No doubt a lot of my readers already have a DAW of choice or two running on their computer (I am assuming nearly everyone into music production and beat making nowadays uses at least one Mac or PC based DAW in addition to any hardware drum machines and keyboards/synths).
But what if you’re a complete new comer to computer music making and you want to know which DAW to start making your beats in? Below I list twelve of the most popular DAWs currently in use by major producers and respected beat makers and I give an overview of the beat making capabilities of each.
Developer: Image-Line (www.image-line.com)
Price: From $99/£76/€99
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: Image Line’s FL Studio takes pride of place on my list of best DAWs for beat making. FL Studio started life as a basic piece of PC music software known at the time as Fruity Loops. Many producers can claim these early editions of Fruity Loops were their introduction to electronic music production and beat making on a PC.
While FL Studio does have its – sometimes misinformed – critics in professional music making circles there’s no denying that its electronic music focused work flow has kick started thousands of music production careers and has lead to the creation of many thousands of record label released tracks over the years.
So what’s make FL Studio such a popular DAW with newbies and seasoned pros alike? Key to FL Studio’s success is the sampler channel/step sequencer work flow which makes it incredibly easy for novices to begin laying down 4/4 house, techno and EDM style drum beats within seconds of firing up the software. And if hip hop is more your bag then fear not – it’s just as easy to slow down the default tempo and use the stock samples to lay down your first hip hop or trap beats.
Once you’ve spent an enjoyable hour or two creating your first beats using the default step sequencer and the included stock samples it then becomes up to you how quickly you go on to learn more of FL Studio’s music making features such as automation, effects and the mixer. FL Studio gives you everything you need to go from a simple four bar loop to a complete finished, mastered track and – unlike some DAWs – you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to achieve impressive results.
One of the most impressive aspects of FL Studio is that once you’ve bought your first copy you get free updates for life – yes this means that if you purchased a cheap and cheerful copy of Fruity Loops 19 or 20 years ago (instead of just using a cracked copy like your mates!) you’re now on version twenty and quite possibly have years of free updates yet to come! Quite frankly, given the quality of the latest versions of FL Studio and the sheer amount of instruments, effects and content you get with even the cheapest version of FL Studio it’s one of the best value for money deals in software development history!
If you’re looking to make beats on your computer then download and install the FL Studio trial without hesitation – the trial version lets you try out all of FL studio’s features and plugins for an unlimited time (some saving/exporting restrictions apply).
FL Studio comes in four different editions:
- Fruity Edition – the cheapest entry level of FL Studio contains a limited number of instruments and effects but still has everything you need to get started making beats and complete tracks.
- Producer Edition – a complete virtual studio with extra plugins and full song creation, editing & recording capabilities.
- Signature Edition – adds extra plugins to the Producer edition.
- All Plugins Edition – the most expensive edition. Currently comes with 102 instruments and effects.
Download FL Studio for free. The trial version is the equivalent to FL Studio Producer Edition + All Plugins Edition, with a few limitations. The trial edition lets you export WAV, MP3, FLAC, MIDI and Video files and you can even save projects but saved projects can not be opened in FL Studio until you unlock the trial version.
I covered all of FL Studio stock plugins to make beats with FL Studio in a previous article – check it out!
Features: 5/5. Ease of use: 5/5. Overall score: 5/5.
Developer: Ableton (www.ableton.com)
Price: From $99/£69/€79
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: Let me get one thing out there right from the start: if you’re looking to get into any kind of electronic music production and beat making then you MUST try Ableton Live at some point! At least once in your life! I’ve no idea how many professional music producers use Live as their main workhorse DAW all I know is that it is a lot and there are numerous reasons for Live’s success not least of which is Live’s clip based workflow.
The first version of Live appeared on the scene in 2001 – I remember installing a demo version and losing weeks of my life to its innovative clip based workflow – and has become one of the world’s most popular DAWs.
Live’s instruments and effects have played a role in countless records over the years and so you can be sure that when you fire up this software you’re getting to work with exact same tools as some of the biggest names in the business.
When it comes to making beats in Live you’ll probably start by dropping one shots and loops straight into empty clips in Live’s Session View. You’ll then want to explore Live’s powerful Drum Racks which are an instrument used for layering and shaping samples, synths and effects in a classic 16-pad grid.
Impulse is Live’s drum sampler and features complex modulation capabilities while Drum Synths were new in version 11 of Live – they’re a useful collection of 8 devices for creating unique drum and percussion sounds using synthesis.
Live comes in three different versions namely Intro, Standard and Suite. They all share common workflow features, but Standard and Suite have additional features, instruments, sound packs, and effects.
The Intro version serves as a good introduction into the world of Live at a bargain price. While the Intro version is certainly good enough to make complete tracks, if music making is your career you are certainly going to outgrow it and will want to upgrade to either the Standard or Suite edition at some point.
It’s true that Live’s workflow does not suit everyone – there’s no such thing a DAW which everyone gels with – but for many producers and musicians Live has become the very heart of their music making workflow and their careers – try out the demo version for yourself (Ableton offer a free 90 day trial) and see if it’s right for you.
Features: 5/5. Ease of use: 5/5. Overall score: 5/5.
Developer: Reason Studios (formerly known as Propellerhead Software) (www.reasonstudios.com)
Price: From $99/£69/€79
Plugin Support: VST
Overview: Reason launched in the year 2000 at a time when more and more music producers – both professional and amateur – where looking to embrace working “in the box”. Reason boasted a complete studio of music making gear – both instruments and effects – in one affordable package. Instruments and effects – complete with virtual swinging cables – could be placed in the ‘rack’ in whatever configuration the user wished with the only limit on the number of devices being the power of the host computer.
Reason’s accessible instruments and effects proved to be a big hit with producers and Reason quickly built up a loyal fanbase.
Many producers use Reason as their main DAW although it is also common for producers to use Reason and its devices in addition to another DAW such as FL Studio or Logic.
When it comes to beat making Reason certainly has a lot to offer. Users can make beats with the Roland TR style Redrum drum machine and/or use the incredibly deep Kong drum module to create an infinite variety of drum kits using a mixture of samples, synthesis, physical modeling and effects.
Dr. Octo Rex is Reason’s loop player device with the ability to load up to eight different REX loops and switch between them on the fly. REX files can be sliced and diced in numerous ways and there are filters, envelopes and modulation settings to further mangle the sounds.
The Umpf Club Drums device is a fantastic tool which delivers a quick and inspiring way to make just about any kind of electronic beat you might dream of. Umpf comes with a library of 750 samples taken from some of the greatest drum machines of all time and you can mangle your beats with Umpf’s powerful filters, LFOs and envelopes before running your beats through EQs and compressors.
If Umpf Club Drums isn’t enough you also get Umpf Retro Beats an instrument packed with old-school sounds and grooves from the 80s and 90s plus a Modulation Matrix with filters, LFOs and envelopes.
For those times when you want an acoustic drum kit in your track you can reach for the Reason Drum Kits device. This powerful device serves up a tasty collection of playable acoustic drum kits, recorded in legendary studio spaces.
In contrast to the sheer power and depth of Reason Drum Kits, the Rytmik drum machine device is a very basic device that comes with 16 ready to use drum kits for quickly laying down instant grooves.
Be aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of what Reason comes with here – in effect when you run Reason you get a complete studio packed with instruments, effects, utilities, sequencers, samplers and sounds and a complete virtual mixing desk to plug it all into to – it would blow any 1980s millionaire producer’s mind if you could somehow travel back in time and show them! The possibilities offered by Reason really are limited only by your imagination.
While there’s lots of good stuff to play with in Reason the developers have tried to make it all as intuitive as possible and there are plenty of tutorial videos on the Reason Studios website. There is a learning curve if you really want to get deep and master every aspect of Reason but most people should be able to grasp the basics within a few hours.
In recent years Reason has undergone a number of changes including belated support for VST plugins – a move the developers had long resisted – and the imminent arrival of Reason 12 promises to bring high resolution imagery to the table along with an impressive new sampler instrument and even more powerful Combinator devices making Reason one to watch in 2021.
Reason is now available via a monthly/annual subscription or you can buy the software outright. My personal take is that while neither option is exactly “cheap” there is no denying that for those who are willing to get out the credit card, Reason delivers an incredible selection of music making tools.
Features: 5/5. Ease of use: 4/5. Overall score: 5/5
Developer: Steinberg (www.new/steinberg.net)
Price: From $100/£85/€89
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: Steinberg – orginators of the humble VST instrument – can certainly boast that they have played a key role in the the development of music production software and their Cubase 11 DAW currently repserents the pinaccle of their decades long work.
Recent years have seen Cubase come under attack from a new generation of music software however Cubase still remains one of the world’s most used DAWs.
Cubase currently comes in three different versions:
- Cubase Pro 11
- Cubase Artist 11
- Cubase elements 11
If you’re a complete beginner then you might as well start with one of the cheaper options to test the waters – leave Cubase Pro until you’re really ready to embrace all it has to offer.
Cubase features way too much to cover here in fact but just to wet your appetite: Cubase 11 features a new Sampler Track with automatic audio slicing, personal scale assistant, new dynamic EQ, Squasher! EDM foused compression tool, score editing features, multiband Imager, SuperVision multimeter audio analyzer and more.
Ever version of of Cubase comes with numerous virtual instruments including Groove Agent SE, a cut down version of Steinberg’s flagship drum software Groove Agent 5. With Groove Agent SE you get a huge library of drum samples, grooves and patterns, as well as a virtual mixer and comprehensive FX suite.
Cubase is a “serious” DAW aimed at ndustry professionals so you must be prepared to spend time with Cubase to even begin to grasp what this DAW is really capable of – this is not software which you can expect to master in a few hours.
Features: 5/5. Ease of use: 3/5. Overall score: 5/5
Developer: Cockos (www.reaper.fm)
Price: From $60
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: Many experienced producers on the hunt for something different to FL Studio, Live and Logic turn to Reaper at some point. Since making its debut in 2005, Reaper has won plenty of rave reviews and a dedicated following.
What sets Reaper apart from the rest of the pack is the customization options on offer – from themes, plugin and scripting development to sophisticated MIDI/audio routing, Reaper is a DAW that is built for audio professionals, experimenters and tinkerers and as such it can prove somewhat overwhelming and downright obtuse for newbies.
Reaper comes with plenty of effects but – unlike the other DAWs on this list – it does not come with any instruments or plugins specifically geared towards beat making. Reaper can host third-party virtual instruments, including VST, VST3, LV2, AU, DX, and JS instruments.
Reaper is not for everyone – it’s not my DAW of choice because my own way of working is pretty simple and more than catered for by the likes of FL Studio, Cubase and Live – but it’ an incredibly powerful digital audio production environment that represents incredible value for money. It deserves its place on any “best DAWs” lists.
If you’re curious you can download a free, fully functional 60-day evaluation version of Reaper from the main Reaper website.
Pros: Customization options go way beyond other DAWS.
Cons: Less intuitive than other DAWs. No included instruments so bring your own VSTs.
Features: 4/5. Ease of use: 3/5. Overall score: 4/5
Bitwig Studio 4
Developer: Bitwig (www.bitwig.com)
Price: From $99/€99
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: While Bitwig Studio clearly takes plenty of cheeky inspiration from the older Ableton Live, this young(ish) – 7 years and counting – upstart introduces plenty of unique features to ensure this is a capable, creative and powerful DAW in its own right.
Bitwig Studio is a sound design playground packed as it is with cool instruments and effects. Right from the get go you can dive into Bitwig’s massive library of presets and sounds, or if you prefer you build your own instruments and FX from scratch using The Grid, Bitwig’s modular sound design environment.
There’s no doubt that Abltton Live still overshadows Bitwig when it comes to the core bead and butter features producers want when making music but Bitwig has plenty of neat tricks up its sleeve with The Grid, in particular, being a stand out feature.
A powerful modulation system lets you use Macro controls, Note Expressions, LFOs, and Envelopes to easily modulate any device, VST plug-in, or hardware parameter and then there’s audio editing, unique MIDI tools, 8 different time stretching algorithms, hardware integration, touch-screen support and much more – Bitwig Studio might only be on version 4 but it’s still a featured packed DAW that is able to compete with its more established rivals.
When it comes to beat making in particular you can chuck loops and samples into clips for warping and triggering. The Bitwig Studio Sampler provides a powerful tool for playing and manipulating your loops and one shots. It boasts several playback modes, advanced looping features with crossfades, modulation, a massive multisample editor and more.
The Drum Machine instrument is one of Bitwig’s core ‘container devices’ in which you can create, load and save drum machine type instruments. As well as the Drum Machine container device you also get 6 individual drum instruments covering kick, snare, cowbell, hats, clap and toms.
Features: 4/5. Ease of use: 4/5. Overall Score: 4/5
Apple Logic Pro X 10.5
Developer: Apple (www.apple.com)
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: For Apple based music producers Logic Pro X continues to be a major player with version 10.5 launching in 2020 to plenty of very positive reviews (minor niggles aside).
Logic 10.5 brought a number of notable features to this venerable software including Live Loops, Sampler and Quick Sampler, Remix FX,a new Drum Synth, and a drum machine style Step Sequencer.
With Ableton Live eating into Logic Pro’s market share it looks like the developers at Logic decided that if they couldn’t beat Abelton then they might as well join in the loop based fun. Logic Pro really takes Abelton’s looping and live session modes and runs (and runs some more) with them.
Also taking inspiration from several other DAWs is the new Step Sequencer feature which is a pretty tasty inclusion for anyone creating beats and step pattern/grid based riffs and melodies.
The Drum Synth, meanwhile, takes inspiration from the drum synth found in Native Instrument’s Maschine. Use this synth to quickly cook up kicks, snares, percussion, hats and more as and when required.
Quick Sampler has now replaced EXS24 as Logic Pro X’s main sampling plugin and benefits from a more intuitive and modern interface and enhanced features while Quick Sampler offers a less featured sampler obviously inspired by Live’s Abelton’s Live’s Simpler device.
Apple producer’s have always had a tough choice wether to focus on Logic or Live and that choice has certainly got harder with the arrival of Logic Pro X.
Logic Pro is the bigger, better, harder, faster ,fully featured grownup DAW to Apple’s free and friendly Garageband of which you can read more below.
(In November 2020, Logic Pro X was renamed “Logic Pro”, coinciding with the release of macOS 11 Big Sur.)
Features: 5/5. Ease of use: 4/5. Overall score: 4/5.
Studio One 5
Developer: PreSonus (www.presonus.com)
Price: From £100/£85/€95
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: You certainly get a lot for your money with Studio One version 5 – this feature packed DAW has just about everything you need to record, produce, compose, mix, master, and perform your music. There’s no doubt that Studio One is a serious piece of software designed for professionals but there’s plenty of fun to be had here.
Studio One comes with five virtual instruments including the Impact XT drum sampler; Presence XT virtual sample-player; Mai Tai polyphonic analog modeling synthesizer; Mojito monophonic subtractive synthesizer; and Sample One XT live sampler and sample editor.
If you’re looking to get into film scoring and the like then Studio One is well worth checking out thanks to its superior scoring and notation tools as well as its ability to handle complex orchestral libraries.
Studio One comes in four different versions: Studio One Professional (the most complete package), Studio One Artist and Studio One Prime. Studio One 5 Prime is a free version with limited features. PreSonus Sphere is a subscription service which gives you access to everything in Studio One, 100 GB of content, content, cloud storage, Masterclass videos and more.
Studio One is packed with features which means it could prove to be somewhat intimidating for complete newbies however if you start with a blank project and play around with some of the included instruments, sounds and effects you’re sure to soon understand the Studio One workflow.
One feature I really appreciate when using Studio One is the ease of dragging and dropping elements. It’s really fast and efficient to drag/drop sounds, loops, virtual instruments, plug-in effects, FX chains and presets directly into your current project, onto mixer tracks etc.
Overall Studio One 5 is one of the most capable DAWs on the market right now. It could prove too much for some but if your music making is more than just a casual hobby and you have a couple of hours to spare then you should take it for a test drive.
Features: 5/5. Ease of use: 4/5. Overall: 4/5.
Akai MPC 2 Software
Developer: Akai (www.akaipro.com)
Price: $99/£99 (Summer 2021 promotion price)
Plugin Support: VST/AU
Overview: A relative newcomer to the game, Akai’s flagship music production software has graduated from a performance instrument to a fully featured DAW in its own right. This software is designed from the ground up to integrate with Akai’s latest stand alone MPC drum machines so if you’re looking to get into MPC based beat making this software is pretty much essential however the latest version of the software supports all 3rd Party MIDI controllers and comes with templates for all popular models.
MPC 2 software can operate as a completely standalone application on Mac & PC. You can run the MPC software by itself, using it as your main DAW, or you can choose to run it from inside the DAW of your choice as a plugin.
The latest version of Akai’s MPC Software comes with the new DrumSynth, a powerful synthesizer drum plugin designed to let you sculpt electronic drum kits.
In addition to the DrumSynth plugin you also get a full suite of plugins from developer AIR: AIR Hype: a powerful synthesizer instrument, AIR Mellotron: a faithful recreation of a legendary tape-based sampling keyboard. AIR Solina, an analogue duophonic synth, AIR Bassline (monophonc bassline synth) & AIR Electric (electric piano collection including Rhodes, Wurlitzers, FM keyboards). AIR TubeSynth plugin emulates the sound of vintage analog polyphonic synthesizers.
As you’d expect, MPC 2 software is a powerful tool geared towards beat making and sample/loop manipulation. Finding and working with samples is lightning fast thanks to the Recursive Search feature and there’s automatic key detection plus realtime time-stretching and pitch-shifting.
To get you started making beats, MPC 2 software comes with a comprehensive factory library of 20GB of quality sounds covering all popular modern genres.
MPC’s are associated with hip hop in particular but the included synths and effects mean there’s everything you need here to experiment with making any kind of sample based electronic or dance music.
MPC 2 software – currently on version 2.10 as I write this – still feels like something of a work of progress and it lacks many of the more advanced features you’ll find in the more established DAWs but the included content, plugins and ease of use make this well worth checking out.
Note that you will need a (free) iLok account to install and authorize the MPC 2 software before you can trial it.
Features: 3/5. Ease of use: 4/5. Overall score: 4/5
Developer: Apple (www.apple.com)
Price: Free (with Macs and iPads)
Plugin Support: AU
Overview: While Logic Pro is Apple’s flagshig music production software, the free Garageband is the software on which many a Mac owning musician has cut their teeth even if it only involved stringing together a few of the included loops and dabbling with some of the included virtual instruments.
When it comes to beats you can fire up Drummer to access various virtual session drummers who will generate beats for you in both electronic and acousti styles. If you favor classic drum machine style beat creation then the included Beat Sequencer gizmo is an easy way to lay down beats in various genres.
Garageband is a great way to get young children and teenagers interested in making beats and dabbling with music although seasoned pros will find it is too limited.
If you own a Mac and are looking to get into music production then Garageband is a must try although its limitations will no doubt see you graduating to a more fully featured DAW pretty quickly. Luckily (or cynically, depending on how you look at it) any projects you start in Garageband can be opened up in Logic Pro for further development.
Features: 3/5. Ease of use: 4/5. Overall score: 3/5.
Things to consider when choosing a DAW:
When deciding on what DAW to use you should start by downloading trial/demo versions of the popular DAWs listed above. You’ll want a DAW that best gels with your way of working and one that is capable of helping you get your projects finished with the minimum of fuss and headaches.
Which is the best DAW overall?
In this day and age when all of the best DAWs are bursting with features that producers could only dream of in the early 1990s there really is no such thing as “the best DAW”. Certainly there is no one size fits all solution. Each of the well known DAWs I have listed above boasts hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of users.
Pro-tip: Do not waste your time arguing with “producers” about DAWs online – get on with making music using the DAW that works best for you! DAWs will not add a “magic sauce” to your tracks and (mostly) can’t turn your weakest ideas and rushed, garbage mixes into chart topping tracks.
What is the best DAW for Techno?
Ableton Live has been a popular choice with techno producers for many years however techno can be produced in any of the DAWs listed above. FL Studio and Logic are also both very popular DAWs amongst techno producers.
Do I need to use a DAW to make music?
Not every musician uses a DAW to create their music. If you wish to bypass a DAW based set up then you will obviously need some kind of instrument(s) and you will likely want a method to capture your music, assuming you wish to store and share it with others. Some producers choose to record their music creations into a computer based audio recording app, such as Audacity although this method of working is increasingly rare.
If you want to try working in a real ‘old school’ way you could recording into a multitrack recorder of the kind that was common before home computers became powerful enough to record, store and play back large audio files although I would strongly advise you not to bother unless you’ve got a masochistic streak!
Why do people use DAWs?
Given the fact that is possible to make music without a DAW you might ask why do people bother with them. Well DAWs have become a major part of the musician/producer workflow for several reasons mostly related to convenience, possibilities and power.
The simple fact is that anyone with a DAW such as Abelton Live running on their computer has access to an incredible world of music making possibilities and virtual instruments at the click of a mouse button.
If you want to play around with multi-track audio, gigabytes worth of loops and samples, thousands of useful and varied plugins, virtual emulations of rare – and often incredibly expensive – gear, as well as try you hand at mixing and mastering your own tracks, all without leaving your home, then a DAW gives you access to all that and a lot more besides!
I really enjoy the fact that for less than the price I paid for one synthesizer in 1989, I can have a complete music studio packed with synthesizers of a higher quality, drum machines, mixing desk and much, much more on my laptop.
What is the easiest DAW for beginners?
Fire up any of the major DAWs for the first time and you might find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer number of options of offer.
If you’re Mac based and an absolute beginner then must try Garageband – it’s free so there’s no reason not to.
FL Studio is a good choice for beginners keen to quickly lay down some beats. If you install the demo version of FL Studio you could make your first beat within seconds of firing it up – with no need to read the manual – as kick, hat, snare and clap samples are ready and waiting for you to trigger in the step sequencer right from the get go.
Abelton Live comes with built-in tutorials which will walk you through some of the core ideas behind the Live workflow the first time you start it up..
In my own experience, Cubase, Logic and Reaper are not as easy to grasp as FL Studio and Live.
The best way to learn any DAW is to start a new blank project and then have a very specific goal in mind (such as creating your first simple kick/snare/hi hats beat and putting a reverb plugin on the snare). By working your way through such a fairly basic and common task you should be able to pick up how your DAW functions at its most basic level (browsing for sounds, placing sounds on a step sequencer or piano roll, adding effects to sounds etc).
Once you have a basic task completed it the becomes a case of further exploring what your DAW is capable is in terms of sound manipulation, sound creation and sound synthesis, composing, recording and mixing. As a general rule, how deep you want to get with your DAW is up to you – even the most advanced producers probably only use a fraction of their chosen DAW’s features.
Pro-tip: Note that you do NOT have to learn every obscure or advanced feature of a DAW before you can begin music making. The only aspects of any DAW you need to know are those functions and features YOU need to get YOUR music made – focus on your requirements and do not get bogged down trying to learn every aspect of your DAW.
Do you need a powerful computer to run a DAW?
All DAWs have their minimum system requirements which you can see on the developers’ websites. If you’re just starting out you do need to rush out and buy the very highest speck PC or Mac.
Depending on your goals, ambitions and workflow you’ll need a computer that is at least capable of running your DAW of choice without freezing or crashing on a regular basis.
A good starting point in 2021 is an i7 or equivalent processor. The more plugins and tracks you use in your projects then the more powerful your processor needs to be. If you’re on a tight budget you can get just about get away with an i5 processor nowadays if you’re likely to only need 16 tracks and a handful of plugins.
You should aim for 8GB or 16GB of ram at a minimum (ideally you want 32GB or more if you want your machine to be future proof).
If you’re likely to be working with big sample instruments and libraries then you’ll likely want to a decent SSD drive and as much memory as possible otherwise.
If you’re looking to purchase a laptop for beat making then do pay attention to the screen size. In my experience smaller screens can be frustraing to work with when making music. Many professional music producers like to work with their DAW’s output split over two different monitors to cut down on the amount of time they spend moving windows around and scrolling through tracks they are working on.