You don’t need a Mac to make music, but it helps. Apple’s desktop platform is home to a vast library of creative software, like image editors, vector graphics suites, RAW photo processors, audio manipulation software, video editors.
And then, of course, there are digital audio workstations (DAWs) for making music.
But owning a Mac doesn’t necessarily mean you’re swimming in cash, and music production suites can run into thousands of dollars. Today we’ll look at how you can start making music without spending any dollars.
In short: Probably the best free music production software on the platform. It has a user-friendly interface, rich library of sounds, and a large number of instruments and effects.
Apple just made GarageBand free to all Mac owners. So, there’s never been a better time to download it and give it a go. Previously the company was only giving the software away with new Mac purchases, which means second-hand buyers and those with older machines still had to buy it.
You can now download it for free (along with iMovie and the iWork suite) from the App Store on both Mac and iOS. Projects can be shared between both platforms, which is a nice touch for mobile musicians or simply capturing ideas on the move.
Don’t let GarageBand’s simple interface put you off. At its core it’s a powerful tool for recording, arranging, and composing music. The included instruments aren’t bad, and nor are many of the royalty-free samples you get access to for free with Apple Loops.
Like iMovie, GarageBand tends to do things the “Apple way,” which can be jarring for some users. It might take a little bit of time to get used to the software’s caveats, but it’s got all the bells and whistles you need to get started. That includes MIDI support, virtual session drummers, and audio effects like amplifiers for plugging in a guitar.
In short: The full package, but unlike GarageBand there’s nobody to hold your hand. The learning curve is steep, but Ardour’s potential for producing, composing and mastering is huge.
Ardour is pretty much the opposite of what GarageBand is: a technical, highly-customizable, cross-platform open source digital audio workstation. The interface looks like something you need a degree in sound engineering to understand, and there’s a hell of a lot going on if you know where to look.
Unlike GarageBand, Ardour is a serious tool. It includes features like unlimited multichannel tracks, non-destructive editing, time-stretching, video features, a complex mastering interface, and robust AudioUnit (AU) Mac plugin support. Record directly into the timeline using a microphone or audio interface, or create MIDI patterns for use with virtual instruments using the piano roll.
If you’re willing to put some time in, Ardour could be a very rewarding choice of DAW. It’s cross-platform and Linux compatible, which is a nice touch if you also happen to run Linux on your Mac. Check out the Ardour Community website for manuals, tutorials, and discussions relating to the software.
In short: A freeware open source workstation aimed at synthesis and sample-work initially designed for Linux, that includes virtual instruments, bundled samples, and plugin support.
LMMS used to stand for Linux MultiMedia Studio, but it dropped that moniker a few years ago when it went cross-platform. It’s now available on Windows and macOS too, allowing for a truly cross-platform setup for those who need it. The project isn’t just free, it’s also open source. That means it’s built by the community, for the community.
This model has its limitations, and the LMMS team can’t dedicate the resources to their project like Apple can with GarageBand. As a result, LMMS can feel a bit awkward to use and get on with, though there’s a healthy set of tools and instruments hidden beneath its dated, slightly awkward UI.
LMMS isn’t a recording-friendly DAW like GarageBand is, and instead excels at creating melodies and beats using the included piano roll and step sequencer. You can of course import recorded samples, and there are some excellent virtual instruments included like the Nescaline NES emulator, Commodore 64 SID chip emulation, and the triple-oscillator “Monstro” virtual synth.
4. Tracktion T5
In short: A useful (if dated) DAW that includes a full set of editing and recording features, with cheap upgrade options for those who want to take their compositions to the next level.
Tracktion make a variety of audio software, including fully-fledged studios like WAVEFORM and T7. They also produce T5, a free cross-platform stripped-down DAW that serves as the perfect jumping-on point for the company’s products. But just because it’s free doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.
This isn’t simply a “free trial” with limitations. Though the feature set has been reduced compared to paid versions, Tracktion T5 still includes unlimited MIDI and audio tracks, a full set of recording and editing features, and the ability to mixdown and share your project.
So what’s wrong with T5? Well, there’s an inferior time-stretch algorithm, “basic” audio computing, no user scripts, and the UI isn’t as nice. There’s more to it than that of course, but the upgrade to T7 is still only $60. You can even go “full studio” and grab WAVEFORM for $99.
5. Studio One 3 Prime
In short: Just like Tracktion T5, Studio One Prime is a capable DAW with some major feature limitations. There’s plenty here to get you started, but a lack of third-party virtual instruments will be a big limitation for some users.
PreSonus’ Studio One 3 comes in a variety of versions including Artist and Professional, but it’s the Prime version that’s most appealing to the bedroom producer. The company released a feature-limited version of their $100 workstation for free in 2015, and it comes with pretty much everything you need to get started making music.
There’s support for unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, and nine plugin inserts and virtual instruments. The software doesn’t timeout or feature any restrictions on the number of tracks you can create, and even comes with 1.5 GB of samples to get you started.
Unfortunately, you can’t host third party software instruments (AudioUnits), which does limit Prime’s potential substantially. However, it still has its merits, particularly if you rarely use virtual instruments and are looking for a basic recording/mastering package. The included effects fall into the “essentials” category, and there’s a quality sampler included too.
You can activate a free trial version of Studio One Professional at any point, if you suddenly decide you need more power. Prime is designed to get you hooked on Studio One, but it’s certainly worth a shot if you’re on a budget.
In short: A synthesis and beat-making freebie that’s not to be missed, Nanostudio for Mac is a port of the premium Nanostudio for iOS ($7).
Nanostudio takes the LMMS approach, with a free version of the popular iOS workstation from developer Blip Interactive. There was a time when Nanostudio was pretty much the gold standard on iOS for mobile music production, and while the DAW certainly hasn’t gotten any worse it hasn’t changed very much either.
A MIDI and sample-based approach mean that it’s not an environment for recording your guitars and vocals. You can load samples using the included sampler and fire them when you want, but you’ll have record them outside of Nanostudio. MIDI patterns are handled with ease, though it’s no secret that Nanostudio was designed with a touch interface in mind.
The included Eden synthesizer is a force to be reckoned with, and worth the download alone. You can hit up the Nanostudio downloads page to download synthesizer presets and sample packs, and the forum is still active all these years later.
This is free purely so you’ll fall in love with Nanostudio for Mac and download it on your iPhone for $7 so you can use it wherever you go. And that’s not a bad idea, especially when combined with Nanosync for transferring samples, projects, and presets to your iOS device.
A mature, self-contained workstation setup with a robust set of tools, MuLab offers a free version of their €69 studio and modular synth. With robust sound synthesis, support for recording, editing and manipulating audio, and modern UI it’s a tempting prospect.
However, MuLab Free stops short of being a proper DAW on account of the fact that the software introduces “soft noise” regularly, which is designed to prevent the software being used for finished mixes. It’s more of a full-featured trial than a free version, but it’s still worth a look if you enjoy the MUX synth sound.
ohmstudio is the world’s first “real time collaborative digital audio workstation” and that means it’s relatively new to the DAW scene. You can sign up for free, download the software, and connect with friends and the wider ohmstudio community to make music together.
ohmstudio might seem free, but you can only store 10 songs at a time in the cloud before you need to pay for monthly hosting. You also can’t export your tracks in lossless format using the free version either.
These are major limitations that prevent ohmstudio from being a real free alternative.
You should absolutely have Audacity to hand if you’re considering making music on the cheap, particularly if you’re working with samples. The free audio editor and manipulator might look like CoolEdit 96’s uglier cousin, but it’s got everything you need to chop and change audio.
The software includes a ton of effects like equalizers, reverb, echo, distortion, chorus, and more. It even includes multitrack support for handling multiple wave files at once. This might be good enough for mixing a podcast or recording a vocal track, it’s not a fully-fledged DAW.
Audacity works best as an accompaniment to a proper DAW, but isn’t designed to replace one. The same should be said of other multitrack editors (like Adobe Audition).
Which is your favorite free DAW? Let us know what we missed and we’ll add it to our list.
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