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- Best Overall: , “Set foot into any professional recording studio, and you’re much more likely to find Pro Tools than any other software.”
- Runner-Up, Best Overall: , “You get 10 iconic virtual instruments, plus a ton of drum loop collections from Korg, Dr. Octo, and more.”
- Best Value: , “Logic Pro is usually on the shortlist for the best in audio production software.”
- Best for Electronic: , “Ableton is the standard for DJs, EDM, and hip-hop beats.”
- Best for Songwriters: , “It’s perfect for a working songwriter that wants full features without the bloated price tag.”
- Best Budget: , “You can record unlimited audio tracks, live track multiple instruments at the same time, and map shortcuts onto your keyboard.”
- Best Plugin: , “This pitch plugin will interface with almost every major DAW and will become an indispensable part of your production.”
- Best for Mobile: , “The device itself comes with two Phantom-powered mic or TRS inputs for using a microphone or tracking instruments directly.”
Best Overall: Pro Tools 12
Courtesy of Amazon
There’s no way around it: Pro Tools is the industry standard for DAWs. Set foot into any professional recording studio, and you’re much more likely to find Pro Tools than any other software. And since a few versions ago Avid severed the M-Box requirement—allowing you to use the software at home with any audio interface—it’s an easy choice if you’re looking for all-around production software for live instruments and sequencing. We’ve selected the mid-tier plan (not the entry-level, nor the overkill version), and here’s what you get: you can record up to 128 tracks simultaneously, with capabilities for up to 32 separate hard-wired inputs (if your hardware can handle it). Taken at a mixing level, the software will support up to 512 instrument and tracks, meaning you won’t be held up no matter how big your projects get. They’ve included more than 60 different software instruments for amazing flexibility with MIDI tracking, and there are even 7 bonus plugins included.
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Runner-Up, Best Overall: Propellerhead Reason 10
Propellerhead is mostly known in the music industry for their plugins and effects. But their flagship Reason DAW does have a fair fanbase that straddles the line between those looking for electronic production and those looking for live instrument recording. It’s a rare piece of recording software without a hyper-limited specialty. But buying their full Reason 10 edition gets you a host of features. First off, you get 10 iconic virtual instruments, plus a ton of drum loop collections from Korg, Dr. Octo and more. They have the now classic, but still unique, Matrix editor for layering together loops and with unlimited audio and software instrument tracks, you’ll never be limited in how layered your music gets. There’s , ReWire, ReFill and even an Ableton Live link in case you prefer producing in Reason but sequencing live playback in Ableton. But, like any software, it’s about feel and preference, and Reason has more than a few loyal fans.
Best Value: Logic Pro X
Courtesy of Apple
Next to Pro Tools and Ableton, Logic Pro is usually on the shortlist for the best in audio production software. With the latest X iteration of the line, they’ve opted to go for a slimmed down version without all the bloated sound libraries, and in doing so, they’ve knocked the price down from the $500-range to the $200-range. But when you factor in the features you get, it easily earns the “best value” spot here. New in this edition is a Smart Tempo feature that reads and matches a BPM, adjusting your recording to what’s in your project. They’ve also stepped up the stock plugins for reverb, vintage EQs and more. They’ve upgraded the drummer patches to included brush attacks for lighter jazz music and you can even use the Logic Remote app to turn your phone into a remote controller. Add that in with all the expected I/Os, tracking capabilities and super-intuitive modulation functions (a signature of the Logic line for a while), and you’ve got yourself a full-service DAW for a mid-range price.
Best for Electronic: Ableton Live 10
If Pro Tools is the industry standard for full, dedicated studio features, then Ableton is the standard for DJs, EDM and hip-hop beats. Ableton’s latest Live 10 software comes with a host of features perfect for any beat maker — up-and-coming or experienced. Like all the earlier iterations, Live comes in three versions: a lighter, cheaper Intro version, a Standard edition, and a full Suite that includes all of the plugins and sounds you’ll ever need. In our experience, the Suite is a little overkill for the average producer, so we’ve chosen the Standard here. It offers you unlimited audio and MIDI tracks for wherever your project takes you, 12 send and return buses for effects, up to 256 different mono ins and outs, the ability to capture MIDI inputs for live programming, some cool complex warp modes and more. They’ve included more than 1,800 different built-in sounds (all in all a 10GB library!), plus 34 audio effects and 8 MIDI effects, all included in the Standard edition.
Ableton’s latest Live 10 software comes with a host of — up-and-coming or experienced.
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Best for Songwriters: Presonus Studio One Artist 4
Presonus has made a name for itself with a big splash in the audio interface market. Now, with Studio One, Presonus has gotten into the field of digital audio workstations with a worthy competitor to others on the list. The Artist 4 option pushes Studio One to the next level, and at under $100, it’s perfect for a working songwriter that wants full features without the bloated price tag. Arguably, the thing that sets the Studio One line apart is its streamlined, single-window workflow that won’t require you to tab back and forth between a bunch of screens. There’s plenty of simultaneous audio recording, plus smart MIDI sequencing features like a multi-track editing function. There’s a “drag and drop” loop comping feature, plus 30 native effect plugins included. They even offer built-in Melodyne functionality (though with the Artist version, it’s just a trial), which offers an insanely premium level of pitch correction. It’s great software that won’t break the (songwriter’s admittedly limited) bank.
If you’re trying to compose a track with an infectious beat, check out our selection of the .
Best Budget: Acid Music Studio 10
As far as DAWs go, Acid Music has had an interesting history. First, it was owned by Sony and sold as a companion for their award-winning Sound Forge mastering software. The rights to produce the Acid line were somewhat recently purchased by a company called Magix, and they’ve revitalized the brand. Acid is available in a Pro version, although it comes with a steep price tag and we’d recommend some of the other DAWs over it at that price range. However, for the budget conscious, Acid Music Studio 10 is a great option that will give you some solid starter features. It can record up to 24 bits and 192 kHz, so the resolution is everything you’d expect from pro software. You can record unlimited audio tracks, live track multiple instruments at the same time and custom map shortcuts onto your keyboard. There’s even support, so you can expand the software’s functionality with whatever plugins you need. Finally, you can export in , Wav or files for whatever you need.
Best Plugin: Celemony Melodyne Editor 4
When Melodyne launched its first edition, it was with a good amount of fanfare. After all, they promised a hyper-accurate level of pitch correction for audio—including polyphonic isolation so that you could pitch correct (or change!) every note in a chord. With their fourth iteration, Melodyne offers a few tiers, starting with the limited “essential” and “assistant” options. Neither of those gets you the polyphonic pitch editing capabilities (arguably the coolest part), so we’ve opted to recommend the “editor” version. And you’re going to be blown away. They call that multi-note functionality Direct Note Access (or DNA, for short), and how it works is pretty cool: You take input audio, whether it’s a single vocal line or full-on guitar chords, and feed it into the software. It’ll then map out each note onto a piano-roll-like interface so you can isolate pitches, smooth them out, or even drag them to another note. This award-winning pitch plugin will interface with almost every major DAW and will become an indispensable part of your production arsenal.
Best for Mobile: iZotope Spire
There aren’t that many music production apps for phones, and most of them are light, derivative versions of their desktop counterparts (see: Garageband for iPhone). Truth be told, the iZotope Spire is actually a hardware-software package—and you can download the Spire software itself for free. But to get full use out of it, you’ll need the Spire hardware, which amounts to a mobile studio that can easily fit into a small backpack. The device itself comes with two Phantom-powered mic or TRS inputs for using a microphone or tracking instruments directly. There’s also a built-in condenser mic right on the front. But what really makes this shine is the intuitive Spire software. Once you pair it up, you can record several simultaneous tracks via the Spire device. And then, once you get to mixing and mastering (that’s right, you can mix and master right on your phone), iZotope has put in a cool graphical interface that lets you virtually drag tracks on an X/Y access to pan them left or right and place them higher priority in the mix (when dragging them up and down). It all works via iZotope’s award-winning Neutron automated mixing algorithms, and it really is an impressive piece of software — on your phone or otherwise.