10 Must-Have Mac Apps for Amateur Musicians

Maybe you’ve played guitar for fun since you were a kid, or you start your day by singing in the shower. You may not be a professional musician–in fact, you might not even pass for decent–but you’ve always wanted to play with home recording and see what you can come up with.

The price tags on professional digital audio workstations like Apple’s Logic Pro are prohibitive for the hobbyist, to say the least, but there are plenty of cheap and even free apps for the Mac that can help you realize your secret dream.


The obvious place to start is with the app that comes with your Mac. New Macs come with the latest version of Apple’s GarageBand, and subsequent versions require you to either purchase the upgrade or purchase a new Mac.┬áNeedless to say, it’s cheaper to purchase a new copy of GarageBand, which you can grab for only $14.99 from the Mac App Store.

GarageBand is based on Apple’s professional audio offering, Logic Pro, and when new versions of Logic come out GarageBand is frequently the beneficiary–for instance, with the introduction of the Flex Time feature in GarageBand ’11, a Logic feature that helps you fix timing issues in your songs.

For the price and feature set, there’s really no better value for the amateur than GarageBand. Some professionals have even recorded complete albums using no other software, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s probably going to be good enough for you.

Price: $14.99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later
Developer: Apple Inc.


Audacity is an cross-platform open source audio editor that works on the Mac, as well as Windows and Linux. As an audio editor it’s most often used for simple one-track editing jobs, though it does have multi-track capabilities.

That’s more than enough functionality for you to put together the most complex of podcasts, but using Audacity for full-blown song productions may be pushing your masochistic side. Use GarageBand as your workbench, and Audacity as your Swiss army knife for making quick edits and fixes. It’s still an essential in any amateur musician’s software kit.

Price: Free
Requires: Any version of Mac OS X
Developer: Audacity


For the longest time after I broke my physical guitar tuner, I would load up Logic Pro and use the tuner plugin to tune my guitar rather than go out and buy a new tuner. Much like GarageBand, Logic Pro can be a slow loader and if you just want to play rather than record loading up a whole DAW is a real pain.

Get a simple tuning app to save some money on real tuners and avoid the loading times of big apps. Gtuner is free and easy-to-use, with an interface very similar to the hardware tuners you’re used to.

Better still, when Gtuner is running you don’t even need to tab into the app to tune your guitar–it provides you with the information you need to get tuned up right in the Dock.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 or later
Developer: iwascoding


If you’ve always dreamed about becoming a DJ, the free app Mixxx is for you. It hooks right into your iTunes library so you can perform live DJ mixes on the music you like most. Mixxx features automatic BPM matching to take away some of the guesswork, and everything you need to remix live as the song is playing.

For the exhibitionist amateur DJ, Mixxx has integrated Shoutcast and Icecast broadcasting so you can run your own show online.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.6.6 or later
Developer: Mixxx


Hydrogen is a free advanced drum sequencer. It’s advertised as a Linux application, but there’s a Mac version available that works just as well. With your library of samples, Hydrogen can function as a sequencer, but it really shines when you want to program drum tracks.

Hydrogen works with samples in most lossless audio formats, including FLAC, and features multi-layer support with up to 16 samples per instrument–not ideal for non-percussive instruments, but enough to trigger different sounds for each drum based on variables such as velocity.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X
Developer: Hydrogen

Finale NotePad

From the makers of the popular Finale suite comes Finale NotePad, a lighter alternative that helps you take care of your notation needs. I know I’ve recorded many songs that I’ve later forgotten how to play and had to work out again by ear. Save yourself the hassle with an app like NotePad and get your songs notated while they’re still fresh in your mind.

NotePad, like most notation programs, supports the inclusion of lyrics. More importantly, it supports guitar and bass tablature–which amateur musicians are more likely to be familiar with than traditional notation.

Price: $9.95
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5 or later
Developer: MakeMusic

Reaktor 5 Player

If you’re a fan of synthesizers and sound design, Native Instrument’s Reaktor 5 Player is the free younger sibling to the rather expensive Reaktor 5. NI offers a broad range of free sound banks to go with Reaktor 5 Player so you can get going straight away–particularly cool if you just want something that’ll get your new M-Audio Axiom to make some noise.

It also boasts synthesis, sequencer and effect features so you can tweak the sounds you’re making until you’re happy with them.

Price: Free
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5 or later
Developer: Native Instruments

Melodyne Essential

Melodyne allows you to manipulate the timing and pitch of your audio tracks with a precision that few other packages allow. Transpose entire songs, make changes to melodies, change the drum beat, put a rich harmonized backing vocal behind your lead vocal using nothing but the lead vocal as the source–all without re-recording.

Celemony offers Melodyne Essential, a cheaper software package, for amateurs and prosumers. It’s not just a handy tool for fixing issues with your songs–it can also be a lot of fun to see just how much you can make out of a few well-chosen tracks.

Price: $99
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 or later
Developer: Celemony


Reaper is a full-featured DAW by a small company called Cockos. Though a commercial license is $150, a personal license suitable for amateur musicians costs only $40.

Reaper features everything you’ve come to expect from more expensive DAWs–64-bit audio, MIDI sequencing, automation, an extensive array of plugins including EQs, compressors, delays, pitch shifting and correction, gates, reverbs, and much more.

Price: $40
Requires: Mac OS X 10.4 or later
Developer: Cockos Incorporated

Logic Express

Maybe you feel like you’re in the twilight zone between amateur and professional–the prosumer. If you have stars in your eyes and hope to one day master the Mac’s ultimate audio suite, Logic Studio, Logic Express is the perfect stepping stone after GarageBand.

Like GarageBand, Logic Express is the beneficiary of each version of Logic Pro’s new features–just more of them. Flex time, speed fades, improved comping tools, amp designer and pedalboard are just a few of the Logic Pro 9 features that have been included in Logic Express 9.

Price: $199
Requires: Mac OS X 10.5.7 or later
Developer: Apple Inc.


While some of these apps are decidedly aimed at amateur and prosumer musicians, many of them–such as Celemony’s Melodyne–are valuable professional tools as well. If you plan to turn your hobby into a profession one day, the commercial apps listed here are well worth picking up!

What do you use to make music on the Mac? Let us know in the comments.