As a musician, when you’re just starting out with producing your own music, it can be tricky to figure out what software you need. It’s also the point at which you want to learn how to produce your own music, without investing too heavily into it.
At this stage, what you need is a free tool that you can use for basic functions. Free tools are also useful in helping you become more well-versed with music production and teaching you how to use a digital audio workstation (DAW) to produce the results you want your music to have.
In this article, I’ve deep-dived into where you can find free software and how you can choose software that suits your needs. Additionally, you will find my compilation of the pros and cons of the top 7 free music production software, to help you gain an overview of the features that different tools come with and how they might benefit or limit you.
If you’re a complete beginner, you might find that some of the terms that I’ve mentioned are difficult to understand. But don’t worry. As a beginner, you can pacify yourself with one very important feature that all these tools share – they all allow you to create great music!
If you’ve done some research before about the features of different DAWs, you’ll find that you understand some of the terms mentioned. They might still confuse you, because you’ll find a lot of similarities between each software. You will most likely find that the deciding factors are not the benefits of each tool but the limitations. For instance, Garageband is only compatible with iOS. If you’re a Windows user, that automatically rules out Garageband for you! The main thing for you to remember at this stage, whether you’re a total beginner or know a little about music production, is that all these tools will allow you to create awesome music and help you understand the intricacies of producing your own music. You will also be able to equip yourself with the know-how of using a digital audio workstation.
Where to find free software?
With most of the software mentioned in this article, you will either find the free versions on the product website or when you buy certain hardware, like keyboards and soundcards. Most of the tools allow you to upgrade to paid versions, once you’ve moved beyond the functionality of the free (and when you’re more skilled, more limiting) tools.
Your music software will often depend on the type of music you create
Since there are so many tools out there, you should definitely think about the type of music you create, when you’re picking a DAW to work with. Many digital audio workstations (or DAWs, as they are more commonly known as) are different from each other in terms of the genre each suits best.
Famous musicians who have created outstanding music within their genres have all used different software to produce their work. Here are some famous names you’ve heard of, along with the software they use:
▪️ Avicii used FL Studio for EDM
▪️ Hans Zimmer uses Cubase for Movie Soundscoring
▪️ Finneas uses Logic Pro X for Pop Music (By the way, in addition to being a fantastic producer for his sister, Billie Eilish’s music, he’s also got his own incredible style!)
Different tools are created to optimize workflows for different types of genres.
Of course, there is also an industry-standard tool, used in all the big studios – Pro Tools. Used with compatible hardware like HDX, HD Omni, HD Madi, etc., Pro Tools gives studios the ability to work on enormous projects, with hundreds of channels playing simultaneously.
Here are some reasons that make Pro Tools such a popular choice:
▪️ Multi-Device Functionality
▪️ 192 inputs (with HDX hardware)
▪️ 384 tracks (768 with HDX or voice packs)
▪️ Sample rates up to 192khz
▪️ 115 plugins
▪️ Mono, Stereo, Surround, Immersive Sounds
If you’re still a beginner and those words don’t make sense to you, here’s what they mean in simpler terms: Pro Tools is a robust, versatile, and powerful DAW to use.
Although Pro Tools is the industry standard, you should recognize that the kind of music you create may decide whether or not you need this highly-functioning software.
If you’re looking to create EDM, then the complete Pro Tools HD set up is certainly overkill for you, because you have absolutely no need for it. You could create what you want to with a much simpler (and cheaper) tool like FL Studio. You will find that each software comes with its pros and cons. For instance, Cubase is an incredibly stable device and gives you the option for amazing midi editing; Studio One supports both VST and AU plugins; Reaper is a high-quality tool you can use at a low price. Another reason Pro Tools HD is not for you, is if you’re a single musician, NOT looking to run hundreds of channels at once. Let’s explore the top 7 free music production software and the pros and cons associated with each of them so that you can understand better why you will most likely not need studio-standard software.
Pro Tools First
Pro Tools First is the free version of the powerful Pro Tools software I mentioned earlier. Created by Avid, Pro Tools is a great place for beginners to start familiarizing themselves with music software interface.
Pro Tools First Pros +
▪️ No iLok device required to use it, if you have an internet connection, so you can get started without making an additional investment. (ILok is a security system that prevents the piracy of Pro Tools software and if you were to use Pro Tools First offline, you would need this device!)
▪️ Has everything you need to record, edit, mix, and export your music.
▪️ Compatible with any Core Audio or ASIO-compatible audio interface.
▪️ Includes music templates for various genres
▪️ Supports AAX plugins
Pro Tools First Cons –
▪️ Supports only 3 projects at a time, post which you have to pay for storage
▪️ Max sample rate 32-bit, 96 kHz (192 kHz with full version).
▪️ Supports only 16 tracks at a time, no matter what the sample rate is
▪️ Supports only 4 simultaneous audio inputs
▪️ Very basic compression plugin, which can be limiting
▪️ Basic EQ
▪️ No 3rd-party plugins
▪️ No MP3 options
Cubase is a popular tool, often used by music composers. Cubase LE is the more compact, beginner-friendly, free version of Cubase Pro, allowing beginners to get a feel for using DAWs.
Cubase LE Pros +
▪️ You can produce tracks from start to finish
▪️ You have access to the latest Cubase Plugins, HALion Sonic SE 3 and Groove Agent SE 5
▪️ There are 23 default audio VST effect processors
▪️ Supports VST2 and VST3
▪️ You can use over 5GB of free sounds and loops (https://www.steinberg.net/en/support/content_and_accessories/sound_content_downloads.html)
▪️ Up to 16 audio tracks, 8 group Channels and 24 MIDI tracks
▪️ Access to Cubase’s Chord Pads – which let you come up with chords for a song easily
Cubase LE Cons –
▪️ Cannot warp and quantize audio (makes it difficult to sample)
▪️ Comping is not possible
▪️ Not a lot of options, in the way of plugins, for mixing
▪️ You get it when buying hardware, so it’s not really “free”
FL Studio is very popular amongst electronic music producers, since it is both affordable and versatile. FL Studio doesn’t exactly have a free version, but they do have an unlimited trial of the full version.
FL Studio Pros +
▪️ You can automate your music workflows, no matter what you’re trying to do! Although, as a beginner, you might not need to use this feature.
▪️ Easy to use interface, with a drag-and-drop enabled sidebar that helps speed up your work
▪️ Powerful and strong MIDI controller integration
▪️ Lightweight and stable
▪️ You can customize the interface to suit your needs
▪️ Comes with a performance mode, if you want to use it with a launchpad
▪️ Affordable, even if you upgrade
▪️ The trial allows you to export WAV, MP3, FLAC, MIDI and Video files during the trial.
▪️ Supports VST, VST2, VST3, AU
FL Studio Cons –
▪️ If you have used any other DAWs, transitioning into FL Studio might be tough because it’s quite different from the other software.
▪️ Poor console integration
▪️ Managing plugins is difficult
▪️ The free trial of FL Studio allows you to save your projects but if you close the project, you will not be able to open it again unless you upgrade to a paid version; so basically, you have to keep FL Studio running for the entire duration of your project.
Ableton Live Lite
For musicians looking to use software as part of their live performance, Ableton Live has become increasingly popular. Ableton Live Lite is the more basic, stripped-down version of the same and is available for free along with hardware.
Ableton Live Lite Pros +
▪️ Supports external VST plugins
▪️ You can export your tracks as high-quality WAV files
▪️ Great for DJing, or learning how a DAW works
▪️ You can upgrade to the “intro” version at a discounted rate. Ableton calculates this automatically based on your license, and you can see the discounted prices after logging into https://www.ableton.com/en/login/
Ableton Live Lite Cons –
▪️ It’s difficult to call it ‘free’, because you get it when you buy certain hardware.
▪️ A lot of essential plugins are missing so you can’t really mix and master your songs
▪️ Live Lite only has 16 tracks, 8 scenes, 2 busses and 4 inputs/outputs.
Studio One 5 Prime
Studio One by Presonus has several tools you can benefit from. Studio One 5 was announced as a powerful live-performance tool. Studio One 5 Prime is the free version of the tool, meant for beginners to create music and other audio content, like podcasts.
Studio One 5 Prime Pros +
▪️ Directly downloadable from https://shop.presonus.com/Studio-One-5-Prime
▪️ An intuitive single-window work environment with quick and easy drag-and-drop functionality and multi-touch support
▪️ Unlimited audio and instrument tracks, virtual instruments, and FX channels
▪️ Powerful Presence XT virtual sample-player for keyboard and synth sounds
▪️ Patterns allow for intuitive drum and melody composition via familiar drum machine/step-sequencer style UI
Studio One 5 Prime Cons –
▪️ There is no 3rd-party plugin support so you are stuck with the stock plugins.
▪️ Only one software instrument
▪️ No video support
Garageband was positioned as a DAW that’s easy to use! Widely known for its simplicity and used by thousands of users worldwide, including famous musicians, here’s the breakdown:
▪️ You can use Garageband for complete productions, like Steve Lacy, a producer who only uses Garageband, and has worked with Kendrick Lamar.
▪️ AU plugin integration
▪️ You can use it on all Apple devices, including your iPhone
▪️ Comes with samples and loops (Did you know, the opening drum rhythm from this famous Rihanna song is actually a GarageBand loop called Vintage Funk Kit 03?!)
▪️ Only available on iOS
▪️ The user interfaces offer limited control compared to other DAWs.
▪️ It does not have a mixer control screen, which again results in you having less control over your project.
▪️ No track grouping.
▪️ It offers too little editor options for singers. The pitch correction tool is very limited and rudimentary compared to the Flex Pitch in Logic Pro.
▪️ Some limits on editing MIDI tracks, like randomize velocity, applying fix note length, etc.
Reaper is a great DAW with an even greater price offering! Simplicity meets affordable with this one.
Reaper Pros +
▪️ 60-day trial, post which an upgrade is super affordable and comes with lifetime updates
▪️ The software is extremely stable, barely ever crashes and has low CPU usage
▪️ Customizable interface – As well as making your own themes, you can configure the Reaper interface to best suit your needs.
▪️ Supports an unlimited number of tracks with an unlimited number of effects
▪️ Use 32-bit VST plugins on your 64-bit machine – Reaper handles the technical aspects of staging automatically, making this possible
▪️ Comes with over 300 free plugins
▪️ Supports VST, VST3, VSTi, DX/DXi, AU/AUi, JS plugins
Reaper Cons –
▪️ Some features are difficult to identify and access, slowing down your workflow
▪️ Since Reaper is closed-source software, you can’t be sure what data of yours is accessible and what isn’t. Definitely a concern amongst the privacy conscious.
▪️ Steep learning curve
▪️ For some, Reaper appears outdated or clunky. The GUI is nowhere near as fluid as its competitors. Ableton, Pro Tools or Logic.
How do you pick from these tools?
Now that you’ve gone through the list of pros and cons of each software, you’re either super confused about what to do next or you know exactly which one you want! The one thing to realize is that there is no DAW that can be considered the best one to use.
Each musician has different considerations when picking the software of their choice. Some considerations that you should factor in are the types of projects you work on, whether you want to create purely electronic music or music with lots of audio tracks, the number of channels you need, and so on.
Here’s my tip to help you pick – Follow these simple rules in this exact order to decide which software to pick:
1. The software you already have
2. The software you need based on your usage
3. The software you can afford
At this stage, I would also like to clear the air about a common myth that surrounds music production software – different tools do NOT sound different. You might come across reviews or companies claiming to make your music sound different from what another product would do. This is false and has been tried and tested countless times.
No DAW can make your music sound different – whether better or worse. If you import the same audio file into each of the different programs and add no effects like compression, faders, EQ, etc., you will hear absolutely no difference between the sound of the exported file. So don’t get lured into buying a more expensive software based on this argument, because you will only end up spending more than you need to!
Here’s why most producers stay with the same DAW forever
Every DAW comes with some stock plugins, but adding 3rd-party plugins is what the producer life is all about! There are thousands of great plugins out there and many of them work on multiple DAWs, but not all of them do. This is because different DAWs support different plugin formats. The most common plugin-formats are, VST, AU, AAX, RTAS and TDM. The reason many producers tend to stick with their DAW is that over time, they’ve built their own library of plugins in specific formats – and if they decide to switch to a different DAW, they will need to start sourcing plugins all over again. This is inconvenient and time-consuming, and it may not always be possible to find similar plugins in different formats.
With all of this being said, you won’t be making better music just because you buy a more expensive DAW. The only reason for you to upgrade to one of the bigger DAW’s is if you are limited by the one you have already. Your DAW is basically just an extension of your own creativity, and the less friction you have in your creative process, the better things you’ll be able to create. So don’t stress over this too much – just go with your gut, your music style, and your pocket, and create the music you want to!