Break beats, not budgets: Affordable music technology

Bradley Smith
Friday, September 1, 2023

Music tech expert Bradley Smith provides some sensible options, from free web-based apps to hardware and software licenses.

 Chrome experiments: Song Maker
Chrome experiments: Song Maker

As music subject leaders gear up for the start of the new academic year, so the search for affordable yet effective music technology begins. The world of music technology offers numerous options to enhance learning and accessibility, and there are cost-effective solutions for both educator and learner if you know where to look.

Free web-based music applications

When it comes to bringing music technology to the classroom on a budget, web-based apps can be an ideal place to start. There are countless free options available and these can run on low specification computers, inside a web browser. This means no installation and no involvement from colleagues in the IT department. This level of access is excellent for schools but also for young people continuing to use these free tools outside of school.

Here are a few notable web-based applications that are worth exploring:

Chrome Music Lab: Song Maker

This app allows students to explore melody, rhythm and harmony by adding colourful blocks – representing musical notes – onto a grid. With its simple user-interface, there are enough features available to teach the fundamentals of composition, without it being daunting or complicated to use. In Settings, you can choose between a few scales, set the time-signature, and limit or extend the number of bars a pupil has to work within.


Addtexture is a minimal yet engaging app that is ideal for exploring soundscapes, foley and texture. It provides six environmental and foley sounds, as coloured blocks, which the pupils can make louder or quieter in the mix to create interesting sound collages. At the click of a button, pupils can generate six entirely new sounds to use – and with over 3 trillion possible combinations, there is plenty for pupils to explore and be unique with. Set your class a brief to make a soundscape for a short video clip and easily save or share their creations, by copying a provided URL.

Roland50 Studio

Roland has made a ‘digital reworking’ of some of their most famous and influential devices. Let your pupils explore and combine seven Roland synths and drum machines to compose their own electronic creations, using by-step sequencing patterns and adjusting parameters to alter the qualities of the sounds. There is an easy-to-use recording function so that performances can be downloaded as a file or shared with others using a provided link.

Essential classroom hardware

For pupils to record successfully into DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), with low latency, you need an audio interface that connects to the computer. The M-Audio M-Track Solo USB Audio Interface, with over-ear studio headphones, represents a good-value option. The bundle includes a USB audio interface that has XLR and 1/4 inch inputs, meaning you have flexibility over what type of audio devices you want to plug in: a microphone, for live instruments/vocals, or iPads, keyboards and other electronic instruments. The interface also has phantom power for those occasions when you're recording with a condenser microphone and need higher fidelity recording (e.g. in recording booths). As mentioned, it also includes over-ear headphones; however, the interface requires the installation of free ASIO4ALL drivers to run, so it would be sensible to check this with your IT support colleagues ahead of purchasing.

Pianos and keyboards are ideal at helping pupils visualise music and for exploring the fundamentals of music theory, from understanding key-signatures and scales to building melodies and chords. There is a reason why they're so commonplace in music rooms up and down the country. Using MIDI keyboards, alongside MIDI-capable DAWs, provides opportunities to explore and enhance performance and composition skills. Pupils can play in parts from their MIDI keyboards and have their performance recorded as MIDI. These notes can then be appraised, edited and arranged, inside their DAWs, to make further creative changes.

While there are many keyboards to choose from, the M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 MK3 offers excellent value for money. It's a compact USB MIDI keyboard with 32 velocity-sensitive keys, making it perfect for classrooms with limited desk space. Its lightweight design and plug-and-play functionality ensure a hassle-free setup.

Free Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)

DAWs are the backbone of modern music production. While professional-grade DAWs can be costly, there are free alternatives available that offer powerful features for classroom use. Here are a few standout options:


Cakewalk, by BandLab, is a full DAW that comes without limitations and upselling. It offers a professional-level platform for students to explore music production techniques and unleash their creativity. However, for those new to DAWs, I would recommend watching the helpful tutorial on YouTube (link below) for getting started with the basics.

Waveform Free

Waveform Free, from Tracktion, is another robust DAW that offers a vast array of features. There is a pro version available, with additional effects and instruments; however, the free version is more than sufficient for general classroom use.


LMMS (short for Linux MultiMedia Studio) is an excellent option for quick MIDI composition and sequencing. It provides a wide range of built-in instruments and has a relatively simple workflow that is ideal for beginners. LMMS doesn't support audio recording, however, so if you're looking for accessible MIDI sequencing only, LMMS is a great choice. Don't be fooled by the name: this program is available for Windows and Mac computers as well as Linux.


BeatConnect's mDAW (multiplayer DAW) offers a new and exciting way for pupils, teachers and others to collaborate together in real time. With the free mDAW, you can have up to five people working inside a project simultaneously. Here, you can see each other's cursor movements, edit and arrange audio clips, record and compose MIDI, and alter the parameters of audio effects together in real time. With these features, a teacher can remotely enter each group's virtual project space to check and support the work without needing to leave their own computer. There are VST (Virtual Studio Technology) instruments and effects included with the application, as well as an option to use third-party VST software.

Free DAWs and resources, with training


Ableton Live has a range of excellent features which allow for live performance as well as composition and arrangement. Ableton has an educational offer – ‘Ableton for the Classroom’ – where teachers can apply for free ‘Ableton Live Intro’ licenses for the entire music department. These licenses normally retail for £69 each, so this could be worth considering for a department on a tight budget.

Ableton also offers five free Classroom Project packs, which provide lesson content and video inspiration on curriculum-aligned subjects, such as ‘Making Music from Found Sounds’, ‘Creating a Soundtrack’ and ‘The Art of the Mashup’, and it provides free training for individual teachers or whole departments. To access these offers from Ableton, please see the contact details at the end of this article.


Steinberg, the company, has a long history in the field of music technology, from releasing the first version of Cubase on the Atari in 1989 to pioneering the implementation of VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology) in 1996.

The free version of Steinberg's software – Cubase LE – is for students to use at home on their own computers (Mac or PC). Cubase LE is a light version of Steinberg's flagship DAW, but it comes packed with features that will support composition and GCSE exam work. There's a video (listed below) that shows you how to use Cubase inside 14 minutes, and a full ‘Learn Cubase’ section on the Steinberg website.

Steinberg also offers free copies of Dorico, its notation software. Dorico SE is downloadable directly from the Dorico website, and this allows you to compose for up to eight musicians. There is also a free Dorico for iPad app that offers similar functionality and works in sync with other Dorico versions. The most striking features of Dorico include its notation for drumming, and split-screen editing that allows you to work in regular notation and piano-roll style editing simultaneously.

For support, there is a useful set of videos called ‘Getting Started with Dorico SE’ on the Dorico YouTube channel, as well as some very useful Dorico resources, including Short-Cut guides, available on their blog page. Steinberg also offers free training and masterclasses on both Dorico and Cubase (see details below).

Links and resources