If you’re not sure about what music production software to use, let me give you the only piece of information you need.
It doesn’t matter.
Let me explain…
Every producer has their favorite program and some will swear that one is better than another.
The truth is, they all do the same thing – allow you to record and produce music on your computer.
Sure, some have features that others don’t and some are a bit easier to use.
Ultimately, though, when a song is finished, does it really matter what recording software was used? It makes no difference at all to the listener or the end result. I’ve never heard someone say, “That mix sounds so Pro Tools” – have you?
There really is so little to choose between different programs. They all look similar – rows of tracks going across the screen, virtual faders for different tracks etc – and they all work in similar ways. But none will make you sound better than any other.
The quality of the sound is much more about the hardware you use – mainly the microphone, but also the audio interface.
The important things to consider are the price, the ease of use, and what features each program has.
So, when choosing music software, just go with whatever fits your budget and start learning the basics.
With that in mind, here’s a quick look at each of the most popular music production software packages.
Avid Pro Tools is the most popular DAW in the market. Pro Tools is usually used in all professional studios for the sake of conformity.
This doesn’t need an introduction – it is the music production software that you would find in 99% of high-end professional recording studios. As you might expect, it comes with a premium price tag.
The flagship Pro Tools system costs $699, which is probably a stretch for most home recording artists. Let’s not even get into how much Pro Tools HD with all of the associated hardware costs…
Overall, Pro Tools is obviously a great DAW for EDM. The intuitive colour-coding of everything and easy-to-use interface are simple yet powerful reasons why it is preferred in so many producers’ studios.
Pro Tools Express is a lite version that still offers all of the functionality you need for your home recording studio – although you are limited to 16 tracks of audio. You cannot purchase this directly though – it only comes bundled with Avid’s M Box, Fast Track Solo and Fast Track Duo audio interfaces.
In 2015, Avid introduced Pro Tools First, a stripped-down version aimed at entry-level users. This is available for free, although there is only capacity to save 3 projects in the cloud (meaning that you must be online to access and edit them).
Choose Pro Tools if you want to work in a professional studio one day, or if you want to be able to take your home recordings into one. Pro Tools Express will satisfy some, but the 16 track limit is might be a problem as your skills and ambition grow, and it doesn’t support VST plug-ins. This last point is a bummer – there are loads of free VST plug-ins available online of all kinds of effects and instruments and not being able to use them in Pro Tools is a shame.
It is a great software but often crashes on Windows. So if you already have a PC and aren’t planning on switching to Mac, you may want to try and see how Pro Tools reacts with your computer before comitting to it.
2. Reaper by Cockos
A relatively new piece of software, Reaper is gaining a strong reputation in the recording community due to its good array of features at a very affordable price.
The retail price is $225 for a commercial license, but you can pick it up for just $60 for home use! This is the exact same product, not a �?lite’ version with limited features.
Because Cockos are offering full-blown DAW recording software at an entry-level price, Reaper is growing in popularity. Consequently, the number of tips and tutorials using this program are increasing, making it even more appealing to beginners.
At this low price, there must be a catch, right?!
Well, many people sing the praises of Reaper, and rightly so because it does what it says on the tin. But there have been a few corners cut. There is no library of samples or loops for you to use out of the box, the interface looks a lot more basic and simple than other music production software (but this can be customized with different themes), and although it comes with a lot of plug-ins, none of them are that special.
Nevertheless, it is a good alternative to the big boys if you are on a budget and don’t fancy any of the ?lite’ versions of the competition. You can even get it for 60 days for free to try it out first. Get on it!
3. Cubase by Steinberg
As a Cubase user, I should be biased here. Well, I’m not – the only reason that I use Cubase is because it was the first music production software that I learnt to use. Having tried Pro Tools, Studio One and Sonar, I came back to Cubase simply because I could work with it faster.
Having said that, it is a quality program. The learning curve is steep but once you get to grips with it, you start to see where Steinberg put the experience of making music production software for years to good use.
Cubase comes in 3 flavours – Pro, Artist and Elements. Elements is the �?lite’-est version and costs $92. For this, you’ll get up to 48 tracks of audio – more than enough for most home recording studios. Artist allows more tracks and comes with a fair few extra features, but these are unlikely to be too important to you if you are starting out.
Is Cubase Elements worth the extra money than Reaper? I would say yes. Ok, Reaper is the full DAW whereas Elements is a lite version of Cubase Pro, but Steinberg have been making and refining Cubase for a long time and it shows.
4. Logic Pro by Apple
Logic Pro has a good reputation and is a top quality piece of software – it’s made by Apple, would you expect anything less? However, it is Mac only, so if you’re a PC user, forget it and move on.
Apple used to publish Logic Express, but there is no �?lite’ version anymore. The latest Logic Pro X costs $199, and for that you get a full-blown program with everything that you’d expect from a �?pro’ version of other recording software. As such, even at that price, it is great value.
There are too many features to go into here, but one key feature is that, unlike other �?pro’ DAW software (with the exception of Reaper), this does not need a USB �?dongle’ to use the software. This is a big deal for MacBook users who have a limited number of USB slots to work with.
If you are a Mac owner and can stretch to the price, Logic Pro will serve you extremely well. It’s a bit pricier than the entry-level programs out there, but it rivals the ‘professional’ versions of the competition for features, and smokes them for price.
5. Digital Performer by MOTU
Digital Performer is worth an honourable mention, but this is high-end DAW software mainly aimed at professionals.
Coming in at $499, there is no lite version. Digital Performer is generally preferred by producers putting audio to video, due to its exceptional support for video playback and audio editing.
Of course, it is a fully-functional piece of recording software of an exceptional standard.
But unless you are planning to create and edit audio for video, there are cheaper options out there that will give you just as high quality results.
6. Sonar by Cakewalk
Sonar is another quality piece of recording software, this time PC only. Having used this in the past and been put off by the interface, I have to say that the latest version, Sonar X3, looks very smart indeed.
Sonar X3 comes in 3 versions – Platinum, Professional, and Artist – mirroring the Cubase family. The price points – $329, $179 and $59 respectively, are certainly similar to Cubase.
Where it differs from Cubase is what is included. Both are top-notch programs that will let you produce great-sounding music and there is not much between Sonar Artist and Cubase Elements. But Sonar Professional comes with a high-quality Melodyne pitch correction tool and Addictive Drums 2 – purchasing these two items separately would cost you way more than the $120 difference in price.
If I weren’t a Cubase guy, I’d choose Sonar Professional over Cubase Artist.
Between Sonar Artist and Cubase Elements? Tough call… Toss a coin.
7. Studio One by Presonus
While less prestigious than the likes of Cubase, Logic, and Pro Tools, Studio One has a loyal user base and, due to PreSonus shipping a free copy with their audio interfaces, is also quite popular amongst beginners.
There are 4 versions of Studio One: Free, Artist (£50), Producer (£100) and Professional (£300), making it competitive price-wise.
Other than the price, why would you choose Studio One? Well, it is well-known for having a slick work flow, meaning that less technical types can get working quicker than with some other programs.
However, the overall look is a bit clunky when you look at it next to the competition. Still, it is good value for money. You’re most likely going to use Studio One if you buy a PreSonus audio interface and get it for free.
8. GarageBand by Apple
While not true DAW software, GarageBand is definitely worth considering when you are an absolute beginner or on a budget.
GarageBand is Mac only, but you can pick it up for just £3.99 from the App Store! Indeed, it is even offered free with most new Macs.
While it is possible to make professional-sounding music in GarageBand, its interface is streamlined and its tools and features simplified to the extent that it feels more like a bit of fun than music production software.
There are upgrades available to expand its capabilities, but it will never match the rivals here for creative capability.
By all means have a play around with it. But you’ll want to look at one of the ‘proper’ programs when you want to step up your creativity.
9. Reason by Propellerhead
I’m a big fan of Reason and have used it for a while. It is capable of producing some amazing and varied sounds and the synthesizers are fantastic to work with.
While Reason wasn’t always true DAW software – I used it as a virtual instrument from Cubase – Propellerhead have added recording functionality to it, so now, it is!
There are two versions available – Reason 8 and Reason Essentials 8, retailing at $399 and $99 respectively. Both versions do the same thing, but Essentials has fewer instruments and effects, but there is still plenty to keep you occupied for years to come, and as recording software, both are the same.
You should be aware that you cannot add plug-ins to Reason and that it is better for electronic music producers than recording artists. The Scream Distortion Unit in Reason is freaking amazing for anything though!
10. FL Studio by Image Line
There are 3 versions: Signature is $299, Producer $199 and Fruity is $99. Similar to Reason, the difference is the number of features and effects, but the functionality is the same across the range.
Very easy to use, you can be making electronic music within minutes of installing the software. This program is without a doubt the easiest to make beats with – whether that’s your own live drummer rhythms or some dirty electro.
As a piece of recording software, the capabilities are a bit more clunky than the likes of Cubase and Logic, so unless looping, sampling and electronic elements are going to be part of your production, you would be better off with one of those.
Nevertheless, it is a fantastic program for budding electronic music producers.
11. Live by Ableton
Live by Ableton is technically DAW recording software, since it does allow recording of audio.
However, it’s most common use has been for creating live electronic music, mashing up beats and loops to create some amazing and unique music.
3 varieties are available – Intro, Standard and Suite. Intro costs $74, but if you’re looking for a complete recording software package, you’re money would be better spent elsewhere.
Live is awesome at what it does best – allow live manipulation of sound – but it doesn’t do the music production side as well as the competition. Still, consider using this alongside another DAW program this if you want to make some truly unique electronic music.
I personally love Adobe Audition. I feel that it is one of the best DAWs around, especially if you’re only working with recording audio rather than midi. It has many built in plug-ins
There isn’t anything better than FL Studio for music production and working with midi files. However, it isn’t the most friendly software for recording vocals.
The DAW you choose for recording is completely up to your needs and preferences.
Some DAWs simply offer too many options for beginners. Others are far too expensive. The best thing to do is pick one that you feel will continue updating.
For instance, Reason, Cubase, and Sonar have been around for years and will likely continue to have newer versions so you don’t have to switch and learn antoher DAW from scratch.
If you’re planning on collaborating with industry studios, you will likely have to sucumb to Pro Tools’ reign as that will make collaboration a lot simpler.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, there is quite a lot of choice when it comes to music production software. Every one is capable of producing professional-sounding music and each has more features than you could shake a stick at – even the ‘lite’ versions would take you years to master!
The best advice I could give you if you’re weighing up these options is to first try a free version. Free trials are available for most of these programs and many audio interfaces come bundled with free DAW software. Yes, these free options have limitations, but it’s worth trying before you buy because you will be spending A LOT of time in your chosen program.
If I had to choose what is the best music production software, and money were no object, then of course I would buy a full Pro Tools HD rig.
Realistically, for a top-end home DAW, I’d look at Logic Pro for Mac, or Cubase or Sonar for PC.
If I was on a tight budget and value-for-money is the main thing, then I’d go for Reaper for $60 (although Logic is fantastic value at $199 – worth saving up for). Certainly, if I didn’t already own an audio interface, I’d look at the software that comes bundled with those to see if that could save me some cash.
But that’s just me…
The bottom line is, don’t stress about your choice too much. They all do the same thing and are each great programs in their own right.