There certainly was a time when creating your own music demanded you own at least one instrument, a microphone, a mixer and the playing prowess to lay down flawless takes to avoid laborious editing and splicing. All these are still extremely useful to have but, luckily, technology has advanced us to the point where you can make professional-sounding tracks without spending a penny.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) are the centrepiece of modern music production, where you can record, edit and export audio – and they often cost upward of £200. Let’s take a look at the freeware DAWs you can get your hands on – both fully functioning and trials – without paying the big bucks.
Tracktion Waveform Free
Tracktion’s brand new Waveform Free is touted by the brand as “unlike any other so-called freeware DAW”. The software is compatible across Mac, Windows, Linux and even Raspberry Pi. With Waveform Free, you’ll be able to load in popular third-party plug-ins, (providing they’re available in 64-bit format). We’ve compiled a few lists of the best freeware plug-ins on the internet right now, which you can find here. Waveform Free also comes with its own instruments and effects, including a synth and drum sampler.
Waveform Free might take a little time to get your head around, but included in the software from the off is a set of tutorials and quick start guides to figure it out and start making music. There’s also a set of demo projects in Waveform Free for you to dissect, and to demonstrate the DAW’s capabilities.
Cakewalk by BandLab (Windows only)
Now accompanied by BandLab Assistant, a free service offering thousands of loops and samples, Cakewalk by BandLab is a fully-featured DAW that’s been on the scene for decades. Previously known as SONAR, Cakewalk by BandLab has a ton of advanced features to help create pro-sounding projects, and a sleek, customisable and award-winning user interface. The mixing console sports an analogue design with the ability to stack effects and mix channels effortlessly.
The ProChannel section contains a variety of high-quality effects that are instantly usable, including convolution reverb, resonant filtering, dynamic compression, EQ, tube saturation and more. Its audio editing tools allow you to fix mistakes, arrange parts, and manipulate pitch, time and more. Mastering tools are included with Cakewalk so you can start and finish your tracks in a singular piece of software. Third-party plug-ins are also supported here, so you can really push the boat out on stacking a pleasing number of synths and effects in Cakewalk to get professional results. And it’s ARA2 enabled if you want to use Melodyne.
GarageBand (Mac only)
Apple’s freeware DAW is not to be overlooked. Steve Lacy, R&B artist and member of The Internet, recorded Steve Lacy Demo and Kendrick Lamar’s PRIDE on GarageBand for iOS. If a track on a Grammy Award-winning album can be made on the iOS version, just imagine what can be achieved on GarageBand desktop, where third-party plug-ins are supported and audio can be edited in more detail. Well, just ask Justice.
GarageBand comes with a selection of synths, loops and Drummer, a dedicated virtual session player that features 28 beat‑making drummers and three percussionists. Also included is effects to shape your sound, including EQ, filters, guitar amps and more. You can even start learning piano and guitar with built-in lessons to follow along.
Plus, any projects created in Garageband can be easily migrated to Apple’s premium DAW Logic Pro X. More on that later…
GarageBand is free from the App Store. Find out more here
Pro Tools First
Pro Tools has been referred to as the industry-standard DAW for decades, thanks to its immediate audio editing and clean interface. Pro Tools First is designed to be an introduction to Pro Tools and audio recording altogether, but it does come with its limitations. It restricts users to 16 audio tracks, 16 virtual instrument tracks, and allows only four tracks of simultaneous recording.
You can’t load in third-party plug-ins but it does come with Xpand!2 (a multi-timbral workstation), 20 utility effects, plus 500MB of samples and loops. Pro Tools First offers ReWire, which lets you link up Reason to stream audio and MIDI between the two DAWs. It also includes project templates in various genres to help you create and record music right away. This may not be the most full-featured DAW out there, but if you’re just getting started in audio production, or need to open a simple project from a collaborator using Pro Tools, this could be the one for you.
Studio One Prime
PreSonus Studio One is stripped back to the essentials in this freeware DAW version, designed for beginners and independent artists. As with Pro Tools First, Studio One Prime prevents loading third-party plug-ins, but fortunately, Studio One Prime’s set of native effects, instruments and loop library is enough to lay down music whilst dipping your toes in the water. You’ll have access to advanced automation and the intuitive drag and drop workflow that Studio One boasts, plus unlimited audio tracks, MIDI tracks, virtual instruments, and effects channels to push your creativity to the next level.
There are 10 effects bundled into Studio One Prime, plus Presence XT being your main synth weapon, with the option to add on Mai Tai at any time for a small fee. To get going with Prime, PreSonus has a series of 20 video tutorials which break down the DAW in an easy-to-understand format, with each episode lasting between five and ten minutes. We also go in-depth on Studio One in our tutorials section.
BandLab – Free online DAW
If you’re not willing to take up loads of storage on your computer with heavy-duty freeware DAWs, BandLab is the ideal solution – plus you can make music with your friends online. Available on Chrome and for iOS and Android, BandLab is an online DAW that will let you record your own sounds into a session, add loops and MIDI instruments, then share your ideas directly with your friends. BandLab also updates its loops library frequently, with established artists partnering with the brand to publish their own sound packs for anyone to use – for free.
Doubling as a social media platform, you can upload your finished tracks or demos to your page and ‘fork’ them, allowing a fellow artist to hop in and add their own touch. This is great if you make an instrumental beat and need a vocalist, or if you need a guitar lick laid on top of your drums and basslines. You won’t be able to use third-party plug-ins here, and you’re limited to 12 tracks due to the nature of the platform, but getting started and making music with BandLab is as simple as signing up and making an account.
Freeware DAW trials
With software developers working to keep the world’s music makers indoors, it’s a good time to try out a new DAW. Several major brands have extended trial periods so you can try out their product before you part with your cash.
Cockos Reaper is currently free until 1 June 2020, and is revered for its flexibility and customisation options. Reaper is compatible with third-party plug-ins, including VST, VST3, AU and AUi formats. It’s a fully functioning DAW with automation, audio and MIDI editing, piano roll, built-in instruments, mix effects and more. Cockos has included a huge library of video tutorials on the software on its website too, teaching you the ins and outs of Reaper. It’s a handy resource if you need to troubleshoot, too.
Logic Pro X
If you’re finding GarageBand a little limiting, now is a good time to try out its big brother, Logic Pro X. Normally £200 on the App Store, Apple’s fully-fledged DAW is now available as a free 90-day trial from the Apple website. Logic Pro X will give you deeper audio editing and recording options, more advanced synths and effects, plus features to get you soundtracking to film. Apple has a guide on moving from GarageBand to Logic Pro X. We also have a weekly video series of Logic Pro Tips to teach you the DAW from the ground up.
Ableton Live 10
Beardyman, Steve Aoki, Youngr, Hinako Omoro, LYRE and Cody Currie are just some of the producers we’ve recently spoken with that use Ableton Live 10 to get ideas down. Its Session View is a great sketchpad and performance tool, and it’s incredibly easy to transfer those ideas into the Arrangement View and turn them into full compositions. Ableton Live is renowned for its audio and tempo warping features, and presents plug-ins, instruments and effects in a unique way using a scrolling panel at the bottom of the screen. You can currently get a 90-day trial on Live 10 Suite, with full access to all of its features. We teach you how to use Ableton Live 10 and all its features in our Ableton Live Tutorial videos.
While not technically Digital Audio Workstations, there are a couple of free applications based on modular gear that you can make music with. These will get you making weird sounds and getting used to hardware signal chaining in a fun and experimental way.
Cherry Audio Voltage Modular Nucleus
Available for both Windows and PC, Voltage Modular Nucleus is usually $29 but has been made free for the foreseeable future. The virtual modular system boasts 22 modules and over 130 presets to mess around with. It’s a pretty basic package, but it gives you a taste of the power of modular synthesis and might even leave you wanting more.
The MIDI Out function and open-source format on VCV Rack take this a step further than Voltage Modular Nucleus. In the event you have hardware modular gear, you can hook it up to your computer and send MIDI to your devices with CV-Gate, CV-MIDI and CV-CC from VCV Rack. The Eurorack simulator can also play sound with 16 voices of polyphony and as it’s open-source, you can get plug-ins from the community and expand the software.
Like what you see? We’re giving away MusicTech Issue 200: The Freeware Issue, free of charge, to provide you a full guide on making music for free. Download it here.
[Editor’s note: BandLab and Cakewalk by BandLab are owned by BandLab Technologies, MusicTech’s parent company.]