Short of cash? Just starting out in music production? You’ve come to the right place! Over the following 10 pages, we will reveal how you can produce an entire track from start to finish for no outlay, using nothing but freeware. We reveal the software you need and give you all the mixing and arranging advice to create a track from scratch for nothing…
Every year in MusicTech, we round up the latest developments in the music-production freeware scene. Freeware comes in three forms. The first is a cut-down (but usually still very usable) version of a commercially available title that is intended as a promo device for that product. It might well be that it has a limited number of features, or that it has paid-for expansions available for it.
The second type is simply a full piece of software – an instrument, a plug-in effect – that simply works, for free! These might be produced by small developers who are programming freeware, because they are dead nice people or simply trying to make a name for themselves as great programmers. In other cases, they might be made by a big company who is simply feeling generous and wants to get their name out there further.
The third type of freeware, and at the heart of this very feature, is a title that was once paid for, but has now been superseded, so the developer has decided to give it away for free and spread their word.
This year, rather than just rounding up the best freeware out there, which we have done in previous years, we’re going to do something a little different. We’re going to be a little more hands-on and show you how to produce an entire track from start to finish, using just freeware.
Along the way, we’ll include advice for all aspects of the production, so there should be something for everyone over the following pages and plenty to dip in and out of. Where possible, we will be using freeware that can run on Mac and PC (and, in some cases, Linux).
The heart of the beast
The centre of your software studio is, of course, the DAW or Digital Audio Workstation. We use a very special DAW for this feature that only became freeware a couple of months ago. We reviewed Tracktion Waveform for Mac, PC and Linux in issue 176 of MusicTech and it scored incredibly well with us. We concluded: “It integrates within your environment – be that Mac, PC or Linux – with ease. It’s a grown-up DAW for silly money.”
As we went to press, we discovered that an older version of it was just becoming available for free. Tracktion 5 had been free up to that point, but now Tracktion 6 (again for Mac, PC and Linux) is available to download from www.tracktion.com/products/t6-daw. As the company says: “This is no ‘Lite’ version, we do not impose track limits, plug-in limitations or other such constraints commonly found in other low-cost offerings.”
Tracktion 6 is the real deal and a completely free, no-hassle download. Importantly, it is also software that is only a couple of years old, so it’s packed full of features and should run on your computer, whatever you use. As such then, we are using Tracktion 6 as the heart of this Produce A Track For Free feature.
We’re still amazed such a fully featured package as Tracktion 6 is being given away. However, if you are happy with your DAW, then by all means use that. All the advice we’ll be providing is transferable to whatever DAW you use and all of the free software should work in pretty much every DAW as long as they are VST or AU compatible (which most are).
Tracktion 6 is our main freeware DAW, then, and it comes with an incredible spec given its free status. It supports AU, VST and Linux plug-in formats, has unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, full automation, editing and a whole host of keyboard shortcuts.
We explore many of these features in our extensive tutorials throughout the feature. As far as instruments and effects go, we’ve divided our instruments up into synths, drums and ‘real’ (or acoustic, so piano, guitar and so on) and also listed some classic and creative effects. We’ve included our top freeware recommendations within each category for you to try, but in the tutorials themselves, we will stick to just one or two of each instrument or effect, to keep things relatively simple.
Before you start the tutorials, we’re expecting you to have downloaded the freeware that we use within them from the websites listed in each of our ‘Fantastic Freeware’ lists. We’ve also included some of them on this month’s cover DVD, so do check that out as well (in some instances we will not have permission, so you will have to download them online yourself).
We start with a basic tutorial on how to get going with Tracktion 6. Obviously, the big assumption here is that you have a computer to run it on. In terms of that computer’s spec, we’re talking pretty basic across Mac, PC and Linux. An Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2GHz should do you, with 2GB of RAM – although, as ever, the more you have the better, and 4GB is recommended.
We then produce a basic song using some of the freeware plug-ins that we have rounded up and include a little detail on arranging and mixing, incorporating some of our favourite freeware effects in the latter process. Ultimately, we’re trying to show you that you really can produce an entire track, from the instruments through mix effects to mastering, entirely in the box and entirely for free (bar the cost of your computer). There really is no excuse not to make great music these days, as all of the tools are out there! So, without further ado, let’s make that music… for free!
Tracktion 6 basics
Right, here we go, then. Head on over to www.tracktion.com/products/t6-daw to download and install Tracktion 6. We’re not covering too much on installation – it’s as basic as it comes, on whatever system you use. There aren’t any security steps, and we had the software up and running and even ready to record audio in minutes.
Like any new DAW, Tracktion 6 might be daunting at first – certainly the first couple of screens aren’t that welcoming. But as with any new DAW, if you have someone sitting at your shoulder to take you through it, you’ll understand it in minutes and we aim to be that person, as we take you through the main features and detail some of the differences between this software and DAWs you may be used to.
Most software has drop-down menus at the top. Tracktion doesn’t; it has pop-up menus at the bottom left. That’s the first big difference. The second is that Tracktion has tabs going across the top for Settings and the current project, or ‘Edit’, that you’re in. Now this is great, because you can quickly step between different songs as projects, or different remixes of the same song.
Tracktion 6 basics: Step-by-step
1. The main File menus are at the bottom left of the main Tracktion 6 screen, so not your ‘normal’ drop-down menus, but everything is here including saving, importing audio and automation.
2. Instead of drop-down menus at the top of the screen, you get tabs which are for the main settings and to easily switch between projects or edits.
3. Transport controls for Play, Record, Fast Forward, Rewind and so on are bottom left. Play is assigned to the Space bar from the off.
4. By now, you’ll have started noticing the pop-up equivalent of an annoying fly – the Tracktion help system. Yes, it’s useful at first, but you’ll soon want to hit the Help menu at the bottom left of the screen.
You’ll notice the Transport controls are at the bottom right and by this time, we’re pretty sure you’ll also have noticed the pop-up help – which is as annoying as it was in our Tracktion Waveform review – heck, even the voiceover guy in the Tracktion tutorial video admits it’s annoying, so as quickly as you can, switch it off with the pop-up tab at the very bottom left.
In our next tutorial, we run through the basics of setting up Tracktion so that you can record audio, trigger MIDI if you have a MIDI keyboard, and load in VST instruments. By this time, we’ll presume you’ve downloaded or installed that freeware, so make sure you know where it and all of your plug-ins are on your computer so you can get Tracktion to scan for them.
Now we’re ready to get going… so start a New Project in Tracktion.
Setting up Tracktion 6
1. Any new DAW will need to be set up to talk to the outside world by way of audio and MIDI. Go to the Settings tab to ‘tell’ Tracktion 6 which MIDI device you are triggering with and which audio interface you use.
2. You’ll need to get Tracktion to scan for all of that freeware that you should have installed by now. Still in the Settings tab, input the locations of your plug-ins and hit scan. We have quite a lot!
3. To install a plug-in on a track, you simply drag the large + sign onto a track and Tracktion gives you options (in our case four) of where it has found plug-ins. You then simply select from the drop-down list.
4. We’re ready to produce a track for free in Tracktion now, so select New Project under the Projects tab, hit the ‘+’ tab and your project will be shown as a tab.