When you’re new to home recording and mixing, one of the biggest questions you probably have is which DAW is the right choice. There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. What matters most is choosing the DAW that appeals to you, your needs, and your budget, and learning it as well as you can. So in reality, the best DAW for beginners is whichever one you decide to use.
Some of the differences between the industry’s leading DAWs include price, operating system, and included plugins/virtual instruments. These are some of the choices which should help you narrow things down. Intended use is another big factor, with some DAWs catering more to songwriting and electronic music production, and others to tracking, mixing, and audio editing.
What is a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)?
A Digital Audio Workstation is software used for recording, editing, mixing, and mastering audio. It’s the modern equivalent of a console, tape machine, and room full of outboard gear—all inside your computer. In a DAW you can record live instruments and vocals, add plugins for effects, play virtual instruments through MIDI, and more. Everything audio and music production happens in a DAW.
Cakewalk by BandLab – Free (PC only)
For PC users, Cakewalk might be considered the best DAW for beginners. Last year, BandLab relaunched Cakewalk’s original SONAR Platinum DAW, and what really sets it apart is that it’s free. Overall, it’s an excellent choice for an all-around DAW. It’s feature-rich and can handle your tracking, mixing, editing, and music production needs.
Consider that SONAR Platinum used to cost around $600, and now you can get it on PC for zilch.
Reaper – $60
Reaper sometimes flies under the radar. It sort of has an “underground” following of devout users, but doesn’t always get the love it deserves. Reaper is an inexpensive, fully-functioning DAW. Its efficient 64-bit internal audio processing engine supports media in almost format at any bit depth and sample rate.
If this sounds like gibberish right now, just know that it’s a very capable program. Cockos Reaper may be the best DAW for beginners at its price point. There are no operating system limitations with Reaper as there are with Cakewalk. Perhaps the biggest drawback with Reaper is that it doesn’t come with any of its own virtual instruments. If you plan to produce music, you may have to look elsewhere if you don’t plan on buying any third-party instruments right away.
Logic Pro X – $199 (Mac only)
One of the biggest advantages Logic Pro has over others is a massive built-in virtual instrument and audio loop library and excellent MIDI capabilities. If you lean more towards the creative side of music production rather than technical, Logic is an obvious choice. It has an intuitive, attractive interface as well, which is a factor when searching for your first DAW.
Logic is a great all-around DAW though it leans toward music production and songwriting. The included Drummer instrument for example, which automatically grooves along to your song, is designed to help write music efficiently.
If you’re a producer and songwriter running an Apple machine, consider Logic for your audio needs. Its cost is attractive as well, particularly for what you get in stock plugins and instruments.
Ableton Live 11 – $99, $449, $749
After its introduction in 2001, Ableton changed the expectation of what a standard DAW could be. Ever since, it’s gained massive popularity amongst electronic and hip hop producers.
Ableton Live 11 really stands out in its MIDI sequencing. Some platforms are just plain clunky compared to Ableton’s workflow. Depending on which of the packages you choose from, the program comes with up to 70 GB worth of sounds, 17 software instruments, 59 audio effects, and 15 MIDI effects.
Ableton is a clear choice for EDM, hip hop, and other electronic-based music production. The Intro kit, starting at just $99, contains the following to get you started:
- 16 audio and MIDI tracks
- 8 scenes
- 2 send and return tracks
- 8 mono audio input channels
- 8 mono audio output channels
- Capture MIDI
- Complex warp modes
- 4 Software Instruments
- 21 Audio Effects
FL Studio 20 – $99, $199, $299, $499
Right after Ableton, FL Studio is a standout choice for electronic and hip hop producers. Its workflow is one of the most unique out there, really lending itself to making beats quickly. Of course, it’s evolved over the years to be a capable audio editor and mixer, though it still shines primarily as a production tool.
If you’re interested in music making, you can’t go wrong here. FL Studio has come a long way from a four-channel drum machine to a full-fledged DAW. Also, it’s worth noting that FL Studio was previously Windows-only, though it has since opened up to Mac users as of FL Studio 20.
For electronic music production, FL Studio is perhaps the best DAW for beginners. Plus, it has a bunch of price points for whichever suits your needs.
PreSonus Studio One 5 – Free, $99, $399
PreSonus Studio One 5 is another good choice for music production, offering a the full DAW experience. Sharing in Logic Pro X’s intuitiveness, Studio One keeps the artist in mind; not everyone wants to be an engineer, after all!
Features like “Arranger Track” and “Scratch Pad” allow users to make quick adjustments to arrangement or audition composition changes without committing to them. This makes Studio One great for composers working with dense arrangements. Additionally, Impact XT and SampleOne XT are new virtual instruments introduced in version 4, intended for beat-making and loop-based composition.
Studio One Prime is the DAW’s free version, with the Artist version coming in at just $99.95. PreSonus also offers a flexible subscription plan, paid yearly or month-to-month. It gives you full access to Studio One Professional.
Conclusion: The Best DAW for Beginners
The great thing about making music in 2021 is that there are no rules! There’re practically endless viable options and paths to go down, whether it’s for your first DAW, your first audio interface, you first MIDI controller, or your first microphone. And just because we haven’t listed it here doesn’t mean your DAW is any less credible!
The best DAW for beginners is quite literally whichever one you choose. Pick one out and roll with it!