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 apps 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 Pro Tools, but still provide options for recording audio, adding layers upon layers of effects, and cutting waveforms, among other basic tasks. These free applications certainly can’t do it all, but for most users, a simple method for recording beats and acoustic guitar is enough.
Below is our list of the best free recording software you can download, install, and immediately start using on your computer.
Presonus Studio One Free
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 and, as the name implies, it is 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.
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First released in 2000, Audacity has gone on to become one of the most popular pieces of free software around, and for good reason. The open-source program gives users a wide range of options for recording and editing audio, all tied together with a simple interface. Perhaps most importantly, unlike many other free programs, Audacity is not “free for a limited time” or “free with many features locked.” Everything Audacity has to offer is free of charge.
Compared to other notable DAWs such as ProTools and Sound Forge, Audacity’s layout is very minimalist. There are toolbars for navigating a track, editing it, and mixing. When tracks are loaded, they will appear as waveforms, and users can edit specific sections of a track by highlighting the appropriate section of the waveform. Navigating the interface is easy, although it may take time for new users to figure out what every specific tool does. As far as editing goes, Audacity offers a surprisingly robust set of tools for a free program. Users can adjust pitch, bass, and treble, or normalize noise and add effects like reverb and phasing. Audacity even has some tools for analyzing tracks, including frequency analysis.
Of course, no piece of free software is without its shortcomings, and despite Audacity’s many virtues, it has some issues. The most notable problem is that Audacity uses “destructive editing,” which means that when users add effects to a track, they are actually altering the waveform; these changes happen to the original file, so you can’t go back and undo them later. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you’re carrying out simple tasks — such as editing pauses out of a podcast — but more complex actions like mixing might be difficult. Furthermore, Audacity requires numerous plugins to reach optimal functionality; it cannot export projects as MP3s, for example, unless the user installs an MP3 encoder. Overall, however, Audacity offers one of the most robust packages available among free recording programs.
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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.
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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, also led the development of REAPER (Rapid Environment for Audio Prototyping and Efficient Recording). The program is essentially a shareware recording tool 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 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. REAPER is an extremely versatile application that’s available for both Windows and Mac OS X users, one you can start learning for free. Keep in mind that Reaper is only free for 60 days, however, and will require a $60 purchase thereafter.
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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.
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Zynewave Podium Free
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 users learn how to use it, however, they will find that Podium Free offers an interface that excels in terms of customization, while offering a suite of effects and other features on par with premium DAWs. The program also never times out or displays a nag screen, and Nielsen regularly updates the software to fix bugs and known issues.
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Those looking for an intuitive way to record and mix audio should enjoy the free version of VirtualDJ, which provides users with an easy-to-use interface in which to tweak audio. The first thing new users might notice when launching VirtualDJ is that the interface is modeled after a traditional DJ table. There are two decks to load tracks onto, and numerous dials and sliders for adjusting pitch, volume, and other audio aspects. There are even two “records” that users can scratch and spin if they please. Tracks are displayed as overlapping waveforms at the top of the screen, which allows users to line up two different tracks at precise intervals.
Users coming to VirtualDJ for musical purposes will also find an array of effects to use, including reverb and flanging. The program also allows users to splice samples into their songs; the default samples — which include an air raid siren and a person saying “pump it up!” — are kind of dull, but what is really nice about the program is the ability to create your own samples. The process is straightforward thanks to VirtualDJ’s readable interface, so if you wanted to cut out the chorus of Take On Me and speed it up alongside a hip-hop beat, for example, you could to do in a matter of minutes.
Of course, VirtualDJ is hardly perfect. The options for editing audio are relatively shallow and the built-in effects are pretty basic, so users looking to really experiment with audio will probably want to look elsewhere. Still, with it’s very intuitive interface, VirtualDJ is a great tool for aspiring musicians looking to dip their toes into mixing and editing.
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Updated April 18, 2016, by Will Nicol: Added VirtualDJ Free and updated copy to reflect recent software changes.