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Exploring Digital Audio Workstations

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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.
  • Koblo.com 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.

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