When it comes to the search for a free and reliable Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) to record music, the Internet has a number of terrible choices to offer. Free applications often come in one of three forms: gutted versions of premium software, fully functional trials of premium software, or standalone programs developed with the financial lure of proliferating malware and useless toolbars. Fortunately, a number of pretty awesome and reliable applications exist as well. The freemium software often lacks the advanced functionality of renowned programs such as Avid Technology’s Pro Tools, but still provide options for recording audio, adding layers upon layers of effects, and cutting waveforms, among other basic actions. They free applications certainly can’t do it all, but for most users, a simple method for recording beats and acoustic guitar is enough.
Here’s our list of the best free recording software you can download, install, and immediately start using on your computer. When you are finished reading, check out our guides on for digitizing your vinyl collection and making a podcast, as well as our top picks for the best DJ software.
Presonus Studio One comes in four different versions. Studio One Professional, the most versatile incarnation of the bunch, costs around $450. Studio One Free, meanwhile, is the most stripped down version of the bunch. It’s…well, free.
Presonus designed Studio One Free for beginners and more-experienced DAW users who want to try out the software before doling out the cash. This means Studio One Free intentionally leaves out key features that typically come standard with the other versions. Some of these features you can live without, such as the ability to directly export files to SoundCloud, while others hurt the usability of this program. For instance, not being able to import or export MP3 files or integrate third-party synthesizers and effects is a major crux. Disabling the use of outside effects hurts the program’s potential for long-term use, especially since Studio One Free comes with only eight onboard effects and one instrument.
On the other hand, Studio One will never display a nag screen like other free recording programs, nor does it ever time out. The interface looks cleaner and runs smoother than most freeware because it’s not technically freeware, but rather the demo version of a reliable, high-end digital audio workstation. And despite its limitations, the free version includes unlimited audio and instrument tracks, latency compensation, time-stretching capabilities and other tools and features necessary for budding musicians to create layered, polished recordings.
In the late ‘90s, two engineers at Carnegie Mellon University developed Audacity, an open-source audio recording and editing program with an intuitive layout. The laudable program has grown in popularity since its initial release, with scores of people using the software for a wide range of reasons, from editing and compiling podcasts to converting vinyl into a digital format.
The program’s compatibility is also robust given can quickly install and utilize Audacity in nearly all versions of Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. The program features multi-track recording capabilities and number of advanced effects, including those for removing noise, stretching time, and correcting pitch. Audacity also supports a number of third-party plugins, along with user-scripted plugins.
One drawback, however, is Audacity’s use of destructive editing. Effects applied to a given track change its original waveform and are impossible to adjust without first having to undo their application entirely. Audacity does feature unlimited undo commands, but they’re not as enticing as non-destructive editing. Audacity also lacks the capability to preview effects adjustments in real time. Despite these issues, though, Audacity remains one of the most widely used recording programs today given it’s incredibly easy to use (and free).
Ardour is an open-source DAW designed for Linux and available for Mac OS X. Its developer, Paul Davis, also invented the JACK sound server for Linux and worked previously as one of the original programmers at Amazon.
Ardour features highly versatile multi-track recording features that include the ability import video for film scoring purposes, to record and edit either non-destructively or destructively, and to prepare any combination of individual tracks for recording. Its use of JACK makes it compatible with a number of outside applications, as well. However, unlike other DAWs, Ardour does not come with any built-in effects or instruments and relies instead on the installation of third-party software. Unfortunately, it’s also not compatible with Windows.
Justin Frankel, who played a major role in the development of both the Winamp media player and the “Gnutella” peer-to-peer file sharing network utilized by LimeWire and other programs, also lead the development of REAPER (Rapid Environment for Audio Prototyping and Efficient Recording). It’s a shareware recording program with loads of features and capabilities, many of which rival high-end DAWs.
Though an extremely capable piece of software, REAPER also features a steep learning curve compared to applications such as Audacity. Because of this, Cockos encourages users to use the product for free before paying for the license, so users can acquaint themselves with the program’s capabilities and workflow. REAPER allows for the customization of practically everything, even the shape and color of the program’s controls themselves.
It also comes with hundreds of native instruments and effects and allows for the integration of VST plugins, along with the rewiring of applications and just about every other third-party program. It even features its own programming environment where users can script, debug, and compile their own plugins using a variety of computing languages. Available for both Mac and Windows, REAPER is an extremely versatile application, one you can start learning for free.
In 1993, programmers at the University of Bath began working on a Linux-based DAW called Rosegarden. They initially released the source code without licensing it. Since then, they’ve licensed Rosegarden for general use, increased its MIDI capabilities, and rewritten the program from scratch into an entirely different programming language.
Despite the software’s innate appeal, Rosegarden’s visual layout isn’t as appealing as other DAWs. Its recording capabilities can hinder performance, while incorporating third-party plugins requires some additional knowledge of programming. Its main strengths, however, lie in its ability to interpret and sequence MIDI. It also recognizes musical notation, which distinguishes Rosegarden from other DAWs in terms of its capabilities with regards to scoring and arranging music.
In 2005, programmer Frits Nielson left his position as a user interface designer with TC Electronic to focus his efforts on a recording application he began developing back in the early ‘90s. Nielson started a company called Zynewave and released a program called Podium — a fully functional DAW with a 64-bit sound engine, MIDI capabilities, VST and third-party plugin compatibility, and a number of other advanced functions. It was also priced at a mere $50.
Zynewave now offers a free version of its software called Podium Free. Granted, it comes with some limitations — Zynewave has disabled Podium’s multiprocessing capabilities, which hinders the program’s performance under pressure and its surround-sound playback capabilities. Otherwise, though, Podium Free is identical to Podium, a program that takes some getting used to. Once learned, however, Podium Free offers an interface that excels in terms of customization, while offering several highly adjustable effects and other notable features that give some premium DAWs a run for their money. The program also never times out or displays a nag screen and Nielsen regularly updates the software to fix bugs and known issues.