Best Free DAW Software for Music Production (2018)
Check our our Best DAW 2018 article.
Recording and producing music on your computer doesn’t have to be expensive. But with most “professional” music software running into hundreds of dollars, any sort of free DAW, even the best free DAW, has got to be pretty limited and a bit crummy, right? Well, maybe you’d be surprised to hear that’s not the case at all. Sure, there can be some limitations, but often these are easy to live with and don’t hamper your creativity one bit. And in some cases, there are no limitations at all! So, before you invest in a pro-level DAW, why not test the water with something more affordable, or in this case, completely free.
Here’s my pick of the best music making software you can use for free in 2018. A note: to make it on the list it has to be legally free. Many people asked why last year’s list didn’t feature Cockos Reaper. Well, because 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.
Our 2018 Picks
Cakewalk by BandLab
It has been a remarkable year for Cakewalk, one of the oldest DAW developers. Their professional DAW platform Sonar is a fully featured, top-level DAW used by professional Producers and home music makers alike, famous for its ease of use and Skylight interface. Cakewalk was owned by Gibson Labs, who have run deep into financial trouble and found themselves unceremoniously shut down after thirty years of developing a leading recording platform. Then along came BandLab, who bought up every aspect of the Cakewalk brand and intellectual properties. And, completely unexpectedly, they released the full version of Sonar Platinum online, for free, for everyone.
It’s now called Cakewalk by Bandlab, but minus some of the third-party content, it’s a fully fledged professional DAW 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.
There’s got to be some catch somewhere right? It’s too early to say but all it requires is for you to sign up for the BandLab installer app and off you go.
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 reverb, 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.
So, in many ways the Best Free DAWs of 2018 list should only contain a single entry — but that wouldn’t be right. Despite its award-winning interface some people just don’t like it. It can appear busy and cluttered at times. Its workflow 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. The greatest thing about Cakewalk by BandLab is you can download and try it out yourself for free.
Link to Website: www.bandlab.com
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 is going to be problematic in terms of latency. But the recording, sequencing, editing and mixing is all there, and the ease of collaboration makes BandLab a very interesting and sociable experience.
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 that 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 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 nicely 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 is all there, and the ease of collaboration makes BandLab a very interesting and sociable experience.
Link to Website: www.bandlab.com
Studio One Prime V4
PreSonus have just released version 4 of their Studio One professional DAW software and along with this, their free version, Studio One Prime, gets an upgrade. Releasing simpler versions of a flagship product is a tried and tested way of bringing users into your ecosystem. The thing with Prime is it’s not half bad and it includes most of the features you’d expect to find in a DAW you’d pay for.
It has the same streamlined, single window interface; it’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 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.
Link to Website: www.PreSonus.com
Tracktion Corporation has a habit of releasing an older version of their Tracktion DAW for free when they move to a new one. Tracktion has now evolved into Waveform 9 and I hoped they would have released Tracktion 7 for free. They chose instead to offer it to other manufacturers as a DAW to bundle with their audio hardware. However, the very capable version 6 remains their free offering and although it doesn’t have the finesse version 7 brought to the table it’s a very capable DAW in its own right. And it suffers from none of the limitations of cut-down versions.
Tracktion has a one window approach that was modeled by PreSonus for Studio One — but it has a very distinct workflow. Everything runs from left to right. Audio signals and MIDI arrive at the track on the left and leave the software to your audio interface on the right. In between, you have all the data, editing and arranging, but also the plug-ins and processing. There’s no additional mixer console to turn everything vertical, it all makes a logically horizontal progression. This different approach has won it many fans from those who tire of the multi-window approach of many DAWs.
It has unlimited MIDI and audio tracks, professional time stretching, automation and instrument freezing. It has audio comping, time warping, video sync and the all-important support for VST and AU plug-ins. It doesn’t look as good as the later versions but with support for MacOS, Windows, and Linux, it’s a fully featured DAW that was their flagship product just a few years ago.
Link to Website: www.tracktion.com
You used to be able to dismiss free recording software as either being terribly dated or lacking in features. Not anymore. BandLab changed all that.
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 and 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. 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 installed by default on your iPad it’s a pretty awesome place to start making music for free.
Link to Website: www.apple.com
You used to be able to dismiss free recording software as either being terribly dated or lacking in features. Not anymore. BandLab changed all that. We can now all use what was Sonar Platinum for free and development is continuing. Alternatives are important and Studio One Prime and Tracktion 6 both bring cool workflows and innovation to the party. PreSonus need to open the doors for VST plug-ins to stay attractive and Tracktion should really let us have version 7 because it’s such an overhaul on the already capable version 6. And GarageBand can’t be beaten for value on the iPad. The greatest thing about free software is you don’t have to decide, you can run all of it, as much as you want.
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