What is the best DAW? Recording and sequencing software is at the core of contemporary music production and beat creation: The DAW software running on your desktop or laptop computer is at the center of it all. Simply add a MIDI controller keyboard and an audio interface to complete the heart of your studio. The Digital Audio Workstation is the sketchbook that allows you to capture and hone your musical ideas. Many of you already own DAW software, but if you don’t have one yet or are interested in finding a new one, this overview is for you.
Nektar DAW Integration
For most of these DAWs we offer our acclaimed Nektar DAW integration software. Of course you can use our MIDI controllers with any MIDI music software and get the standard control features you’ve come to expect. With Nektar DAW integration, you’ll be able to do a lot more and you get advanced features to control the software directly from a Nektar MIDI controller: Depending on the chosen MIDI controller model and DAW, this even includes control over instrument and fx plugins. Nektar DAW integration optimizes your workflow, so you can focus on your ideas and work more intuitively.
To give you an idea, here’s an example with our mobile controller Impact LX Mini and Apple’s Logic – on the larger format controllers such as Panorama T-series you can do even more:
What is the best DAW?
This is a bit like asking what is the best synthesizer or guitar – a lot depends on your needs and wants. And how nerdy you want things to get: Are you looking for a fast sketchbook – or a powerful digital audio workstation for professional sounding results? Is a “flat” intuitive user interface more important, or the ability to tweak your music down to the last detail? Do you prefer working in linear tape-style fashion or more loop-based?
How to find the right DAW?
All of the music production software available today has a very high standard, they all include the features required for creation, mixing and even mastering your music. They can all load plugins and include FX plugins and virtual instruments. If you are planning on depending on the chosen DAW’s internal tools, it might be worth checking out what’s included in more detail. But there’s also a host of free vst plugins available out there: Take a look at our list of free VST plugins, to get you started.
All of the available DAWs let you create professional music in almost any delivery format and resolution under the sun. So, just like when picking any other musical instrument, you should choose the DAW based on what feels inspiring to you.
If you plan on collaborating with others, it simplifies the process greatly, if you all use the same DAW – so that also might be something to consider. But don’t worry: even if your friend is eg. working with Logic Pro X on the Mac, and you might be on Ableton or Cubase on Windows, there are many relatively simple ways to exchange material by exporting MIDI Files or audio stems. But that’s of course not as convenient and flexible as simply opening the same project files – including all of your settings.
If you’d like to know more about the wonders of MIDI, its background and possibilites, check out our article: What is MIDI?
Also, if budget is a consideration, you might want to check out the entry-level or smaller versions of popular DAWs (some even offer a free level to get you started). This allows you to get going and then upgrade as you go along. By the way: Most Nektar MIDI Controllers include a free DAW license for Bitwig 8-Track to get you started.
Another tip: if you already own a DAW and would like to switch to a different brand, you might be able to take advantage of a so-called crossgrade offer. This can potentially save you a lot of money. So just make sure to check this out before you buy!
The best DAW for music production
As pointed out above, there is not one DAW that’s “the best” for everyone. You are into making music, not data processing – so how an app feels, does matter: It should inspire you, help your workflow and not create barriers. Give yourself time to look around and find out what’s best for you. Most manufacturers also offer demo versions to try out, so it is easy to get your hands on the different apps before you buy. In this list, we’ll try to give you a brief overview and a “feel” for what each DAW is all about. We will keep updating this article from time to time.
Bitwig Studio 4
Bitwig has a modern approach to music creation, ideal for electronic music and DJs.
Bitwig is a relatively new DAW, with the first version released in 2014. It is not just a music production environment, it is also intended for live performance with a computer. Bitwig includes both, a linear track-style “Arrangement” view and a “Mix” view with clips and scenes. So it is great for electronic music, beats and remixes just like Ableton Live. Bitwig also includes complete multi-touch functionality for its UI on Windows and Linux, a – well: nice touch!
Special features include a built-in modular sound-design environment called “The Grid” featuring a large library of modules, allowing you to create unique sounds and your own instruments. Bitwig Studio also includes a sampler with several playback modes and a multisample editor. A host of other instruments, audio and note FX is also included, turning Bitwig into a complete and powerful music production environment.
All Nektar MIDI controllers include deep DAW integration for Bitwig and many include a bundled entry-level version of Bitwig.
Bitwig Studio is available in 2 versions: A 16-Track entry-level version and the complete Bitwig Studio. A 30-Day trial version is also available.
(Bitwig promo video)
Cakewalk by Bandlab is a professional DAW – that comes for free
Cakewalk is another legendary DAW brand that has been around for over 30 years. The DAW was originally named SONAR, but now has been renamed to Cakewalk with the acquisition of the company a couple years go by Bandlab. Bandlab also made the DAW free to download and use, all you need to do is create a free account on their website.
Cakewalk is a professional DAW, with the features you’d expect and offers a linear track-based approach. It is VST and VST3 compatible, so you can also easily add 3rd party plugins and instruments. For audio recording, it already comes with some really nice plugins such as the Pro Channel channel strip plugin – and even includes some basic virtual instruments. Cakewalk also has nice MIDI features including a piano roll editor, step sequencer and notation display.
All Nektar MIDI controllers can be used with Cakewalk, and many models also include dedicated DAW integration for Cakewalk, such as Impact LX+ or AURA. Please check the product pages for details.
Unlike some of the newer DAWs that feature a one-window approach with panes, Cakewalk still has a host of windows popping up, which can be a bit confusing at times. So the interface might not be that intuitive at first – but Cakewalk has lots of great features including support for Touch and a 64-bit Mix Engine. So definitely worth the learning curve. Unfortunately Cakewalk is limited to the Windows platform only.
(Cakewalk by Bandlab promo video)
Cubase is a powerful DAW for traditional MIDI and audio recording as well as scoring, with great mixing features.
Steinberg Cubase is a legendary DAW that has been on the market for over 25 years. Since its first release in the early 90s on the Atari computer, the software has grown and changed a lot of course. Steinberg were amongst the first to integrate audio recording into a DAW and created and introduced the VST-standard: VST is the open plugin standard supported by most DAWs and 3rd party developers today.
Cubase has a linear “arrange page” with tracks and parts that you can freely cut up and move around – and includes a wide range of very powerful music creation and production tools. It features some of the best MIDI features available, excellent audio mixing capabilities, lots of included FX plugins and instruments. Cubase also makes it very easy to integrate outboard gear into the software workflow. In short: Cubase has lots of useful tricks up its sleeve to deliver professional sounding results. So it will take a bit of time to get into the “deeper” features, but it is relatively easy to get into the basics. Cubase also includes some of the best scoring features around for turning your midi data into notation and is great for creating music for video.
All Nektar MIDI controllers include DAW integration for Cubase and the Impact GXP range of controllers includes a bundled version of Cubase LE and Steinberg’s Retrologue VST instrument. On the Best MIDI Controller for Cubase page you can get an overview of the features.
(Steinberg Cubase 12 promo video)
Digital Performer 11
Digital Performer is a deep DAW with professional live performance, scoring and recording features.
Digital Performer has been on the market for over 30 years: It has a linear track-style arrange view and workflow, but also includes a clip window similar to Ableton Live since version 10. DP comes with a set of virtual instruments and FX (not quite as complete as eg. Logic or Reason), excellent time and pitch correction and the Nanosampler including beat slicing features. So all tools for contemporary music creation, mixing and mastering are part of the package. DP also supports the VST2, VST3, AU and MAS plugin formats, allowing you to easily add 3rd party FX and instruments.
DP is deep: Getting into DP’s workflow will take some learning. It is a very mature platform with all the features you’d expect from a hi-end MIDI sequencer and DAW. DP has a good reputation amongst pros, especially in the US: It has been the choice for live-performance backing tracks for many big productions and includes pro-features such as loading the next song easily or running two systems in parallel with the MOTU Showcontrol system. Scoring to picture is another strength of DP. Price-wise it is in a similar range to other pro-offerings, a Lite version is only available bundled with MOTU’s audio hardware products (on the other hand: if you are buying one of their audio hardware products, it is included free!).
All Nektar MIDI controllers can be used with Digital Performer and most models, including SE, Impact LX+, GX Mini, LX Mini and Aura include dedicated Nektar DAW integration. More info on the product’s pages.
(MOTU DP clips video)
FL Studio 20
FL Studio is the DAW of choice for many DJs, electronic music production and hiphop.
FL Studio is a DAW that’s closely associated with EDM and hiphop. A lot of now famous electronic music producers started out on Fl Studio, and still use it. Launched as “Fruity Loops” originally, it has evolved into a very powerful DAW with all the features you’d expect. Over the past couple of years, the audio production features were expanded greatly. FL Studio now includes a host of instruments and FX (depending on the version you choose).
What sets it apart from the other contenders is its workflow – at the core are FL Studio’s step sequencing features. So it might take a while to get into, if you are already used to the way other DAWs work.
All Nektar MIDI controllers can be used with FL Studio, and most include DAW integration. Panorama T and AURA provide deep plugin control via the included Nektarine software. We have prepared the Best MIDI Controller for FL Studio page to give you an overview of the models and features.
A nice touch is, that you get life-long free updates. So once you’ve bought it, future updates come free of charge! At the time of writing, there were 4 different versions available from the entry-level “Fruity” to the top of the line “Signature” bundle.
(Image Line FL Studio Intro Tutorial)
Live is a great DAW for electronic music, remixing and live performance.
Ableton Live is one of the most popular DAWs for electronic music creation today. Live is not just a MIDI and audio recording program, but also a performance instrument. It was first released in 2001, and its innovative concept and features made it become a key application for many pros that perform their electronic music live (the DAW that is most comparable to Live is Bitwig).
You can work in both, a traditional linear “tape-style” arrangement view, as well as a session view with so-called “clips” and “scenes”. In this view you can create, trigger and control musical elements in real-time (this performance can then also be recorded). Live is great for remixing applications and includes many excellent FX and instrument devices as well as samples and audio material to get you started right away. The Ableton Suite version also includes the powerful Max for Live platform to build instruments, effects, tools for live performance and much more. Ableton offers a 90 day free trial version.
All Nektar MIDI controllers can be used with Live and all the latest models, such as GX Mini, LX Mini or Aura include Nektar DAW integration.
There are several versions of Live available. From an entry level “Intro” to “Live Standard” and top of the line “Live Suite”.
(Ableton Live 11 promo video)
Logic Pro / Garageband
Logic Pro is Apple’s professional DAW for Mac users and comes with great virtual instruments
Logic Pro is Apple’s premium DAW (kind of the audio equivalent to Final Cut Pro). It has long been the choice of many pros working on the Mac – and has been around for almost as long as Cubase. The workflow is linear with tracks and parts (similar to eg. Cubase or Studio One) but now also offers live looping features. The user interface follows one window-approach-idea with window panes, which helps to keep an overview.
Apart from being a very powerful DAW, one of its key strengths is the great suite of bundled FX and instrument plugins as well as flex time and pitch shift features. Logic Pro also includes excellent score printing features to turn your MIDI into sheet music. With the latest update, Dolby Atmos tools such as an expanded surround mixer and 3D panner were added, for mixing and exporting tracks as spatial audio.
There are no other versions of Logic available, but GarageBand projects can be loaded into Logic. GarageBand is Apple’s entry-level music software that comes with all Macs. If you are on the Mac, Logic Pro is definitely worth checking out, also taking the low price for the software into account: Logic Pro is a very strong offering!
Reaper is the “lean DAW” for music production: really affordable and highly customizable.
Reaper is similar to other traditional DAWs with a linear track-based approach, but has a very different background: Created by the same guy that made Winamp, it started out as Freeware in 2005. It is no longer that, but is still one of the most affordable DAWs around – and can be tried out for 60 days before buying a license.
Reaper has nice audio and MIDI features, is extremely customizable and has powerful routing features. It also has a great reputation for stability and loads really fast. It might not be as intuitive at first glance, though. In use, there are some differences as to how other DAWs work: eg. tracks can contain different media (MIDI, audio, video) on the same track. An interesting feature is the master track varispeed option powered by the included Elastique Pro time and pitch shifting algorithm. The customization options go really far, and include obvious things such as key commands but also the look and even toolbar menues.
Reaper might not look as flashy as some of the other DAWs, but you can always create your own skin! Also, Reaper does not include as many plugins or content as other contenders – so the U-HE Repro-1 shown in this screenshot is an optional 3rd party plugin. But then again: Reaper is sold at a bargain price and produces absolutely professional-sounding results.
(Reaper 6 Tutorial Intro by Reaper Mania)
Reason is a great DAW for electronic music, built around an impressive rack of instruments and effects. And you can even use it as a plugin!
Reason is built around a “rack” of virtual instruments and effects: A truly impressive collection of synths, samplers, drum machines as well as a host of effects, ranging from distortion or reverb to mastering compression. And you can even flip those devices in the virtual rack around and connect them using virtual cables. Reason includes lots of high quality content, including a sample library, loops and patches. Even if you see it just as a powerful virtual “multi-instrument”, it is worth having a look at, as you can also run it as a plugin inside any VST, AU or AAX DAW!
Reason’s sequencer has a linear track-based approach, similiar to Cubase or Logic. The sequencer started out as a MIDI sequencer for the internal instruments, and has some really nice features such as the ReGroove Groove Mixer. Over the years, audio was added and today Reason has powerful audio recording features – not to mention a virtual mixing console emulating a classic SSL desk! A good sounding pitch-editing engine for vocal recording is also part of the tool-kit. Another strength are the sampling features for all sample player plugins in Reason: press the sample button on the instrument panel and you are sampling straight into the selected instrument. Beat slicing features are also included, and audio files can be turned into sliced REX-files automatically. So Reason is ideal for creative beat making.
VST plugin support was added relatively late, but Reasonstudios have taken things further now by turning the whole rack into a plugin, as mentioned above. So it is possible to easily use all of Reason’s instruments and FX in the shape of the included “Rack Plugin” inside other DAWs.
Reason is a versatile production environment that’s realitively easy to get into, with an excellent set of instrument plugins and sounds. If you are a beat-maker, this could be a great one-stop solution covering all your needs. Reason might not be cheap to buy, but is now also available as a subscription – and considering the included – and excellent – library of 11GB worth of sounds and samples, it is kind of a bargain…
(Reason 12 introduction video)
Studio One 5
Studio One is a professional DAW with excellent mixing features and a “tight” feel
Presonus Studio One is one of the newer DAW platforms. At first glance, the linear concept is very similar to Cubase or Logic , but is built around a more modern one window approach including wide-ranging drag and drop functionality. The workflow is quite smooth, and as Presonus also make their own audio hardware, Studio One has some excellent hardware integration that makes it easy to integrate outboard gear.
Special features include Scratch Pads for trying out new ideas without destroying anything, and a dedicated Mastering Suite. Studio One comes with lots of good sounding virtual instruments and FX (including some really nice sounding guitar amps and FX) and audio processing tools. Some of the included plugins can even be used in other DAWs.
Studio One 5 also integrates a “best-of” scoring features taken from the Notion scoring software. Overall, the DAW has a very “tight” and clean feel to it and is relatively easy to get into.
A version called Studio One Artist is included with Presonus audio interfaces, and you also might find it bundled with some other MIDI or audio products.
(Presonus Studio One 5 promo video)