Last updated on May 12th, 2016 at 12:26 pm
Choosing the right Digital Audio Workstation is the fundamental step in the process of building a software-based music production studio. After all, the DAW is the central part of any virtual studio setup, where all the audio recording, editing and mixing takes place.
Needless to say, there are plenty of commercial digital audio workstations out there, however the options are far more limited if you’re building your studio on a tight budget. Most commercial DAW applications come with a demo version of some sort, but a demo is often quite restricted in terms of available features when compared to the full product. Thankfully, it is possible to build a powerful music studio almost completely free of charge nowadays, at least when it comes to finding the right software for the task (you will still need to invest some money into a decent computer, a pair of monitors or headphones and an audio interface).
The list below features our selection of the best free digital audio workstations, along with mini reviews and an overview of pros and cons to help you decide which program to choose. Please note that the programs are listed in no particular order. Every user has different demands and it is practically impossible to say which freeware DAW is the best. In case you came here looking for a wider range of music making software, we also have an extensive round-up of freeware VST host programs and a list of freeware audio editors.
This article will be updated with additional applications in the future, so make sure to come back from time to time to see what’s new on the freeware DAW market. You’re also more than welcome to leave any suggestions you may have in the comments section below. If you find the article useful, please share it with your friends!
Pros (+) : VST and ReWire support, fully functional software, cheap upgrade price.
Cons (-) : No updates, unconventional workflow and user interface.
Platforms : Windows, Mac OS, Linux.
Tracktion 4 is arguably the most feature-packed freeware DAW at the moment. Available across all major platforms, offering unlimited VST plugin support and ReWire compatibility, Tracktion 4 is a seriously powerful free music making application, on par feature-wise with most commercial digital audio workstations out there. It can even load video files, in case you need to synchronize your audio project to a movie scene or an animation. So, where’s the catch? How is something this good so… free?
The answer lies in the fact that this is is an older version of Tracktion which is now unsupported and won’t be updated in the future (unlike the free version of Podium, for example). If you want the new features, you will need to purchase the commercial version of Tracktion (currently Tracktion T6, fairly priced at $60). Other than the lack of future updates, the only major drawback of Tracktion 4 is the program’s somewhat unusual user interface which might take a bit of getting used to for people coming from other more traditional digital audio workstations. Of course, whether the user interface itself is a drawback or not is debatable, as some users actually love Tracktion’s unique single-window workflow. The reality is that newcomers probably won’t have any issues with it, whereas people who are switching from a different DAW might find it a bit confusing at first.
Back to the good stuff, Tracktion 4 comes with an in-depth user manual that explains everything you need to know about this great music making application. And if you don’t care much for reading manuals, you’ll probably love the awesome series of free training videos that are available on the developer’s official website. The tutorial videos cover all important topics from basic setup and plugin installation to advanced audio editing and automation.
Pros (+): Unlimited number of VST plugins, great user interface, solid workflow.
Cons (-): Single core processing for plugins, no ReWire support.
Platform : Windows.
Podium Free is a long-time favorite of ours, a powerful freeware digital audio workstation that combines a slick user interface and a streamlined workflow. Podium was built with electronic musicians in mind, although it can also work really well for recording and mixing real instruments. The free version is somewhat limited when compared to the full product, but it’s still packing tons of features and doesn’t feel like a demo version or a shareware program. It is a completely functional freeware application that provides everything you’ll need for creating music.
Podium Free offers decent VST plugin support (not limited to a certain amount of VST plugins per project), a robust object-based project structure with a virtual mixer, standard recording and editing tools, track freeze/bounce, external MIDI controller support and the same customizable user interface as the one found in the full version of the product. It will work on 32-bit and 64-bit Windows systems and any music or other audio material that you make with it can be used for commercial purposes.
The main limitation of the free edition of Podium is the fact that it doesn’t provide multi-core CPU support. In other words, if you have a quad-core processor, only one of the four available CPU cores will be used for processing plugins. This simply means that you’ll need to keep a close eye on the CPU performance indicator and make sure that you use less demanding plugins in your projects. Track freezing and bouncing can also help to reduce the overall CPU load. It’s worth noting, though, that the remaining CPU cores are still used for various background tasks (rendering, disk streaming, etc.).
Studio One 3 Prime
Pros (+): Great user interface, external SoundFont support, quality native effects.
Cons (-): No VST plugin support, only one virtual instrument included.
Platforms : Windows, Mac OS.
Studio One Prime, unlike the two aforementioned applications, doesn’t offer VST plugin support. That’s is a huge drawback for users who rely mostly on using virtual instruments or a specific arsenal of virtual effects in VST plugin format. On the other hand, Studio One Prime does include a nifty collection of native virtual effects and the Presence XT sampler which comes with a handy 1.5 GB collection of built-in sounds and the ability to load third party SoundFonts. The free version also provides unlimited audio tracks and mixer channels, time-stretching, multi-track comping, full MIDI support, advanced automation and Studio One’s signature drag and drop workflow and effortless side-chain routing.
The lack of VST plugin support is definitely a major drawback, however Studio One’s native effects are some of the best around. The free version includes nine effects in total, covering all of the most important mixing tools such as a 3-band equalizer, compressor, a simple distortion module, guitar amp, reverb, delay, and a set of modulation effects. Sadly, Studio One’s excellent peak limiter is not included in Prime, meaning that even the most basic mastering tasks are completely out of the picture. However, the available effects are plenty enough for basic mixing tasks, making Studio One Prime a good candidate for recording and mixing demo projects, live performances, or even sound editing for video projects.
Studio One Prime is perfect for beginner music producers, musicians who would like to record their vocal performance over a backing track, or bands who want to record and mix their demo sessions. It is an entry-level DAW that can be upgraded to Studio One Artist (with more native effects) and Studio One Professional (with plugin support and a range of other additional features). Studio One Prime’s small memory footprint also makes it a good choice for a lightweight DAW to use on a laptop or another computer that’s not a part of your main studio setup.
Pro Tools | First
Pros (+) : AAX plugin support, includes Xpand!2 instrument and over 20 native effects.
Cons (-) : Only three projects can be stored, network connection required, CPU hog.
Platforms : Windows, Mac OS.
Pro Tools | First shares a large number of features with the full version of Avid’s flagship audio recording and mixing software. The free version of Pro Tools includes AAX plugin support, Elastic Time and Elastic Pitch functionality, powerful recording, editing and mixing tools, a line-up of over 20 native effects and even the full version of the excellent Xpand!2 virtual instrument. Sounds too good to be true? The catch is that the projects can only be saved to cloud storage that is connected to your Avid user account and only up to three projects can be stored at the same time. It is an interesting implementation of the freemium pricing model to a digital audio workstation, where you get a relatively small amount of free storage space that can be expanded through additional purchases.
If we put the cloud storage space limitation aside, the free version of Pro Tools is indeed a very capable and nicely polished DAW. It includes the AIR Music Technology Xpand!2 music workstation with over 1 GB worth of sounds (downloaded separately), a wide range of native effects, ReWire support and all of the necessary audio editing and mixing tools such as automation, time and pitch stretching, track comping, track bounce, etc. The interface is very well designed and rather intuitive. After all, Pro Tools has been the industry standard for many years. In short, Pro Tools | First is a very capable tool for recording and mixing audio, with more than enough tools to get you started and the ability to expand the available arsenal with AAX plugins if need be. It’s worth noting that AAX plugins need to be purchased through the Avid store (thanks to our reader David for mentioning this in the comments below).
On the negative side of things (and apart from the limited number of projects that can be saved), Pro Tools | First consumes the most hard drive space of all the applications on the list (the installer itself is over 800 MB in size), which can be a problem for users with limited storage space. In addition, our general impression during testing was that free version Pro Tools is quite a CPU hog, although this may depend on the hardware setup itself. The application also requires an active iLok user account (not the iLok dongle, only a free online account), as well as the installation of PACE driver support and the Avid Application Manager on your computer, potentially impacting the overall system performance.
The installation process itself is pretty straightforward, though. Same goes for the registration procedure which is very quick and well documented in case you run into any issues along the way. The activation procedure is also very simple – you’ll only need to enter your Avid user account credentials when starting the application for the first time.
Pros (+) : VST plugin support, includes ZynAddSubFX, open source.
Cons (-) : Some stability issues, relatively steep learning curve, no audio recording.
Platforms : Windows, Mac OS, Linux.
LMMS (short for Linux Multimedia Studio) is an open source pattern-based music making application that was built by a team of volunteers. Unlike any other application on this list, LMMS is not a free version of a commercial product. It is, however, inspired by a commercial product – the well known FL Studio (formerly known as Fruity Loops) digital audio workstation by Image-Line.
The FL Studio style pattern-based workflow is well implemented, however the interface is still somewhat lacking in polish, making the overall user experience a little bit underwhelming at first. The graphical elements are not very intuitive, meaning that new users will probably need some time to get familiar with the application and its features. The interface keeps getting better with every new version of LMMS, though, therefore it definitely makes sense to keep the program updated to the latest version at all times. Also, there are plenty of free video tutorials available online to help with the learning process.
LMMS is packed with a large number of built-in effects and virtual instruments, including the excellent ZynAddSubFX synthesizer that is one of the most versatile freeware instruments around. The program can also host VST plugins and connect to other applications via the JACK Audio Server. The built-in beat/bassline editor is great and the piano roll works really well for creating and editing more complex MIDI sequences. Sadly, LMMS can’t record audio (!), so it is only possible to generate sound using virtual instruments or use imported samples. Even so, LMMS is a decent choice for electronic music producers, beat makers and anyone who relies exclusively on virtual instruments and samples to create music.
Samplitude Pro X Silver (No Longer Free)
Pros (+) : VST plugin support, high quality native effects.
Cons (-) : Only up to eight tracks and two busses per project, complex menus.
Platforms : Windows.
Samplitude Pro X Silver
is used to be the free version of Samplitude, a capable mixing and mastering application by MAGIX. The free version is fully functional, apart from the fact that it is limited to eight tracks and two stereo busses per project. These limitations aside, Samplitude Pro X Silver is a very decent free DAW that can load third party VST plugins alongside its great collection of native effects (including the excellent Vandal guitar amplifier simulator) and the surprisingly good Revolta 2 subtractive synthesizer.
The user interface looks nice and provides all necessary tools for editing and mixing audio. Some of the visual elements do look a bit confusing, though, therefore it is advisable to go through the user manual or check out some of the available video tutorials before starting your first project. The settings menu system is also a bit too complex and clunky, with several important parameters (such as audio interface selection and VST plugin folder location) buried quite a few mouse clicks deep.
The program’s biggest advantages are the nifty collection of bundled effects and rock solid VST plugin support. The registration process is very simple (everything is handled through the freely downloadable installer) and there are no additional hoops to jump through. The eight track limitation is quite a drawback, although the application can still handle less complex projects such as demo recordings, stem mixing and even audio mastering. Many thanks to our reader Frank for recommending Samplitude Pro X Silver in the comments section.
Pros (+) : Powerful modular architecture, unlimited mixer channels.
Cons (-) : Only eight VST plugins and four tracks per project.
Platforms : Windows, Mac OS.
MuLab Free does support VST plugins, but only up to eight instances per project. It also supports only four audio/instrument tracks per project, a single stereo audio input/output and a single MIDI input/output. If the user exceeds any of these limitations (by loading more than eight VST plugins in a project, for example), the application will generate soft white noise in regular time intervals as a reminder to purchase the full version of the software (MuLab UL is priced at €69).
However, MuLab Free totally makes up for these significant feature limitations with its spectacular modular framework (also known as MUX and sold separately for €59) that can be used to build custom effects and virtual instruments from scratch. All of the basic audio processing and sound generating devices are provided as building blocks that the users can patch together and combine into anything from a simple chorus effect to a complex virtual analog synthesizer and anything in-between.
MuLab Free is great for testing new VST plugins, as well as recording quick jam sessions (most of the demo videos on our YouTube channel were recorded in MuLab Free). Due to its portable structure and simple setup procedure, it is also a fantastic choice for a lightweight DAW to use on your laptop or Windows based tablet. Whereas the four-track limitation rules out any serious recording and mixing projects, the fact that the mixer and MUX are not limited means that MuLab Free can be used as a powerful host application for live performances and a versatile sequencer/instrument hybrid for sonic exploration and sound design.
REAPER is NOT free to use, but it is free to try and the asking price of $60 for a discounted license is more than fair, considering the program’s flexibility and the fact that it’s being constantly updated with new features and improvements. REAPER is an incredibly powerful and versatile digital audio workstation that supports all major plugin formats, comes with a great collection of high quality effects for processing audio and MIDI data, features powerful audio and MIDI routing capabilities, and has a very active user community. An in-depth review of REAPER was recently published by ExtremRaym.
Ardour is a free digital audio workstation for Linux and an almost free digital audio workstation for Mac OS and (as of lately) Windows. With a minimum donation of $1, Mac OS and Windows users get the current version of the software and all minor updates, whereas a monthly subscription of $1, $4 or $10 also includes the major updates. The free trial version will go completely silent after ten minutes of use. Feature-wise, Ardour is a very capable digital audio workstation with support for all major plugin formats and a wide range of audio editing and mixing features.
KRISTAL Audio Engine is an old digital audio workstation that is not updated any longer, but can still be useful for users with less powerful computers. The program was developed by KristalLabs, a team of programmers that later worked on creating Studio One. Unlike the free version of Studio One, KRISTAL Audio Engine offers basic VST plugin support with two plugin slots per channel and three plugin slots on the master bus.
Users who are looking for a VST compatible digital audio workstation will probably get the most use out of Tracktion 4 and Podium Free. Both applications are very capable VST hosts and provide all of the other necessary features for producing music. Tracktion 4 is a bit atypical in terms of workflow, though, and Podium Free doesn’t support multi-core processing of plugins.
If third party virtual instruments and VST plugins are not crucial to your workflow, Studio One Prime and Pro Tools | First are the two applications that you should focus on. Studio One Prime is a slick package that is perfect for recording audio and performing all of the standard editing and mixing tasks. Pro Tools | First can be expanded with AAX plugins, but it can only save three projects and requires an active network connection.
Sound designers and performing musicians will probably want to take a closer look at MuLab Free. It is not very versatile as a digital audio workstation, but it is a fantastic live performance host and an amazing modular playground for building new instruments and complex FX chains.
Finally, beginner beat makers and less demanding electronic musicians might find LMMS to be an excellent free alternative to FL Studio. It is not nearly as polished and feature-packed as the powerful DAW developed by Image-Line, but it still packs some punch in a well maintained and constantly updated open source package.
We hope that our round-up of free digital audio workstations has helped you find the perfect platform for your software-based studio. The final choice of DAW is yours to make, because it depends on your needs as the user and the type of hardware that you have at your disposal.