First to save you some time, here are some DAWs that I thought were free when I started making this video, since they were marketed that way or written about as free, but actually have some barrier to entry.
Cubase LE is free, but only if you’ve purchased a Steinberg audio interface or other hardware from them.
Ableton Live Lite 11 is often discussed as a free DAW as well, but it looks like you’ll need to have already had a license to an earlier version.
ProTools First, which was a great free DAW that helped a lot of engineers learn Pro Tools, was unfortunately discontinued by AVID this year.
And lastly, SoundBridge, although a free DAW crashed every time I tried to open it, but maybe that’s just something on my end - if you’ve gotten this one to work let me know since I was curious about it.
With that out of the way let’s look at our first free DAW.
If you’re looking for the most comprehensive DAW that you can get for free, Waveform Free is by far your best option. There are no track count limitations, no export limitations, no session timeouts, or any barrier that you might find with another free DAW.
You start with a welcome screen where you can create new projects or access previous ones, open templates, change some important audio settings like your I/O and sample rate, and even quickly access training for an in-depth look into the DAW.
In the top left you can access other projects, more extensive settings, or have multiple projects open at once.
In the middle are your tracks, which can be added to with the plus icon, to the right is each tracks processing.
But this is just the default view, which I can change via the top right ‘Eye’ button, where I can access my mixer, my piano roll if I’m producing, multiple samples that came with the DAW, as well as simplify the display.
I don’t have time to cover everything, but an awesome feature is the plugin matrixes which let you create complex instruments and effects that can be routed in series or parallel.
Lastly, the ability to affect your master output or individual instruments makes this a great DAW for both mixing and mastering. I might be biased since Traction was the first DAW I ever used when I started engineering, but honestly, I wish this was available back then since it’s absolutely worth your time.
Bandlab Online is a really unique and ahead of its time concept, where you can access a DAW online without taxing your computer in any way. Similar to cloud gaming where you can run games if your computer isn’t powerful enough, Bandlab Online lets you run sessions from anywhere.
When you create a new project you’ll be prompted to create a track type - so if you want to track midi you can start there, or record audio you can do that as well.
If we start with an instrument we’ll see our piano roll, which you’ll notice has already been mapped to a computer keyboard. To the left, we can change the instrument to various free options provided by band lab.
If we add a track and select a drum machine, we have a convenient kit with which we can add up to 8 patterns, change the kit type, and more.
If we create a Voice track, we can record audio, or open the band lab sounds tab at the bottom right, and start dragging in samples.
Each track has an easy-to-use editor with which you can add fades, change the pitch, reverse the audio, and more, as well as an effects section.
Here you can choose various presets, or individual effects, both of which are surprisingly comprehensive in what’s offered.
As you can see, everything is incredibly user-friendly, and I’d definitely recommend this DAW if you’re newer to producing, or your computer has trouble running sessions.
Lastly, one really awesome feature is the ability to invite other producers and engineers into your session, making it easy to collaborate no matter where you are.
Studio One has quickly become a popular DAW for producing, mixing, and even live performances, and the Prime version, although a little limited, gives you a great look into how this DAW works. The main drawback is a lack of effects, but it makes up for that with unlimited tracks.
When booting up the DAW, the main screen will show your recent projects, let you access your song settings and configure devices, showcase audio news as well as give links to Studio One tutorials.
When creating a song, you can alter the name, sample rate, bit depth, and other parameters.
With the session related you can add tracks by clicking the plus icon, and choose between audio, instrument, or automation tracks.
Alternatively, if you want to start with an instrument track, just drag the 1 instrument that Presonus offers into the main window, and the track will be generated.
Although 1 instrument seems lackluster at first, it’s a really versatile synth and sampler, with which you can load various instruments from drums to strings, keyboards, strings, and more, which you can customize with the synth.
Like I said earlier, the effects section is a bit limited, and more regrettably you can’t add 3rd party plugins, but chains and the effects can be directly dragged and dropped onto the intended track, which is a cool feature - or you can use the more traditional method of adding them via the mixer.
Studio One Prime also offers a good amount of loops, that are also dragged and dropped into the main window.
Up top we get a toolbar similar to Pro Tools, with select, range, split clip, erase, draw for midi or automation, clip mute, or a listen tool which is great for quickly scrubbing audio. Also, we get some advanced quantization options including input quantization.
Lastly, up top we get advanced options for exporting, adding tracks, causing various actions, affecting audio tracks, and transporting or looping.
Garageband is exclusive to Mac or Apple users, but it’s a great option nonetheless - especially if you want to engineer with Logic Pro, but find it a little too complicated. There are no limitations for exporting or using third-party plugins, and you can have up to 256 tracks.
When creating a new session, you can use templates, create an empty one, and even check out some lessons on how to play particular instruments, including a helpful chord trainer.
Once you’ve opened a session you can create an instrument track, an audio or DI track, or a drummer track that works like midi, but with unique characteristics.
Speaking of the drummer section, you can download multiple drum styles, many of which are free - and then edit which drums are played, the style of playing or choose from some presets.
If we create an instrument track, our default is a Rhode’s style piano, but we can choose from multiple instrument types from the library. Like with the drummer track, new instruments can be downloaded for free, but I choose not to do this since the files add up to over 10GB.
If we click the scissors icon in the top left or press ‘P’ on our keyboard, our piano roll will open, with which we can edit or quantize midi. If we don’t have a midi controller, we can push Command+K to use our computer keyboard as the midi controller.
If we create an audio track, any recording is going to be fixed to a 44.1kHz sampling rate, which is good enough for most sessions. Also, we can drag and drop samples which can be located by clicking the loop icon in the top right. Like midi, audio tracks can be edited as well.
If we want to add effects to any track, we can do this in the plugin section of each track, or affect the master output’s processing, meaning we could use Garageband to master.
MPC Beats is definitely the best free DAW for making beats and sampling - it has a design and functionality that’s both advanced, while still being easy enough to pick up with a little effort. The main drawback is a lack of samples, but those are easy to find online.
When starting a project, I’d recommend the Basic template.
At the bottom, we can see a drum pad visual, with 16 samples, each linked to a specific pad just like how it works on a physical drum pad.
Since we can have 8 different groups, we can have up to 128 tracks, which are all shown in the main track window. We can affect how long we can record these tracks by, but increasing the number of bars.
To record, we enable record up top, then push play which gives us a 4 count before recording. To record layers, click the overdub button and then record the same way.
Like I said earlier, AKAI doesn’t offer too many samples, but if we go to the right, and click on the sample folder, we can find whatever samples are on the computer and then drag and drop them onto the drum pad.
If you find a sample that’s long, and you want it to stop playing, double click the stop button at the top.
In the program edit window, we can layer up to 4 samples, as well as filter and affect their ADSR.
The sample edit window lets us trim and chop up samples, then assign them to the drum pad.
Last up let’s look at the channel mixer, where we can add effects. Each sample get’s its own track and its own channel strip where we can EQ, distort, and apply the processing. The same can be said for the output.
Unfortunately, MPC Beats doesn't let you import 3rd party plugins, but it does offer some good stick plugins.
Last up is a DAW that I think is the most enjoyable to use, even out of all the paid DAWs I’ve tried - Serato Studio is designed with writing in mind, and truly makes creating music an enjoyable process. Instead of typical tracks, Serato uses “scenes” or layers of instrumentation.
When you start a new session, you’ll see the first scene has been created and titled intro - on which you’ll notice a drum machine. You can program samples in yourself, click the Make button to create a beat based on a particular genre, and add 16th or 8th note swing.
You can increase the number of bars, record over the beat using a midi controller, or change the drum set or the individual samples by accessing the library, dragging and dropping a kit over the grid, or an individual sample over the sample you want to alter.
From there we can add samples, which can be dragged and dropped from the library, or add an instrument we can record with a midi controller, and create up to 4 scenes in total.
What’s great about this DAW is that it imports in 3rd party software, so the instruments you choose aren’t limited to their stock instruments.
Once you’ve created a couple of these scenes, click on the song viewer to insert them in any order that you’d like.
Back to the main window, you can click on FX to show where you can add inserts. For example, I can add up to 3 inserts on each of the samples used in the drum pattern, and I can add up to 3 on the entire drum group, sampler, or instrument.
Lastly, if we go back over to the song player, and click on master, we can add up to 3 processors on our stereo output for a quick master.
Furthermore, we can drag and drop any of our 3rd party plugins from the plugins section of the library, and use these on individual samples, instruments, or our master output.
All in all, this is a very simple DAW that still offers a lot of flexibility and puts a welcomed emphasis on music creation.