20 great free and open source music making programs
Who doesn’t love free software? Still, you might be unaware that “free” doesn’t always mean free in the sense you might expect.
There are important distinctions between what we call “freeware” and what is known as “free software”, “free and open source software” or “free, libre and open source software”.
The main difference is in the definition of the word “free”, which has multiple meanings. Freeware is provided at no cost - so it is free in that sense – but are you free to do anything you like with it? Can you re-distribute it without the developer’s permission? The answer is usually no.
However, this isn’t always the case. Some free software is free as in “freedom”, meaning not only that it (probably) costs nothing but, more crucially, that you’re free to do whatever you like with it. You can re-distribute it however you like, or even tap into the code and change it to suit your needs. Yes, developers of such software make the source code freely available to any and all to do with as they like. This is what the term “open source” is all about.
More importantly, some free software doesn’t involve restrictive end user license agreements. As free software advocates like to point out, we’re talking about free as in “free speech” not just free as in “free beer”.
In the gallery ahead of you we’ve rounded up 20 excellent free and open source applications worth investigating and experimenting with in 2015.
Mac, Windows and Linux-compatible, this GPL-licensed program can do everything you’d expect from a commercial audio editor.
Edit samples and songs, process audio files, burn CDs and export a wide range of audio file formats including WAV, AIF or MP3. After Mozilla’s Firefox browser, Audacity might well be the best-known and most widely used open source music application.
Got a folder full of Akai, Giga or DLS samples? You can play them or make your own sample-based instruments in LinuxSampler.
Despite the name, it is available for OS X, Windows and - natch - Linux. It’s really just a sampler “engine”, and you decide which front-end to use. Options include Qsampler or Fantasia GUIs, among others. Well realised and mature.
Released under the GNU GPL for Mac, Windows and Linux, Cecelia is a CSound-based graphical environment for music and signal processing.
Additive, subtractive, granular synthesis and processing and more are presented in an easy-to-use GUI. Alas, the OS X version is no longer maintained, but it is still available for those of you with older operating systems.
Need a wickedly powerful drum machine? Available for Linux and OS X, Hydrogen is an advanced pattern-based drum sequencer and mixing environment.
With swing and humanisation functions onboard, along with the ability to layer both samples and patterns, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way to build beats for free.
A sweeping visual programming language for multimedia, Pure Data is an open source program released under a “Modified BSD” license, considered GPL-compatible by the Free Software Foundation.
If you always wanted to get into the Max or Kyma systems but lack the bread, this one’s for you. Mac, Windows, Linux and even Android and iOS are supported.
Download Pure Data
A Linux, Windows and OS X program that was among the first open-source products to be made available in Apple’s App Store, Mixxx provides a professional quality DJ mixing environment that can read MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, AIFF and FLAC formats, among others.
Support for more than a dozen hardware controllers is written in, too, for hands-on mixing. Nice.
Another DAW initially developed for Linux and now in alpha for Windows, too, Rosegarden is a fully realised MIDI and audio workstation with all the trimmings.
It’s been around since 1993, if you can believe it, and it shows in the highly evolved, mature workflow. Released under the GPL license.
Yet another nifty DAW, this one’s strictly for Linux users.
Everything you need is here, including support for a wide variety of plugins (DSSI, LADSPA, Lv2 and VST in both native Linux and Wine-wrapped guises).
Fully integrated with Jack and Linux’s ALSA, Qtractor is easy to use and easy on the eyes. It's frequently updated - with recent updates including standard DAW features such as freeze and MIDI instrument rendering - and is still simple and to the point. Qtractor is released under the GNU/GPL license.
Our second entry from Qtractor creator Rui Nuno Capela, samplv1 is a classic hardware-style soft sampler with multimode filtering, plenty of modulation options and a supremely easy-to-handle GUI.
It sounds the business and can be used standalone with Jack or as an Lv2 plugin. This one’s Linux-only.
Another one for OS X, Windows and Linux, this GNU GPL release has been in active development since 1996.
Designed as a programming language for real-time synthesis and algorithmic composition, SuperCollider is dense and deep. Books, seminars and workshops exist for those inclined to take the plunge.
SonicBirth is a massive modular construction environment that enables the user to patch together individual modules in order to create their own audio effects, synthesisers and more.
Better still, anything created in SonicBirth can be exported as either a VST or Audio Units plugin. It can get pretty deep, for sure, but it’s well worth the effort for those with a bit of time to commit.
This one is available for OS X and released under the GNU license.
From the man behind Cecilia and Zyne, Soundgrain taps into the weird and wonderful world of granular processing.
Released under GNU GPL for Windows, OS X and Linux, it’s a blast to use and easy to figure out. Now at version 5.0.0, there are few better ways to have fun with your audio files.
LMMS is a complete music production studio that began life as a Linux alternative to programs like FL Studio and Orion. Now available for OS X and Windows as well, it gives you everything you could need to produced polished electronic music on just about any computer.
There are 19 included instruments (including an embedded version of ZynAddSubFX) and scads of effects, plus VST support in the Windows and Linux versions. Import MIDI files, Hydrogen and FL Studio projects.
LMMS is fast, fun and totally free.
How many forms of synthesis can you pack into a single instrument? ZynAddSubFX combines subtractive analogue with a powerful additive engine and a wicked pad synthesizer for serious sound design fun.
Microtonal and multitimbral, and with a slew of built-in effects, there's not a lot you can't do with ZynAddSubFX. The sound is nothing short of spectacular. A Linux classic, it has also been ported to Windows, and there's even a VST version.
Togu Audio Line has produced some of the best free and inexpensive virtual analogue plugins available, and TAL-NoiseMaker is a humdinger.
A revamp of the earlier TAL-Elek7ro, it's a three-oscillator powerhouse with a self-oscillating filter section and some tasty built-in effects. The sound is thoroughly old-school, but there are some modern niceties hidden behind TAL-NoiseMaker's collapsable windows, including custom envelope shaping.
Normally a purveyor of licensed products, TAL has released TAL-NoiseMaker under the GPL. Windows, OS X and even Linux versions can be found.
Sometimes less truly is more. Giada is a minimal production environment designed for DJs and live electronic musicians - but that doesn't preclude it being enjoyed in the studio.
Giada combines a sequencer, piano roll and loop machine with the ability to host VST plugins. Live sampling is its strong suit, with built-in sample editing and slicing. Latency compensation is included.
It's a neat little package and well worth the time it takes to download. Who knows - you might be inspired!
When Yamaha's DX7 synthesizer hit the scene back in '83, it changed everything - for a while, anyway. Its lush, clean FM-based sound was a welcome respite from the tired saw, square and pulse waves of analogue synths. As hard as it is to believe, many a Minimoog was swapped for a DX7!
Today's desktop musician has more than a few choices when looking for an FM-based synthesizer, many of which are based directly on Yamaha's classic DX series. Some will even open patches made on and for the hardware instruments that inspired them.
Sean Bolton's Hexter can do exactly that, being compatible with the DX7's SysEx files. Users wishing to create their own sounds can choose from two interfaces, Widgy and Retro.
If you already use a Linux, Hexter was likely included in your distro. If not, it can be downloaded from your repository or SourceForge.
Though Linux users have access to multiple plugin formats, they are not actually necessary, thanks to the JACK, a low-latency sound server daemon that allows interconnection of audio and MIDI from different programs. Rackarrack is just such a program.
Designed for guitarists, Rackarrack is a virtual pedalboard packed with nearly any effect you can think of and a few more besides. All the usual culprits are here (delay, phaser, reverb, chorus, EQ, gate and compressor), as well as more exotic effects like reverse echo, ring modulation and a looper. In fact, there are more than we have space to list.
Suffice it to say that if you play guitar and you use Linux, you simply must look into Rackarrack.
Now in its fourth incarnation, Ardour is an open-source alternative to the likes of Pro Tools, Cubase and Logic. A fully-fleshed out, mature DAW with all of the trimmings, Ardour began life as a Linux program before being ported to OS X and now, in version 4, Windows.
Ardour is freely available thtrough various Linux repositories or from the Ardour website. If you go to the source, you'll have to pony up at least a buck to download the binaries, but the source code can be had for no charge.
Our list of open-source goodies features effects, synths, sequencers and even DAWs, but what would you say if we told you that you could download and install an entire operating system designed specifically for musicians? Indeed you can, and Linux users have been doing it for years.
There are in fact a few music-centric Linux operating systems (known as 'distros') available. One of the best is Ubuntu Studio, based around the popular Ubuntu OS. This distro quite literally has everything you need to create, record, mix and master your music. It comes pre-packaged with many of the programs on our list, including Ardour, Audacity, Rosegarden, and Hydrogen, Rackarrack, QTractor and Pure Data and many, many more.