used the most. And while that might be a perfectly sensible answer, it doesn’t particularly help a music-making newbie yet to put any skin in the game.

So, we’ve gathered together some of the best DAWs around and detailed what makes them a worthwhile option, depending on your budget and device. We’ve also included a brief breakdown of the types of DAWs available and what might suit your audio needs, but spoiler alert: it’ll be down to you to make the next big hit single rather than the software you choose.

Best DAW: At a glance

How to choose the best DAW for you

What is a DAW?

A DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is computer software that allows users to create audio recordings – most DAWs allow someone to record, edit, mix, and master audio, among other processes – and are utilised by professional musicians across the world, as well as in other spheres of the audio industry, including the scoring of TV and film.

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What type of DAWs are there?

We can separate DAWs into two broad categories: DAWs primarily made for professional audio work – the more technical side of editing, mixing, and mastering – and DAWs made for music composition, production, performance, and general creativity.

Most DAWs can do both, albeit to different standards. For instance, popular options like Logic Pro X and Ableton Live are well-equipped to tackle either. While Avid ProTools and Adobe Audition are examples of largely professional audio DAWs, and FL Studio and Cubase are geared more towards music-making. But again, all of these software options can achieve results, it’s just that some make the process of getting there easier than others, and hence the distinction between them.

The best way to see if a DAW is suited to your requirements is to use it, to get to understand the interface and tools on offer a little better. Most, if not all, have free trials or free ‘light’ versions that you can try out to see if you enjoy using it. Some DAWs are available on both Apple or Windows operating systems, while others are restricted to one or the other.

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How much should I be paying?

In a world where software sales are becoming increasingly dominated by subscription models, music production appears to be the exception, meaning once you purchase a DAW it will be yours forever. This will generally cost between £50 and £500 for the most feature-packed versions of these perpetual licence DAWs. The only recent and major convert to the subscription-only model is Avid Pro Tools, which costs around £250 per year, or more for a paid-monthly plan. DAWs made for tablets or smartphones – which typically come with fewer features – will cost as little as £10, up to £50.

The best DAWs you can buy in 2023

1. Avid Pro Tools: The industry standard DAW

Price: £249/yr, £34/mth (or £27/mth, 12mth subscription) | Buy now from Avid

Avid Pro Tools is the DAW of choice across the entire professional audio industry, not just the music world, because of its unrivalled versatility. Some have strengths in recording, others in live mixing, or for songwriting and sequencing, but Pro Tools does the lot to a high standard, and at ultra-low latency.

Key to its success is its ability to handle large projects involving multiple producers running various software. Users can work together from different controllers, and even remotely via networked access, as well as utilise Avid’s native cloud storage – a huge advantage in a globalised music world.

It’s also an essential tool for post-production teams in film or TV, or those actually scoring them, since you can natively work with video – something that isn’t possible with other popular DAWs. When coupled with multi-channel formats, like 5.1 up to Dolby Atmos, it’s got incredible capability.

While individual producers and musicians are moving away from it, given its comparatively high price and the increasingly capable competitors, Pro Tools’ regular use in professional studios and academia keep it the gold standard for the music business.

Key specs – Platform: Windows, Mac; Trial: 30 days

Buy now from Avid

2. Logic Pro X: Best value DAW for Mac

Price: £175 | Buy now from Apple

While the industry workflows and the non-music audio world rely on Pro Tools, Logic is a favourite for recording, sequencing, and songwriting – especially for recording instruments like piano or guitar.

This is partly due to its accessibility. Its friendly user interface makes it easy to access its fantastic array of inbuilt sounds and effects. The MIDI sequencer, for instance, is extremely logical for those who struggle with the ‘piano roll’ style of other DAWs. Similarly, a favourite tool of Logic-based producers is Alchemy, a powerful synthesiser that can manipulate user-loaded samples with ease – something not all DAWs can promise.

In terms of the number of features you get for the price point, it is the best value DAW around. The main downside is that not all people can use it since Logic is a Mac-only program. Likewise, it only uses AU format plugins, which restricts the variety of tools you can append to the software. But as professional studios make way for bedroom-born ballads, Logic will continue to rise in prominence as a high-end, out-the-box kit at a low price.

Key specs – Platform: Mac; Trial: 90 days

Buy now from Apple

3. Ableton Live: Best DAW for electronic musicians

Price: £319 | Buy now from Ableton

If you’ve had the slightest interest in DAWs prior to reading this article, you may have heard of Ableton Live. It’s a commonly used option, especially by younger artists in the electronic music scene.

Don’t let the name deceive you: it’s not just for live performance. It did begin life with the purpose of helping electronic musicians play live, but it’s used for, and capable of, pretty much everything these days, including composing, producing, and mixing. Given its loop-based approach to production, you can easily mix tracks and samples as a DJ would for live performances, as well as sketch ideas in a simple, intuitive manner. The speed with which you can do this is often cited by musicians as a major benefit.

Because of Ableton’s widespread use, it’s convenient to learn intricate audio techniques since there are now a plethora of tutorials on the internet. In fact, musicians have far more creative tools at their disposal with Ableton Live than with more editing-focused DAWs like Pro Tools, making it the standout choice for those creating electronic-centred tunes.

Key specs – Platform: Windows, Mac; Trial: 90 days

Buy now from Ableton

4. Cockos Reaper 6: Best budget DAW

Price: $60 | Buy now from Reaper

Should you want to avoid spending hundreds, Cockos Reaper 6 is the perfect budget pick. It is fully capable software for multitrack audio and MIDI recording, mixing, and mastering, and any other editing and post-production that needs to be done.

All track types are the same whether you’re attempting MIDI or audio recording, which is a simple starting point, across the 512 tracks per project available to you. It gets more complex from there though, with many users noting that the utilitarian UI has a steep learning curve since there is a ton of customisation at your fingertips. There are also no inbuilt instruments, which might not be the best starting point if this is your very first DAW but could be beneficial if you regularly use VST instruments or have a sample-heavy production technique.

The main benefit though is that low cost. A personal, educational, or small business licence costs $60 while those using it for commercial purposes should pay $225. It might not be the DAW to choose if you’re only dipping your toes into music production, but, once you get used to the interface, Cockos Reaper 6 provides the most complete package for the smallest price.

Key specs – Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux; Trial: 60 days

Buy now from Reaper

5. Cubasis 3: Best DAW for iPad or Android tablets

Price: From $30 | Buy now from iOS App Store | Buy now from Google Play Store

Unlike most DAWs made for tablets, Cubasis 3 is packed with features you’d find on the full-fat DAWs made for PCs and Macs, and is perfect for those who like to tinker with tracks while away from their laptop.

Its UI looks similar to those computer-based programs, namely Cubase (it’s computer-based counterpart), and is fitted with a piano roll plus all the main plugins you’ll need – like EQ, reverb, and delay – as well as the ability to seamlessly integrate third party effects, or other virtual instruments found via your device’s app store. You’ll also find handy tools like the MiniSampler, which lets you record directly from your environment while out and about and begin building an instrument or loop based on whatever you heard.

When you add that there’s no limit to the number of tracks you can use in a project, and the fact you can bounce your completed project, Cubasis 3 is the most complete option for portable audio production.

Key specs – Platform: iOS, Android; Trial: No (Cubasis LE 3 is a free alternative)

Buy now from iOS App Store

Buy now from Google Play Store

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