Choosing a free DAW for your music studio is not an easy task. A digital audio workstation is the central component of your music production software setup. Your DAW software is where all the audio recording, audio editing, and mixing takes place. It is also where all your VST plugins will be put to good use.
However, your options are more limited if you’re building a software-based music studio on a tight budget. There is only a small number of high-quality free DAW applications out there.
That said, the list of free digital audio workstations grows bigger every year. So, what is the best free DAW in 2020?
Free DAW: The BEST Free Digital Audio Workstations
These are the best free digital audio workstations you can download right now:
- Waveform Free
- Cakewalk by BandLab
- Studio One Prime
- Pro Tools | First
- MPC Beats
- Podium Free
To summarize, the best free DAWs are Waveform Free and Cakewalk by BandLab. And if you don’t require VST plugin support, consider using Studio One Prime by PreSonus or Pro Tools | First by Avid. Both are an excellent choice who want to record multi-track audio.
We included mini-reviews of each digital audio workstation and an overview of their pros and cons.
Please note that the software is listed in no particular order. Every user has different demands, and it is impossible to say which DAW is the best. Take a good look at the workstations mentioned in the article and decide which one is the best fit for you.
Pros: VST and ReWire support, fully functional free DAW, low upgrade price.
Cons: Unconventional workflow.
Platforms: Linux, macOS, Windows.
Waveform Free is a feature-packed free DAW. It is the free version of Tracktion Corporation’s flagship digital audio workstation software called Waveform Pro. Available across all major platforms, offering full VST plugin support and ReWire compatibility, it is a capable digital audio workstation.
This freeware DAW can even load video files if you need to synchronize your audio project to a movie scene or an animation. If you want even more features, though, you will need to purchase the commercial version of Waveform.
If you’re producing electronic music, one can easily recommend Waveform Free as the perfect freeware digital audio workstation for the task. It can load virtual instruments and offers all the MIDI features required for sequencing VST plugins. The app was designed to be intuitive for beginner producers who haven’t used DAW software in the past.
That said, Waveform Free’s single-panel user interface differs from the design standards set by other digital audio workstations. Some users absolutely love the software’s unique workflow. Newcomers probably won’t have any issues with it, whereas music producers who are switching from a different DAW might find it a bit confusing at first.
Back to the good stuff, Waveform Free comes with an in-depth user manual that explains everything you need to know about this free DAW. And if you don’t care much for reading manuals, be sure to check out the training videos that are available on Tracktion’s official website. The tutorial videos cover all crucial topics, from basic setup and plugin installation to advanced audio editing and automation.
If you use many virtual instruments in your music, Waveform Free is probably the best free DAW for you. Its workflow is optimized for instrument plugins and softsynths, with intuitive MIDI sequencing.
More info: Waveform Free
Cakewalk by BandLab
Pros: SONAR Platinum for free, what more can you ask for?
Cons: Requires installation of BandLab Assistant.
Platform: Windows (64-bit only).
Cakewalk by BandLab is based on the discontinued SONAR Platinum (originally priced at $499) digital audio workstation. BandLab’s free DAW offers the same functionality as its predecessor, minus the bundled third-party software.
Most importantly, Cakewalk is free for all Windows users. The program has all the original SONAR Platinum features, including its native effects (limiters, equalizers, compressors, etc.), analog console-style virtual mixer, VST plugin support, multi-touch support, Bluetooth MIDI, and more.
On the negative side, you will need to install the BandLab Assistant software and sign up for a free BandLab user account. That said, there are no nagging ads or other annoyances to worry about. The DAW itself is fast, reliable, and ready to use on your Windows machine.
Cakewalk by BandLab is still under development by some of the leading members of the SONAR developer team. Producers on a tight budget who want the closest thing to a traditional digital audio workstation should choose Cakewalk as their free DAW.
In other words, if you’re looking for a conventional free DAW that can load VST plugins, be sure to download Cakewalk by BandLab.
More info: Cakewalk by BandLab
Studio One Prime
Pros: Great user interface, external SoundFont support, quality native effects.
Cons: No VST plugin support, only one virtual instrument included.
Platforms: macOS, Windows.
Studio One Prime, unlike the two aforementioned digital audio workstations, doesn’t offer VST plugin support. That is a massive drawback for users who rely on using virtual instruments or a specific arsenal of virtual effects in VST plugin format.
On the other hand, Studio One Prime does include a collection of high-quality audio effects developed by PreSonus. It also comes with a 1.5 GB collection of royalty-free sounds and the ability to load third-party SoundFonts.
The free DAW from PreSonus also offers unlimited audio tracks and mixer channels, time-stretching, multi-track comping, full MIDI support, advanced automation, and Studio One’s simple side-chain routing workflow. We recommend Studio One Prime as the best free recording software.
The lack of VST plugin support is a significant drawback, but Studio One’s native effects are some of the best around. The free version includes nine effects in total, covering all of the most important mixing tools. It consists of a 3-band equalizer, a compressor, a simple distortion module, a guitar amplifier, reverb and delay effects, and a set of modulation tools. Five additional effects can be unlocked with an in-app purchase.
Studio One Prime is the perfect digital audio workstation for singer-songwriters or bands who want to record and mix their demo sessions. It is an entry-level free DAW that can be upgraded to Studio One Artist (with more native effects) and Studio One Professional (with plugin support and a range of other additional features).
The free DAW from PreSonus has a tiny memory footprint. The fact that it’s lightweight makes it an excellent choice for a secondary digital audio workstation to use on a laptop that isn’t a part of your main studio setup.
More info: Studio One Prime
Pro Tools | First
Pros: Based on Pro Tools, it includes Xpand!2 instrument and over 20 native effects.
Cons: No VST plugin support, limited project storage, CPU hog.
Platforms: macOS, Windows.
Pro Tools | First shares many features with the full version of Avid’s flagship Pro Tools digital audio workstation. The free version of Pro Tools includes AAX plugin support, Elastic Time and Elastic Pitch functionality, powerful audio recording and mixing tools, a line-up of over twenty native effects, and even the full version of the excellent Xpand!2 synthesizer.
Sounds too good to be true? The catch is that you only get to use up to sixteen tracks and four audio inputs per project. Also, only up to three projects can be stored in the cloud at the same time. Unlimited projects can be saved locally, though.
If we put the cloud storage space limitation aside, the free version of Pro Tools is indeed a very capable DAW. It includes powerful virtual instruments, a wide range of effects, ReWire support, time and pitch stretching, track comping, track bouncing, etc. In short, Pro Tools | First is a competent free DAW for recording and mixing audio.
On the negative side of things, Pro Tools | First requires a lot of hard drive space, which can be a problem for users with limited storage space. Besides, our general impression during testing was that the free version Pro Tools is quite a CPU hog, although this may depend on your hardware setup.
More info: Pro Tools | First
Pros: A fully-fledged open-source DAW for audio recording and production.
Cons: You have to build the software yourself (or pay a subscription fee) on Windows and macOS.
Platforms: Linux, macOS, Windows.
Ardour is an open-source digital audio workstation for Linus, macOS, and (as of lately) Windows. Feature-wise, Ardour is an extremely capable DAW with support for all major plugin formats and a wide range of audio editing and mixing features. There is one caveat, though, and that is the fact that you can’t simply download and install Ardour on Windows and Mac.
Being that I’m not a Linux user and not experienced with open-source software, I asked our friend Peter Kirn at Create Digital Music to explain how Ardour really works on various platforms.
And it’s quite simple, really.
Ardour is open-source and free to use. On Linux, the process of downloading the Ardour source code and running the actual app on your computer is almost seamless. On Windows and macOS, you can still use Ardour for free, but only if you can compile the provided source code yourself. If not, there are two options: a one-time donation or a subscription.
With a one-time donation, users on macOS and Windows will receive the current version of Ardour and all the minor updates (until the next major version is released). In contrast, a monthly subscription of $1, $4, or $10 also includes the major updates.
If you’re not sure if Ardour is for you, there’s also a free demo that you can download and run on your computer. The free trial version will go silent after ten minutes of use.
For a long while, Ardour was not at all available on Windows. However, thanks to funding by Google, Harrison Consoles, and Waves Audio, it is now possible to use Ardour as a DAW on a Windows machine.
More info: Ardour
Pros: A virtual MPC for free. Also works as a VST plugin in other DAWs.
Cons: Only eight instrument channels.
Platform: Windows (64-bit only).
AKAI entered the free DAW market with MPC Beats, a piece of undeniably powerful beat making software. Although the app does have some shortcomings, such as a limited number of audio channels that can be used simultaneously, there are plenty of features that you won’t find in other DAWs.
For example, MPC Beats can be used as a VST plugin in another digital audio workstation. Using a DAW inside another DAW? For free? Yes, these are incredible times for music producers on a budget.
Also, the software includes over 80 audio effects developed by Air, covering all your mixing and sound design requirements. You’re also getting a high-quality time-stretching algorithm, an advanced step sequencer, and the ability to load third-party plugins in VST and AU formats. AKAI is including over 2 GB of free sample content with MPC Beats and users can purchase additional extension packs if needed.
Other than that, MPC Beats features the sample legendary MPC workflow that you’ll find in AKAI’s hardware products. And the software is compatible with a variety of hardware MIDI controllers, including those from AKAI and third-party manufacturers.
If you’re a beatmaker looking for a free DAW, be sure to give MPC beats a try. You can expand this free digital audio workstation with premium sounds released by AKAI.
More info: MPC Beats
Pros: VST plugin support, virtual drum machine included, multi-touch support.
Cons: Lacks some of the advanced features found in other DAWs.
Platforms: macOS, Windows.
SoundBridge is a straightforward free digital audio workstation. Due to its simplified user interface, SoundBridge is an excellent choice for beginners and less demanding users. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles found in more advanced DAWs like Waveform Free and Cakewalk by BandLab. On the other hand, there’s plenty of functionality for users who are just starting making music on a computer.
Most importantly, SoundBridge can load third-party VST plugins. Users who program drum beats from scratch will love the fact that SoundBridge includes an MPC-style drum sampler/sequencer and a collection of essential mixing and mastering effects. Furthermore, this free DAW is optimized for the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) and has hand gestures implemented, along with the ability to scale the interface.
SoundBridge is one of the newest digital audio workstations on the list. The developers are continuously improving the software with new features and updates. Sign up for free on the SoundBridge website and check out this promising freeware DAW.
More info: SoundBridge
Pros: VST plugin support, includes ZynAddSubFX, open-source.
Cons: Some stability issues, relatively steep learning curve, no audio recording.
Platforms: Linux, macOS, Windows.
LMMS (short for Linux Multimedia Studio) is an open-source pattern-based free DAW that was built by a team of volunteers. Its design and workflow are inspired by a commercial product – the well known FL Studio (formerly known as Fruity Loops) digital audio workstation by Image-Line.
FL Studio’s pattern-based workflow is nicely implemented in LMMS. The problem is that the user interface is still somewhat lacking in polish, making the user experience a bit underwhelming at first. The graphical elements are not very intuitively designed, and new users will probably need some time to get familiar with the application and its features.
The design keeps improving with every new version of LMMS, though, therefore it makes sense to keep the program updated to the latest version at all times. Also, there are plenty of free video tutorials available online to help with the learning process.
LMMS is packed with many built-in effects and virtual instruments, including the ZynAddSubFX synthesizer, which is one of the most versatile freeware instruments around. This freeware DAW can also host VST plugins and connect to other applications via the JACK Audio Server.
The built-in beat/bassline editor is great, and the piano roll works really well for creating and editing more complex MIDI sequences. Sadly, LMMS can’t record audio (!), so it is only possible to generate sound using virtual instruments or use imported samples. Even so, LMMS is a decent free DAW for electronic music producers, beatmakers, and anyone who relies exclusively on virtual instruments and samples to create music.
More info: LMMS
Pros: VST plugin support, intuitive user interface, fast workflow.
Cons: Single core processing for VST plugins, no ReWire support, not cross-platform compatible.
Podium Free is a long-time favorite of ours, a powerful free digital audio workstation that combines a modern user interface with a fast workflow. Podium was built with electronic musicians in mind, focusing on virtual instruments as the primary sound source. That said, this free DAW can also be used for recording and mixing real instruments.
The free version of Podium offers decent VST plugin support (not limited to a certain amount of VST plugins per project) and a robust object-based project structure with a virtual mixer. It comes with powerful audio recording and editing tools, track freeze/bounce, and external MIDI controller support. Podium Free features the same customizable user interface like the one found in the product’s full version.
The main limitation of Podium Free is that the DAW doesn’t support multi-core CPUs. If you use a quad-core processor, only one of the four available CPU cores will be used for processing plugins.
You’ll need to keep a close eye on the CPU performance indicator and be sure to use less demanding plugins in your projects. Track freezing and bouncing can also help to reduce the overall CPU load. It’s worth noting, though, that the remaining CPU cores are still used for various background tasks (rendering, disk streaming, etc.).
More info: Podium Free
Free DAW: Honorable Mentions
GarageBand is the first free DAW used by many music producers. It is included with all Mac computers and designed to be intuitive and easy to use. GarageBand comes with a decent collection of virtual instruments and sounds, but users who want a more advanced digital audio workstation should look elsewhere.
Music Maker by Magix is a free DAW for absolute beginners. In terms of its features and functionality, the software is a GarageBand equivalent on Windows. It comes with a small selection of virtual instruments and effects packed in a streamlined user interface that is easy to learn. The software is a good starting point for musicians who want to learn how to produce music on a computer, but nothing more than that. For any advanced functionality, take a look at the other free digital audio workstations featured in the article.
REAPER is NOT free to use, but it is free to try. The asking price of $60 for a discounted license is more than fair, considering the program’s flexibility and the fact that it’s continuously updated with new features and improvements. REAPER is an incredibly powerful and versatile digital audio workstation that supports all major plugin formats. It comes with a vast collection of high-quality effects for processing audio and MIDI data, features powerful audio and MIDI routing capabilities, and has a very active user community. An in-depth review of REAPER was recently published by ExtremRaym.
KRISTAL Audio Engine is an old digital audio workstation that is no longer updated. The program was developed by KristalLabs, a team of programmers that later worked on creating Studio One. Unlike the free version of Studio One, KRISTAL Audio Engine offers basic VST plugin support with two plugin slots per channel and three plugin slots on the master bus. This is an old DAW, but it can still be useful for users with less powerful computers.
What Is The Best Free DAW?
The two best free digital audio workstations are Waveform Free and Cakewalk by BandLab. Both of them are powerful DAW applications with all the essential features necessary for serious music production. Besides offering the standard audio recording, editing, mixing, and automation features, Waveform Free and Cakewalk can also host VST plugins.
Waveform Free has a unique workflow, so chances are that new users will be more familiar with Cakewalk’s user interface. On the other hand, Waveform Free is fully cross-platform.
If third-party virtual instruments and VST plugins are not crucial to your workflow, Studio One Prime and Pro Tools | First are the two free DAWs you should focus on. Studio One Prime is an excellent package for recording audio and performing all standard audio mixing tasks. Pro Tools | First can be expanded with AAX plugins, but it can only save three projects and requires an active network connection.
Beatmakers and less demanding electronic musicians should look into SoundBridge or LMMS. These two free DAWs are optimized for beat making, with a music production workflow that is similar to FL Studio. They’re not nearly as polished and feature-packed as the flagship DAW from Image-Line, but their workflows are somewhat similar.
We hope that our roundup has helped you find the perfect free DAW for your music production studio. The final choice of the digital audio workstation is yours to make because it depends on your needs as the user and the type of hardware that you have at your disposal.
For more freeware plugins and instruments, return to our Free VST Plugins page.