Top 5 Free DAWs (2023)

Top 5 Free DAWs (2023)
This software acts as the digital home for your audio, vocals, instrumental recordings, MIDI data, loops, presets, plugins, and so much more. Because of this, it's important that you understand your DAW inside and out.

Check out our list of the Top 10 DAWs which are all in line with this guide's recommendations.


DAW is an acronym for Digital Audio Workstation, and it can be any application that allows you to compose (write and arrange), produce (record and edit), and engineer (mix and master). Some DAWs can be used for all of these phases whereas others are designed for specific purposes. Choosing the right DAW for you comes down to understanding each DAW's main features and then determining which one best suits your needs. In this article we'll cover both of these questions and help you take the next step in choosing the best DAW for your home studio.

  • Understanding the Basics
  • Digital Composition
  • Music Production
  • Audio Engineering
  • Important Considerations
  • OS Compatibility
  • Skill Level
  • Free vs Paid
  • Choosing a DAW
  • Top 10 List
  • Studio Setup Quiz

Understanding the Basics
Choosing the right DAW is important as it is the digital center of your studio. Everything you do will either be recording through or editing in this one piece of software. The majority of 3rd party plugins, like software instruments, loops, sound effects and more, will also need to work alongside your DAW. Let's dive into the three main music processes and break down how your DAW is an essential tool from beginning to end.

Digital CompositionBefore computers, composing music was done by hand, paper and pen. This required composers and songwriters to have a significant understanding of music theory and a deep understanding of their instruments. However, now you can use your DAW to write, compose and arrange music quite quickly and easily with use of MIDI technology.
By clicking and dragging blocks of notes on a piano roll, you can use your ears to determine which notes sound good together and build out chords, horizontally across tempo-driven measures with multiple instrument tracks. All DAWs come with at least a few virtual instruments (piano, guitar, bass, drums, violins, etc) that you can use to start building out your tracks. These included instruments are typically lower quality than 3rd VST Plugins, but are a great way for beginner's to get an idea of how certain sounds blend together.
Once you have your tracks composed, you can use drag and drop features in your DAW to copy and paste and rearrange different sections to build out an arrangement that fits your needs. For example, the most common music arrangement would look something like this: Intro > Verse 1 > Chorus > Verse 2 > Chorus > Bridge > Verse 3 > Chorus > Outro. However, there are unlimited ways to arrange your music, and your DAW will give your this freedom of expression and creativity.

For those focused on digital composition, the best advice is to get a DAW that has intuitive arrangement features; such as Studio One or Cubase.
Pro tip: Another way to consider choosing a DAW is by genre. If you produce pop, EDM or hip-hop music, consider Logic Pro, Ableton or Fl Studio. If you produce rock, orchestral or cinematic music consider Studio One, Cubase or Pro Tools. Although DAWs are not genre specific, it's helpful to consider which DAWs professional artists in those genres are using and see what about that DAW complements their production process.

Music ProductionMany may consider music production to include everything from songwriting to mastering, but in this guide we'll keep it simple and assign this term to recording and editing only. Recording can be digital through MIDI, either directly in your DAW or by use of a MIDI controller, or it can be analog through recording live instruments or a vocal mic directly via an audio interface.
Once your tracks are recorded, your DAW will give you a myriad of ways to edit those recordings. If they are digital, MIDI recordings you will be able to change the note pitch, length, velocity and more. Even if you record analog audio, like vocals, guitar, bass or drums, there are options for pitch shifting, time stretching and more that allow you to totally customize and design your sound.
Most music producers rely heavily on their DAW to recording, editing and sound design. The more familiar you become with your DAW's capabilities and features, the faster and efficient you will become turning rough, raw recordings into professional sounding audio. Techniques like using the signal chain to add sound effects such as EQ, Reverb, Compression, and Delay, can help you tailor the sound to your liking.

For those focused on music production, the best advice is to get a DAW that has advanced expansive sound design tools; such as Ableton or FL Studio.
Pro tip: There are some hard and fast rules to music composition (tonally) and audio engineering (sonically), but sound design is an area that invites the most freedom and flexibility for producing sounds that are uniquely you. If this is something that interests you, try choosing a DAW like Ableton or Bitwig as they offer an impressive amount of control for synthetic and modular sound design.

Audio EngineeringThe last step of the music production process is mixing and mastering, and many artists outsource this work to be done by professional audio engineers who have trained their ears and tuned their studios to offer the best results. Some DAWs are designed to have workflows that tend to address the needs of audio engineers better than other DAWs.
If that's your focus, you'll want a large, expandable mixer-window with easy, fast access to internal plugins and external hardware. Some engineers work entirely in-the-box, but the majority of professionals make use of outboard gear such as hardware EQs, compressors, tape machines, and of course mixing consoles. So it's important to have a DAW that is not only compatible but also complimentary in is workflow.
Once the song is completely mixed and mastered, you can use your DAW to bounce down the track into and MP3 or WAV file in order to download it on your phone, or upload it to a streaming service.

For those focused on audio engineering, the best advice is to get a DAW that has advanced external connectivity; such as Logic Pro X or Pro Tools.
Pro tip: Audio engineering is a skill that is developed over time and often times isn't learned early on in one's career in music production. This however isn't

Important Considerations
Now that you know the proper computer specifications you can look at different computer models and sizes. Although decision is mostly subjective, but there are some things to consider before making a buying decision.

OS CompatibilityMost DAWs work on both Mac and Windows, but there are some that are exclusive to a single operating system. If you've already invested in a computer for your home studio, make sure to consider this before choosing a DAW.

Skill LevelSome DAWs are designed to for beginner's (Cakewalk, GarageBand, and Studio One), others for more advanced users (Logic, Ableton, and FL Studio), whereas there are DAWs that are better choices for advanced users (Pro Tools, Bitwig and Cubase).

Free vs PaidMost DAW software is available in several versions, from the intro release to the suite or pro bundle. The way that these versions work is pretty simple. The intro or lite releases generally come with little content and have some additional limitations in place, such as restricted track counts. The middle release is usually the full core version of the product. It’s the version that has all of the features and capabilities, and a nice set of content, but not the bonus content you get in the suite or pro version.
The suite or pro releases tend to be absolutely loaded with bonus content and special features. In general, there are upgrade paths between releases and even between versions. In general, go for at least the standard version if you can, and seriously consider the bonus content of the suite/pro release.

It's highly recommended to test out DAWs with their free versions first before buying the full pro versions so you can see which one's fit your workflow best.
Pro tip: Use this spreadsheet we've put together to quickly view which DAWs offer free/lite versions, compare pricing and know which OS they are compatible with.

Choosing a DAW

Top 10 ListChoosing a DAW for music production may seem complicated because there are a lot of different factors to consider - especially considering there are more options to choose from each year.
To help you narrow down your search, we've put together a list of the top 10 DAWs for home studios - and all of them are in line with this guide's recommendations.
Top 10 DAWs for Home Studios

Studio Setup QuizIf you want to skip reading through another article to determine the right DAW for you, take out interactive studio setup quiz to help you find the right software, hardware and gear specifically for your studio, your needs and your budget.
Take the Studio Setup Quiz

The Home Studio Guide

A comprehensive source of studio guides, gear recommendations, product reviews, and artist interviews that will help you get the most out of your home studio.


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