The Best Music Making Software of 2018

Rock your own jams with a digital audio workstation

Picture of a woman listening to music on a laptop

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

There are lots of ways to make music and edit music files, and while it's common to assume that only the lower-functioning tools can be free, there are actually lot of no-cost options. Plus, you don't have to sacrifice features or ease-of-use with the better free audio editors.

Some audio editing tools are online only, meaning that you can do all your editing from any computer, and most likely save your work online. However, you can also export your music files for offline use by saving your music back to your computer.

Another way to edit audio is with an offline tool, or more commonly called a desktop audio editor. Those tools are generally packed with more features and are much easier to use for big projects where lots of files are involved.

Screenshot of Audacity in Windows 8

One of the granddaddies of the free audio-editing software world, Audacity is a completely free cross-platform program designed to record and edit audio projects.

What we like:

  • Uses a clean and modern user interface
  • Easy to use despite all the tools and options
  • Plugins can be used to extend the functionality
  • The software is 100% free
  • Works on all the major operating systems
  • Updates often, so it's constantly improving

What we don't like:

  • Creating music isn't as smooth as similar programs
  • Effects can't be edited once applied, only removed and then reapplied
  • Isn't installed in its complete form (i.e. you have to install plugins and encoders to work with your projects)

Works with: Windows, Mac, Linux

Unlike some of the other tools that feature inserted digital music, Audacity's claim to fame rests with its direct-recording and track editing tools. 

Editing is super simple with drag and drops support, keyboard shortcuts, and copying and pasting. Everything else you need to do is easily found in the menus, such as all the effects like echo, reverse, phaser, repeat, delay, fade in/out, compressor, and distortion.

You can import and export WAV, AIFF, AU, FLAC, and Ogg Vorbis files with Audacity, and other formats are supported through extensions. For example, the FFmpeg library lets you work with AC3, M4A, M4R, and WMA files, and the LAME encoder library supports MP3 exports. More »

Screenshot of the TwistedWave free online audio editor website

If downloading a program to edit audio isn't your style, you can use the free online music editor at TwistedWave. Because it works via a web browser, you can start using it in seconds.

What we like:

  • Provides a super quick way to make small changes to a music file
  • Audio can be imported from and exported to Google Drive, SoundCloud, and your computer
  • Works from any modern desktop browser

What we don't like:

  • The free version can only edit mono files
  • Audio longer than 5 minutes cannot be edited
  • Files have to be uploaded to be edited, and then downloaded when finished
  • Isn't nearly as advanced as a desktop program

Works with: Every desktop operating system

You can use the TwistedWave audio editor to copy, cut, and paste parts of the music file. You're also able to record audio directly from your microphone, add basic effects like a fade or some silence, the pitch and speed of the audio can be adjusted, and the sampling rate can be changed at will.

This free online music editor can also show all sorts of stats for the file, like the min and max sample value, DC offset, peak amplitude, LUFS, and RMS power.  More »

Screenshot of the main screen of the Ardour digital audio editor
Ardour.org / Paul Davis  

An open-source project, Ardour offers standard recording, editing, and mixing capabilities. However, it's user interface can easily be too intimidating for new users.

What we like:

  • Has a robust feature set
  • Allows for audio or MIDI imports
  • Supports direct recording
  • Can edit soundtracks and extract video soundtracks
  • Supports a wide range of file formats and plugins

What we don't like:

  • Free version is limited
  • Isn't ideal for novice creators

Works with: Windows, Linux, macOS

Ardour is free but with some limitations. Without paying, the program will go silent every 10 minutes. If you pay any amount under $45, you can get the full version, which comes with free minor upgrades. Another option is to download the source code (it's free) and compile the program yourself. More »

Screenshot of the GarageBand app for Mac

Apple

For years, Apple has offered its powerful GarageBand software for free for Macs and iOS. The software is optimized for music creation but isn't as fully featured as most digital audio workstations.

However, GarageBand can import and edit multitrack compositions and insert a range of custom sounds, like drums and cymbals, directly into a project. This means you can use the software to make music even if you don't have any real equipment plugged in.

What we like:

  • Interface is easy to understand
  • Optimized for touch-screen interfaces
  • Includes over two dozen virtual drummers that can play along according to your specifications
  • Supports plugins for more features
  • Can connect with an iPad with the Logic Remote app
  • Music can be shared on social media sites and exported as ringtones
  • Free to install and use

What we don't like:

  • Doesn't run on Windows
  • Takes a while to download on slow connections

Works with: macOS

Despite its simplicity, GarageBand is a well-designed program that will help especially beginner music composers get started with a gentle learning curve. More »

Darkwave Studio editor
 ExperimentalScene / Daniel Werner

DarkWave Studio has been designed with the beginner in mind, but can also be expanded for advanced use. It uses virtual machines that can be linked together to produce a wide range of sounds (similar to Propellerhead's Reason software).

What we like:

  • Free to download and use, even for commercial purposes
  • Comes bundled with over a dozen plugins
  • Includes a dedicated pattern editor
  • Easy to use drag-and-drop support
  • Projects can be merged together
  • Supports Windows XP through Windows 10

What we don't like:

  • Supports only one operating system
  • Can export to WAV files only
  • Tries to install unrelated software during setup

Works with: Windows

The true power of DarkWave Studio is its support for VST plugins that expand the program's capabilities. You can either purchase these, or use free VST plugins from sites such as VST 4 Free

When you're finished with your masterpiece, it can be recorded using the HDRecorder plugin to produce a WAV file. More »