We’re in 2021, which means making music doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. There are so many fantastic ways to produce music on a shoestring with the only prerequisite being a capable computer. We’ll examine some of the top free DAWs so you can be preoccupied with your craft and not your wallet.
Tracktion Waveform Free
Tracktion is an award-winning piece of freeware that rivals even paid DAWs in terms of features and usability. They tout the software having “no restrictions whatsoever”; things like unlimited track count and the ability to add third-party plugins come standard.
Waveform Free has more than enough power for most producers. However, there’s a Pro version you can graduate to if you find yourself limited, for whatever reason, by Waveform Free.
Right off the bat, if you own an Apple computer or mobile device, you also own Garageband. For $0, it’s a surprisingly capable DAW (that is, if you already own an Apple computer!). A stripped-down version of the professional DAW Logic Pro X ($199), Garageband is the perfect place to tinker with tracking, MIDI, and mixing before taking the plunge with weightier software. Its intuitive design makes it an easy DAW for beginners to jump in and test the waters.
Ohm Studio is a free DAW by popular plugin maker Ohm Force. The basis of the project was real-time collaboration, and as far as free software goes, Ohm got it down. Apart from its collaborative abilities, Ohm Studio is a pretty comprehensive DAW for any new producer looking to get the most out of their freeware.
One of the most popular open source programs for many years running has been Audacity. Currently on version 3.0.2 as of April 2021, Audacity is compatible with Windows, OS X, and Linux operating systems, ensuring access for all users. If multitrack recording and editing seems like it’s for you, try it out with Audacity before dropping the dough on expensive software.
Ardour is a free comprehensive DAW for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. It hosts an unlimited number of tracks, buses, channels, and sends/inserts per channel. The system is really only limited by your computer’s brainpower. Ardour also comes with a good handful of basic plugins for everyday effects, and it supports VST, AudioUnits, and LV2 format third-party plugins.
For recording, editing, and mixing, Ardour is extremely powerful. Many of the same features found in paid DAWs are all inside Ardour, for no cost. Of course, this DAW has a personality all its own with a ton of flexibility for virtually any project.
Pro Tools First
A lighter, and best yet, free version of Pro Tools, First is ideal for anyone who is new to Pro Tools or audio recording. Pro Tools First supports playback for up to 16 audio tracks and allows recording of up to 4 tracks simultaneously.
As far as free DAWs go, PT First also includes 20 plugins/effects and the powerful virtual instrument, Xpand!2. Most importantly, you’ll have everything you need to track, edit, and mix using Avid’s industry-leading technology.
SoundBridge‘s designers kept simplicity in mind when coming up with this free DAW. It’s a DAW for musicians with easy access to all essential tracking, sequencing, editing, and mixing functions. In addition, they met all the professional industry standards and offered complete third-party VST and low-latency/high-fidelity audio driver support.
Naturally, the best part is: you can download SoundBridge for Mac or PC in 32 and 64-bit formats for free.
Steinberg’s powerful Cubase Pro software comes with a price tag of over $500. That’s certainly not chump change, but luckily, much like Pro Tools First, LE is a free “lite” version of Cubase Pro. The only drawback is that you’ll need a dedicated piece of hardware that comes with a code for it, such as a Steinberg interface.
Cubase LE supports up to 24 MIDI tracks, 16 audio tracks, and 8 physical inputs with recording quality up to 24-bit/192 kHz. The free software also comes with the HALion Sonic SE 2 virtual instrument featuring 180 presets, so you can dive headfirst into producing music. Another 18 basic plugins, like EQ, compression, and delay, ensure you’ll have everything you need out the gate.
Cakewalk by BandLab
In early April 2018, BandLab announced that it would be relaunching Cakewalk’s famous SONAR Platinum DAW as a free download.
According to the company’s press release,
The revived DAW includes all core premium features of SONAR Platinum such as the award-winning Skylight user interface, flexible ProChannel modules, and powerful end-to-end 64-bit mix engine.
The software is currently available for Windows users at no cost, making it one of the best free DAWs at around a $600 value. Despite it’s restrictive operating system requirements, you simply won’t find a premium DAW like this for free elsewhere.
- RELATED: Best DAW’s For Beginners
PreSonus Studio One 5 Prime
PreSonus’s professional software has been a widely-used DAW for many years, and Studio One 5 comes with some major upgrades to improve workflow and efficiency. Of course, none of this is without a hefty fee.
Studio One 5 Prime behaves similarly to Cubase LE or Pro Tools First as a toned down, but highly functional, silhouette of its big brother.
Ableton Live Lite
Ableton Live is one of the most popular DAWs for MIDI sequencing, sampling, and electronic music production, though it’s fully capable of audio recording and editing as well. In Live Lite, you can see what the Ableton workflow is all about at no charge. Like Cubase, though, you’ll need a registration code that comes with certain pieces of hardware. Technically the software is free, but you’ll need to pay for hardware to access it.
As we’ve seen with previous “lite” softwares, this DAW has select virtual instruments and effects so you can get the job done on a budget. Live Lite is packed with an EQ, compressor, delay, reverb, and analogue filter emulator amongst other plugins. It’s also packaged with three Ableton virtual instruments: Drum Rack, Impulse (a drum sampler), and Simpler (a powerful sampling instrument).
- Related: Ableton 11 -New Updates & Features
Take Your Pick of the Free DAWs Offered
There’s certainly no shortage of free music production software on the market, so there’s no excuse to not be making music in 2021! To recap:
- Cakewalk by BandLab is undoubtedly the most powerful of the free DAWs available, though it’s Windows-only. It’s a rebranded version of SONAR Platinum, minus the full $600 price tag, with all its professional features.
- Garageband, Pro Tools First, Cubase LE, PreSonus Studio One 5 Prime, and Ableton Live Lite are all compact versions of their full-featured (and expensive) counterparts. They’re a great way to experiment and find a DAW that suits your workflow. For many purposes they offer a complete experience, though you may consider upgrading down the road. Keep in mind that Cubase and Ableton require a code that you can only acquire through purchased hardware.
- Audacity is a widely recognized open source program for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. It’s been around for years and isn’t limited to a single operating system—a fantastic place to begin.
- Tracktion, SoundBridge, and Ohm Studio are very comprehensive, though Tracktion is likely the best and most familiar experience for a free DAW.