What is a Digital Audio Workstation?

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an umbrella term referring to any digital audio recording and editing device or software. This is a broad definition that, taken literally, can mean everything from a smart-phone with a music-recording app to the most expensive, high-tech professional recording studios.

Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is software used for creating music on a general purpose computer, like Mac or Windows
A user controlling digital audio workstation. Narrow depth of field

In most cases, the term refers to any digital audio recording software platforms. There are many such programs on the market, varying in capabilities, features, and of course, price. There are also some free-ware audio recording programs. While these may not have the bells and whistles of the products for sale, some of them are quite good for simple applications.

The first application of a digital audio workstation is recording digital audio files. A DAW encodes analog (what we’d think of as natural, or normal) sound waves into a digital representation that may then be manipulated and played back.

Most DAW’s come with (or require) an interface that allows you to plug microphones and/or instruments “directly” into your recording software. The interface and the software interact seamlessly to capture and encode your music, podcast, or voice-over.

In 1979, guitarist Ry Cooder released the first fully-digitally recorded album titled “Bop Til You Drop.” It was recorded on a digital 32-track console manufactured by 3M. Since then, digital audio has revolutionized music and the entire recording industry.

It didn’t happen because digital audio makes recording, editing, mixing, and mastering audio tracks quicker and more efficient, though it does. It isn’t the fact that it saves tons of money on DAT tape and studio time, though it does that too. The reason digital audio has revolutionized the industry is because of its almost limitless (as compared to analog, or digital tape) storage capacity.

The Beatles were among the first recording artists to lust after additional tracks with which to work. For Sergeant Pepper and especially Abbey Road, they were employing all the usual tricks (mixing multiple tracks down to one in order to free up space, wiring two 8-track consoles together) and trying to invent some new ones.

Today, producers need not concern themselves with how many tracks are left available to them. With the click of a mouse, the modern digital audio workstation instantly creates a new track with which to work (complete with effects and plug-ins should an engineer or producer desire.)

HOW PRODUCERS, ENGINEERS, AND MUSICIANS USE A DAW

Virtually unlimited tracks with which to work means more than just that many more chances to record audio. The ability to create such a high number of new tracks allows for the process of bussing. Bussing is when a producer or engineer sends, or “buses” a track or multiple tracks to another single track. This is usually done to add ambiance to the overall mix of your project. Having multiple tracks available to serve as bus tracks give a producer a very wide pallet upon which to work.

Digital Audio Worksation (DAW) used with MIDI Keyboard and MIDI Controller
Digital Audio Worksation (DAW) used with MIDI Keyboard and MIDI Controller

MIDI Synth instrumentation and interfaces are a second reason DAW’s have revolutionized the music business and become the industry standard. The songwriter and/or arranger’s dream come true, MIDI instrumentation means that you have an orchestra at your fingertips. Did you write a bassoon part you think might sound better played by a bass-clarinet? The click of your mouse can let you know in an instant. Imagine the music Mozart might have produced, had he twenty-four-hour access to the complete Vienna Symphony?

The following are three popular digital audio workstations on the market today. Most DAW’s are available in tiered versions, offering inexpensive beginner and intermediate packages. For purposes of comparison, we’ll look at the features of the top tier versions of these products.

FL STUDIO

Most of the high-quality DAW packages on the market today feature at least three main visual interfaces: a virtual mixing console, a piano roll for composing and sequencing, and a browser for arranging and adding automation. The interfaces offered by FL STUDIO are clear and user-friendly. The piano roll, in particular, is considered by many to be among the best available.

FL Studio includes over eighty instrument and digital-effect plugins. Compression, delay, equalization, flanging, phasing, reverb, chorus, and distortion are just a few of the effects available. Are you looking for a sound, instrument, or effect not included with FL Studio? No problem. This digital audio software is compatible with most third-party plugins, making expanding your digital plugin library a snap.

This DAW also comes with a lifetime software-update guarantee, so you’ll always be able to run the most up-to-date versions of the software.

ABLETON

A more inexpensive alternative to FL Studio software, Ableton’s premium DAW comes equipped with a total of eighty-seven plugins. Fifteen of the plugins are software instruments, fifty-five are audio effects, and seventeen are MIDI effects.

Ableton software provides for unlimited audio and MIDI tracks with which to work. It can handle two-hundred-fifty-six mono audio input channels and the same number of output channels.

While this digital audio software includes more plugins than does FL Studio, its visual interfaces are less attractive and user-friendly. A musician or engineer new to FL Studio will, after a few moments, find their eyes landing right where they need to on the browser, mixer, or piano roll. It may take just a bit longer to familiarize oneself with Ableton.

GARAGEBAND

This very popular digital audio workstation differs from the previous two entries in that it is available (at least officially) only for Apple devices and computers. A sophisticated product with an easy-to-use visual interface, GarageBand allows songwriters to create music easily, with or without an instrument on hand.

GarageBand for Mac includes one-hundred synth sounds so you’ll always be able to find the perfect instrumentation. The software’s most compelling feature, though, is how it approaches drum loops. Rather than come with a list of pre-programmed drum loops, it includes twenty-eight “drummers” all with varying styles. Simply select a drummer and a tempo, then let the track play. GarageBand’s uber-simple click-and-drag interface allows users to manipulate the selected drummer’s performance, allowing for practically infinite possibilities.

One more thing has to be said for GarageBand: it’s free. Yes, you read that correctly. As of 2013, if you own a Mac or other Apple Device and are running the most current operating system you may install and use GarageBand for free. Additional plugins can be purchased for $4.99 through the app store.

DAWs – In Summary

The advent of digital audio has revolutionized music and the recording industry. Digital Audio Workstations allow the modern songwriter/producer/engineer/musician to manipulate digitized sound to an astounding degree.

If you’re considering downloading or buying a digital audio workstation, be prepared for your output to increase in both quality and quantity. Today’s systems make it easy for just about anyone to produce professional sounding audio in a fraction of the time.

Keep in mind though, that while most systems offer many of the same features, they can vary a good deal in price, in the number of included plugins, and the degree to which they are user-friendly. As most DAW’s are offered in beginner, moderate, and complete packages, be sure to know the features you will likely need so you can buy the right version for your recording, mixing, and sequencing needs.

Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production
Computers and electronic devices are often used in modern music production

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