Recording Studio Software Review
Why Use Recording Studio Software?
Our top digital audio workstations (DAWs) in our review are Cubase Pro 8, the Gold Award Winner; Logic Pro X the Silver Award Winner; and Sonar Platinum, the Bronze Award Winner. Here's more on choosing recording studio software that meets your needs, along with details on how we arrived at ranking our 10 best recording programs.
You can gain many benefits by owning your own professional recording studio software program. Our top 10 products are used by professional recording engineers and musicians to record the music you hear on the radio. By owning recording software, you can record, produce and edit music on your own terms without having to schedule and pay money for studio time. These programs offer professional-level audio editing tools, such as advanced automation writing and more plugin options than what you would find in a program such as GarageBand or Audacity. To learn more, check out our articles on Recording Studio Software.
For our comparison we focused on complete versions of digital audio workstations (DAWs), many of which cost over a few hundred dollars. If you are new to the world of audio recording and are looking for an introductory recording program, you can visit our audio production website where we evaluated introductory versions. These recording programs provide the same look and feel of their professional-level counterparts but are generally limited in the number and range of virtual instruments. They also have with fewer plugins – effects you can apply to your audio for mixing and mastering purposes.
To utilize your recording software you are going to need a computer or laptop with plenty of RAM and memory – at least 8GB of RAM so you don't run into any performance problems. Some of the recording programs we reviewed can take up a lot of storage when all of the included sounds and plugins are completely installed. Installing a DAW on a computer with too little memory can cause latency and CPU issues.
To record external instruments, such as a guitar or bass, you are going to need an audio interface. An audio interface is a piece of hardware that you plug your instruments or microphones into that converts and amplifies audio signal into a format that your DAW can use. Using an audio interface is mandatory if you want to record external instruments efficiently.
There are many types of audio interfaces to choose from that range from single-channel inputs for roughly $50, to 32 channel inputs that cost over $1,000. If you only record a single audio source at a time, such as a guitar or vocals, a single- or two-channel audio interface will suffice. For large recording jobs, such as a full drum kit or full band, several audio channels are needed.
Finally, to fully utilize the various software instruments that the programs provide, you are going to want to use a MIDI controller. A MIDI controller is typically a keyboard that plugs into your computer or interface. You can then use the keyboard to control the knobs and sounds of the software instrument. MIDI controllers, like audio interfaces, come in many different sizes and prices. You don't need a MIDI controller to use a DAW's plugins, but they make recording with the software instruments easier.
You can purchase a short-key MIDI controller for roughly $100 that generally has 32 keys and a few controls. You can also get full-key MIDI controller anywhere from $200 to $500 depending on the brand and features. When you piece all of these components together you have everything you need to successfully record audio.
Recording Studio Software: How We Tested, What We Found
The differences between studio programs are miniscule. However, we found that the two most important things when it comes to choosing a DAW are the functionality of the plugins and how well you can navigate the interface. We looked into these attributes to determine the differences between each recording program.
We evaluated each program using a single-monitor system. Dual monitors allow you to have multiple work windows up simultaneously, but our single-monitor testing allows you to see the organizational characteristics of each program. The ranking criteria included each program's ability to have the mixer, audio editing window and file browser within a single window without floating windows. When you have multiple floating windows or have to toggle back and forth between work windows, it interrupts your workflow. We also evaluated the available toolbar and the tools within it. If you can make cuts, zoom and snap without accessing additional menus, it increases your workflow.
Logic Pro X has a sleek interface that is designed for single screen use that doesn't hide popup windows behind one another, making it efficient for single-screen editing. You can arrange Cubase to have multiple components within a single work window, but it takes some adjusting and reorganization, something you don't have to worry about with Logic. Sonar Platinum has a work window that is exceptional for single-window editing by providing all the tools you need within a single area.
Some plugins and virtual instruments are very basic and don't provide the tools or parameters you need to fully adjust the tone and sound of the plugin or virtual instrument. On the contrary, some virtual instruments are overly complicated and difficult to adjust because of the overload of knobs, switches and parameters.
We used an Arturia Mini Lab MIDI controller to connect to the virtual instruments within the programs. The audio output was run through an Alesis MultiMix 16-channel audio interface and the monitors were KRK Rokit 5, 2-way active speakers. We used this MIDI controller to evaluate controllability of each virtual instrument, as well as the authenticity of the sounds each one emulates. Virtual instruments that replicate their real-world counterparts give you control over the sounds and textures within the virtual instruments.
The virtual instruments within Logic Pro X really allow you to manipulate the sounds to exactly how you want them by providing instruments that look and sound exactly like the real thing. Cubase and Reason also provide plugins and virtual instruments, but they don't give you the control that Logic Pro X instruments provide. However, they still sound authentic and cover a large genre of styles.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products, services and software in hands-on tests that simulates as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained each software program either by downloading available full-functioning demos from the manufacturer's website or by obtaining evaluation copies from the manufacturers. None of the companies had any input or influence over our testing methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else Is Important When Selecting Recording Software?
Each DAW has special characteristics that differentiate it from the competition¬. Whether it's the way you can compile recordings or a special way to bus tracks, there are more things to consider than just plugins and interface functionality. The following are DAW characteristics to keep in mind.
Most studio programs come with a built-in batch or a bundle of plugins. Some recording programs provide more plugins than others but are compatible with multiple plugin formats such as VST, DXi and AU. When your software is compatible with a number of different formats, you can add to your plugin library by purchasing additional plugin packages. Some DAWs, such as Reason and Pro Tools, use a specialized plugin format that makes them incompatible with other formats. This can be frustrating if you have a certain plugin package that you prefer to use but it isn't compatible with your DAW.
A few recording programs are stepping into the live performance scene. Ableton was one of the first programs to do so by enabling you to arrange music by clips or scenes. You can cue the clips of music at any time, and they will play in sync with your song. Other programs have started adding performance tracks as a work window to emulate what Ableton does. Performance tracks are popular among DJs for their live music applications.
Recording Studio Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations
If you are looking for superior audio production prowess, Logic Pro X is the program for you. You'll be hard-pressed to find better audio sounds and production tools than the virtual instruments and loops that Logic Pro X provides. For sheer audio editing, Cubase and Sonar have superior audio interfaces and processes that allow you to streamline your audio editing workflow. All three products provide unrestricted audio recording capabilities, as well as the plugin support and variety that you want out of your DAW.
Both Cubase and Sonar Platinum have updated their programs to have intuitive layouts and strong plugin functionality. Cubase has also added unrestricted recording capabilities to the newest addition, something that previous versions were missing.
One lower-ranked music studio software program that provides the best overall value for a professional DAW is Reaper. Reaper provides unlimited and fully functional recording capabilities and a bunch of plugins for $60. Mixcraft 7 is also another highly affordable option that offers unrestricted recording capabilities and a new interface design that will only run you $100 – far less expensive than other DAW options. This is a great way to get a professional DAW on your laptop without spending as much as most other programs cost.
Pro Tools is one of, if not the most, recognizable name in our lineup. We evaluated all products using a single-monitor setup, and Pro Tools doesn't provide the accessibility to its mixer or file browser in a single-monitor setup. Pro Tools is also limited with its single-format plugin compatibility – the switch to the AAX plugin format prohibits you from using other plugin packages, and plugin compatibility is one of the most important things when considering a DAW.
Selecting the best recording studio software can be tricky. Many DAWs are available, and they are all similar in nature. While we have ranked the best recording programs, it truly comes down to personal preference and how you are planning to use your DAW. If you are starting a personal studio but you are on a budget, the price tag of recording software may be your main concern. If you are big into production and making music with MIDI devices, your main concern might be the plugin selection, compatibility and authenticity. There are many factors to consider before you purchase your DAW.