Exploring Digital Audio Workstations


Creating music can be fun, frustrating, rewarding and time-consuming. Computer technology is a great leveler, bringing the fun and frustration to just about anyone. It's "affordable", not cheap, but musicians have always been willing to spend money on quality.

This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which has moved on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each week.

Over the next months we will be running a series of articles on digital audio workstations (DAWs), which allow musicians to record, edit and play back their music. The first time I heard the term "digital audio workstation" was in the mid-80s in an article that described Roland's new D20, a multitimbral keyboard with a built-in sequencer, allowing you to create and record music on one device.

Today, while some DAWs are integrated devices (see this article for some inexpensive options), the most popular (and most powerful) are computer solutions using specialized hardware and software. This article will introduce you to them.

DAWs Are Not Just Software Programs

When we talk about digital audio workstations we often focus on the computer software, but the term correctly refers to the entire ecosystem, including the computer hardware, computer software, audio interfaces and peripherals.

A standard computer running Audacity does not really qualify as a DAW, though some may debate that. But fortunately it is possible to get started with digital recording with a standard PC and some free software:

As you get more serious about digital recording, you will need to invest in more gear:

  • An audio interface for converting analog to digital, and digital to analog. These are usually PCI cards connected to a box of canon or phono inputs, though inexpensive USB interfaces are available for laptops. For some inexpensive options, see 8 Budget Audio Interfaces for Your Home Studio.
  • A music keyboard and possibly other musical interfaces, such as a device with programable buttons and sliders that you can use for mixing, rather than having to use a mouse.
  • A microphone (or set of microphones) and musical instruments.

DAWs Are Powerful

DAWs are professional specialist applications that can feel very overwhelming until you get to know them. Like computer aided design and desktop publishing applications, they come with a long and difficult learning curve. It is probably better to master one DAW than have a passing familiarity with several.

Most DAW interfaces are based on a multitrack tape recorder metaphor, and include transport controls, tracks, and a mixer. This makes DAWs a little easier to learn. But they also have many features that traditional tape recorders don't, including:

  • automation (though many high-end traditional recorders include this)
  • cut, copy, paste and undo (like a word processor)
  • the ability to record both MIDI and audio
  • basic music notation display, though if you are serious about notation you may need a dedicated program
  • the ability to master from multitrack down to stereo.

Many of the DAW programs started with different focuses, for example MIDI sequencing, softsynths, loops, and sampling. As features have been added, they cover much of the same ground, and have become increasingly competitive.

DAWs Are Expandable

You want a DAW that will grow with your needs. You need it to adjust as you invest in better computers, a new mixer, and an expanded digital interface. Good DAWs are capable of more than you initially need, allowing them to work with increasingly complex hardware, and saving you from having to learn a new system.

Good DAWs are also expandable in terms of software, by allowing you to extend their functionality with plug-ins. The most common plug-in standard is VST. There is a huge range of plug-ins available for most DAWs, some costing many times more than the DAW itself.

A List of Well-known DAWs

Many DAWs are available, and we will have a close look at some of them over the next months. Leave a comment to let us know which ones you would like covered.

There is no definitive "best" DAW. They come with different focuses and philosophies, so you'll need to do some research and try out some demos before deciding on which one suits you best. You will also need to consider which are available for your operating system and computer hardware, which suits your budget, and whether you need to collaborate on music projects using a particular DAW.

Here are some popular digital audio workstation applications:

  • Ableton Live is a professional loop-based software music sequencer.
  • ACID Pro (Sony) is a DAW that developed from a loop-based music sequencer.
  • Ardour is an open-source DAW for Linux and Mac.
  • Audition (Adobe) was formerly Cool Edit Pro, and features a multitrack, non-destructive mix/edit environment and a destructive-approach waveform editing view.
  • Cubase (Steinberg) is a music sequencer and DAW originally developed for the Atari.
  • Digital Performer (MOTU) is an intuitive program that lets you record MIDI and audio tracks side by side.
  • FL Studio, formerly known as FruityLoops, started as a pattern-based music sequencer.
  • is an online (cloud computing) DAW with a focus on collaboration - it is still in its infancy, but looks promising.
  • Logic Pro (Apple), a DAW and MIDI sequencer originally developed by Emagic.
  • Nuendo (Steinberg) is an expensive state-of-the-art digital audio production environment.
  • Pro Tools (Digidesign) is a widely used DAW.
  • REAPER (Cockos) is a Rapid Environment for Audio Production, Engineering, and Recording.
  • Reason (Propellerhead) emulates a rack of hardware synthesizers, samplers, signal processors, sequencers and mixers.
  • SONAR (Cakewalk), a traditional DAW now owned by Roland.

Which DAW do you use? Are you happy with it, or saving up for another? Which DAWs would you like us to have a closer look at? Let us know in the comments.

Related Posts
  • Music & Audio
    Can an iPad Replace My MainStage Rig?Photodune 277307 rock concert s
    Imagine a digital sound source that comes with a huge variety of quality software instruments, samples and loops, has battery life that will last all day, and doesn’t just have an interface for your favourite MIDI controller, but can power it for hours as well. That’s the promise of the iPad. Is it time to throw away MainStage?Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Audio Production
    How to Use External Instruments in your DAWExternalinstrumentpreview400
    Do you have hardware synths? In this tutorial we show you how you can integrate external instruments into your DAW, recording MIDI as if they're soft synths, and handling audio on the same channel. We'll use Logic Pro X, but the same techniques will work in most other DAWs.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - SoftwareComposition on computer pt2 400
    When I first started out composing and producing on the computer some 12 years ago, I didn’t have the benefit of having somebody show me all that there was to know about the basic concepts of composing and producing on a computer-based system. In this second part of this two-part series, I will give you a beginners introduction to the software side of composing on the computer.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - HardwareComposition on computer pt1 400
    I’ve been involved in audio production for well over 12 years, but just like everybody else I had to start somewhere. However, I didn’t have the benefit of having somebody show me everything there was to know for a beginner just starting out. Nor did I have the benefit of a rich content field Internet that I could use to teach myself. In this article I'll give you the helping hand I didn’t have when I was first starting out. I'll help you understand what lies before you, as you begin composing and producing music. I hope it will be a fun and enjoyable hobby and/or career.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Working With Internal Audio Routing - Part 2Internal routing 400px
    Welcome back for another round of internal audio routing. Last time we took a look at the core essentials of routing audio between programs inside our computers. To do so we utilized a first-party middle-man software in the form of the interface mixer. And while this was all well and good, it sacrificed stability for flexibility.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Audio Production
    Using TouchOSC on iOS to Control Ableton LivePreviewimage400x400
    More than any other DAW, Ableton Live shines when used together with a controller. Just think of the effort they put into building the new Push controller. But few of us have a dedicated hardware controller, or could afford one. Why not take advantage of the high-quality touch screen of the iPad? It can serve as a great portable Ableton Live controller.Read More…