How to make music for free! (or almost free!)

Making music can be an expensive endeavor. When you start looking into instruments, recording equipment, recording software, etc., it can be daunting and discouraging if you don’t have a lot of money on hand to spend. I have compiled this list of free or inexpensive options for you to make music with whatever means you have at your disposal, as long as you have a reasonably good computer or smartphone and some spare time.

I did not provide links to anything listed below because links break, products change, etc. A simple google search should lead you right to whatever the thing is. Nothing listed here is some weird product that can only be found in a dark corner of the internet. 

Websites: All of the websites listed here are free to use. Many have paid account options that unlock more functionality or sounds, but the base account is free. All of these will run in the Chrome browser, but some will also run in Safari or other browsers. Some are good for learning about music and music production, others are fully-featured online digital audio workstations that will let you export audio files to share.

Chrome Music Lab

Beepbox.co

Soundation.com

Audiotool.com

io808.com

Sampulator.com

Learningsynths.ableton.com

Websynths.com

Bandlab.com

Audacity.com

Soundtrap.com

Mobile Apps: Here are some free or inexpensive apps for mobile devices. All of these are available on iOS, but all should be available for Android devices (besides Garage Band).

Garage Band (iOS only)

Model D (minimoog model d emulation)

Synth One 

Klankwelle (modular synthesizer on mobile. Incredible.)

Koala Sampler

Flip Sampler

Digital Audio Workstations: These are fully featured programs you can use to record professional audio into your computer. The full versions are typically pretty expensive, but each has a “lite” or “trial” version that is free to use, plus some pared down versions that can be pretty inexpensive compared to the fully featured version. 

Garage Band (OS X only, will only run AU plugins)

Reaper

Ableton Live Lite

Logic Pro X (OS X only)

FL Studio

VCV Rack (this is a fully featured modular synthesizer program that is 100% free, though some modules cost money and integrating the program into your DAW also costs money for the plugin that allows this. VCV is basically a DAW in it’s own right, although very different from the others on this list. I urge you to try it. It is the most amazing thing.)

Plugins: These are software instruments, effects, or other processors that are designed to run inside of a Digital Audio Workstation. Many DAWs will come with a set of plugins that you don’t need to buy, but there are also lots of good free ones out there that are very useful and powerful. All of these are free and available for OS X, but many or all will also be available for Windows or Linux. Pay attention to 32 vs 64 bit plugins, as well as the difference between VST, VST3, VSTi, VST3i, AU, and AUi. (For instance, Garage Band will only run AU plugins.) Other good places to look for free or paid plugins are plugins4free.com and pluginboutique.com. 

TAL reverbs

Glitchmachines (Fracture and Hysterisis)

Blue Cat Audio bundle

Melda free bundle

Spitfire Audio LABS (sample libraries)

Native Instruments Komplete Start (sample libraries)

Valhalla Supermassive delay/reverb

Pancake 2 pan automation

Voxengo Span

YouLean Loudness Meter

Izotope Vinyl emulation

Airwindows plugins

Klanghelm free processing plugins

Stochas sequencer

TDR Nova

Convology XT

Reverb drum machine sample libraries

Sampleson SUB virtual analog drum machine

Matt Tytel Helm (synth)

Matt Tytel Vital (synth)

PG8X (Roland JX-8P emulation)

OB-Xd (Oberheim OB-X emulation)

FB-3300 (Korg PS-3300 emulation)

Dexed (FM synthesizer, Yamaha DX7 emulation)

Tyrell N6 (virtual analog synthesizer, loosely based on the Roland Juno 60)

USB microphones: These are cheap microphones that will not require a USB audio interface to record into a computer because they have one built in. All of those listed below are around $100 new and can often be found for much cheaper used.

Audio Technica AT2005USB

Audio Technica AT2020USB

Rode NT-USB

USB audio interfaces: These are inexpensive audio interfaces that will allow you to record at least one and sometimes two channels of audio into your computer simultaneously. All of those listed below are around $100 new and can often be found for much cheaper used. 

Behringer U-Phoria UM2

Focusrite Solo

Focusrite 2i2

Presonus Audiobox

M-Audio M-Track Duo

IK Multimedia iRig

Zoom U-22

Inexpensive MIDI controllers: These are inexpensive MIDI controllers that will enable you to play notes or input control messages into your computer without using your mouse, track pad or QWERTY keyboard. They may also allow you to control external devices via USB MIDI and/or 5-pin MIDI I/O, depending on the controller. All of those listed below are around $50-$100 new and can often be found for much cheaper used. 

Akai LPK25

Akai LPD8

Akai MPK Mini

Novation Launchpad mini (intended for Ableton only but can be programmed to use with other DAWs)

Novation Launchkey mini

Arturia Keystep

Arturia Beatstep

Inexpensive hardware synthesizers and drum machines: These are inexpensive hardware instruments you can use to make music. Some have flexible connectivity, some do not. It is important to know what kinds of inputs and outputs each device has before purchasing to make sure it will meet your needs and capabilities. Pay attention to their MIDI capabilities, USB, ? vs ? audio I/O, and in some cases their syncing capabilities with such features as CV or Gate I/O. All of these range from about $100-$200.

Korg Volcas

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators

Bastl Kastle

Behringer RD-6 drum machine

Behringer TD-3 analog bass synthesizer

Korg NTS-1

Korg Monotron DELAY and Monotron DUO

Modal Craft Synth 2.0

Coding/Software design: I don’t know a lot about this but if you are interested in coding or programming your own software to make music, a few good options I’ve heard of are Pure Data, ORCA, Tidal Cycles, and Supercollider. You’ll have to look these up and learn about them on your own.

Shopping: Here’s where to buy stuff new and used. 

Sweetwater: Has a great sales staff and most products will allow you to set up 3 or 6 month financing with no interest without opening a credit account with some weird bank. If you are okay with having an account with a weird bank you’ve never heard of, they allow 24 or 36 month financing with zero interest. (I have done this and never had an issue). 

Reverb: New and used gear. Trustworthy and professional.

eBay: New and used gear. Be careful to not buy stuff from someone who joined yesterday. If a listing seems too good to be true, it probably is. eBay is generally good about refunding your money if you get scammed. They also help you if you sell things and the buyer never pays. I’ve never had any major issues in many years of buying and selling on eBay. 

Pawn shops, thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales, etc. If you live in a big enough area, wander around to these types of places every now and then. Sometimes people sell high quality or rare gear for dirt cheap. Who knows, you could be that one person who finds a vintage mint condition Prophet 5 for $50. 

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