Beginners Guide to Production on a Budget: Free DAWs

Hobbies are expensive, almost all require an investment at the start. Football for example requires buying boots, kit, and maybe club fees. Production is no exception. So how can you ease the costs of getting into music production if you are a student, or just waiting to have some money? This post will guide you through as many money saving tips as possible, as well as the essentials you should have to pay for. Hopefully you will be able to enjoy making music without the hindrance of expenses!

Let's start from the very beginning. To produce music, you will need some sort of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), this is the software in which you can record your music, synthesise your instruments, mix, and master your songs.

The DAW is essential to making good music and a good DAW will make a huge difference. There are three types of DAW that I'm going to talk about today: Free, "Free", and Demos. This will make sense shortly. I don't recommend demos, unless you are willing to pay later as to get the full package, payment is essential and, when you could learn a free DAW inside out, it would be a waste of time. The exception to this is Reaper, discussed below.

  • Audacity - One of the most popular free programs in use. If you are a beginner, this is great for editing audio however there are many drawbacks. While it allows recording and editing, it has what is called destructive editing, where once you apply an effect (which you can't preview), the track is altered to that effect. The waveform is changed for good and so you can't just un-select an effect. It is ugly too and people in the industry would question your legitimacy as a producer as there are much better DAWs out there. For basic touching up of audio however, and small multitrack projects, it will suffice and work well.

  • Ardour - A free Linux and Mac DAW that won't run on Windows sadly, this is a free workstation that is powerful. Unlike Audacity, it has both destructive and none destructive effects and looks  much more like your conventional DAW. Downsides are that you will need to download third party VST and VSTi's (effects and instruments). These can be free and will be discussed later so it is not an issue. It has unlimited tracks available so there are no boundaries and allows video importing to allow film scoring. Importing audio is easy too, with it supporting many formats meaning you can download free samples and produce from samples alone, or combined with any amount of synthesised music. This is a very good choice especially if you run Linux. 

  • Reaper - Is a "Free" DAW. What I mean by this is it has a price attached to it which you should pay after a 60 day trial however, after 60 days, the trial does not run out and complete functionality is still present. This means you can run it indefinitely for free. It is incredibly complete and powerful. While it does offer basic plugins, you will want to download lots of extra instruments and effects, plenty free ones out there. It is incredibly powerful with regards to track routing, automation and is my DAW of choice. It will run on Windows and Mac and doesn't work on Linux exactly, this wiki says it can be made to work in Wine in Linux at a small performance cost. It is frequently updated with Reaper 5.0 released earlier this year. There is a steep learning curve which, if you want to produce, should not put you off. Once you know your way around Reaper, especially with all it's shortcuts and intuitive layout, your workflow will be extremely fast. Reaper also allows video support for those wanting to edit video, score a soundtrack and more. Of course, when you come into money, I would highly recommend paying for Reaper so they can keep up with updating their package and making the DAW improve.

As a student myself, I try and limit my costs. Here 
is how many days I've run on my laptop's copy of 
Reaper, with no restrictions, for completely free.

The above list is none exhaustive and there are several other free DAWs out there but really, Ardour is your best choice if you are on Linux, and Reaper for the other OS's. Have a copy of Audacity on your computer too as it is good for a quick edit and is worth knowing your way around since many people use it, especially for simpler audio projects. It is always useful to be able to work with them if need be.