Most of the world use Windows computers, so the chances are you're one of them. So if you want to produce music on your computer, what are your options? Fortunately there are a heap of them - most of the big name digital audio workstation software works fine on Windows, and they're not your only choices. So sit down and take a menu. We list the "big gun" software you can choose from, some inexpensive (less than $100) alternatives, and a few free options.
Sometimes the last thing you need when you're making a choice is more options! But personally I prefer to know what the alternatives are before making up my mind - especially when it potentially costs a lot of money. I'd really appreciate comments of your own experiences. Feel free to let us know which programs you've used, how easy they were to get your mind around, and whether they have the features you needed. I'll add many of your comments to the 2012 version of the list.
The Big Guns
If you're serious about producing music, you'll want to invest in the best software you can afford. Here are eleven of the top DAWs, ranging in price from $200 all the way up to $1000. We start with the DAWs we tend to focus on here at Audiotuts+ (the only one missing is Apple's Logic Pro, which only works on Macs), then branch out to six other popular and powerful alternatives - including a few that are relatively new.
Avid Pro Tools 9
$595 at Amazon
"Power, creativity, and flexibility in the world’s most advanced audio production platform."
"Whether you’re in a professional facility, home studio, or on the road, nothing gives you the quality, speed, capability, ease, and inspiration to create like Pro Tools, the most widely used audio creation/production system in the industry. With Pro Tools 9, you can compose, record, edit, and mix music and sound for picture the way you want—with a high-performance Avid audio interface or without, on a Mac or PC, and with more flexibility than ever."
With Pro Tools 9 you no longer need to purchase Digidesign or M-Audio hardware in order to get it. There is now a software-only option, which is great news.
Explore Pro Tools at Audiotuts+:
Image-Line FL Studio 9
"FL Studio 9 is a complete software music production environment, representing the culmination of more than 10 years of sustained & focused development. FL9 is the fastest way from your brain to your speakers."
Explore FL Studio at Audiotuts+:
Ableton Live 8
$395 at Amazon
"Ableton Live is about making music; for composition, songwriting, recording, production, remixing and live performance. Live's nonlinear, intuitive flow, alongside powerful real-time editing and flexible performance options, make it a unique studio tool and a favorite with live performers. If you'd rather be "making music" than just "using music software," Ableton Live is for you. Live 8, the latest version, includes a wealth of new techniques and improvements with a new groove engine, revamped warping, live looping, new effects, crossfades in the Arrangement View and a reworked MIDI editor."
Explore Ableton Live at Audiotuts+:
- Ableton Live Tutorials
- Ableton Live Quick Tips
- Discover Ableton Live
- 17 Amazing Ableton Live Tutorials
Propellerhead Reason 5 and Record 1.5
"Reason is a virtual studio rack with all the tools and instruments you need to turn your ideas into music. With its generous sound bank and intuitive flow, Reason helps you along in creative process, and is the music software that never gets in your way."
"Record gives you unlimited audio tracks, world class effects and mixing gear, and a whole new take on music recording. With an intuitive, straightforward interface and a hands-on approach to capturing performances, Record was designed for musicians - not audio engineers. This is recording done right."
Explore Reason (and Record) at Audiotuts+:
Steinberg Cubase 6
$478.36 from Amazon
"With an array of sensational features and advanced tools designed to deliver the best and most harmonious results, Cubase 6 is your go-to audio workstation for recording, editing, mixing and producing music of all types. With its emphasis not only on technology and precision but also on user friendliness, usability and ergonomics, Cubase 6 empowers creative imagination to bring out the best in you. That’s why Cubase is the choice of countless musicians and producers around the world. That’s why Cubase 6 is the most advanced music production system today."
Explore Cubase at Audiotuts+:
Another Six Popular DAWs
No website can cover everything, so at Audiotuts+ we limit our main focus to the applications listed above. That doesn't mean the other alternatives are not worth considering. Here are six of them. Do you feel that we should be covering some of these?
- Cakewalk SONAR, around $350
- Sony ACID Pro 7, $229.30 at Amazon
- Adobe Audition 3, $411.91 at Amazon
- Magix Samplitude 11 Pro, $999
- PreSonus Studio One Pro, $299 from Amazon
Great DAWs for Less than $100
If you're just starting out, or are on a tight budget, then you may not be ready to fork out $1000 for a software program - or even $200. Here are seven great quality apps that you can pick up for less than $100 (or just over $100 in one case).
Cockos REAPER 3
$150 (full commercial license) or $40 (discounted license)
"Audio production without limits."
"REAPER is a digital audio workstation: a complete multitrack audio and MIDI recording, editing, processing, mixing, and mastering environment."
"REAPER is designed to let you work quickly and creatively, without imposing any artificial limits on what you can do. REAPER doesn't have track types, busses, tools, or offline processing. If you want to create a drum bus, simply add a track above the drum tracks and press the folder button - the drums will automatically send to the folder, Once you get the drum levels and FX tweaked right where you want them, you can record the folder's output to non-destructively freeze the drums and move on. "
Costs 58 EUR
"With Renoise you create loops, beats and melodies efficiently step-by-step. It's a complete, expandable Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) with a refreshing twist. Renoise is affordable, yet no corners have been cut in regard to features."
Five Budget Versions of the Big Guns
FL Studio, Ableton Live, Cakewalk, Sony ACID and PreSonus Studio One have budget versions of their software for under $100.
- FL Studio 9 Fruity Edition, $98 from Amazon
- Ableton Live Intro, $95 at Amazon
- Cakewalk SONAR Home Studio 7 XL, $91.77 at Amazon
- Sony ACID Music Studio 8, $50.80 at Amazon
- PreSonus Studio One Artist, $101.34 at Amazon
I enjoy checking out free software and comparing it with the more expensive alternatives, and have become very impressed with the quality of free software. Here are a few apps that cost nothing, but look like they perform admirably well. If you've tried any of them, please let us know your opinion in the comments.
"Traverso DAW is an audio recording and editing program which is very well suited to record a single voice, a band, an ensemble, a whole orchestra or any other source of music! Both the home and professional user will find Traverso attractive, it's clean interface is easy to learn, and enables you to work quickly and efficiently!"
"Enjoy making music."
"MU.LAB is a hi-quality music application for Mac OSX and Windows, transforming your computer into a complete music studio! MU.LAB does not overwhelm you with a complex feature set, in which you can get lost. On the contrary, MU.LAB is a user-friendly yet rock-solid musical tool designed to create, finetune and play Your Music!"
I wouldn't call Frinika beautiful, but it seems functional. Being Java-based it works on most operating systems.
"Frinika is a free (licensed under GNU GPL) complete music workstation software containing sequencer, midi support, soft synthesizers, audio recorder, piano roll/tracker/notation editing and more. The goal of Frinika is to be a complete platform for making music with your computer, using the versatile Java platform to be able to run on several operating systems, and being open source to be able to embrace the best open source technology being available at any time."