10 Best Free Digital Audio Workstations

Free Digital Audio WorkstationsIn this post we’ll take a look at some of the best free digital audio workstations that you can download and use for producing music. Ideal if you’re just getting into music production, or you’re currently unable to afford some of the more premium options.

Can you make music with a free digital audio workstation? With the software going to look at, you can!

So let’s check ’em out…


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Intro: Free DAWs

There are lots of digital audio workstations on the market, and they come at various prices, from free to paid. Generally speaking, the paid music production softwares are generally the best options, because they offer the most power, versatility, specialized applicability, and a sound that is the standard of professional industry music.

Yes, each DAW has within itself a signature sound. If you’ve produced music long enough, you can begin to tell this for a few of the major DAWs. Many experienced sound engineers will be able to tell when a song has been produced by a moderately experienced producer using Studio One, Logic Pro, FL Studio or Ableton, for example.

However, one will understand that this is not what everyone wants. There are actually applications where using free digital audio workstations, like free VST synths, are more desirable, and maybe even preferable. Novice, or pro.

That is also why this post was.

So, if you’re looking for a free DAW, it’s likely that you fall into one out of these four categories:

  1. You are a beginner who wants to get into producing music, and are looking for an easy to use alternative
  2. You’re an advanced user who’s bored with your main DAW, and are looking for a free expert level alternative to compliment your workflow
  3. You’re either of the above, but you don’t have the money to invest in a new DAW right now
  4. You just want something that’ll execute simple tasks that you don’t have to open up your “work DAW” for.
So what are the best free options?

Here are some considerations that may help you single out which one to choose…

Some of these options are very simple entry level DAWs of the professional versions. They are designed to be most suitable for beginners, and are easy to use.

Then there are other DAWs that were simply designed to be easy to use for the purposes of just making some music.

In you’re used to DAWs by now, or an expert in your own DAW, there are few in this list that we’d recommend only if you’re an intermediate to advanced user. Either because the functionality is like an advanced DAW (like Pro Tools), or because it is unique in its own way, requiring you to get used to its workflow.

In either case, these DAWs are all free (with one slight exception). Some of which I have personally used.

So let’s take a look at this list and see which would you’d like to get.


The 10 Best Free Digital Audio Workstations


1 – Avid Pro Tools First

Avid Pro Tools First

You can make music using this free software made by the makers of the industry standard of music production, Avid. Pro Tools First is the free beginners version of Pro Tools. You can use it to record, edit, and mixing your own music. You can also use it to compose, create, and arrange your own tracks and beats. What sets it apart is that it is a cloud based music production software. Once you install it on your laptop or computer, you can use it to access your files and music content anywhere you have internet connection.

If you’re just getting into music production, it would be good for you to know that Pro Tools is considered the industry standard of music production. The professional version of Pro Tools is used in every industry level audio production studio, from pre-production composing, arranging, recording, and mixing, to post production video and mastering. In other words, Pro Tools is the DAW you want “when there’s a client in the room.” But the full version costs upwards a hefty 700 dollars.

This tends to turn off a lot of people who’re trying to get into music production on a professional level, but are simply testing the waters first. So Avid offered this free DAW for beginners to get into. Additionally, Pro Tools is considered an advanced DAW. People go to college and take certified courses to master this software. What Avid did with First was to strip it down to the essentials of what you need, integrating a cloud feature to make it accessible anywhere you go. So once you do get into music production, you’re already familiar, from First, of Pro Tools, which is otherwise considered a difficult DAW to learn for novices.

So what can you do with Pro Tools first? You can write up to 16 tracks (MIDI, instrument, auxiliary) in mono or stereo, input and record up to 4 tracks and instruments simultaneously, and mix on an unlimited amount of busses. You get to record your loops and comps, with the ability the perform elastic time and elastic pitch editing on your audio files. And to get you started making music, you get a 500 MB loop library chosen by professional producers, and you can save up to 1 GB of content on Avid’s cloud service. You can also use the cloud service as a collaboration tool for sharing your ideas with other producers and musicians.

Bottom-line, Avid Pro Tools First is a great free digital audio workstation if you’re primarily a singer, songwriter, and musician looking to record your ideas into your computer or laptop and creating arrangements and ideas. Also, if you’re thinking about getting into music production with the industry standard DAW. You get basic editing and arranging ability, from a professional level DAW, as well as some value content that offers you great creative material. You can you use it on either windows or Mac.

Demonstration


2 – PreSonus Studio One Prime

This was the first free DAW from a pro-audio maker that I really got into years ago, back when it was Studio One 2. We spoke about it in our review of the full version (now outdated when it was Studio One 3). PreSonus Studio One Prime is a great entry level free digital audio workstation to Studio One Artist and Professional versions. Just like with Pro Tools First, you can record, edit, and mix your own music. I used it to compose a full swing band style track, using just the VSTs and samples that it came with.

PreSonus is pretty well known name in the pro audio circle. They made their name as the creator of some great music gear, especially mixers and audio interfaces. In fact, you get Studio One artist if you buy any of the interfaces by PreSonus.

The DAW itself is easy to use. It’s entirely drag and drop based. In many other DAWs, Pro Tools especially, it’s still important to learn where things are by navigating the menu system. With Studio One, if you want to do anything, just search for it in the browser, click it, and drag it onto your track or mixer. It’s a very simple approach that many users love. This makes this DAW especially good for creative types who simply want to make some music, and not have to learn a DAW. It is even possible to get professional results out of Prime, if you know what you’re doing.

What do you get with Studio One Prime? You can create, record, and mix music on an unlimited amount of simultaneous tracks, channels, and busses. You get 1.5 GB of of samples with Presence XT, the DAWs flagship sampler plugin. If you want more content, you can purchase it directly from Studio One’s product browser. In addition to that, you can add effects to your tracks with 9 PreSonus effects plugins that cover all the essentials you need, like delay, reverb, chorus, flanger, and more. Prime also has the essential mixing plugins that you’d need. Some other good features is the ability to do real-time time stretching, as well as resampling, and normalizing your audio and loops. You can even comp (record and selecting various takes), and freeze your tracks.

What you won’t be able to do, though, is load on any 3rd party VST plugins. You also don’t have full access to the content and plugins that come with Artist and Professional versions. Also, Prime doesn’t have the coveted Project page, which you use for seamlessly mastering and releasing your mixes to platforms like Soundcloud.

Bottom-line, PreSonus Studio One Prime is one of the best free digital audio workstations out there. It’s primarily good if you want to just get acquainted with the DAW and learn your way around it. It’s also great if you just want to record your own music, and make basic arrangements on the fly. You can also use it on either windows or Mac.


3 – Apple GarageBand

Apple GarageBand

If you’re on a Mac or MacBook and you’re looking for free digital audio workstations, GarageBand is the really the best option for you. It is the baby brother to the professional DAW Logic Pro. It operates just like Logic Pro, and has many of the same features, looks, and GUI. For this reason, GarageBand is a great choice if you’re a beginner simply interested in music production, but don’t have the cash to invest in pro software (even though Logic is one of the cheapest pro softwares you can find, for just under 200 dollars).

Anyway, back to GarageBand. GarageBand is the probably the easiest way to create songs on your Mac. It’s easy because it’s entirely designed for people who aren’t all that familiar with music production. There’s no advanced settings and parameters for you to figure out, yet you can get suitable and great sounding results from it. And there’s even a few courses on how to use it available online. It was built by the same people that makes the Mac: Apple. So everything was designed to work with your particular computer (Windows and Linux users, just skip to the next option in this list). GarageBand also comes as an app that you can use to make music on your iPad and iPod. Plus, you can control the software on your computer using your Apple devices using the Logic Remote app.

What do you get with GarageBand? There is the Drummer VST, which is a virtual session drummer within your digital audio workstation. With it you can create realistic beats and drum grooves from the intuitive interface. You get to choose up to 28 virtual players, in styles from genres like EDM, Hip Hop, Rock, and Alternative. There is a sound library of realistic sounds, instruments, and loops in various styles including current music production styles. If you’re a guitarist or bassist, you can use the Amps and Stompboxes to add classic and modern tones and effects that emulate 25 popular amps and cabinets, and 35 stompbox effects in PedalBoard. And because it’s from Apple, you can keep all your projects and files update across all of your computers and devices.

You can record, mix, and even master your own music with GarageBand. But you get “only” up to 255 tracks per session, although that would be more than enough for you. It also has some great basic features for a daw, like comping multi-take recordings, for recording and selecting your best takes. Groove Matching is a rhythm and timing tool that helps you make sure that all your tracks are playing in the right rhythm.

Bottom-line, GarageBand is a great free digital audio workstation, and probably the most recommended if you’re on a Mac.


4 – Cockos Reaper

Cockos Reaper

Cockos Reaper is a full professional digital audio workstation available for free, and is rated as one of the best softwares on the market for home studio users, rivaling the likes of Pro Tools and Cubase, even at their fullest version. If you add hardware to it like a microphone, audio interface, and MIDI controller, you’d have a full professional quality home recording studio setup. You can pretty much do anything on this that you can do with a typical professional DAW, including compose, record, arrange, mix, edit, and master.

So is, Reaper really free? Reaper is free to download and to use for 60 days. After which you will be notified regularly to pay for its license. The license is cheap, and costs only $60 if you plan to use the software for either personal use, educational use, or your business if your gross annual revenue is under $20,000 (figures are in USD). Otherwise, you can use Reaper commercially with a license that costs $225.

So, why is it in a list free digital audio workstations? The “freeness” of Reaper is actually rather controversial. For the first 60 days, it is free to use. And for the period after 60 days, you can … still use it… if you can get over the whole regular in-your-face reminders to purchase the software. If you’re a true professional, these reminders are definitely unacceptable since it inhibits your workflow, especially if you have a client in the room or you are in the middle of a recording session. In that case, you’d need to buy the license. But if you’re not a professional, yet want the power of a full professional DAW that you don’t plan on using regularly, Reaper is a good choice for you.

So what do you get with Reaper? Like I said, you get everything you would get in a professional digital audio workstation. With Reaper, you get access to professional VST plugins for mixing and editing, including time-stretching, pitch-shifting and correction, and processing surround sound in stereo, surround, or multi-channel audio. It can also host 3rd party plugins. You can produce practically anything in Reaper, as there are no limitations in terms of tracks, channels, and busses, as you’d find in other “Lite” software. It supports video as well, if you plan on making music to videos.

On top of that, it is portable. You can save the software on a USB key and carry it around with you to operate on other computers. Users particularly like Reaper because it’s highly customizable, and it utilizes drag-and-drop features for efficient workflow. Another cool feature is the ability to open multiple projects at the same time in separate tabs.

Bottom-line, Reaper is not for beginners. It is an advanced professional DAW that takes some time learning and getting used to, even for a seasoned expert. It is also technically not “free,” but can be used indefinitely if you don’t mind the constant reminders.

Demonstration


5 – Tracktion TX DAW Free

Tracktion T6 DAW Free

Tracktion TX DAW is a free digital audio workstations. Many producers and musicians become super excited when the T6 DAW made available to download for free, and they have good reason for it. This DAW is beautiful and modern in every way. However, there’s always a “newest version” for free when you purchase any of the Beringer or Mackie products, like the ones mentioned on this site (like studio monitors, mixers, or control surface).

The great thing about the TX DAWs by Tracktion is that they are not “Lite” DAWs like some scaled down version of the full version. There is no limitation on the number tracks, plugins, our projects. It works just as perfectly as a DAW you’d have to pay money for. And it works on Mac, Windows, or Linux computers or laptops. This is an app for you if you especially are thinking about making music and having fun in the process.

It’s considered easy to use and figure out. As a DAW, it’s more of a creative digital audio workstation than a professional editing software. The focus of this DAW is on making music. So the interface is very beautiful, inspiring, and intuitive, with drag-and-drop features. If you want to add instruments, loops, effects, just search for it and drag it onto the arranger window. And if you add a microphone, MIDI controller, and audio interface to it, you’d have, essentially a perfect DAW for making your own music without the high cost of getting expensive software.

So what do you get with this free DAW? You get its built in suite of plugins, for VST instruments, synths, effects, and editing. You can use automation to control each plugin parameter. It uses an advanced MIDI technology that is capable of processing expression from advanced MIDI controllers (it’s actually the first DAW to add support for the Roli Seaboard, which you can find out more about when go through this article). It has inline step sequencing, which allows you to directly add step sequencing right into your arrangement windows. A single step sequencer can be used to control one or multiple virtual instrument simultaneously. On top of that, you can record, edit, and mix your songs from the software, creating polished releases of your music.

Bottom-line, Tracktion TX DAW are amazing free digital audio workstations that can get the job done. We’ve only taken a look at a few features. But it’s amazing what you get from a DAW you literally don’t have to pay any money for.


6 – Zynewave Podium Free

Zynewave Podium Free

Zynewave Podium Free is the free version of Podium (which costs only $50 from their website). The free version itself can load your VST instrument, record MIDI and audio, edit audio files, and mix them down to songs. The interface is very user friendly and modern. Users have stated that unlike many of the free DAWs that existed at the time when the last version was released (2015) this wasn’t as clunky and hard to get around.

It’s a unique free DAW, since it integrates object based editing within its workflow. This means that, for instance, if you want to add gain to an audio file (such as a sample or a loop) in your arranger, you can do that directly by clicking and dragging the object on the screen. Many DAWs have more and more been releasing features that are object based. But very few DAWs are entirely object based editing, leaving a beginner or novice to try and figure out the menu and commands necessary to do basic actions. This would be the major point of trying out Podium Free, as you can do many professional edits, mixing, and composing, in a fast and efficient way. The only downside? It hasn’t been updated in a while, and we don’t know exactly when it will be updated in the future. Although work is apparently still being put into it.

Anyway, what is in Podium Free? It has a “hierarchic track layout,” integrated sound editor, surround sound editing, automation, with the ability to create spline curves in your automations for better and more natural sounding changes in parameters, 64-bit mixing, and beautiful customizable user interface. It’s also considered very stable, more stable than many other free DAWs, which is great. It works only on Windows PCs, so if you’re on Mac you should get GarageBand and call it a day. And if you’re on Linux, you have a few choices in this list.

Bottom-line, Podium Free is a pretty neat DAW. It’s not the most impressive item on this list, in my opinion, but  I like that it has object based editing. This is something that not even Ableton Live has (but Studio One and Cubase does). It’s also a beautiful looking DAW. Give this a try and see if you could get into it.


7 – Audacity

Audacity

Even if you’ve been vaguely familiar with audio editing, you’ve probably come across or even used Audacity at some point. Maybe it’s even on your computer right now. And if it isn’t, shame on you, go get it now! This is probably the only “free DAW” on this list that you absolutely must have, professional or amateur. Even the professional studios with high-end gear and software have a copy of Audacity installed on their computers. It’s a powerful and lightweight little application that works on both Windows and Mac. It’s basic, easy to use, and efficient. So let’s talk about what Audacity is.

Is Audacity a DAW? Technically, Audacity is a digital audio editor. Sound engineers and producers use Audacity to do quick to advanced edits on sound files. It supports multi-track editing and recording as well, and you can even load plugins onto it. That said, it’s not technically a DAW, as a digital audio workstation provides a suite of software to record, compose, and mix music. Sure, you can technically compose a track inside of Audacity, but once you attempt to do so, you’d come to realize that its true strength is actually in editing multi-track audio, not so much sequencing and composing.

So what can you exactly do with Audacity? Audacity is very useful as a post-processing tool for audio. You can use it to add effects, trim, fade in and out your audio easily and simply without having to load up a DAW to do so. You can record and playback tracks, with the potential for MIDI playback available. You can then edit your audio via cut, copy, and paste. You can change the speed of your audio without changing the pitch, or change the pitch of the audio without changing the speed. You can normalize the audio for louder playback, as well as detect and cut out silences in your recordings. This makes it a great tool for converting cassette tapes or vinyl recording to digital audio. You can use Audacity as noise reduction tool for your audio as well. Audacity has been useful for me to quickly run multrack edits on a sound-file before loading it into my DAW.

So what can’t you do with Audacity? Well, it only support VST effects processor plugins like reverbs, deEssers, tape emulators, phasers, and so on, not instruments. You can’t mix music on it, because it has no mixer, busses or channels. You work directly on the tracks themselves in the window. Also, Audacity doesn’t natively support exporting audio files as WMA, AAC, or MP3. You’d have to download the optional FFmpeg library from the website. A process that feels a little “involved” for many people, especially since these audio files and pretty much essential.

Bottom-line, Audacity isn’t a software for you make or produce music (although, with some engineering creativity, it is possible). But is an important software if you make music or work with any kind of audio. It is very tedious to open your DAW each time you want to do simple edits on an audio file. Audacity fills in that requirement as a handy tool. And that’s what it is: an audio tool. However, it’s included in this list of free digital audio workstations because it is often times considered a digital audio workstation (in the same way that Reaper is considered free), as it provides many of the basic functions that an actual digital audio workstation can perform. Expect to work on Windows, OS X, and Linux.


8 – LMMS

LMMS

LMMS (or Linux MultiMedia Studio) is a free digital audio workstation. It is a cross platform DAW, meaning it will work on Linux, Windows, and OS X. But even though it’s available for free download, it’s actually super powerful, and probably the most powerful free DAW on this list besides Reaper.

I used this to create some tracks for a client’s studio album a number of years ago. It was an experiment done on a cheap laptop, since I had no access to a powerful laptop at the time to run Reason or FL Studio (which were my main DAWs at the time). It was done using entirely the program and the VSTs that came within it, which was a bit challenging, but rewarding. Back then, I used it on the the operating system Ubuntu, which is a Linux operating system that you can download for free.

That said, LMMS is not for beginners. This digital audio workstation is capable of pretty much anything you can throw at it, from experience, but it would require having a working knowledge of how to use a DAW to get started. The GUI reminds one of somewhat of an older version of FL Studio. It even has a step sequencer, and the color combinations themselves are very similar.

With LMMS you can sequence, compose, record, and mix your own tracks. You can connect your MIDI controller to it to control the bundle VSTi instruments, and even export and import MIDI data from another device or software.

LMMS supports both 32-bit and 64-bit plugins (on 64-bit Windows OS). It has a Roland style monophonic bass synthesizer which sounds great, 2 oscillator-based synthesizers and 2 built-in wavetable synthesizers, and multi function synthesizer for polyphonic, multi-timbral, multi-voice additive, subtractive, and pad synthesis. One instrument I found interesting was the Nintendo Gameboy instrument. You can generate game sounds and music using the VST built into LMMS.

With all those features, LMMS really really you as mostly a DAW for DAW nerds DAW enthusiasts. You’ll find that it’s not as ideal for professional industry level music application, but for users who simply love working with the program to create interesting electronic music. (Though, it’s not limited to that).

Bottom-line, LMMS is one great free DAW. That you can be certain of. It incorporates perfectly with Ubuntu, even though you have to learn to use it first (an impediment to beginners not familiar with Ubuntu). Plus it’s available for OS X and Windows. If you’re a really DAW nerd, you’ll love this. It can be very fun, but challenging in its own way, which makes it an exciting free software capable of doing so much.

Demonstration


9 – Qtractor

Qtractor

Getting further into the world of Linux, we have Qtractor. If you’re using a Linux and primarily interested in finding a free DAW for your Linux PC, beside the option mentioned above there are a couple more options to choose from. Qtractor is one popular option. What makes Qtractor unique is that, unlike LMMS, Qtractor is a hard disk recorder, and a completely non-destructive digital audio and MIDI multi-track sequencer and arranger. It’s object based editing principle means audio can be altered without you affecting any of the original sound files on your drive.

Of course, in saying all of that, you’d know that this is DAW especially useful for expert level hobbyists. If you’re a beginner, you’d probably have some trouble with it. So I’d recommend this to you if you’re already at least fairly familiar around a standard digital audio workstation, and if you’re familiar with the Linux OS. Also, if you’re simply looking for a hobby software to make some music for fun.

That said, the fact that it is free would make it appealing. It’s an open source software, that is constantly going through rapid developments. So the future of this DAW might be interesting. This would be a great free DAW if, for instance, you are into programming, and want to get involved with the development of the software.

As a DAW, you can do pretty much everything with Qtractor that a basic digital audio workstation is meant to do. It supports multi-track MIDI and audio recording, with an unlimited amount of tracks and sessions and overlapping audio clips. It even has drag and drop selection. With the built in mixer you can monitor and balance your audio signals, and you can load an unlimited amount of plugins into your tracks and busses. You can even use it to master your music. It has the integrated JACK that makes it possible to use mastering tools to process your audio data (like JAMin).

Bottom-line, Qtractor is an interesting DAW. It works just like your standard digital audio workstation, and can support any of the Steinberg standard VST plugins on the market. Despite it being free, it’s quite practical in its own right, once you understand it. If you’re really into Linux, this is a good DAW to get into.


10 – MusE Sequencer

MusE Sequencer

Finally, another popular free digital audio workstation that works solely on Linux OS is MusE Sequencer. As you’d expect from the name, it is mainly a music production software for sequencing MIDI data from a MIDI controller and audio clips. But it also has the capability of recording and editing audio. It’s aimed at being a complete multi-track virtual studio for Linux, and even supports scoring. If you’re familiar with MuseScore, it’s the same software which originated within MusE.

The latter point is how I got to know MusE. While researching a free alternative to Sibelius some years ago, MuseScore came up. After getting acquainted with it, and also utilizing the free digital audio workstation on Ubuntu, I realized how convenient it was to do scoring and producing within the same umbrella. Was it easy? For, not really. The GUI was very unimpressive, and Linux is an OS that takes some getting used to.

Of course, that is a subjective experience. There is a fairly sizeable community of MusE users online. And starting on January 2018, they got a new forum that is active. But you can find a lot of information and user reviews about MusE on the forum LinuxMuscians.com.

You can expect all the basic requirements of a DAW in MusE. Realtime recording/playback, MIDI file exporting and importing, and editing MIDI data in the piano roll, drum editor, and score editor. MusE has its own synths plugins for you to use as well that support sf2 soundfonts, and you can run 3rd party plugins in DSSI VST, and LV2 formats.

Bottom-line, MusE is, in my opinion, a great experimental music production software for people who want a free alternative that works solely on Linux. You can download it for free from its website and try it out. I wouldn’t suggest it for beginners, but for those who already have a idea or some experience working on a digital audio workstation.


Honorable mention: Ardour

Ardour

Ardour is a free digital audio workstation, kind of like LMMS.  Unlike LMMS, it is designed completely for professional use. It’s a super powerful DAW that’s only limited by the hardware that is used with it. We’ve seen Ardour used in applications that Pro Tools HD would normally be used. For that reason, it’s a very attractive digitation audio workstation if you’re looking for a free alternative.

Only thing, it is not really “free”… or is it?

Well, on the website, they put it this way,

“Ardour is free like free speech, but not free like free beer.”

You’re asked to pay either a minimum of $1 one time for access to the software and it’s update until its next major release. But you can also pay monthly at least $1 and stay updated for each major release. You can download it and use it for free, but the free version is just the source code that you have to put together yourself in order to use the software. If you’re computer programmer, then you can do that, and then you have a free DAW (you’d have to put together the updates, too). Otherwise, you’d have to pay for the installation package.


Final thoughts

There’s no harm in utilizing free software to make and produce music. From this list you would’ve found that there are options that can get you started on the professional path, to options that will get you started just for fun or as a hobby. Still further, if you are already familiar with DAWs and are a seasoned expert, there are free DAWs you can use as supplementary tools for your music production arsenal, and hopefully this post would’ve helped you make that decision.

6 Comments on “10 Best Free Digital Audio Workstations”

  1. Hi Steve,

    If you’re on a Mac, your best bet is Logic Pro, which is basically an upgrade to Garageband.

    However, if you’re on a PC, my number 1 suggestion is getting Studio One by PreSonus. Pro Tools is great, and so is Nuendo, but those require a significant financial investment and a fairly steep learning curve (people actually go to school to learn those DAWs). Cubase and Reaper are also pretty great… but again.. learning curve.

    For what you want, you can’t go wrong with Studio One or Logic Pro my friend! Just a matter of which OS you’re on.

    Cheers!

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