If you are a student or a musician that is just starting out, you might not have the budget to purchase a bunch of music production software to help you record and produce your own music. I too was once a student and perfectly understand the troubles that you are in.
There are always a bunch of free (legally free) software that helps you get started. Truth be told, majority of the free software out there are good enough for basic recording and production. The professional software are there to help professionals who record and produce on a daily basic to be faster and more productive. There’s no need to crack open the piggy bank to spend tons of money on a professional digital audio workstation when you are not going to use 90% of its features yet.
I have listed below five free(ish) digital audio workstations that I find would be the most useful to budding musicians and producers. These software would allow you to record, edit and mix audio and midi tracks.
Garageband comes with every new Mac and is an often undervalued piece of music software. Over the years, Garageband has creeped closer to its big brother Logic Pro X in terms of features and capability. If you own a Mac and have not tried Garageband then do so now. Garageband is also able to load third-party audio unit plugins which makes it really suitable for expanding your sound palette as well. I know a few albums that have been made just using Garageband so don’t discount it as a viable piece of music production software.
Audacity is a free, open source software for recording and editing audio. Audacity is the only fully cross platform software in this list that also supports Linux. Although it doesn’t support midi tracks, Audacity is a powerful audio editor which I find shines more as a two-track audio editor when compared to the others in this list. Audacity comes with a suite of plugins that have been developed not just for music production but also for audio analysis for academics and scientists. Although its not on the top of my list for music production, it definitely deserves a spot here for its capabilities and simplicity as a two-track audio editor.
Presonus Studio One is probably not as well known as the other digital audio workstations such as Pro Tools, Logic or Cubase. But if you have a piece of gear from Presonus then they have probably packaged it together with your hardware. Presonus Studio One has number of software versions with varying feature sets and Presonus Studio One Free is right at the bottom. Don’t discount it as being crippled. I find that it is still a useful piece of software that allows you to experience the Studio One universe. The one issue I have with the free version is the inability to load third-party plugins until you purchase one of the more expensive versions. This is a fair big limitation as the plugin set is a limited when it comes to software instruments so midi composers might want to look elsewhere.
Reaper is a powerful digital audio workstation which stands up there with the giants of digital audio workstations. Its not as mainstream but it doesn’t shy away when it comes to its feature set. There are some professionals I know that have converted from one of the big names to Reaper due to its simplicity and community. Reaper is extremely customizable and I find that their community is great at address problems and adding new features to the software. Reaper is not free but comes with an unlimited demo. There is a great pricing for non-commercial use which is really affordable. If you are looking for a powerful digital audio workstation on a budget then look no further than Reaper. Do remember to buy and support the developers if you end up using it a fair amount.
I am a big Pro Tools user so this can’t escape my list. As of this writing, Pro Tools First has not been released but enough details have been given to get me excited about it for people on a budget. Pro Tools is probably my favourite when it comes to recording and audio editing. It does lack lustre when compared to other for midi composition but more than makes up for it with its powerful mixing features. Pro Tools First comes with a reduced track count of 16 audio, 16 instrument, and 16 midi tracks but that is enough for basic production and education. I think Pro Tools First will be a great tool for students who are learning Pro Tools in school and want to be able to practice at home. It does get a little limited as you need to save your sessions to the cloud and the free subscription only allows for three projects at a time. I’ll confirm this again when the software is released but it is still invaluable for practice and education.