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.
However, I’d like to add that it’s not the software that makes the music. It’s your skills as an audio engineer.
To illustrate, I’d like to tell you a story of an interesting email thread a while back. This guy was looking for a home studio and he was asking around for where to go.
An acquaintance of mine chimed in with his answer, with some details about studios and such but there was one comment that really infuriated me:
You might want to have someone who’s recording onto protools. (sic)
Now, I know that not all musicians are engineers so I should really let that slide. And this person is actually a really great musician, but he’s a little off in what makes up a great studio.
The thing that bothers me is that software companies are so good at brainwashing the public into believing that their software is crucial to the makings of a good record.
It F***ing isn’t.
It doesn’t whether you use Pro-Tools, Nuendo, Cubase, Sonar Producer, Logic Pro, Digital Performer, GarageBand, Live, or any of the other software that’s for sale out there.
It’s the least important thing in the grand scheme of:
“hey I want to know how to record my songs or have someone do it for me….what should I buy first?”
The software isn’t going to tell you what sounds good. It’s not a robot that knows how to engineer a great guitar sound. It can’t tell you if you’re overcompressing your drums or flooding your vocals with reverb. This is something that the engineer needs to know. This is the skill of the engineer, regardless of what software he’s using.
Pro-Tools is not going to make your music sound any better.
If you install (insert preferred software here) onto your computer, is it going to make the acoustics in your room any better?
Is it going to make the sound of your pre-amps any better?
Will it walk out of the computer, look at your monitors and say, “Gee, maybe you should space those monitors a little further apart for better imaging.”
No, it’s not some mega nerdy Cylon engineer.
It’ll just do what you tell it to do. And if you feed it garbage it will give you trash.
Skills Make Sounds – Not Software
So think more about what skills you need to actually record a great sound than the software that you’re told you desperately need to get.
Yes, you need software. But any software is great if you, or the engineer you hire, is great at using it. I use Logic, do I recommend Logic to everybody. Not really.
My philosophy is that any software that you’re comfortable using is the best software for your situation. The skill and knowledge of engineering is infinitely more important than any audio recording software that’s out there.
Now that we’ve got that rant out of the way, let’s talk about what software solutions you have available, both free and paid.
A quick search on Amazon will show you a lot of different options that will give you decision anxiety, so we’ve compiled a list for you to reduce your hyperventilating so that you can go back to what you set out to do before, make music.
Top 5 Free Audio Recording Programs
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.
Available for Mac OS only
Garageband comes free with any Mac computer and is actually pretty legit for most recording needs.
Although it can’t do major processing like its big brother Logic, it’s more than able to do any type of multi-track recording and minor mixing work.
Highly recommend for the bedroom recordist that’s just starting out and needs a simple solution to lay down some demos.
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.
Alternative to Pro-Tools That Won’t Break the Bank
Most of the big pro studios are using Avid Pro Tools to make all the records going to the radio these days, but it’s slowly losing its status as an industry standard due to the quality of its competitors. There are plenty of lower-cost DAWs and a wealth of free and inexpensive plug-ins that bring professional studio sound right to your computer.
Even though Pro Tools is the premier name in the industry, there is really no special voodoo under the hood. It is simply a graphical user interface that lets you move some bits (and thus sounds) around inside your computer. There is no difference in the way Pro Tools sounds and the way any of its competitors sound, period.
So you can comfortably make a foray into saving money by purchasing one of the many alternatives to Pro Tools –none of which will cause even your fans to hear a difference.
1. Steinberg Cubase
There is the perennially popular Steinberg Cubase, which is perhaps the granddaddy of them all so to speak. The German-engineered application is perhaps the Mercedes-Benz of DAWs, offering pioneering technology and reliable performance.
2. Logic Pro X
Apple has two DAWs in its stable: a veritable assault weapon of a program called Logic Pro X, and a consumer-marketed offering built on Logic’s technology, called Garageband discussed before. In both cases, the quality of these programs is very high and both will work with a wide assortment of audio hardware.
3. CakeWalk Sonar
Cakewalk is another huge name in the DAW world. Running exclusively on PC, Cakewalk’s SONAR program has been around for a long time. This program is imminently powerful and is built on Roland technology.
4. Cockos Reaper
Perhaps the best-kept secret in the world of DAWs is Reaper. Reaper is a heads-on contender for any other DAW on the list, including Pro Tools. The best part is that Reaper is not only among the best, it is also one of the least expensive, coming in at only $60 for the discounted license. All the features are there: real-time recording and editing, unlimited track count, VST and DX plug-in support, and more.
5. Studio One
Presonus’s Studio One is a great option as well. It contains everything you need to produce music and seems very intuitive and easy to use.
In fact, it’s probably the only DAW that might make me switch from Logic. A lot of my producer and engineer friends use it and they swear by it, citing its ease of use, sound quality and simplicity with production.
There is nothing wrong with using Pro Tools, of course. But if you can’t afford to shell out the big dollars for the industry’s biggest name, you still get the great results with the above applications.
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. The free DAWs don’t have the advanced functionality of much more expensive, industry-standard solutions, but depending on your needs I’m sure you’ll find something that works for you.
Try them out and decide which combination of user experience and specific features works best for you.
Parts of this post were contributed by Daniel Kimbrel and Jessica Josh. If you would like to submit a guest post, check out the guidelines here.
Daniel is a movie buff and freelance writer. He contributes to a number of music sites online. Jessica Josh is an Australian freelance writer and blogger. Since 2007 she has been writing about weddings, fashion, and music.
Image by: Shawn Econo