Producers and artists trying to decide which DAW to use have a wide range of options, from the traditional studio choice of Pro Tools to the feature-rich assets of Logic to the unique approach of Ableton Live, not to mention long-time favorites like Cubase and (relative) newcomers like Studio One and Bitwig. But there are also a number of free DAWs available, and many of these offer surprisingly comprehensive capabilities. Here’s a brief survey of some of the most well-known and popular free DAWs, for those who may want to step into the world of audio/music production without the need for a cash outlay.
I’ll start off with Audacity, a free open-source audio editor. Audacity has been around for many years and is very popular, with a loyal base of users. It’s primarily an audio editor, providing audio recording, editing and processing, including a number of advanced processing tools like audio repair and time/pitch shift. However, Audacity is different than most of the DAWs in this survey in two major ways. First off, there’s no MIDI to speak of—while you can have MIDI Note tracks, there are no virtual instruments or any of the usual MIDI capabilities like quantization. And the second difference is that all editing and processing in Audacity is destructive—tweaks made to the audio permanently change the original files.
This can make for a very different workflow for basic audio editing than with other DAWs, and the lack of realtime plug-ins and instruments makes Audacity very limited for music and mixing applications. Still, it’s an excellent tool for recording and editing voice and dialog, like for podcasts; simple musical projects, like singer-songwriter demos, and mastering finished mixes. There’s an active online community, and the program is stable and easy to work in, as long as you’re comfortable with its limits.
For a while Tracktion was distributed by Mackie, but currently it’s in the hands of its original developer. Tracktion T7 is the current version of this audio/MIDI production DAW. It offers a single-window design, with full recording and editing capabilities for audio and MIDI, and included plug-ins as well as compatibility with AU and VST plug-in formats. Advanced features include time-shifting and Clip effects—the latter is an option to apply effects to individual audio Clips, as an alternative to track-based mix processing (similar to Pro Tools’ AudioSuite processing). While it may not be as well-known as some of the other entries in this survey, Tracktion is a worthy inclusion to any free-DAW list.
GarageBand is probably one of the most well-known free DAWs. It’s free with every Mac, though since it’s made by Apple it’s only available for Apple platforms: macOS and IOS. GarageBand is basically Logic Pro X under the hood—the engine is the same, but the UI is vastly simplified. Still, benefiting from the underlying Logic code, GarageBand offers advanced features—it includes a collection of Logic Virtual Instruments, loops, and plug-ins, along with basic editing and tools like time and pitch processing; the iOS versions include additional special features and are ideal for on-the-go use. GarageBand is perfectly suited for music creation/production, and a major bonus is that GB Projects can be opened in Logic intact, where they can be further tweaked and enhanced with all the advanced power of that full-featured DAW.
The biggest plus about Pro Tools First is that it makes the Pro Tools UI available as a free application, providing an opportunity for producers/artists to learn that industry-standard DAW at zero cost, a big advantage for those who expect to find themselves in professional studios where Pro Tools is still the most widely-used workstation. While the i/o and track count is severely limited compared to other Pro Tools versions, it does include a couple of general-purpose virtual instruments and enough plug-ins for a basic mix (though this can be expanded)—for modest sessions it should be more than sufficient; it’s also compatible with Avid’s Cloud Collaboration service. Serious users will outgrow it quickly, but not before mastering the ins and outs of working in Pro Tools, which is always a useful skill.
Studio One Prime is the free version of Presonus’ popular Studio One DAW (currently at version 4). It features a single-window UI and a small subset of the tools and features of its bigger brother(s)—only one virtual instrument, a minimal library of sounds and loops, a small collection of plug-ins for mixing (though that does include a full channel strip), and more limited options for expansion and exporting. But it does provide a capable and creative environment, along with seamless transition to the relatively inexpensive Studio One Artist and full-featured Studio One Professional versions.
BandLab is a “social music platform”, providing a community for musicians and artists to collaborate and share their work. The company—BandLab Technologies—offers two very different music creation tools. The first is BandLab, an online-only DAW for music creation, which offers web-based access (Mac, Windows) and can be used on portable devices (IOS, Android). It offers a full set of recording, editing, and mixing tools, including instruments, loops, and effects, along with more advanced features like automation and time-stretching (GarageBand users may notice a similarity in layout and functionality). And there are no limits on the number of projects or collaborations. For people interested in being part of a music community, BandLab should be an especially appealing option.
The other product from BandLab Technologies is Cakewalk—this is a different animal entirely. Cakewalk was formerly a high-end Windows-only DAW called Sonar, from a company called Cakewalk; it was later distributed by Gibson, until Gibson discontinued development in 2017. The DAW was acquired by BandLab Technologies, and renamed Cakewalk by BandLab, and is now available for free. The new Cakewalk DAW is still a Windows-only application, but given its origins, it may be the most full-featured, high-end free DAW out there. It includes the original’s 64-bit audio engine, all the virtual instruments and high-end effects, niceties like VST3 and ARA support, and the unlimited track count and professional UI that you’d expect from a top-line DAW. The only real limitation to speak of is the Windows-only compatibility, but for DAW users on that platform, this free version of Cakewalk is a no-brainer.
The next two free DAWs are both available only as included software with other purchases (usually hardware, like interfaces or controllers). The software is free, but while you may be able to download it on the company’s website, it can’t be authorized and run without a code included with the particular product it’s bundled with. However, for users one of those products, these two DAWs are additional free options.
Cubase 10 LE is a stripped-down version of that venerable DAW from Steinberg, with a somewhat limited track count, and including a small but high-quality set of instruments and effects, with good options for editing and mixing. It also includes some niceties like time-stretching and pitch-shifting, and a few of its bigger brothers’ composition tools.
Just like Cubase LE, Ableton Live Lite—currently at version 10—is a lightweight version of Ableton Live that requires a serial number included with the purchase of a hardware item it’s bundled with. The main limitation seems to be a very limited i/o and track count (8), but it does promise Live’s signature Warp capabilities, and seems to include a decent set of instruments and audio & MIDI effects.
I wanted to give a brief honorable mention to a DAW that’s not free, but provides a lot of capabilities for a very low price: Reaper. Like Cakewalk, Reaper is a full-featured DAW, and while it’s not free, its $60 price (for an individual/educational/non-profit/small business) is around half of the price of most entry-level DAW versions, let alone full versions. Reaper is quite popular, and provides all the comprehensive audio and MIDI features you’d expect from a high-end DAW.
For those casual producers and artists just getting their feet wet, or more serious users restricted by a non-existent budget, one of these free DAWs may be just the ticket for getting into the wide world of audio and music production, allowing intrepid users to try out different tools and workflows without making a substantial financial commitment.