Free & Open Source Software for Musicians


Free & Open Source Software (or FOSS for short) is software that allows the user the freedom to analyse and modify its code.

There are all kinds of different FOSS programs and apps out there, from web browsers to office suites, editors to full blown operating systems! Of course, there is also loads of great software for musicians out there too.

For this list I have only compiled software that is cross platform (with the exception of the first entry). Everything on this list can be installed and run on at least Windows and Linux (with only one entry having dropped support for macOS).

Whilst there is far more great music (and musician helping) FOSS software out there than I could list, what I have listed here are some of my favourites that I use myself.


Ubuntu Studio


Type: Operating System
Based on: GNU/Linux
Similar to: Windows or macOS

Does putting an entire operating system in here count as cheating? Ubuntu Studio is a distribution of GNU/Linux designed specifically for Musicians and other artists. It is based on Ubuntu (which is based on Debian) and has loads of musical and artistic software preinstalled.

So, what makes Ubuntu Studio different from other operating systems? Is it the same as Ubuntu with extra software preinstalled? Why would this help a musician?

Well Ubuntu Studio comes preconfigured for audio work. For example, it uses the low latency version of the Linux Kernel. Latency is the enemy of any recording musician, it is the delay heard between a recording device (like an audio interface, or midi keyboard) and your computer. Anywhere you find audio latency you must eliminate it, Ubuntu Studio’s kernel being low latency gives the user an advantage in tackling this. It uses the lightweight Xfce as its desktop environment which allows you to focus your computers resources more on music software, and less on your desktop environment. As mentioned before it also comes with loads of audio production (as well as graphic design, video editing, 3D rendering, publishing etc) software preinstalled.

  • Low Latency Linux Kernel.
  • Ubuntu/Debian based.
  • Full music suite preinstalled.
  • Other useful software preinstalled.
  • Will not have/has limited access to more popular music programs, such as Pro Tools or Sibelius.
  • No LTS (Long Term Support) releases currently.
Also consider: KXStudio or AV Linux.

My own personal installation of Ubuntu Studio 18.04 (Still working on the layout).



Type: Notation Software
Platform: Windows/macOS/Linux/BSD
Similar to: Sibelius or Finale

It is in part through written notation that music from hundreds of years ago is still played today. Music notation is one of the most important parts of playing and composing music, and with music notation software anyone is able to compose, arrange or edit written music on their computer.

MuseScore is a fantastic piece of notation software, perfect for composing, arranging and reading music. It has very similar functionality to programs such as; Sibelius, but in a FOSS format. So, if you are familiar with programs such as Sibelius or Finale, or you have been considering getting a copy of either, have a look at MuseScore first, you might just like what you see.

Further to MuseScore’s functionality it also has a strong community of composers and arrangers who post their work to MuseScore’s website for others to download, play and edit.

  • Powerful notation software with a lot of instruments to write for.
  • Compatible with lots of (but not all) notation formats.
  • Access to lots of scores from their website.
  • Can export to PDF.
  • Not compatible with 100% of all formats.
  • Not as widely adopted as programs like Sibelius.
Also consider: TuxGuitar (Even though that’s more guitar orientated. It’s more like a FOSS version of Guitar Pro).

MuseScore with its handy dandy getting started score.



Type: DAW
Platform: Windows/macOS/Linux
Similar to: Pro Tools or Logic Pro

As mentioned earlier written music has been one of the most important parts of musical tradition for the past few hundred years. However, in the past century music recordings have taken over, and have become the standard in which most music is produced, sold and consumed.

For this reason, to most musicians a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is one of the (if not THE) most important piece of software they can own. It is the software that allows you to record what you play so that it can be saved, shared and sold.

Much like its contemporaries, Ardour is a powerful DAW that includes all of the features the modern recording artist has come to expect. This includes; the ability to record, edit, mix and master audio. Compatibility with multiple audio interfaces, and file formats. Ardour also has access to useful plugins, the ability to work on MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), and it does its best to adhere to popular music industry standards. Ardour features a video timeline, similar to Pro Tools.  In short Ardour is a fully professional grade DAW.

Ardour does have one minor caveat that the other entries on this list lacks; Ardour costs money. Ardour can be downloaded and used for free, however, the audio will go silent after 10 minutes. To enable its full feature set you must pay (it can be as little as $1). This grants you full access to Ardour and you will also receive minor updates. Major updates cost more, or if you paid $45+ in the first place you will have access to the next major update. Ardour also features a subscription system if that is more your thing. Although for the most part in FOSS we have become accustomed to getting our software free of charge, it is not at all unreasonable to charge money for one’s hard work. When compared to other DAW’s such as Pro Tools or Logic Pro, Ardour is very cheap and affordable.

  • Powerful DAW.
  • Built in audio latency tester.
  • Compatibility with a vast array of hardware and audio interfaces.
  • Not as widely adopted as other DAW’s, such as Pro Tools or Logic Pro.
  • The price can put some people off, but when compared to the cost of other DAW’s Ardour is rather cheap.
Also consider: LMMS.

Ardour 5.12, all ready to begin work on editing this audio.



Type: DAW
Platform: Windows/macOS/Linux
Similar to: Cubase

We have all probably used Audacity before and been quite underwhelmed by it too. Well Audacity is far better than you think and used correctly it can work wonders, maybe it’s time to give it a second look.

Audacity is a far simpler DAW than Ardour. This can be both a blessing and a curse; for intense workloads it would make more sense to opt for something more powerful. On the other hand, it is a blessing in its simplicity for the user, and also in how it can be run on even very weak hardware.

For more serious work I would recommend Ardour, that said Audacity is perfect for when you need to quickly record something in a pinch. It also works well for contingency recording. If you were to record a screen capture for example, a lot of people who use programs such as OBS will record their voice on Audacity as well, just in case OBS fails to record the audio properly.

I personally use Audacity if I need to edit up some simple audio (audio that doesn’t need mixing or mastering, just cutting and pasting), it is nice and light and allows me to do these quick edits with little headache. It is also the perfect tool for converting audio into different formats in case you are having difficulty with formats on other audio programs.

Audacity has access to a lot of plugins which make it far more usable than most people give it credit for. In fact, it is fantastic for vocal recording. For a full musical project, I would recommend something like Ardour instead, but for spoken vocal audio Audacity works wonders. It is also very useful for audio spectrum analysis.

Recent versions of Audacity have even had an updated user interface (UI). Audacity now looks slick and modern (before it looked like it was stuck in the year 1999), and even features a dark theme perfect for working at night, as a lot of us find ourselves doing.

  • Great for recording when in a pinch.
  • Can be run on very weak hardware.
  • Audacity isn’t the most powerful DAW.
  • I have occasionally had trouble with some audio interfaces and Audacity.
Also consider: Ardour or LMMS.

Audacity running two stereo tracks.



Type: Music Programing
Platform: Windows/macOS/Linux/BSD
Similar to: ?

Truth be told, I don’t personally use SuperCollider. I have almost no coding experience, and I prefer to write music using traditional notation, or by recording myself playing a physical instrument. However, SuperCollider was an integral part of the sister course to the course I studied at university, and the things I saw my fellow students accomplish with SuperCollider blew my mind.

SuperCollider allows the user to create music using code. If you are interested in making music but are currently unable to play an instrument but can write computer code then you should be able to begin right away on SuperCollider.

SuperCollider requires the user to learn its own programming language called; sclang. However, sclang shares commonality with other programming languages, which if you are familiar with, should make learning sclang far easier. SuperCollider also uses plugins and can use cross platform graphical user interfaces (GUI’s).

Not only is music on SuperCollider composed as pieces of music to be distributed and sold, but also as live music. Just as electronic musicians produce their music live to an audience so to do SuperCollider users who live code their music to audiences.

  • Turn your coding ability into music.
  • Can be used as both a studio tool as well as a live one.
  • Requires the ability to know how to code (obviously not a con if you know how to).
  • Uses its own programming language which you will have to learn (although it is similar to others).
Also consider: Pure Data or Overtone.

SuperCollider with an example script from their website. Unfortunately, I am not well versed in coding.



Type: Music Player/Library Manager
Platform: Windows/macOS/Linux
Similar to: iTunes or foobar2000

Clementine is a fantastic music player. Personally, it is my pick to be my next music player for if (or more likely when) Apple stops support for iTunes (or at least makes it streaming only). It is a fork (FOSS term for a piece of software based upon another) of Amarok which is another great FOSS music player.

Clementine allows you to store, play and edit your music collection. It allows you to play music from local storage (your hard drive or SSD), from cloud storage (including Dropbox and Google Drive), and from internet services (such as Soundcloud). It can also be used to listen to internet radio and podcasts.

The implementation of internet services doesn’t end there, using metadata Clementine can get song information, lyrics and album covers from the internet. If you are curious about the artist or album you are listening to, Clementine can also show you a biography of the artist.

Clementine can also work as a drop-in replacement for iTunes due to its compatibility with iPods and iPhones. The compatibility continues on the hardware side with support for other mp3 devices, and on the software side with support for a plethora of file formats. It even comes with an Android app that turns your phone into a remote to control Clementine, or you can even use a Wii Remote!

Clementine is an all-round fantastic music player, if you are familiar with iTunes then you will be happy to know that Clementine can do everything iTunes can and more, you can even customise it. Nothing is perfect however; Clementine’s one weak point is its development. Its last stable update 1.3.1 came out in April 2016, however, if you look on Clementine’s GitHub page you will be glad to see that there is still work being done to it.

  • Customisable.
  • Music can be played from multiple sources.
  • iPod/iPhone compatible.
  • Very slow development.
  • The default config might not be to everyone’s tastes (but it is easily changeable).
Also consider: Amarok.

I have my Clementine set to have a dark theme, I think it suits my Iron Maiden collection quite nicely.



Type: Non-Liniar Video Editor
Platform: Windows/Linux/BSD (macOS version no longer supported as of time of writing)
Similar to: Adobe Premier or Vegas Pro

Being a modern musician means more than just playing, composing and recording music. You have to put yourself out there for people to see, one way is through video, and every video project needs a powerful video editor, enter; Kdenlive.

Kdenlive is an incredibly powerful video editing tool from Kde, it can go toe to toe with the likes of Adobe Premier or Vegas Pro. I have recently adopted it as my main video editor for my music YouTube channel (that’s by the way), and after getting used to it I have come to love it. It allows me to create everything I see in my head when I begin making a video, other video editors have failed me in this regard.

Kdenlive is chock full of effects, transitions and filters. Being a non-linear video editor, it is easy to splice together multiple pieces of video footage or audio and have them interact with each other however you see fit. It is highly compatible with different media formats for video, pictures and audio, however, it is a little less expansive with the formats it renders to. Don’t get me wrong, it does a great job in rendering to useful formats, but sometimes it falls short, more so on the Windows side of things. That brings us on to the main negative of Kdenlive: It can be a bit buggy, and with the Windows version still being developed it is more so here.

That said, I trust Kdenlive as my number one video editor, and with each release it gets better and better.

  • Incredibly powerful video editor.
  • Can do pretty much everything Premier can, but it’s free.
  • Sometimes crashes.
  • Windows version can be buggy.
  • macOS version no longer supported.
Also consider: OpenShot.
screenshot of kdenlive

Here is the finished project for a cover of Motörhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’. You can find it here:



Type: Image Manipulation Program
Platform: Windows/macOS/Linux/BSD
Similar to: Adobe Photoshop

Just as with Kdenlive, the modern musician must become a Jack of all trades, and one trade that is worth its weight in gold is image manipulation.

GIMP stands for the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is basically Adobe Photoshop but free (in both definitions). I personally use GIMP to create thumbnails and other graphics for both my YouTube videos and my website.

It can be utilised by a musician for many different tasks, including (but not limited to); album artwork, logo creation (although I would pair that with a vector graphics editor such as Inkscape) and creating promotional material such as posters and flyers. Then there are the less obvious things, such as my aforementioned video thumbnails, or making that photo of your band look even better than it did before.

Simply put, music and visual art go hand in hand, GIMP gives you great access to that.

  • Can do pretty much anything Photoshop can, but it’s free.
  • Lots of information and tutorials online to help.
  • Can be a bit difficult to use sometimes.
  • Not as widely adopted as Photoshop.
Also consider: Inkscape.
screenshot of gimp

Working on the thumbnail for one of my YouTube videos. The video can be found here:



Type: Blog/Website Maker
Platform: Windows/macOS/Linux
Similar to: Blogger

We have covered creating visual media to go alongside and to promote yourself as a musician, but of course still one of the most important things for getting yourself out there as a modern musician is to have your own website.

Now this is an interesting one; as I am currently writing this article on, and indeed this website is hosted by WordPress. Well there is a reason for that.

I find WordPress to be a great tool for creating a website (or a blog if that is more your cup of tea). You can use it (in a limited capacity) for free, upload a lot of useful media (like pictures), and easily manage your website and posts. Then of course there is the paid option which opens up the full version of WordPress to you.

The reason specifically I am recommending WordPress on my list (other than the fact that I use it myself) and a good reason why I use it; is that it is FOSS, it uses the GPL (the GNU General Public Licence).

  • Allows you to create a free website.
  • Great desktop and mobile clients.
  • I have found the browser version to be a bit buggy, the client is much better though.
  • A lot of features exist behind a pay wall. However, this is commonplace for creating a website, a lot can still be done quite easily using the free model.
Also consider: Drupal.

Writing and editing this very article!

GNU, Linux and Others



Open Source Initiative:
Linux Foundation:

Despite what operating system you might run, it is because of GNU and Linux (as well as many other projects and software communities) that we have most of this Free and Open Source Software available to us today. If you have found any Free and Open Source Software useful, then you should definitely consider contributing to any of these projects.

There are many ways to contribute. These include; donating money to the projects, which can be done through direct donation or though purchasing merchandise (some of the money I paid for the Ubuntu Studio T-shirt you can see me in at the top of the article with has gone to the project). Not all contributions have to be financial however, if you are good at coding you can jump right in and help with the actual development of FOSS software! If you are good at creating graphics or artwork then you can also get involved. Through creating this article (as well as others) I am doing my part by helping to promote FOSS.

I believe that Free and Open Source Software can only be a benefit to musicians and going into the future it will continue to help all musicians.

So, did you find any of these useful?

If you did and would like to see their development continue you can contribute either to the code or contribute financially.

If you have any other suggestions of great Free and Open Source Software that would benefit musicians please leave a comment, I would love to know what you suggest.

Do Desktop Environments Affect Audio Latency? (Article)

Does the desktop environment you use affect audio latency in any way? Do different environments cause more or less latency? This is what I have been trying to find out.

This is a companion article to a video experiment. Please watch the video as well as reading the article.

Audio latency is the natural born enemy of all recording musicians. It is the delay that can occur between your playing and the actual recording on your computer. Audio engineers, software developers and hardware manufacturers do everything they can to reduce audio latency as much as possible.

I use Ubuntu Studio to help with my work as a musician. It is set up to be great for audio work, from the software that comes preinstalled to the Low Latency Linux Kernel, it feels like everything on it has been tailored to give you the best experience. This got me thinking however. It uses Xfce for its desktop environment, which is light on resource usage making it a good choice for running other creative programs such as video editors or 3D renderers, but does it have any effect on audio latency? And if so, how does it compare to other desktop environments?

Set up

I chose to test the majority of popular Linux desktop environments on my computer, which is running Ubuntu Studio 17.10 with the Low Latency Linux Kernel 4.13.0-45. I used Ardour 5’s audio latency test on each desktop environment, testing them five times each for both ALSA and Jack. I logged out and back in to every session after each test to try and give the fairest results.

Unfortunately, some of the environments refused to run Ardour, these were:

  • Unity
  • Cinnamon
  • Budgie
  • LXDE

I was however able to test these desktop environments:

  • Kde Plasma
  • Gnome
  • MATE
  • LXQt
  • Xfce
  • i3
  • OpenBox

Each desktop environment was set to its default config, I disabled the conky I had running, and I only started testing after I had installed all of the desktop environments. I did this so if there was any risk of bloat from the environments negatively affecting results, this will be on every test, thus making its effects redundant.

The Test

Other than the issue with some desktop environments refusing to run Ardour 5, the testing itself went quite smoothly. For each environment you may find screenshots of every test for both ALSA and Jack, these results will be elaborated on in the Results section of this article (as well as in the video).

Heavy Desktop Environments



Gnome is one of the most popular desktop environments for Linux distributions, it is very modern in design, but can be a bit resource heavy. For this reason, you don’t see it offered as standard on many audio production Linux distributions.

The results for Gnome are:

Gnome ALSA 1

gnome alsa 1

Gnome ALSA 2

gnome alsa 2

Gnome ALSA 3

gnome alsa 3

Gnome ALSA 4

gnome alsa 4

Gnome ALSA 5

gnome alsa 5

Gnome Jack 1

gnome jack 1

Gnome Jack 2

gnome jack 2

Gnome Jack 3

gnome jack 3

Gnome Jack 4

gnome jack 4

Gnome Jack 5

gnome jack 5

Kde Plasma 5


Plasma is the desktop environment from the Kde community, it utilises the Qt framework, and is already being used by the audio production Linux distribution KXStudio. Despite its reputation for being heavy it can be stripped down to be lighter.

The results for Kde Plasma are:

Plasma ALSA 1

plasma alsa 1

Plasma ALSA 2

plasma alsa 2

Plasma ALSA 3

plasma alsa 3

Plasma ALSA 4

plasma alsa 4

Plasma ALSA 5

plasma alsa 5

Plasma Jack 1

plasma jack 1

Plasma Jack 2

plasma jack 2

Plasma Jack 3

plasma jack 3

Plasma Jack 4

plasma jack 4

Plasma Jack 5

plasma jack 5

Lightweight Desktop Environments



MATE is the continuation of the old Gnome 2 desktop environment. It is lighter than Gnome 3 and quite customisable. It is a popular choice for a lot of Linux users, but doesn’t seem to be offered as standard on many audio production distributions.

The results for MATE are:


mate alsa 1


mate alsa 2


mate alsa 3


mate alsa 4


mate alsa 5

MATE Jack 1

mate jack 1

MATE Jack 2

mate jack 2

MATE Jack 3

mate jack 3

MATE Jack 4

mate jack 4

MATE Jack 5

mate jack 5



Xfce is the default desktop environment for multiple audio focused Linux distributions including Ubuntu Studio and AV Linux. It is light weight, customisable and stable.

The results for Xfce are:

Xfce ALSA 1

xfce alsa 1

Xfce ALSA 2

xfce alsa 2

Xfce ALSA 3

xfce alsa 3

Xfce ALSA 4

xfce alsa 4

Xfce ALSA 5

xfce alsa 5

Xfce Jack 1

xfce jack 1

Xfce Jack 2

xfce jack 2

Xfce Jack 3

xfce jack 3

Xfce Jack 4

xfce jack 4

Xfce Jack 5

xfce jack 5



LXQt is the evolution of LXDE (which failed to run Ardour and so has been omitted from this experiment), it has done away with the GTK framework which LXDE used and is focusing on using the Qt framework (which Kde Plasma also uses). It is still under development and so has yet to be incorporated into audio production Linux distributions.

The results for LXQt are:


lxqt alsa 1


lxqt alsa 2


lxqt alsa 3


lxqt alsa 4


lxqt alsa 5

LXQt Jack 1

lxqt jack 1

LXQt Jack 2

lxqt jack 2

LXQt Jack 3

lxqt jack 3

LXQt Jack 4

lxqt jack 4

LXQt Jack 5

lxqt jack 5

Super Lightweight Desktop Environments



i3 is a very interesting desktop environment. It is run almost entirely from the user’s keyboard and uses a tiling window manager. It is a top choice for people who want to squeeze the most performance out of their computers. However, it isn’t really offered as standard with audio production Linux distributions.

The results for i3 are:

i3 ALSA 1

i3 alsa 1

i3 ALSA 2

i3 alsa 2

i3 ALSA 3

i3 alsa 3

i3 ALSA 4

i3 alsa 4

i3 ALSA 5

i3 alsa 5

i3 Jack 1

i3 jack 1

i3 Jack 2

i3 jack 2

i3 Jack 3

i3 jack 3

i3 Jack 4

i3 jack 4

i3 Jack 5

i3 jack 5



Picture credit:

OpenBox is an incredibly light weight desktop environment, it lacks panels which at first might seem like a bad thing, but the environment works very well by right clicking the desktop to access all of your programs. Negating a panel means less resources are used on the desktop itself and more can be allocated to other things. OpenBox comes as one of the desktop environments offered on the audio production Linux distribution Musix.

The results for OpenBox are:

OpenBox ALSA 1


OpenBox ALSA 2


OpenBox ALSA 3


OpenBox ALSA 4


OpenBox ALSA 5


OpenBox Jack 1


OpenBox Jack 2


OpenBox Jack 3


OpenBox Jack 4


OpenBox Jack 5



I was honestly surprised by the results. Going into this I was doubtful that there would even be a difference between desktop environments, and I believed that if there was a difference it would be negligible. However, there does seem to be a difference between the desktop environments. For the most part the hypothesis that heavier desktop environments would cause more latency has held true, at least for ALSA. Indeed, the results are quite different between ALSA and Jack.

The latency test covers two different kinds of latency; Detected Roundtrip Latency and Systemic Latency. I chose to take my results from the Systemic Latency test, which is split into Milliseconds and Samples. This has been done for both ALSA and Jack.

Below are the graphs for all of the results:

alsa millialsa samplesjack millijack samples

excel results

When it comes to ALSA i3 won overall. Seemingly proving (although more testing would be preferred) the hypothesis that a lighter desktop environment will cause less audio latency than a heavier one. i3 won when testing audio latency in both milliseconds and samples. OpenBox came a close second, followed by Xfce. Gnome, Kde Plasma, MATE and LXQt all did a lot worse in this test, with LXQt fairing the worst. This is most likely due to LXQt still being in development.

Jack however, is a rather different story. Kde Plasma came out on top, with overall improved results compared to ALSA. Kde Plasma is significantly ahead of the other major desktop environments, and even comfortably ahead of the super light weights. i3 and OpenBox follow, but with OpenBox leading ahead of i3 this time around. LXQt did better, MATE and Gnome came last, and Xfce slid down the ranks from third best, to third worst.


These results are very interesting. They seem to prove for the most part (once again more testing would be needed to completely confirm this) the hypothesis that lighter weight desktop environments cause less audio latency to occur than heavier desktop environments.

Even with the evidence of desktop environments such as i3 and OpenBox doing so well, I still believe distributions such as Ubuntu Studio choosing to use Xfce as their default desktop environment is a good choice. Although both i3 and OpenBox are great desktop environments that offer lightning fast speed and minimal resource usage for the user, they aren’t what one would consider to be a ‘standard’ desktop environment. By this I mean Xfce follows a desktop paradigm that most users are familiar with. On the other hand, i3 and OpenBox follow more unique paradigms which can be confusing for the average user, or to a recording engineer who isn’t interested in learning a new paradigm, and just wants to get on with recording, mixing and mastering.

There are rumours that Ubuntu Studio are considering implementing a second default desktop environment to go alongside their Xfce based distribution. This potential desktop environment is Kde Plasma. When I first heard this, I was sceptical as Kde Plasma is seen as being quite system intensive when compared to other desktop environments. However, with the results of the Jack portion of this experiment it seems as though, for audio work at least, Kde Plasma would make a good companion for Ubuntu Studio as a second default desktop environment. Just on a side note Kde Plasma would suit Ubuntu Studio for a lot of non-audio work cases. For example, a reasonable amount of the software bundled with Ubuntu Studio are either Qt based, or a full part of Kde itself, for example the video editor Kdenlive.

In conclusion, I would recommend that anyone looking to squeeze as much performance for their audio production work as possible, out of their computer, should consider either i3 or OpenBox if they mostly work using ALSA (although their performance under Jack was also very good), or Kde Plasma if they plan on working mostly using Jack.

For now, I plan on continuing using Xfce as my desktop environment and doing more research into this topic. If you have any words of advice for me, or comments and criticisms about my experiment please comment, either on this article or on the video. If you would like to attempt this experiment yourself, a similar experiment, or you find a way of running the experiment on the desktop environments I couldn’t, then please publish your work and link it to me, I am fascinated to see what other people find. With any luck we will be able to come to a definitive answer, as to whether desktop environments affect audio latency, and which is the best overall desktop environment to use for audio production.


Here are links to articles I read in preparation for this experiment. Some are quite old, but they came in handy.