Free Sound Production Software: The Options
When looking for free sound production software, there are two main contenders. Others are available, but when looking for a stable programme, with regular updates, a wide range of support materials and lots of plug-ins, the two you will hear time and time again are Audacity and Garageband.
NOTE: Before we continue, Garageband is only available on macOS - if you only have access to Windows then the decision has been made for you - Audacity is the best, free sound production tools on Windows. Period.
Audacity is a free, easy-to-use, multi-track audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems. You can use Audacity to:
- Record live audio.
- Record computer playback on any Windows Vista or later machine.
- Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs.
- Edit WAV, AIFF, FLAC, MP2, MP3 or Ogg Vorbis sound files.
- AC3, M4A/M4R (AAC), WMA and other formats supported using optional libraries.
- Cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together.
- Numerous effects including change the speed or pitch of a recording.
- Write your own plug-in effects with Nyquist.
- And more...
Audacity is open source software - the source code is available for anyone to study or use. The amount of time and resources Audacity team have put in to offer us an extensive and completely free piece of software is amazing - please consider donating to support Audacity development. Anyone can contribute to Audacity by helping with documentation, translations, user support and by testing the latest code.
Audacity is a digital audio editor, not a digital audio workstation like Garageband. It’s mainly designed to manipulate audio data - which is convenient as that's exactly what we need to do when editing a podcast!
It has all the audio tools you'll need: level meters, multi-track recordings, sample rates up to 384KHz and 32-bit depth, true export in lossless formats like AIFF and FLAC, unlimited undo, change pitch and tempo, noise removal, and loads more built-in effects.
It also allows for more flexibility and fine-tuning of tracks than GarageBand.
Audacity doesn't have the most intuitive or good-looking user interface, and it comes with a learning curve. The sheer number of effects and settings can take a while to get used to if you don’t have any background in audio engineering so expect to spend several days getting comfortable with the software.
Audacity doesn't support MIDI recordings and doesn’t come with any pre-recorded material (e.g., loops) to help new music producers get started. This is a real hindrance if you plan on recording background music or a jingle for your podcast.
GarageBand is a fully equipped music creation studio inside your Mac — with a complete sound library that includes instruments, presets for guitar and voice, and an incredible selection of session drummers and percussionists.
GarageBand’s main job is to help you arrange and combine all of your individual audio sources into a single audio creation. This means that it's really useful when working with multiple tracks like a remote interview or various segments in an episode.
It's very stable and hardly ever crashes - important when you've been editing that 2 hour show all day!
GarageBand has a beautiful interface and smaller learning curve than Audacity - it should take you a couple of hours to find your way around.
It supports MIDI recording, and comes bundled with lots of pre-recorded loops and synths that you can use to make jingles and background music, even without any instruments.
Garageband is only available on macOS - it's free, but only if you have a Mac. If you have to buy a Mac to use it then it's not really free and stay away!
It's also not open source so Apple is in full control of the development and you may have to wait a long time for updates.
There is less flexibility with audio manipulation. For example, effects can only be added to entire tracks, not just sections. There are work-arounds but a simple thing can quickly get convoluted.
Which one should you choose?
If you don't have a Mac then the answer is simple - Audacity is simple enough to use, extremely well equipped, and versatile. With a bit of patience it is easy to master and will have you producing professional standard episodes in no time.
If you are a Mac user then it comes down to preference. Do you prefer versatility and fine-tuning tools, at the expense of usability and appearance? Use Audacity. Do you want simple, pick-up-and-play functionality, with a range of pre-loaded sounds and presets? Use Garageband.