Best Free DAW Software for Music Production (2017)
Music recording software is a serious business and there’s nothing more serious than the price tag. Some DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) can cost more than the laptop you’re running them on! But there is a solution. There are a number of DAWs out there which will cost you absolutely nothing to run. This is fully featured, plug-in supporting, audio and MIDI recording software that could be the center of your studio. Some of this software is ridiculously good and makes you wonder why anyone would pay money for this sort of thing. Here’s my roundup of free DAWs with that little extra something.
Our 2017 Picks
Avid Pro Tools First
Avid Pro Tools is arguably the industry standard when it comes to audio production software. You’ll find it in almost every professional studio and production house across the world. This fact alone would suggest it’s a good idea to get to know Pro Tools. With Pro Tools First you can get to know Pro Tools for free.
Pro Tools has a very straightforward approach. There’s an Edit window, where you arrange and edit your recorded tracks and there’s a Mix window where you mix levels and add plug-ins. All that really varies between Pro Tools First and the “proper” versions is the track counts, the number of allowed inputs and outputs and a handful of tools. Otherwise, you are basically using the same software used to mix your favorite album or the latest blockbuster movie. That’s pretty cool.
So, what do you get? With Pro Tools First the magic number is 16. You get 16 audio tracks, 16 MIDI tracks, 16 virtual instrument tracks, and 16 auxiliary effects tracks. You can record 4 tracks at once with a maximum of 4 inputs (dependent on your audio interface). Bundled in, you get the Xpand!2 multi-timbral workstation virtual instrument with hundreds of sounds. There’s 500MB worth of loop library and you get over 20 effects plug-ins to give your sounds some polish and movement.
The biggest downside is you can only build three projects in Pro Tools First. These must be saved into the Avid Cloud. If you want more projects, then you’ll have to buy more space. This sort of kills the concept of a free version of Pro Tools and you have to balance the downside against the experience gained in using it.
Recording, editing, and arranging are all done with the same cut, slice and freeze tools as they use in professional studios. Inbuilt collaboration tools let you upload your sessions and work on them elsewhere. You could build tracks at home and then download the same project to a system at the studio. Or you can invite other users to contribute to your tracks via the Avid Artist Community.
Operating Systems: MacOS, Windows
Link to Website: www.Avid.com
All that really varies between Pro Tools First and the “proper” versions is the track counts, the number of allowed inputs and outputs and a handful of tools. Otherwise, you are basically using the same software used to mix your favorite album or the latest blockbuster movie. That’s pretty cool.
Tracktion Corporation has a history of releasing past versions of their Tracktion “T” DAW for free. Currently, they’ve evolved to a newly renamed version called Waveform and have released previous version T6 as a completely free DAW. The standout feature here is that T6 is not some cut-down or limited version of another DAW; it is the fully featured software they were selling for hundreds of dollars just a few years ago. So, in some respects, you could see it as being a bit dated but on the other hand, there are plenty of users out there who paid full price and are still making music on T6.
T6 gives you unlimited audio, MIDI, and virtual instrument tracks. You get full support for VST, AU and Linux VST plugins. (Yes, it can run on Linux). You get professional time stretching, fading and audio editing tools plus comprehensive automation and MIDI clip editing with step sequencing, drum editing and modulation of every parameter.
T6 has a single window approach which has been copied by many other DAWs. There’s no big mixer to get in the way; the mixing is all done in line with the track over on the right. It’s a very clean interface, with lots of information being managed very adeptly so as not to overwhelm the arrangement. T6 has clever and creative functionality built into each clip. Advanced vocal comping and grouping are the sort of tools you find in top versions of software but T6 has it because it was a top version!
It has an excellent browser and cataloging system for quick searching and sample finding. It doesn’t have much in terms of virtual instruments but there’s a good selection of audio plug-ins and some deep level routing options for creating some very interesting effect chains.
It looks a bit different than most other DAWs but it has been around a good while and is a complete recording solution.
Operating Systems: MacOS, Windows, Linux
Link to Website: www.Traktion.com
PreSonus Studio One Prime
Studio One is a relative newcomer to the DAW game but one that has challenged both Pro Tools and Cubase as a popular, professional choice. Studio One Prime is PreSonus’ entry-level version. It features the same workflow as the Studio One Artist and Professional versions but with a lot less of the bells and whistles, particularly in the effects and instruments department.
What you do get is unlimited audio, MIDI and instrument tracks plus the same multi-touch mixing console and a modest selection of plug-ins. The layout and single window approach borrow heavily from Tracktion but PreSonus have built on the idea and given it a sleek and modern feel. In terms of virtual instruments, the Presence XT Sampler is included with 1.5GB of sound library covering hundreds of sounds. Armed just with that, a guitar and a microphone, the bedroom songwriter could be completely sorted. It does only support 2 inputs for recording so it’s not going to be any good if you’re in a band.
Probably the biggest downside is the lack of VST/AU plug-in support. You cannot add any further effects or instruments to Studio One Prime and you are stuck with what you have unless you want to upgrade to Artist or Pro.
Operating Systems: MacOS, Windows
Link to Website: www.PreSonus.com
GarageBand began as an entry-level music making and recording program for MacOS. It wasn’t originally free but started turning up as part of the iLife package installed on new Apple products. Since 2013, it has been free to any new iOS or MacOS device and since this April has been free to anyone.
What’s remarkable about GarageBand is simply how good it is. On iOS, the interface is brilliantly designed for touch. It’s so easy to use, whether you are messing around with loops, recording audio or building MIDI tracks. It’s able to capture different styles of making music with a graphically heavy but uncomplicated approach. It looks gorgeous. To people used to professional software, though, it can often appear a bit toy-like. However, there’s an awful lot of creative power available inside and there are no barriers to entry. Anyone, at any level, can get in and make some music.
You’ve got built-in drummers, loops, rhythms. There are live instruments, synthesizers, and samplers all ready to go. You can add vocal tracks and guitar tracks and cover them with effects and amp simulations. And then you can mix and EQ everything and hit a button to publish to Facebook, SoundCloud, YouTube or wherever. Ok, so it can only handle 32 tracks and there’s no provision for sending MIDI out to external gear. But as a music making platform for beginners and beyond, it’s pretty extraordinary.
What’s remarkable about GarageBand is simply how good it is. On iOS, the interface is brilliantly designed for touch. It’s so easy to use, whether you are messing around with loops, recording audio or building MIDI tracks. It’s able to capture different styles of making music with a graphically heavy but uncomplicated approach.
Open Labs Stagelight
Stagelight has a slightly different angle to the other offerings in this roundup. At its core, it’s a loop-based music production app with lots of good music making tools. But it relies heavily on an in-app store to tempt you into paying for additional features. This can feel a little heavyhanded at times but shouldn’t distract from the coolness of the free version.
In the LoopBuilder Mode, you can create and construct songs with both audio and MIDI loops. Simply drag in your samples or switch on the step sequencer to start coming up with your own tunes. You get seven different instruments covering pianos, guitars, organs and synth sounds and a drum machine with a few kits. Sprinkle over some EQ, compression, delay, and flanger and you’ve got a lot of sound mangling possibilities. It’s simple but highly enjoyable with some nice scaling and musical key-based tools for staying in tune.
Its other standout feature is the support for touch interfaces. This puts it up against GarageBand on iOS although Stagelight is for Windows, MacOS, and Android, making it one of the best music making apps in the Google Store. On the Microsoft Surface or hybrid laptops, Stagelight is completely awesome. The design of the touch interface is superb, making it easy to record and make music without needing a mouse or keyboard. Unlike GarageBand, it has no limits on the track count and you can send MIDI wherever you like.
For a limited period, they are offering the Core upgrade for free, which adds tons of features to the free version. This includes a full timeline view and arrangement page so you can move beyond loops and loads more instruments and effects. The full version, which adds a mixing console and VST support, is available for $49.
Operating Systems: MacOS, Windows, Android
Link to Website: www.openlabs.com
Something For Nothing
“Ridiculously good” is what I said in the introduction but we also find free DAWs tend to be rather limited in scope. While it’s awesome such capable software exists for free, it’s also likely you will hit the boundaries at some point. And so you should. While we shouldn’t place limits on our creativity, shouldn’t we also see the value in investing in the tools we use to make music? Free is great but paying even a little bit of money will reward you with better compatibility, larger projects, up-to-date tools and support if things don’t go quite right.
From our roundup here, it’s only really Tracktion’s T6 that offers everything in a free-of-charge package. Pro Tools First comes across initially exciting until you hit the limits of track counts and only three projects. Studio One Prime and Stagelight lack VST plug-in support, which seriously limits the available sonic palette. Even GarageBand gets too simplistic once you want to expand your studio. T6, even though it’s aging, offers the most in terms of tracks, plug-in support, and professional features. But in terms of getting something for nothing, all these DAWs are completely fabulous.
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