If you are coming from a gear/synthesis background then I feel Reason is definitely the way to go. Its “rack” based user interface is super intuitive for cable/studio jockeys and its route-ability is hands on and fun and allows for some very creative connecting and sound synthesis.
If you are coming from an instrumentation/performance background (guitar/vocals/piano/keyboards) then Ableton might be the way to go. It is easy to record a musical performance and then edit it, and there are many tools included to aid in the polishing and refinement of the final song.
In my opinion both Ableton and Reason comfortably ride the fine line between “hobby” and “professional” software capabilities but have niggling shortcomings at a higher/commercial level of production.
In this regard Logic Pro is most definitely the more powerful and flexible of the three and it can be very intimidating to get into, even for an intermediate user. That said Logic Pro is well worth the investment for the serious producer and bridges the gap from primarily home based recording systems to higher end suites like Pro Tools and Nuendo.
The other DAW to consider at this level is Cubase – all the power of Logic without the need to invest in an overpriced block of aluminum to run it.
A few people have criticized not covering FL Studio or Digital Performer and the like and I see no problem with this. Ninety-nine percent of the producers I have worked with (in techno and post production at least) are using one of these three platforms extensively. That is not to say they are not viable options, just that in my experience they don’t come up very often in technical conversations.
Software like Pro Tools and Nuendo, in general, typically sit on another level up from Reason, Ableton and Logic Pro and are good to learn if you seriously desire to work in large scale studios or on large consoles, but they are mostly used outside the musical side of production, being more capturing/recording tools rather than creative tools. They are most often used in the hands of recording or mixing engineers rather than music makers, although the line between the engineer and musician these days is, admittedly, very thin and grey.
Personally I use four DAWs, Logic, Ableton, Reason and Pro Tools in varying degrees of hierarchy depending on the project. (I will be adding Cubase to my skill set as well.)
I spent most of my formative years learning production on outboard gear (The MC-505/MC-303/Sh-32 for what it’s worth) and from there I moved on to Propellerhead’s Reason because its emulation of a studio rack/environment was a natural and easy progression.
Reason remains integral to my own personal productions but these days it is always rewired into Logic Pro and functions more like an uber third party plug-in than the stand alone that it is.
I added Logic Pro to my DAW skill set for a more polished and wider scope of production when I ran into the higher end limitations of Reason. Reason has no support for video and at the time had no audio input/recording capabilities. (That, of course, has all changed with the newer versions of Reason but I am yet to upgrade from 4 and there’s still no video support as far as I know.)
My professional work, scoring to video and mixing, is all done in Logic Pro which is designed for this kind of work and allows for easy porting of projects to larger studios and facilitates preparation of multiple stems for mixdowns and mastering.
I use Ableton Live as a live performance tool and for any work requiring heavy manipulation of audio content such as sound design projects, audio based arrangements or remixes. Even though Ableton Live supports video I almost always rewire it into Logic Pro anyway because Logic Pro has far superior and accurate control and monitoring features, but I won’t go into details here.
All three essentially do the same thing, but in slightly different ways and in varying degrees. In the end it’s your preferences and creative needs that will be the deciding factor.
There are free trial versions out there. Play around with them, get a feel for the similarities and differences and go with the one that “feels” right and suits your creative flow.
Take into account your budget, your musical and professional intentions, if any, and weigh your options from there.
This video is an old but great overview of the three platforms and also covers a little bit of history behind each.
LoopTV.net presents Producer Tech’s Rob Jones guide to the differences between Apple Logic Pro, Reason and Ableton Live for producers looking to get to grips with what each platform offers. The video outlines the platform and DAW differences both in terms of Audio and MIDI capability, as well as looking at each platform’s sequencing, editing and bundled FX and instruments packages, to offer a clearer understanding of the 3 software packages.