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Figuring out what the best free DAWs are can be tough. There are not many free music production software suites around, and usually the ones offered are just Lite versions of more expensive DAWs. By the end of this article, you will know what the best free DAWs are in 2021 alongside the free Lite versions of paid DAWs.
Here are the best free DAWs 2021:
1. Pro Tools First
Experience Pro Tools’ award-winning software without buying it
If you are a beginner or already experienced with DAWs and just want to enjoy what Pro Tools has to offer without spending the money on it, check out Pro Tools First. With its world class features, it has everything you need to get started and more.
|Image credit: Avid Check Avid||
Pro Tools First is Avid’s Lite version that lets you experience how great Pro Tools is without shelling out a monthly subscription or gigantic one time fee. This is beneficial because it allows you to test the program out before you decide whether or not you want to buy the full version.
If you decide not to buy the full version, however, the Lite version has enough features that allow you to make great music regardless. Pro Tools First is a great piece of free music production software that has a lot of features that you may be expecting to only find in the paid versions.
In Pro Tools First, you can choose from assorted session templates (rock, pop, hip hop, etc) upon starting a new project, which helps you get started faster by providing you with preloaded instrument tracks, or you can simply start from scratch. You can also save track presets to build new sessions quickly and more efficiently.
If you are more of a producer who likes loops, and not necessarily a musician, there is a soundbase that has a large amount of high quality loops, samples, and other content for you to use in your productions.
Pro Tools First can capture MIDI notes retrospectively, and the MIDI editing tools offered are plenty capable. Easy lane track recording allows for easier comping, effortless editing of MIDI notes, tempo changing, pitch and timing fixes, and even altering volume of individual notes.
Pro Tools First comes with 24 effects and utility plugins as well as virtual instruments like UVI Workstation 3 (a powerful sample player and instrument), as well as Xpand!2, which can play a wide range of sounds from beats and loops to even orchestral instruments and power chords – and of course everyone’s favorite: more cowbell.
The DAW also allows for Avid Cloud Collaboration which enables you to work on projects alone or with anyone from any location. You can save, sync, and share up to 3 projects for free. Pro Tools First is great for any genre (but not suitable for live performances) and is compatible with Mac and Windows.
2. Cakewalk by BandLab
Analog design with a modern feel
Cakewalk is an absolutely amazing piece of software with its top-rated interface, analog type plugins, and vast range of virtual instruments. It is a highly flexible DAW that almost sounds too good to have a price tag of absolutely nothing. Definitely try this one out if you have a Windows computer; you won’t regret it at all.
|Image credit: BandLab Check BandLab||
If you have ever heard of Cakewalk by SONAR, BandLab – social media-driven online DAW company – has now replaced SONAR but has kept the incredible DAW known as Cakewalk. Cakewalk is a great free music making software that models analog mixers but remains extremely modern and intuitive at the same time.
In the Skylight Interface, you can very easily record music and then edit it, draw in animation and MIDI, and select different regions, all with the Smart Tool. The Smart Tool also enables you to directly overlay two different types of audio in the same track; you can record up to 5 different takes and line them up simultaneously. Other editing features include time warping and crossfading.
Cakewalk has over 200 professionally created instruments and full editing capabilities of those instruments and their plugins. As for audio effects plugins, there are plenty of EQs, reverbs, delays, and universal effects with presets that can be put on any track, including autotune.
Cakewalk offers the creation of unlimited projects, unlimited mastering, unlimited high quality downloads of project files and exported audio files. There is also a loop library of over 6,000 royalty free loops for you to use. Cakewalk syncs to the Cloud which allows collaborations without issues. All revisions are stored in the Cloud and you can even connect with other creators who use the BandLab platform.
The DAW is compatible with Windows only, and by far is the best free music making software for Windows 7 all the way up to Windows 10. I would not suggest it for live performance, but it is a good DAW for any genre of music making.
3. Studio One Prime
A lite, capable yet powerful DAW
Studio One Prime should give you a good head start on making music if you happen to be interested in using free DAWs. The Lite version of this DAW has enough flexibility and options for you to create music without feeling limited by the software. It’s an ideal choice for beginners and experts alike.
|Image credit: PreSonus Check PreSonus||
Studio One Prime is the free version of PreSonus’s incredible DAW, Studio One. Although Studio One Prime is the limited version, it still offers so many features that enable you to create great songs and beats.
The DAW features a single window in the multitouch interface to prevent your workstation from getting messy and cluttered. Drag and drop functions provide ease of use and you can create an unlimited amount of audio tracks, MIDI tracks, virtual instruments and effects channels.
Both single and multitrack comping is available for post-recording editing, and an arranger track is provided to keep your songs arranged in the right order.
A content browser allows for easy access to your files, loops, samples, and plugins. A loop and sample package sized at almost 1GB comes with this version of the DAW. Additionally, Studio One Prime features multitrack MIDI editing with an instrument and drum editor, and drum and melody patterns are available for you to drag and drop into the pattern sequencer for quick creation.
The virtual instrument provided in this Lite version of Studio One is the Presence XT, which is a sample player with an interface similarly designed to a synth called Sylenth1, made by LennarDigital. Nine stock audio effects plugins are available to use as well. For audio editing: time stretching, resampling, and normalization is available.
Studio One Prime is good for any genre, although I would not suggest the free version for live performance use. The DAW is compatible with Mac and Windows.
Simple, tried, and true
Audacity is a good free digital audio workstation that has what you need if you want a free program that will get the job done and provide you with an easy way to record. I strongly suggest it for beginners, and if you are a seasoned producer it may be fun to try to use it as a challenge. I can foresee it being used best in lo-fi or noise music quite easily.
|Image credit: Audacity Check Audacity||
When people think of a free DAW or decent, free music recording software, Audacity probably comes to their mind more times than not. Audacity has been around for a long time, and although it is a lot simpler and the interface is not as DAW-like as others, it is still extremely functional.
Through Audacity you can record live audio through a microphone, a mixer, or can capture streaming audio. It has multitrack recording capability and since the program is so lightweight, it records at extremely low latencies.
Audacity also offers sound activated recording, which is not something that many professional DAWs offer. The interface is extremely simple and the playback and record toolbar is clearly visible so anyone can easily figure out how to use it. It also lets you use keyboard shortcuts for quick navigation.
As far as editing goes, Audacity allows you to copy, cut, paste, change pitch, reduce noise, and fade volumes up or down with the various cursor tools provided. Audacity also supports third party audio effects plugins and also comes with a host of stock audio effects plugins, utilities, and spectrogram graphs for frequency analysis. Included are EQs, vocal reducers and isolators, reverbs, echos, filters, and delays, among many others.
Audacity is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. While it shines mainly in audio recording, it can be good for creating different genres of music.
5. Ableton Live 10 Lite
Lightweight with all the essentials
As an Ableton user myself, I have experienced the Lite version of the free digital audio workstation and find that it is great for beginners, but I would not suggest it for experienced users as it is so limited compared to the full version. It is a great stepping stone if you plan to upgrade later, but not suitable for permanent use unless you are not planning on making music with a large amount of tracks.
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Ableton Live 10 Lite is Ableton’s newest limited version of Live. Ableton is an extremely lightweight DAW, and the Lite version makes it even lighter and easier to use, so if your computer struggles to work with the other DAWs on this list, it should be fine with Ableton.
Ableton Live 10 Lite has everything you need to create great songs. It keeps Ableton’s traditional two-window interface (Session View and Arrangement View), and many great features that Ableton users have come to know and love.
The Lite version of Ableton features multitrack recording, MIDI sequencing for both software and hardware instruments, sample warping and real-time time stretching, the ability to freeze tracks and capture MIDI retrospectively without recording. You can still group tracks to stay organized and automation lanes are separated so your workspace does not get cluttered.
As for track limit specifications, Ableton Live 10 Lite limits you to 8 audio and MIDI tracks, 8 scenes, 2 send and return tracks, and 8 mono input channels.
As for virtual instruments, you get Drum Rack, Impulse, Simpler, and Instrument Rack. The audio effects plugins provided are your standard EQ, reverb, compressor, and delay, but you also get a chorus, auto filter, beat repeater, and a few more.
The MIDI effects you get include an arpeggiator and a MIDI effect rack. This version of Ableton also comes with over 1,000 samples for you to use in your racks.
Ableton Live 10 Lite is compatible with Mac and Windows. It is ideal for live performance, and best for electronic music but flexible enough for any genre.
6. Cubase LE
Providing all the basic tools for creating a masterpiece
Cubase LE is a great starter DAW and if you are a professional who doesn’t plan on creating songs with a lot of tracks, it can be a great DAW for you, too. If you have a computer that is old or slow, Cubase is ideal for you as it is a lightweight DAW that doesn’t take up a ton of power to run. If you are a DJ, I highly recommend Cubase LE for live performances as it can handle running multiple tracks at the same time.
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Cubase LE is the lightweight version of the powerful Windows-optimized Cubase by Steinberg. It provides a great introduction to music production and a beginner (or expert) friendly base for making music and learning as you go. It’s simple enough to navigate through and has all the tools you need to make music from start to finish. Cubase LE is quite robust, even if it is the Lite version.
Starting out, it comes with over 5GB of sounds and loops to use if you prefer to use loops rather than record your own music. 16 audio tracks and 24 MIDI tracks allow you to make big sounding songs, and you also get up to four inserts and four sends per channel and eight group channels in the mixer.
Cubase LE features a score editor, key editor, and drum editor. The score editor aids in bringing notes to the page when working with music notation, and the drum and key editor help your melodies, beats, arrangements, and performances come to life. A sample editor is also an included feature and allows you to warp audio in real time, as well as use time stretching and pitch shifting technology for editing and experimentation without losing sound quality.
23 audio effects plugins are provided for you to use with your tracks, as well as over 185+ virtual instrument sounds. Instruments included are HALion Sonic SE and Groove Agent SE, along with an amp simulator for recording guitars and other instruments.
Additionally, Cubase LE has songwriting tools to help you create chord progressions and build full sounding chords with Chord Pads and a Chord Track with an included Chord Assistant. This is especially helpful for beginners. You are allowed up to eight virtual instrument tracks, 16 audio tracks, and 24 MIDI tracks per project.
Cubase LE is lightweight but powerful enough to record up to eight tracks at the same time, so if you never decide to buy the full version, but keep using LE, it will still hold up to your demands in terms of recording and processing audio, all while making sure your computer doesn’t crash from an overload on the CPU or RAM.
Cubase LE is a great free DAW for creating songs of any genre of music, it is good for live performance, and compatible with Mac and Windows.
Made by musicians, for musicians
Although it doesn’t have as many features as FL Studio does, LMMS is a free alternative that is quite impressive. If you want a 100% free alternative to FL Studio, get LMMS. You can make some high quality songs on it, as proven by the “Showcase” section on the LMMS website. I’d also recommend using LMMS if you like chiptune music and want to make 8-bit music or something for games.
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LMMS (previously Linux MultiMedia Studio) is an open source, community driven, outstanding free DAW for Windows, Mac, and Linux. This means that if you know how to code (in C++) you can edit the code of LMMS and contribute to it, adding more features for yourself and others to use.
Upon opening it, it looks quite similar to FL Studio; it has separate smaller windows that can be arranged and adjusted in size to your liking. The DAW was recently updated and four years worth of bugs in the software were fixed.
As of now, you can sequence, compose, mix, and automate songs easily, and can record audio traditionally with a microphone, through MIDI (with a computer keyboard or MIDI instrument), or directly from the piano roll (writing in the MIDI information and then recording it in an audio file format as it plays). Aside from there being a piano, there is a drum sequencer, much like FL Studio, as well as a bass line editor.
Editing is no problem and you can fade in and out, slice, copy, and paste both in the timeline area and MIDI window. As for audio effects plugins, you get a compressor, reverb, limiter, distortion, delay, bass enhancer, and a parametric EQ with a spectrum visualizer to make it easy to mix your tracks and get them sounding great.
If you don’t want to use stock plugins, LMMS is also compatible with third party VSTs, both audio effects and virtual instruments. LMMS has a large amount of virtual instruments – 16 built-in synthesizers. The synths range from Gameboy and NES console emulators to organs and vibrating string modelers. LMMS also includes a clip sampler called AudioFileProcessor, which allows you to trim and loop clips.
LMMS is a great piece of software that is great for any genre, although it seems to be popular among those who make electronic music. Since it’s so similar to FL Studio, I would definitely say go ahead and try it out with live performances; I think it will work well.
A quick start to music production
GarageBand is best for beginners who want to use Logic Pro X or maybe even Mixcraft later on. Considering it’s free, it’s too limited for professional users and intermediate users. However, it does provide a good starting point if you struggle to choose instruments to use.
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GarageBand is easily the best rated free DAW for Mac on this list. It’s extremely user friendly and provides a great startup to music making and producing. If you want a quick start to music production, GarageBand will provide that for you.
Upon opening the program, you can choose from various templates with preloaded instrument tracks so that you can get started right away and start composing. You can also start from scratch, where you’ll have the ability to choose the certain type of track you want to add to the project.
You can also use live loops and create beats in live sessions with them, so GarageBand is great for live performance use. You can record on a loop and choose the best take, which is similar to comping, just a simpler version of it.
GarageBand also lets you record multiple tracks at the same time, and allows up to 32 tracks to be used in a project. There’s a large sound library that allows you to download plenty of new instrument sounds, loops, and samples so if you need new material, you have access to it. The editing tools aren’t as in depth as Logic Pro X’s, but you can arrange sections around and copy and paste as needed.
The large amount of virtual instruments (Alchemy and an AI drummer, to name some) provided in GarageBand are good quality, and if you don’t like the AI drummer, you can use the beat sequencer. As for audio effects plugins, a compressor and EQ are the only ones that come with the DAW, but if you have Logic Pro X, you can use the plugins from there, or a third party Audio Unit plugin.
Very obviously, GarageBand is a free music production software for Mac only (and if you want one that’s similar and compatible with Windows, check out our previous reviews on the best DAWs of 2021 and the best DAWs for beginners). Use GarageBand for any genre you see fit.
Finding the best free DAWs may take some digging, some research, and you may struggle to find a DAW that fits your needs a bit more than you would if you used a paid DAW, but free ones can be surprisingly useful. There are definitely some hidden gems on this list, and I urge you to check them out and consider using them. I know I certainly will be!
Jordan is a music producer, content creator, writer, and session musician. He has been producing music and engineering live performances for over 7 years. He is an experienced guitarist and enjoys listening to and playing many different genres of music.