Apple Logic Studio
Logic Pro Studio is Apple's flagship recording application. It includes tools for recording, mixing and mastering, as well as a huge library of royalty-free audio loops that can be used in your work. The included collection of effects and instruments are all capable of very high-quality resolutions. In addition to the core program, it also comes with a suite of companion applications for soundtracking and live use.
Cubase is one of the oldest DAWs available, and it has undergone many changes and improvements throughout its different versions. Cubase describes itself as a "Music Creation Studio," and it is geared towards songwriting and home recording. It is used professionally, but it is a popular choice for the bedroom producer. Its modest suite of instruments and effects are intended to cover all the basics needed to turn an idea into a demo.
Ableton live features a unique "Matrix" interface, as well as the standard horizontal channel strips. Ableton Live is an innovative DAW designed for sampling, looping, and DJing as well as recording. Clips of recorded audio can be saved as loops and dropped into a Matrix view, where they can be triggered and layered with others. The collection of instruments and effects available is quite slim, but Ableton can run third party units, available separately.
Garageband is an entry level DAW for the Mac, included as part of the iLife suite. If you are new to computer recording, Apple's Garageband is a gentle introduction to the concepts involved. Though the feature-set and included instruments are fairly basic, they clearly and simply laid out, which also makes it a handy "sketch-pad" for songwriters. Files created in Garageband can also be read by Logic, if you wish to upgrade later.
SONAR is the latest version of the long-serving Cakewalk series of DAWs. SONAR is a direct competitor to Cubase, a PC-based multi-track platform with all the instruments and effects needed for producing everything from rough-and-ready demos to full-scale professional production. Like Apple's Logic, SONAR is also available in a number of different versions, to suit different requirements and budgets.
Nuendo is designed for professional mixing and processing tasks, such as mastering or sound tracking. It can be used for recording, but its tool set is better suited to cleaning up and mixing audio tracks to a scientifically precise degree. It is most effective in the hands of trained audio engineer with an understanding of the science behind digital audio.
A relative newcomer to the DAW market, Orion has only really existed in the 2000s. It uses an input method based on the "Tracker" style of MIDI sequencer. Patterns are programmed into banks on each of the application's instruments. The patterns are then dropped into a sequencer to determine their playback order.
MOTU Digital Performer
Digital Performer is a Mac-only DAW with an extensive feature set. It has tools for recording, mixing, mastering and film sound tracking. It works best with the company's own proprietary hardware, so it is a good idea to factor this into your budget before making your decision.
ProTools is considered by many to be the industry standard DAW for professional studios. It is capable of producing high-quality recordings and has a huge feature set. It also has the price tag to match, and many of the instruments and effects are sold separately. Like Digital Performer, it also performs best when teamed with proprietary hardware.
Acoustica's Mixcraft application is another relatively new application. This one is aimed at capturing the amateur and beginner market. It is very competitively priced, with the basic version costing around half that of its competitors. It also offers an audio library and a much broader array of effects and instruments that another entry level package such as GarageBand.
As well as a high-resolution audio engine and a healthy selection of instruments and effects, Samplitude also features a fully customizable interface, allowing you to tailor the way you interact with it. The instruments that emulate analog synthesizers are created using an advanced electronics emulation package. This mathematically simulates the performance of electrical components, rather than just approximating them.
Sony ACID Pro
ACID Pro was originally produced as a sampling and looping workstation, but later versions have upgraded to full DAW functionality, with the addition of multi-track recording and film sound tracking support. The interface and control set are unique, which means that this package might be best suited those already familiar with previous versions.
Originally released in 2004, Reaper is focused on customization and small workflow improvements to make the working process more efficient. For instance, it includes an automatic feature for compiling different recording takes into a single file. After several takes have been recorded, the channel can be expanded to display them all simultaneously. You can then easily snip out the pieces you want and combine them into one take.
FL Studio is the current incarnation of "Fruity Loops" a pattern-based MIDI sequencer based on early hardware MIDI matrices. The studio version has added audio recording support, as well as a number of instruments and effects. Because of all the different control panels, it can be useful if you have a computer with a large monitor, or even more than one.
Another fully featured DAW, Studio1 includes support for recording, MIDI programming, mixing mastering and sound tracking. It is geared toward quick, easy music production, with a number of timesaving features. MIDI maps can be saved then dragged-and-dropped onto the timeline. Windows automatically organize themselves to give you the best view.