This past year has seen a slew of new version releases and updates from DAW developers, many in response to Apple’s introduction of its macOS Big Sur (macOS 11) and latest “system on a chip” CPUs. September, especially, brought a bunch of releases compliant with Apple’s M1 processor, which is in new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, 24-inch iMac, Mac Mini and iPad models. For pro users, rumors continue to swirl that products with Apple’s high-performance M1X multi-core silicon will be available before year’s end. A major new release of Apple Logic Pro is also just out.
The following is a brief guide to the most recent major version releases and dot-x updates and bug fixes for some of the most popular and widely used DAWs.
Ableton Live 11
Ableton launched Live 11 in February, adding new features and improvements for the electronic music producers, composers and DJs who favor the platform over many of the alternatives, not least for its comprehensive MIDI and time manipulation capabilities. Among a long list of new features, Live 11 introduced enhanced audio and MIDI comping functionality and MIDI Polyphonic Expression, the new protocol (based on MIDI) that enables digital instruments to behave more like acoustic instruments by controlling multiple parameters for each individual note.
At the end of September, Ableton announced that an update to the performance and production software is now in public beta. Among other features, Live 11.1 introduces minor improvements to its Shifter device, which adds a new mode for real-time, monophonic pitch shifting, as well as delay, an envelope section, an LFO and glide functionality.
Avid Pro Tools 2021.6
The latest version of Pro Tools, which Avid dropped in June, is all about the power, enabling users to record and mix bigger sessions with more I/O, tracks and voices. Pro Tools and Pro Tools | Ultimate now support a maximum 64 channels of I/O, double that of the previous version.
With the new Hybrid Engine for HDX, Pro Tools | Ultimate supports a maximum 2,048 voices and audio tracks at all sample rates, or five times more than previous versions. Pro Tools now supports a maximum 256 mono or stereo audio tracks at all sample rates, up from 128 at 48 kHz. Hybrid Engine users may toggle between Native and DSP modes on a track-by-track basis to reduce the distraction of latency. Pro Tools also works with more outboard gear using any Core Audio or ASIO interface.
In July, Avid made it possible for users to distribute tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos for Apple Music’s Spatial Audio from the AvidPlay subscription-based DIY music distribution service. Avid also announced that annual Pro Tools subscribers will receive more than $1,500 in plug-ins, sounds and training content for free with the new Pro Tools Inner Circle program.
Cockos Reaper 6
Arguably the best bang for the buck among DAWs, Cockos Reaper (Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering and Recording), which costs $60 for personal and educational uses, has an avid fanbase for its consumer-friendly feature set and very frequent updates and improvements. It’s also light on computer resources, occupying less than 70 MB when installed. Reaper 6 was released at the end of 2019; the license supports free updates through version 7.99.
Version 6 introduced FX plug-in embedding, auto-stretch and a routing diagram that provides a graphical patchbay emulation. The latest update, Reaper 6.36, released at the beginning of September, adds a long list of fixes and minor improvements, including to the metering, MIDI and surround sound mixing capabilities.
Image-Line FL Studio 20.8.4
Image-Line has the distinction of being challenged by food manufacturer Kellogg’s over its U.S. trademark application for FruityLoops, which the Belgian software developer introduced in the late 1990s. “No one ever took the ‘FruityLoops’ name seriously,” the developer’s website notes, so they changed the moniker. Available as FL Studio since 2003, Image-Line’s DAW is certainly taken seriously now, boasting a reported 30,000 trial downloads daily and regularly appearing in DAW Top 10 polls. Available for Mobile iOS, Android and Windows, it will also run as a VST inside another VST host.
Image-Line has offered lifetime free updates for FL Studio users for more than 23 years. In addition to the expected bug fixes, the latest update, 20.8.4, released in early September, also introduced a new Frequency Shifter that offers metallic, dissonant, ring modulation and phasing effects, and improvements to 3x Osc for better fidelity of sounds with high-frequency content.
MOTU Digital Performer 11
The latest version of Digital Performer, released in July, introduced a long list of new features to the DAW, which has been around since 1990. DP 11 now offers support for MIDI Polyphonic Expression; Articulation Maps, enabling full control of the expressive depth of today’s most advanced orchestral sound libraries; and Audio Retrospective Record, which captures audio even when the transport is not in Record (retrospective MIDI capture was introduced in a previous version). “Like magic, users can immediately recall any audio or MIDI material they’ve recently played,” the developer says.
This latest version of MOTU’s flagship workstation also offers a completely redesigned Nanosampler 2.0 instrument plug-in and “dozens of additional user-requested enhancements.”
PreSonus Studio One 5
PreSonus released Studio One 5.4 in September, the third major feature update to the latest version of its recording and production software in less than six months. Studio One, launched in 2009, covers all the bases, from composition to production to mastering and even performance, and is promoted by PreSonus as the only DAW with harmonic editing for both audio and MIDI.
The latest update, free to registered users, introduces a Plug-in Nap option that bypasses plug-ins when they are not processing audio, reducing demand on the CPU and minimizing dropouts. The company says that it has also updated its Mix Engine FX plug-ins for greater CPU efficiency.
A new Plug-in Manager provides additional tools for identifying and tracking down issues. As a further aid, a new Statistics tab monitors load and save times and preset sizes, and identifies each plug-in’s version number. Another timesaver is the new ability to output up to seven audio formats in a single pass. Those settings are saved when the Export Mixdown window is closed.
Steinberg Cubase 11
Cubase, available since 1989, introduced Cubase 11 at the tail end of 2020. Available in three versions—Pro, Artist and Elements—the comprehensive DAW is aimed at music producers, songwriters, engineers and composers.
Updates exclusive to Cubase Pro 11 include improvements to printing stems and better synchronization across different windows. For Cubase Pro and Cubase Artist, an update to the Frequency EQ plug-in adds dynamic response options. The Score Editor also now comes with many new enhancements. Also new across the range is Squasher, which combines upward and downward audio compression for up to three bands.
Cubase 11.0.40, released in September, introduced several fixes and improvements for audio export and working with Broadcast Wave files.
Steinberg WaveLab Pro 11
Launched two years after the previous major release, it’s no surprise that WaveLab Pro 11 delivers a long list of new features. Among them are extended support for multi-channel, interleaved audio files for opening, editing and saving up to 22.2 and Ambisonics surround sound formats, with easier editing and detailed selection options. The new release also now provides automation with clip envelopes to automate the parameters of VST 3 plug-ins.
Speaking of which, version 11 comes with a bunch of new VST 3 effects plug-ins, including Frequency 2, Squasher, Imager, Quadrafuzz v2, MixConvert V6, VST AmbiDecoder, DeReverb and LINpro, a dithering plug-in developed by mastering specialists MAAT Inc.
While WaveLab Pro—as the name suggests—is intended for mixing, mastering, post production, sound design and broadcast applications, WaveLab Elements is aimed more at musicians and podcasters. The new Elements 11 inherits some of the Pro edition’s features and plug-ins.