It seems like there’s a never ending list of software you could use for music production, and picking one to learn is a daunting task — especially when music production software can be expensive! Don’t worry: this guide will show you the best music production software, how you can get music production software for free, and which music production software is best to avoid!
What is Music Production Software?
It’s a good idea to start with the basics. Music production seems like such a broad art form that it seems intuitive that you’d need lots of different pieces of software to get the job done, but this actually isn’t the case (What are the Stages of Music Production?).
Nowadays, most of the popular music production software is pretty much a one-stop-shop for all your music production needs. The term for these all-in-one pieces of music production software is a Digital Audio Workstation, commonly referred to as a DAW. A DAW has all the functions you’ll need to produce music, from recording and editing audio and note data to arranging into a song, mixing, mastering, and most even include instruments and effects.
Almost all DAWs act as host software for additional, optional software called plugins (10 Free VST Plugins Every Producer Will Find Useful). Music production plugins and DAWs work with standards, so they tend to be compatible with each other without any fuss. The biggest standard for music production plugins is VST, which stands for Virtual Studio Technology (but there are others!). VST plugins can be instruments, effects, and utilities that add functionality to a DAW, loading within the DAW itself so you only open one master piece of software and the plugins are accessed within it as if they were part of the DAW itself. Handy!
There are other types of music production software that can sometimes come in handy aside from a DAW, such as an audio editor. Most DAWs have enough functionality that you won’t need to use a separate standalone piece of software, though.
What is the Best Music Production Software?
There is a LOT of choice when it comes to music production software and DAWs. The truth is, all DAWs share the same core functionality and so at a fundamental level there’s very little difference between them. DAWs separate themselves in their specialisms and workflow, and many people choose their DAW based on the type of music they want to create and how intuitive they find the tools that help them get there. Let’s look at a few of the most popular DAWs:
Ableton Live is a very popular DAW, especially for electronic music. We look at Ableton in depth here, and our Ableton Live 11 Turbo Start course will have you making music with confidence in no time!
- Ableton Live is one of the most popular DAWs on the market, with a stripped back, simple workflow
- It is both capable of traditional linear sequencing and also excellent for live, pattern based sequencing
- Available for Mac and Windows
- Intro is £69, Standard is £259, Suite is £539
- All editions of Ableton Live come with great built-in devices that are optimised for quick workflow and low latency for live performance
- Intro has a cut back amount of channels and some other small omissions
- Suite has a full set of built-in instruments and effects that add up to very good value as well as Max For Live, which is an environment where you can build devices (and load in devices built by others) that extend the core functionality of Live in ways that plugins can’t — but it’s not for the faint of heart
- Ableton Live Lite is very similar in capability to Ableton Live Intro, and is included for free with many software and hardware purchases
Apple Logic Pro
Apple’s Logic Pro is a Mac and iPad only DAW, but it’s a fantastic choice if that’s what you use no matter what type of music you want to make. Perhaps in an effort to make switching to and sticking with Mac more enticing, Logic Pro is less expensive than most full DAWs yet has instruments, effects, and features that blow many out of the water — and it seems like the updates in capabilities, instruments, and effects are never ending with no update fees. It’s also extremely well optimised for Mac and iPad.
- Apple’s Logic Pro is amongst the longest-heritage DAWs, and is very popular
- Mac only, £199 (a slightly cut down iPad version is available for £50 per year)
- Capable of linear and pattern based sequencing
- Logic Pro comes with a huge selection of instruments and effects that make it unbeatable value for Mac users
FL Studio is a very popular DAW for electronic music, and is very focused on getting music made. In a lot of ways it feels quite different to more ‘traditional’ DAWs, with lots of features that make it really inspiring for music creation.
- FL Studio is a more left-field DAW, which still fundamentally operates as other DAWs but has some interesting workflow differences that stem from its origins as a step sequencer
- Mac and Windows
- Four editions: Fruity is £85, Producer is £164, Signature is £245, All Plugins Edition is £409
- Fruity edition can’t record or arrange audio on the timeline, which makes it unsuitable for many
- Producer edition is more-or-less fully featured, but Signature edition comes with a couple of extra effects and instruments, chiefly a pitch correction editor that allows realtime pitch changing that some will find handy
- The extra instruments and effects in the All Plugins Edition are good, but you may find that choosing your own third party plugins is a better use of money
- FL Studio has a ‘lifetime free update’ policy, so you will never have to pay for a new version
There are so many DAWs that going through them all will overload you with choices. Ableton Live, Logic Pro, and FL Studio are three excellent DAWs for music production, and because they’re so well used there’s a huge community that will be able to help you on your way with them.
Here’s a shortlist of some other excellent DAWs that are worthy of your consideration:
- Bitwig Studio is very similar to Ableton Live, and if you like creating your own workflows, instruments, and effects the way it allows you to build things up from its individual components is unique
- Avid Protools is a popular DAW and was pretty much the defacto standard for professional studios for a long time. It’s now subscription only, and has its own plugin standard that isn’t compatible with VST, but it still has a lot of users
- Cockos Reaper is a really powerful, stable, and well optimised DAW. It doesn’t come with a big library of instruments and effects, but its core functionality is extremely powerful and it has a very low price of only $60
- Steinberg Cubase is one of the longest running DAWs and is still very popular. It’s perhaps the closest thing to Logic Pro for Windows users in terms of its slickness and workflow
- Propellerhead Reason is quite limited in terms of traditional DAW editing functionality, but it has a massive selection of instruments and effects and focuses on being a creative environment. It even runs as a plugin inside another DAW if all you want it for is its instruments and effects. It’s either quite expensive or subscription based
- Presonus Studio One is a newer (in the grand scheme of things) DAW that has fast gained a reputation as having a very artist focused workflow. It’s worth checking out
How to Get Music Production Software for Free
Even though music production software can be expensive, you probably don’t need to spend much to get started — you can even get music production software for free! Many of the most popular DAWs have a simplified version that is absolutely fine for making music at home, and there are so many free VST plugins (10 Free VST Plugins Every Producer Will Find Useful) that it’s entirely possible to replace the things that are removed from these simplified low price and free DAWs — often with something even better!
You can get Ableton Live free when you purchase certain software and hardware. It doesn’t have all the features of the full version of Ableton Live, but Ableton Live Lite, as it’s called, is still a very capable piece of software that lets you load plugins to replace just about everything that’s been removed and lets you still make amazing music! One of our favourite mobile apps for music production is Koala. It’s only $4.99, and the iOS version comes with a free licence for Ableton Live Lite.
Reaper is completely free to try, and will work without any restrictions whether you purchase it or not. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that Reaper is free software, but it has a very lenient and fair payment system — essentially an honour box that encourages you to pay the very low $60 asking price when you’re confident that you’ve moved past ‘evaluating’ and are using the software in earnest. Combine Reaper with free instrument and effects plugins and you have an uber powerful studio at your fingertips for nothing — or next to nothing!
How to Learn Music Production
For more depth on how to learn music production and how to make music, check out our Essential Music Production course. It’s packed full of video, audio, graphic, and bulleted information that will teach you exactly what music production software and hardware you need (and what you don’t), how sound works, and how to make music with confidence!