Free & Accessible Music Making Software for PC and Mac
If you want to make music as well as listen to it, you’re not alone. More programs than ever can help create music of all types and there are now more opportunities to publish your music online for all to hear. This article on accessible music making software for PC and Mac will give you the tools, the rest is up to you.
I have purposely used ‘accessible’ in the title for two reasons. The first is price. Professional music software is expensive and can be well out of reach of the hobbyist or someone experimenting. All of the software in this list is either free or cheap.
The second, is learning curve. Any software that needs a college degree to master is not going to be suitable for anyone experimenting with music to see what they are capable of. All of the software in this list can have you producing some kind of music within a couple of hours.
Free or cheap music making software
For the purposes of this list of music making software for PC and Mac, the software will include editing, creation (Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)) and recording. There is a pure mixer in the list too because it was highly recommended by a musician friend. All are available for free or at a relatively low cost.
Ableton Live is the free version of one of the most popular music making programs out there. You can create, edit and publish music from this program. It does everything. The learning curve is fairly steep but the interface is logical and all of the controls and tools only a menu or two away.
The UI looks a little crowded, but once you get used to the fact that everything has a place and how it is put together you quickly realize how logical it is. The free version includes nine instruments, 41 effects, mappings for your own instruments and access to community effects and addons.
If you like what you see, you can upgrade to Ableton from 79 Euros.
Audacity is a free, open source music editor that allows you to edit and produce live audio, digital audio as WAV, AIFF, FLAC, MP2, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis sound files and a lot more. You can record live through computer input, digitize tape, vinyl or other format, dub and overlay tracks, sample and record multiple channels at once if you have the right hardware.
Audacity has been around for years and is still fully supported by a group of very talented programmers and musicians. The community is helpful and supportive and a great place to hang out if music is your thing. The program works on Windows and Mac and supports up to 32-bit audio.
Audacity doesn’t look as pro as Ableton but for free and open source music making software, it more than delivers the goods.
No list of music making software would be complete without mentioning GarageBand for Mac. This program is free for later versions of Mac but paid for in earlier versions. If you are dipping your toe into music or want to see if you have the talent, this is one program that can help.
The UI is attractive and logically laid out. Tools and effects are where you would expect and the mixing and editing is made simple with tooltips and logical structure. While not perfect in terms of reliability and stability, most of the early issues with GarageBand have been ironed out.
The ability to import tracks between devices using iCloud is useful but the nickel and diming for ‘extras’ quickly becomes annoying when you want to expand the base platform. While the program itself is free, lots of extras cost money and any upgrade to the version of GarageBand you are using will also cost.
As its name suggests, Mixxx is one for the DJ. One of the best free mixing programs out there apparently. The program includes four decks that you can add individual tracks, a scratcher, time stretch, master sync, loops, cues and lots of tools and effects. That library of effects is extensive and includes equalization effects and a whole lot more.
I only played around with Mixxx for an hour but quickly got into the swing of things. The layout is similar to these others, with the main tracks or channels in the center and the tools and effects around it. The menu is logical and only three layers deep yet offers access to hundreds of options. While the learning curve is shallow to begin with, it will quickly ramp up once you start digging down.
With the option to record in WAVE or Ogg Vorbis, stream your mixes directly to Shoutcast or Icecast and support for DJ hardware, it is difficult to imagine a more complete music making program for the DJ.
LMMS began life as a Linux program before expanding to include Windows and Mac. This is a free music making program that encapsulates everything to create music. It enables you to compose, sequence, mix, refine, edit and produce music from within a single interface. Import MIDI files or files from other music making software, add effects with plugins and the range of the many that are built in.
LMMS has 32 and 64-bit instrument support, a Roland synthesizer, ZynAddSubFx synthesizer, sound effects emulators and a range of other tools. Considering this program is free and open source, it is hugely powerful.
At first glance, the interface does look a little intimidating. However, the documentation is great and there is a wide range of YouTube videos walking you through everything from setting up to publishing your finished track.
Cakewalk Sonar is ideal for the beginner who wants to invest in a pro-level commercial program without bankrupting themselves. At $49, it is at the affordable end of a range of professional music production programs from Cakewalk.
The interface looks good and places the music at the center as you would expect. The menus are logical and only three layers deep and make short work of getting a tune down. The program uses ‘Lenses’ which help focus tasks such as adding vocals, drums, mixing or polishing. With lots of effects and one of the best pitch-correction tools in the industry, there is a lot to recommend Cakewalk Sonar.
Is the expense worth it? Depends on what you want. LMMS and others in this list are fully featured and so is Cakewalk so much depends on how you like the look and feel. With different versions costing up to $599, you can go as far as you can with Cakewalk.
Cubase Elements 9
Cubase Elements 9 is another pro-level music making program with a consumer-level option. Like Cakewalk Sonar, Cubase Elements 9 is a gateway program that provides the basis for your musical exploration that could lead to digging deeper into the product family.
Cubase Elements 9 offers a tidy interface with color-coordinated tracks and elements, logical layout with easy to navigate menus and easy to reach tools and effects. While the initial learning curve is shallow, this is another program that will take months to master but could potentially deliver broadcast-ready tracks by the end.
With an industry-leading engine, 48 tracks, 24 input options, lots of instruments, effects, samples and lots of editing options, this is one of the most fully-featured DAWs around.
Ardour uses Cubase and Cakewalk as inspiration but offers it all for free. This is an open source music making program for Linux, Windows and Mac. As a complete DAW, this program is suitable for musicians, DJs, producers, music editors and anyone with even a passing interest in creating music.
The interface is similar to the others in that it places the tracks in the center and surrounds them with tools and options. The layout is clear, concise and logical but can quickly become complicated, again like the others. You can import tracks and effects, add your own instruments, vocals or whatever and just create.
The learning curve is moderate but the community is large and supportive. A good selection of videos and documentation is there to help and makes short work of getting to grips with the program.
Those are eight music making software for PC and Mac that are accessible to one degree or another. Each is relatively easy to get into but will take weeks or months to truly master. All of them offer Windows and/or Mac versions and most of them are free. Those that cost money are of a sufficient quality to make that investment worthwhile.
You may notice some big names missing such as FL Studio 12, PropellerHead, Avid Pro Tools, Logic Pro X and others. While they are worthy programs they cost a ton of money. As accessibility was the prime consideration for this list, they missed out. That isn’t to say they aren’t good, they are just expensive for the beginner or hobbyist to buy.
Got any other accessible music making software for PC and Mac that we should have mentioned? Tell us about them below if you have any suggestions!