by Anders Johanson April 16, 2020 7 min read
Music production software is a set of programs used to record, arrange, and edit music. It can be used to write songs, record parts for an existing song, or mix down a final audio file. Some popular music production software packages are Pro Tools, Cubase, and Logic Pro. They all serve the same purpose as far as the user is concerned; the main difference between programs is the time it takes to learn them. You can find free demo versions of many of these programs online. They are fully functioning, except that they will only let you save or export your work a limited number of times. Buying the full version of the program will unlock this restriction.
The vast array of music production software on the market can be overwhelming for the average artist looking to get further into the producing. From free programs to $1,000+ software, it’s difficult to decipher the differences in each piece of software and whether or not the money is worth spending. Learning a brand new program can also be daunting and require a considerable amount of effort, with different programs presenting unique learning curves for beginners and advanced producers. Choosing the best music production software is similar to choosing the best guitar — it really depends on your stylistic interests, musical goals, experience, devotion, and, of course, budget. The perfect guitar for B.B. King won’t be the same for Carlos Santana, and vice versa, because they play different styles of music with different creative goals. The same thing applies for the differences between a more traditional producer like Brian Eno and someone more modern like Flume.
For producers just starting out, it is likely tempting to choose the cheapest and easiest program. In this article, we will look into which softwares are best for beginners and those on a budget. We will also explore the real benefits of more expensive programs like Ableton and FL Studio, and whether or not they are worth the high price tag.
Industry standards are constantly changing, but most producers will tell you that Pro Tools and Logic serve as the main industry standards music production software. In most studios, both will be present, especially Pro Tools. They have each paved the way for decades as top-quality, professional DAWs. However, it also depends on the genre.
For electronic music — especially live music — Ableton has really become a top contender. And in the realm of hip-hop, there are few competitors that can hold up to FL Studio. In other words, it comes down to the industry you are in, but most producers will speak of Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, and FL Studio as being the top tier DAWs. In addition, many producers will use a combination of DAWs for different jobs and settings. For example, a producer may make beats in FL Studio, but when they’re in the studio with a rapper, they will track with Pro Tools.
One of the first things to consider in looking for a digital audio workstation (DAW) is which one your favorite producers use. This will help narrow down the crowded list of programs to a few that are tried and true by your influences. For example, if you’re a big fan of Jamie xx or James Blake, both of whom use Logic, it might make sense for you to begin by exploring their DAW of choice. On the other hand, if you’re big into Flume, Diplo, and Skrillex, you might be persuaded to check out Ableton, their DAW of choice. Notable hip hop producer Metro Boomin is a known user of FL Studio, as well as the likes of Boi-1da, Mike Will Made It, and South Side.
There are less flashy programs, as well, that are used by prominent producers, such as Clams Casino using Sony Acid Pro 5 and Burial using Sound Forge. Both examples show that in order to be a successful producer, you don’t need the industry’s most popular or expensive software. However, it does help to have relevant gear for the sake of collaboration and compatibility. If your favorite producer uses Cubase, you can still make music inspired by them in Ableton or vice versa. But knowing the tools they rely on can help you in your decision.
For someone who has no experience creating electronic music, it can be very overwhelming when opening a DAW for the first time, regardless of the program. There are countless knobs, effects, buttons, tabs, files, etc. Even producers with years of experience have somewhat of a learning curve when diving into a new DAW or significant update to their DAW of choice. Part of the struggle also depends on whether or not you enlist the help of online tutorials, as well as paid mentorship, both of which can go a very long way in expediting your road to understanding. But there are varying degrees of how user friendly each DAW is for a new producer.
GarageBand is a common first DAW for Mac users looking to get into producing. It’s incredibly simple to use and, best of all, completely free. Then there is Audacity, which is also free, but more limited than GarageBand. There is also Pro Tools First, Cubase LE, CakeWalk, PreSonus Studio One Prime, and other free DAWs that are aimed at helping prospective beat makers get quickly into the art. But just because they’re free doesn’t necessarily make them easy to learn, just easy to access.
Of the top tier DAWs, FL Studio and Reason are both often seen as more user friendly and easy to get into. Ableton is also designed to be inviting to the novice producer, but the bigger drawback is the price tag for many producers. In the end, it really comes down to the amount of time you’re willing to unbox your DAW and understand its components. Jumping from Logic to Ableton is similar to jumping from guitar to bass. Once you understand the basics of one, you can usually get the other one down pretty quickly. But there will always be new things to learn, and as the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
This is a loaded question that will work up producers all over the world, and the truth is there isn’t a clear yes or no answer. It boils down to what you’re looking to get out of your DAW.
FL Studio has four main options to purchase:
Each subsequent option offers more value and resources, but the truth is that a producer just starting out can really do a lot with the Producer Edition. While the All Plugins Bundle asks quite a bit from your wallet, it can be a quality investment for the right producer. But when it comes down to sheer value for your dollar, the Producer Edition is most definitely worth it in our opinion.
FL Studio has been a favorite for beat makers for decades, especially in the hip hop community. It got its footing as “Fruity Loops” and has gone on to become one of the most popular DAWs for bedroom producers. It’s incredibly versatile and allows for a sleek, empowering workflow.
Ableton, on the other hand, has three options for purchase:
Just like FL Studio, the cheaper versions of Ableton are far more limited, and with the price difference between Standard and Suite not too far off from each other, it usually makes the most sense to just purchase the full Suite, if you can afford it. Ableton is an excellent, world class DAW that has skyrocketed in popularity over the years, leaving a trail of dust in its path. But it isn’t cheap, and the intro version can only get you to a certain level of creativity. With that being said, the full Suite is a significant investment, but for serious producers, we do believe it is worth it, especially if you plan on playing live.
There is no comparable DAW to Ableton when it comes to live performance. If you’re strictly a simple, DIY bedroom producer not looking to complicate things, we might recommend the Standard version (or a cheaper DAW like FL Studio or Logic), but for dedicated producers who intend on touring, Ableton is an absolutely solid investment.
As we mentioned, there are several free DAWs, and each come with different levels of potential. In terms of quality, you get what you pay for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make good music with free programs. Of the ones we've listed, here are our top five favorite free DAWs and why we like them:
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.