This is a guest post by Daniel Kimbrel. If you would like to submit a guest post, check out the guidelines here.
If you’re a serious musician, podcaster, or budding audio engineer, you care about the quality of your recordings–or you should. And that’s why the audio recording programs you use matter.
Most run-of-the-mill, audio recording apps that come pre-installed on your computer just won’t cut it (with the possible exception of GarageBand for Macs, a fairly high-quality recorder for simple projects), and you also may not be willing or able to spend an arm and a leg for professional grade software.
However, you’re in luck. There are some great free tools that actually don’t suck and can produce the kind of quality recording that will make anybody who listens to your works of art–or wit, if you’re a podcaster–sit up and take note of what you have to offer.
Here are some of the very best, completely free recording tools that will help bring your sounds to life.
Available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux
Audacity is the go-to open source audio recording application, and as long as your goals aren’t overly ambitious, it puts an enormous amount of power in your hands. It can record just about anything you throw at it, whether it’s from a microphone, through the line-in jack, or live streaming audio (if supported by your sound card), all in a lightweight and clean interface. Many recording enthusiasts, especially podcasters, appreciate Audacity’s uncomplicated user experience and ease of use.
Audacity supports recording in sample rates from 44.1 to an excessive 192 kHz, which sets the stage for studio-caliber and even ultrasonic recordings, if you have the hardware to handle it. Also included is support for 32-bit floating point, providing ample headroom for your recorded signal.
It comes with effects such as an equalizer with helpful presets, pitch, speed and tempo controls, delay, reverb, compressor, fade in/out, and a noise remover. You can expand this palette thanks to Audacity’s generous support of VST, LADSPA, Nyquist and Audio Unit plugins.
Audacity’s strength is its simplicity. While you can make it do multi-track recording if you’re so inclined, it will never gain centerpiece status in a true recording studio. However, it is beginner-friendly, easy to utilize for quick edits that need to be made on the fly (whether that means filtering out unwanted noise, boosting vocals or other frequencies through equalization, or just cutting and pasting), and extremely well-suited for simple hobbyist and podcast recording applications.
2. Kristal Audio Engine
Available for Windows
Kristal, above and beyond a simple recorder and editor, is billed as a true digital audio workstation (DAW) with everything needed for basic mastering and mixing under the hood. Like Audacity, it also supports sample rates of 44.1 to 192 kHz and 32-bit float.
Kristal’s feature set, which includes the “Kristalizer” dynamics tool, is high-quality. Kristal easily handles VST plugins, but worth noting is the built-in support for ASIO plugins, which is a plus for those who have an ASIO sound card and wish to take advantage of the low latency it offers.
A few caveats are in line, however. Kristal doesn’t natively export to mp3 files, everything besides the mixer is loaded as a separate plugin (which complicates the user interface somewhat and may feel like overkill for smaller editing tasks), and 16 tracks is the maximum number supported number of tracks, which might dampen ambitions for mixing symphonies. However, Kristal stands out as an all-purpose free DAW with all the features that simple audio engineering projects may require.
Available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux
Traverso, another fully featured DAW that’s sure to meet common recording needs, is all about convenience.
This program eschews a traditional “menu” structure in favor of innovative keyboard and mouse shortcuts, which brings a crisp immediacy to recording tasks. There’s no doubt about it–there will be a bit of a learning curve–but the developers claim to have integrated input and execution so seamlessly that you practically learn how to do things as you go along. Furthermore, users have an array of options that make recording demo CDs a snap. You can create tables of contents and burn discs without ever leaving Traverso.
Other features that dovetail nicely with the “stay out of the way” philosophy behind Traverso include non-destructive editing, or the ability to use plugins and make edits without changing the actual sample, and lockless real-time audio processing, which reduces latency and streamlines performance. Traverso’s commitment to intuitive recording and mastering controls makes the program stand out among its similarly free counterparts.
4. Ardour DAW
Available for Mac OS and Linux
Ardour is yet another great free DAW: one that is taking aim at cream-of-the-crop professional software and is promising for real studios with low budgets.
It features non-destructive editing, 32-bit float, supports unlimited tracks, and has extremely flexible routing capabilities. With support for LADSPA, LV2, and VST plugins, you’ll be able to make your favorite customizations without a hassle. Synchronization with video is supported, and full handling of MIDI recording, playback and editing is expected with the highly-anticipated release of the third edition of Ardour.
The thing that really sets Ardour apart from the rest of the pack is what’s under the hood. It runs on JACK, an underlying sound server that facilitates low-latency audio recording and communication among various programs. Although Ardour itself only runs on Mac OS and Linux at present, a Windows port has been conceptualized and efforts towards building one are in full swing as of June 2012, and JACK is already a true cross-platform utility that runs on the aforementioned systems as well as Windows. JACK is excellent at handling MIDI, so Ardour will take full advantage of that upon the release of the third edition.
Ardour is complex and certainly not for newbies. Some have complained about the potentially confusing graphical user interface (GUI), which is quite inaccessible to someone who’s never seen or seriously worked with a DAW before. But if you’re an audio engineer of any level of experience and strapped for cash, you may find that Ardour fits the bill for your projects quite nicely.
Available for Windows and Linux
Jokosher is billed as the “musician’s DAW” and the Linux alternative to GarageBand, the standard, pre-installed, easy-to-use workstation for Macs. Here, you won’t find advanced editing and mastering tools by the names that most engineers know: it’s a program that speaks in a music maker’s language.
While not as heavyweight as its counterparts, Jokosher takes a lot of the guesswork out of the recording process for people who are new to it. All of the basic, expected editing tools are at the user’s disposal. Startup is fast, easy and straightforward. Tracks are called “instruments,” and you can literally set them up based on the type of instrument you’re intending to record. If it’s an acoustic guitar for example, simply select “Acoustic Guitar” and the track will be clearly labeled as such with a cute picture to boot, providing a nice visual layout of instruments used in the mix.
Jokosher supports LADSPA plugins only, and as of June 2012 it’s still in its early development stages. But for musicians and podcasters who want to record simple products and get a first taste of manipulating tracks in a DAW, this simple program is hard to beat.
Audio Recording Programs for Any Situation
All of the above are solid apps with unique feature sets and strengths, dedicated fan bases, and active support and development teams. While you might generally find that these tools don’t have the advanced functionality of much more expensive, industry-standard solutions, one or more of them will likely meet your needs.
Try them out and decide which combination of user experience and specific features works best for you.
Guest post contributed by Daniel Kimbrel, for Bearshare.com. Daniel is a movie buff and freelance writer. He contributes to a number of music sites online. For free mp3 downloads with BearShare, visit their site.
Image by: Shawn Econo