Whether you’re a top-level pro or a pure novice in audio, you’re more than likely working with music production software. Here are the best DAWs of 2020.
The world of the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is inextricably linked to modern production. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the very top of professional studio mountain, or just finding your feet — you’re most likely performing the bulk of your audio tasks with music production software.
In 2020, the year of isolation, people are connecting with their DAWs and in the box production like never before. So we thought it was about time we checked out best DAWs of 2020. There are a lot of established players in this field, but they continue to evolve.
Having been around since 1989, Cubase has established itself as a reliable and creative music production software. The DAW allows you to save time while engraving MIDI scores via its smooth integration with Dorico, which is accompanied by a sleek and intuitive modern interface.
Cubase 10.5 is the latest version and added a bunch of new features. Capitalising on its MIDI score integration, you can now export video (including audio) renders directly from the DAW, streamlining soundtrack work. They also freshened up some of their best effects and VSTs with some updates to the Spectral Comparison EQ, MultiTap Delay, and Padshop 2.
Logic Pro, Apple’s premium extension of their beloved Garageband, is a DAW that invites users to their clean and intuitive ‘Apple’ workflow. Keeping with the company’s MO, Logic presents a full-ecosystem for creating various types of music. The diverse nature of this music production software is only highlighted from the range of artists that use it; from Kendrick Lamar to Ed Sheeran to Brian Eno.
Logic Pro X’s 10.5 update was one of the biggest yet, featuring an overhaul of their loop system. Perhaps taking a little bit of influence from Ableton Live, Logic’s Live Loops offers non-linear pathways of putting together sequences. This works great with their new Sampler, Step Sequencer, Drum Synth, and Drum Machine Designer which have all been updated in 2020.
Studio One is Presonus’ venture into the world of music production software. Released in 2009, the DAW has skyrocketed to success through its integration with the pitch-correction software Melodyne, modern features like Arrange, Patterns, and Scratch Pad, and through the effortless incorporation of Presonus’ hardware.
The latest release, Studio One 5, emerged earlier this year. It includes a range of updates like Ampire and Show Page. Presonus has modelled their own guitar amps and pedals, which is included in Ampire, offering real-time guitar amp feel. Show Page allows for the live playback of backing tracks, virtual instruments, and plug-in racks from a single interface, straightforward for live performance use.
Reason Studios is a bold choice for music creators. Through the lack of third-party plugin and virtual instrument support, and preemptive vision of the modular craze, Reason Studios (FKA Propellerhead) have created something entirely unique. It’s now packed with over 70 instruments and effects suited to the unique workflow and is a definite contender with the other DAW heavyweights.
The Reason Rack is the centrepiece of the DAW’s workflow, and while the Reason 11 update didn’t change a whole lot about the music production software (it added 5 effects and improved workflow), Reason Studios now allows the Reason Rack to be compatible with any DAW. This is huge, as the Reason Rack can now be used in any workflow, opening it up to a much bigger audience.
Made to be a standalone instrument for music-creation, Bitwig was released in 2014 to an already rich market. Leaning heavily on principles of modular synthesis, Bitwig invites users to create and connect sound-making components in intuitive ways. It can still do all the things of other DAWs, like record audio, provide virtual instruments and mixing tools, but offers its own distinct view.
The Grid is the focal point of Bitwig (now updated to version 3.3) offering a fully-modular environment inside the DAW. Included is a range of 150 modules that can be configured in an open-ended UI. What sets it apart from other DAWs offering similar features (like Max) is the incredibly simple user-interface.
While the DAWs on this list have all so far been fairly expensive, REAPER offers a $60 alternative that can still keep up with the competition. The DAW really puts the customer first, with just a 20 MB download size and consistent free updates. Although REAPER doesn’t include any built-in virtual instruments, it offers a blank canvas for recording audio or third-party VSTs you have previously downloaded.
Version 6 was the latest big update, the main updates being; retina-ready graphics and FX plugin embedding. While largely updating what’s already there, some other features of Version 6 include; MIDI CC Envelopes, Auto-Stretch Timebase, Routing Diagram, and a new theme.
Ableton Live is at the forefront of electronic music production. It offers a unique recording workflow and live performance facility tailored to working with loops, beats, and audio in unconventional ways. Ableton Live’s unique features include Session View, Drum Rack, and its myriad of VSTs and effects. The DAW has been used by artists such as; Skrillex, Flume, and Ludwig Göransson, the producer of Childish Gambino’s Redbone.
Ableton Live 10 offers Wavetable, a new synthesiser that can shape, stretch, and morph sounds with ease through its intuitive interface. Some new tools and effects were also added, like Echo, Drum Buss, CV Tools, Creative Extensions, and more.
FL Studio emerged out of the incredibly successful Fruity Loops step-sequencer released by Image-Line in 1998. Building on that success, the now fully-fledged DAW features an environment that is moulded for beat-makers, but most of all encourages play. Image-Line provides free lifetime updates for the DAW and over time have created a workflow that can do a little bit of everything.
In FL Studio 20, they added Mac iOS support, the ability for multiple time signatures, as well as a bunch of all-round updates. These updates include reworks of the workflow, audio recording, Graph Editor, and Sample Channel.
Pro Tools is the industry heavyweight. It’s the DAW at the heart of almost every major studio around the world, setting a lofty standard for music production and recording. Ultimately it’s the modern tape machine: the interface is classic and well-established, and the software isn’t largely attached to any genre or big names due to its universal use.
Pro Tools favours a subscription model these days. And while some may lament the inability to ‘own’ the software permanently, it also means that AVID is providing updates to the grand old lady on a regular basis. It’s so ingrained into the audio recording vernacular, it’s hard to see it being dislodged any time soon.
Available only to Apple users, and the only free DAW on this list, is Garageband. The DAW provides a free multi-track recording interface that’s incredibly simple, and yet is really all you need. Garageband provides to opportunity for everyone with a Mac or iPhone to record music and was even being used by Steve Lacy to record Kendrick Lamar’s track Pride and Ego Death by The Internet.
Also weighing heavily in Garageband’s is its adaptability for mobile. The recent iOS update added 50 new instruments to the software and allows you to record for 3 times as long. Previously tracks were limited at 23 minutes, while now you can get your ‘Necks’ on and record songs up to 72 mins long.
Although not regarded as a conventional ‘DAW’, Max deserves its spot as maybe the most unique way of creating sound on this list. Max is a visual programming language that through piecing together objects, allows you to create your own synthesisers, self-generating sounds, or really whatever you want. Max also integrates into Ableton Live through Max For Live, allowing you to use your home-built works in Ableton’s workflow.
Max 8 introduced the MC system into the software: standing for multichannel, the MC system really just lets you use Max a bit more like a DAW. The performance was improved, and some other features were added like MIDI and Key Mapping, Vizzie 2, and Node for Max.