The very notion of a free DAW might make you suspicious. How is it possible to get something that can cost hundreds of dollars for nothing? Allow us to allay your fears, though, because the best free DAWs are well up to the job of helping you to produce music on a computer, particularly if you’re a beginner or have fairly basic digital recording requirements.
Why are they free, though? One of the main reasons for a company to release a free DAW is to attract you into their ecosystem in the hope that you’ll upgrade to one of their paid-for products later on. There’s no obligation to do this, though; if you’re happy with the free version and want to stick with it, no problem.
On the downside, most free DAWs are less feature-packed than their paid-for counterparts. You might be limited in the number of tracks and plugins that you can use, for example, and ‘power user’ options are likely to be missing, too.
If you’re just starting out, though, this is unlikely to be a problem, and you may find that a free DAW is all you ever need.
We’ve rounded up what we consider to be the best free DAWs that you can download right now. All of these are fully functional and won’t time out - you won’t find any demo versions here. We haven’t included any of the DAWs that often come bundled with MIDI keyboards and audio interfaces, either, though these can certainly make for a good option.
The best free DAWs 2021
1. Apple GarageBand
The most famous free DAW of them all comes bundled with every Mac, and makes it ridiculously easy for pretty much anyone to start making music.
Not only can you record audio - your guitar or mic, for example - but you also get a strong selection of software instruments that can be played from a MIDI keyboard. There are plenty of rhythmic and instrumental loops, too - just drag them into the Timeline and start creating - and Apple’s excellent Drummer enables you to create customised drum tracks to fit your projects.
The effects library includes virtual guitar amps and stompboxes, and there are enough editing and mixing features for you to polish a track to completion. Projects are compatible with the equally excellent iOS version, and Logic Pro provides a ready-made upgrade path on the Mac.
Throw in AU plugin support and you realise that, If you need a free DAW on the Mac, there’s little reason to look anywhere else.
2. Tracktion Software Waveform Free
Already one of the best free DAWs around - and certainly one of the most fully-featured and least restrictive - Tracktion Software Corporation’s 2021 update makes Waveform Free even better.
Offering an unlimited track count and plugin support, Waveform Free 2021 has a new welcome screen that makes it easy to set up your audio devices and offers a range of project templates.
There are new editing features, too - the likes of Range Selection, Ripple Delete and Heal/ Consolidate/Silence - along with a Step Clip Editor that’s designed to ease the process of clip programming.
Further workflow enhancements come in the form of the Actions Panel, which enables you to ‘favourite’ your most used actions and create custom actions that can be recalled with a click, and a MIDI typing feature that turns your computer keyboard into a musical one.
All in all, Waveform Free is so capable that you’ll wonder why you didn’t have to pay for it. You can upgrade to the Pro version whenever you’re ready.
3. PreSonus Studio One Prime
Studio One 5 is the latest and greatest version of PreSonus’s DAW, and the free Prime version is based on the same technology.
While there are some significant limitations in comparison to the more capable, paid-for, Artist and Professional versions - you can’t use third-party VST/AU plugins, for example - Prime offers the same elegant MIDI/audio recording experience, and still has plenty to offer.
A single-window interface keeps things simple, while the drag-n-drop workflow speeds up the production process no end. There are unlimited tracks and buses, and plenty of built-in virtual instruments and effects to get you started.
Guitarists will appreciate the Ampire amp and cab sims, while those of a more electronic bent can take advantage of the Pattern Editor, which offers a drum machine-style programming interface. There’s even support for MPE controllers, demonstrating that, while Studio One Prime might be entry-level, it’s certainly not low-tech.
4. Avid Pro Tools | First
Pro Tools is an industry-standard DAW that’s found in professional recording studios around the world, so it seems almost inconceivable that you should be able to download a version of it for free.
That’s precisely what you get with Pro Tools | First, though - looking and feeling like Pro Tools 'Proper', it lets you use 16 audio tracks and 16 MIDI tracks, and to record up to four tracks simultaneously.
You can’t use third-party plugins, but you do get the Xpand! 2 virtual instrument - a decent virtual workstation that provides a wide range of sounds - and a 500MB library of samples and loops.
There are project templates, too - pick the type of music you want to make and you’ll get a set of pre-loaded instrument tracks for that genre.
Other features include a good range of editing tools, track freezing to save CPU and 1GB of free cloud storage. Plenty to get your teeth into, then.
5. Akai MPC Beats
Akai’s MPC products have been inspiring electronic music and hip-hop producers since 1988, which saw the release of the iconic MPC60.
MPC Beats - a free ‘beatmaking DAW’ means that everyone can now experience the legendary MPC workflow. The software features a classic 4x4 drum sample grid (that’s 16 pads), a piano roll, a sample library browser and a sample edit window. You can switch between these different views whenever you like.
If you’re new to the production game, beat templates will help you to get started and understand the process, and MPC Beats ships with a 2GB library that includes content from some of the most popular MPC Expansion Pack sound libraries (you can add more if you’re willing to pay for them).
As well as the obligatory drum kits, there are also three plugin instruments (Bassline, Tubesynth and Electric) and 80 FX plugins that are lifted from the Air Effects collection. So, you have everything you need to create, mix and master your tracks.
Control can come not only from one of Akai’s own MIDI Keyboards or pad controllers, but also any other suitable MIDI controller you might have to hand. MPC Beats will auto-map to many of them, easing the setup process
Other features of the software include two stereo audio tracks, eight MIDI/instrument tracks and support for VST/AU instruments and effects. You can also use MPC Beats as a plugin in another DAW.
6. Serato Studio
Launched in 2019, Serato Studio is a simplified PC and Mac DAW that’s designed for beginners and DJs who want to move into music production.
The feature-limited free edition has full save and export functionality and no time constraints, but is limited to four Decks, four Scenes, one Audio Track and MP3-only export. Automation is disabled, too.
That said, it’s still perfectly possible to create a full track using the free version, and it offers features such as sampling and virtual instruments. DJs can also load full mixed tracks into it and use the software to create their own edits.
7. Cakewalk by BandLab
The DAW formerly known as Sonar had a rough ride for a few years, and looking to be heading for the scrapheap before it was saved - and made free - by BandLab.
The Cakewalk reference is a nod to the software’s original developer, and its long history is evident in the level of sophistication that this free Windows-only DAW offers. You can make use of unlimited audio, MIDI, instrument, loop and aux tracks, and the Skylight UI is fully customisable. So you can tweak the interface to suit your workflow.
There’s VST3 plugin support here, so expanding your roster of instruments and effects won’t be a problem, though plenty of content comes included anyway. Touchscreen support is another bonus, as is a 64-bit mix engine.
There’s no upgrade path from Cakewalk by BandLab, but with this much functionality, you may never need one.