Music & Entertainment

What Is Music Recording Software? Tips for Choosing the Best Music Recording Software for Your Home Recording Studio

Written by MasterClass

May 16, 2019 • 5 min read

In the early days of recorded music, a musician needed access to pricey recording studios and hard-to-find equipment in order to commit a performance to tape. Today’s recording environment could hardly be more different. Anyone with access to a computer—or even a smartphone or tablet—can record themselves. But to do this properly, you need the correct software.


What Is Music Recording Software?

Music recording software is a program, on either your personal computer or mobile device, that lets you record audio, edit its duration, and add effects to change its sonic character. Most music recording software falls into one of three categories: digital audio workstations (DAWs), digital instruments, and plugin effects.

What Is a DAW?

DAW stands for digital audio workstation. This is a program that allows you to record and sequence audio. Nearly all DAWs represent audio recordings as graphic waveforms, which are tall when the music is loud, and short when the music is quiet. When music plays back in your DAW, the waveform scrolls from right to left.

  • Once you’ve recorded audio into a DAW, you can splice it and move it around, like cutting and pasting text in a word processor. This process replaces the old technique of splicing and combining magnetic tape in the days of analog recording. Splicing was time-consuming, potentially expensive, and easy to mess up. Thanks to DAWs, it’s now as easy as dragging a cursor around your computer screen.
  • DAWs also allow you to manipulate the audio waveforms that you’ve assembled for your project (often referred to as a “session” by music engineers). You can add effects like reverb, tremolo, and distortion. You can play waveforms backward. You can speed them up and slow them down—without necessarily altering the pitch.
  • DAWs can process audio signals that enter your computer as streams of digital information. This is made possible by a digital audio converter (DAC) such as the Focusrite Scarlett series. These devices record audio through microphones and then convert them to digital signals, which are fed to the computer via USB. The DAW software then converts these digital streams back to audio that can be heard through computer speakers or headphones.

6 Tips on Choosing the Right DAW For You

The DAW you use will depend on your musical tastes, your ambitions, and your budget.

  • If you’re interested in mainly producing dance pop, EDM, house, and other electronic music, consider Ableton, FL Studio (aka Fruity Loops), Reason, and Akai MPC.
  • If you’re interested in creating orchestral sounds (as in film scoring) by using samples of real instruments and you plan to perform most of the music yourself using MIDI keyboards, investigate Logic, Digital Performer, and Cubase.
  • If you’re primarily interested in recording live audio in a studio, Pro Tools by Avid is the industry standard. Many producers also use Logic, Digital Performer, and Cubase for live audio and even Ableton can be used for this function.
  • If you’re on a real budget and can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars for a DAW, many of these programs have limited versions that are available for free. Some of the best free programs include Cakewalk and Garageband (which is a stripped down version of Logic). Note that Garageband will only work on a Mac and Cakewalk will only work on a PC. Audacity is another popular free program for audio editing, but it’s not suitable for digital instruments.
  • All of these programs can handle multitrack recording, where more than one instrument is recording simultaneously. Most have plenty of effects built in, such as EQ, autotune, compression, reverb, distortion, chorus, echo, and delay.
  • Similarly, all of these programs can create music using loops and digital instruments controlled by MIDI (musical instrument digital interface). This means you can create entire tracks without even plugging in a microphone.

What Are Digital Instruments?

Digital instruments are instruments where the sounds are produced entirely via computer software. You don’t need a microphone or a digital audio converter to create sounds with digital instruments. Most of the time, you just need a MIDI keyboard to control the software. (Note that MIDI keyboards don’t produce sounds themselves. They simply send information to the computer, which the software then processes to create sounds.) Digital instruments are often grouped into a category called VST (virtual software technology).

  • This doesn’t mean that microphones play no roles in digital instruments. Large numbers of these instruments are created via sampling. This means that a recording engineer records real acoustic instruments playing all possible notes with all possible inflections. Those acoustic recordings are compiled in the software and mapped to individual MIDI keys, such that if you press a “G” on your MIDI keyboard, you could hear a recording of a real oboe (or violin, or anything) playing the note G.
  • Other digital instruments produce sounds using synthesizers. These create oscillating sound waves to create sonically pleasing audio. Digital synthesizers are modeled on old analog synthesizers like mellotrons and Moog devices.
  • A third type of digital instrument is a loop. These are also audio samples, but they tend to contain longer musical performances, like a 16-bar drum beat or a 4-bar walking bass line. You can place loops into your DAW session and have them replay over and over again while you add instrumentation on top of them.

Some of the best VST libraries include:

  • Vienna Symphonic Library
  • Spitfire Audio Albion One
  • EastWest Composer Cloud (available as a monthly subscription)

What Are Effects Plugins?

Effects plugins are audio-altering software programs that manipulate the sounds already present in your DAW recording session. Let’s say you record a violin track from an EastWest orchestral library using the DAW program Digital Performer. But let’s say that you want to add compression to the sound and you don’t like Digital Performer’s built-in options. You can use a plugin—a program the runs inside the DAW—to create that effect.

  • Waves is a company whose plugin software can run inside a DAW. If you want to use Waves compression in Digital Performer, you don’t have to launch Waves as a separate program. Once it’s integrated in with Digital Performer, all its functions are available within the confines of that program.
  • Note that the digital instruments mentioned above are also plugins. You don’t need to launch them as separate programs to use them inside your DAW.

What Effects Plugins Does Armin Van Buren Use?

Armin van Buuren is a dance music DJ, record producer, remixer, and label owner from the Netherlands. Van Buren relies on the following plugins for effects and processing:

  • iZotope Ozone 8
  • FabFilter Saturn
  • FabFilter Pro-Q 2
  • FabFilter Pro-MB
  • LFOTool

And, in case you’re curious, Van Buren uses this set of plugins as software synthesizers:

  • Serum
  • Massive
  • Sylenth1
  • Omnisphere 2
  • Nexus 2
  • Kontakt 5
  • Vengeance Producer
  • Suite (VPS) Avenger

Learn more about music production in Timbaland’s MasterClass.