Making music is expensive. The hardware is expensive enough, but buying all the software you need can round up to thousands of dollars. A single license for a leading DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Ableton Live can run up to $750.
But music production software doesn’t have to be so expensive.
In fact, if you take the Open Source Software (OSS) route, you can get cutting-edge music making tools for $0.
Finding all the right tools, however, is a challenge. A lot of existing OSS lists are outdated – some of these tools haven’t been updated since 2004. Most existing articles aren’t comprehensive enough.
Which is why I spent the last two days putting together the single most comprehensive list of current and available open source music production tools.
Every single tool in this list had to meet the following requirements:
- It should be free – no strings attached
- It should be open source, that is, you should be able to access the source code
While not all open source software runs on Mac and Windows, most of the tools on this list do. And of course, every single one of them works on Linux.
These strict requirements meant that a lot of popular Linux music tools, like Reaper and Bitwig, did not make the cut. However, there are perfectly competent – and free – alternatives, as I’ve shared below.
Another thing – not everyone processes information the same way. So I’ve shared the same information as both a long table, as well as a categorized list of tools. You can jump to whichever tool you prefer using the links below:
If you want detailed information about the license, availability, and source code/download links, refer to the table view. For a quick overview, use the category view.
Keep in mind that working with free software is a little more complicated than working with proprietary tools. Some of the tools I’ve shared below might also lack the features or user-friendliness (not that music software is particularly user-friendly to begin with!) of their paid counterparts. On the flip side, you get completely free software, and you support the FOSS community.
At the end of this post, I’ve also shared some thoughts on building a completely free studio, including my software recommendations.
For a detailed list with availability, download links, licensing information, and source code, you can refer to the table below:
|Tool||Website||License||Category||Windows||Mac||Linux||Software Download||Access Source Code|
|Audacity||Website||GNU GPL||Audio Editor||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Kwave Sound Editor||Website||GNU GPL||Audio Editor||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Sweep||Website||GNU GPL||Audio Editor||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|ReZound||Website||GNU GPL||Audio Editor||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|LAoE||Website||GNU GPL||Audio Editor||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Gnome Wave Cleaner||Website||GNU GPL||Audio Editor||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Ardour||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|LMMS||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Rosegarden||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|MusE||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|qTractor||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Frinika||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Radium||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Jokosher||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||Y||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|AUBE||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|GLAME||Website||GNU GPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Beast||Website||GNU LGPL||Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Mixxx||Website||GNU GPL||DJing Software||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|xwax||Website||GNU GPL||DJing Software||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Fedora Jam||Website||GNU GPL||Linux Distro||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Ubuntu Studio||Website||GNU GPL||Linux Distro||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|JAMin||Website||GNU GPL||Misc.||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|DGuitar||Website||GNU GPL||Misc.||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|MuseScore||Website||GNU GPL||Music Notation||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Impro-Visor||Website||GNU GPL||Music Notation||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Tux Guitar||Website||GNU GPL||Music Notation||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|LilyPond||Website||GNU GPL||Music Notation||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Canorus||Website||GNU GPL||Music Notation||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Frescobaldi||Website||GNU GPL||Music Notation||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Denemo||Website||GNU GPL||Music Notation||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|SooperLooper||Website||GNU GPL||Sampler||N||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|LinuxSampler||Website||GNU GPL||Sampler||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|SoundTracker||Website||GNU GPL||Sampler||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Hydrogen||Website||GNU GPL||Sequencer||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Aria Maestosa||Website||GNU GPL||Sequencer||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Seq24||Website||GNU GPL||Sequencer||Y||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|CheeseTracker||Website||GNU GPL||Sequencer||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|MilkyTracker||Website||GNU GPL||Sequencer||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|DrumGizmo||Website||GNU GPL||Sequencer||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Bosca Ceoil||Website||FreeBSD||Sequencer||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Guitarix||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Effects||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Rakarrack||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Effects||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|CP-GFX||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Effects||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|GNUitar||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Effects||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Calf||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Effects||N||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Computer Music Toolkit||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Effects||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Cecilia||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Yoshimi||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|SynthV1||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|drumkv1||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|padthv1||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|FluidSynth||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Qsynth||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|amSynth||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|TerminatorX||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Bristol Audio Synthesis||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Timidity++||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|ZynAddSubFX||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|DIN is Noise||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|PySynth||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|dexed||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Helm||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|SuperCollider||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Sonic PI||Website||MIT||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Overtone||Website||MIT||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Aeolus||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|AlsaModularSynth||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||N||N||Y||Download||Source Code|
|SunVox||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|SOUNDGRAIN||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|VCVRack||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
|Surge||Website||GNU GPL||Sound Synthesis||Y||Y||Y||Download||Source Code|
From audio editors to full-fledged digital audio workstations, there’s free music production software to fulfill most of your music making needs.
Here are some of the top choices across each category:
Working with audio
Sound synthesis and design
Sequencers and samplers
Utilities and others
After going through the list above, you’re probably thinking: that’s a lot of software!
This was a (pleasant) surprise for me as well. I grew up with Cubase before moving onto Logic and eventually, Ableton. In this world of proprietary software, you’ve always had a lot of choice.
But I didn’t expect the open source world to have as many competent offerings as well. Some of the DAWs I shared above can go toe-to-toe with the best in the closed source world.
If you’re new to music production, however, going through all these tools can be a little confusing (and overwhelming).
To make matters simpler, I’ll show you how to create a music production studio for $0 – all by using the tools listed above.
Understand what you need to produce music
There are three parts to music production:
- Composition and arrangement
- Sound synthesis and design
- Mixing and mastering
Each of these should be self-explanatory, but I’ll break them down further for the beginners reading this.
Composition and arrangement is the process of creating a piece of music and organizing different musical elements (i.e. “arranging”) to achieve a particular effect. If you write an original song on your guitar, that song would be called your “composition”.
Depending on your preferences, you can play this song in different styles (rock, pop, punk, etc.) – this is called “arrangement”.
In music production software, composition and arrangement usually happens on a timeline view. You can add/remove different musical elements at different to create a song. The timeline is typically divided into seconds and bars.
For example, here’s the timeline view in Ableton Live of one of my tracks:
Sound synthesis and design is the process of manipulating a sound or a signal to produce a desired effect. Add a distortion pedal to your electric guitar, and you’re essentially “designing” your own sound.
There are several approach to sound design and synthesis. You can take an audio clip (called a “sample”) and turn it into a sound via a “sampler”. Or you can use a synthesizer to manipulate a simple audio signal (such as a sine wave) into your desired sound. You can further modulate this sound using various effects like reverb, delay, etc. Add a reverb, for instance, and the sound will feel wider and roomier.
For example, here’s a screenshot from one of the sounds I created in Serum, one of the most popular software synthesizers around.
Mixing and mastering is the process of adjusting volume, effects, equalization, compression, etc. to create a track that sounds good on different speakers/headphones. A “good” mix is a balanced mix. Mixing and mastering is usually done by audio engineers who carefully adjust EQ, compression, etc. to create a song where everything is in perfect balance – as all things should be.
So when you talk about digital music production, you essentially need tools that will help you accomplish all three of the above.
Plenty of standalone tools exist to help you take care of each of these functions independently. For example, you can use a hardware synthesizer like the Yamaha Motif to record a couple of tunes directly to Audacity, a popular audio editor. By starting/stopping these tunes at different times, you can compose and arrange a complete song.
But the easiest way to create music is by using a digital audio workstation – also called a DAW.
Most popular modern DAWs let you compose, synthesize sounds, and mix tracks within the same software. A DAW goes beyond a simple audio editor (like Audacity) in that it usually has built-in tools to compress audio, add reverb, and adjust EQ to create a better sounding mix.
Further, you can greatly expand the functionality of any DAW by adding different plugins and virtual software technology instruments (VSTi).
I’ll take my current DAW – Ableton – as an example.
Composition and arrangement sit at the heart of the Ableton experience (as shown in the screenshot I shared above). But Ableton also ships with several instruments to synthesize and design sound. This includes sound synthesis tools (like ‘Operator’) that let you create sounds from scratch, samplers to turn existing sounds into musical instruments, and sequencers (such as Impulse) to create loops and patterns.
That’s not all – you also get a number of stock audio effects built-in. This includes everything from EQ and compression to phasers, flangers, reverbs, and amps. Using these tools, you can modify any sound and also create a better mix.
If that’s not enough, you can always expand the functionality of the DAW by adding different plugins and VSTs. For instance, I don’t like Ableton’s stock synthesizer, so I added Massive and Serum, two popular synths, as external plugins.
Keep in mind that this is optional – you can create perfectly competent tracks using the stock instruments and effects alone.
Essentially, a modern DAW is all you need to setup a music production studio. Sure, extra plugins and VSTs will greatly help, but they’re add-ons, not essential.
Remember this as we jump to the next section where I show you how to create a music production studio for $0.
Step #1: Install JACK or grab a music-focused distro (Linux only)
If you’re on Windows or Mac, feel free to skip this step.
If you’re on Linux, this step is a must.
JACK is essentially an API that lets you send audio signals from one device to another. Consider it a must-have if you want to work with audio on Linux. You can grab a copy of the software here.
Alternatively, you can grab a Linux distro that’s focused on music production. These distros usually have all the basic tools and plugins you need to work with audio.
Step #2: Make sure that you have the right audio interface
This is where things might cross the $0 threshold.
An audio interface is, well, an interface that allows you to get sound into or out of a computer.
Think of it as a fancier word for a sound card.
Since every computer these days has a sound card, you can say that every computer also has a built-in audio interface. If you can hook up a microphone or a pair of headphones to your computer, you can also record audio.
However, most stock sound cards have too high latency. If you press a key on your computer, there might be a small delay between the key press and the sound. This can both be annoying and make it impossible to time your recordings right – like a drummer who is always one beat too slow.
Windows computers suffer the most from latency issues. If you’re on Mac, you’ll likely not experience any substantial delays with the stock sound card. With Linux, a lot will depend on your hardware and distro.
If you have too high latency (anything above 20-30 ms is flirting with danger), there are two ways you can work around it:
- Get an external audio interface ($$). If you’re serious about music production, this should be at the very top of the priority list. Besides reducing latency, an external audio interface will also allow you to connect multiple instruments and get better quality recordings. However, a basic audio interface will cost at least $50. Good ones can cost several hundred dollars.
- Get ASIO4All (Windows only). This Windows only solution changes the default sound drivers to ASIO, an industry-standard protocol. It won’t fix your latency problems entirely but can make it workable even on average computers.
If you’re on Linux, also make sure that your sound card is ALSA compatible. ALSA is Linux’ protocol for handling audio. Most modern sound cards/audio interfaces are ALSA compatible, but if you’re unsure, refer to this list here.
Step #3: Grab a DAW
The DAW, as I mentioned, is the heart of any music production studio. It’s what enables you to write, arrange, and modify music. There are plenty of DAWs for Windows and Mac. Ableton, FL Studio, Pro Tools, Cubase, Reaper, etc. will work on both Mac and Windows (though you can get Garageband on Windows as well), while some, such as Logic Pro, will only work on Mac.
For Linux, the two best free DAWs around are Ardour and LMMS. There is practically nothing that you can’t do on these DAWs, especially if you complement their stock capabilities with the right plugins.
I personally recommend that you start with Ardour. It’s not as user-friendly as LMMS but if you want to work with a lot of tracks and get access to a robust plugin library, Ardour will work wonders.
Step #4: Get a synth
If you want to create your own sounds (or use presets made by others), you absolutely need a synthesizer.
There are plenty of free synth VSTs around, but since we’re looking at only open source software, my top three recommendations, in order, are:
ZynAddSubFX is the most competent synth around. However (and this is a big however), the latest iteration – ZynFusion – isn’t free – you have to pay $45+ to get a copy. On the flip side, it is open source software and you can build it for free from the source (see source here).
Alternatively, give FluidSynth or Yoshimi a try. Yoshimi is more user-friendly and is based on a fork of ZynAddSubFX.
Step #5: Download a sequencer
If you’re making modern music, you’re working with drums.
While you can use Ardour for drum programming, using a dedicated sequencer or drum machine (which is essentially a type of sequencer) will be more fun.
My favorite open source sequencer is Hydrogen. Hydrogen works particularly well for drum programming, though it also has a powerful sampler that’s great for creating sample-based sounds. You can download a copy here.
If you want to work primarily with drums, you should give DrumGizmo a try as well. DrumGizmo has the added advantage of being available as a VST which makes it easy to integrate it into Ardour.
Keep in mind that on Linux, you can sync any two audio programs – like Hydrogen and Ardour – together with Jack. Here’s a how-to video to connect Hydrogen with Ardour:
Step #6: Get more plugins
Once you have a basic DAW that can support VST plugins (like Ardour), the sky is really the limit to what you can achieve. There are plugins for virtually every thing you can imagine. Just Google “free vst plugins” and you’ll find tons of options to choose from.
(A VSTi – Virtual Software Technology Instrument – is essentially a type of plugin that aims to replicate an instrument virtually).
That’s it – a complete music production studio built for free.
If this sounds too much and you just want to edit basic audio files, skip all the above and grab a copy of Audacity. Audacity won’t let you create and mix complex compositions, but it is perfect for recording podcasts and basic acoustic tracks.
If you just want to DJ, get Mixx.
For more recommendations and options, refer to the table I shared above.
Happy music making!