Whether it’s a quick-and-dirty session for a podcast or full-fledged music production, you need a go-to software to edit and generate audio files. Are there any free DAWs to get the job done? Let us find out.
A simple, efficient, and user-friendly audio editor is the first step of your workflow. It is crucial to achieving quick and high-quality results. In production parlance, these software are called DAWs – Digital Audio Workstations.
Modern DAWs like Pro Tools, Abelton Live, iZotope, and Logic Pro are among the most commonly used options by professionals. But they are available with either a personal license or a one-time fee. It can cost you anything from $100 to $599 or more.
The good news is you do not need to splurge on a paid software if you are just getting started. After all, making music or learning audio editing is not about spending money. I have rounded up three free mixing/editing software that you can download today – for free!
There are many trial versions and introductory editions of professional DAWs that can be used. These include Abelton Live Lite, Pro-Tools First, Cubase LE, amongst others. Other DAWs like Reaper offer a 60-day trial period with full access to all their features.
Many of them are powerful for basic to intermediate work. Nevertheless, I’ve disregarded many of them because of limited functionality. There are other options out there, but these five have features that are a notch above the rest.
Without further ado, let us look at each of them alongside the pros and cons of each.
#1 Audacity – Top Pick for Beginners
Launched as Audacity 0.8 in May ’99, Audacity is the OG of free audio editing software. It serves a wide range of uses with support for nearly all file formats. It can be used for editing, recording, mixing, and also as a DAW while streaming directly.
Fear not, despite being that old, it is definitely not outdated. The software has seen constant updates to add new features and keep it relevant for contemporary use. That said, some users may find the UI to be a little fuddy-duddy and unfashionable with large waveforms and buttons.
The biggest draw for Audacity is that all the basic tasks like trimming, mixing, and normalization are simple. Feature-wise, it gives you access to a huge range of plugins and effects, both built-in and third-party options. There are sufficient options for mixing and editing.
The recording/editing capabilities, Spectrogram analysis, real-time preview of effects, and export/import options make it a fantastic choice, especially considering that it is totally free. Moreover, you can publish files in 16, 24, and 32-bit sound quality.
If you are tech-savvy, you won’t have any trouble learning Audacity. People without any prior experience may need to invest a few hours to get a hang of things. You can find a list of keyboard and mouse shortcuts online that will optimize the speed at which you work.
It’s an open-source and cross-platform software. There is an abundance of documentation, tutorials, and online videos from Audacity users. It’s adequate for even the most clueless beginner. Plus, the Audacity community and forum are a great place to visit if you can’t figure something out.
Audacity works on PC, iOs, and Linux devices and is available in 36 languages. Once you get the hang of it, you will not need to look elsewhere for any audio editing needs. Its adeptness and usability are evidenced in the fact that it is the world’s most downloaded audio editing software.
- A feature-rich and free DAW
- Multiuse – recording, editing, mixing
- Spectrogram, Nyquist features
- Lots of built-in effects and plugins
- Cross-platform – works on Mac, PC, and Linux
- UI is not as modern and sleek as others
- Not ideal for live sets and on-the-fly workflows
- No option for non-destructive editing
#2 NCH Wavepad
Whether you are a novice looking for a DAW to convert audio files or a seasoned veteran looking to produce an album, WavePad provides a large toolset in an easy-to-use interface. It has a wide array of controls and features for audio editing and mixing.
The software feels intuitive, clean, and engaging, and the learning curve is mild at best. The editing features include auto-trim, fade-in/fade-out, a normalizer, an equalizer, and a sample-rate converter among others.
The basic functions such as cuts, fades, and trims take no time to learn. It’s highly competent at exporting, importing, and converting an audio file to different formats. In terms of effects and filters, WavePad has stock FX for echo, delay, distortion, reverb, and several others.
You can further expand your collection with free or paid third-party plugins and VST. On the downside, the fade options are very basic. You can fade in and out but you can’t set the speed or duration of the fade. If that is big on your list, you should settle for Audacity or Ardour.
I also feel that Wavepad works a tad better on PC than it does on Mac. However, it is constantly updated, so all the bugs and glitches are fixed in due time. Like Audacity, the WavePad team responds quickly to email queries.
Recording audio is as easy as connecting a USB microphone to your computer and pressing record. But bear in mind that WavePad will only let you record one audio source at a time. There is an extension (or companion software) called MixPad that has multi-tracking capabilities. You won’t be able to record and mix multiple tracks without it.
Like Audacity, Wavepad also has a friendly and active forum where you can ask questions or discuss ideas with other users. You won’t find the same amount of online documentation/tutorials compared to Audacity. However, there is sufficient material to ensure that you get the hang of it.
Once coupled with Mixpad, Wavepad can fully support your needs for recording, mixing, arranging, audio editing, and performing. Considering that you pay nothing for it, it still gives you the same functionality as you would expect from a professional DAW.
- Simple and clean UI
- Small learning curve
- Multiuse – recording, arranging, editing, mixing
- A huge amount of sound libraries, filters, and sound effects
- 40+ file formats to choose
- Non-destructive editing
- Steep learning curve for new users
- Not ideal for on-the-fly workflows
- Can’t process batch files
Ardour is a diamond in the rough that often flies under the radar due to the popularity of other free DAWs like Cakewalk and Audacity. To me, it stands out because its a highly capable cross-platform DAW with non-linear editing capabilities and multiple tracks and busses.
Audacity works with any OS. It is open-source with powerful tools and options to convert audio to multiple formats at any bit-depth. It supports multiple types of plugins that can be edited directly from the inline mixing console.
The mixing architecture is simple to use and the audio editing tools are extensive. The basic features include options to automate, add effects, inserts, and monitor your mixes. You can add additional plugins and control surfaces for an advanced workflow.
Moreover, it has full sync and transport with MIDI devices and dynamic MIDI learn and signal-routing. It also has dedicated features of soundtrack editing like shared transport and video playback tools. The frame-by-frame thumbnails and video-monitor view are excellent.
It also allows you to add or ‘mux’ blank frames with audio and move audio-regions at video-frame granularity. The non-destructive EQ is a big step up compared to the other options. One can imagine how unlimited undo/redo possibilities are a plus point, especially for beginners.
It is not a deal-breaker, but Audacity doesn’t offer this feature. On the downside, Ardour is better for focused work on a single track. The beat-matching is a tad confusing and wayward. DJs or dub artists might prefer something more intuitive for live performances.
Moreover, Ardour also has an intermediate-level learning curve. The lack of ‘scenes’ makes it hard to use it for live performances. The basic tasks are easy to pick up. But, you need to put in some legwork to get comfortable with the intricacies and more complicated processes.
Overall, Ardour is a fully-capable software for musicians, editors, programmers, and recording artists. The high-quality features and user-friendly functions make it ideal for intermediate-to-advanced users. It has all the hallmarks people seek in a trusty go-to DAW.
You can learn more about it on the official website.
- Elegant Linear Interface
- Multiuse – recording, editing, mixing
- VST, LADSPA, LV2 plugin support
- Can perform complex music production tasks
- Limitless routing, great for mixing
- Windows, Unix, and macOS compatible
- Options for destructive and non-destructive editing
- Steep learning curve for beginners
- Not ideal for live performance
- Unconventional navigation
#4 Cakewalk by Bandlab – Top Pick for Advanced Users
SONAR is a DAW with a storied history. Released nearly three decades ago, it was one of the most common home recording software because of its feature-packed tools and unique interface. Back then, it was a paid and premium pro-DAW.
It was acquired by Gibson, but it began to dip in popularity a decade ago. In 2018, SONAR Platinum was resurrected for Windows (PC users) and a streamlined version was released as Cakewalk by Bandlab Technologies.
Thankfully, it’s now available as a free version for mixing, recording, and audio editing tasks. The core DAW is completely free with full authentication and feature-access. You can download the BandLab client or BandLAb Assistant App for Windows.
Bandlab also offers the option to install some loop packs, Melodyne, theme editor, and drum replacer with Cakewalk. While there are talks of expanding it for other operating systems, it is not currently available for Mac or Linux.
It has the whole gamut of audio editing tools like auto crossfades, automation, time-warping, etc. Editing and fixing audio is straightforward with excellent options to automate, arrange, fix, and manipulate time or pitch. It also supports unlimited MIDI and audio tracks for recording.
From gridlines to clip gain to the slide bar, the UI makes working on Cakewalk a joy. It undoubtedly has the most genial GUI with a sleek layout that is as good, if not better, than most paid DAWs. You can select the basic or advanced lens (views) or use the drop-down menu for one-click access to ‘view presets’ to select your workstation.
Each lens in Cakewalk is well designed, organized, and easy on the eyes. There are full sets and features in the mix, editing and beats view. If you have any previous experience with a DAW, you won’t have any trouble figuring out the recording features and the editing process in general.
The Console view is unique to Cakewalk with a vertical display of individual tracks that remind you of a mixing board. It hosts the Pro Channel feature with highly usable effects that are power efficient and easy on the CPU. The 4 main modules include compressor, EQ, emulator (saturation), and tube effect.
Cakewalk boasts of exceptional support for 64-bit and Windows technologies with several features that are missing in rival technologies such as touch support and VST 3. The feature-rich set of mixing and mastering tools are the most impressive part of Cakewalk.
For a free DAW, it makes it easy to finish mixes to perfection and achieve pro-studio sounds. Plus, you can publish directly to social media platforms like SoundCloud, Facebook, and YouTube using the Share options.
- Excellent UI and features for a free DAW
- Multiuse – recording, editing, mixing, mastering
- Pro Channel and Console View
- Mixing plugins are top-notch
- Options for destructive and non-destructive editing
- Learning curve for new users
- Not ideal for on-the-fly workflows
- Only available for Windows
#5 Ohm Studio – Best for Collaboration
In the post-COVID era, everything has shifted online and Ohm Studio, launched in 2013, seems to be ahead of the curve. They inadvertently created a product that would be more relevant than ever in 2021. It is, at heart, a game-changing way of making and sharing music projects online.
Although basic, I’ve included Ohm Studio because it’s an excellent real-time editing software that has no real equivalent. The central idea is their use of a ‘live Cloud’ storage for all the project data that makes it possible for others to log in and access your work.
You have the option of setting the privacy of each file and you can also tag people with the public settings. The integrated chat feature makes it easy to communicate with project members. Ohm Studio also has a sticky note feature to leave notes on the timeline for reference.
The actual music-making and editing work happens in the main project area. It has all the essentials you’d expect for modular mixing and audio routing. However, it is not the most meritorious professional DAW. For one, it does not have cycle-based recording capabilities.
The modular view is attractive and congenial but things get confusing once the tracks pile up. On the plus side, it has fairly advanced mixing features with sidechaining, advanced channel strip controls, aux channels, drag-drop FX, and sub-grouping.
The recording process can seem a little unexciting because you need to arm the track and project before you record. However, the main draw of the free version is the UVI-based instrument bank, amp simulator, sound libraries, and effects like reverb, flange, and vocoder.
There are many great things about Ohm Studio, especially the focus on remote collaboration. Nevertheless, the limited functionality feels like a paywall to bait users into upgrading at some point i.e. a 10 project cap that can be extended with a monthly, quarterly, or annual fee.
The audio is also limited to 16-bit with compressed audio bounces only. Many of these issues are resolved as you upgrade to the Pro or XXL edition. If you are keen on online collaboration it’s worth exploring the free version, the Ohm community, and the built-in tutorials.
Ohm Studio Pros:
- Remote collaboration with a great online community
- Lots of rack controls with advanced features
- Integrated chat and privacy settings
- Sticky notes on the timeline in the arrangement
- Track or master buss audio export
- MIDI import/export options
Ohm Studio Cons:
- You need to be connected to the internet to use it
- Not ideal for recording
- Basic plug-in features and 10 project cap
Whether you are a student or professional, I’ve rounded up 5 of the best free DAWs to edit and mix your audio without paying a dime. After all, making music is all about creative freedom and shouldn’t feel like an economic burden.
Ultimately, all these editing software provide nearly identical features and quality, leaving it up to you to assess your needs and preferences. Keep the interface and user-community in mind when you make this decision.
I highly recommend Audacity if you are a beginner, as you can post on their forum to troubleshoot your problems and learn how to accomplish advanced tasks. If you are already well versed in editing and mixing, Cakewalk is the ultimate free DAW for music production.