Digital Audio Workstations (or DAWs) have matured to a point where a whole generation of engineers and producers have only been exposed to software-based recording. Plugins have also been around long enough to make youthful practitioners wonder if anyone ever actually twisted a physical knob or pushed a fader. Where analog tape was a necessity in the past, it is now used almost exclusively in the pursuit of vibe.
Looking to get into audio production? Think about going free first. Here is a quick guide to some of the best DAWs you can get your hands on for nothing.
The leading lights of the DAW and plugin world have a cost attached, and it can get rather expensive. And if you’re only at the beginning of your studio journey, these costs can seem rather risky and in some cases, simply prohibitive. But these industry standard softwares have also spawned a litany of free emulations. Some of the freeware DAWs and plugins have inspired completely new directions “in the box” however, with some even becoming classics in their own right.
Some of the more established of these softwares include the likes of Audacity and Garageband. Audacity is a completely different affair, with a very no frills approach to recording and processing, and is suitably limited for a completely free software. Garageband is different again, and has enjoyed sustained success, mainly due to its inclusion on every new Mac. It’s a much more guided experience, with the incorporation of ready-made loops that can be easily edited and the emphasis leaning heavily toward the virtue of ease.
Many free music production programs also exist in the cloud. Examples like Soundtrap feature a familiar and lightweight user interface that’s perfect for getting some quick ideas down. Audiosauna has more of an Ableton look, with a collection of synth emulations for MIDI input.
There are also a few game based options like Incredibox – a fixed tempo beat-boxing app in which you can control the layers, and Isle of Tune – a strange world-building game, crossed with a step-sequencer, where you can build streets alongside tuneable objects, sometimes with mind-boggling results.
Alongside the plethora of DAW and plugin freebies, the industry standards also come in “lite” form. Pro Tools First and Ableton Live Lite are freely accessible, if limited, versions of their professional big brothers. Reaper offers an interface that users of Pro Tools and Logic would be familiar with – it has a 60 day free trial that ticks over until you buy the actual product (for just $60 mind you).
This leads to the crux of the issue: free comes with limitations.
Most of the freeware is inherently limited in its scope, because the companies that offer these products would obviously want to fork out for the real deal. When approaching the ever expanding free options, a good question to ask of yourself is, “What am I trying to do?”
If the answer to that question is getting a song on the radio, getting a free DAW with a low limit on the amount of possible tracks is probably not your best bet. Hunt down a good recording studio and go from there. But if you’re looking for a sketch pad for ideas to flesh out a song, or looking to dip your feet into the deep ocean that is audio production, it might just be perfect.