The computers have taken over. Let’s face it: the days of hardware-only multitrack workstations, such as the Roland VS and Yamaha AW, are over. The way music is produced inside a computer software has opened up a world of possibilities never before thought possible. Just think about running multiple vocal tracks with auto-tuning plugins or using convolution modeled reverbs and you’ll realize computer is really the only way to go. Professional digital audio workstations have been around for quite a while now and anyone working with sound will recognize big name DAW products like AVID Pro Tools, Apple Logic, Steinberg Cubase or Ableton Live. While the debate of best commercial digital workstation software continues, so, lets review the best free sound recording software options that can be yours for a simple click of a button.
But free in this case certainly comes with limitations: most of the free digital audio workstations out there are merely an introduction to their big brother and might be quite limited. Typical limitations include restricting number of available tracks, audio import/export formats, compatibility with plugins, number of insert effects etc. While this might sound like a bad deal, you can still achieve good results just by using the free version and choosing to use a free edition of commercial software is quite recommended, especially if you’re looking to upgrade later to the full version.
Fortunately there are also few completely unrestricted (or should we say less limited) audio editors and workstations out there. The typical real limitation here comes in form of support and lack of bundled plugins. Still, if your goal is to get a full-blown free digital audio software in, downloading a few free 3rd party plugins should be no issue (don’t miss out our article on Best Free VST Plugins!).
A free digital audio software serves as a great introduction into the world of music production and can be a great tool to record and edit simple projects, such as demos, band rehearsals and song ideas - they are certainly capable to be more than just sketchpads. Most of them are easy to use and will offer comprehensive features to use in all sorts of productions. After all, basic concepts of recording, editing, mixing and using various effects processors are found in all of them.
A free version of a popular commercial digital audio software can be a good way for music producer to try out a new software and see if it works for specific workflow. There are many professionals out there, like Junkie XL and Deadmau5, who are known to use multiple digital audio editors and workstations in their studio. Some of them can even “talk” to each other via ReWire, Link and Jack, enabling users to pick the best of each world.
The most important functions to look for in a digital audio software (be it free or commercial) always come from the need that the user needs to fulfil: in many cases user will need to record, edit and mix audio tracks along with software instruments and effects. But sometimes all is needed is to just record simple MIDI data, use the sequencing functions or perhaps use the software as a tracking recorder. The need and workflow really defines which one is the most suitable for an individual use.
In case of limited software, many users will later upgrade to a commercial version of their chosen digital audio tool, so it’s nice to know, that sessions created with the “little brother” would be then compatible with the full version. Opening sessions created with a big brother could turn out to be a problem though, so check out the manufacturer information on compatibility beforehand. Many LE or Lite versions of popular DAW applications (like Ableton Live Lite 9 or Steinberg Cubase LE) come bundled with hardware, such as MIDI controllers and sound cards, and might not be available other than with a hardware purchase.
No matter what the flavour of free you might choose, our selection of Best Free Sound Recording Software will cater for anyone wanting to get into the world of digital audio and anyone exploring new options.
Audacity is a free, open-source, cross-platform (Windows, Mac, Linux) audio software that is designed for multi-track recording and editing.
Audacity was originally started as a research project in Carnegie Mellon University and was first released as open-source audio editor in May 2000. It has since grown into a feature-rich audio editor including all typical multi-track mixing and editing functions, various built-in effects, supports dozens of file formats, has a special spectral-editing mode and it’s own Nyquist plugin format along compatibility with AU, LADSPA, LV2, VST and Vamp plugins, to name a few.
As a professional audio editor it is perfectly suitable for making recordings, removing noise, organising and cutting clips, adding effects, mixing and even mastering the completed project.
Despite being such an advanced software, Audacity is surprisingly simple to use. The main project view consists of a timeline, which holds various types of tracks (such as audio tracks, click tracks, note tracks and label tracks). The special spectrogram view for audio tracks gives a fantastic in-depth visualisation of the recorded material typically only available via commercial analyser plugins. Another great feature in Audacity is called chains, which allows users to create, as the name implies, chains of commands. Chains can include any built-in or installed effects plugins, generators, analysers and number of export commands, which makes it a very powerful and highly customizable tool. Audacity is also localised to a good amount of different languages - a feature that is difficult to find in big commercial products.
The editor supports MIDI file importing as Note Tracks, which allows simple cut-and-paste editing, but the MIDI features are quite limited. Lack of MIDI support also disables using an external MIDI controller to directly control different functions of the software - any MIDI control would have to be done using a 3rd party software that can translate MIDI commands into keyboard shortcuts. Additionally, software instruments are not supported in Audacity, which is a shame, as it would expand the editor into full-blown digital audio workstation.
Ardour is a free, cross-platform hard-disk recorder and digital audio workstation application with a professional feature-set, such as multi-track recording, non-destructive editing, non-linear editing, as well as AU, VST and LV2 plugin support for both software instruments and effects. Ardour has been around since 2005 and is recognised as one of the leading digital audio workstations available for Linux platform. There is also a commercial branch of Ardour software available called MixBus, which is sold by Harrison Consoles.
Ardour is a full-featured digital audio workstation, with focus on clean workflow: all work is done in just two (Editor and Mixer) main windows. It’s strongest points are definitely multi-track editing and mixing functionality. It’s user interface is cleverly thought out, unified and quite pleasing for the eye, which is not always the case with free software.
Ardour has so much good going it’s not surprising many users swear by its name: functions such as track layering modes, busses and VCA mixer strips makes Ardour a powerful audio editor, which can take on Logic or Pro Tools any day. Video and timecode support makes it perfect for post-production as well. Unlike some other DAW’s, Ardour doesn’t limit you with any saving, exporting or advanced features. Instead, donating just $1 to Ardour project removes the only limitation - 10 minute maximum project length and you’re good for life. The software also supports a good amount of file formats, has an impressive routing functionality, excellent support for hardware controllers and a handy monitor section.
Being such a deep and advanced software, Ardour does come with a steep learning curve. The user experience resembles AVID Pro Tools quite closely and if you have any experience on Pro Tools, you’ll feel like home. Software instruments and effects are well supported, but the basic installation only comes with a small selection of basic plugins, so you’d be forced to look for 3rd party solutions. The only minor niggle here is the lack of VST plugin support on MacOS, but as many plugin developers release AU and VST versions for their plugins on MacOS platform, this is hardly an issue. Plugin instrument access is also perhaps not as cleverly thought out as in Ableton Live or Cubase but with a little practise Ardour will become usable in this department.
Pro Tools has a long history (first version being released in 1991 under Digidesign) and it was long considered the industry standard in production studios worldwide. The latest version of Pro Tools is a fully comprehensive digital audio workstation supporting VST, AU and it’s own AAX plugin format (both instruments and effects), includes advanced recording and mixing features, and a professionally proven workflow.
The history is strong with audio editing features of AVID Pro Tools First - with all of its deep advanced features, Pro Tools can be a little overwhelming for the beginner user to get in, but it’s also relatively clear, intuitive and offers various professional features, such as layered editing, Track Freeze functionality for freeing up resources in a CPU intensive sessions, and Elastic Time and Pitch for flexible time and pitch editing. The powerful Workspace for organising sounds and media content has been revised to include Soundbase in the latest edition of Pro Tools First and there is now even an ability to collaborate with any other Pro Tools user online using AVID’s Cloud Collaboration service in return for a small monthly fee. Pro Tools First comes with an impressive set of plugins that are simply fantastic and AVID has even included a 500MB loop library from Loopmasters.
Pro Tools First is quite strictly limited: only maximum of 16 mono or stereo audio tracks are allowed in a single project, and instrument, MIDI and AUX tracks are also limited to 16 tracks each. The free edition supports only up to 4 input channels. There is also no support for control surfaces and no mp3 export functionality. Video and timecode functionalities are available only in the commercial Pro Tools products. Pro Tools is available for Windows and Mac.
Presonus Studio One 3 is a modern take on a digital audio workstation, based on single-window working environment and offers a completely drag and drop based workflow. It’s a professional production environment with a clear focus on music composition and arrangement.
Presonus Studio One 3 Prime comes with unlimited audio tracks, virtual instruments, FX, and buses. The unified user interface is very intuitive and the whole workflow is refreshingly straightforward to use and customisable, making it ideal for beginners and anyone looking to make a switch. MIDI controllers are well supported in the free edition.
But the free Prime edition is quite limited: it comes as only 32-bit application and it’s limited to use with bundled plugins only, which effectively makes it a very closed system. It also missing video support, ReWire and mp3 export ability. With all it’s limitations, the free Studio One 3 Prime is merely an introduction to the Artist and Professional editions, which allow full expandability. Presonus Studio One is available for Mac and Windows.
Zynewave Podium is a complete digital audio workstation, including multi-tracks, MIDI, VST instruments and effects support, bundled plugins and more.
Podium is work of Frits Nielsen, who is a former user interface designer and programmer with TC Electronic. First version Podium was publicly released in 2012. Zynewave Podium comes in two different flavours - free and commercial edition. Purchasing access to commercial version updates for 1 year sets you back a mere $50.
Podium really shines in it’s intuitive design and customisable interface. Advanced MIDI editing and automation functions, support for VST plugins and instruments, surround, support for external MIDI devices and full latency compensation are the strong points of the software.
There is no multiprocessing available in free version. Other limitations include ability to use only single input/output at a time and ReWire being disabled in the free version. Podium Free was last updated in 2014, but the commercial version still enjoys frequent updates. Zynewave Podium is Windows only.
Free sound recording software can be as powerful as the big commercial product, but many time come with limitations, that are simply too much to ignore.
But fear not! Jump in to any of our chosen Best Free Sound Recording Software, as the free edition of a commercial product is a great way to get the feel of its big brother in action - and sometimes even perfectly suitable for the required job! The completely free digital audio workstations and editors can serve you well in most situations, but expect to find lack of advanced features here and there. Pick the one that is best suitable for your workflow and existing setup, and which you can see working with for years to come.