The coronavirus pandemic has brought new ways of working and creating remotely, with many music and audio companies offering free or reduced prices for their products. Whether you’re looking to experiment, diversify your software knowledge or get started with a new DAW, here are some of the best free and professional standard programs on the market.
Best for music and audio production beginners
GarageBand is a fantastic Mac program that is great for both dialogue and music production beginners to learn how to start working in a DAW as it’s user friendly, intuitive and clear. The layout for tracks, instruments and plugins ensure that users can easily see and follow their audio or instrument tracks, effects rack and project layout without any complicated navigation. Recording and editing audio files are straightforward and pleasant thanks to the simplicity of the program – all of your commands take just a few clicks.
Another element that makes GarageBand great for beginners is the sample library of loops, software instrument sounds, and features like the virtual “Drummer”, which is a way of creating original beats for those who are unfamiliar with the conventions of the instrument or music theory rules. GarageBand is free for Mac users and is the perfect gateway DAW for those getting started in the worlds of audio and music production and editing.
The pros: It’s free, super easy to get started and is a great foundation for learning music and audio production.
The cons: It’s hard to find many downsides, although for professional music production users will eventually outgrow GarageBand and need to upgrade to a DAW capable of more.
Best for music and audio production at the next level
Logic the natural progression after mastering GarageBand as it’s the perfect stepping stone to understanding this Mac based software. The standard of Logic is professional, yet the layout and features are similar to GarageBand, so it makes moving to Logic rather nice and not too overwhelming when learning the differences between the two. Music and audio recording and editing is intuitive and user-friendly, and the latest update of Logic has a tonne of improvements including more realistic MIDI articulations and expression settings, a better Sampler, and even more in the updated sound library. Although Logic is not a music notation program, the score function works remarkably well with MIDI instruments and can be easily edited to a simple standard.
Logic Pro X costs 200 GBP or USD and there’s the option to trial the software for 90 days, which is a nice touch to try before you buy! Apple has even provided a guide for those transitioning from GarageBand to Logic here: https://www.apple.com/uk/logic-pro/garageband-to-logic/
The pros: The free trial, and reasonable price tag makes Logic an attractive option for music production and audio editing in general. It’s accessible and versatile, whether composing, arranging, recording, mixing and mastering, Logic can do it all.
The cons: The main con of Logic Pro is that many professionals and job studios cite Pro Tools as their preferred DAW of choice. If you can master Logic, then adding Pro Tools to your skillset should be a long-term but realistic goal of where to aim next.
Best for dialogue beginners
Audacity is a free multi-track audio editing program that is compatible with Mac, Windows and Linux. The main benefit of using Audacity is that it’s a simple workstation that allows for easy destructive editing of audio files and easy conversion, which is a bonus for most. Spectral display is a visual godsend for any dialogue editor, and this feature alone boosts the credibility of Audacity as a free program.
The pros: Audacity is free and capable of holding its own when it comes to an audio editing program for beginners and beyond. This software is fine for basic editing and is an excellent option for podcast or simple audio editing to a decent standard.
The cons: The only option of destructive editing could be limiting in the long-term, however, if this is the method that users learn to work with then it can be utilised.
Best for professional quality dialogue
Adobe Audition is a program for audio editing to broadcast standards for film, television, or radio. It’s intuitive enough for absolute beginners to work with quickly and easily with no prior knowledge of DAW’s. The quality of Audition makes cuts and editing tasks seamless and takes care of crossfades without any fuss.
The spectral display is of very high quality and highlights even the tiniest detail to assist the editing process. While this program could be used for music, personally I would opt for Logic or Pro Tools for music, and stick to dialogue editing with Audition. The effects racks can be used in much the same way as with most traditional music editing software, or effects and changes can be made to entire audio files or snippets depending on your preference and needs.
The pros: Audition makes audio editing unbelievably quick and easy, and brings this to users in an accessible way, whether seasoned professionals or just starting out.
The cons: With a professional-quality program comes a price tag – Adobe Audition is available on a subscription basis, which works out at just under £240 annually. Depending on whether you use other Adobe products, this can be combined for a better deal.
Best for music notation beginners
MuseScore is a free music notation scoring program that works on both Mac and Windows. It’s remarkably well-rounded for free software and doesn’t feel like it lacks any features of a pricier option. It’s built to meet the needs of composers, arrangers, hobbyists, professionals and teachers, and can handle different instruments, clefs and directions, and also has decent playback quality. MIDI and MusicXML export options are notable highlights, as is the option for keyboard MIDI input.
The pros: MuseScore has everything that users need when working with music notation. This program could be used from beginner to pro, and everything in between. For usability, MuseScore is on a par with other programs and is very similar in terms of what they offer. If there’s no urgency to upgrade, MuseScore would be the notation software of choice to see you through.
The cons: The playback sounds for some instruments aren’t the best, but if you can get over this and hear the notes over the sounds, there really aren’t many drawbacks to using MuseScore.
Best for professional quality music notation and scoring
Finale is the standout for industry-standard music notation software. It is the professional’s choice for taking care of everything from creation to publishing when it comes to sheet music. The playback sounds are as high as you would expect, though the price tag reflects all the elements Finale offers: the full version costs $600, while there are streamlined versions with fewer features for $120 on Windows. The full version as well as the 30-day free trial are compatible on both Windows and Mac.
The pros: The quality really is across the board with Finale, and as with some of the other software programs previously mentioned, there’s an expectation that professionals will be adept with the industry standard.
The cons: The price tag is the steepest in terms of bulk one-time payments, however, the 30-day trial can be fully utilised before you take the plunge and commit.
Michelle Sciarrotta is a singer/songwriter, composer, and musician. She holds a BA in Music Performance and a music teaching degree. Michelle has worked all over the UK and Europe as a guitarist and co-writer with Blaze Bayley, and she self-produces her solo projects. She is passionate about women’s rights and education for girls.