Whether you’re a hobbyist tinkering with a guitar, an amateur DJ about to perform at a packed club, or a professional recording engineer with a thriving studio practice, you will need recording software of some sorts. Professional-grade recording software doesn’t come cheap with prices usually starting at $350+. Given the high initial investment, you want to ensure that you get the best bang for your buck.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the five best audio recording programs on the market. We’ll consider the cheapest (free) Audacity, and go all the way up to Pro Tools, which is used by most professionals.
If you’re confused about what you can do with recording software, consider taking this Ableton Live crash course to get an introduction to these tools..
Audacity is sometimes called the “poor man’s audio recorder’ – a description that does a great service to this fine open-source software. Free though it may be, Audacity still packs plenty of features into a surprisingly small and lightweight installation. Granted, you won’t see Timbaland firing it up in his recording studio, but that doesn’t mean it can’t find a place in your home recording mix.
Audacity’s learning curve is as gentle as a rolling hill in the English countryside. You can get started without so much as clicking the ‘help’ button. It’s perfect for all sorts of casual recordings – podcasts, song ideas, etc. With some work, it can even make impressive-sounding amateur mixes. While it comes nowhere near the features offered by the big boys on this list, the fact that it is cheap, easy and surprisingly fast should keep amateurs interested.
Clean, easy to use interface.
Supports dozens of simultaneous tracks.
Can import WAV, AIFF, AU, Flac and Ogg Vorbis files.
Extensive open-source plugin library.
Stable; crashes are as rare as rain in a desert.
Use Audacity If:
You don’t have a few hundred dollars to spare; you want something effective, easy and fast; you want to record audio casually – amateur guitarists and podcasters welcome.
Audacity is more powerful than you think. Learn how to unleash its power in this Audacity crash course.
2. Apple Logic Pro
As an Apple-made software, there are two things you can assume about Logic Pro:
You won’t require a PhD to understand the UI
It will integrate perfectly with OS X
Logic Pro has something of a storied history. It was originally made by the guys who also made the first MIDI sequencer, Notator, in the early 80s. It was eventually acquired by Apple in 2002, meaning the software has been in continuous development for nearly 30 years.
Today, Logic Pro is one of the best-selling DAWs in the world. It’s younger cousin – GarageBand – comes free with iLife and retails for $4.99 on the iTunes store.
Flex Time enables users to ‘stretch’ and modify audio.
Powerful Amp Designer for combining hundreds of cabinets and effect pedals in a custom designed amp.
Create a virtual arrangement of effects pedals with the Pedalboard.
Trademark Apple skeuomorphic design for ease of use.
Create unique reverb effects with the Space Designer.
Use Logic Pro If:
You care about design and ease of use; you work exclusively on Apple products; you want something that is powerful enough to run with the big boys, easy enough for a complete newbie, and cheap enough to not put you in the poorhouse.
3. Ableton Live
Price: $449 for Standard version
The digital music recording industry can be broadly divided into two timeframes: before Ableton Live and after Ableton Live. When it was launched in 2001, the DAW market was dominated by the old guard – Cubase, Nuendo, and Logic Pro. These tools worked in a linear fashion – you recorded first, edited later.
Ableton Live changed all that. The entire software is organized around the session view where you can record, sketch and collect audio in real-time – just as you would perform live. And when you’re done, you can edit, arrange, and modify the audio in the arrangement view, which is reminiscent of the more traditional arrangement window of sequencing programs.
Ableton Live was also the first software to introduce a “warp engine”. This feature enables the user to synchronize different tracks to the same BPM (beats per minute). As you can imagine, DJs found this extremely useful, which is why Live is such a big hit among the remixing crowd.
Support for unlimited audio and MIDI tracks.
Powerful toolkit for building custom synths and effects. It’s like having your own team of audio engineers on command.
Powerful audio slicing for use in the Sampler or Drum Rack.
Best-in-class warp engine for stretching/compressing audio tracks to match a beat.
Huge built-in library of effects, amps and synthesizers.
Use Ableton Live If:
You want a powerful, feature-rich digital audio workstation that works especially well in live settings; you are an amateur or professional DJ; your audio work involves a lot of mixing and you don’t mind a steep learning curve.
4. Propellerhead Reason
Propellerhead Reason has long been a contender to the ‘best recording software’ crown, but it wasn’t until version 5.0, released in 2010, that it made its claim loud and clear. Before version 5.0, Reason was a MIDI-only application. The fifth version added a ton of features now standard in professional DAWs – a drum designer (Kong), powerful sequencing features, and a highly effective mixer. Within two years, Sweden based Propellerhead added a powerful ‘Rack Extension’ feature that allowed users to plug in third-party effects and plugins.
As a result of all these changes, Reason 7 today is a much more comprehensive recording software than its predecessors. Its packed with all the features you’ve come to expect from a professional DAW – unlimited audio tracks, powerful mixing console, hundreds of instruments – and boasts a long (and growing) library of third party plugins. When it comes to choosing a recording software, there are few better decisions you can make than going with Reason.
Gorgeous, easy to use UI that’s only matched by Logic Pro in intuitiveness.
Robust and stable on every platform.
Rack Extensions are very effective – and great to look at.
Version 7.0 finally supports MIDI out.
Comes with 2 built-in samplers and 3 synthesizers.
Large effects library.
SSL-style mixer still the best in its class.
Use Reason If:
You want a no-nonsense, feature-rich recording software; you value ease of use and stability.
5. Avid Pro Tools
Price: $599 for Pro Tools 11 Upgrade
Pro Tools is one of the oldest digital audio workstations on the market. Robust, powerful, and efficient, Pro Tools is the DAW of choice for professional sound engineers. With the much-awaited version 11 finally hitting the stores in June, the software has finally been ported to 64-bit code, further improving its performance and stability.
Pro Tools can be intimidating for newbies. The UI is a world apart from the friendly textures and skeumorphic design of Apple Logic Pro. If you don’t have some experience working with actual recording studio hardware, you’ll find Pro Tools a tough nut to crack. This course on mastering Avid Pro Tools 10 will make the transition considerably smoother.
At the same time, few DAWs can match Pro Tools range of performance oriented features. Although its primary users remain professional engineers, it’s equally capable in a home environment.
Version 11 is now based on 64-bit code. Coupled with an all new Avid Audio Engine, this means more power and efficient processing for your tracks.
Dedicated input buffers ensure you get the lowest possible latency – a must if you intend to record from external acoustic sources.
Built-in Avid Video Engine helps you edit videos within Pro Tools itself.
Improved automation; tracks can be processed as you record them, saving hours in editing/processing time.
Improved UI with more user-friendly design.
Use Avid Pro Tools If:
You value performance and aren’t intimidated by a steep learning curve; you want to work with audio in a professional setting.
Mastering the five best recording software programs listed here can take a lot of time and effort. Make your journey smoother by learning the basics of audio recording with this course in professional electronic music production.
What are your favorite audio recording tools? Let us know in the comments below!