The Free vs Paid DAW Question?
Your DAW is the hub of your studio, where your virtual compositions, vocals, and live instruments all come together.
It is the software you need for composing your beats, recording your instruments and vocals, and mixing, editing, and mastering it all into the recorded final product.
But did you know:
Most top music producers probably started with a free DAW of some kind.
There is certainly nothing wrong with beginners shooting straight for the best premium DAWs like these featured on Rob Mayzes blog on the market.
But the truth is, beginning music producers may be best served cutting their teeth with the less challenging free DAWs.
Freemium DAWs give beginners a gentler introduction to music making software, because DAWs are a complex software that can take time to master.
And almost all DAWs have a free version of some sort.
Many people starting out in music production often ask one question:
Which one is the best DAW?
Maybe be the right question is, which one is the best DAW for me?
Because we don’t all have the same goals.
Virtually every DAW on the market will perform the same basic functions as well as any you will try.
Yet, beyond the basics, they all have specific areas of strength and weakness.
Let’s look at a few, and their strengths:
- Avid Pro Tools is trusted by pro sound engineers for mixing
- Some swear by Harrison Mixbus
- Ableton Live is a firm favorite for EDM producers
- Logic Pro X has a large selection of integrated sounds
- Cubase excels at score creation and MIDI manipulation
- Cockos Reaper is said to be very good for recording live tracks
While there is the odd all-rounder, decide whether you will be doing more of composition, recording, mixing, or all of these.
That will guide your choice, because the best DAW is the one that works best for you.
Start with your own priorities, goals, and aspirations, as well as your budget, and pick a DAW based on those.
As all DAWs come with a learning curve, you can’t flip and change between them and still expect to get the most out of each one.
You will need to pick one and take time to really master it.
But, generally, you want a DAW with an easy-to-navigate interface, with more visual features to help you locate things as you get up to speed with the software.
The Computer You Intend to Use Will Guide Your Choice of DAW
As with all things software related, the OS your computer runs on is the great divide when it comes to music making software.
The most ideal DAW will be one that’s cross-compatible with computers running either Windows or macOS, and even Linux.
Only, Apple, the company that owns GarageBand and Logic Pro X – two of the most popular DAWs today – also happen to own the macOS, which is Windows’ direct competitor.
So those two DAWs will only run on Apple’s own hardware, in this case Mac computers and some iOS mobile devices.
But there are DAWs from other companies that run exclusively on Windows, and a few that are cross compatible.
So whether you are going to use a Mac or Windows PC, you have three primary considerations to guide your DAW selection. It will either be:
- Windows-only, or
- Buying Guide: Find computer and laptop recommendations for making music.
Lifetime Access is Also a Fabulous Perk for a DAW
DAWs are constantly evolving.
To stay relevant, they must take advantage of advances in technology to avail more tools to music producers, and adapt to people’s shifting musical tastes.
The best DAW developers also keep their ears to ground to sniff out emerging trends and update their software to get a legup on the competition.
But it is what they do with those updates that you must be concerned with.
The more enterprising companies will compel you to pay for some updates.
However, there are some DAWs that give their users unlimited, lifetime access. You will only pay once and the subsequent updates will be free to download.
A slight variation of this are DAWs that are otherwise paid for but are offered free when you purchase music equipment from specific brands. Such deals can save you quite a bit of money.
5 Best DAW Software For Beginning Music Producers
Now that we have whittled your choices down to specific points of consideration, let’s check out the best options available for each.
Afterwards, I will give you recommendations based on what OS your computer runs on.
Logic Pro X (For Mac Users)
This realignment alienated some of GarageBand’s loyal users.
But it has perhaps made it a better DAW for beginner music producers who would want to migrate to Logic Pro X when they finally have the budget.
To illustrate this point, GarageBand users now have unrestricted access to Logic Pro X Drummer’s full compliment of players.
When you are ready to upgrade, you can easily migrate all your GarageBand projects to Logic Pro X.
There you will find one of the largest library of stock sounds, loops, and features that make Logic Pro X arguably the most versatile DAW on the market.
The developers claim the software gives you tools to write, record, edit, mix, and perform, without being too technical. I would say that’s about right.
GarageBand comes preloaded on all new Macs. Otherwise, you can download it here.
Logic Pro X Features and Benefits:
- An impressive stable of stock plugins for mixing and mastering, which lessens the need to buy premium plugins
- An improved alchemy, which enables the creation of unique, custom sounds
- Version 10.3 update availed support for 256 buses, up from just 64 in the previous version
- Also in version 10.3, is a helpful Alternative Tracks feature that allows you to record and edit different versions of the same track simultaneously
- The GUI is a lot similar to GarageBand, which makes transition easier
- One of the cheapest, but most versatile pro DAWs on the market
- You can only use the Logic Pro X with Mac computers
MAGIX Music Maker Plus (For PC Users)
If you are a fan of the Windows OS, then Magix Music Maker Plus should be one of your first considerations for a DAW.
Magix Music Maker has quickly grown to become one of the most trusted DAWs for PC users.
The software is suited to both beginner and advanced users.
Thanks to its Easy Mode feature, beginning music producers won’t be immediately overwhelmed by the 1500 effects crammed into the DAW.
The intuitive interface makes it easy for learners to lay drum loops, add sounds, and be mixing and playing around with their tracks in no time.
There is a watered down free trial version that you can sample before committing to the paid pro versions.
The most advanced, Magix Music Maker Plus, usually sells at $59.99, but it is currently available for a crazily cheap $49.99.
The DAW has several options for importing sounds and exporting finished files. Verified users also have online access to an even larger library of voices, sound effects, and drum loops from the Catooh online media marketplace.
Magix Music Maker Plus Features and Benefits:
- 8 virtual instruments, including the new concert grand and pop drums
- 6 genre-specific sound pools with thousands of loops and sounds
- A less taxing Easier Mode for beginning beat makers
- A studded editing suite that includes a channel mixer, effects previewer, infinite cue points, equalizer, and frequency tuner
- Lacks a vocal reduction feature and does not allow batching, which makes it laborious and time-consuming to do repetitive tasks
Visit the official MAGIX website here
Image Line FL Studio
FL Studio has had a checkered history.
From when it was known as Fruity Loops until an intellectual property dispute with the Kellogg Company forced it to change to just FL Studio, it has changed a lot over the years.
Version 12 spots a new and one of the cleanest and most accessible interfaces in the industry.
The GUI is easy enough for beginners but still complex enough to give you a solid grasp of DAW software, in case you want to shift to another pro DAW.
But perhaps FL Studio’s greatest attraction is once you buy one of the paid versions, all subsequent updates will be free to download. No other DAW does this.
Fruity is the starter edition, but the FL Studio Producer Edition is also a good place to start.
If you lean towards EDM, FL studio should be a definite option.
Other Features and Benefits:
- A mobile version – FL Studio Mobile – that you can use to access your productions on the go
- Multi-touch feature allows mixing accessibility with mobile devices like the Microsoft Surface and iPad
- Its drag-and-drop functionality and uncluttered interface makes it easy to use for beginners
- A completely customizable interface
- Does not have an audio recording function, which may be a turnoff if you intend to record vocals
PreSonus Studio One (For Both Mac And PC Users)
A DAW that’s compatible with more than one OS is a great benefit…
Especially if you are going to collaborate with other producers.
You won’t have to worry about what OS their own DAW runs on.
Long before Studio One, PreSonus had built a reputation as a maker of quality, low priced mixing consoles, audio interfaces, and preamps.
Being a maker of both music studio hardware and software allowed the brand to offer perhaps their greatest selling point:
Buyers of their PreSonus hardware will often get the Studio One software free.
Studio One is offered in three versions – Prime (free), Artist, and Professional.
However, the free version – though limited in features – is just about adequate for newbies looking to put together a few demos.
PreSonus Studio One Features and Benefits:
- Intuitive drag and drop capability and key shortcuts that save you time and effort
- Integration with premium third party plugin developers for better pitch adjustment, harmony development, format control, etc
- VST2 and VST3 support and access to third party sample libraries like Kontakt, Giga, and Presence XT in the Professional version
- Project page, which is an all-in-one sequencing and mastering solution
- A simple interface that gives the producer greater artistic freedom
- May appear too mathematical to some people
Cockos REAPER has a powerful engine and produces a crisp audio processing quality, thanks to end-to-end 64-bit resolution.
Remarkably, the DAW will only take up 62 MB of your hard drive, which means it won’t chuggle up your computer’s resources.
Version 5 of the DAW has even introduced a video editing feature that’s better than what you get with other DAWs.
The software is currently only available from the Reaper website.
Other Features and Benefits:
- Can be run from a portable drive
- Comes with unlimited free updates up to version 6.99
- At $60, Reaper is quite affordable
- Easy-to-learn interface
- Has no loop library
And Our Recommendations Are..
The best DAW software is one that helps you accomplish your musical goals.
In this regard, no DAW is essentially better than the other.
But with that said, some aren’t as suitable for beginners.
As a beginner, who also uses a Mac, Logic Pro X is our top recommendation. You can cut your teeth with GarageBand, which comes free with Macs. And, when you are ready, you can upgrade to Logic Pro X.
If you already own or prefer a PC, we are all for Magix Music Maker Plus.
Perhaps, you want a DAW that’s cross compatible, allowing you to corroborate and share stuff with producers using either Macs or PCs.
Look no further than PreSonus Studio One.
All DAWs Have a Learning Curve
Although some DAWs are easier than others, they all require you to invest some time in learning them.
Remember if you get stuck, there is plenty of learning material online. But after you get the hang of it, you should be off and running.
What happens next has perhaps more to do with the your creativity than the DAW itself.
So grab yourself one from our recommendations and immerse yourself in it.