For many musicians, the first and most difficult boundary to a successful career is getting their tracks out into the wild, onto people's computers and iPods. Financially and technically daunting, the process of recording and mastering their music is often what keeps even the most talented musicians from becoming successful. But thanks to developments in free and open source software in the last ten years, it's easy to record and master tracks on a zero-dollar budget.
First, you have the choice of platform. The Macintosh comes preinstalled with GarageBand, which is a great program for all of your needs. Most users will be using Windows, but these users do have the option of joining the minority on Linux. Windows has, by far, better support for paid programs - but freeware for Microsoft's OS is lacking. You can find free software, but it is often laden in adware and sometimes malware. Linux, the little-known but widely-implement free operating system, offers a world of free software and support - but you will likely have a steep learning curve.
If you choose Windows, your choices are severely limited. Most of the free software available comes in the form of trials and shady, pirated copies. However, there are two very viable options. The first is Audacity, an open source, free sound recorder and editor. Once downloaded and installed, you can be making music in minutes. The second choice is TrakAx, a free - though not open source - application. It's offered as a free download, and as with Audacity, you can be on your feet in minutes.
If you've chosen to use Linux in your musical endeavors, you've opened yourself to a whole world of free software. The first hurdle in this process is choosing a specific version of Linux to use. Linux comes in thousands of different flavors, called distributions, all available free of charge. The most well known is called Ubuntu. It's favored for its massive community support, and large database of available applications. Additionally, there is a version of Ubuntu available called Ubuntu Studio, specifically geared towards media developers. It includes the latest versions of Linux media applications, including Audacity, and several other free mastering tools. If Ubuntu doesn't work for you, there are many websites with information about the various distributions, and their pros and cons. Once you have your version installed, getting the mastering software installed is often as simple as clicking on the "Add/Remove Software" option in the menu.
Recording and mastering your own tracks can be difficult, but currently available free mastering software makes it rewarding and practical. Free software makes releasing professional-sounding tracks a possibility for every musician.