Discover the best music production software to master your iconic sound.
If you compose or play your own music, you know that doesn't necessarily mean you’re ready to record or produce that music. And that’s okay! Whether it's choosing the right microphones or finding the perfect recording space, there are numerous challenges involved in recording that can be difficult to solve by yourself. Perhaps the most daunting is mixing and mastering your tunes, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
Whether you're just getting started in the music-making biz or an expert looking to up their game, affordable software options are available for every level of expertise. Pop on your headphones, crank the volume up to 11 and check out some music production tips and our recommendations for the best music production software.
What is a digital audio workstation? 🎛️
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is a software program that assists in recording, producing, and mastering audio files. DAWs can be used for music, spoken word recordings, sound effects, audio restoration, and other functions.
Here are some of the things a DAW can help you do:
- Recording: The most basic function of a DAW is to transfer your microphone’s recorded audio to a digital platform.
- Editing: DAWs provide an array of tools (e.g., compression, bass/treble boost, volume control) that let you shape the sound to your liking. You can even remove unwanted sounds from your recording to achieve the best final product possible.
- Mastering: The final steps before finishing your work on a sound file. Mastering includes ensuring each track is within the same volume levels. Mastering is where you'll make your recording sound as clean and professional as possible.
- MIDI instrumentation: If you need sounds from an instrument you don’t play, most DAWs can assist you. MIDI allows you to record sounds and then reprocess them into other sounds (for example, recording a piano and then changing the voice to a guitar).
8 go-to music software platforms 💾
1. FL Studio
If you’re ready to graduate from the most basic software, such as Apple’s Garageband, FL Studio is a great beginner DAW that is compatible with Mac and PC. FL Studio features an intuitive drum sequencer to create beats quickly and easily. It also features multitrack virtual instruments and effects, though reviewers note that its audio features are not quite as robust as some other platforms.
FL Studio is offered in an unlimited free trial version and a one-time payment version with added features.
2. Pro Tools
Pro Tools is the premiere DAW, an industry-standard present in many professional studios. The program has a dedicated line of hardware designed to interface seamlessly with the software. It’s full of virtual tools, synthesizers, and effects, making it a great choice for experienced producers.
Pro Tools is available for Mac or Windows in a two-tier monthly subscription. Pro Tools has also recently removed its studio-only restriction, making this powerful platform available for home recording.
3. Ableton Live
Ableton Live features sampling and looping tools that make it a preferred choice among hip-hop and EDM artists. Although built with performers in mind, the platform offers enough versatility to make it popular with musicians and producers as well. It includes a built-in sound library, plus numerous audio and MIDI effects.
Ableton Live is available for a 90-day trial, and pricing packages include a one-time payment intro, studio, or suite version of the music software. Some reviews note that the user interface (UI) could be more intuitive, but Ableton becomes easier to use with practice.
This open-source platform provides a helpful environment for recording and producing music or sounds and an opportunity to customize your DAW for your personal needs. Audacity runs on most platforms, and coders can even sell their own modified versions of the software.
Audacity skews more toward audio editing than most DAWs. It's an excellent choice for beginners in sound production, as it's free to use and strongly supported by a community of diehard users.
Although it's described as "designed for simplicity and efficiency," Reaper is an advanced DAW that is not recommended for beginners. The platform is popular among sound designers for film and video games.
Some reviews note that the Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plugins included with Reaper are less well-produced than some other programs. The two licensing packages, Discounted and Commercial, offer the same functions across Windows and Mac. The different price levels make it easier for a home producer to access Reaper's robust functionality.
6. Studio One
Studio One boasts an intuitive UI, a "drag-and-drop workflow" system, and an upcoming merger with Fender guitars that’s likely to benefit the DAW and its users. The Artist and Professional options are one-time payments, while the Sphere option is a monthly or yearly subscription that includes features not available in the one-time payment packages.
Studio One's intuitive interface makes it a popular choice for songwriters — all the information is on one screen, meaning you can write, play, and produce without jumping from tab to tab. It’s available for free as Studio One Prime and via several paid tiers, including Artist, Professional, and Sphere.
A venerable entry in our list of DAWs, Cubase launched more than 30 years ago as a MIDI sequencer on the Atari ST home computer. Thanks to its storied history, Cubase offers a remarkable array of tools and options for both home and studio-based producers.
The three available packages (Elements, Artist, and Pro) offer different built-in features depending on your needs and experience. The well-rated Cubasis app also makes mobile recording and producing much easier for artists and engineers on the go.
Reason Studios' DAW is arguably lesser-known, as the studio is more recognized for its plugins and sound effects. The studio’s DAW is most useful for electronic music production and live performance. The latest update to the software (v.12) has added a vast bank of stock sounds to make your project sound polished and professional.
Some artists prefer to record with one piece of software and produce with another, and Reason is easily compatible with other DAWs. Reason is available for a 30-day trial for only $1 — the full version of the program is a far pricier single-time download.
Music production tips 🎙️
When choosing a DAW, there are a few crucial factors to consider:
- What is your level of experience? If you're a beginner, you're unlikely to want a barrage of complex tools with steep learning curves. However, a more experienced artist or engineer may want those specialized tools.
- What equipment are you using for your performance and recording? Is it compatible with the DAW you're considering? Sound production can be a fully virtual endeavor, but more often than not, it involves recording live audio. Make sure you choose the best DAW for your intended project.
- Master the basics. Elementary production concepts go a long way to ensure your recordings sound just like they do in your head. Noise reduction (removing ambient noise from recordings), compression (evening out the loud and quiet sounds), or reverb (adding echo to a track) are basic production concepts that can make your recording sound more professional with simply a click.
- Stay organized. One of the primary features of all DAWs is the space they provide for you to organize all the pieces of your audio project. This virtual organization makes your production process smoother, so you can focus on what really matters.
- Explore. Every song or recording will have different production challenges depending upon the intent, audience, and technology, so step outside your comfort zone. Listening to a hip-hop mixtape or a country album can lend inspiration to your own tunes.
Ready to press play? 🎸
So, you've got a sound-based project you'd like to get off the ground? Then these digital audio workstations can provide a variety of options for everyone, from the true beginner looking to grow your client list to the seasoned expert. And if you've got a project that needs some music or sound and you don't have the required skills, consider hiring an Independent using Contra. Contra supports an array of audio experts ready to help you start a project and realize your vision.