The Best Free Recording Software: Three Economic DAWs to Get You Started

Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) are an essential part of any recording setup, even in modern analog environments. While it can be easy to give up a few hundred dollars for certain industry standard DAWs like ProTools (Avid), Logic (Apple) or Cubase (Steinberg) - or even over a thousand for solutions such as Nuendo (Steinberg) - you can just as easily find a usable solution for free (or free-ish). Here’s a closer look at three popular, affordable DAWs: GarageBand, Audacity, and Reaper.

GarageBand: The Beginner's iDAW

GarageBand, included with every current Mac model, is an OS X-only multi-track DAW for recording and mixing. It supports guitar/bass line inputs, audio inputs using a favorite audio interface (such as an Apogee Duet or a Focusrite 2i2), and software instruments for use with controllers such as keyboards. While there are several built-in templates for projects such as “Amp Collection” and “Hip Hop” (including Apple-made loops), an empty project provides a clean palette to develop a musical idea. In addition to MIDI, GarageBand will support any existing AudioUnits (AU) plug-ins, since AU is part of OS X’s Core Audio API. GarageBand also includes many standard effects such as compression and equalization. Synth, drum machine, and vintage organ samples are available along with a drum loop library for programming rhythms.

The ability to mix down directly to iTunes or export straight to SoundCloud will appeal to any Mac-savvy audio practitioner. For those who are fans of the layout of OS X and Mac usability, the interface has the same look and feel. To round out the experience, Apple has released Logic Remote, a free iOS app that turns an iPad into a controller. Support for GarageBand is primarily facilitated through Apple’s support website.

Bottom Line: A no-brainer for beginners with a Mac or users who love the clean, intuitive interface of other Apple products.

Audacity: Simple Yet Effective

Like GarageBand, Audacity is a multi-track DAW for recording and mixing. However, it is an open source DAW available for Windows, Mac and Linux, available via SourceForge. The user interface is a bit basic compared to other available DAWs, but it still includes many useful features like importing/exporting of a variety of file formats, dynamic processing, and effects including equalization, compression, reverb and normalization. Audacity also supports Virtual Studio Technology (VST) plug-ins, while an additional wrapper is needed for VST support in GarageBand. Audacity supports AU, LV2, and LADSPA (Linux Audio Developer’s Simple Plugin API) as well.

For those interested in tools such as noise reduction and spectral analysis, Audacity offers these items with a respectable amount of control. At this time, Audacity cannot natively record MIDI input, but this information can be imported after the fact. Like other DAWs, Audacity has full editing capabilities, level manipulation and batch processing. Since it’s open source, Audacity support is primarily available in the form of a wiki. In all, Audacity is a solid tool for those who are comfortable with audio computing through a no-frills interface.

Bottom Line: An extremely useful audio utility to use by itself or in conjunction with other platforms. Lacks the fleshed out features of mainstream DAWs like ProTools.


Reaper: The People's ProTools

Like GarageBand and Audacity, Reaper is a multi-track DAW for recording and mixing, but it also includes added functionality for mastering. Compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux, Reaper supports audio interfaces, software/virtual instruments, and plug-in support for AU, VST/VSTi, MIDI and ReWire (Propellerhead Reason integration). Reaper’s ReaPlugs Suite includes a variety of tools such as equalizers, compressors, reverb, delay/reverb and pitch correction. Editing functionality is also available, along with similar import/export features as the other DAWs mentioned in this article.

Reaper is highly customizable, providing the ability to create images, buttons, and use themes. For those who work with MIDI, Reaper’s built-in MIDI editor is customizable to allow color coding, editing and pitch manipulation. Reaper also supports controllers and 64-bit processing, making it efficient and responsive, the result of developers designing it to optimize CPU load-balancing. Some might be interested in Reaper’s pitch shifting, correction and time stretching capabilities.

Reaper is available for a 60-day evaluation. When it expires, users will be prompted to purchase a license ($60 discounted, $225 full commercial license) but will still be able to utilize the full-featured trial version. Two major version updates and somewhat unlimited upgrades are included with a license, since the developers seem to utilize Agile software development methodology. The Reaper user forum is the main place for support, with an extremely active community.

Bottom Line: When it comes to usability, Reaper holds its own against much more expensive DAWs like Logic. With a nearly limitless trial version and just $60 for a license, it's an easy way to take the next step in your digital recording journey.

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