Windows comes with lots of free software. You get WordPad for writing, Paint 3D for drawing, and simple video editing tools built into the Photos app. Unfortunately, Windows doesn’t include any software for making music.
The good news is that there is plenty of free music production software, otherwise known as DAW software, available on Windows. So in this article we’ll help you find the best free DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for Windows.
What Is DAW Software?
DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation, but that can mean several different things. The earliest DAWs were simply digital replacements for analog tape machines used for recording music. As technology improved, so did DAWs, adding features that let users create songs without knowing how to play an instrument.
Before you decide on a free DAW, you’ll need to think about a few key aspects of how you’ll be using it. Most DAW software focuses on either recording musical performances with microphones or creating music from scratch. You’ll find plenty of DAWs that handle both, but usually, a given application is better suited to one aspect.
1. Cakewalk by BandLab
This software was originally developed by Cakewalk and known as Sonar, until 2017 when parent company Gibson announced it was ceasing active development. All seemed lost until 2018 when BandLab acquired the software and re-released it for free under its current name.
It doesn’t have every single feature of Sonar, but it has most of them. This may not be the best DAW for Windows hands down, but it might be the best free DAW.
Most free DAW software places some kind of limits on what you can do, whether it’s the track count or saving your work. CakeWalk by BandLab places none of these limits, with unlimited tracks, a large number of built-in effects, and built-in virtual instruments as well. Because there is no paid version of the product, you don’t even have to worry about ads nagging you to upgrade.
2. Traktion T7
Traktion might be better known for its Waveform DAW or its various digital instruments, but it also offers a full-featured digital audio workstation for free in Traktion T7.
Like BandLab by Cakewalk, this version offers unlimited audio tracks, so you won’t have any limits placed on your creativity. Yes, it’s missing features found in Waveform 8 and 10, but many of these, like variable color schemes, are far from essential.
That said, some virtual instruments like the multi-sample and drum sampler are only found in Waveform 10. These limitations make Traktion T7 a better choice for those with a few instruments lying around. One bonus is that thanks to the Blue Steel user interface, Traktion T7 makes a case for being the best DAW for beginners, especially among the free options.
3. Pro Tools First
Pro Tools is one of the biggest names in the audio industry, and it has been that way for a long time. This means that you can expect to pay top dollar for the software, at least if you want every bell and whistle. Pro Tools First was introduced in 2015, and unlike many free versions of paid DAW software, you don’t need to buy a specific piece of hardware in order to get your hands on it.
The tradeoff is that Pro Tools First has significant limitations. You’re limited to 16 simultaneous voices and four maximum hardware inputs. You’re also limited to 16 instrument tracks and virtual instrument tracks, both of which share the voice limit. The sample rate is lower than what you’ll get in Pro Tools or Pro Tools Ultimate as well.
There are other limitations as well, but if you’re looking to get acquainted with Pro Tools, this free version is a good way to start.
4. Studio One Prime
First released in 2009, Presonus Studio One was for a long time the best DAW software nobody had heard of. It has started to gain more of a reputation in recent years, however, likely thanks in part to its free DAW offering, Studio One Prime. This has many of the features of the paid versions of the software, and like Pro Tools First, you don’t need to purchase any hardware to try the free version.
Studio One Prime doesn’t limit the number of audio tracks or virtual instrument tracks you can use. Instead, this simply doesn’t offer some of the features found in the paid versions of the software. Still, you get the Presence XT virtual sample player, nine Native Effects plugins, and 1GB of loops and samples to help you get started.
While it is technically a DAW, Audacity is quite different compared to other free DAW software. Audacity is largely built around editing audio. Because of this, the editing tools are very powerful, but actually recording in Audacity doesn’t feel as seamless as it does in other software.
Another difference is that Audacity doesn’t offer much in the way of support for virtual instruments. You can route them through your computer’s audio system from other apps and record them, but Audacity isn’t focused on making music in this way.
That said, if you’re looking for something that excels at editing audio and you only need minor DAW functionality, Audacity is a good choice. It’s also entirely open source.
Don’t Forget the Hardware
No matter what type of music you’re making, you’ll probably want to invest in an audio interface at some point. If you’re making music “in the box,” you basically just need something to power headphones or a pair of speakers. On the other hand, you’ll need an interface with as many microphone preamps as possible if you’re recording an entire band.
Audio interfaces can connect to your computer in a few different ways, but the most common is USB. If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to interfaces, we’ve gathered together a few of the best USB audio interfaces you can buy.
What About the Best Free DAW for MacOS?
While many popular DAWs are cross-platform, not all are cross-platform. For example, Pro Tools is available for both Windows and macOS, but Cakewalk is Windows-only. There are also some very popular DAWs like Logic Pro which are only available for macOS.
Every Mac comes with GarageBand, which may be all you need. However, if you’re starting to feel a little constrained by GarageBand’s limitations or just want a change of pace, take a look at our roundup of free DAWs for macOS.