Best Free DAW (2019)
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 has got to be limited and a bit crummy, right? You may be surprised to hear that’s not the case at all. Sure, there can be some limitations, but often these are things that 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 that you can use for free in 2019 (just to note that to make it on the list it must be legally free). Many people asked why last year’s list didn’t feature Cockus Reaper; well that’s 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. 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.
The Best Free DAWs (2019):
Cakewalk by BandLab
It was once a “proper” DAW with a “proper” price tag called Sonar but when Bandlab bought Cakewalk last year 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.
So, in many ways, the “Best free DAWs of 2019” 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. 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.
- Unlimited track counts
- Full VST format plug-in support
- Professional tools and effects
- Good touch support
- Windows only
- Can feel cluttered
The Tracktion Corporation keeps raising the stakes by offering a previous full version of their Tracktion DAW from just a couple of generations back for free. Their current professional DAW is called Waveform 10 which makes T7 completely free. T7 is a full-on, unlimited, professional DAW. It was the version when Tracktion finally got up to speed with the competition and started showing innovation of its own.
T7 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 automations. In fact, automation and modulation is everywhere because you can apply LFOs to any parameter in your project. It has a deep level plug-in chainer where you can create complex connections between all the audio processors. You can apply stacks of effects to individual audio clips.
There’s the sort of depth here you’d only find in top end DAWs and from a creatively different place than Cakewalk. 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.
T7 is comprehensive, different, creative and adventurous and you know there’s a further route to go to in Waveform 10 if you want to progress further.
- Unlimited audio and MIDI tracks
- Spectacular automation and modulation
- VST plugin support
- Step sequencing
- Plugin chaining
- No traditional mixer view
- Steeper learning curve to get started
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.
- A basic but decent version of an excellent DAW
- Some good effects built in
- All the audio editing and mixing tools you need
- No VST plugin support
- There’s a lot missing from the full version
Open Labs StageLight
StageLight is a fabulous looking DAW with a futuristic feel that’s so cross-platform that you can build a project on your phone, play with it on your MacBook and finish it on your desktop. Moving projects between platforms is brilliantly simple and you’ll find all the same basic tools on each one. Although Open Labs would really like you to come up with $49 for the full version or $149 for unlocking all the extras and expansions, the free version is still pretty decent.
You’ll get unlimited tracks in both traditional Timeline and Loopbuilder modes. You get the new SampleVerse sampler but with limited presets, a few drum kits and 9 instruments. You also get a small bundle of effects. Then StageLight 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.
StageLight is very touch-friendly, it has a great Loopbuilder mode where you can fire off MIDI and audio loops in an Ableton Live style of live performance. You’ll need to give it some money to access VST Plugins and extra features but it’s a great place to start.
- Lovely interface
- Touch friendly
- No VST support unless you pay
- Small amount of plugins
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.
- Designed by users
- Packed with instruments and effects
- VST plugin compatible
- 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.
- Runs online so you can access it from anywhere
- 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 SkyTracks.io.
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.
- 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
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.
- Comprehensive iPad DAW
- Supports both MIDI and audio recording
- Comes with great instruments
- Transferrable to MacOS
- Limited track count
Image via BandLab.
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