As an emerging artist looking to develop and expand your music production skills to have more control over the quality and the artistic expression of your work, you want to make sure you have the right tools to help you reach maximum potential. That’s why you should do your best to learn the basics of working with a digital audio workstation, or DAW, to grow your skills and ensure your songs are of the highest quality. But where do you start, what can you do with a DAW, and which one should you choose?
What is a DAW and why do you need it?
A digital audio workstation, also known as a DAW, is a software app used primarily for recording and producing digital audio tracks, so it’s an indispensable tool for artists who prefer to self-produce their work. Through various features and tools, a DAW enables artists, composers, sound engineers, producers, and other music pros to manipulate, edit, and mix songs with precision and in-depth detail.
Basically, if you’re looking to start producing your own music from the comfort of your home or office, a DAW is an essential resource. It can help you streamline the entire music production process, allowing you to import digital audio files, apply effects, mix tracks together, rearrange musical compositions, and so much more - all in a single platform. Whether you’re a beginner or an established music producer, a DAW is the first thing you need to add to your toolkit, because it will help you achieve professional-sounding results that appeal to both fans and, why not, record labels.
Free vs paid DAWs: what’s the difference?
At this stage, you might be wondering if you should go for a free DAW or go all in for a paid DAW. This decision depends on several factors, the main one being your budget; DAW can be pricey, and if you’re just starting out, you might not have the budget to opt for a paid option. But the main differences between free and paid DAWs lie in their features, their functionalities, and the support they offer users. Usually, a free digital audio workstation will provide a set of basic features and functionalities that allow you to elevate your songs to the next level and achieve a professional sound without investing a ton of money on production. Free DAWs might be lacking in functionalities for those who already possess advanced music production skills and are looking for the best of the best. Paid DAWs might also offer a higher number of plugins or tracks that can be used or uploaded simultaneously, while some free DAWs might be limited in this regard.
The decision will come down to your budget and the way you intend to use a digital audio workstation. For emerging artists or beginner producers, a free DAW is more than enough, and it will offer plenty of features and functionalities for you to explore and play around with to create original sounds. Once you’ve got the basics or DAW music production, then you can look into paid digital audio workstations and what they have to offer that will further elevate your music and help you create your original sound. A paid DAW when you’re just learning the ropes of music production could prove overwhelming and hard to navigate, so start with the basics and upgrade as you hone your skills as a producer.
Top 10 free DAWs to use for music production
Now that we’ve established that a free digital audio workstation is the best option for you if you’re still a beginner at music production, it’s time to choose which DAW to use. This too could prove a difficult, overwhelming decision, because there are numerous options on the market right now, and they all have amazing features and excellent functionalities to offer. So, we’ve done the research for you and rounded up 10 of the best free DAWs for music production currently available. If you don’t know where to start, look no further, because this list will have you covered.
A beginner-friendly version of the popular Ableton Live DAW, the Live Lite version is the perfect option for those looking to explore the basics of professional music production. While the paid version offers various extra features and functionalities, Ableton Live Lite is easy to navigate, stable, constantly updated, and allows you to explore and experiment without shelling out on a pricey subscription. Live Lite lets you play around with MIDI files, loops, built-in audio effects and instruments, while also providing tutorials and other resources catering to beginner music producers. It’s a great place to get your started with the ins and outs of music production, and in time, you can simply upgrade to the paid version without losing your history.
If you use your Apple Macbook, iMac, or iPad to play around with music, then you’ll already be familiar with Garageband, Apple’s free digital audio workstation. It’s a basic editing, recording, and mixing tool, without too many bells and whistles, which makes it ideal for beginners to learn the ropes of music production and mixing. It’s incredibly easy to use, even if you’ve never explored a DAW before, and offers a wide range of loops and virtual instruments to play around with and experiment with. It has a user-friendly, highly intuitive interface that’s easy to navigate, a handy drag-and-drop feature, not to mention the app’s seamless integration with Apple devices and software.
Another great option to get you started with music production through a digital audio workstation is Audacity. A free, open-source DAW, it offers a wide range of benefits and features for the beginner producer, and it works on various operating systems, including Windows, macOS, and Linux. It boasts a straightforward, easy-to-use-and-navigate interface where you can cut, copy, paste, and edit digital audio files with ease. Additionally, you get access to various audio formats, effects, and filters, and the possibility to install third-party plugins for extra functionality. You can even convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs, all without breaking the bank or spending your entire budget on a pricey subscription.
Waveform Free is a great option for singer/songwriters, producers, podcasters, and all kinds of emerging artists looking to experiment with DAW music production. Its free version offers numerous advantages, including basic effects and filters, recording and editing features, and a wide variety of built-in sounds and loops. The DAW allows you to create original, professional-sounding tracks without the need for multiple third-party plugins or extra functionalities. At the same time, you can install VST plugins and expand its capabilities to get the results you want. The platform provides plenty of options to choose from, depending on what you need the digital audio workstation to do for you. From MIDI and Step Clip to Micro Drum Sampler, Rompler, or 4 OSC synth - you’ll have access to all of these features with Waveform Free.
If having endless options and features tends to overwhelm you and what you’re looking for is simplicity and ease of use, then SoundBridge might be right up your alley. It was designed with simplicity in mind, to make it easy for musicians to get the hang of all the essentials of tracking, sequencing, editing, and mixing in one place. The platform also provides complete third-party VST and low-latency/high-fidelity audio driver support, and it works on both Windows and macOS devices. It still packs numerous tools, plugins, sound effects, filters, instruments, faders, channel presets, and more, but its clean and user-friendly interface makes it easy to select only the features you need.
Cubase is one of the most popular DAW available on the market today, created by Steinberg. While the full version is a great asset and tool for experienced producers, the Cubase LE version is perfect for beginners who are just trying to explore and experiment with music production. A user-friendly interface, intuitive features, and various mixing, recording, and editing options, these are just some of the advantages of Cubase LE for beginners. This compact version uses the same core technologies as Cubase Pro, allowing you to kickstart your music production journey with ease. If you find you need more functionalities, you can always upgrade to Cubase Pro.
Previously known as SONAR, Cakewalk by BandLab is a professional-grade digital audio workstation that provides free music production capabilities for Windows users. The software allows you to compose songs with the help of songwriting tools and instruments, record tracks at the highest quality in MIDI format, edit and tweak things like pitch or time, rearrange chords and melodies, elevate the sound with advanced mixing tools, and export your finished tracks directly to YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, or anywhere else. Cakewalk provides an endless array of high-tech features and capabilities that allow you to bring your songs to their highest potential, so it’s a great place to start your production journey. The only downside is that it’s only available for Windows users.
Another feature-rich free DAW for beginner music producers, Reaper is a budget-friendly option that packs a lot of potential. The main advantage is that the platform and interface are highly customizable, so you can install and use various third-party plugins, effects, virtual instruments and sound loops. While it can seem intimidating at first with all the different tools and plugins and capabilities at your disposal, the platform also provides detailed and helpful user guides and video tutorials to help you navigate the DAW easily. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to explore all it has to offer and experiment with the various options of customizing the interface depending on your specific goals and needs.
Available for macOS, Windows, and Linux devices, Ardour is an open-source digital audio workstation that provides all the basic recording, editing, and mixing features that beginners need to get started on their music production journey. It also supports multi-track recording and editing, the possibility to explore different formats, audio effects, and plugins, and gets constant improvements and upgrades that improve its capabilities. It’s a great resource for sound engineers, producers, songwriters, composers, soundtrack editors, as well as radio and podcast producers, so whatever your specific needs are, Ardour can surely handle them.
Last but not least, Studio One 5 Prime by PreSonus is an amazing DAW option for beginner music producers. It does offer limited capabilities compared to its paid versions, but it’s a great place to start honing your production skills and learn the basics for editing, recording, mixing, mastering, and exporting digital tracks. It has a straightforward drag-and-drop interface that makes it easy to use, and provides various sound effects, virtual instruments, and filters that are more than enough to fulfill your basic music production needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best free DAW?
Preferences can vary depending on individual needs and preferences. Some popular and well-regarded free DAWs include Ardour, Reaper, Audacity, and Cakewalk by BandLab. Each of these DAWs offers a range of features and capabilities, allowing users to compose, record, edit, and produce music. It's recommended to try out a few of them to see which one aligns best with your workflow and requirements.
What can I do with a free DAW?
With a free Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), you can engage in a wide range of music production activities. These DAWs typically offer features such as multi-track recording, audio and MIDI editing, virtual instrument support, and various audio effects. You can compose original music, record live instruments or vocals, arrange and edit audio and MIDI clips, mix tracks, add effects, and export your creations in different formats. Free DAWs may have some limitations compared to their paid counterparts, but they still provide a powerful platform for aspiring musicians, producers, and audio enthusiasts to create and experiment with their musical ideas.
Can I publish the music I create in a free DAW?
Yes, you can publish the music you create in a free DAW. As long as you have composed and recorded the music yourself or have the appropriate licenses for any samples or loops used, you have the right to publish and distribute your work. However, it's essential to check the specific terms and conditions of the free DAW you are using, as some may have certain restrictions or requirements when it comes to commercial use or distribution. Additionally, if you plan to release your music on streaming platforms or for commercial purposes, it's a good idea to research any potential limitations or considerations related to the DAW's licensing and the usage of third-party plugins or virtual instruments you may have used in your project.
Want to learn more about music production from true professionals?
Join Xposure Music and gain access to some of the best music industry professionals in the U.S. Top experts from Sony, Columbia, Def Jam, or Universal have already joined our platform, and they’re ready to give invaluable, on-point feedback on your work, which can help you land that dream record deal or publishing deal you’ve been working towards. Sign up now and reap the rewards.
If you’re looking to kickstart your music career but have limited resources, we can help you get funding for your next project while staying in control of your own work and career trajectory. You keep 100% ownership of your masters and get an advance ranging from $1,000 to $3 million to get your career off the ground. Get an estimate now and start turning your dream into reality.