Best Overall: Ableton Live 10
Dollar for dollar, feature for feature, there really isn’t a better Ableton Standard Edition for the professional DJ or producer. It is not as inflated in price as the Suite version, but not as scarce in features as the Intro version. It basically has everything you need, from unlimited audio and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) tracks to 12 sends and returns to 256 virtual tracks to mix. You can get MIDI (and learn some triggers) and they’ve also included complex warp functions.
The library also has 10GB of sounds, containing 1800 different samples and loops. Get creative with five built-in software tools to record original melodies and rhythms. Plus, it has 34 built-in sound effects (eight MIDI-specific), so those looking for post-production aren’t missing out. Any DJ worth their salt is probably using Ableton Live 10.
Second Place, Best Overall: Reason 11
If you ask professional DJs and producers what software they prefer to use for their beats, many of them will tell you Ableton. But a smaller and more loyal group shows why 11. The full version comes at an affordable price and includes all the premium features you need. With the full version, you get Reason’s 10 software instruments, including Europa Shapeshifting Synthesizer, Thor Polysomic Synth, Subtractor Synth, and more.
The downloaded version also offers several exclusive effect plug-ins, including the RV-7 Digital Reverb, PH-90 Phaser, and BV512 Vocoder. Of course, you also get unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, VST (virtual studio technology) and Re Fill support, and everything you need to produce high-quality professional tracks.
Best Budget: Ableton Live 10 Intro
The demo version of Ableton Live 10 works perfectly as a replacement for the standard version, especially if you are new to production or DJing. You get many of the features of the standard version for a solid price – a bargain considering what you get. The main compromises? You only have to settle for 16 audio and MIDI tracks, so if your music is large, you may need to purchase the full version. You still have the MIDI recording and learning functions, but they’ve reduced the audio inputs and outputs to just four.
Surprisingly, the remaining numbers are not so small. The Intro version of the software offers 1,500 (5 GB) sounds, four software instruments (just one less than the full version), 21 sound effects, and eight MIDI effects (like the full version). So if you can tolerate a much smaller feature set and fewer tracks, but love Ableton’s grid interface, this might be the software for you.
Best value for money: Image Line FL Studio Producer 20
Originally an entry-level ultrasound program (even with a completely free version once enticingly called Fruity Loops), Image Line’s FL Studio Producer 20 is now a full-fledged audio workstation that offers premium features at an incredible price.
The software adheres to the three main pillars of any good rhythm creation software: great recording capabilities with pitch shifting and time stretching, exceptional sequencing capabilities for MIDI production, and a full range of mixing and mastering plugins to do it all. Good idea. The intuitive mixer screen is color-coded with easy-to-use faders and effect channels, and the piano roll also offers a more intuitive user interface than many other (more expensive) programs. Plus, it has 80 built-in plugins, from EQ to reverb, compression and more.
Best Mastering Plugin: iZotope Ozone 8 Advanced
Mastering is the last step in the production process and often the last step in building the software capabilities of a home studio. But if you want the most professional-sounding tracks after spending all your time producing and mixing, you should use Ozone 8, iZotope’s latest flagship mastering plugin. What the brand calls “The Future of Mastering” offers the expected full range of modern features, from numerous stereo and spatial imaging options to an intelligent track detection algorithm.
Their EQs are some of the most reliable in the software world, and they even pioneered the concept of a dynamic EQ that changes with the range of the song. They also offer a number of vintage compressors, maximizers and tape delay units to recreate old school hardware rack units.
Best Synth Plugin: Native Instruments Komplete 11
When it comes to plugins, Native Instruments needs no introduction. In addition to their Komplete line (which is basically an umbrella collection that includes most of their plug-in software), they’ve long been offering some of the world’s most iconic sounds with Reaktor. Komplete 11 has many features but a high price.
We are talking about 45 different high-quality plugins with more than 13,000 sounds and more than 150 GB of effects and samples. You get Reaktor 6 for all your synth needs and a host of favorites including Una Corda, India, Replika and Kinetic Metal – giving you incredible value for money, of course. This is a one-stop shop for adding synthesizer plugins to your DAW and creating the perfect melody or chord progression.
Best Plugin Pack: Waves Diamond Plugin Pack
When buying plugins for your DAW, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, what plugins do you already have in your software? If you don’t think that’s enough, it might be time to turn to add-ons for your workstation content. And if so, your best bet is to spend a little more to get a valuable package.
Waves is a premium mastering and effects plugin brand that specializes in combining their products for the best deal. Our pick here is the Diamond bundle, which is a solid step up from their Mercury bundle. You get over 65 different mixing and mastering options, including dynamic plug-ins (such as compressors and exciters), equalizers, reverbs, pitch correction, and even spatial imaging. They also modeled some vintage hardware units to recreate some of those classic sounds in your mix.