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Best Free DAW 2020: Pro Reviewed for Producers on a Budget

Author: Robin Vincent

Last updated: Jul 13, 2020

Reads: 70,127

Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website

You might be asking yourself, "Is there a free DAW?"

Hell yes! Our picks for the best free DAWs (2020) are:

  • Cakewalk by Bandlab
  • Tracktion Waveform Free
  • Studio One Prime V4
  • Roland Zenbeats
  • LMMS
  • BandLab
  • SoundBridge
  • Apple GarageBand

You’d usually expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a proper software studio but you might be surprised to find that there are plenty of options out there that will cost you absolutely nothing.

Sure, they might not have the polish or some of the higher-end features but for most people, a free DAW probably has everything you need to make the kind of music you want to make. So don’t let the cost be a barrier to producing your own music and if you get more ambitious later on there’s plenty of places to go from here.

When choosing your DAW there are a few things to consider. Think about the sort of music you’re making.

Are you recording live instruments? How many tracks of audio do you need? Do you just want to use software sounds? Are you using samples and loops?

The answers to these questions should guide you towards the right choice whether that’s more audio-focused or more about electronic music or a mix of both.

So these are my picks of the best music-making software that you can use for free in 2020. And just to note that to make it on the list it must be legally free. Many people asked why the list doesn’t feature Cockus Reaper, well…is Reaper free? Nope! If you want to legally continue using it past the trial period then it’ll cost you 60 bucks.

Reaper is awesome, but it’s not awesome for nothing.

Similarly, you often get cool cutdown versions of DAWs like Ableton Live Lite or Bitwig 8-Track with hardware purchases for “free” but we’re looking at those that don’t require any purchase on your part.

Cakewalk by BandLab

It was once a “proper” DAW with a “proper” price tag called Sonar but when Bandlab bought Cakewalk they decided on a new approach. Cakewalk By Bandlab is a full-fledged professional DAW that you can use now, for free.

It is for Windows only and in fact, Bandlab says they are working with Microsoft to build in better support for the Surface Pen and Surface Dial, multi-touch and Bluetooth MIDI. That’s going to keep it a Windows exclusive and perfect for people using touch-enabled Windows computers, hybrids and tablets.

Here are some of the highlights. Cakewalk by BandLab has a 64bit audio engine with plug-in support for DirectX and VST3 effects and virtual instruments. There’s ARA support for integrated Melodyne pitch correction. The studio-quality “Pro Channel” brings professional effects directly into the mixer console with reverbs, resonant filtering, dynamic compression, EQ and tape emulation.

One recent innovation was the ability to save and recall different mixes within the same project. Of course, it has unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, something not often found in free software.

Despite its award-winning interface some people just don’t like it. It can appear busy and cluttered at times. It has a workflow that doesn’t gel for everyone. That’s why there’s such great competition in the DAW market. All these bits of recording software do very similar things and yet can have vastly different approaches and ways of working.

Pros & Cons

  • Unlimited track counts
  • Full VST format plug-in support
  • Professional tools and effects
  • Good touch support
  • Windows only
  • Can feel cluttered

Cakewalk by Bandlab

Tracktion Waveform Free

Tracktion Corporation usually releases a new version of their excellent Waveform DAW every year. When they do so they also release an older version of their DAW for free. It’s normally from a few versions before and so last year they hit version 10 on Waveform and released Tracktion 7 (as it was called then) as the free version.

This year they’ve announced version 11 of Waveform and simultaneously announced Waveform Free which is essentially Waveform V8 from a couple of years ago.

It’s difficult to overemphasize how awesome this is. Waveform Free is a fully-fledged DAW that only a couple of years ago was Tracktion’s flagship product. At the time of writing we’ve only had an announcement and a glimpse of it in a video but if Tracktion stays true to form then it will have all the features of Waveform 8.

Waveform works a bit differently than other DAWs but has a very intuitive and fast workflow. You have unlimited MIDI and audio tracks plus a suite of professional-grade processing, EQ and mixing effects. It has some great editing within MIDI clips where you can generate patterns and detailed automation. In fact, automation and modulation are everywhere because you can apply LFOs to any parameter in your project.

It has an effects rack where you can chain up plug-ins and create complex connections between all the audio processors. You can apply stacks of effects to individual audio clips.

Waveform 8 introduced a number of cool instruments including a sampler and an FM synthesizer. It also brought in MIDI chord progressions and melodic pattern generators.

There’s the sort of depth here you’d only find in top-end DAWs. It will do vocal comping, step sequencing, track freezing, MIDI learning, time and pitch warping and sync to video. It also fully supports VST plugins and instruments and will run on Windows, MacOS and Linux.

Waveform Free is comprehensive, different, creative and adventurous and you know there’s a further route to go to in Waveform 11 if you want to progress further.

Pros & Cons

  • Unlimited audio and MIDI tracks
  • Spectacular automation and modulation
  • VST plugin support
  • Cross-platform
  • Step sequencing
  • Plugin chaining
  • No traditional mixer view
  • Steeper learning curve to get started

Tracktion Waveform Free

Slide Do You *Really Have What it Takes? Do You *Really
Have What it Takes?
Let's See Let's See

Studio One Prime V4

Releasing simpler versions of a flagship product is a tried and tested way of bringing users into your ecosystem. The thing with Prime is that it’s not half bad and has most of the features you’d expect to find in a DAW you’d pay for.

It has the same streamlined, single-window interface that’s great on high DPI screens and touch-enabled. It has unlimited audio and MIDI tracks including multiple MIDI track editing and audio comping. Version 4 brings in a new instrument and drum editor along with drum and melodic patterns for pattern-based arranging. Automation, mixing, sidechaining, resampling, and normalization are all there.

However, there’s also quite a bit missing when compared to the flagship version. Most problematic is the lack of support for VST plug-ins. It comes with a single workstation sampler synth called Presence XT but that’s about it and so in terms of sequencing virtual instruments, it is sorely lacking.

And without the VST support, you can’t add other free (or paid for) instruments that you might have. You can, however, pay for the Mai Tai virtual analog synth as an add-on. Other cool Studio One features are also missing like the Scratch Pads, Chord track and Harmonic Editing, and Melodyne integration. But Studio One professional is a top-level and innovative DAW and there are reasons why they charge you for it.

There’s enough in Studio One Prime to keep the budding Producer happy and it builds up a knowledge base of the workflow for the inevitable upgrade to Artist or Professional versions. If it had VST support it could have a crack at being king of the heap of freeware DAWs, but as it is the technology and the workflow are excellent, it’s a very capable training ground for the fuller versions.

Pros & Cons

  • A basic but decent version of an excellent DAW
  • Some good effects built in
  • Patterns
  • All the audio editing and mixing tools you need
  • No VST plugin support
  • There’s a lot missing from the full version

Studio One Prime V4

Roland Zenbeats

The name may be new but the look might be familiar. Roland recently acquired Open Labs, the people behind the Stagelight cross-platform DAW. Roland has renamed it Zenbeats and they intend to take it to many new levels beyond its comprehensive Stagelight origins.

At this early stage they’ve made a few branding changes but more importantly they’ve filled the library full of official sample packs of Roland gear. You’ll find TR-808, TR-909 and TR-707 drum kits all ready to go and plenty more.

As with Stagelight, there are three levels of Zenbeats which give you more features as you upgrade. But the free version is certainly no slouch. You’ll get unlimited tracks in both traditional Timeline and Loopbuilder modes. You get the SampleVerse sampler but with limited presets and basic versions of 9 other instruments. You also get a small bundle of effects.

Then Zenbeats plugs you into an integrated store that tries to tempt you with new features, new instruments and loop packs. But the free version is all you need to start making music.

Zenbeats is very touch-friendly and it has a great Loopbuilder mode where you can fire off MIDI and audio loops in an Ableton Live style of live performance. The cross-platform support does more than just run on different things, it allows you to start a project on your iPhone, zap it to your Windows PC for some mixing and finishing off on an Android phone all within the same project.

You’ll need to give it some money to access VST Plugins and extra features but it’s a great place to start.

Pros & Cons

  • Lovely interface
  • Loopbuilder
  • Touch friendly
  • Cross-platform ( iOS and Android as well as Mac and Windows)
  • Exclusive Roland content
  • No VST support unless you pay
  • Small amount of plugins

Roland Zenbeats


LMMS is “Open Source” and community-driven meaning that it’s constantly evolving as people put time into the development. But it’s in a good place with a great cross-platform feature set. It goes for the single window approach and offers unlimited audio and MIDI tracks. It has a great inbuilt pattern-based sequencer along with the usual MIDI piano-roll editors. And all the regular recording and arranging tools that you’d expect.

The strength of LMMS comes from the content. The community has developed 16 synthesizers and tons and tons of effects that come with it. There are virtual analog synths, SID based synths, Yamaha chip emulations and a lot of Chiptune bits and pieces. It supports Soundfonts, Giga and Ultrasound formats for massive sample-based instruments. But it also supports VST Plugins so you can easily expand your sonic collection.

The interface is clean and inviting and you can move projects between Windows, MacOS, and Linux without any bother. Being Open Source often suggests that it will be complex and difficult to get into but LMMS is designed by musicians to give a simple and effective way to make music.

Pros & Cons

  • Designed by users
  • Packed with instruments and effects
  • VST plugin compatible
  • Cross-platform
  • Open Source can appear daunting
  • Interface feels dated



Hang on, I thought BandLab was all about Cakewalk? Well, it is, partly. Before BandLab picked up Cakewalk they already had their own completely free DAW. The reason why it’s still around in light of all this Cakewalk business is because it’s a bit different. BandLab (the software) is an online DAW built for collaboration and social fraternizing.

Sounds like fun but it’s also a pretty decent piece of recording software. But the best feature is that it’s all online and runs in your browser and so it doesn’t matter which computer or platform you use, you can pick up your project where you left off. So you can do a bit of recording at home, and then mix on your phone on the way to using a computer at school or work, and then do some more tweaking on your mom’s MacBook. It’s completely platform agnostic.

And the feature list is ridiculous. It comes with 120 professionally-crafted virtual instruments, amp models for guitar and bass, guitar and vocal effects processing and real-time automatic pitch correction. You get access to over 2,000 royalty free loops, drum pattern editors, MIDI sequencing and loop triggering.

You can record audio directly into BandLab or upload audio from another DAW. And when your project is done, BandLab offers free algorithmic mastering, which means a computer does it rather than a human. But even so, you get a pretty finished product at the end.

The collaboration side is also very interesting. When you’re not chatting to other musicians and Producers you can invite them to contribute to your project. Grant them access and they can add tracks, edits or mixes for some truly collaborative creativity without having to Dropbox files anywhere. It’s all saved in unlimited space in the Cloud. Unlimited tracks, unlimited projects, unlimited collaboration.

Ok, it’s not Pro Tools. You’re not dealing with complex synchronization or hardware synthesizers. The audio connection and monitoring to an online DAW are going to be problematic in terms of latency. But the recording, sequencing, editing, and mixing are all there, and the ease of collaboration makes BandLab a very interesting and sociable experience.

Pros & Cons

  • Cross-platform
  • Runs online so you can access it from anywhere
  • Collaboration
  • Decent selection of instruments and effects
  • Needs an internet connection
  • Can’t monitor through the software
  • Won’t be able to run hardware synths in sync due to high latency



Simplicity is the name of the game in SoundBridge. It has a good, clean and familiar look and ticks all the usual DAW type boxes with MIDI and audio tracks, mixing and processing. Strangely, they don’t give away too much information about the feature set or functionality; you have to download it and discover it for yourself.

This requires giving up an email address and you’ll need to log in every time you want to use it. However, once you’ve jumped through the hoops you end up in a decent recording environment.

You get MIDI and audio tracks with full automation and a drag-and-drop interface that feels like a cross between FL Studio and Studio One. SoundBridge is very much into using a touch interface and so the design of the interface lends itself to finger-sized touching. It also has a strong connection to the SoundBridge Academy courses and online collaboration platform

It’s a little light on its own plugins but you do get the RitMix drum machine which is pretty good fun and as SoundBridge supports VST plugins then you can always add further ones. In fact, once you’ve registered you get access to a decent bundle of freeware effects and instruments from third parties in a useful single download.

Pros & Cons

  • Nicely touchable interface
  • VST plugin support
  • Good range of free plugins
  • Online collaboration
  • MacOS and Windows
  • Aggressive registration requirements
  • Touch interface can make it feel chunky for mouse use


Apple GarageBand

GarageBand is the annoyingly good music-making platform that has excelled on iOS and just refuses to go away. Built by the people behind Logic Pro, it has a certain gravitas that peeks out from behind the rather toy-like interface. But the interface works, it brings people in, it makes it so easy to start recording, sampling, playing with instruments and writing songs.

It’s right there, beautifully touch-enabled and even though it was originally built for MacOS, it simply shines on the iPad.

It has drummers, loops, and rhythms built. You’ll find live instruments, synthesizers, and samplers all wired in and ready to go. You can add vocals, guitars, all processed by built-in amp models and effects. Being on the iPad or on your iPhone you can mix and tweak on the bus or in the park. When you’re ready you can hit a button to publish to Facebook, SoundCloud, YouTube or whatever.

It has its limitations (like 32 tracks) but that’s as much to do with the limitations of iOS hardware as anything else, and it can’t route MIDI out to external instruments. But it does communicate well with Audiobus and accepts AU plug-ins for further expansion. As something that’s installed by default on your iPad, it’s a pretty awesome place to start making music for free.

Pros & Cons

  • Comprehensive iPad DAW
  • Supports both MIDI and audio recording
  • Comes with great instruments
  • Transferrable to MacOS
  • Limited track count

Apple GarageBand

Beef up your free DAW with our picks for the best free drum VSTs and the best free VST instruments!


Cakewalk by Bandlab is a full-on, pro-level DAW with a ton of capability but with a slightly cluttered design that can put some users off.

With unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, the easy-to-navigate Tracktion Waveform Free is another strong, “I can’t believe it’s a free DAW” contender.

Studio One Prime V4 is a streamlined DAW with lots of potential, including an instrument and drum editor with drum and melodic patterns. Unfortunately it doesn’t feature much VST support, which could make it a “no” for many home producers.

Roland Zenbeats is jam-packed with a nice amount of sample packs featuring Roland gear. It’s super touch-friendly, although, as you progress, you may want an upgrade. But for now, who cares? It’s free.

LMMS is a community-driven gem that evolves according to the needs of its users. Expect a nice collection of synths and effects, plus VST support.

BandLab is NOT the same as Cakewalk by Bandlab! This OG version is an online DAW that you can use within your browser window to collaborate with others or build your own sounds.

SoundBridge is a bit light on plugins, but fortunately, it offers good VST support. It’s clean, capable, and easy to get started with.

Then finally, there’s that old classic, Apple GarageBand. Built by the good people at Logic Pro, it does have limitations in terms of how many tracks you can layer at a time, but it also offers a wealth of music-making tools that makes it one of the best DAWs for beginners.

Rate this article. What did you think?


Community Question

What is the best free DAW for beginners?

The best FREE DAWs for beginners are:

  • Audacity
  • GarageBand
  • Reaper
  • Pro Tools First

One caveat with Reaper: it’s not free forever. You can download the full version for a free trial. After that, the company expects users to pay $60 or $225, depending on your level of use.

For more on these DAWs, check out our blog on the best DAWS for beginners, which includes both paid and free DAW options.

Community Question

What is the easiest DAW to use?

GarageBand is widely known as one of the easiest DAWs to use. The interface is easy to understand, there are loads of free tutorials online, and the design is intuitive. GarageBand is a great place to start as you’re learning how to produce music on a DAW.

Community Question

Is the Reaper DAW free?

You can use Reaper for free…but it’s not technically free. Reaper has a trial period, in which the DAW can be used free. It’s sort of an honor system: after your self-appointed trial is up, the manufacturer, Cockos, wants you to pay for it. Some people cheat and just never pay for Reaper, thus making it “free” (but not totally above-board).

In any case, Reaper just isn’t that expensive!

There are two pricing levels for Reaper:

  • $60 (discounted for personal use or for those who make less than $20,000 a year through commercial music production)
  • $225 (commercial license for pro-level users)
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