While it's possible to do some audio adjustments in popular non-linear editing (NLE) programs like Final Cut Pro X, Avid, and Premiere Pro, a dedicated digital audio workstation (DAW) can do a lot for a project's sound design.

What DAWs provide you is beyond the support of sample rates and bit-depth. It's about getting the power to control your audio in a fashion that lets you be more creative, faster.

For instance, once you're done with the edit and turn your attention to the soundtrack, your needs change. When editing picture, you end up adjusting audio cues either clip by clip or track by track. Once you move to focus your attention on the soundscape, you still do that, but you also want to start grouping those tracks together in a variety of like-minded tracks to make it easier and faster to make big global changes.

In audio, this is referred to as a bussing, which is a signal path that combines multiple signals together. You will want a bus for dialogue, a bus for music, and a bus for effects so that if you want to lower all the dialogue for a scene you don't have to go clip by clip or track by track, you can just lower one slider, bring down the dialogue bus, and away you go.

Within those big groups, you'll want a subgroup bus, say one for each character for dialogue, or ambient atmospheric effects and incidental sync effects for effects. All of that requires complicated controls for signal bus mapping, and you will want a toolset that is designed to make it as easy and intuitive as possible to organize your sounds to make them easy to manipulate. This is the power you get out of a real digital audio workstation.

You'll also want to be able to route where those busses go so that some can go through effects and plugins. You'll want to control where the busses go in terms of output—some will be mono, some stereo, some 5.1 or more—and you'll want to send certain sounds to specific places. Then you'll want to mix all the sound together, and ideally control the mix with a hardware board of some sort for real-time control.

There are workarounds to do most of this in your NLE, but you'll be happier doing it in a DAW. Mixing anything complex without a board can be a nightmare. Being able to make changes while listening increases the creative freedom you have in the process.

Hopefully, you are now convinced you need to work in a DAW for your sound design. Here are our choices that can get you started.

Table of Contents

Best Overall: Pro Tools


Despite an increasing amount of competition in the field, there remains one true leader in the realm of motion picture audio, and that is Pro Tools. It's hands down the single software that dominates the motion picture industry when it comes to DAWs. It's the default, and if you want to get into sound design, it's the software you need to master.

Pro Tools is not only at the top, it's likely to stay that way well into the future for two main reasons: plugin integration and hardware investment. Pro Tools is the software that all the major plugin manufacturers are writing for first, and they work to integrate their plugins, both in performance and in controls, most seamlessly to Pro Tools.

This means that even if your favorite plugin works in other apps, it's going to work best, feel the most fluid and natural in Pro Tools. Audio post-production is heavily driven by plugin work for manipulating sound, so this matters more than it does in video post, where plugins are a nice addition but you regularly finish projects without them. In audio post, every single project you sound design will use plugins extensively. It's the nature of manipulating audio.

On top of integration, the other key keeping Pro Tools at the top is the deep infrastructure investment many studios have already made in Pro Tools specific hardware. If you want to play back hundreds of tracks of sound with plugins in real-time in sync with video, you need accelerator hardware, and the hardware you purchase for Pro Tools may not work on another system. To manipulate those sounds in real-time, you need a mixing board where you can make real-time adjustments and you need a studio monitor system to evaluate them. These can run to the tens of thousands of dollars and are generally platform-specific. Many are made by Avid for Pro Tools. If you are a sound studio currently invested in your Pro Tools workflow, you aren't going to jump ship to another platform easily.

Pro Tools is available in three pricing flavors, Pro Tools First (free), Pro Tools (approx. $29/month), and Pro Tools Ultimate (approx. $80/month. You can save a bit on the monthly if you pay annually. You can also purchase a perpetual license for a premium. While these prices might seem steep, they are reasonable compared to the historic price of Pro Tools, and well worth it for the power that the software provides. 

Pro Tools First is free but very limited. It's really designed for learning the interface, and for that, it's fantastic. You can jump into Pro Tools First to get over the hurdle of learning the software, then move beyond when you're ready. 

Best Free: DaVinci Resolve Fairlight


Before Blackmagic purchased Fairlight, it already had a 20-year history as a high-end digital audio workstation, and the legacy of development showed up immediately when it was integrated into the popular Resolve software. With the full set of creative tools many are looking for, it also offers nice features like a slick sound library integration that makes it fast to link to a sound library and search for and import sound effects without having to leave the app. 

Fairlight is of course going to be most powerful for projects that are already finishing in Resolve. Even if you are only using Resolve for color, which is a very common workflow, the freedom of being able to click over a single tab and make some audio adjustment is powerful. If you're also editing in Resolve, the solution is even more advantageous since it all operates off the same timeline. For instance, you can do some editing, tweak some color, massage some sound, and then go back to the edit timeline to keep working, and it all stays in sync.

For smaller projects, this is an amazing integration of features and legitimately changes some of the creative workflow. For a long time, the habit was when a project was handed over to the sound designer everything you did—automations, clip levels, even a lot of clip placement—was thrown out, and they started from scratch.

With a tight turnaround, there isn't always time for that, and it isn't always necessary. For instance, when cutting commercials that might have no voiceover or dialogue, sometimes the sound design is how you sell an edit. The ability to make your edit, go to sound design and futz it up to sound right, then go back and tweak your edit in response is a great fluid workflow. 

On the flip side, it increases the pressure on younger artists to have a wider array of skills. At the top of the industry, it's still all about specialization, hiring a sound designer, a mixer, an editor, and a colorist. However, on smaller jobs, there's more pressure for the editor to have at least one, or often two, skills such as motion designer, colorist, or sound designer.

Blackmagic is also pushing training and education aggressively. You can become a certified Fairlight user for free, where the same certification costs you much more in Pro Tools. The process of becoming a certified trainer is also free. They give away their training manuals as free eBooks, host countless hours of tutorial software, and are clearly pushing for a bigger audience.

Best of all these, tutorials are well designed to start you from scratch and get you up and running. While YouTube tutorials are great, they tend to focus narrowly on a specific feature or function, and it's good to have a robust set of all-around basic intro tutorials to introduce people to the platform.

Best Included: Adobe Audition


Adobe Audition gets most of its use for projects that are edited in Premiere Pro. 

One of the most robust areas for Audition is the native noise correction tools. While most platforms don't put a lot of effort into things like noise correction, allowing that to be handled by third-party plugins, the native noise correction toolset in Audition is very useful. Even if you don't master its usage, sometimes it's helpful to do a rough cleanup on particularly bad audio in order to get through the edit. If you are a Premiere editor we highly recommend you add this skill to your quiver.

If you're already a Creative Cloud subscriber or have access through work or an academic institution, Audition is a good tool to learn for its availability and its intuitive toolset. If you are looking to acquire a new skill set in audio post, and are thinking of working in sound for film, you'll be better off taking the time to learn Pro Tools.

Best Alternative: Logic Pro


It also bears mentioning that there's a solution from Apple, Logic Pro. Like most Apple software, one of its benefits is that it is a single purchase, not a subscription, so if you want to buy a powerful piece of software outright, Logic is a great option.

You can buy it outright for $199, and if you work in education, you can buy the Pro Apps for education bundle which includes Logic, Final Cut, Compressor, and more for $199. 

Apple also works very hard to fully implement their software to work wonders on their hardware. They have an entire creative lab where editors, sound designers, colorists, and VFX artists do their work while Apple engineers observe and attempt to improve the experience. This leads to a software/hardware integration that can make programs perform far beyond what you would expect for the given specifications of a machine.

In addition to a surprising amount of power, Logic Pro also offers an intuitive toolset that is easy for a beginner to learn as they start their process of designing their soundscape. While it's best to set up to work directly with Final Cut Pro, it allows you to bring in FCP XMLs, which can also be created by DaVinci Resolve. So if you want to work in Logic Pro but edited in Resolve, Media Composer, or Premiere, you could make the handover by going through the Resolve. We can't guarantee that nothing would be lost in translation, but .fcpxml is a robust format, and this should work for most users.

Its biggest drawback is that it's Mac only. While Macs are still dominant in audio production, there are PC users out there and for a software to gain a lot of market share it helps to be platform agnostic, as Pro Tools, Audition, and Resolve are.

Final Thoughts

Sound is one of the most powerful areas you can improve your projects to help make your stories as impactful with an audience as possible. Learning a DAW is a great way to get a deeper understanding of the tools that are used to create those soundscapes, and to make it easier to create moving audio yourself.

The hurdle to getting started is easier than it ever has been before. If you're thinking you might want to work in post sound full-time, download Pro Tools First right away and be prepared to sign up for full version of Pro Tools as you advance your skill set. If sound design is only part of your workflow, you're probably better off learning Fairlight, Logic Pro, or Audition.