What is a DAW and how do you choose the right one?

It’s the first major decision any budding home studio engineer needs to make, and it’s an important one: Which DAW should you use in your home recording studio? And for that matter, what is a DAW, anyway?

A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is a computer application that lets you track (record) music, mix it down, and master it all in one software suite. The phrase “DAW” is also commonly used to refer to the entire computer setup—the computer, the software, and the audio interface.

You may want to read more about buying the perfect computer for your home studio and check out our audio interface guide. But for now, let’s just focus on the DAW software itself and how to choose the right program to suit your needs.

What is DAW software and why do you need one?

Let’s start with the most obvious question: what is a DAW program, and why is it so important? Simply put, DAW software takes most of the tools of a traditional analog recording studio and parks them on your computer screen.

Once upon a time, recording music was considerably more involved (and more expensive, for that matter) than it is today. You needed a mixer and lots of rack-mounted equipment, plus a recording medium like a reel-to-reel or ADAT machine. Today, all of that can be found in your DAW, with plugins to help replicate a lot of the additional hardware too, like compressors and effects units.

With a DAW, you can record live instruments, use MIDI controllers, add samples, and completely mix down and master your full recording, all with just a keyboard and a mouse.

Pretty cool, right? DAWs have completely revolutionized the recording industry, and just about anyone can pick them up too. There’s a fairly big learning curve you’ll need to overcome as you move toward finishing a recording, but hey, we’re musicians. Everything is a learning curve!

How do you choose the right DAW software?

Choosing a DAW program is a pretty big decision. It’s going to directly influence your creative direction and it has the most direct impact on your workflow of any bit of hardware or software in your studio. Of course, you can always change your DAW later if you end up with one you aren’t keen on. But to help you avoid wasting that money, let’s take a look at some key factors that might narrow the search a bit.

Your Computer and Operating System

You don’t need a cutting-edge NASA supercomputer to record music these days. Unlike film and video game production, audio production can be done on most modern computers just fine.

We have a guide on recording studio computer specs you may want to read, but here’s the gist of what your computer should have

  • Any quad-core (or better) CPU: Intel i5, AMD Ryzen 3, Apple M1, or anything better/ faster
  • 8+ GB RAM (16+ GB recommended)
  • 1+ TB hard drive space

You can get those specs out of any number of laptop or desktop computers these days, and most computers built after 2016 or so should be up to the challenge, let alone a modern computer. The faster the processor and the more RAM you have, the quicker your DAW will complete tasks.

As for operating systems, you can safely ignore anyone and everyone who tells you one OS is better than another. When it comes to audio production, they’re just about equal. Yes, really! A Windows 10 or Windows 11 PC can do everything a macOS Apple can do, if not more.

So why mention operating systems if they don’t matter?

Well, the OS you choose will limit your access to some DAW applications. For instance, Mixcraft only runs on PC, while Logic Pro only runs on Mac. But the vast majority of DAWs will run on both just fine, and many will also work on Linux machines too.

Your DAW Software Budget

DAWs vary wildly in price, from low-frills free apps like Audacity and GarageBand to expensive ones with triple-digit yearly subscription costs like Pro Tools. So what features do you want, and how much are those features worth to you financially?

You’ll also want to consider a subscription versus a purchase. For instance, Presonus Studio One has three one-time-purchase tiers. That route leaves you owning the DAW permanently. Or, you could pay $15 per month for a Presonus Sphere subscription, unlocking all of the top-tier features and more, but everything stops working if you stop paying. Which option appeals to you most?

MORE: Our beginner’s guide to recording studio microphones

Plugins and compatibility

A plugin is a separate, additional piece of software that adds new features or functionality to your DAW. Most plugins emulate outboard effects like channel strips, compressors, limiters, gates, equalizers, reverb, auto tuners, de-essers, etc. Some add new virtual instruments, and others can replicate older recording mediums like reel-to-reel machines or cassette decks.

There are five mainstream formats for plugins. Most DAW programs are compatible with at least one format, and many are compatible with multiple formats. If there are specific must-have plugins you want to use, you’ll need to make sure your DAW is compatible with them.

These popular plugin formats include:

  • VST (virtual studio technology)
  • VST2 (VST version 2)
  • VST3 (VST version 3)
  • AU (audio units)
  • AAX (AVID audio extension)

VST is the most common plugin format, and runs on both PCs and Macs, just as AAX does. AU can only be found on Macs.

There are great plugins available for every plugin format, so don’t worry too much about choosing a DAW program based purely on which plugins you want. But you’ll definitely want to make note of the plugin formats your chosen DAW can and can’t use.

Our Top 10 best DAW programs, alphabetically 

There are countless DAW programs on the market today, and it’s difficult to really say one is better than the other based on anything beyond price and compatibility. You’ll want to take your time to shop around and look at the DAWs compatible with your PC or Mac to find one with the features you like.

We’re narrowing the field here with the ten DAWs we think are generally considered “the best” by bigger swaths of amateur and professional engineers, but this is by no means a definitive list. Explore the options and see which ones you like, and consider DAWs not included on our list too. This is just meant to help get you started on your journey into the world of DAW software.

Cubase is one of the most popular DAW programs on the market today
Image by MAGstd from Pixabay

Ableton Live

Pricing: $99, $450, or $750

Platforms: PC and Mac 

Plugin Compatibility: VST2, VST3, AU

Pros: Professional grade features, intuitive workflow, well-rounded features 

Cons: expensive, can be buggy/ clunky/ slow, no 32-bit VST support

Ableton Live is designed for both live use and studio recording. Its ability to easily track instruments as well as use samples has made it a very popular professional contender.  

Adobe Audition

Pricing: $20.99 per month, or $54.99 per month for full access to Adobe Creative Cloud 

Platforms: PC and Mac

Plugin Compatibility: VST, VST3, AU

Pros: Easy to use, great for audio restoration

Cons: Limited features, overly expensive

Once upon a time, Cool Edit Pro was arguably the very best DAW software available for PC, and the program was very competitive in the industry. That DAW was later bought by Adobe and became Audition. If you’re using Adobe Creative Cloud, Audition is included and your DAW search can end there so long as you like its features.

Acoustics Mixcraft

Pricing: $75, $150

Platforms: PC only

Plugin Compatibility: VST, VST3

Pros: easy to use, intuitive user interface, fair pricing 

Cons: dated instruments, not available on Mac

Mixcraft is probably the least-known DAW on this list, but it certainly deserves a lot more time in the spotlight. Mixcraft is powerful, easy to learn, rich with features, and has an excellent price point. It’s arguably the most beginner-friendly DAW listed here.


Pricing: Free (yes, really!)

Platforms: PC, Mac

Plugin Compatibility: VST (no instrument support), AU

Pros: free to use, open source with an active community of developers,  

Cons: dated design, can be quite unstable/ buggy

If you’re on an extremely tight budget this free, open-source DAW will definitely show its appeal right on the nonexistent price tag. Audacity is functional but lacks many of the nicer features that come standard with other DAWs. Having said that, Audacity is a great DAW program to start out with and learn on and suitable for your first couple of demos.

Avid Pro Tools 

Pricing: $99 per year or $299 per year

Platforms: PC, Mac

Plugin Compatibility: AAX (other plugin formats can be used with heavy finicking)

Pros: the professional industry standard (for now), popular with lots of tutorials,  

Cons: hefty price tag, lots of features that go unused, plugins can be super annoying

Pro Tools is the industry standard. It has great professional-grade tools and the most available learning resources of any DAW by far. But it’s also absurdly expensive, and there’s little (if anything) this DAW can do that others on this list can’t do just as good or even better. It’s difficult to recommend Pro Tools these days, especially for a home recording studio. But again, definitely check it out and decide for yourself.


Pricing: $100, $330, or $580

Platforms: PC, Mac 

Plugin Compatibility: VST, VST3

Pros: easy to learn, has professional features, plenty of tutorials  

Cons: resource hog (it needs more horsepower than many other DAWs), dated MIDI system

Steinberg’s Cubase is another DAW that has been around for a very long time. It’s used in professional studios around the world, and it’s approachable as a beginner’s DAW too. It’s easy to learn and there are tons of educational resources available for it. We’d argue it may be better at live tracking than using MIDI or samples, but it’s functional in any setting.


Pricing: Free, but with paid add-ons

Platforms: Mac only

Plugin Compatibility: VST, AU

Pros: mostly free, surprisingly good features 

Cons: Limited plugin compatibility, lacks some features you only get out of other DAWs, only available on Mac

GarageBand is a bit more modern and powerful than Audacity, but it’s still not quite as powerful as the other DAWs listed here. Still, this is a great beginner’s DAW that can show you the ropes, and a solid option for those of you using Macs. Just be mindful of those added features Apple charges you for. 

Logic Pro

Pricing: $200

Platforms: Mac only 

Plugin Compatibility: AU

Pros:  Nice layout, good processing 

Cons: Mac only, only allows for AU plugins, not as beginner-friendly as other options, less refined user interface 

Logic Pro has a fairly affordable price point, and if you’re on Mac it’s a solid alternative to Pro Tools. But it’s a bit clunky, has a lot of features most home recording studios won’t really use, and the limited plugin compatibility will be a problem for a lot of users.

Presonus Studio One and Presonus Sphere 

Pricing: Free/ $100/ $400, OR $15 per month for Sphere 

Platforms: PC and Mac 

Plugin Compatibility: VST2, VST3, AU

Pros: a variety of price points including a subscription, drag-and-drop UI, one of the most powerful DAW options 

Cons: Stock instruments aren’t great, UI is cluttered, steeper learning curve than some competitors

Presonus Studio One is one of the most powerful and versatile DAW applications on the market today. That you can unlock this powerful tool and tons of extra perks with a shockingly affordable Presonus Sphere subscription almost makes it a clear frontrunner. Having said that, it does have a steep learning curve, and many users complain the UI is very cluttered despite the inventive drag-and-drop features.


Pricing: $60, or $225 for commercial use 

Platforms: PC and Mac 

Plugin Compatibility: VST2, VST3, AU

Pros: surprisingly powerful given the low price point, customizable UI, easygoing on system resources 

Cons: can be slightly buggy at times, can sometimes crash unexpectedly, more difficult to learn than some DAWs

Reaper has been rapidly growing in popularity lately, and with good reason: it’s fast, it has a lot of great features, and it’s perfectly suitable for use at home or in a professional recording studio. Reaper has a loyal fan base and plenty of online support is available, but the DAW is fairly buggy, so if you get Reaper, be prepared to save your work regularly.

Only you can choose the best DAW for your studio

The first DAW you choose is usually the DAW you end up continuing to use moving forward, for a lot of people anyway. The reason for that is pretty simple, too: you’ve learned the software, the macros, the quick keys, and the workflow. You’ve made an investment, too. And let’s face it, change can be hard.

That’s why you should take your time, review as many DAWs as you can, and go with the software you think suits you best. You may want to start with a free DAW, too, just to get a better sense of what you like and don’t like. Those free DAW applications are great for recording demos.

We hope this guide did a good job explaining what a DAW is and how to choose a DAW for your needs. Find Parlor City Sound on Facebook and let us know how we’re doing, and be sure to check out some of our other guides too! Thanks for dropping by!

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