Start producing music without spending any money. Learn which digital audio workstations (DAWs) are the best for writing songs.
The software used to make music is called a digital audio workstation (DAW). It provides the same functionality as an analog recording studio. You can use a DAW to write, record, mix, and master music at home on your computer. We’re going to take a look at the best free music making software for PC and Mac.
There are plenty of DAWs available but only a few of them are free to use, and even less are worth your time. Every DAW on this list provides some unique pros and cons. The free DAW that’s right for you will depend on your operating system and music-making goals.
4. Apple’s GarageBand (MacOS)
Apple’s GarageBand is perhaps the most well known free music making software. It comes with a sound library that includes instruments, presets for guitar and voice, and a selection of session drummers and percussionists. You can plug in a guitar or microphone and choose from a variety of realistic amps and effects. There’s thousands of loops to help you produce EDM, hip hop, indie, and more.
One of GarageBand’s unique features is its virtual session drummer, called Drummer. It was created in collaboration with the industry’s top session drummers and recording engineers, and features 28 beat-making drummers and three percussionists. Whether you’re producing EDM, dubstep, hip hop, Latin, metal, or blues, Drummer provides an assortment of percussion options.
Logic Pro is also developed by Apple but it’s like GarageBand on steroids. It delivers more stock plugins, a Mixer window, and an Inspector windows that provides your with more control over your sounds.
Buses, groups, sends, returns, and the ability to use third-party VST3s is not included in GarageBand. This is a dealbreaker for people producing music professionally. These features are integral to mixing songs at a pro level. Running large recording sessions in GarageBand isn’t ideal either since it doesn’t include the Take folders available in Logic Pro—these help keep multiple recordings organized.
Despite GarageBand’s lack of advanced features, it has a small learning curve so you’ll be able to start writing music quickly. Using GarageBand feels like writing music with training wheels on but that might give you the confidence boost you need to pursue music production further. If you decide to upgrade to Logic Pro at a later point in time, the interface will already look and feel familiar since it’s laid out similarly to GarageBand.
3. PreSonus’ Studio One Prime (MacOS and Windows)
Studio One Prime is the stripped-down version of Studio One Professional but it’s entirely free; this music making software has gained significant popularity over the past couple of years. It has exceptional virtual instruments and native effects. The production workflow is fast and streamlined, the DAW looks visually appealing and modern, and you can work with unlimited audio and instrument tracks, virtual instruments, and FX channels.
If you’re a guitarist, you’ll love the included Ampire tech that provides realistic amp and cabinet simulations. Studio One’s pattern editor makes programming drum and melody compositions simple, which is great for producing EDM and hip hop; this feature’s UI is inspired by classic drum machines.
Two downsides to the free version of Studio One are that there’s no support for third-party VSTs and you can only record using a maximum of two inputs at once. Attempting to multi-mic and record a drum kit might be problematic. However, the input cap isn’t a big deal if you simply plan to record lead vocals or stereo acoustic guitar.
The main motivator to upgrade to a paid version of Studio One is an absence of VST support; you need this to use popular plugins like Serum (software synthesizer), Neutron (mixing tools), and Ozone (mastering tools).
If you decide to upgrade to a paid version of Studio One, I highly recommend checking out the PreSonus Sphere bundle. For $14.95/month, you get Studio One Professional, Notion composition and notation software, every PreSonus plugin and Studio One add-on, the completely library of Notion sound expansion add-ons, collaboration workspaces with live chat and inline comments, as well as a library of Masterclass videos and live streams—with new content added every month. For the price, the value of this subscription is incredible and the streaming royalties that you generate after releasing a few songs can easily cover the monthly expense.
2. BandLab’s Cakewalk (Windows)
BandLab’s Cakewalk has stepped up its game recently and become one of the top free software options for Windows users who want to make music. Cakewalk allows you to compose, record, edit, mix, master, and share music.
It includes creative songwriting tools and instruments, unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, pitch and time-correction tools, tons of great mixing devices, and built-in mastering tools. You can also publish your songs directly to YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, and more.
Cakewalk has a great-looking Skylight Interface and allows you to use third-party VST3 plugins. There’s also touch functionality that allows you to operate Cakewalk on a tablet. The audio effects that are included with this free music making software are great; many of these effects are based on classic hardware units. You gain access to convolution reverb, resonant filtering, compression, EQ, tube saturation, and peak limiting.
One of the most unique Cakewalk features is that it provides Audio Random Access (ARA) support. ARA is an extension for audio plugin interfaces (VST, AU, etc.) that allows them to communicate more effectively with your music making software. Instead of being required to transfer audio data into a plugin in real time, plugins can instantly import audio data from your session; this eliminates the time-consuming transfer process associated with using pitch correction software like Melodyne.
Unlike some of the other free software on this list, there’s only one version of Cakewalk. The free version includes every available Cakewalk feature. Perhaps one of the biggest downsides to Cakewalk is that it’s not commonly featured in YouTube tutorials; this isn’t the end of the world but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re a beginner.
1. Ableton Live (MacOS and Windows)
I’ve been producing music for over a decade and have used plenty of different DAWs throughout that time. Although, the music making software that I currently and primarily use to write, record, mix, and master my music is Ableton Live. It comes with effects, instruments, sounds, and plenty of creative features. Ableton has a steep learning curve but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to produce songs faster than you ever thought possible. EDM, pop, and hip hop producers love how easy it is to edit audio clips and automate device parameters in Ableton Live.
Ableton Live Suite comes with 17 software instruments, 5,000+ sounds, 60 audio effects, and 16 MIDI effects. There are also tons of free Max For Live devices that you can download from third-party developers that enhance Ableton’s functionality. If it interests you, you can build your own Max For Live instruments and effects, or modify existing Max For Live devices to meet your needs. Of course, you can also use VST3 plugins in Ableton.
Unlike the other DAWs on this list, Ableton Live provides live performance features that make it the DAW of choice for performing vocalists and musicians. You have the option to produce music along a linear timeline (Arrangement View) or within a unique loop-based environment called Session View.
Use Ableton to trigger backing tracks (instrumentals, loops, and one-shots) while performing live. Mic up a band, route each microphone through Ableton, and mix the signals prior to playback through a PA system. Quite commonly, artists use Ableton to create live-loop performances, in which they build a song one layer at a time while on stage.
I was a little hesitant to add Ableton to this list because it’s free but only for a certain period of time. Ableton provides a lengthy 90-day Ableton Live Suite trial that grants access to the most comprehensive edition of Live with no limitations.
My thought process is that if you plan on getting serious about music production, don’t waste your time learning and then abandoning a DAW that fails to provide all the features that you need. Commit to Ableton from square one and save yourself a headache later on.
You can upgrade to the Intro version of Ableton Live for $99 when you’re ready, and then scale up to the Standard or Suite edition as your needs grow. If you save $10/week throughout the trial period, you’ll be able to buy Ableton by the time your trial expires.
The following video is a preview from my Music Production for Beginners course that shows you how to download, install, and set up a music production template in Ableton Live. Click here to learn more about the course and produce your first song today.