It’s never been easier to find free, quality DAWs.
Just five to 10 years ago, your choices were a little limited. There were some decent options, but only a couple that ever stood out.
Today, there are at least a dozen quality options, with a few coming close to premium DAWs with advanced features costing several hundred dollars. Amazing.
In this guide, we look at the best free DAWs for high quality music production. We even answer a few frequently asked questions towards the end.
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Waveform Free By Tracktion
Wavefrom Free evolved out of what was originally known as the Tracktion DAW. Tracktion is now the developer of Waveform, but Mackie was the original developer of Tracktion. It’s a wonder the DAW even survived (but I’m glad it did)!
History lessons aside, because Waveform has had so much time to develop over the years, it does a lot of things right.
Waveform works on Windows, Mac, Ubuntu, and Raspberry Pi. It comes with constant save technology, plugin sandboxing, plugin racks, customizable action panel, quick actions, 4OSC, MIDI pattern generators, micro drum sampler, and more.
Yes, it supports VSTs. I have never had any major issues there (the occasional plugin that doesn’t work – no big deal). It even has ReWire compatibility.
Waveform is perfect for EDM, since it supports VSTs and MIDI sequencing. That said, I have used it for practically every genre imaginable, and it can handle anything you throw at it.
Waveform is also nicely designed, and it has evolved a lot throughout the years. You should have seen early versions of Tracktion. You might not even recognize it. And the interface is probably one of my favorite things about it.
But bar none my favorite aspect of Tracktion is the workflow. Some people find it to be a little unconventional, but for me, it works perfectly. Maybe it’s just the way my brain works. Other DAWs tend to slow me down. This one doesn’t.
And that’s why I stuck with it. I haven’t used anything other than Waveform for over 10 years, and I have never had to look back in regret. I have friends who opted for Pro Tools, and they know how to make their way around it now, but in the beginning, it took them much longer to figure out their workflow than it did for me.
One weakness of Waveform is that it can be a little glitch prone. Not to the point where it crashes every hour or anything like that, but depending on what you’re trying to do, and whether your computer can handle it, you may find crashing to be an issue. Some things must be done in steps, so have some patience if this is what you run into.
Maybe Waveform is for you, maybe it isn’t. Either way, it’s worth giving a try, yes?
And even if you do end up upgrading, Waveform Pro isn’t all that expensive, and it’s quite amazing the technology and functionality it comes bundled with.
Cakewalk By BandLab
I was quite stunned to discover that Cakewalk By BandLab is now available for free. It takes after SONAR Platinum (which was originally priced at $499). It doesn’t come bundled with all the same third-party software, but still – it boasts all the same functionalities.
Cakewalk gives you the ability to compose, record, edit, mix, master, and even share your tracks, right from inside the DAW.
Its Skylight user interface is award-winning, you can add unlimited tracks. It even comes with the same leading technologies that made it great – VST3, touch, 64-bit, ARA support, and more.
A ton of instruments and quality effects are also included, which is frankly amazing.
Compared to Waveform, Cakewalk will feel more like a conventional DAW. If you’re just getting started, you might have more fun with Waveform, but if you have experience with other professional DAWs, you might end up liking Cakewalk more.
Cakewalk by BandLab is only available for Windows. But if you’ve got yourself a PC, this is one of the best free DAWs out there. Give it a try. I know I’m going to!
Studio One 5 Prime By PreSonus
PreSonus has a reputation on both the software and hardware side of recording, and Studio One is largely recognized and supported across the industry.
Studio One 5 Prime is their free DAW that allows you to get a feel for their premium DAW, but it feels more like freeware than free. We’ll get to that in a moment.
With Studio One 5 Prime, you can record, produce, and mix in their intuitive single-window work environment. It comes with drag and drop functionality, and multi-touch support as well. In that sense, they take after Waveform a little bit.
You get unlimited audio and instrument tracks, virtual instruments, FX channels, Powerful Presence XT virtual sample-player for keyboard and synth sounds, patterns for intuitive drum and melody composition, Native Effects plugin suite, Poly Pressure/MPE support for advanced MIDI controllers, as well as over 2 GB of loops and musical content.
And the Native Effects, by the way, are quality.
Studio One 5 Prime also features a great user interface and external SoundFont support.
This all sounds well and good. The main downside of this DAW is that it has no VST plugin support. So, you are stuck with whatever is included (which, to be fair, is quite good).
This isn’t the end of the world, especially if you end up upgrading, but it is a relatively significant limitation all told.
For singer-songwriters and bands putting together a demo, Studio One 5 Prime could end up being a solid choice. Beyond that, you’ll probably want to upgrade or try something else on this list.
Download: PreSonus Shop
Podium Free By Zynewave
Podium Free is the freeware version of Podium, but it is fully functional, and only has a few limitations compared to the full version.
This DAW features a modern graphical user interface with a fast workflow and is perfect for electronic music producers. Virtual instruments are a strong focus here, though that doesn’t mean you can’t also record and mix real instruments.
Podium comes with VST plugin support, object-based project structure with a virtual mixer, powerful audio recording and editing tools, track freeze/bounce, as well as external MIDI controller support.
The freeware version of Podium doesn’t support multi-core CPUs, and that’s its main limitation. Even if you have a quad-core (or higher) setup, Podium Free will only use one CPU core. This means you’ve got to keep an eye on CPU performance.
Podium Free also doesn’t offer ReWire support and is not cross-platform compatible.
But if you’re using Windows, and you’re not planning to do any intensive work with VST plugins, Podium Free could prove useful to you.
Pro Tools | First By Avid
Yes, there is a free version of Pro Tools that’s been designed with students, musicians, and podcasters in mind. And overall, the interface is basically the same as Pro Tools and Pro Tools | Ultimate.
But I wouldn’t think of this as anything more than a training platform.
At the risk of coming off sounding critical, early Pro Tools iterations had to be used with proprietary hardware, and exporting your tracks was a pain because you always had to bounce to disk first (not saying other DAWs don’t have similar limitations mind you).
So, if you’re thinking about upgrading down the line, and just want to get used to the interface, this is a good place to start. If you’re thinking about doing full-on music production with this DAW, you should probably look elsewhere.
Anyway, let’s have a look at what’s inside.
Pro Tools | First comes with AAX plugin support, Elastic Time and Elastic Pitch functionality, audio recording and mixing tools, track comping, track bouncing, ReWire support, over 20 native effects, as well as the Xpand!2 synthesizer.
Sounds good so far, right? And to be fair, this is quite generous.
But with Pro Tools | First, you can only use up to 16 tracks and four audio inputs per projects. As well, you can only store three projects on the cloud simultaneously. You can still save locally if you wish though.
Additionally, Pro Tools | First does not offer VST plugin support, and it’s quite the CPU hog too. It takes up its share of hard drive space as well.
Pro Tools | First is quite the capable DAW overall. We feel it could be better optimized considering its reduced functionality. That said, if your goal is to get used to the Pro Tools workflow, this is a good place to start. For more involved music production, choose a DAW that supports VST plugins.
Ardour is an open source, cross-platform compatible DAW that gives you the ability to record, edit, and mix your music. It works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
This DAW has been designed with audio engineers, musicians, soundtrack editors, and composers in mind. Its feature set is quite extensive, and it even supports all major plugin formats as well as editing and mixing features.
Linux users should know what to do with Ardour, and in fact, the DAW works best within the Linux environment.
Although it is compatible with Windows and Mac, it requires that you compile the source code yourself. This will seem a strange process to the average Windows or Mac user.
A one-time donation or subscription bypasses the need to compile the source code, but of course, at that point it’s no longer free.
If you just want to give it a go to see whether you like it, you can always download the demo (which will go silent after 10 minutes of use).
Aside from that, Ardour is a powerful DAW that features an interface like Pro Tools. If you’re a little more technical, or don’t mind the challenge, it’s worth a look.
The SoundBridge DAW has been built with simplicity and workflow in mind. In that sense, the developers are men after my own heart.
It comes with all the essential tracking, sequencing, editing, and mixing features, VST support, low latency/high-fidelity audio driver, touch, and hand gestures.
SoundBridge is available for Mac and PC in 32- and 64-bit formats. It also comes with a sequencer, advanced mixer, built-in FX, FX rack, MIDI mapping, transport bar, file browser, MIDI editor, audio editor, and automation editor.
Some of its other features include high resolution skins, MIDI and audio routing, swing tools, linked faders, channel strip presets, plugin presets, unmute/unsolo, nested group tracks, sidechain support, virtual MIDI keyboard, MIDI CC mapping, detachable GUI elements, punch in and punch out recording, moving group blocks, flexible automation curves, GUI scaling, automatic plugin delay compensation, and more.
It seems like the developers of SoundBridge take themselves seriously, which means we’ll probably see plenty of new developments in the future.
It doesn’t have some of the advanced features you would find on more sophisticated DAWs, but that might not be much of a detractor here.
If you’re the technical type, you’ll probably appreciate the LMMS (Linux Multimedia Studio) DAW, which is yet another open-source digital audio workstation that takes after FL Studio (which is not free). And if you’re familiar with FL Studio, you know that it’s perfect for electronic music production.
LMMS comes with a variety of built-in effects and virtual instruments, including the ZynAddSubFX synthesizer, one of the most flexible and versatile freeware instruments available.
LMMS offers VST support and can connect to other applications using the JACK Audio Server.
The built-in beat and bassline editor is one of the highlights of the interface, and the piano roll is also great for more complex MIDI sequences.
Though the developers of LMMS are always improving their software, as of now, it still has some significant limitations.
For starters, it can’t record audio. That means all you can do with the DAW is create tracks using virtual instruments. Technically, you could record tracks in another DAW and import them into LMMS though.
LMMS also isn’t the most stable of DAWs, nor is it the easiest to learn.
Although it’s unlikely to replace FL Studio anytime soon, it could one day develop into something more, and if you’re committed to the art of making beats, you may still want to give this one a go.
MPC Beats By AKAI Professional
AKAI Professional is probably best known for their keyboards, controllers, and drum machines. But they aren’t exactly new to software either.
MPC Beats is a free DAW that seems to be tailor made for electronic music and beat making. It comes with 16 pads for triggering drums samples and loops, piano roll for MIDI sequencing, sample editor for chopping and editing, sound browser, and information section to select and navigate between tracks.
What makes MPC Beats unique is that you can use it as a VST plugin inside a separate DAW. Now that’s innovative!
MPC Beats also includes over 80 audio effects developed by Air, a high-quality time-stretching algorithm, an advanced step sequencer, as well as support for third-party VSTs and AU plugin. As a bonus, AKAI Professional threw in over 2 GB of free sample content.
The MPC Beats workflow models AKAI’s hardware products, and of course, it works with a variety of hardware MIDI controllers too.
About the only downside to MPC Beats is that there are only eight instrument channels. But sometimes limitations can help with creativity, right?
If you’re a beat maker, you should certainly give this one a go.
Download: AKAI Professional
Cubase LE By Steinberg
If you’ve been circulating the world of DAWs for any length of time, then you should be no stranger to the Cubase name.
Cubase LE is Cubase’s free DAW, which is a special compact version with the same core tech as Cubase Pro. You get all the essentials for recording, editing, and mixing.
Cubase LE allows you to create up to 16 audio tracks and 24 MIDI tracks, which is not bad, all told. Its composition tools are quite developed, and the same could certainly be said for their audio and MIDI editing tools as well as virtual instruments, amps, and 23 audio VST effects.
Also included is MixConsole with up to four inserts and four sends per channel, HALion Sonic SE 3, Groove Agent SE 5, and over 5 GB of sounds and loops.
As with any fully featured DAW, getting used to Cubase LE could take some time, but besides the downsides already mentioned, there aren’t any major flaws to this DAW. It’s just a matter of whether the workflow makes sense to you.
Live 10 Lite By Ableton
Live 10 Lite is the latest version as of this writing, but either way Ableton’s Live Lite tends to get bundled with a lot of audio interfaces, MIDI controllers, and even plugins.
What makes it unique is that Live was designed with both live use as well as studio use (composing, recording, arranging, mixing, and mastering) in mind. Live is quite likely the biggest name in electronic and sample-based music production.
The interface features the unique “session view” that makes using loops and composing songs a breeze. Pitch shifting and time stretching (staples in electronic music) are also available.
Obviously, Live Lite is a little limited compared to Live. It’s great for getting used to the interface if you one day hope to upgrade to Live though.
The main limitation here is that you only get a total of 16 tracks and up to four inputs and outputs simultaneously.
Live 10 Lite is available for Windows and Mac.
GarageBand By Apple
If you have an iOS device, then by default, you have GarageBand (or access to it) already.
In the early- to mid-2000s, Apple was making a big push towards becoming the creator’s choice, with their new machines supporting additional compatibility and functionality for music producers and sound engineers. Of course, the fanboys rejoiced!
And GarageBand was just their way of getting you hooked, as they also introduced Logic, their premium, full-featured professional DAW around the same time.
Anyway, GarageBand has been with us ever since, and it’s still quite amazing that such a powerful and easy to use DAW is available entirely for free.
Is it a little cartoony? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t handle what you throw at it, and it’s perfect for sketching out ideas, arranging, and preproducing.
You could even make a professional product with GarageBand if you wanted. Most people don’t use it that way anymore because there are more advanced free DAWs available. But if you like the built-in virtual instruments and sounds, there’s nothing stopping you.
The latest version allows you to mix, master, and even share your tracks. So, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Probably the best thing about GarageBand is simply that you can use it on any of your devices. So, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, if you’ve got GarageBand loaded up on your device, you can capture and sketch out your musical ideas relatively quickly.
If you’ve got a Mac, and you haven’t tried it, it’s worth experimenting with.
Often recommended by podcasters, Audacity is a free, open source, cross-platform DAW. It works on Windows, Mac, GNU/Linux and other operating systems. It’s easy to use, and it gives you the ability to record, edit, and import and export sound files.
It supports 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit audio, LADSPA, LV2, Nyquist, VST and Audio Unit effect plugins. You can also preview effects and use the spectrogram view mode for visualizing and selecting frequencies.
With a large range of keyboard shortcuts, Audacity has been developed so that you can do most of your work on a keyboard (if you so desire).
Now, Audacity is great, for all these reasons and others. Personally, I find the workflow a little cumbersome. It doesn’t help that I’m trained on Tracktion/Waveform, but to me this aspect of Audacity could be better.
This mostly comes down to personal preference, to be fair, and some users are obviously going to find the workflow quite usable.
Our only other complaint is that Audacity’s user interface is old school, basic, and a little unattractive. A DAW isn’t all about the looks, and you certainly get what you pay for, but it’s hard to give Audacity our full endorsement as is.
Impressively, Audacity still gets updated, and the developers are even open to feedback. So, if you love Audacity, it might be worth getting involved in the community and sharing your opinion.
Either way, you should give this one a go before you make up your mind.
What Are The Best Free DAWs?
Our favorites are Waveform and Cakewalk. It’s amazing how much you can get for free.
Some of our secondary picks include SoundBridge, MPC Beats, and Cubase LE.
Even for podcasting, Waveform is relatively powerful – speaking from personal experience.
That said, all DAWs mentioned here are quite capable. Some may have limitations that make them a little less attractive, some might be a little harder to work with, some might require some technical work on your part to install and operate.
Some music producers are completely happy with Audacity and can even do amazing things with it. We can’t imagine doing that ourselves, but if it works for you, who are we to argue?
It’s an ice cream shop, and there are all kinds of flavors. Someone else’s favorite might not be yours. And that’s okay. You do you.
Do All Free DAWs Work On Any Operating System?
No, and best to our ability, we’ve made note of which DAWs are available for which operating systems in our guide.
Some are only for Windows. Some are for Windows and Mac. Still others support Windows, Mac, Linux, and even other operating systems.
But it would be in your best interest to check whether a DAW works on your system before trying to download and install it.
Can I Use Third-Party VSTs & Other Plugins With Free DAWs?
Generally, yes. But not all DAWs support third-party VSTs and other plugin formats. Throughout this guide, we’ve noted which DAWs support VSTs and which do not, best to our ability. That said, it’s always best to combine what we’ve shared with your own homework.
With some DAWs, you will need to upgrade (pay) to unlock plugin support.
Can I Use MIDI Controllers, Mixing Control Surfaces & Other Hardware With A Free DAW?
In many cases, yes. Most free DAWs are compatible with MIDI controllers. Mixing control surfaces could be a different matter, but it’s generally easy to find which DAWs a console supports (check the product description).
Always check to see whether a specific DAW supports MIDI controllers and other hardware before purchase. Otherwise, you could end up spending money on something that doesn’t work with your setup.
Top Free Digital Audio Workstations, Final Thoughts
Music production tends to be individual. Which is one of the reasons there are so many products to choose from.
Some free DAWs are a little limited, and unless you plan to “play in the fence,” they might be the ideal choice.
That said, there are several quality free DAWs that don’t put any arbitrary limitations on you and allow you to create freely. Those with VST plugin support are especially useful.
My recommendation would be to experiment plenty. There’s a good chance you will one day settle on a DAW whose workflow makes sense to you, and whose features are sufficient or more than you need. But it can take time to get to that point.
Have fun producing music!