A DAW, also known as a Digital Audio Workstation, is a software application for recording, editing, and producing music and audio in general. It’s the tool of the trade of music producers, sound engineers, and independent artists who record and publish their own music without the help of a professional studio.
Best DAW for Beginners
|Ableton||Ableton Live 9||499|
|Avid||Avid Pro Tools 10||400|
|Image-Line||Image Line FL Studio 12 Producer Edition||199|
Modern DAWs are complex, extendable with third-party plugins, and immensely powerful. Considering the colossal number of features even simpler DAWs have, it’s no wonder that beginners find them daunting and difficult to learn. There are, however, DAWs that are much more suitable for complete beginners than other DAWs.
The DAWs featured on this list are beginner-friendly not because they are overly simplistic but because they have huge communities behind them, who have produced a wealth of instructional material. Being able to just go to YouTube and watch someone else demonstrate how to use a particular feature is much less daunting than reading boring manuals or figuring things out by trial and error.
Ableton Live (Windows, macOS)
Used by: Bassnectar, Mogwai, Daft Punk, Skrillex, The Glitch Mob, Paul van Dyk, and many others.
Ableton Live started in 2001, and it has since changed how music is produced both in the studio and live on stage. Whereas many traditional DAWs barely fit on a single screen, displaying a plethora of instruments and panels at the same time, Ableton Live is compact and clutter-free. The DAW is designed to be this way because it’s, among other things, intended for live performance. Surprising pop-up windows are the last thing you want when playing live in front of an audience.
Ableton Live comes with two main user interface arrangements: the classic Arrangement View and the unique Session View. The Session View is where ideas can freely flourish and develop into concrete bits and pieces of future songs. You can organize and trigger sets of MIDI and audio clips, group them into scenes, and trigger the scenes as single units. When you’re ready to give your ideas their final form, you can switch to the Arrangement View and further manipulate the arrangement and effects of the recorded tracks from the Session View.
All versions of Ableton Live support VST plugins, powerful built-in MIDI sequencing of software and hardware instruments, automatic plug-in delay compensation, MIDI remote control instant mapping, MIDI output to hardware synths, multicore and multiprocessor audio processing, and more.
FL Studio (Windows, macOS, Android, iOS)
Used by: Avicii, Seven Lions, Basshunter, Mike Oldfield, Sarom Soundz, Camo & Krooked, and many others.
FL Studio is perhaps the most popular DAW among complete beginners, and for a good reason. Its graphical user interface is based on a pattern-based music sequencer. FL Studio’s style of music production encourages small ideas to develop into complete songs and audio tracks naturally, over time. As soon as you install and launch your copy of FL Studio, you can start laying down basic beats and what might eventually evolve and morph into something larger and perhaps even completely different.
Considering that FL Studio is bungled with a massive number of effect plugins, synthesizers, instruments, and other tools that you can use to turn your ideas into reality, it will likely take some time before you even get to third-party VST plugins, which FL Studio supports without a hitch.
Professional DAWs such as FL Studio are not cheap. When you buy a new guitar or a drum kit, you can, at least, console yourself with the fact that the instrument will likely be with you for the rest of your life. Knowing that there’s going to be a new version of your DAW of choice every year, costing you hundreds of dollars, can be disheartening. Well, this doesn’t apply to FL Studio. Buying FL Studio not only gets you the latest version but all future FL Studio updates free, according to the official website, and Image Line, the company behind FL studio, has been living up to this promise for 18 years and counting.
Ardour (Windows, macOS, Linux)
Used by: Jannis Pohlmann, Anelixis, Johanna Herdtfelder & Band, and others.
There are two main things that separate Ardour for other DAWs on this list: it works on Linux, and it doesn’t cost a single dollar (unless you want to support the developers). Yes, not only is Ardour one of a few truly multi-platform, full-featured DAWs on the market, but it’s also open source and supported entirely by the generosity of its users. The main person behind Ardour is Paul Davis, a British software developer best known for his work on the JACK Audio Connection Kit, which is a professional sound server daemon that provides real-time, low-latency connections for both audio and MIDI data between applications that implement its API.
Although Ardour doesn’t come with the price of commercial DAWs, it does come with most features included in DAWs that cost several times as much as Ardour. You can either record new audio or import existing audio or MIDI files from your hard drive, cut, move, stretch, and trim the audio tracks until you’re satisfied with the composition before you apply various effects and audio adjustments. But that’s not where the fun ends. Ardour also comes with built-in soundtrack features that make it easy to synchronize imported video with any of the available Ardour timecode sources. And when you outgrow the plugins included with Ardour, you can extend Ardour’s functionality with any third-party VST plugin you want.
Reason (Windows, macOS)
Used by: S1, Key Wane, ZETA, Tobtok, Kill the Noise, Timbaland, Toro-Y-Moi, and many others.
Reason is a polarizing DAW because its user interface emulates a rack of hardware synthesizers, samplers, signal processors, sequencers, and mixers. Users can populate this virtual rack with any devices they want and freely interconnect them in an arbitrary manner. The same virtual rack can natively accommodate third-party VST plugins, which Propellerhead, the company behind Reason, sells on the official website.
This approach to audio production is intuitive, visual, and 100 percent fun. Some of the more noteworthy devices included with Reason are Subtractor, a polyphonic synthesizer device based on subtractive synthesis, NN-19, Reason’s original sampler, Dr. Octo REX Loop Player, a loop player that plays back samples created by the ReCycle music loop editor, and, for example, the RV7000 advanced reverb effect.
If you’ve tried several traditional DAWs only to find that none of them really aligns with your approach to audio production, Reason might be just what you need. Just don’t be surprised when you get so used to it that any other DAWs will feel clunky and alien.
Avid Pro Tools (Windows, macOS)
Used by: Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, Max Martin, Rick Rubin, and many others.
If you’d, one day, like to work as a professional audio engineer, you better start familiarizing yourself with Avid Pro Tools right away. Developed by Avid Technology, an American technology and multimedia company, for Windows and macOS, Avid Pro Tools is a professional software-based non-linear editing system that started in 1984 under the brand name Sound Designer. Since then, it was used by Ricky Martin to record, edit, and mix his first top single, Livin’ la Vida Loca, and create the audio for the video games DJ Hero and Guitar Hero, among many other things.
The latest version of Avid Pro Tools supports cloud collaboration, loop-based music creation, and comes packed with over 60 virtual instruments, effects, and sound processing plugins. Thanks to the recently-introduced subscription model, Avid Pro Tools is now also more affordable than ever, even though it’s still pretty expensive. You can either get it for $24.92 per month with a one-year agreement, or for $29.99 without the agreement. The cloud-collaboration feature is a paid extra, and it starts at $4.99 per month.