ULTIMATE GUIDE: music production software beginners 2020

ULTIMATE GUIDE: music production software beginners 2020 play video
Written by: Dexxter Clark
What is the best software for music production for the beginner in 2020?
The best music production software is the software where you can work the quickest and most comfortable with.
That is for everybody different.
Do you like the same cookies as your brother or you best friend? Probably not.

In this blog won`t tell you which software to use.
I suggest a couple of software packages for music production, that, combined with my experiences, you can make an educated decision on what is best for you.

The reason why I say that is, because every software has its strengths weaknesses.
What works for me, doesn’t work for you; what bothers me, doesn’t bother you.
When there was one ultimate music production software for everyone, everyone would use it.
But that is simply not the case.




What does DAW mean in music?

What is a DAW in the first place?
Software to make music is called a DAW, a Digital Audio Workstation.
A DAW is music production software.
In this article I’ll take a look at the biggest DAWs around.

How do I choose a DAW?

  • First, read this article and/or watch the video. It will help you in your search
  • Pick 2 or 3 DAWs to download and install the trial version
  • Watch a YouTube tutorial or 2 about each DAW and see if you can follow along in the software
  • Make a list of the things that are the most important to you in a DAW
  • Make a comparison with pros and cons between the DAWs and assess where you feel the most comfortable with

DAW versus audio editor

A lot of people confuse an audio editor for a DAW.
A DAW lets you create audio, with an audio editor you can edit audio files.
Most DAWs have audio editing capabilities, but audio editors have no features to create audio with a synthesizer.

Famous audio editors are:
  • Audacity (free)
  • Adobe Audition
In my article about the ability of Audacity to make music I will dive deeper into the subject

Best software for music production

1. FL Studio


FL Studio has a bit of an image problem because it has a radically different approach to producing music than all the other DAWs on the market.
Some professional music producers don’t take the software seriously for that reason alone.
For me personally, I found it rather counter intuitive when I looked at the software for the first time.
I found other DAWs like Logic and Ableton much easier to understand.
The downside to FL Studio’s approach is that if you want to switch later, you have to teach yourself a whole new workflow.
That is annoying, and one of the main reasons I think why FL Studio users stick to the software.
Also collaborations between producers become more difficult when one uses FL Studio and the other not.

The more expensive versions have more plugins integrated.
The stock plugins are mediocre.
Especially the analyzer (the visual part of the equalizer) is very … uhhh … unconventional.

That doesn’t mean the software is bad.
By no means!
A lot of super hits are produced in FL Studio.
I’m just not a fan of the software because of the difficult workflow.
There are other far better alternatives out there.
But apparently I’m one of the few, because it is the most popular DAW.

If you consider FL Studio, download a trial version and watch a couple of tutorials on YouTube.
Pros Cons
Integrated step sequencer to help you with making drums quick Radically different, switching later is hard
The easy-to-use sound-goodizer make your synthesizer instantly sound better Difficult, counter intuitive workflow
Most stock plugins are not great
Operating System Windows + Mac
Developer Image Line
Website https://www.image-line.com/flstudio/
Price range $200-800
Latest price https://amzn.to/3ana5PQ

2. Ableton Live

Every music producer says "Ableton", but they mean “Live".
Ableton is the name of the company and the software is called Live.

What Ableton sets apart from all other DAWs is the ability to perform live, additionally to the non-linear-editing that other DAWs offer.
This combined functionality is unique in the business.
This offers some unique for crossover features too, like recording a live performance as tracks which in turn you can fully edit in the linear part of Ableton.



You can take bits of a song and assemble them in real time for an audience.
This means you can “DJ" a song that is tailor made.
You can activate chords or kick for example, later a baseline and play live keyboard over that.
You can assemble a song of thirty seconds or thirty minutes with the same predefined elements.

The stock plugins in Ableton are decent.
The compressor is worth mentioning, however.
The plugins are shown at the bottom of the screen, which is really handy.
But only the stock plugins show settings (you can manually activate dull buttons from 3rd party plugins if you like).
The plugin pane is not resizable regretfully, it’s there and take up a lot of space, or it’s not there.

Ableton Live has a scripting capabilities included, called Max4Live.
This way you can program your own functionality in Ableton, which makes it incredibly flexible.

Personally, I like the workflow of Ableton a lot.
The editing works smooth and the cursor in the timeline is heavenly to work with.
The editor works like lego blocks and the snapping is on point.

Time stretching based in BPM is really well implemented.
It is fast and easy to use.

In contrast: I’m not a fan of the looks of the user interface.
It looks like the software was developed in 1983 and never changed since.
Also Wacom pen tables do not work with the software.
It doesn’t take into account the absolute cursor position of a tablet (in contrast to the relative cursor positions with a mouse or trackpad), it may apply to other tablets as well.

I’m also not a fan of the instrument rack to combine multiple instruments.
It works, but the way is implemented is a bit clunky.

Ableton is one of the more expensive DAWs out there and available for Windows and Mac.
Download the trial version of Ableton to see if it works for you.
A lot of sound cards have scaled down version of Ableton Live bundled in.
Pros Cons
Editor works like a charm The dated looks of the user interface
Almost industry standard Automation points can be hard to set sometimes (although improved over the years)
Plugins on the bottom of the screen Only first party plugins details shown on the bottom of the screen
Also usable for live performances Incompatible with Wacom tablets
Operating System Windows + Mac
Developer Ableton
Website https://www.ableton.com/en/live/
Price range $600
Latest price https://amzn.to/2SNsuP8

3. Apple Logic Pro X

Logic started as Notator Logic in the nineties and was later bought by Apple.
Logic Pro is definitely the prettiest girl on the block.
The user interface is just stunning, quick and responsive to operate.



The software has integrated voice pitch correction.
Logic analyses the pitches of a voice of a singer, then lets you correct it if is off.
Not a lot of DAWs have this feature.

I like the scale quantization of notes in the piano roll editor.
When you set a scale (Dmin for example) you are only allowed to drag notes in the key of Dmin.

I like that you have two channel strips (fader and plugins) at the left side of the screen, one is the current track, the other your parent channel strip (can be a bus or your master channel).

The amount of stock plugins in Logic is extensive. Most of them are ok, but nothing spectacular in terms of functionality or sound.

My main problem with Logic is the incredible amount of bugs that Apple refuses to fix.
The stock EXS24 sampler (which has not been updated in twenty years) sometimes produces white noise instead of your sample.
They update their stock plugins to make them look even nicer, but bugfixing … oh no!

The sample browser is also buggy (it sometimes plays a sound, sometimes not) and therefore unusable.

A huge huge HUGE downside: you can’t search for (or favorite) plugins when you want to add them to a track.
First click on “add plugin”, then “audio units”, then the plugin manufacturer in a huge list, then click on the manufacturer, look for the plugin, click on the plugin and hope you didn’t miss-click, select the wrong one, or change your mind later.
Otherwise you have to do the whole process all over again.
I’m not kidding, it is 2020 you have to add plugins like it is the year 1865.

I also don’t like the 900 cursor tools you have in Logic.
The fade tool, the cut tool, the mute tool, the curve tool and 3000 others.
Most of those tools you never use b.t.w.

I hate the system overload messages when you max out your CPU.
Other DAWs crackle and continue playing without user interaction.
Logic on the other hand shows a message and you need to click “ok” and press “play” again.
Two unnecessary time consuming actions with no benefit to the user.

The way you time stretch in Logic is very weird.
This is a destructive edit on your original audio file (I’m not joking ... it took me a while to figure out).
Ableton live and Studio One solved this 10x better.

The implementation of track freezing is a bit annoying.
Other DAWs freeze tracks when you click ‘freeze track’, sound logic, right?
Logic starts to freeze tracks when you hit play.
Often you forget you hit ‘freeze track’ option and you have to wait 20 minutes for the track freezing to complete.
Although the total amount of time freezing is the same compared to other DAWs, the chosen moment to freeze, is annoying.



All the downsides made me a very frustrated user, so I eventually switched to another DAW: Studio One.

Logic has no trial version, but if you want to try it, you can download its smaller brother Garageband for free in the App Store.
Garageband has some limitations, but it has potential for a beginner.
If you want to start in Garageband, you can upgrade to Logic later.
Logic can read Garageband files, so you can pick up right where you left off.

Logic is one of the most complete DAWs for its price.
Logic Pro X is only available for Mac (and not Windows).
You can download Logic from the Apple App Store.

Is Logic Pro available for Windows?
Logic is only available for the Mac and has no Windows version.
Although many users want to, Apple just isn’t going to release a Windows version, never ever!
The same goes for the plugin standard, Logic uses exclusively AU (Audio Units) plugins, while other software has support for VST (except Avid).

Is Logic better than Ableton?
I don’t think so.
Logic looks better, but Ableton has far less bugs (in other words: is less annoying to work with).
The pros and cons are below.
Pros Cons
The User Interface looks nice Mac only
Scale quantizing in piano roll Can’t search for plugins, which is annoying
Integrated voice pitch correction No way to favorite plugins
Support for ARA plugins Supports only AU plugins
Bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs, bugs … so much bugs!
Huge amount of cursor tools
System overload messages are annoying
Track freezing works annoying
Time stretching works annoying
Operating System Mac only (no Windows)
Developer Apple
Website https://www.apple.com/logic-pro/
Price range €200

4. Presonus Studio One

Studio One is one of the smaller DAWs out there (in terms of widespread usage).
The DAW is the spiritual successor to the more famous Cubase.
Cubase developers started their own company and developed their own DAW.



The software supports VST, AU and ARA plugins.
The amount of stock plugins is extensive and almost everything you could possibly need is there.
Although I’m not a fan of the integrated synthesizers, the presets are ok (but not amazing).
Of all the stock plugins mentioned in this article, the Studio One’s plugins are the most complete and the most usable.

I have to admit, Studio One is not the easiest DAW to start with, because the interface is quite intimidating.
However, the upside to this: once you do know the DAW, you can do stuff within just 1 or 2 clicks, where other DAWs take 4 or 5.

There are 3 options/settings screens that link to each other, some have tabs, other popups.
The Windows version has an extra screen for sound cards, GREAT!!!
I never can find the option I’m looking for.

Development goes very fast major versions follow up rapidly.
It goes so fast, once you buy one version, two weeks later another major release is already out and you “need” to do a paid upgrade.
Presonus is not very flexible in that regard.
This happened already 3 times to me, very frustrating.
Online sales questions are not answered.
I get a little bit tired of all the updates.

Studio One has stability issues.
The software does crash on a regular basis.
Although Studio One supports AU plugins on Mac as one of the few DAW software developers out there.
However the support is very poor, and makes the software crash even more frequently.
Switching off the AU plugin support helps to improve stability, but it still crashes once in a while.

It is very hard to get in touch with the guys at Presonus, you can’t call them and support requests are often not answered.
If you do manage to get in contact with them the answers are unsatisfying and evasive.
When it comes to crashes they point the finger at third party plugin developers and take no responsibility.
This comes across as very unlikely since Ableton Live and Logic do not crash with the same plugins.
I only use the latest versions of A-brand plugin developers and no free plugins.

To rule out hardware issues, I have also tried other computers (a Mac laptop and a Windows laptop), but the crashes still occur.

Studio One suffers from tremendous GUI slowdowns when the projects are getting bigger.
The software becomes unresponsive to the point of unusable.

A basic version of Melodyne (voice pitch correction software) is integrated.
The implementation doesn’t feels very sluggish and cumbersome.
However, it beats the old workflow: exporting from DAW, importing Melodyne, change in Melodyne, export from Melodyne, importing in DAW.

The software and the company has some growing up to do in a couple of regards.



Despite all the downsides, the upsides outweigh the downsides, I still use the software.
Studio One has really simple and clever solutions to problems:

  • I like that you can search for plugins, favorite a plugin and can see a visual preview of a plugin.
  • Finding plugins this way is a breeze.
  • Dragging and dropping plugins on your timeline.
  • Combining instruments is very handy (the user friendly implementation is open to improvement).
  • The step sequencer is very handy.
  • Adjusting automation points (besides dragging with the mouse) you can also do by right click and typing in a value saves time.
  • I like the scale quantizing in the piano roll.
  • I like the automatic time stretching while previewing an audio file in the file browser to match tempo of project
  • Time stretching of an audio sample on the timeline works also very easy (right click → audio → time stretch).
Pros Cons
Do stuff in 1 or 2 clicks Stability issues
Fast development Not easy to start with: UI intimidating for beginners
Good workflow Support requests and sales questions are often not answered
Combining instruments Too much updates
Support for VST and ARA plugins Poor AU plugin support
Basic version of Melodyne integrated GUI slowdowns with bigger projects
Right-click on automation points to type in a value works well
Visual previews of plugin
Searching for a plugin or preset works well
Dragging and dropping plugins and presets
Automatic time stretching while previewing an audio file in the file browser to match tempo of project
Step sequencer
Scale quantizing in piano roll
Easy time stretching
Operating System Mac and Windows
Developer Presonus
Website https://www.presonus.com/products/studio-one/
Price range $400
Latest price https://amzn.to/2VjaOx9

5. Pro Tools

To be honest, Pro Tools shouldn’t be in this list because of its credentials.
It is on this list because otherwise producers get mad.

Pro Tools is the industry standard for music recording studios.
Other DAWs (like Studio One) have gained major traction over the last few years, while Pro Tools has only declined.



The problem with Pro Tools is that Avid didn’t develop much about Pro Tools.
They are industry standard, so why should they?
Other DAWs caught up big time and offer a richer feature set with less limitations (unlimited busses for example).
The other reason is the price.
In summary, other DAWs offer more for less.

They charge monthly fees for updates and have a very strict licensing policy.
You have to pay extra for everything.
Do you want X extra tracks? Then you pay X euro more to the point where it gets absolutely ridiculous.

I get the feeling that they abuse their monopoly position on the market.
I don’t consider Pro Tools to be a serious option for a beginner for the reasons above.
But to be complete, Pro Tools is on the list.
Pros Cons
Industry standard Other DAWs have more features and less limitations (like number of tracks and numbers of I/O)
Other DAWs are cheaper
Needs annoying 3rd party hardware or software key activation
Their pricing scheme is very difficult to understand
Operating System Windows and Mac
Developer Avid
Website https://www.avid.com/pro-tools
Price range €400-3400 per year or 600 once
Latest price https://amzn.to/2XUEgLo

DAWs compared






Let’s compare the DAWs I mentioned earlier side by side
FL Studio Signature edition Ableton Suite Logic Pro Studio One Pro Cubase Pro Pro Tools
Platform Win + Mac Win + Mac Mac Only Win + Mac Win + Mac Win + Mac
Price $300 $600 $200 $400 $550 $600
Interface Looks nice Looks dated Looks REALLY nice Ok Ok Ok
Search for plugins yes yes no yes yes no
Search for presets yes yes no yes yes no
Stock plugins mediocre good good great good good
Track limitations no no no no no yes
I/O limitations no no no no no yes
Integrated loops yes yes yes yes yes no
Integrated samples yes yes yes yes yes no
Custom scripting no yes MIDI only? no no MIDI only?
Time stretch possible easy weird easy yes possible
Vocal comping no no? weird yes yes yes
Transient detection no yes yes yes yes yes
3rd party plugin support VST2, VST3, AU VST2, VST3 AU, ARA VST2, VST3, ARA, AU VST 2, VST3, ARA AAX only
Starter level difficult easier easier difficult difficult difficult
Integrated stock plugins
FL Studio Signature edition Ableton Suite Logic Studio One Cubase Pro
EQ yes yes yes yes yes
Sampler (1 sample) yes yes yes yes yes
Multi sampler (1 sample per note) yes yes yes yes yes
Synthesizer(s) yes yes yes yes yes
Sample based synthesizer yes no yes yes yes
Limiter yes yes yes yes yes
Compressor yes yes yes yes yes
Multi band compressor yes yes yes yes yes
Vocal pitch correction yes no yes yes yes
Chord tool (make chords out of one note) yes yes yes yes yes
Arpeggiator yes yes yes yes yes
Reverb yes yes yes yes yes
Delay yes yes yes yes yes
Chorus yes yes yes yes yes
Bit crusher yes no yes yes yes
Flanger yes yes yes yes yes
Noise gate yes yes yes yes yes
Phaser yes yes yes yes yes
Stereo spectrum analyzer yes no yes yes yes
Tremelo panning yes yes yes yes yes
Tuner (detect pitch) yes yes yes yes yes

Massive thanks to:
    • @robkillofficial (Instagram) - FL Studio + Cubase additions
    • D. van Zuijlen - Cubase additions



 

More DAWs …

Other DAWs include (but not limited to):
Developer Software Website Recommend
Steinberg Cubase https://www.steinberg.net
Acid Music Studio https://www.magix.com
Acoustica Mixcraft https://acoustica.com
Magix Music Maker https://www.magix.com
Cockos Reaper https://www.reaper.fm Yes
Propellerhead Reason https://www.reasonstudios.com
Bandlab Cakewalk https://www.bandlab.com
Bitwig Studio https://www.bitwig.com
Paul Davis Ardour https://ardour.org
Motu Digital Performer https://motu.com/
Mutools Mulab http://www.mutools.com

What is the best DAW for EDM ,electronic music, hip hop or any other genre in 2020?

This is a big myth in the music production business: for EDM you need to have software A, for electronic music you need B, for rap you need C, for trap you need, D, for hip hop you need E, for ...
That is all baloney (or a very clever marketing trick by DAW software makers to let you believe that).

DAWs nowadays are so similar in functionality and quality, there is no DAW better than another for a particular genre.
The people that tell you otherwise, simply don’t know what the are talking about (probably have never seen or tried another DAW).

Choose the DAW that you feel the most comfortable with and don’t look at the genre.
Making music shares so many similarities between different genres that your DAW doesn’t make the difference.
A good producer can make any genre in any DAW, if you can’t, the problem is your skill set, not the tools you are using.




Which DAW sounds the best?

Hits are produced in almost all major DAWs on this page.
DAW software has become so good over the years that they all produce professional results.

Some DAWs may have slightly better sound engines than others, but the “bad” ones still produce professional grade sound.
If they were indeed bad, nobody would use them and the software company would be out of business.
Again, hits are produced in every DAW, even with the ones that are considered “bad".
I wouldn’t worry about the sound quality that much.

Which software is easiest or best for making music for a beginner?

There is no DAW better than another.
It comes all down to personal preference.
This whole article is dedicated to give you the knowhow to choose the DAW that fits YOU well.

What feels good and intuitive to you, is not for everyone else.
If one solution would fit all music producers, everyone would use it, but that’s not the case.

My advice: just pick a DAW, and don’t worry if it’s the right choice.
It is far more important that you start with music production and learn a DAW (doesn’t matter which one).
You can always switch later if you are not happy.
When you do decide to switch later, you have the production skills in your pocket and know the workflow of a DAW.

When you know the workflow, you can apply it to other DAWs as well.
When you switch you will pick up quickly.
Almost every DAW has the same features and there are none that sound bad.
There are produced hits in every major DAW in this article.

When you want to dip your toes into the water I recommend you look at a free DAW.
Although they are not used to produce hits with (mostly because of limited functionality), they are a very good point to start.

Are there any good FREE DAWs?

Yes there are.
However, there are major downsides to almost every free DAWs.
Most software developers use the free version as a trial version of their paid version.
The goal is to upgrade you to the paid version.

Most free DAWs have limitations in the number of busses, number of tracks or the disability to use third party plugins.

Well known free DAWs are LMMS, T7 and Soundbridge.
Check out my article about free DAWs, I took a look at 17 free DAWs

What music software do most producers use in 2020?

When you start out with music production, you might look at what others use.
Because if the professionals use it, it should be good for you, right?
Probably not!
It all depends on taste and personal preference.
For example, I don’t like FL Studio and Logic, but a lot of music producers disagree.

To get a picture of what professional music producers use, polled the viewers on my YouTube channel a couple of times over the last few years.
Below the results of my latest poll, which is pretty consistent with previous ones I did:
DAW Software Percentage
FL Studio Studio 36%
Ableton Live 23%
Logic Pro 15%
Other DAWs 20%
No DAW 6%
How to read the results?

On top spot of this list is FL Studio by Image Line.
That doesn’t surprise me, because FL Studio has the image of being free (while it’s not).
You have to jump to some illegal hoops to use it for “free".
That is definitely not the road you want to take as a professional.

Ableton Live takes the second place in this list, no surprise, because a lot of electronic music producers use it.
I like Ableton a lot.

Logic is on the third place in this list.
The last category in the poll is the “left overs” that includes (but is not limited to): Studio One, Pro Tools Cubase and Reaper.
It could be that of the last 20%, 99% use Reaper, which makes it technically more used than Logic.
I can’t tell you that for sure, but other surveys didn’t suggest that, so it’s pretty safe to say that Logic is third.

It could be that my YouTube audience has a tendency towards FL Studio and not the rest.
Indeed it could, but not very likely since I never made a single tutorial on FL Studio and did make multiple about Studio One, Ableton Live and Logic Pro X.

The reason why I think the results are pretty accurate is that producers that I talked to in real life (most of them are not subscribed to my channel) paint a picture that is pretty consistent with the poll above.




What DAW software do famous producers use?

Martin Garrix FL Studio
Laidback Luke Ableton Live
Deadmau5 Ableton Live
Avicii + FL Studio
Skrillex Ableton Live
Headhunters Studio One
Chainsmokers Ableton Live
Tiesto Logic Pro
Diplo FL Studio
Alesso Logic Pro
Mr. Belt & Wezol FL Studio
DJ Snake FL Studio
Eric Prydz Logic Pro
Nicky Romero Logic Pro
Naffz Logic Pro
Alvaro FL Studio
Paul Nolan Ableton Live
Maddix FL Studio
Armin van Buren Ableton Live
I compiled this list without any bias towards a certain DAW, I looked at the producer first, then the DAW they used.
The usage is pretty consistent with the poll in the previous paragraph.

What specs do I need for music production?

You need a powerful computer to run music production software.
You CPU (=processor) is the most important factor for running music production software smoothly.

I also recommend using a side scrolling mouse like the Microsoft Arc or the Apple Magic Mouse.

I have put a computer cheat sheet with exact computer specs for a music production computer here.

Do I need an Apple computer to produce music? Absolutely not!
You can produce hits with a Windows computer just as good on a Mac.
Most DAWs are cross platform.
A detailed comparison between Mac and Windows regarding to music production you can find here.

Conclusion

There is more than one good DAW out there.
The only way to find out what is the best one for you is just to try it.

But don’t take too long with your decision.
If you are a beginner to music production, it is far more important to learn the skill.
You can always switch later if you want to.

My personal recommendations for DAWs are Ableton Live and Presonus Studio One.

If you are serious about music production and want to take it to the next level,
download my free music production e-book.
Besides information about music production basics and computers for music production, the book gives also a unique perspective on the world of DJs and music producers.

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photo author dexxter clark
Dexxter Clark
Music Producer / YouTuber

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