Free Music Software

There is a wealth of free & open source software available online, but sometimes the choice can seem a little overwhelming. So...where do you start?

Since I started using computers to make music as a teenager, there have been some major developments that affect how people access music software. I was lucky enough to have been given a CD Rom copy of Propellorhead's ReBirth that my Dad picked up in a sale for £30 to get me started. Whilst my belligerent attempts to force a 303, 808 and 909 out of their Acid House comfort zone to make Jungle were less than successful, the programme gave me the autonomy to begin sequencing and composing my own music. Prior to this, I had been restricted to clumsy overdubs using headphone splitters and a cassette deck, so although the palette wasn't quite right, I was thrilled with the possibilities.

This journey was then taken further when a friend at school gave a legally questionable copy of Fruity Loops (now FL Studio) and I was away. Suddenly I had the means to record and manipulate my own samples, sequence them and create my own compositions. A couple of years down the line and I saved up enough to purchase the software legitimately and continued to make progress. By the time I had finished studying for my MSc in Sound Design at Edinburgh University I had invested somewhere near to £1000 on music software. It quickly became apparent though, that whilst a knowledge of professional audio packages like Logic and Pro Tools was valuable, it wasn't essential and the skills were transferrable - it's not what you have, but rather how you use it. It was telling that my Sound Design colleauges used to also flag up great free/cheap software throughout the course of the degree.

Skip forward a few years and I was working for Drake Music and I found that my colleagues were signposting me to all sorts of different high quality free software that more professional institutions might turn their nose up at simply because of the price tag. More importantly these could be installed on personal, school and youth centre computers to be used long after a project ended. However, it quickly became obvious that it was the expertise of these colleagues that ensured I was gaining access to the top free programs - and this dialogue amongst professionals was vital to keeping a finger on the pulse. You only need to take a look at the slightly overwhelming Free Music Software website to see what is out there - and whilst there is a lot of great content not all of it is relevant.

It is with this in mind that I started wondering what cheap/free software are you all using? To get the ball rolling, a couple of programmes that I have previously used that have been of great use:

  • Audacity - Free Audio Editor & Recorder
  • Soundplant - Free software to turn your keyboard into a sampler
  • Reaper - Affordable digital audio workstation
  • iPad Software - 4 free iPad apps from a while back but I'm sure there are way better out there now!
  • Pure Data - Free real-time graphical audio/visual programming environment

I look forward to hearing about what you're all using!

Image sourced from PortableApps.com

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davidnickerson's picture

Good choices. For me, my all time favourite free software is sonicbirth. It's a plug in designer that allows you to build different plug ins and use them with your DAW. Ok I don't think I have ever built something I would use but its taught me loads about how plug ins work and how effects are generated and allowed me to use what I have in a more detailed way!

Nick Wilsdon's picture

Thanks David - looks interesting, will have to give it a try - available online here for those of you who are interested - http://sonicbirth.sourceforge.net/

Chris Murphy's picture

I use audiotool a fair amount. It's a browser based workstation so I can show young people how to use it, then they can work on it at home, at the youth club, anywhere they can find a computer.

There's also an extensive community using it who are very happy to share ideas (although often in typical music tech speak) and there are plenty of video tutorials to help use it.

As a composition tool it is quite limited but it is really great for learning the basics of sythesizers, drum machines, routing and effects and presents a challenge to those who are tied to presets to learn how to use the most common tools at the most fundamental level.

http://www.audiotool.com/

Nick Wilsdon's picture

Another interesting one - this sounds as if it is more sophisticated than previous online platforms I was aware of! Given the portability of the online format - is anyone else working regularly with similar software?

Ben Sandbrook's picture

There's also Ardour - an open source, fully-featured DAW (like Logic, Cubase, ProTools) for Mac and Linux. www.ardour.org

Nick Wilsdon's picture

Another good one, thanks Ben. It does raise the question of platform too - I'm always impressed if a free bit of software is available on Mac, PC & Linux, but it is not always the case! Keep them coming and I'll collate them into a resource in due course!

steve@pluggedin.org.uk's picture

Thanks for this thread Nick, I've had a lot of fun trying out all the different packages suggested.

I think there's something about being a technician that means we take pleasure in getting the most out of the limited resources we have access to. I do wonder sometimes though, if a jumpers for goalposts approach might be a little unambitious for the subject and the young people that we teach.

I appreciate that sometimes there's no other option than to use freeware, but if there was...what else would you recommend?

I sat a particularly hard to reach young man down not so long ago. He lived near the centre in a deprived area and had very little interest in music, other than he fancied being a DJ like one of his friends.

In front of him I placed a brand new, shiny Mac Book Pro and a Traktor S2 DJ controller unit. His eyes lit up, he turned to me and said " I did not expect to see equipment like that... in a place like this!".

After 2 weeks beat matching and crossfading he began to show an interest in producing the music himself. The tutor quickly loaded Logic pro and demonstrated how to manipulate and manoeuvre audio samples and add basic chords.

Several weeks (and one Rockschool level 1 Sequencing and Production unit) later he's asked to be taught drums and guitar...and would like to join the band.

His engagement has been a great success for us and I'm really pleased that the technology did it's job. The ability to effortlessly switch between DJ and composer.. combined with gentle tutor support... and the Shock and Awe of being given such fantastic equipment to use, did the trick.

Sophie Appleby's picture

that's a really inspiring story, thanks Steve! We always talk here at Youth Music about the importance of providing high quality in the music sessions we fund (in terms of the very best music leaders and well-planned projects), and I hadn't considered that from the point of view of thinking that actually, high quality in terms of equipment could be the thing that engages a particular young person.

steve@pluggedin.org.uk's picture

Thanks Sophie. It's great to see the systems in use. The Macs were funded by the local authority and the Dj systems and tutor were funded by Youth Music (thank you :)) Last week we took them to a session with a a group of young people from Eastern Europe. They were a big hit. This group of young people want to learn DJ skills and beatboxing. They don't want to do lyric writing, rapping or singing because they're conscious that, in this community, their voices sound 'funny'. I'm sure there'll be a resource pack in here somewhere to help me with this!

Nick Wilsdon's picture

Hi Steve, thanks for sharing your experience. It is an interesting point - on the one hand it is important that young people have to access high quality, professional equipment, but on the other it can be equally important that they have access to music making equipment outside of sessions. I have been wondering recently how many music leaders teach about the similarities between pro and free software to demystify it all? I remember it being a bit of a revelation when someone told me years ago that all DAWs do the same thing, they just look slightly different!

steve@pluggedin.org.uk's picture

Hi Nick,

It's a tricky one. Sorry for the anecdotes but..I once had a group of 20 mature students who'd come to college to do a music technology night class. It was the first session and whilst they were getting to know each other I overheard a few 'grumblings' that the college had an earlier version of the software than they had at home. "How many of you have Cubase at home?" I asked...All 20 raised their hands. " How many of you paid for it?" I asked...mmmm. It's a bizarre business model..people make software that other people obtain for free...so that they can make music..that other people obtain for free. What to do? Do we concentrate on teaching using the free software and ignore the fact that communities are finding their own ways of obtaining the pro stuff? I know the skills are transferable but, even though the DAWs might do the same thing, they're not all the same. Some sound different and some, for whatever reason, are just more..desirable. Compare the number of private companies offering Apple accredited training to those offering freeware tuition.

Look at the image for this group.. It's a young person... a boy ( please see http://network.youthmusic.org.uk/resources/blogs/stevepluggedinorguk/i-t... )

using a professional mixing console connected to a piece of industry recognised software with one to one support by a qualified tutor. That's a worthwhile and aspirational statement to me but I'm from the generation who were told we'd all have hover boards by now ;)

Nick Wilsdon's picture

Absolutely - I suppose it is that sort of nuanced knowledge (e.g. around the different sonic colouring of differing pieces of software give to your music) that I'm wondering about. As people using music technology, we all come to pick our favourite software, but maybe there is something to be said for teaching skills on a breadth of platforms so people can learn to get good results on a range of different packages?

Nick Wilsdon's picture

More importantly - where IS my hoverboard!?

Simon Glenister's picture

You can borrow mine - it's usb chargeable, made by apple.. but I'm still waiting for the software update to enable it to work over water..

Simon Glenister's picture

Hi Steve, I've had similar responses when I've brought out the macbook pro - shiny gear can definitely be motivating but I also make sure the software I'm using is available to the learner as well. I chose (after 10 years with Logic) to teach Reaper for a multiple number of reasons - and I'll often say I've spent thousands of pounds over the years on software but this is what I use now..because ...and then focus on the quality of the software. Best of both worlds - I can look Pro in their eyes with the shiny computer but they can use the same software on whatever they realistically have - and I've seen reaper run on some shocking computers :)

steve@pluggedin.org.uk's picture

Thanks Simon, I forgot that this conversation is featured on the front page of the site...I'm sure people are shaking their heads calling us 'geeks' right now! Anyhow..I am unashamed :) I have had a look at Reaper and have only ever heard good things from those who have tried it out. Generally though..the people that I've spoken to just try it out and then go back to their comfy place.

If we demonstrate Ableton live to a young person they will often nod, smile and say the word.. 'Skrillex!' (It's all about the wobble!) I guess It's an aspirational thing... "That's what my idol uses...so if I work hard with that equipment.. I can achieve the same." It's the same response with Logic Pro..and the 2" 24track tape recorder that we wheel out from time to time.

It's early days for Reaper but maybe one day it will connect in that way. Is there a successful producer, artist or major recording facility that uses it at the moment?

I'm sure we ( by we.. I mean us geeknerds) can remember the first time we......sorry..I just lost 20 minutes there thinking about a particular piece of outboard equipment..."mmmm...64 channels of Neve Eq..."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXJb4l-y68k

But that's why we are.. why we are. Music technology is exciting stuff and so relevant to us and many of the young people we engage with. It's often down to us to make the argument for investment.

I've seen a few schools using just Audacity..They always have an excellently equipped PE department.

The MUSE Project's picture

Paul Weston's picture

I've just started exploring Ohm Studio and i think it's a serious contender. The main difference with this DAW is that it is online. You can collaborate with anyone, anywhere. You can also choose to collaborate privately or publicly. This means that there is the capacity to get different young people on your projects working together at the same time but each on their own DAW. Also, because there is a forum within the DAW, users can ask each other for help when they get stuck.
There is, of course, the safeguarding issue around who young people will be talking to but that can be managed just like any other internet use.
The way it works is that you create and audio or midi track and your collaborator gets sent a compressed version of your file. It supports free plug-ins and you need the same plug-ins as your collaborator but it also comes with synths and FX.
I hope this is useful.
Paul
http://www.ohmstudio.com/

Simon Glenister's picture

Hi Paul - it's great but totally dependent on having reliable broadband. Something we sometimes struggle with out in the rural hinterland but potentially yes

There are lots of options for collaborating online I know both Cubase and reaper have functionality in this area but invariably as with much music tech you spend a lot of time tinkering to make it work rather than collaborating

Brave new world though :)

david98's picture

I think Music Paradise Pro app (http://musicparadiseproapp.com) is a great source for free music. It is available for both Android and iOS platforms.