It wasn’t too long ago that this was a significant barrier to wannabe music producers, you needed to hire a studio and have lots of physical equipment.
Producing music at home is now more accessible than ever thanks to more affordable equipment but most importantly due to the fact you can do pretty much everything you want digitally now. This digital music production all centres around a Digital Audio Workstation or DAW for short.
With a variety of DAWs now available on the market this leaves many beginners unsure of which to choose. But which DAWs do most professional producers use?
From our research, we concluded that most professional studios still use Avid Pro Tools as their DAW of choice, being used by producers on 65% of the top 100 albums from the past 10 years.
In this article we are going to display the research findings we have compiled as to which DAWs producers are using today, from professional studios to self-producing artists to the wider group of amateur and home producers.
What Classifies As A DAW?
A DAW can technically be any device that is used for recording, editing and producing audio files.
It can be a standalone unit, but in modern music production, it is most frequently used to refer to a piece of computer software.
Software DAWs all have a lot of similarities and will look very similar on first glance. Within the software interface you will usually be able to record, edit and arrange a series of ‘tracks’ into a musical composition.
The interface is similar to that that would have been found on a traditional multitrack tape recorder in older studios. But software DAWs on computers have one huge advantage of being able to easily undo unwanted actions and to easily copy, cut and paste things around.
Software DAWs have changed the music industry forever and are central to any studio from the most basic home setup to the most expensive studio in the world.
Note: some more basic audio editing software such as Audacity and even some phone apps are technically DAWs, as they can record, edit and arrange audio files. However, we won’t be including these in our search as they lack a lot of the capabilities most music producers would expect. Check out this recent article where I explain more about this.
Most Popular DAW Software – The Contenders
It seems like almost every year a new DAW contender enters the market. This is great in many ways as it means there are cheaper options available, or options specifically tailored to certain types of production. But it also makes choosing one very confusing!
Below is a long list of all the DAW software companies we have considered in our research. There may be more contenders entering the market but these are widely considered the most popular DAWs in the industry at this moment in time.
Avid Pro Tools
The word ‘industry standard’ doesn’t get used as much these days as producers have so much choice tailored to very specific requirements. However, this word is still used a lot when it comes to the DAW Pro Tools from Avid.
Entering the scene way back in 1989 it has the advantage of being one of the longest serving contenders.
Many top producers and sound engineers have been working in the industry since long before the rise of the DAW and pro tools was one of the first on the scene. It was designed in line with what studio engineers were already doing and mimicked the flow of older analog equipment.
Ableton was first released in 2001 and was really targeted at musicians who wanted to integrate their productions into live sets. Hence the name ‘LIVE’.
However, it is also an incredibly powerful DAW, with amazing functionality for composing, recording and mixing music.
Now on version 11, this DAW has a big user base amongst electronic musicians but also increasingly with many pop and even rock artists looking to incorporate more electronic elements to their productions.
Logic Pro is Apple’s DAW software and has been around since the early 1990s.
As with many of their products, Apple have not just created it as a token programme for Mac users. Like Final Cut Pro for video, Logic Pro is hugely popular for music production and it holds its own alongside the other DAWs.
Originally known as FruityLoops until 2003 (due to a lawsuit threat from Kellogs!), FL Studio has been around since 1997.
FL Studio really saw a gap in the market in the late 90s as more musicians moved to producing music ‘in the box’ i.e without using any live equipment at all.
The makers of the new DAW took advantage of this by making the software simple and straightforward to use and affordable. Many of the other DAWs at the time were expensive and required a degree or training to get to grips with.
This popularity has continued and it is now one of the top DAWs used worldwide.
Garageband often gets dismissed as not being a ‘real DAW’ and I was considering not including it in this article. But it really shouldn’t be compared to more basic audio editing software such as Audacity as it has much more powerful capabilities.
Garageband is also a product of Apple and is included for free on all Apple products. It was fist released in 2014 and is now on version 10.
It is possible to record very professional sounding tracks in Garageband and whilst it may lack some of the more advanced features of some more expensive DAWs we will still include it in our search.
Cubase was actually one of the first programs I used for music production, which means it must have been around quite some time!
It has actually been around since 1989 and stands alongside Pro Tools as one of the longest standing DAWs.
Reaper sounds a little scary but it actually stands for ‘Rapid Environment for Audio Production and Recording’.
It is now very popular due to its low price point of almost free ($60 for a personal license currently).
It provides the basic interface for creating, editing and mixing music but lacks many of the built-in ‘plugins’ of many other contenders. That said, it works with all third party plugins and so provides a great cheap option for many producers.
Presonus Studio One
Despite being around for over 10 years. This DAW is considered a bit of a rising star and has seen an increase in popularity in recent years thanks to it’s low price point and inclusion when buying certain hardware.
Originating in 1994 from Sweden and therefore instantly making it a very trendy DAW is Reason from Propellerhead.
As with many of the contenders it has a bit of a cult following with many users being very loyal to it over time.
The newest contender in the DAW race is Bitwig Studio which only entered the scene in 2014.
It was developed by a former sales manager at Ableton so it certainly has the expertise behind it. For this reason, it focuses a lot on live performances in a similar way to Ableton Live.
That said it also functions as a full DAW which can be used for composing, recording, editing and mixing.
Looking At Trends To Narrow It Down
So far we have just selected DAWs based on our knowledge and what the industry typically acknowledges. But let’s get some actual data!
Google trends is a good way of tracking the popularity of something by seeing it’s search popularity over time. Although this is not going to give us the definitive answer of which DAW is most popular it will be a good place to start to rule contenders in or out.
The Big Five
Unsurprisingly the expected ‘big 5’ came out on top in the most searched terms. These were:
- Avid Pro Tools
- Apple’s Logic Pro
- Ableton Live
- FL Studio
Looking at the worldwide trends for the past 5 years, FL studio came out top overall quite a way above the rest actually with Ableton and Garageband fighting it out for second Followed by Logic Pro and Pro Tools.
In the United States, things are a lot closer with the lead changing several times over the past 5 years.
FL Studio also leads the way although Garageband has been fighting it all the way for the top spot.
The Best Of The Rest
After the clear ‘big 5’ you have a group of DAWs that are either rising stars or falling classics.
Cubase from Steinberg is a good example of the latter, once widely used in the industry, it has seen a steady decline in popularity as can be seen in the graph below.
Cubase does still come out on top when compared to some of the newer DAWs when looking at the worldwide data but only just. But if we look at United States data it now falls below both Reaper and Studio One. With Reaper overtaking in popularity around 2013 and Studio One overtaking it in around 2016. Reason did briefly overtake but has since seen a steady decline. Bitwig studio although rising in popularity is still way off in this popularity contest.
As Logic Pro came out at the bottom of the big 5 we will use that as the baseline to compare these and to see if any are worth considering in our search for most popular DAWs.
Despite its drop in popularity, Cubase does only fall just below Logic Pro when looking at worldwide trends.
Which DAWs Do The Professionals Use?
By looking at Google trends we can get a good idea of the overall popularity of each DAW.
But we know Garageband, for example, is free software that even comes on iPads as standard. This means a large number of the users are probably just messing around and aren’t probably producing studio-quality musical compositions.
For this data we scoured the internet to try and figure out which DAWs are used by professional musicians, producers and engineers.
We started by looking at the top 100 albums of the 2010s to see which DAWs the producers of those albums favored.
Many albums have multiple producers some of which use multiple DAWs throughout their process but if there was any mention of a DAW being used in the album process we included it here:
Pro Tools Is Still The Pick of The Pros
Pro Tools was by far the most common DAW associated with producers who worked on the top 100 US albums.
This data shows that as expected it is still the DAW of choice in most professional studios. This tends to be the way of things. When something is the industry standard when you start working in a professional studio that is the software you will learn.
To confirm this was true with smaller studios we called 20 studios around the UK and all 20 said they used Pro Tools as their DAW of choice.
Pro tools is regarded by the majority of producers and engineers as the best DAW for tracking and mixing.
Many of the producers in the top 100 have been around from the days when albums were still made on traditional tape decks. Pro Tools was designed to replace these, mimicking the workflow of older analog equipment.
Pro tools is renowned for its strengths for producers who use a lot of hardware and outboard gear. But it’s strengths are not in many more modern techniques of computer-centric music production based around more MIDI files rather than audio files, working with loops and beat production.
FL Studio Was Used By Electronic, Rap, Hip Hop and R&B Producers
FL Studio has a strong following in certain genres and our research reflected this, with the only producers using this DAW being from the four genres mentioned above. Notable albums that mentioned FL studio included those by Drake and Post Malone.
Despite FL studio being around for a long time, it has really seen a resurgence in the professional world in the past 10 years thanks to major artists such as Avicii utilizing it as their DAW of choice.
Ableton Live Was Used By Mostly Electronic Producers
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ableton Live was primarily used by electronic artists. Even the other genres that used Ableton Live such as The Weeknd have many electronic elements to their music.
Artists and Producers Who Use Certain DAWs
Not satisfied by our research of the producers from the top 100 albums in the 2010s we carried on searching the internet and found the following artists and producers mentioning they use the following DAWs.
Click on each artist for the reference.
- Glass Animals – Dave Bayley
- Caribou – Daniel Snaith
- David Guetta
- Linkin Park – Mike Shinoda
- Tame Impala – Kevin Parker
- Daft Punk – Thomas Bangalter
- Flying Lotus
- John Hopkins
- Jean Michel Jarre
- Ayo n Keyz
- The XX/ Jamie XX
- Ed Sheeran
- Maya Jane Coles
- Calvin Harris
- Tom Misch
- Travis Scott
- Chemical Brothers
- Finneas O’Conell
- Jacob Collier
- Mike Crossey – The 1975, Foals, The Killers
- Peter Katis – The National, Death Cab for Cutie, Interpol, Gang of Youths
- Mike Brauer – Coldplay, The Rolling Stone, Aerosmith
- Chris Lord Alge – Muse, Green Day
- Bon Iver
- Mac Miller
- George Seara – Shawn Mendes, James Bay
The Other DAWs Didn’t Feature
One of the key findings of our search was that not many (if any) professional musicians and producers used any of the other DAWs outside of the four listed above.
Even for Garageband which is a very popular DAW in general. We couldn’t find any evidence that profesionals use this DAW. Which makes sense as it lacks many more advance features and is a free piece of software aimed at amateur musicians.
Our research has shown that Pro Tools is still by far the DAW of choice in professional studios and with the top music producers in world.
If you are looking for a career working in professional studios or as a mixing engineer then it may be worth learning to use this piece of software.
But Pro Tools is expensive and just because the pros use it, doesn’t mean it isn’t best suited to everyone.
If you are looking to produce mainly using the laptop and no outboard gear, then Logic and Ableton Live are much better choices.
If saving money is important then FL Studio or Reaper will do a fantastic job.
All the DAWs mentioned in this article are top quality pieces of software with large amounts of training material available to help you learn them.