What is This?
This is a chart of the potential capability of various DAWS. The values are relative to each other. One DAW may have a perfectly acceptable feature set for 99% of users, but if another has more features or better integration then the 99%-ok DAW will have a lower rating.
If you disagree with some rating then please comment below. I will happily discuss it with you and explain why the rating was given. I am always open to adjusting the ratings when presented with a convincing case to do so.
A low rating doesn’t mean the DAW is bad. It simply means that it has less functionality than another product. There is a tradeoff between functionality and usability. A DAW with a lot of features may be more difficult to navigate or operate. It may not.
If you are using this chart to decide on a DAW then pay attention the weighting feature in the upper left of each section.
You can change how much a section is valued in the final tally. So if MIDI is relatively unimportant to you then give it a 50%. Only 50% of those scores will count in the final.
If you never do multitrack editing, give it a 0. Then DAWs that excel in this area won’t pollute your scores.
The default weighting is what I prefer. This should help you understand where my biases potentially lay when rating the softwares.
These are the versions that I have most recently evaluated the features (and stability) of:
- Reaper 5.62
- Digital Performer 9.51
- Cubase 9.0.20
- Studio One 3.5.1
- Pro Tools 12.8
- Logic 10.3
- Reason 8.3 (not the latest 10)
- Live 9.7.3 (not the latest 10)
- Bitwig 2.1.3 demo
- Mixbus 32c 4.2
- SawStudio 5.6
How recently was this update
October 11th, 2017
This is stupid
That’s not a question, but I understand. Please leave a comment and tell me how you think it could be improved. I am always looking to make it more accurate, more feature-filled and more pleasant to use.
You’re wrong about X
Great, leave a comment and tell me why. I’m not interested in being right, I’m interested in the information being correct.
Remember though, just because you think you’re DAW is sufficient doesn’t mean much. There may be another product that does it better. These ratings are relative.
What makes you think you’re such an expert?
Well, I’m not an “expert” however, I have spent 100+ hours in each one of these products creating detailed lists and coming up with objective evaluative tests to compare them.
I’ve also worked for a handful of companies making these products, written various extensions, themes and a number of VST plug-ins.
Oh yeah, and I am a recording engineer with OCD. Real OCD, not the “Crooked things mildly annoy me” kind, but the kind that requires consistent professional help and medication. I obsess over small details in software functionality to an absurd degree.
What about DAW X?
I am clearly not covering some products. This is for one or more of the following reasons:
- I don’t own it (All donations noted for this post will go towards acquiring other products)
- I haven’t accrued more than 100 hours seriously using it.
- It does not fit the needs I have to complete some sort of production
I am primarily a macOS user. Windows-only products require extra effort for me to acquire experience in, so there will naturally be an absence of certain windows-only products.
What is the best DAW?
I’ve been getting asked this a lot lately via e-mail/IRC/Discord, around 20+ times a week.
I primarily use Motu Digital Performer and Cockos Reaper. I do not think that either one is the best DAW. Digital performer has some glaring issues with certain modern workflows (that electronic musicians tend to use, or live recordists), and Reaper is just a total pain in the ass to learn for some people.
I think that for the majority of music-based workflows, Presonus Studio One currently offers the most complete and sane set of defaults.
If you largely work with recording musicians or mixing, then Harrison Mixbus is a very nice option.
If you are a fan of OSS, tinkerer or even moderately technically inclined then Ardour is both functional and fun to explore.
Steinberg Cubase has some amazing arrangement features that help differentiate it, and is an all-around great product for the composer, songwriter or musician that works alone.
Pro Tools exists. It has that going for it, I guess.
If you own a mac, then Apple Logic is the absolute king of value. It comes with a huge amount of content, compentent synths, great effects and a slew of fantastic and useful features.
Propellerheads Reason is just super fun. If your workflow is fairly simple, but relies heavily on sound design or you enjoy the rack-based workflow then Reason is the only thing that will really satisfy you these days.
So… yep. If someone were to just walk up to me and say “WHAT DAW?!?!?”. I’d say Studio One or Logic if they had a mac. If I could get some more information out of them then I would suggest something else maybe. All of these products have demos, and they all work for making music. Getting the “right” DAW will help you make music faster and enjoy it more though!
Why is Ableton Live rated so low?
This is a feature chart. Ableton Live’s big benefits are primarily in included content and excellent workflow for common musical workflows.
Ableton Live’s featureset is relatively limited to other products on the market, but many of those products sacrifice simplicity in some areas to pack in more features. This chart is only hear to tell you what is available in the products and how well they work, not how they impact the general workflow.
Reaper’s VCAs are functional and flexible, however they are a pain to manage. There’s a script by Sexan called “Create VCA Master from selection” that makes things easier, but it’s still a bit of extra work to manage VCAs
Reaper’s VCAs are totally functional, but the rating was adjusted for the difficult of using them in some workflows.
Reaper Channel Strip
Reaper does not have an integrated channel strip, however it does allow you to have default plug-ins for new tracks and macro-knobs for assigned parameters directly inside the mixer channel strip.
It’s very simple to build your own integrated channel strip with whatever products you want and have the desired controls available right in the mixer.
Digital Performer Notes
DP has a number of absolutely excellent and helpful users, however the main 3rd party forum is complained about more than any other DAW resource I’m aware of.
I know of almost as many users that hate the place than that actively use it. It’s unfortunate.
DP Monitor Section
DP doesn’t have a dedicated monitor section, however it does have ‘v-racks’ which operation nearly identically. They are functionally similar enough to be considered for this rating.
DP Loop Recording
Digital Performer gets a 10 for having both traditional loop/cycle recording and Polar.
Cubase’s hardware inserts work well, but they are difficult to setup. You must creating routing channels for the hardware inserts in a separate panel. Hardware insert plug-ins are tied to the settings for each routing device.
Contrast this with other DAWs that simply let you insert a plug-in… no messy pre-requisite work.
Cubase Key Commands
Cubase has the capability to assign key commands, however searching for commands is very annoying. The browser only shows 1 result at a time and requires a mouse-click to move to the next result. You must also type the keyword exactly
Other products show all of the results and allow browsing with keyboard shortcuts (somewhat ironic).
Cubase gets an extra 1 point for having major updates exactly once a year, at the same time.
Cubase Key Commands
Studio One Notes
Studio One Midi Manipulation
I’m taking in to consideration the awesome Studio One X Tools with this rating.
Studio One Extensibility
S1 may not look extensible, however Studio One X is definitive proof that is not the case.
Pro Tools Notes
Pro Tools Support
Since Avid offers paid support (which I have used a number of times), I am considering this for the rating. If you don’t want to pay for support then Avid’s support is fairly poor.
Ableton Live Notes
Live Loop Recording
Live gets a bonus for looper which adds a great deal of depth to Ableton’s looping capabilities.
Max for Live is being taken in to account, which is a fairly expensive addition to the software.
Live’s Routing is considered without M4L. M4L allows some really cool routing, but not simply or across the entire software.
With overdub turned off, Bitwig can emulate ‘re-record’ by pressing the play/record button twice with overdub turned off.
As Mixbus is based off of Ardour, it can be built from source. First you need to learn how to compile Ardour from source, which you can receive some assistance with at #Ardour on irc.freenode.net. From that point simply work with the Mixbus repo instead of the Ardour repo.
While the skill ceiling is much higher for working with Mixbus, the possibilities are endless. You have nearly full control over the software outside of the proprietary DSP.
Mixbus allows feedback routing in Busses and thusly can not have PDC on them. I’ve marked off for this since there’s no way to optionally disable this circular routing and enable PDC on those busses.
A great Lemur template is available here: http://mixbus.harrisonconsoles.com/forum/thread-5356.html
Mixbus is authorized by putting a .txt license file in one of the following directories:
On Windows, Mixbus searches the following locations (first found is used) %localappdata% $HOMEDRIVE$HOMEPATH $USERPROFILE On OS X: $HOME/Library/Application Support/harrisonconsoles/ $HOME/. $HOME/ /usr/local/share/ (intended for multi-user institution-wide licenses) and on GNU/Linux: $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/harrisonconsoles/ $HOME/.config/harrisonconsoles/ $HOME/. $HOME/ /usr/local/share/ (intended for multi-user institution-wide licenses)
You can simply bring your authorizations on a flash drive and be up and running in a few seconds at another studio if needed. (remember to delete them when you leave!)
A simple script can be made in Mixbus to do the re-record workflow.
The mixbus channel strips can be zoomed, which is very useful. The entire display can be nicely zoomed in Windows and Linux distributions, but not in MacOS.
I am not taking off points for the mac change since it an OS-level limitation.
This post took 100s of hours (literally months of man hours) to research, program, write and edit. If you appreciate the information presented then please donate! Any donations will be used to acquire other products to add to the chart.
If you have any questions or comments, please comment below! I read every comment and respond to most.