Whether you are just starting out with your home recording studio, or you have been doing it for a while, the prospect of free stuff is very appealing.
The heart of your studio is the music production software, better known as a DAW (digital audio workstation), that lets you record, edit and mix your tracks. There are several different DAW packages available, and most (if not all) of them give you a free trial for 30 to 60 days.
Free music production software packages are available, and you are usually advised to stay away from them. But what if there was a great package that is free forever? And what if it was the software that is used in most professional recording studios?
What is the best free music production software? In our opinion this is Pro Tools | First, which is the free version of the Pro Tools software. As you might expect with a free package it has limitations, but the limitations are less of a problem that you might think. It includes some great instruments and effects, plus you learn how to use the production software that’s used in just about every professional recording studio.
So what is Pro Tools | First and why do we think it’s the best free music production software for you?
What is Pro Tools?
Pro Tools | First is the free version of Pro Tools, but what is Pro Tools?
Pro Tools is a digital audio workstation (DAW) package. I have heard people talking about Pro Tools for years and it seemed to be the only DAW software anyone ever talked about in relation to professional recording studios.
Pro Tools also seemed to be a combination of hardware and software, which confused me even more. However, I have now learned that the software is available as a stand-alone package that can be used with almost any audio or MIDI equipment that’s available.
I have been trying to find out a bit more about Pro Tools and it seems that a lot of people use it in their home studios. This surprised me since I thought Pro Tools was just for the big studios where the big stars traditionally recorded their music.
Recently I have been trying to see what DAW software various musicians and producers are using when they are filmed at their computers being interviewed or making music. A good number of them are using Pro Tools.
For example, I saw an interview with Charlie Puth and he was using Pro Tools on the computer in his home studio. In the Ed Sheeran “Songwriter” documentary you can see Benny Blanco recording and mixing Ed’s music on Pro Tools in his home studio, in the back or a bus and on a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. So Pro Tools seems to be take anywhere software.
Is Pro Tools | First Really Free?
Yes, Pro Tools | First really is free, and you can download it from the Avid website once you have set up an account with them (all you need is your email address). Once the software is installed you authorize it using the Pace iLok system. You just need to set up an iLok account for this (also free), which can be used to authorise all sorts of other products, so it’s a good idea to have an iLok account anyway.
And that’s it. Pro Tools | First isn’t a free trial version of the software that’s going to expire after a month or two. At the time of writing it’s a version of Pro Tools that you can keep using for as long as you like.
Another good thing about Pro Tools | First is that it runs on my five-year old MacBook. I don’t think the full Pro Tools version would run on my computer and it’s starting to struggle with some other DAW software that I use, so another thumbs-up for Pro Tools | First.
Other DAW products have a free “lite” version too, but it normally comes with a keyboard or other hardware product that you have to buy to get the software. Pro Tools | First is available for anyone to download and use.
Is There Any Other Good Free Music Production Software?
There is another free DAW software package that looks really good. It’s called Studio One 4 Prime and it’s produced by PreSonus and it’s the free version of Presonus Studio One, which comes in the commercial versions Artist and Professional. This can also be downloaded and installed for free by anyone and you can use it for as long as you like.
I haven’t had a chance to check out Studio One 4 Prime properly yet. I’ll give you an update when I have, and maybe we’ll have a new best free music production software package to tell you about. We’ll have to wait and see. For the time being we’re very impressed with Pro Tools | First so we’ll continue to focus on that.
What Do You Get with Pro Tools | First?
Obviously, since Pro Tools | First is free it’s not going to have as many features as the commercial version, but you definitely get enough functionality to get started with music production or learn how to use Pro Tools if you already have experience with other DAW software.
Number of Tracks Available
Pro Tools | First lets you have 16 audio tracks in a project plus 16 MIDI and 16 Instrument tracks (instrument tracks are MIDI tracks that have a software instrument on them). You can also have 16 auxiliary tracks that let you group things like drums and strings together.
The commercial version of the Pro Tools software allows 128 audio tracks, 512 instrument tracks and 1024 MIDI tracks. By comparison Pro Tools | First looks quite limited, but are you really going to use more than 16 of each type of track when you are getting started in your home studio? Probably not.
Software Instruments Included
Pro Tools | First comes with a couple of software “plug-in” virtual instruments that you can use to produce music inside the computer without the need for external instruments. You will need a midi keyboard to play these instruments, if you don’t have one already. These keyboards are pretty inexpensive, and you can get the little Akai one that I use on Amazon for about $50.
The first virtual instrument is called Xpand!2. This is a really versatile software instrument that can act as different types of synthesizer, subtractive and FM, and as a sample player. Xpand!2 comes with over 2000 preset sounds that you can use right away to build your tracks.
The other virtual instrument was only added to the Pro Tools | First package at the end of 2018. This is called UVI Workstation 3 and it seems to be very similar to Native Instruments Kontakt in the way it works.
UVI Workstation 3 enables you to play a huge variety of synth and sampled sounds, and it comes with a large sample library called Plugsound Avid Edition, which includes keyboard and synthesized sounds, music loops and drums. Samples like this can make your tracks sound great really quickly, so it’s a real bonus that this is now included with Pro Tools | First.
One more thing that you get as part of the download to help you get started is a 500MB sample library with loops and other sounds that are ready to use in your tracks.
Effects Plug-ins Included
Pro Tools | First comes with a small but very useful selection of effects plug-ins.
In the EQ and Dynamics category you get a compressor (which can be used as a limiter by turning the ratio setting right up) and two EQ plug-ins, a very simple one that lets you increase the level of a particular frequency of sound, and one that lets you adjust the levels across seven different frequencies.
In the Reverb and Delay category you get just that. One reverb unit and one delay unit.
People who are used having to a wider range of effects available to them might say this is a bit limited. Other people would say that you should learn to use a piece of equipment (in this case a software plug-in) as thoroughly as possible before moving on to something else.
In the old days (actually not that long ago) effects like these came as hardware and were very expensive, so producers had to use what they had to try to get the sound they wanted.
It’s Free Software but What’s the Catch?
The reduced number of tracks, instruments and effects that come with Pro Tools | First probably isn’t really that much of a limitation, especially if you still learning how to use this software, and DAW packages in general.
Pro Tools Needs a Specific Plug-in Format
All versions of Pro Tools seem to need software instrument and effects to be of a specific type – AAX format. This means that any VST or AU plugins you already have can’t be used with Pro Tools | First. Again, if you are just getting started you may not have any of these so in that case it won’t be a problem.
Like a lot of free software and apps, Pro Tools | First offers in-app purchases. I haven’t really explored these properly yet, but I’ve seen one thing on offer that is really great value. This is called the First Air Instrument Bundle. The bundle included five software instruments:
- AIR Boom, a drum computer with pattern sequencer
- AIR DB, a tonewheel organ simulator
- AIR Vacuum, an analog tube emulation synthesizer
- AIR Mini Grand, an acoustic grand piano
- AIR Structure Free, a sample player
This is a pretty impressive set of instruments, but how much does it cost? Well, the whole instrument bundle costs just $19.99. How’s that for great value?
Only Three Projects at a Time
The limitation in Pro Tools | First that a lot of people see as a problem is that you are restricted to having only three active projects at a time.
Rather than being stored on your computer, the projects you are working on are stored in Avid Cloud Storage. This lets them limit the number of active projects to three. However, if you want to have more active projects you can make a small monthly payment to have this number increased.
I actually found this limited number of projects to be quite helpful. Normally I start a project, decide it’s not going anywhere, and then start another one. In other DAW software I have dozens of these discarded projects, mainly because it’s so easy to abandon one and start another. Being limited to only three active projects (see below for how to get more) has actually helped me to work in a more disciplined way.
You are only limited to three active projects at any one time. You can delete one or all of the ones you have started to make more new projects available, so it’s not really that much of a limitation.
The Best Free Music Production Software
When considering all these supposed limitations, remember that the price is right. We believe that Pro Tools | First is the best free music production software available. A lot of companies would want payment for a cut-down version of their software, and these limited versions often cost around $100.
Avid have made the decision to offer Pro Tools | First for free as a way for people to try Pro Tools who might otherwise not. My perception that it was just for the pros (and the name doesn’t help) and probably very expensive put me off looking into Pro Tools for a long time.
Pro Tools | First certainly made me give Pro Tools a try and I’m looking forward to learning more about it and maybe having a look at the commercial version of Pro Tools too.