12 great free and open-source music making programs
4th Sep 2013 | 08:00
Who doesn’t love free software? Still, you might be unaware that “free” doesn’t always mean free in the sense you might expect.
There are important distinctions between what we call “freeware” and what is known as “free software”, “free and open source software” or “free, libre and open source software”.
The main difference is in the definition of the word “free”, which has multiple meanings. Freeware is provided at no cost - so it is free in that sense – but are you free to do anything you like with it? Can you re-distribute it without the developer’s permission? The answer is usually no.
However, this isn’t always the case. Some free software is free as in “freedom”, meaning not only that it (probably) costs nothing but, more crucially, that you’re free to do whatever you like with it. You can re-distribute it however you like, or even tap into the code and change it to suit your needs. Yes, developers of such software make the source code freely available to any and all to do with as they like. This is what the term “open source” is all about.
More importantly, some free software doesn’t involve restrictive end user license agreements. As free software advocates like to point out, we’re talking about free as in “free speech” not just free as in “free beer”.
Over the next few slides we’ve rounded up 12 excellent free and open source applications worth investigating and experimenting with.
For loads more on the different varieties of free and open source music applications, and how to use them, pick up the October issue of Computer Music (CM 195), which is on sale now.
Mac, Windows and Linux-compatible, this GPL-licensed program can do everything you’d expect from a commercial audio editor.
Edit samples and songs, process audio files, burn CDs and export a wide range of audio file formats including WAV, AIF or MP3. After Mozilla’s Firefox browser, Audacity might well be the best-known and most widely used open source music application.
Got a folder full of Akai, Giga or DLS samples? You can play them or make your own sample-based instruments in LinuxSampler.
Despite the name, it is available for OS X, Windows and - natch - Linux. It’s really just a sampler “engine”, and you decide which front-end to use. Options include Qsampler or Fantasia GUIs, among others. Well realised and mature.
Released under the GNU GPL for Mac, Windows and Linux, Cecelia is a CSound-based graphical environment for music and signal processing.
Additive, subtractive, granular synthesis and processing and more are presented within an easy-to-use GUI.
Need a wickedly powerful drum machine? Available for Linux and OS X, Hydrogen is an advanced pattern-based drum sequencer and mixing environment.
With swing and humanisation functions onboard, along with the ability to layer both samples and patterns, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way to build beats for free.
A sweeping visual programming language for multimedia, Pure Data is an open source program released under a “Modified BSD” license, considered GPL-compatible by the Free Software Foundation.
If you always wanted to get into the Max or Kyma systems but lack the bread, this one’s for you. Mac, Windows, Linux and even Android and iOS are supported.
A Linux, Windows and OS X program that was among the first open-source products to be made available in Apple’s App Store, Mixxx provides a professional quality DJ mixing environment that can read MP3, Ogg Vorbis, WAV, AIFF and FLAC formats, among others.
Support for more than a dozen hardware controllers is written in, too, for hands-on mixing. Nice.
Another DAW initially developed for Linux and now in alpha for Windows, too, Rosegarden is a fully realised MIDI and audio workstation with all the trimmings.
It’s been around since 1993, if you can believe it, and it shows in the highly evolved, mature workflow. Released under the GPL license.
Yet another nifty DAW, this one’s strictly for Linux users.
Everything you need is here, including support for a wide variety of plugins (DSSI, LADSPA, Lv2 and VST in both native Linux and Wine-wrapped guises). Fully integrated with Jack and Linux’s ALSA, Qtractor is easy to use and easy on the eyes. It’s released under the GNU/GPL license.
Our second entry from Qtractor creator Rui Nuno Capela, samplv1 is a classic hardware-style soft sampler with multimode filtering, plenty of modulation options and a supremely easy-to-handle GUI.
It sounds the business and can be used standalone with Jack or as an Lv2 plugin. This one’s Linux-only.
Another one for OS X, Windows and Linux, this GNU GPL release has been in active development since 1996.
Designed as a programming language for real-time synthesis and algorithmic composition, SuperCollider is dense and deep. Books, seminars and workshops exist for those inclined to take the plunge.
SonicBirth is a massive modular construction environment that enables the user to patch together individual modules in order to create their own audio effects, synthesisers and more.
Better still, anything created in SonicBirth can be exported as either a VST or Audio Units plugin. It can get pretty deep, for sure, but it’s well worth the effort for those with a bit of time to commit.
This one is available for OS X and released under the GNU license.
From the man behind Cecilia and Zyne, Soundgrain taps into the weird and wonderful world of granular processing.
Released under GNU GPL for Windows, OS X and Linux, it’s a blast to use and easy to figure out.