Last updated Mar. 27, 2003.
Recent Changes: New Mac section, much more Linux info. Removed a little useless information for stupid programs. Some stuff "confirmed". Please recommend more Mac programs.
DISCLAIMER: This is not the end-all-be-all guide to free mixing programs. Yet. However if you know something about a program that I don't, feel free to post information about it and I'll check it out and possibly add it to the guide if it's deemed "of any use whatsoever."
Don't expect this guide to teach you how to mix. Its primary goal is to show people what options they have as far as free mixing programs are concerned. If you have any questions on how to use a program you see here, READ THE MANUAL FIRST. Then search the Remixing 101 forum to see if your question has already been answered. Failing that, go ahead and post and someone will (hopefully) get you a response before too long.
This guide should probably be considered "wildly inaccurate" at best. You can help change the status to "somewhat wrong" by leaving as many comments as possible. If you see a favorite program on here that I'm misrepresenting, or something I am writing about that I don't understand at all (or am possibly making up), by all means correct me. Items marked with a question mark are most likely lies, or something I remember from using the program three years ago. Good places to check out for corrections.
Remixing 101 gets messages every week or so bearing titles such as "What program should I use to remix?" The most common thread in 101 is usually something similar to "I own a computer, I'm broke, how do I mix?" Moreover, many regulars will start posting replies to these threads referencing software with a hefty price tag (Reason, Cubase, Finale, even Acid or FL can be out of the budget for someone with merely a passing interest in recording themselves). Lots of people can be turned off by the idea that the only way to turn their musical dreams into reality is through some $100 or more software package that will more than likely rarely see use.
It doesn't have to be that way. This guide is an attempt to provide a large resource of reviews as a starting point for anyone looking to jump into making music for under $20. If you own a computer and a soundcard, you can get started making some sounds immediately and with no cost to yourself. Try out any of the programs below and see if any appeal to you. Hopefully you'll come across something that you enjoy working with and that provides results you're happy with.
Making music for free sounds great, and for complete beginners, it's almost the perfect way to start. Almost. For one thing, if the program is provided for free, it usually means that little to no technical support is available. The author of the program donated his time and effort to create the software, and aside from responding to bug reports, there's nothing he or she is obligated to do to fix it. If your program crashes and won't start again, nobody HAS to help you solve the problem. That's not to say that freeware authors aren't generous people who would be happy to help you. Just don't expect a solution soon, if at all.
Free software is also notoriously buggy. Make sure you save your work often! If possible, try to avoid using a beta version of a program when a stable release is available, unless the beta version offers some feature you really really need. There are some rock solid programs out there, but just as many more that crash when you use it on Windows XP or try to screw something up or click the mouse or whatever. Consider yourself warned.
Free programs can be harder to use, and the interfaces can often be considered "clunky". Just like any other program, you'll eventually get used to navigating around and producing music will be a snap. It's easy to understand why most newbies get quite frustrated when they open up Buzz Machines for the first time, and why people always recommend Fruity Loops to new users - but whatever you use, stick with it. Practice using whatever program you want, and you'll get the hang of it.
The main reason most people don't use free software and instead opt for more expensive sequencers, mixers, etc. is the features available in the commercial programs. Logically a company getting paid to make software will try to produce more efficient and quality software than someone writing a MIDI editor in their basement. Note that I said "try" - there are some notable free exceptions to this, and there are some bad commercial programs that you should probably avoid purchasing. But it's hard to compare a free program like SawCutter against something like Reason or ProTools or whatever. Newbies take note - the features offered in the high end software probably won't be useful to you until some time down the line, when you're more able to decide whether dropping some of your money on it is worth it or not.
Okay, suppose you do decide Reason is what you need to get started. Whether this is true or not, there are ways of getting the program without having to pay anyone for it. THIS GUIDE IS NOT CONCERNED WITH PIRATED SOFTWARE. So don't post in my guide about GigaSamples or Logic or Cubase or FL (unless it's the demo) - we use LEGALLY free software here.
There won't be much of anything to put under this heading in the guide, since finding free hardware generally means "someone gave it to you", or "you stole it", and neither of those is really an option for most people.
The only piece of hardware I'll recommend is a Sound Blaster Live! card. If you have an onboard sound card, seriously consider buying one. Go ahead and get the SB Live Value, since the regular doesn't have any extra features over the Value edition. (correct me if I'm wrong) Search EBay if you must, you can find these cards for $10-20, or the local Best Buy or whatever may carry them. The SBLive has native SoundFont support, produces very good sound quality, and records line in/mic in fairly well (?). It's far ahead of most every on-board sound card (be sure to check if your mobo already has an SBLive integrated, though!!)
Tools You Need
First decide what kind of music you're going to write. If you play an instrument, there's lots of options for recording yourself. If you don't, that's fine, there's trackers for your electronica needs and MIDI composers for everything else. In fact, you should always have a MIDI composer unless you're going strictly electronica. And everyone needs a wave editor other than Windows Sound Recorder. Also an MP3 encoder is nice.
There are lots of free and shareware MIDI composers out there. Right now the ones I recommend most are Anvil Studio (freeware/shareware) and Noteworthy Composer (demo). Noteworthy is a pretty good package where you basically compose music on a staff. Drawing notes is all keyboard controlled, and an experienced user who knows the shortcuts can enter notation with this program very quickly. It will also play soundfonts loaded into the Sound Blaster's card, as any MIDI composer or player set up correctly will, but I believe it has no support for loading them itself (?). Supports a MIDI keyboard, if you have one (?). The demo program limits the number of times you can save your files. Rendering to disk can be done with Winamp or Wingroove or whatever. More on that later. Note on Noteworthy: Entering drums is a huge pain in the ass.
Anvil Studio is pretty much freeware. It's considerably less stable than Noteworthy and appears to have been written in Visual Basic (ha), but it seems a lot more powerful than NWC. It does have support for loading soundfonts from within the program, and features a piano roll editor which can make entering complex rhythms on a single track much simpler. (If you don't like it, there's also staff entry as well) Entering drums is quite simple, especially in piano roll mode. There's also a guitar note entry mode for those more familiar with playing guitar - it can do pitch bends for you as well. Most notably, Anvil Studio supports loops, so you can write a riff and have it played over and over again for you - this greatly speeds up composition time. Supports a MIDI keyboard, if you have one (?). The registered version enables a couple features like a digital recorder and a digital audio track (letting you load wave files and use them as an instrument) (???). Recommended.
A tracker is a loop-based composition program. The computer loads a number of "samples" (sound clips, e.g. bass drum, bass instrument, piano, saw wave) into memory and plays them back in a loop, adjusting the pitch of the sample as necessary to provide different notes. Trackers confuse most people who first look at them, because composing songs in a loop is pretty foreign to most people. If you plan to write electronica, the tracker is a good place to start. Look around the web for decent samples, and read help files and tutorials on how to use these programs, as they can be quite complex. Many modern trackers can include such features as VSTi support, DirectX effects, etc. If you want to compose chiptunes, find yourself a good DOS tracker and go to work - there are no other programs you need (except maybe a wave editor)! (What's a chiptune, you ask? www.chiptune.com, www.chiptune.de)
Impulse Tracker is an old DOS-based tracker that still enjoys some popularity today. It's basically been supplanted by newer windows-based trackers, but if you want something to run under some DOS emulator or you have an old P-100 laptop running DOS laying around (like I do), consider using it. Other DOS-based trackers include the original FastTracker and ScreamTrackers.
Most people will recommend Modplug Tracker. It's got a lot of effects, can create IT, XM, S3M and MOD files, has good sample support, can render to disk, and is FREE FREE FREE. Prot tells us ModPlug has good VSTi support. You can also use ModPlug to track using MIDI instruments, which is a weird yet cool idea. May or may not load/use soundfonts in ram (???). Apparently ModPlug's site now offers some sort of newbie pack which comes with some sort of tutorial and some decent samples - I haven't tried it out (someone care to fill me in?) Does not support a MIDI keyboard, or else I don't know how to set it up (???). Don't be fooled by people who shoot down ModPlug as a "newbie program" - it really does have a lot of powerful features that even experienced musicians come back to later on. Recommended! (They make a really good player for lots of module files as well, which is generally better than Winamp's little setup, so you should get that too if you listen to lots of MODs)
[smoke] mentions ReNoise which looks to be a professional-quality tracker. It'll cost you $50 to see if it's any better than Modplug, but there is a demo avaliable that lets you do anything except ASIO support and WAV rendering. Sounds sort of like MadTracker to me. There might be some really useful features in this that Modplug doesn't offer though.
If you're looking for something a little more out there, check out Paragon 5's GameBoy Tracker. Granted, it's not for most people. You are essentially limited to two square wave channels, a noise generator, and a very very brief wave player. But if you're looking to make some Gameboy tunes or just use some instruments from it, this is probably the best PC-side tracker for your needs.
Note on trackers - they require samples! Check out www.soundsite.com for a start, or search Google. You can find lots of sites that sell CDs of samples - consider buying one if you have the cash. If not, leech their free demo samples and move on...
Synthesizer software is not sample based, though some implementations can use samples to produce sounds. Essentially the program creates the waveform from mathematical formulas as it's being played back. Synthesizers are almost exclusively limited to electronica, since it's not often in orchestral music that a 303 has a solo You may find that synthesizers are among the most powerful programs out there, since they can produce a wide variety of sounds that isn't limited to what you can find on the Internet already. Definitely worth checking out.
SawCutter is a program whose primary purpose is to let you draw wave forms and make samples out of it. It's got a stupid tracker setup that rarely works, and this program is really only useful for that one purpose. www.cuttermusic.com
Buzz Machines is quite the opposite. Buzz Machines itself is little more than a user-interface framework for user-created "machines" that do the actual sound production. Essentially Buzz is best described as either a synthesizer, or an "advanced tracker". There are over 500 (?) user-created machines that are categorized as either "generator" or "effect". Generators produce wave forms, and range from producing drum emulations of the 808, a kick drum, or a machine to produce basic sine, saw and square waves, up to samplers. There are even tracker machines that function similarly to ModPlug - you can then place multiple effects in the chain for cooler results. (There's a loader and player for IT modules and soundfonts too, so you don't even need a soundblaster live to make use of www.hammersound.net) Machines can be plugged together to route the output from one to the input of an "effect" machine to add reverb, chorus, flange, ring modulation, etc., or any combination of the above. Each machine can programmed individually with a tracker interface. There's also some preliminary VST support in Buzz for those who care about that sort of thing (read: lots of people). Finally, adding machines is easy - just drop the DLL file from www.buzzmachines.com in the appropriate directory in your GEAR folder. Note that the learning curve for Buzz is STEEP! Make sure you understand basically how a tracker works / use Modplug or something before you try this, or you will be frustrated and lost at first. A powerful program with loads of sounds, generators and effects. Recommended.
Finally, try out the Fruity Loops demo. Fruity Loops is a great user-friendly synthesizer program that uses a piano roll format to play notes. Editing drums is a breeze, and maneuvering around the interface is very intuitive. Fruity can be used as a VST plugin, has great support for other plugins, produces quality sound, can use samples, and has a really cool vocoder in 4.0. PLEASE don't use the default samples from FL for any serious work - not only are they crappy, but they're easily recognized by any FL veteran. Fruity also has Soundfont support via an additional plugin, which must be registered separately from the program to get much use out of it. One major benefit of using Fruity Loops is that there is an extensive FL user community on OCR, and help is always just a post away (but search first, okay?). I'm not a Fruity Loops user, but I still find I can create some sounds out of it very quickly. It has something of a tracker feel to it as well, but it's much more streamlined. If you want to get started easily and right away, definitely check FL out. Plus it has one damn cool demo song. Note - the demo only allows for exporting your track in WAV format, you can't save. So you'd better do everything in one sitting, or just never turn your computer off. Or, you could export your project as a MIDI and next time you want to work on it, import it back in. Recommended.
For trimming samples, reversing stuff, adding effects, changing volume, reducing noise, filtering, whatever. The better ones have lots of features, and produce good quality sound. I personally use Nero Wave Editor because it came with Nero. You'd do well to find a better one, I'm sure. Windows comes with Sound Recorder, which you should avoid using. It really does suck at its one intended purpose (recording sounds) since it cuts off recording at 60 seconds anyway.
Goldwave is a shareware wave editor that has tons of effects. Simply open a wave, select some portions, delete whatever you want, filter, reverb, chorus, flange, time correction, it's all there. If you need to record something off the sound card (mic on mic jack, guitar on mic jack / with tiny preamp on line in) you can also record your stuff here. Kero Hazel says that the demo gives you a limited amount of actions before it bombards you with the nag screen - just restart the program to get your actions back. Recommended.
Saxman mentions MAGIX Music Studio. He says it's excellent for beginners, and that the wave editor is really great. This one will run you about $25, but it apparently comes with a lot of tools in it, and there's a good chance you'll find something useful there.
There are tons of wave editors out there. This section could get really huge, so I'd like suggestions for what everyone uses.
This is what you'd use if your final output of your song was in multiple tracks (bassline.wav, strings.wav, drums.wav, etc) and you need to add effects to each track and compile them together into the final wave file (also called "making the final mixdown").
Zircon says Quartz Audiomaster (http://www.digitalsoundplanet.com) is a free 8 track audio editor with support for MIDI tracks. Probably the most useful of any freeware multitrack editor that you'll find.
Fray mentions DDClip, a free 4-track editor, but notes that its usefulness may be really limited.
CotMM suggests that Buzz Machines could be used to load each track as a wave, run them through Buzz's effects, and output to the hard disk recorder. This could be a large pain, however, and getting the timing just right could be pretty difficult. Use only as a last resort, or if you're a dedicated Buzz user.
Sound recorder can mix waves. Don't use it, ever.
Acid may or may not offer a demo. Don't make the mistake of using Acid's drumloops with your music - not only do drumloops tend to annoy the judges, but you can probably get better results (certainly more customizable results) if you write your drums yourself using samples.
MIDI to WAV Conversion
This is a tricky business, because there's no real way to just "convert MIDI to WAV" - one is just a stream of information with no samples, while the other is a sound wave. There are some programs that will use some decent samples to render your MIDIs to a WAV format however, and you should take note of the following:
WinGroove (shareware) is an older program that is a small download and will playback your MIDIs with its own little sample bank. You can install it as a device driver if you'd like and have it set to be the standard MIDI output interface for your computer, or you can simply use its MIDI to WAVE output to get some (sub-par yet) better-than-on-board samples for your tune. Not really recommended, since you can get much better and more customizable sounds with your own samples, but if you're hard-up for a quick solution then look no further. By the way, the demo lasts for like... a week or two, then nag screens set in.
Timidity (or Timidity++) can convert MIDI to WAV using its own GUS patches - some free ones (called EAWPATCHES) are available. These sound not too bad (though again, you'll undoubtedly be better finding your own samples instead), and you can make your own (somehow?), and the program is free. Timidity is also not a bad MIDI player, and doesn't require any special hardware, AND it works under Linux, so it's a win-win-win-win-win-win situation. Note that nobody here uses it.
You could always just use Winamp's WaveOut plugin though, and load some soundfonts into your card beforehand, and that would solve your problem very nicely. Of course you need a Soundblaster Live for this, but it tends to work pretty well. Most people either choose this option, or...
Fruity Loops can import MIDIs and attach samples (including Soundfonts) to specific tracks for playback and export. The Soundfont player is a demo plugin, though, and probably won't successfully export nor save your data unless you have the full version. Sorry, you'll have to pay for this one!
There's lots of other ways to 'convert MIDI to WAVE'. If none of these will work for you, ask around on the boards.
So you have your final wave file, and it's time to get it into a good format for distribution. MP3 files are a standardized format of audio compression that sounds good, produces small files, and are almost universally playable now. OGG is a new open-source GPL'ed format that encodes WAV files. Supposedly it's smaller and better sounding than a comparable bitrate MP3, but has less support esp. on portable devices (?). WMA is Microsoft's proprietary codec that many complain produces lower quality output (?), and is certainly less portable to other devices/operating systems (?). Leave the ideological discussion of "which codec is the best" for other places - just pick one you're comfortable with and use it. Since Winamp plays all three anyway, and so does Windows Media Player (?), much of your target audience will hear what you produce.
If you go MP3, you have only one real choice of encoder. Get LAME. You can get a frontend if you want, but just grabbing the Windows binary should be good enough. Drag WAV onto LAME.EXE and you get your MP3, constant bit rate optimized for whatever sound quality your WAV came as. Attach an ID3 if you like, and your song is ready for distribution. You can pass LAME some command-line switches to get VBR if you like, or use a frontend to handle all that for you. Recommended.
You could also use Blade-Enc to encode MP3 files, but it tends to produce the occasional audio glitch, and in various audio studies it's been shown to be somewhat inferior to LAME.
If you go OGG, you can get their encoder from the OGG-Vorbis website. I have not used it much, but it's probably command-line based like LAME. I do know there is a drag-and-drop frontend available. Record your stuff and pass it on to your friends.
If you go WMA, you've got to use Microsoft's tools. Windows Media Encoder is available off the Microsoft site... somewhere. Their encoding process is probably the most user-friendly, as I believe it's all GUI based. In any case, the final process will give you a WMA file of your very own remix.
This is the section for the hardcore free remixer. If you're reading this, you want to make music so completely free that you don't even pay for the operating system you use your free tools on. However, your selection of software is far more limited. Also, you probably need some Linux knowledge, as some of these tools may need you to compile them for your OS, locate various libraries, etc. If you search hard enough you can undoubtedly find a program to meet every need described above. Hopefully, this list will be a good place for you to begin your search.
This list is certainly incomplete, though it's getting fleshed out a little at a time. If you are a Linux user or know of any Linux software, post here! Also, many of these need some in-depth reviews from actual users, so don't hesitate to comment on your experiences with each program.
The Linux music scene is really starting to take off. In the spirit of Linux, lots of new little programs and libraries are being created to link virtually every Linux music program to every other one. Make sure you check out JACK, LADSPA, FluidSynth (Soundfonts under Linux? YES!), the ALSA sound architecture, and libaudiofile (?) to get the most out of each of these programs.
Metasquares wrote this segment in another post: "If you enjoy working with steps or piano rolls, Muse is probably your editor. If you like notation, Rosegarden is the best notation editor I've seen for Linux, and probably for any OS. Noteedit is a good alternative as well." I've recently picked up Rosegarden and I really like using it. Good support for all those little programs mentioned above, reasonably stable, looks good under KDE. Exports MIDI, can use FluidSynth, ALSA, and JACK. Great stuff. (Muse: http://muse.seh.de/ , Rosegarden: Check Google...)
If you want to print out sheet music in Linux, try Lilypond. However Metasquares warns it's not terribly user-friendly.
Buzz machine users rejoice - there's a couple alternatives for us too. Check out galan, the Graphical Audio Language. It looks to be really similar to Buzz Machines but is just now getting off the ground. Too bad it doesn't have lots of developers making lots of machines. Maybe there's some cool stuff to get out of it.
The other option is Beast, which uses the GTK toolkit and requires lots of other dependencies to get working. Looks like an even cooler Buzz Machines, and recommended by a few others in this thread. Check it out.
A few people are recommending a program called Psycle. It's sort of a synthesizer-sequencer-tracker mix that can produce some pretty neat stuff. It supports MIDI output and sample mixing. Plus, your MIDI keyboard will work with it (rejoice!) It's got a "machine" setup to it as well (sounds a bit like Buzz Machines) but with a little practice and a little help you can probably turn out some nice stuff with this free bit of software. Sounds neat.
NembaTheKid says to check out Sk@le, though he hasn't tried it. Anyone?
If you are in need of a multitrack editor, Legion303 says: "Ardour is looking quite impressive if you run linux and can get it to compile." (http://ardour.sourceforge.net) Also recommended by analoq, check it out. Audacity is an alternative, it seems to provide a good wave editor too and has a pretty good following.
Analoq mentioned that there's a very good tracker for Linux called SoundTracker that might be worth looking into if you want to mess with that setup. As far as I can tell it seems to be a tracker that's about as good as any of 'em, except this one works well under Linux. It also has JACK support, if you care. http://www.soundtracker.org/
Finally, for your encoding you'll basically be limited to MP3 or OGG. Both the OGG encoder and LAME are available in native Linux ports, which is good.
There's some good Mac music programs out there but a lot of it costs approximately one Boatload of money. If you look hard enough you'll come up with something. Hopefully when you do, you'll report it to this guide, escpecially since I don't own a Mac!
Xel points out a free version of ProTools, which is a really really high end recording and sequencing package. Not sure how limited the Free version is but maybe you can bang out something with it. If it's at all as functional as the real version, it sounds like it might be useful.
Audacity can also be made to compile for Mac, as can (most likely) a few other Linux programs above. You'll probably need OS X for that to work right, though.
Here are some free tools that don't fit in anywhere else. They include free sample sites, plugins, or anything else that might be useful.
Prophecy posted a link to Novakill's website (http://www.ar.com.au/~novakill/killerz.htm), which is a collection of about VSTi plugins. Check it out, you might find some useful ones.
Darj1 writes: "This isnt exactly free, but you can spend bout 15 dollars to get an issue of the Computer Music magazine. They boast to offer "Everything you need to make music on your computer." Every issue comes with a cd packed with samples, plugins, and all sorts of tools to help you make music. This includes a multi track sequencer called Computer Musys similar to acid or music maker or something. I find the cd they offer very very useful every month when it comes to learning bout music and making music." Not bad for $15. (http://www.computermusic.co.uk/main.asp)
Finally, Legion303 recommends checking out http://www.maz-sound.com/ - a huge listing and link site for trackers, MP3 encoders, samples, and more. Check it out.
In the end, it doesn't really matter what you pick for a sequencer (e.g. what you actually write the notes with). Just find a program you're comfortable with. As each one of the synthesizers and trackers listed above becomes closer together, you can do the same thing with any of them. Some are more well suited to certain work than others (try orchestral in MIDI, electronica in trackers, etc) but if you've practiced with a program long enough, you can accomplish virtually anything with any program.
This will hopefully provide you with some insight into the various free programs available, and give you at least a hint at where to start - no more "what program do I use to mix?" threads, we hope! If you come across something you think others might find useful, don't hesitate to post it, along with any review you think might be necessary. Everyone can benefit from your experiences. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Now go download something and get started already!