Once, producing professional-sounding music meant shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars hiring a professional studio – or much more building your own.

These were the Dark Ages of music production, a grim and barbaric era that ran roughly until the turn of the millennium. But they are no more.

Today, you can make pro-quality music on a laptop in your bedroom using decent software that’s completely free or state-of-the-art software that costs a few hundred dollars.

To do that, your most important tool as a songwriter-producer is your DAW – your Digital Audio Workstation – of choice. And when it comes to choosing the best DAW (or DAWs) for you, the good news is that you’re not short of choice. There are dozens of different DAWs to suit different budgets, levels of experience and styles of songwriting and music production.

That means, while there isn’t a single ‘best’ DAW for everyone, if you’re thinking about getting started with a new DAW – or upgrading to a more professional one – you’ll want to know what, and who, each DAW is ideal for. Every DAW comes with its own learning curve, so it really pays to focus on mastering the one, maybe two DAWs that are best suited to your needs as a songwriter.

So in this article, we’ll run through six of the most popular and well-established DAWs available. We’ll look briefly at what each DAW is, who each DAW is ideal for and finally how you can get hold of your DAW of choice.

 

GarageBand  |  FL Studio  |  Ableton Live

Logic Pro  |  Cubase  |  Pro Tools

Conclusion

 

GarageBand

DAWs for Songwriters - GarageBand | The Song FoundryWhat it is:

GarageBand is an entry-level DAW that comes as standard with Apple products. It’s really straightforward to use and a great way to dip your toes into music production if you’re a complete newbie.

As an entry-level DAW, it comes with less functionality than the other DAWs we’ll talk about, but it’s still possible to record and produce some decent music on GarageBand – especially if your focus is more on songwriting than production.

GarageBand works great with live-recorded instruments and vocals and has a generous but not extensive library of synthesized sounds. It works well with your Mac’s built in microphone – or an inexpensive external microphone – so it’s easy to set up and start creating with, whatever your level of experience.

 

Who it’s ideal for:

Complete Beginners – Anyone wanting to get started in music production without spending either a lot of money or a lot of time learning their way around a high-level DAW.

Songwriters who don’t need highly produced tracks – If you work acoustically and only need to record basic demos (e.g. to share songs with bandmates or help singers learn your songs to perform them live), or if you write songs that more experienced producers will turn into finished tracks, GarageBand works just fine.

 

How to get it:

GarageBand comes preinstalled on all Mac laptop and desktop computers. (There’s no PC version – on PC you could try FL Studio instead.)

There’s also a version for iPad and iPhone that’s available from the App Store if it’s not pre-loaded on your device – though you’ll usually have a better experience creating with the full desktop version of GarageBand.

If you’re a complete production beginner, you can also check out a great video course about getting started with GarageBand here.

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FL Studio

Best DAWs for Songwriters - FL Studio | The Song FoundryWhat it is:

FL Studio is a beginner-friendly DAW that also comes with plenty of advanced functionality, giving you room to transition from beginner to pro-level creator without learning a whole new DAW.

The FL Studio interface is set up for pattern-based music making – it was known as FruityLoops until 2003 – so it’s ideal for quick beat making using loops. For that reason, FL Studio is a top choice for writers who create dance and electronic music – from entry-level producers to those at the highest level.

FL Studio also comes with some unique and high-quality plugins – software add-ons – that let you upgrade and customize your experience with it. (And help you create music that’s even more unique to you.)

While originally only available on Windows, FL Studio 20 – the latest release – is also available for Mac.

 

Who it’s ideal for:

Complete Beginner Producers – FL Studio is straightforward to learn, and because its interface is built around looping, it’s easy to use the built-in samples to create something that sounds great, even if you’re new to production.

More Advanced Songwriters and Producers, especially those working in electronic and dance genres – FL Studio’s interface is ideal for writers working in genres based on looping and layering, and is sophisticated enough it’s a popular choice for many professional EDM producers and DJs.

 

How to get it:

FL Studio comes in three main versions to suit different budgets and levels of commitment. The simplest and most affordable way to get started is with FL Studio Fruity Edition, which retails at about US$100 but has limited features.

For full functionality, you’ll want the standard FL Studio Producer Edition for around US$200. Or for an advanced level of functionality and customization, there’s the FL Studio Signature Bundle, which is around US$300.

There are also a handful of discounted educational editions, which you can check out if you’re a student or music educator, plus a ton of various add-ons such as plugins, loops and samples for advanced users. You can compare features of all of these versions here – and get started with a free trial of FL Studio here.

You can also speed up your workflow creating in FL Studio by using a MIDI controller – a plug-in music keyboard that helps you create on-screen. Popular choices for FL Studio users include the Akai Professional Fire and the even more affordable Akai Professional MPK Mini, which both connect via USB.

To help you get creating, ImageLine – the company behind FL Studio – have created plenty of great (and free) YouTube tutorials. There’s also a decent beginner’s video course about using FL Studio here.

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Ableton Live

Best DAWs for Songwriters - Ableton | The Song FoundryWhat it is:

Ableton Live is another great DAW that has a beginner-friendly learning curve, but has some seriously high-powered functionality to play around with once you become more experienced.

Ableton’s clean, intuitive interface make producing simple and clear, and its extensive sound library, MIDI functionality and advanced audio editing and warping capabilities give you plenty to work with. The professional versions of Ableton also allow you to add unlimited audio and MIDI tracks to a project, so the only thing limiting what you can create is your imagination.

But the jewel in the Ableton crown – and the area it really stands out from other DAWs – is its functionality in live performance. Used by tons of DJs and performer/producers who do live shows, Ableton works great live either as a completely self-contained piece of software, or combined with live instruments.

You can also take Ableton Live to the next level by supplementing it with Ableton Push – a hardware controller that makes creating with Ableton even easier, especially if you want to record and program tracks in real time, either in the studio or on stage.

 

Who it’s ideal for:

Beginner Producers – Ableton Live is user-friendly enough that even total newbies can start creating with it easily, but has enough advanced functionality that you’ll never outgrow it.

More Advanced Songwriters and Producers, especially those who want to use it in live performance – Ableton Live is a great DAW for producing all kinds of music, but it really comes into its own for music creators who don’t just want to produce in the studio but perform live with Ableton as well. For that reason, Ableton is especially popular with hip-hop and electronic producers – though it’s used by musicians creating in many different genres.

 

How to get it:

The latest version is Ableton Live 10 which comes in three different versions – Intro (the most basic), Standard, and Suite (the most comprehensive). You can find about more about all three different versions here – and get started with a free 30-day trial here. Ableton Live is available on both Mac and PC.

The Ableton Push 2 hardware controller isn’t cheap at around US$800, but is a great investment if you’re serious about creating with Ableton. There are a few more basic and affordable controllers from third parties, including this controller from Novation and this Mac shortcut Keyboard – with super cool-looking backlit keys – from Editors Keys. (As with all digital and hardware products, if you’re mixing and matching brands, you’ll want to double check everything you’re buying is compatible.)

The best way to master any DAW is to get your hands dirty and start using it, but every new version of Ableton has new guides written about working with it, such as this beginners’ book and this more comprehensive guide. Udemy also have a great video course series about creating with Ableton Live here.

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Logic Pro

What it is:

Logic Pro is a professional-level DAW with plenty of capability for advanced songwriters and producers to create pro-quality tracks. Exclusively available on Mac, in a nutshell it’s a major, professional upgrade for GarageBand.

DAWs for Songwriters - Logic | The Song Foundry

Like Ableton Live, Logic Pro comes with a large library of sounds and plugins out of the box. While some advanced production tasks – such as automating pitch bends or warping audio – are more difficult than in Ableton, Logic is a great DAW for music creators who consider themselves more songwriters than producers, and especially those who create extensively using recorded sounds.

That makes Logic Pro one of the best DAWs for versatile songwriters who work in multiple genres. While its interface isn’t necessarily as intuitive as some of the other DAWs in this article, it’s easy enough to master with a bit of practice.

 

Who it’s ideal for:

Beginner Producers and Songwriters – Logic Pro is a pro-level DAW with tons of functionality, but like plenty of the DAWs in this article it’s not too complicated to get started with. That makes logic a great option for beginners who want to master a DAW that they won’t outgrow as they get more skilled.

More Advanced Songwriters and Producers, especially those whose focus is more on songwriting than production – Logic Pro is a probably the best well-rounded DAW, especially for working in more traditional and less electronic genres, or where recorded instruments are especially important.

 

How to get it:

Logic Pro is only available on Mac from the App Store. A lite version called Logic Express was discontinued a few years ago.

To learn more about creating with Logic Pro, there are tons of great resources, including this book or this video course.

Logic is the only pro-level DAW on this list that doesn’t have a free trial, though since Logic is basically a high-level upgrade of Apple’s free GarageBand, playing around with GarageBand is one way to get a feel for how Logic works.

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Cubase

What it is:

Cubase is another great all-round pro-level DAW, like Logic. But unlike Logic, it’s available on Mac and PC, making it a great choice for PC users.

Also like Logic, Cubase is great for live recording and comes with a ton of virtual instruments – which is ideal for the ‘bedroom studio’ producer, creating tracks with nothing more than a laptop or desktop by sequencing MIDI instruments.

Cubase | The Song Foundry

Some people find Cubase less intuitive to begin with than other DAWs, but it’s worth sticking with as it’s another great DAW with lots of functionality and well-suited to virtually any genre of music making. Cubase is especially popular in the UK and continental Europe, but is used by songwriters and producers around the world. Again, if you’re a PC user and don’t want to transition to Mac, Cubase is a great choice over Logic, though it’s typically a couple of hundred dollars more expensive.

 

Who it’s ideal for:

Beginner Producers and Songwriters – Cubase is a pro-level DAW that might have a slightly steeper learning curve than some others, but is a great all-round DAW with lots of functionality once you’ve mastered it. If you know or want to collaborate with songwriters near you who are Cubase users, it’s a good choice to ensure easy compatibility.

More Advanced Songwriters and Producers – Cubase is great for live recording – as well as MIDI sequencing and mixing live and synthesized sounds – so is a great choice for pro-level songwriters working in any genre.

 

How to get it:

Cubase is developed by Steinberg and, like many of the other DAWs, comes in three main versions: Cubase Elements (the most basic), Cubase Artist, and Cubase Pro (with the most functionality). You can compare all three versions on the Steinberg site here.

Most versions of Cubase also require a USB e-Licenser to function, so check if you need to buy one if you’re a new Cubase user.

Steinberg also have some solid discounts for educational users, or existing Cubase users upgrading their software, and also offer a free 30-day trial version of Cubase here.

If you’re starting with Cubase from scratch, there’s a decent beginner’s guide to using it here.

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Pro Tools

What it is:

Pro Tools is an advanced DAW that’s especially well suited for recording, mixing and editing live audio. It’s the industry standard for professional recording studios.

Other DAWs on this list do a decent job for recording and mixing live sound, but where Pro Tools really comes into its own is its ability to mix and edit different mics and takes within a single audio project – even for recording 100-piece orchestras with multiple different takes.

Pro Tools | The Song Foundry

That makes Pro Tools a first-choice DAW for songwriters who want to specialize in recording, mixing and mastering live sound, whether that’s just a singer and guitar or more complex projects. Pro Tools also comes with a decent library of virtual instruments, sounds and effects so it can also be used for MIDI sequencing as well.

Though Pro Tools doesn’t come cheap at $599 for a perpetual software licence, Avid, the company behind Pro Tools, have several other subscription options that avoid a hefty upfront investment, from as little as $29/month to licence the software month-to-month.

 

Who it’s ideal for:

Beginner Songwriters and Producers focusing on live sound recording, mixing and editing – Pro Tools is a high-end DAW but is also used by plenty of home studio musicians, and isn’t that tricky to get started with. While it has some MIDI functionality, where it really comes into its own is its ability to record, mix and edit live sound.

Advanced Songwriters and Producers – Pro Tools is the industry standard in pro-quality recording, mixing and mastering. If you want to set up a top-quality home studio or are interested in working as a producer or sound engineer professionally, Pro Tools is a worthy investment.

 

How to get it:

The two full versions of Pro Tools are regular Pro Tools and Pro Tools Ultimate, but there’s also Pro Tools First – a basic version of Pro Tools that’s completely free (not just a trial!). All three versions of Pro Tools are available on Mac and PC.

For simple home recording and editing, Pro Tools First has a really generous amount of functionality for free software – and is a risk-free option for getting started if you want to test the water. Pro Tools Ultimate is really for high-level professional users, so for even the highest-quality home studio setups, regular Pro Tools will be more than you’ll ever need. You can compare all three versions in more detail here.

To get the best long-term deal, buy a perpetual Pro Tools licence. To pay less upfront with an annual or monthly subscription – and/or purchase various Pro Tools add-ons – check out the Avid website directly. Avid also offer some generous discounts for students and teachers.

Pro Tools works great with just your Mac or PC, but if you’re serious about recording with it, it’s also worth investing in some quality recording hardware – such as this USB Audio Interface or this complete recording hardware bundle, both from Focusrite.

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Conclusion: How to Pick the Best DAW for You

So there’s your roundup of six of the best DAWs available today. And in case you want to make an easy comparison of all six DAWs we’ve covered, here’s a handy table:

The Six Best DAWs for Songwriters – Summary Table | The Song Foundry

Click on the table to zoom in. Or download the PDF Version.

Like I said at the top, learning to use any DAW well means an investment of both time and money. So if you want to be extra sure before you commit to any of the DAWs we’ve talked about, there’s plenty more information available easily online from the software developers themselves as well as tons of independent reviews from the people who actually use the software.

You can often also find reviews and quick tutorials on YouTube for each DAW to give you a sense of what it’s like working with them.

If you’re still not sure which DAW to choose, the best place to start is with a free trial so you can experience working with each DAW first-hand. Meanwhile it’s worth thinking about what your longer-term goals are as a songwriter and/or producer. Do you just want to create rough demos with a DAW? Do you want to focus on a specific genre or style of songwriting? Or do you want to become an experienced and skill producer with an inside-out knowledge of your DAW of choice?

Your answers to those questions will help you focus on finding the right DAW for you.

But luckily, like I said earlier, you’re not short of great DAW options, and every DAW on this list is an impressive and inspiring piece of software in its own right. So more than anything, the best thing you can do is get started with one or more of these options, see how you like it. Then, once you’ve found a DAW you click with, buckle down and get creating with it, and you’ll master it in no time.

Happy creating.

 

Thanks to Andrew Marks and the members of The Song Foundry community who contributed to this article. Header image by Duncan Kidd on Unsplash.

All of this information is correct as far as we know as of January 2020, but production software is updated frequently so you should do your own research before purchasing anything. If you think something in this article needs updating, you can let us know.

At The Song Foundry we only ever recommend products that we think our community will benefit from – this article isn’t sponsored or influenced by any third party. But if you do purchase anything via the links on this page, The Song Foundry may receive a commission, as per the site terms and conditions. This helps support The Song Foundry site at no cost to you.

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