High-quality, free music production software is hard to come by. Unless you’re willing to shell out the big bucks for Ableton Live, FL Studio, or Logic Pro, you’re pretty much stuck with either GarageBand or Audacity.
To be clear, both of these programs have been used successfully by thousands of musicians to create all kinds of music. Rock? A capella? Electronica? Hip hop? It’s all possible, and both are technically free (not freemium). But which one is right for you?
The Pros and Cons of Audacity
First things first: Audacity is a digital audio editor, not a digital audio workstation. It’s mainly designed to manipulate audio data instead of helping you organize lots of different audio bits into a coherent whole, although you can certainly do that if you want to.
Audacity is free and open source, and has been since its debut in 2000. It’s old and well-maintained with lots of history and a large community of users, so you can be sure it won’t disappear overnight. Even if the current developers move on, new ones can always step in and/or fork the project and keep it alive.
On the whole, Audacity is less stable than GarageBand. Most users never run into any issues with it, but edge-case users may experience crashes here and there, especially when extending Audacity with third-party plugins.
Although Audacity is a powerful music production tool, it comes with a learning curve. Whereas the interface is simple and easy to pick up, the sheer number of effects and settings can be tough to wrap your head around if you don’t have any background in audio engineering. Expect to spend several days getting comfortable with the software.
If audio manipulation is what you need, Audacity pretty much has it all: level meters, multi-track recordings, sample rates up to 384KHz and 32-bit depth, true export in lossless formats like AIFF and FLAC, unlimited undo and redo, procedural audio generation, change pitch and tempo, noise removal, and dozens of other built-in effects. It also allows for more fine-tuning of tracks than GarageBand (like applying filters to a region instead of entire tracks).
One big downside for music production is that, as of this writing, Audacity does not support MIDI recordings. You can only import, edit, and export MIDI files.
Putting together multiple audio sources and tracks can be cumbersome with Audacity’s primitive interface. And unlike GarageBand, Audacity doesn’t come with any pre-recorded material (e.g., loops) to help newbie music producers get started. But if you’re only going to record individual tracks (e.g., vocals, instruments) and align them together without much per-track editing, Audacity can be more than good enough.
Lastly, since Audacity is cross-platform, you can work on a single project on any Windows, Mac, or Linux device. This proves useful if you want to collaborate with someone, or if you just have an eclectic collection of workstations.
The Pros and Cons of GarageBand
The best and worst part about GarageBand is that it comes bundled with all Macs. If you have a Mac but no GarageBand, you can download it for free in the Mac App Store. It’s great because it’s high-quality software with no price, but bad because you need a Mac for it.
GarageBand is a digital audio workstation, not a digital audio editor. While it can record and edit all kinds of audio sounds, it’s main job is to help you arrange and combine all of your individual audio sources into a single audio creation. It’s still a useful piece of music production software.
Unlike Audacity, which is open source and in the hands of its community, GarageBand is proprietary and in full control of Apple. Expect to wait 2–3 years between major updates, and if Apple ever decides to pull the plug and stop supporting GarageBand, you’ll have no choice but to shrug and move on. GarageBand puts you at the mercy of Apple.
One good thing about that, however, is that GarageBand is robust and runs very well since it’s designed and coded for a very specific platform, plus it has the developmental backing of one of the most successful companies in the world. Basically, it “just works” and rarely crashes.
GarageBand has a smaller learning curve than Audacity. The biggest hurdle for any newbie will be learning the interface, which is somewhat complex but reasonably intuitive. Once you get over that initial hump, it’s smooth sailing from there — you’ll only need a few dedicated hours to get comfortable with it.
And since it’s developed by Apple, you’ll feel right at home if you’re used to the general design of Mac-style apps. If you’d like to share and work on your audio projects with other non-Mac machines, GarageBand may not be for you since it is Mac-only. There’s also a mobile version of GarageBand that lets you produce music on your iPad.
GarageBand supports MIDI recording and editing out of the box, and comes bundled with lots of pre-recorded loops and synths that you can use to make music, even without any instruments. On the whole, GarageBand is more convenient to use if you’re going to have a lot of loop sequences and track splices.
So is it worth buying a Mac just for GarageBand? Not really, unless you’re planning to buy a Mac for many reasons of which music production is just one. If that isn’t the case, you’re better off spending a fraction of that money on a professional digital audio workstation for whatever operating you’re already on.
To learn more, check out our guide to using GarageBand.
Our Recommendation for Free Music Production Software
GarageBand is flat-out better for beginners to music production. Not only does it support MIDI recording and editing, which is arguably the easiest way to get started as long as you have a MIDI keyboard, but it comes with lots of pre-recorded material and is better at walking you through the entire process of music production.
Audacity offers more power as far as audio manipulation is concerned, but isn’t so easy when it comes to organizing lots of tracks and loops. We recommend it for longer audio pieces with fewer tracks, such as podcasts, speeches, audiobook narration, voiceovers and commentaries, etc. It’s also better if you want to edit on non-Mac machines.
Which music production software do you use? Which side of the GarageBand vs. Audacity argument do you come down on? Share your thoughts in the comments below!