So here you are: a musician on a mission. You have the instruments. You have the talent. You have some great original tunes. You've got the drive to make it. You're totally ready to record that hit song and become an Internet sensation! Problem is, you're broke. You need software to capture your masterpiece, but you're discouraged after discovering the price of admission. You wonder to yourself, "how in the world can anybody afford these premium digital audio workstations?" You're ready to concede--just throw in the towel, and settle for a life performing at open-mic events for apathetic crowds. You want to record your music, but simply can't afford to do it.
Fear not, dear musical genius, for there are alternatives to these premium digital audio workstations (we're going to call them DAWs from now on)! Believe it or not, basic capitalism is on your side this time, and software engineers have developed several low-cost DAW options for your penny-pinching consumption. Sure, they're not going to beat programs that cost as much as your car, but something is better than nothing. With a little practice and ingenuity, you're bound to make one of them work for you. Who knows...you may find one you actually enjoy using.
And don't fret if you're new to this amazing world of home recording! The world wide web is filled with tons of great resources that will help you gain the knowledge you need to make all those killer tracks. If you don't know where to start, check out Home Recording for Musicians for Dummies. This nifty little book covers just about everything you need to know about recording and working with DAWs, and then some.
The Beauty of Cheap DAWs
Cheap DAWs can be a total blessing for musicians who need effective recording software without resorting to selling their body parts on the black market. Financial benefits aside, they are also typically much simpler to use than full-featured premium entries--and as a result, much easier to learn. Budding recording artists can potentially learn the ropes on a budget DAW and transfer these skills onto more complex, expensive systems later on down the road. Some budget DAWs may even possess enough features to satisfy certain musicians, and the jump to more expensive software could simply be a moot point. Without looking at the obvious cost benefit attained by embracing budget DAWs, consider your recording needs.
How Many Tracks Do You Need to Work With?
Quick note for the uninitiated: in reference to recording music, "tracks" are the layers in which the recording is produced. This should not be confused with CD tracks, which refer to the isolation of specific songs. Usage of the word "tracks" in this article will be in reference to recording layers.
Premium DAWs offer almost unlimited track potential. This can be great for elaborate recording, but is that a luxury required for your music? Standard singer-songwriters probably don't need fifty-seven layers of instrumentation to get their point across. Four to six tracks will probably do the trick. Does a five-piece band really need to record fourteen different guitar parts, seven layers of vocals and a dual-panned bass guitar? Not at all--eight to ten tracks will sound just fine.
While limited tracking may sound like inhibited potential, consider the recordings of yore. The Beatles recorded many of their biggest hits on only four and eight tracks. Elvis Presley didn't have unlimited pro-tools extensiveness--he worked with four simple tracks most of the time. Many great albums that came out of the 1970s were limited to eight basic tracks in their recording set up. Yes, these are ancient examples, and music has moved on since then, but if limited tracking was good enough for the greats, should it not be good enough for a beginner/frugal/broke musician?
One final note on track limitation--too many tracks on any given recording can present a significant level of cluttering. Cluttered music is not fun to listen to, and will often just sound muddy when compressed onto a CD or and MP3 file. Too much of a good thing can sometimes really be too much of a good thing.
What Kind of Effects are Required for Your Music?
An abundance of musical special-effects are another major selling point for expensive DAWs. These effects add color to dry recordings, and truly are a necessity for successful end results. As with track limitations, budget DAWs typically possess effects limitations as well. That's the bad news. The good news is the fact that most of the effects available on these budget DAWs are the only ones that you'll need to make your recordings sound great.
Almost all budget DAWs are going to provide options to add reverb, chorus, some type of delay and a graphic equalizer. With some experimentation, you're bound to get these basic effects to work in your favor. And is with the case of limited tracks, a set-availability of effects options is not really a bad thing at all. Adding too much artificial coloring to a recording can be distracting to the listener, and using too many effects can truly inhibit the potential of decent work. Think about it: too much reverb will make your song sound like it's being performed at the bottom on a large canyon. That's probably not the sound you're looking for. Cranking up the chorus is going to make your song sound like it's blasting from an aquarium. Again, music is subjective, but let's be honest: nothing really sounds good underwater. And if you need to synthesize your voice so it's pleasant for listeners, then maybe it's time to find a different singer.
As for the question of mixing--well, mixing music is a completely different animal. Sure, you can do some basic mixing with any DAW, cheap or expensive, but it's an art best left to other types of dedicated software. With that, though, some budget DAWs have basic mixing options, and who knows, they may work splendidly for you.
All Of This Sounds Great. Sign Me Up.
If you're reading this, you've either (a) been intrigued by the potential of budget DAWs or (b) have tolerated enough rambling from this article. Both choices are fine, so let's get on with this adventure. Here are some budget DAW options for you to consider. The prices will range from free to $75, but don't let dollar signs fool you. You don't always get what you pay for, and a cheaper DAW on this list may actually suit your needs than a more expensive one. Always consider your most primal and important recording needs first.
One last thing before we hop into this--computer-recording hardware interfaces typically come with some type of multi-track recorded pre-packaged with the rest of the goodies. Every once in a while, these programs can be decent, but they're usually ridiculously stripped-down and too basic for anything more than a simple tech demo. Beginners are strongly encouraged to consider a higher functioning budget DAW over these pre-packaged freebies.
Here are five great budget DAW options for the frugal home studio enthusiast. One is not necessarily better than the other--again, that all depends on needs and user preference. This list is not necessarily comprehensive either: there are tons of other budget DAW options available for buyers. A little extra research never hurt anyone. If this is your first time stepping into the foray of computer recording, use the Internet to your advantage. Explore message boards and user reviews--other people have given these programs a try. Let them be your beta-test and see how they liked it.
Platform: Windows, MacOS X, Linux, Unix
Developer: The Audacity Team
Audacity is an open-source free sound editor, and it's available on practically all computer platforms. It has a very simple interface, and boasts a strong community of developers who continuously add on features to its potential. Since it doesn't cost a dime, Audacity is a great option for recording artists on an extreme budget. It's also a great learning tool, and beginners can use this software to obtain a better understanding of computer recording without any monetary investment.
Audacity's lack of pricing really can't be beat by any other budget DAW, but it is not without severe limitations. It does not immediately support virtual instruments, and it does not provide any options for MIDI editing. This could pose an issue for several home-recording musicians, since the application of MIDI is one of the best ways to add sonic variety without actually possessing a collection of differing instruments. With that, though, MIDI functions are slowly but surely making their way onto future builds of Audacity, and it will probably become fully functional in the near future. This continuous spirit of improvement is another major selling point for Audacity. There are tons of add-ons available for the software, but many features do not come pre-installed, and users are required to hunt these add-ons down themselves and install them on their own. This DIY approach may appeal to the more ambitious recording artists among us, but some may feel uncomfortable and confused with the process. Still, with a little time and dedication, Audacity can be an invaluable tool.
Price: Free, some upgrade options available
Platform: OS X
Garageband came out of nowhere in the mid 2000s, but has quickly been adopted as one of the most widely-used DAWs on Mac OSX systems. A lot of this has to do with the price: Garageband usually comes pre-installed on newer Apple computers, and can be downloaded for free on Macs that don't already have it. Considering the rich host of features provided with the software, that's a complete steal.
Though Garageband does have some glaring limitations, its benefits greatly outweigh them. First of all, it's extremely easy to use, and the simple learning curve is perfectly suitable for beginners. Everything with Garageband is an almost synonymous plug-and-play affair--the software usually recognizes external hardware immediately, and very little effort is needed to get the recording ball rolling. It's pretty fantastic at MIDI recording, and comes with tons of awesome virtual instruments. To make matters even more sweet, the software gives users the ability to use their QWERTY keyboards as a MIDI instrument, so music can be made without having to purchase an external MIDI controller. If greater diversity is required in the virtual instrument department, users have the ability to purchase add-ons directly from the program. Garageband also comes with tons of loop-able sounds and a decent number of effects.
Alas, Garageband is not perfect. As mentioned, while MIDI recording and basic MIDI editing is a major selling-point for the software, Garageband does not allow users with any sort of click-based MIDI sequencing. This means that instruments must actually be played in order to exist as a MIDI file. This isn't necessarily a deal-breaker--if you're recording music, you should probably know how to play an instrument--but the option to sequence drum tracks and the like would have been a nice addition. There is also the question of sound file exportation. While Garageband supports WAV files internally, it only allows users to save mix-downs as an Apple proprietary AIF or MP3 file. This can be converted to WAV with a little external tinkering, but Garageband does not support the function within its own software.
The next step after Garageband is Logic Express, which can open any Garageband file. Logic Express isn't cheap, and it's a little trickier to use than Garageband, power-users may want to give it a try if they outgrow Garageband.
Acid Music Studio
Many budget DAWs are slimmed-down versions of their premium counterparts, and Sony continues the trend with Acid Music Studio, a lite take on their Acid Pro software. It's pretty standard in comparison to other budget DAWs, and is relatively user-friendly in function. It's got all the basics: multi-track recording capabilities, MIDI and VST support, and several effects options. Acid Music Studio also provides an unlimited amount of tracks, which is pretty awesome considering its sub-$100 price tag. The software also comes with over 3000 audio samples, which is plenty for the sampling hobbyist.
It's not a perfect piece of software, but it still works for many home-recording musicians, and Acid Music Studio is probably the closest thing a person can get to Garageband on a Windows computer. Sony also offers a free, heavily stripped down and limited option with Acid Xpress. Those considering Acid Music Studio should probably give Acid Xpress a try to see if they like the interface.
Price: $60 (for personal use)
Platform: Windows, OS X
Cockos Reaper is a fantastic DAW solution for those looking for multitrack recording, MIDI sequencing, mixing and mastering in one cohesive package. While is retails for $225 with a commercial license, it only costs $60 for personal usage, which is what most home-recording enthusiast will be using it for. This low price really is a godsend, considering the face that the purchasable licenses are simply that--licenses. The software is exactly the same no matter which license is purchased, so home-recording musicians are given the same exact capabilities of commercial enterprises. To make matters even better, Cockos gives users the opportunity to download a completely free to use, un-crippled evaluation version of the software to see if it's a right fit for them.
The philosophy behind Reaper is admirable: people spend hundreds of dollars on feature-filled DAWs, and the companies behind them typically charge quite a bit for annual upgrades. Reaper is just as feature-rich as these other premium DAWs, costs significantly less and is improved on a steady basis. Purchased licenses allows for two full upgrades from the version obtained. It's a great deal for users who want a lot out of their DAWs without investing too much money, and honestly, it can't be beat given such a low price.
If there are any complaints about Reaper, then they are likely directed towards the softwares feature-rich environment. Seasoned recording artists will probably have no issues navigating their way through the software and figuring everything out, but beginners may struggle with its wide host of features. It's not as simple to use as, say, Garageband or Acid Music Studio, but it can do a whole lot more. With that, though, if the list of features provided with Reaper are not necessary for your recording needs, then you could probably save some money by getting simpler, cheaper software. Still, what Reaper is capable of can be pretty amazing, and if you already have a handle on DAW usage, then by all means give it try. As mentioned, a full-featured trial version is available for your evaluation needs, so the worst-case scenario would be giving it a try and deciding you don't like it before you shell out those hard-earned bucks.
When Mixcraft came into existence in the mid-2000s, it was rather two-dimensional in scope. It performed all of its basic functions well, but at the end of the day, those basic functions were all it had. Thankfully, time has been kind to dedicated Mixcraft users, and gradual improvements since its inception have resulted in a full-featured, easy to use and cheap DAW option for Windows computers.
Mixcraft features unlimited tracking potential, MIDI capabilities with several great virtual instrument synthesizers, 22 different effects and a ridiculous amount of audio loop samples. Mixcraft comes with over 3000 samples pre-loaded, and is also compatible with Acid and Garageband loops. The potential for sample junkies is virtually endless, and the $75 price tag is probably reason for an instant purchase.
While Mixcraft will probably fulfill any duties required by standard home-studio recording musicians, it's important to note that there is no upgrade beyond the initial software. While the software is updated on a regular basis and improvements are provided over time, there is no "premium" upgrade beyond what is already there. Musicians wishing to hone their skills on a budget DAW and later upgrade to a premium version will have to buy a different brand altogether when the time comes. This is not necessarily bad, and MIxcraft could potentially be all you need, but every DAW is a little different and learning curves are sporadic. It's nice to take the skills learned from a budget DAW and transfer them onto a big-brother program, which is something unavailable for Mixcraft users.
Mman on March 02, 2017:
Thank you for your article and spending the time to help us out on the DAW's. It was very informative. I appreciate the professionalism displayed throughout the article :)
Zeke on April 06, 2016:
Wow, thanks for this info. You really made my journey a lot simpler. Sharing this knowledge will really help me save time and most importantly money.
James Richton from USA on January 09, 2014:
This was one of the best hubs I have read. Thanks for the great information.
Sam Islam (author) from Vancouver, WA on June 10, 2012:
Thank you for the kind words! Very glad to be of service!
TrahnTheMan from Asia, Oceania & between on June 10, 2012:
SUPER helpful, thorough hub Sam! It's great to get info on what's available if you can't afford ProTools etc. Voted up!