A digital audio workstation, abbreviated as DAW, is a type of software that lets you interact with audio files, including mixing, recording, and all types of manipulation.
In order to be a player in the music industry nowadays, it’s crucial to have a basic understanding of how a DAW works.
For session musicians recording themselves at home, artists making their own demos at home to send to producers, and songwriters just trying to make a good work tape, basic knowledge goes a long way.
That said, some DAWs like the notorious Pro Tools can cost an arm and a leg, which isn’t realistic for most of us working musicians.
To ease the burden, here’s a rundown of the best free DAWs that the music world has to offer.
Before we dive in, we want to make clear that the DAW itself won’t affect the quality of your music, just the speed and effort needed to achieve your goals.
Simplicity and user-friendliness are big priorities, but everyone is different, so take our opinions as guidelines rather than rules.
These are the best free DAWs for music production in 2022:
The bread and butter for creatives on Macs
No doubt you’ve already heard about Garageband, given that it comes pre-loaded on every Mac sold. It gets the first spot on this list simply because if you have a Mac, you already have the software, no need to hunt down a download file.
Secondly, it’s far more capable than most people know. It comes with a multitude of synthesized sounds, as well as a number of basic sampled libraries to get you started.
You can get full control of all the synth parameters, and start creating your own sounds right away, and the sampled libraries can be delightfully authentic sounding with the right touches.
The real treat that is exclusive to Garageband is the Drummer track. Imagine that you had a drummer with you at all times who knew where to put fills on their own, could listen and adapt to your track, and could even differentiate between the chorus and the verse, with no yelling across the room.
Now imagine that you had more than one drummer, with different kits and styles. We present to you the Drummer. It may sound cheesy at first listen, but with a little processing (try OTT by Xfer; it’s free!) it can be a saving grace for people like me who loathe the idea of hand-programming drums for an entire song.
You can even take the drum track, convert it to MIDI, and use your own sampler with your own sounds, saving you from coming up with a pattern and all the tedious fills!
One big downside is that most of the higher functionality of this DAW is hidden, though still accessible. It takes some digging and asking the right questions on Google to be able to find all the things you would expect from a full-version DAW, like how to add plugins, though you might think it would be simple.
Just know that with a little research, it can do everything you want it to, and it looks sleek and approachable; perfect for beginners!
Last point on this one, but if you decide to upgrade to Logic (the best DAW, according to the author of this list), all your project files can be opened in Logic with no conversion or exporting necessary!
- Fully capable of doing all the things a DAW should.
- Awesome stock sound collection.
- Drummer track is a blessing.
- Some features are hidden or buried.
- Works in a slightly different way than most other mainstream DAWs.
Ableton Live Lite
Ableton is surely considered the best music making software for producers of electronic music, largely due to its workflow. Things tend to just make sense, and finding your way around the DAW in Ableton is pretty intuitive.
It may not look nice and shiny like Garageband, where you feel as if you’re playing some sort of video game, but it’s every bit as powerful.
The free version of Ableton Live still contains the legendary pitch-shifting and Warp functions that many producers swear by, and that we truly wish Logic would adopt (or steal, whatever works).
The pitch shifting can be corrective, like you would use on vocals, or it can be creative, maybe for vocal chops and other things.
The Warp modes let you take audio and, in technical terms, mangle the h*ck out of it. You can chop, stretch, glitch, stutter, shrink, you name it. It’s a beautifully creative tool, and is wholly unique to Abelton Live.
There are also a ton of cool stock plugins and effects, like Granulator, a granular plugin, and amp simulators for guitars.
The rack feature of Ableton is a great way to come up with combinations of effects, apply them to several different instruments, and then save them for later.
You can even bypass some parts of the rack for certain instruments, and automate when that happens, giving you a frightening amount of control over the effects in your project, as well as saving CPU usage.
We also particularly like the way that Ableton’s plugins show up in the rack, and let your change parameters around without having to open a whole new window.
One big drawback is that you are limited to only eight tracks at a time in the free version, which can be remedied by resampling or bouncing down several instruments to one track and continuing to work, but that can be dull and an unnecessary interruption to your workflow.
However for work tapes that only require a vocal and a guitar/piano, that’s a non-issue.
- Pitch-shiftng and Warp modes.
- Standardized, highly-efficient workflow.
- Available for both Mac (macOS) and PC (Windows).
- 8 track limit for free version.
- Reduced plugins and effects compared to the full version.
- Not as pretty as Garageband.
Computer-friendly music making
Cubase can sometimes feel like the forgotten stepchild of DAWs, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. There are a growing number of musicians and producers who use Cubase, including Infected Mushroom, Hans Zimmer, and one of our personal musical heroes, Zedd.
We’ve heard Cubase described as more similar to coding and programming than to music making, which is a stark contrast from the candy-shop feel of Garageband, but we could be completely off-base, not having used the software ourselves. For someone familiar with computers already, this would be their DAW of choice.
Cubase LE is their free version, and they include it with some pieces of hardware, such as the Steinberg UR22C, which is a beginner recording bundle with an interface, microphone, and headphones.
Cubase can be a little more daunting than its counterparts above, but boasts more capability than Ableton, being able to use 32 audio tracks, 16 virtual instrument tracks, 48 external MIDI tracks, and up to 16 physical inputs in the free version.
This is perfect for recording a live band, for example, or making a more complicated musical production if you don’t want to shell out a ton of money for a flagship DAW.
One cool feature is that Cubase has adapted to the modern era and functions wonderfully on an iPad (check Cubasis LE)!
Some of you more experienced music-makers might be groaning at the thought of trying to adjust your workflow to a small, handheld tablet with no mouse or keyboard shortcuts, but hear me out: iPads can be used for live sound mixing from the stage, or walking around an auditorium. It’s a portable mixing console if you need it to be.
Also, it’s easy to bring on a plane or in a car, or even just as a second, more tactile mixing window while you’re at your home studio desk. This functionality is worth talking about!
- Works on PC, Mac, and iPad!
- Free version included with many hardware products.
- Easy to learn if you have a background in computers already.
- Harder to learn if you don’t have a background in computers already.
- Only 23 effects included in the free version.
Studio One Prime
Not a trial version*
Many of the other DAWs on this list feel like free trails. They restrict you in certain ways, some big, some small, and expect that you’ll get so frustrated that you’ll spend money to upgrade. We mean, who’s making music with only 8 tracks anymore? (Looking at you, Ableton Live Lite).
Studio One is… technically also doing that, but they’ve made their free version DAW feel like you’re at least riding a bike without training wheels. They don’t restrict you to a track limit, which is huge, as many projects can top out at over 100 individual tracks.
There’s also a PreSonus bag o’ tricks in the form of the Pattern Editor, which is a function that the reluctant finger drummers will adore that gives you the ability to create complex fills and rhythms in the blink of an eye.
Then, there’s stuff like Ampire, which is their premier guitar amp simulator, and it comes in the free version. Pretty cool!
Studio One Prime to us feels the most similar to Ableton, which means it has a simple and intuitive workflow, and lots of features that make you think “Wow, the developers really do care about me specifically”.
It includes a drum sampler machine as well, which is a game changer if you work primarily in hip-hop, pop, latin, or the beat-making game. Combine that with the Pattern Editor, and you’ll deal a crushing blow to beat-block.
- Unlimited tracks! All the power!
- Drum sampler and unique Pattern Editor in the free version.
- Feels familiar and acts like most mainstream DAWs.
- Paid version is similar to, but outclassed by, Abelton Live’s pro version, meaning most musicians end up in Ableton.
- Smaller user base means fewer resources for help, like tutorials and walkthroughs.
The original OG gangster… did we use “OG” right?
No list of free DAWs would be complete without talking about Audacity. It was the first of its kind, and has remained largely unchanged since then.
Audacity lives up to the definition of a DAW, in that you can manipulate audio to your liking using the software, but it lacks a number of things that would be considered standard nowadays, even for a free DAW.
Audacity can’t do MIDI. At all. That means no synths, VST instruments, drum machine plugins; nothing.
It also doesn’t have the wide range of fun sound-shaping plugins you’d expect to find, like amp simulators. Even with the plugins it does have, it can’t change the settings while recording or during playback, which can be a rather annoying setback.
It can use the typical VST plugins you’d be able to download for any other DAW though, but has little to brag about as far as being unique.
So why would anyone choose Audacity?
Audacity is open-source, meaning that tech-savvy people can create their own versions of it without having to buy anything, and use it as a foundation to build code to their needs.
Audacity is also just a recording workhorse. You need to record a podcast? Done. Your wedding vows? Find a mic and you’re golden. Your little sister is graduating kindergarten and making a speech? Save it and play it back for her kids someday, who knows.
It’s not always elegant, but if you want to record the world around you, Audacity cuts out the nonsense and streamlines audio capture and editing down to the basics. Just don’t ask it to get too fancy!
- Does exactly what it intends to do: record audio.
- Open source! Great for software developers.
- No MIDI, which means no virtual instruments.
- Dismal selection of plugins for sound-shaping, just the basics.
There are more free DAWs out there, but this list just focuses on the biggest ones.
If you really want to get the most functionality out of a DAW for the lowest price possible, stop reading lists and go buy Reaper. It’s a full DAW for $60, which is probably the lowest you’ll find for all the bells and whistles.
This list doesn’t need to be more in-depth, since all of these options are solid choices, and most importantly, will let you start being creative today.
And of course, the most important part about selecting a DAW is how well it works for you, not how many plugins it has. Try out more than one, and find your best workflow!