Great Free Music-Making Programs

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Introduction

The world of music software has totally democratized the business of creating music, making previously unaffordable studio technology available at prices almost anyone can afford. Modern Digital Audio Workstations include technology that used to cost hundreds of thousands of bucks at a price of a few hundred instead.

But even a “few hundred” bucks is a lot of money, especially to those just starting out, or who aren’t making music professionally. But that doesn’t need to be a barrier to entry because there are some amazingly good music apps out there that are absolutely free to download and use.

Digital Audio Workstations

Perhaps surprisingly there are many great pieces of free DAW software. Here are some of the best:

  • If you own an iConnectivity audio interface all you have to do is register it here and you can download Abelton Live Lite (Windows & Mac OS) for free, which is a very powerful and easy-to-use DAW. There’s a reason it’s the most popular DAW software in the world! So that’s a great place to start.

  • If you don't have an iConnectivity audio interface or Ableton isn’t your cup of tea, the number one alternative has to be PreSonus Studio One Prime (Windows & Mac OS). This is a great DAW with very fast workflow and great-sounding built-in plugins. Highly recommended.

  • Ohm Studio (Windows & Mac OS) is from France, and as well as being a good solid DAW, is also excellent for collaboration online. So if you want to work with a friend who isn’t close by, check this one out. It deserves to be a lot more popular.

  • Tracktion (Windows, Mac OS, Ubuntu) has been around as a paid DAW for quite some time and has built up a solid reputation. It also has the distinction of being available for Ubuntu as well as Windows & Mac OS, so if Linux is your thing, this is a great choice.

  • Reaper (Windows, Mac OS, Linux — trial version) has a lot of fans because you can use the trial (full) version for free and buy it later very cheaply.

  • Audacity (Windows, Mac OS, Linux) isn’t really a DAW in the same way the others are, it’s more of a basic audio editor. A lot of people like it, though for the life of me I have never understood why.

  • Korg Gadget LE (Mac only) is the new kid on the block, and comes with a very different approach than tradiational DAW software. Has some excellent built-in synth & drum instruments, so if you are making electronic music on a Mac, this is really worth checking out.

  • SAVIHost (Windows only) isn’t a DAW, but is useful for testing MIDI and audio plugins, or just running a VST Instrument live or in a network.

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Plugins

Steinberg’s Virtual Studio Technology really changed the game back in the day, and it’s still the standard and best way of getting great instrument and effects plugins into your system, despite Apple trying to continually push their users to use the Audio Units system (why Apple, why?). The plugins I have listed below are all available in VST format, and most in AU format as well, for both Windows and Mac OS.

Instruments

  • TAL have been around for many years making great free (and paid) plugins. Their Noisemaker synth is excellent, everyone should have this.

  • Applied Acoustic Swatches is a collection of over 300 presets from some of their paid-for synths. Incredible atmospheric sounds made with advanced virtual modelling, I find myself using this time and time again.

  • Full Bucket have made some excellent free virtual synths, particularly their emulations of the old Korg PS series. Great if you want some old-school 70s and 80s synth vibe.

  • U-He Tyrell N6 is what you get when you ask a bunch of synth-heads what a great classic analog synth should be like. And then make it free. Get it.

  • Sound Magic Piano One - this one is never going to win any awards for "best sampled piano", but it loads up astonishingly fast and can sound surprisingly good in a mix. I actually use it a lot.

  • 99Sounds have made an awesome free sampled drum machine (and a clap machine!). Very nice selection of kits in this one.

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Effects

  • Plugin Alliance have some fantastic paid plugins, and have made cut-down, but still excellent, free versions of some of them. bx_rockrack Player is particularly great if you are looking for a good guitar amp simulator. I’ve used many of these on professional records.

  • Softube make some of the most beautiful and classy FX plugins available, and this free Saturation Knob is no exception. Wonderful subtle way of making sounds sit in your mix.

  • Tokyo Dawn Labs make some of the most amazing compression and EQ plugins around — better than some that cost hundreds of bucks. And they are all available in free versions. These are a must-have for mixing and mastering.

  • Klanghelm specialise in compression plugins, each of which has its own unique character, but all of which sound excellent in different ways, and many of them are completely free. Get them all and try them out — I use at least one of these in pretty much every mix I do these days.

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That’s just a small overview of some of my favourites, but that’s still enough to enable you to make a very fine-sounding record. Enjoy!