I’m sure this also applies to other types of software, but since this is what I use the most, it’s what I can comment on... :)
What a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) should do in 2017:
- Record, Edit, and Playback MIDI and Audio. Duh.
- Easy Barrier to Entry. It should be affordable and simple to understand and use.
- Interoperability with current standards and procedures. Uses and saves to established file types for audio (wav/aif/mp3/Ogg/etc.), MIDI, and plugins (VST and AU). Editing uses standard cut/copy/paste, Quantization, Transposition, Repeating/Looping, Arranging, etc.
- Cross-platform capability. OS agnostic, both desktop and mobile. Mobile is the wave of the future (perhaps the wave of the present) and every manufacturer should be at least dipping their toes in this pond to test the waters.
- Expandability. Should provide additional functionality on-demand as the user requires it. This can be additional costs (In-App or upgrade) purchases.
So how do the major players hold up to these criteria?
Good: 1, 3 and 5. Marginal: 2, 4.
Ableton is a different paradigm from most other DAW's in that you can think both Linearly as well as non-Linearly. This makes is really cool for for coming up with ideas and changes, but does require a bit of a learning curve. They have done a very smart thing in including Live Lite with pretty much every audio interface you buy, so you can get a free intorduction into how it works and can work for your music. Although 'Lite' is limited to 8 total tracks (both audio and MIDI), you can use 3rd party VST plugins with it (as well as AU on Mac) and even use ReWire to connect to other apps. If you like it and want more, you can upgrade to Intro for $100, Standard for $450 or Suite for $750 depending on how much you need and want to spend (like other manufacturers, upgrade prices will be lower as you upgrade from various versions). Rewire support is built-in (as is with every other DAW and Sequencer I've encountered over the last decade) so it will interconnect with other makers offerings. As far as mobile, you can get Remote Apps to control Live, but there is no true mobile version. Live will run just as well on Mac or PC, and is updated regularly.
Live Lite FAQ: https://help.ableton.com/hc/en-us/articles/209071589-Live-9-Lite-FAQ Live Version Comparison: https://www.ableton.com/en/live/feature-comparison/
Apple Garage Band and Logic Pro:
Good: 1, 2, 5. Marginal: 3, 4.
When Apple bought Emagic back in 2000, they dumped PC compatibility (obviously) but have since made it (IMO) the premier Mac DAW out there. Garage Band is built on the Logic engine, and although it has a less than intuitive interface (again, my opinion) it’s certainly more than usable, and as of April 2017 it’s free. GB also works on both Mac and iOS and can cleverly transfer files back and forth with Logic 10.3 or later. This makes for a very usable mobile experience, even if it requires a bit of tinkering to work. Logic Pro takes the GB workflow from identical on intial startup (smart thinking) to internally expandable via its Advanced Function Preferences - which means you can turn on (or off) features you don't want or need. Logic Pro is the sole upgrade from Garage Band is also fairly reasonable price wise - only $200 and updated regularly and for free, unless there is a major change (Logic Pro X was a $200 upgrade from previous versions). Logic only supports Audio Unit (AU) plugins for thrid-party additions.
Here’s an article from The Mothership® on moving from GB to Logic: https://www.apple.com/logic-pro/garageband-to-logic/
Avid Pro Tools:
Good: 1, 4. Marginal: 2, 3. Bad: 5.
Pro Tools is the one DAW I have had a decades-long love/hate realtionship with. If I were doing nothing but actual audio recording all day long, it’s all I would use. It’s easy to grasp the concept of, key commands can control everything you need, and it’s editing capabilities are fantastic. But for actual Music Production, I find it lacking. MIDI control and editing are stuck in the 90’s, and it’s reliance on only AAX plugins (Avid’s own format) is limiting. On top of that, it’s barrier to entry is asinine. Avid has a ‘free’ version called Pro Tools First (or Fist colloquially) that doesn’t allow any other plugins than those built-in or you buy from Avid's online Marketplace, and it will only save projects to their Cloud - and you get a whopping 3 saves. Need more? Prepare to spend a lot of money on a monthly subscription service. Need HD capability? Best mortgage the house. Avid has pretty much abandonned the entry market, choosing to focus on the '(Semi)Pros' out there. This is a loss, because Version 12 is the best I have used in PT for quite a while both stability and feature-wise, but the cost just outweighs the benefits compared to other DAW’s. If I were a commercial media house (or consistently dealing with them) I would consider it, but for the basic music maker I would suggest looking elsewhere.
Good: 1, 4. Marginal: 2, 3, 5.
Steinberg has been around since the Dawn of DAW’s, and is cross-platform - even having an (surprisingly good) iOS version. Cubase has excellent MIDI and audio capabilities, but in my experience can be a forest of windows and a mess of cryptic buttons and functions that require patience and practice to get the best out of. It also has a tendency to be the most 'crash-prone' of all the DAW's on my system. You can sometimes get free ‘AI’ versions with audio interfaces or software purchases which can be a good way to get into the hang of the program. They offer 3 different tiers to entry ranging from $100 to around $600, and since they invented it, supports only VST for third-party plugins.
Comparison here: https://www.steinberg.net/en/products/cubase/comparison.html
MOTU Digital Performer:
Good: 1, 3. Marginal: 4. Bad: 2, 5.
Used to be Mac-only, but have expanded to PC as well. Also only used to supprt their own plugin format (MAS), but have since seen the light and added VST and AU capatability. DP is a stalwart of the DAW realm, and is revered by film and media composers for production and tracking. There is a single version available for $500, although upgrades from other DAW’s can be much cheaper. There is an iOS Remote available, but no true mobile version. DP does a lot, but price is the key here - other DAW’s offer the same (or even better) capabilities for less $$$. In its defense, DP is a stable system with easy to understand features, and the Chunks function is still a staple of live show production.
You can check its features here: http://motu.com/products/software/dp/body.html/features.html
Presonus Studio One:
Good: 1, 3. Marginal: 4. Bad: 2, 5.
Studio One is now on version 3, and getting some positive reviews from those who have switched. It’s Mac and PC compatible, has an iOS Remote (no true mobile version though), and supports VST and AU Plugins. It's drag-and-drop interface is easy to get the hang of, and it's features are equivalent to the other manufacturers. Presonus has a freebie version called Prime that offers a good amount for a ‘test drive’, but you’ll have to upgrade to Artist ($100) or Pro ($400) to get more. One of the things that bugs me about their pricing structure is that even after spending $100 on the Artist version, you will have to spend another $100 for 3rd party VST and AU plugin support, and even more to access iOS remote or compressed audio (aac, mp3, flac) support. This is just not a good way to get the newbies into your ecosystem. After all the upgrades, you will spend about the same $$$ and get a whole lot more for the other guys...
Comparision Chart here: http://www.presonus.com/products/Studio-One/compare-versions
Good: 1, 2, 4 . Marginal: 3. Bad: 5.
For someone just getting into music production on a computer, Reason is a good place to start. Lots of great instruments and sounds, audio recording (since version 6), and playing with the Rack can be fun and inspiring. However, it comes at a cost. You can get a basic version for $70, but the fully-featured version will set you back $400 (of course you can upgrade at a lower cost than buying the full version, but the total cost is about the same). Propellerheads also have created their own plugin standard called Rack Extentions, and there’s some good stuff in there, but they cost as much as standard VST, AU, or AAX’s, and you will have to buy them again if you want RE versions which is just bad business, and one of the reasons (see what I did there) why I think Reason has declined in popularity over the years. They have announced VST capability in version 9.5, but this might be too little too late (see my previous rant on this). Props’ have made quite a few iOS apps over the years, so they have some mobile integration, but no direct connection into Reason itself. If they put a usable version of Reason on Mobile they could seriously one-up the competition (cue chirping crickets). Oh, and one last thing: Reason’s sequencing is getting long in the tooth and can be frustrating and tediuous to work with. It’s certainly functional, but overshadowed in capability by the other players in the arena. Reason has some seriously devoted fans, and it might be perfect for you, but (like all the others listed here) just be aware of it's limitations.
Elements features: https://shop.propellerheads.se/product/reason-essentials-9/
Full version features: https://shop.propellerheads.se/product/reason-9/
Good: 1, 2, 3, 5. Marginal: 4.
Reaper is pretty hard to beat when it comes to Digital Audio Workstations, and if I were to recommend one to a first-time user (or someone moving up from a freebie or demo from another maufacturer) I would have to point them here. It’s insanely cheap (essentially free to try for 2 months, and just $60 for a standard license after that), and does everything every other DAW does (and then some - like incredible Scripting capabilities) except for Mobile use (no Remote App, no native) and there’s a bit of a learning curve when you're starting out but no different than any other DAW out there. It is stable and efficient, works on Mac or PC, and supports pretty much every standard out there. This is one to keep your eyes on - it offers so much for so little, and always continues to adapt and improve.
Tech info here: http://www.reaper.fm/about.php#technical
Some others that I am only slightly familiar with:
Good: 1, 2, 3, 5. Marginal: 4.
FL Studio (formerly ‘Fruity Loops’) started off as a loop-based DAW with a similar design to Reason or Acid Pro. It is another good place to start (and it quite popular with the burgeoning EDM Set) with lots of comtemporary content and good-sounding plugins. It is PC only on desktops (Mac support has been teased for years), but has True Mobile versions for iOS, Android, and Windows (now that's thinking ahead. Finally!) They have versions ranging from $100 all the way up to $900 (!!!) but do offer free lifetime updates for whichever version you buy. FL Studio supports all major audio formats as well as VST plugins (will assume AU support as well when that Mac version finally arrives), so it’s certainly worth looking into if you want to change or upgrade to something different.
Comparison here: https://www.image-line.com/flstudio-feature-comparison/
Good 1, 2, 3, 5. : Marginal: 4. (I could knock this down to ‘Bad’ because of non-Mobile capability, but Linux support overshadows that for the moment.)
Originally created by Mackie Designs, Tracktion is up to version 7 (and they recently announced their Waveform ‘Contemporary Creation Software’ as well), and works on PC, Mac , and Linux (!) but no Mobile ablility (not even Remote). Also supports VST, AU, and Linux VST plugins. Cheap - starts at $100 with their ‘Ulitmate’ bundle topping out at $200, so it could be a good contender for those on a budget. I’ve used version 5 in the past, and found it’s workflow a bit fiddly, but that happens with most DAW’s I switch to. For the price, it's hard to beat, but Reaper is cheaper (lol) and does a lot more...
Good: 1, 2, 5. Marginal: 3, 4.
Cakewalk is the quintessential PC DAW, and Sonar has become their DAW brand name, offering 4 different versions from absolute beginner to complete recording solution. Prices start at $50 and top out at $500 for the everything you'll never need ‘Platium’ version. All versions are PC-only, and therefore only support VST plugins. There is no Mobile solution, even a Remote (although some 3rd party remote apps do support Sonar). If you are totally PC-based, this is probably the equivalent to Logic Pro, and the ‘Professional’ version is just as capable and similarly priced.
Comparison Chart here: http://www.cakewalk.com/Products/SONAR/Versions#start
Good: 1, 2, 3, 4. Marginal: 5.
Bitwig Studio came on the scene a few years back from a couple of Ableton’s engineers, and it looks a lot like Ableton and Acid (remember that program?) had a love child. Smart because it supports Mac, PC, and Linux, but again, no Mobile presence at all. There is only a single version available at $400, so one one hand it’s comparible to Live’s Standard version, but sadly no ‘lite’ version to get you started (there is, like most other DAW’s, a time-limited Trial you can download.) If you are an Ableton user (or Live-curious), this might be something to check out as they look and perform very similarly. One odd thing: Bitwig offers one year of free upgrades when you buy it. Most others peddle the upgrade trumpets when there is a major revision. If you’re a Bitwig user and there’s a minor update after your year is up, you will most likely have to pony up for the upgrade cost. Strange economics, and very non-industry thinking. This might be the sole reason I would never buy it - it's approaching subscription-based pricing...
Features here: https://www.bitwig.com/en/bitwig-studio.html#FEATURES
Keep in mind that this is not meant to be some kind of ‘Buyer’s Guide’ but simply a reference as to the State of the DAW here in early 2017. They are all ’Tools in the Toolbox’ as far as I’m concerned and they will all work just fine to help you create your music masterpieces if you put the time and effort into learning what they can do, and then put that into practice.
Contrary to anything you might read on the Interwebz® no DAW is ‘better’ than another. They all do roughly the same thing, and whenever a new trick or feature is implemented by someone, everyone else will pick it up and add it within a short amount of time. Any of these programs can be used create any type of music you need to make if you put your mind to it until, although you will eventually hit a wall in track count or functionality or some Operating System update or whatever that will leave you hanging. The good news is that the company that makes your software probably has an upgrade path to get out of that rut, meaning you can skip fear of having to change and get the capability you need. If they don’t (or go out of business - it happens), then it’s time to move on, and hopefully my points above can help you make that decision. Always remember that when you move to any another software system (musical or otherwise) you will have to relearn how to make the most of it so you need to keep that as a part of any 'switching' plan. Yet another reason to keep using what you have until it just doesn't work anymore.
Until next time, stay happy with what you have. Most of all, stay creative. :)