Beginner’s Guide: How to make music for free

Everything you need to know about making music for free.

How to make music for free

They say the best things in life are free, right? Well, that applies to music production as well. There are thousands of free music-making apps and software titles out there, for Mac, PC and mobile devices. And they are getting better and better.

So however you make music, whether it’s in your bedroom or on the road, we’ll show you how you can start from scratch or expand on your current music making setup for no outlay.

What are the basics I need to get started making music for free?

Apple Macbook with M1X graphic
Image: Yalcin Sonat / Alamy

It depends on the music you want to make. At the very least, however, you will require either a Mac, PC or mobile device to act as the heart of your setup.

Mac users will probably have less to worry about in this regard, simply because there aren’t many models to begin with. The most recent MacBook Pro (2021) would probably be the best fit in terms of processing power and connections – Apple’s decision to reinstate ports and remove the Touch Bar has been seen as a welcome change.

Generally speaking, RAM will help you run virtual instruments better, while better CPUs will improve plug-in performance. As a rule of thumb, 16GB of RAM is a good number to shoot for in a machine, but if you absolutely have to go cheap, you could probably still get away with 8GB. As for CPUs, look at picking up an Intel i5, but definitely shop around for the Ryzen equivalents that usually come at a lower price.

Additionally, 32-bit plug-ins are slowly being phased out, which makes the case for a 64-bit system if staying up to speed is in your interests.

Putting all this together, things start getting pricey very quickly. Just remember that there are many, many producers that choose to work on old systems; you might have to get a bit creative with the types of software you use, but it’s definitely doable.

Our advice for buying a budget music-making Windows laptop: look at second-hand IBM Thinkpads, find something with many USB 3.0 ports, and make sure that the screen isn’t too tiny.

If you do go down the mobile route, we recommend the Apple iPhone 13 for its processing power and in-built limiter, which prevents your field recordings from clipping.

Besides the computer/smartphone, these are the bare essential hardware devices you’ll need:

  • Microphones, if you’re a vocalist or rapper. While you can use the in-built mic on your laptop or smartphone, we really don’t recommend it. Check out our list of the best vocal mics here.
  • Audio interface, if you plan on recording real instruments. In a nutshell, an interface converts analogue signals from, say, an electric guitar or a microphone into a digital signal that your computer and digital audio workstation (DAW) can process. Check out our list of the best sub-$200 audio interfaces here.
  • Monitoring devices, such as studio monitors, bookshelf speakers, headphones and earbuds. As people listen to music on all sorts of devices, you want ‘transparent’ monitoring devices that don’t colour the sound too much. For instance if you have bass-heavy headphones, you may end up cutting the low frequencies to compensate. Check out our list of the best mini studio monitors here.

Now all you need is software – and here’s where the real ‘free’ part of this guide kicks in.

What is freeware?

Freeware refers to complete pieces of software and apps that come at no cost. Unlike demo versions, freeware comes without restrictions. They are usually produced by a thriving community of developers who are keen musicians and experienced software producers. Bigger developers who make professional titles – think Native Instruments – also have freeware and release it as a ‘lite’, cut-down version of a paid-for product. They still work, but without all the bells and whistles of bona fide editions.

Here’s our giant list of all the best freeware for music-making out there today. We also run a freeware roundup, updated monthly, that you can bookmark.

Freeware digital audio workstations

So, first things first, you will need a DAW – or digital audio workstation – to make music with and one that can host all of the freeware we will discuss later. A fully-blown, all-singing, all-dancing DAW can cost up to around $600 or more, but you can get a fully-functioning sequencer for nothing. Zero.

OK, some of these are cut-down versions of the big thing, but they do work and will let you produce a complete piece of music at no cost whatsoever. Check out our full list of the best freeware DAWs, including those you can score a free trial of, to see which works for the music you want to make.

For absolute beginners, we recommend BandLab. The free cloud-based DAW is as simple as they come, allowing users to record audio, arrange tracks, sample live or pre-recorded sounds, play virtual instruments, add effects, and even master your music with nothing else but a mouse and keyboard. It even comes with a massive library of free loops and samples, called BandLab Sounds, that you can use in your productions.

BandLab runs natively on Mac, PC, iOS and Android, and there’s even a browser-based version – so you can just fire up Chrome or Safari and get busy making beats.

Beyond the DAW, BandLab offers social features that let you join communities, share your tracks, collaborate with musicians around the world, monetise your music, and even build upon their work using the app’s ‘fork’ function. You can check out the BandLab blog to learn the ropes, or go through our tutorials here:

[Ed’s note: BandLab Technologies owns both BandLab and MusicTech]

Freeware virtual instruments

Softsynth freeware hero

No guitar? No problem. There’s a glut of free virtual instruments in AUv3 and VST formats – for Mac and PC, respectively – that you can load up on your DAW, providing it supports those formats. (Note that BandLab users are restricted to the free instruments that come along with the app.) And these virtual instruments today sound far more convincing than they did 10 years ago – find our recommendations here:

Alternatively, you can rely entirely on free loops and samples. Here’s our list of the best websites to download free music samples.

Freeware effects and utility plug-ins

Plug-ins are, as its name suggests, bits of software that you ‘plug into’ your DAW to create sounds, add effects and help with other music production tasks. Virtual instruments which we covered above are a type of plug-in, but here are our other selections:

How do I make music for free on my phone?

If you’re just in the mood to tinker around with a synth or drum app while on your commute, then something like Patterning and Groovebox will fit the bill. But there are other, more fully fledged mobile DAWs that allow you to record, sample, edit and play instruments – in other words, they’ll put a studio in your pocket.

Apple’s GarageBand, BandLab and Soundtrap are the more beginner-friendly mobile DAWs around that still offer a wide array of features. You can find out more about them – and other apps – in our list of the best free mobile apps for music-making.

The 10th and latest version of BandLab, in particular, has an in-built Sampler that allows you to slice up audio onto a 4×4 grid to trigger and loop as samples. You can capture audio with your phone mic, choose a sample from BandLab Sounds, and, of course, import audio and video from your phone’s library. Once you’ve got your sample, you can use the Sampler to crop, reverse, transpose and pan the clip.

If you’ve found a great drum loop but want to rearrange the pattern, Sampler allows you to crop the loop into individual hits, then copy them across the sampler and finger-drum your own groove – yes, like a hardware MIDI pad controller. Or maybe you’ve imported a track from your phone and want to slice it up into a new loop. Either way, once you’ve created a pattern, you can record it directly into BandLab and transform it into an entire song with more instruments.

Putting it all together

Music production and gear summer sales

Now that you have the essentials all ready to go, it’s time to start actually cutting tracks. For those who don’t have any prior knowledge of music production or working with DAWs, a good place to start would be our beginner’s guide to music production. It covers the basics – terminology, formats, inputs/outputs and so on – that you’ll need before you even fire up your freeware.

Our tutorial section is home to hundreds of platform-agnostic and DAW-specific step-by-step guides on techniques, tips and tricks in music production, too. We’ve also got tutorials that are catered specifically for making music with freeware: