The word best in regards to Music Production Software is a relative term. It all depends on your workflow and the things you’re trying to accomplish. The best music production software for you might be subpar for other people’s methods and the way they work. Although most of the popular DAWs now offer almost all the same features in terms of functionality, there are some subtle differences among them. The biggest difference I’ve noticed between the top names in Digital Audio are the cosmetic attributes and visual “features”. The way the interface appears is of course not a fundamental part of music production, but I suppose if you’re going to be staring at the screen for hours it might as well be something you don’t mind looking at.
The most critical factors in which DAW to choose depends on what type of work you’ll be doing, but a list of common factors you should consider in most situations includes the following:
Music Production Software Features To Consider
- How well you navigate in the program. If you can’t accomplish what you want without getting a headache trying to figure out where different settings or features are at, then you won’t be as productive.
- Ease of automation. Automation is an important aspect of music production, and a good DAW should make it as easy as possible to both control and record as well as edit automation of effects and other parameters.
- The stock plugins for both effects and instruments as well as supported formats of plugins. Most of the best plugins I’ve used were aftermarket and not out of the box in any DAW, but having a good groundwork to start from is a bonus. If the selection of plugins is limited or low quality to start then you’ll have to spend additional money on better ones on top of whatever you paid for the DAW. Having supported formats such as VST plugins, RTAS plugins, or AU plugins is a pretty big factor as well, as a big chunk of the plugins out there utilize one or more of these formats. Although they are both great DAW’s, Reason and Pro Tools do not support VST plugins which is kind of a bummer. There are ways to get around these issues as well, such as workaround plugins that run VSTs through them (FXpansion) or rewiring another DAW that does support externally developed plugins into Reason.
- Routing and Tracking methods, and how easy it is for you to mix inside the DAW.
- The way that arrangement is done inside the DAW.
Originally released in 2001, Ableton Live was thought to be a game changer. Of course after 12 years the hype has died down a bit, but this is still an extremely powerful audio editing and sound recording tool, and has continued to grow into one of the best available recording programs you can use. One of the most innovative features of Ableton Live is it’s self proclaimed “revolutionary” Session View. This is the alternative to the typical arrangement view which most recording software’s use to allow you to build your tracks (Ableton Live uses an arrangement view as well). Ableton Live’s Session View lets you expirement with different ideas and sketch out your project without the restraint of a timeline.
Like most recording software, Ableton Live comes with a large collection of sounds, drum kits, audio loops, and instrument plugins. According to their website the newest version, Ableton Live 9 Suite, comes with 390 different drum kits, 4,000 Loops (both audio and midi patterns), 5 synthesizer plugins, and 3 samplers. On top of the impressive instrument and sound libraries available in Ableton, they also provide you with 34 different audio effects plugins, making it easier to achieve a good mix without aftermarket effects and plugins.
One really awesome feature included in Ableton allows you to beat box a drum groove and will literally translate the audio and turn your recorded beat box groove into midi information to use inside the software. It also will take recorded guitar chords and turn them into midi notes to be played with any synth or instrument in the program.
Several other features of Ableton Live 9 recording software are : Multitrack recording of up to 32-bit/192 kHz, “nondestructive” editing with unlimited undo (ctrl+z, ctrl+z…), MIDI sequencing of both software and hardware instruments, no limit to the amount of instruments, tracks, or effects in your project, VST support, ReWire, Multithreading (for multi-core processors) is supported, WAV, MP3, Ogg, and FLAC format support.
Image Line’s FL Studio:
Image Line has been on a campaign to make sure we know there’s nothing fruity about this software anymore. Originally FruityLoops in 1997, they eventually changed the name to FL Studio with the release of version 4.0 in 2003. After about 16 years of improvements this software has transformed from a simple midi sequencer into one of the most popular DAW’s available. If another DAW software can do it, chances are that FL can too, and probably easier. Combining an extremely easy to use interface with powerful sound shaping and editing tools, FL Studio is not going anywhere soon. Some of the more popular producers to use FL Studio include 9th Wonder, Deadmau5, and Lex Luger.
When it comes to stock sounds/instruments I think Image Line was going for quantity over quality. There seems to be quite a lot of different instrument plugins included with FL Studio, but none are particularly impressive to me. They’re not bad, and you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to creating your own sounds inside these plugins, but out of the box they don’t do much for me. Luckily VST plugins are supported, so you’re not limited to what they give you, and of course you can always record real instruments or hardware synthesizers straight into the program. Where FL is lacking in quality stock sounds it makes up for it in effects, samplers, ease of routing, and overall functionality.
I always thought this is the DAW software that should have been named “cakewalk” instead of Sonar, because it is so easy to navigate and makes it very quick to get your ideas out of your head and into the tracks. From the Edison wave-form editor to the Slice-X sampler, there are plenty of tools for sample based producers to play with. Composition oriented producers will also love the piano roll and playlist, along with the reference scales and progressions. To top it off almost any parameter inside FL Studio, from volume to LFO’s to a band inside of the parametric equalizer, can be controlled via a MIDI controller for ease of automation, or you can pencil it in with your mouse. Another great thing about FL Studio is the massive amount of guide’s, tutorials, and videos available for free online to help you learn how to use it. If you’re looking to turn your computer into a DAW without running into a huge learning curve, this is the software for you.
For my producers that love hardware, there is a place for you to feel at home too in the digital sound recording world. This place is called Reason, and it’s the best music production software for hardware enthusiasts (ironic?). No other DAW visually emulates hardware racks and allows you to actually connect the cables from unit to unit right on your computer screen. Propellerhead did a excellent job at emulating a real studio rack while still incorporating some of the most innovative features of DAW’s. Although it’s not my current DAW of choice, Reason is the reason I got into music (no pun intended). My 7th grade computer teacher showed me this program 9 years ago, and I still remember being convinced I was going to be the next Dr. Dre. It didn’t quite work out like that, but if you give me a half hour in Reason I can still bust out a west coast beat that’ll make your head nod.
One of the biggest complaints about Reason is the fact that it does not support VST, RTAS, or AU plugins but there is a workaround for this. It can be ReWired and controlled through your favorite sequencing program. If you like the samplers, synths, and effects of Reason, but can’t quite get your workflow down with the program or want to be able to use other open-source plugins, simply ReWire it into your software of choice and bam! You got a whole new arsenal of sounds and effects but still can work in the program you’re more familiar with. A lot of recording software / sequencers support ReWire, but Reason adds one of the nicest selections of new toys to play with in your current DAW.
A new feature being released with Reason 6.5 is the inclusion of “Extension Racks”. Although open-source plugins like VST, RTAS and AU are still not going to be supported, they’ve allowed 3rd party developers to create plugins for Reason called extension racks. Hopefully we’ll see some of the more popular plugins reworked to be functional inside of Reason via this new feature.
Other Good Music Production Software and DAW programs:
Now that I’ve gone through my favorite software when it comes to recording sound and just music production in general, I’d like to touch on some other programs worth mentioning:
Presonus’ StudioOne – This DAW is one of the newest in the game, but comes from one of the biggest names in music production products. Presonus has always made great gear, but their StudioOne software is starting to get a lot of attention. With the release of version 2.5, StudioOne is showing that it’s ready to play with the big boys, and with coming updates this could very well become one of the best options available for recording music on your computer.
Avid Pro Tools – Pro Tools has become one of the most commonly used DAW’s in both project and professional studios. Although it didn’t make my list of favorites above, it’s clearly many other peoples favorite. It’s one of the more expensive DAW’s on the market, but most of it’s users would argue it’s well worth it.
Apple’s Logic Pro – Of course Apple had to get their hands into this market, and as much as I’m opposed to anything with an apple logo on it, I can’t argue that Logic Pro is one of the top DAW’s available. With MOTU now supporting PC, Logic Pro is now the only DAW that’s Mac only. You’d think this would cause an issue with collaboration between different studios, but the popularity of this software is so great that many studios that didn’t already have one, have now included a Mac into their setup.
There are many other great programs for recording audio including Sonar, ACID pro, Audition, Reaper, Renoise, and Cubase. For more information about these types of programs visit: DAW Software.
Best Music Production Software Summary
When you’re considering buying a DAW or other recording software, there are many factors you should contemplate. One of the biggest things to consider is who you’re going to collaborate with, and what they use. Some other important factors for buying the right recording software is the type of plugins supported, the price (obviously), your computer and the daws requirements, and how effectively you work inside the DAW. Many of the popular DAW’s offer a trial version to let you test it out. I recommend trying out as many as you can before making your decision on which to buy. The real question isn’t which DAW is the best music production software, it’s what music production software works the best for me. Everyone will tell you they use the best music production software, which is a natural bias, but just because they are making hits with their DAW doesn’t mean you can. Find one that reduces the time it takes you to produce a track and leaves you with the most time possible to focus on actually making music and not trying to figure out how.