A digital audio workstation (DAW for short) is a network of digital devices for recording and processing sound signals in sound recording, music production, mixing and mastering, which is characterized by a high level of integration of components. Today, the term is usually understood to mean a computer-aided system with appropriate hardware (high-quality audio card) and music software. Originally, it was the name for hard disk recording devices when HD recording using a PC or Mac was not yet possible. The term “digital audio workstation” has been used since the 1980s. The first digital audio workstation was the Synclavier, manufactured from 1975 to 1991. The first DAWs with HD recorder capability was the Fairlight CMI.
External devices of analog and digital nature (tube compressors, tape machines, reverberation, delay, etc.) can be emulated or replaced by internal digital building blocks. These devices are provided as plug-ins, such as a VST module or audio unit, for a software host. The resulting minimization reduces the acquisition costs while increasing performance at the same time. Nevertheless, in most recording studios today you can find a combination of DAW and external, mostly analogue equipment in order to exploit the advantages of both methods equally.
The DAW has become widely used, especially due to the enormous increase in processor power and customized instruction sets. Nowadays, even with a low-cost computer, you can create professional-sounding music productions with relatively little material expenditure.
With a DAW, you usually work non-linear and non-destructive. Non-linear means that, unlike working with a tape, you can effortlessly edit any part of a project in any order. This is done in a non-destructive way, i.e. no audio material is altered or even destroyed, but only references to the material, so-called regions, which are arranged and edited in a playlist. With an arbitrarily high graphical resolution (by zooming in), it is possible to cut with an accuracy of one sample. In this way, the work also has a high visual component, as one no longer relies solely on listening, as in editing on the tape machine, but also on the visual impression. All changes can be reversed.
When it comes to DAWs, there are essentially two different systems, stand-alone and host-based:
Stand-alone audio systems such as AMS-Audiofile, Fairlight or Sonic Solutions, whose hardware is housed in a dedicated computer that is exclusively responsible for audio recording and editing. For this purpose, there is a remote control, for example at Fairlight, which enables simple and fast operation of the system by means of special buttons and a jog shuttle. The advantages of such systems are extremely high operational reliability and ease of use, which is why Fairlight is widely used in public broadcasting. However, stand-alone systems are also extremely expensive.
Here, a desktop computer takes on the role of a “host” for the software and hardware. As a result, the costs are relatively low, the system can be easily expanded or converted, but also offers only a low level of operational reliability, which depends on the operating system used (usually macOS or Windows). DAW solutions based on mobile operating systems are also becoming increasingly popular (e.g. iOS operating system with the DAW applications Auria Pro, Cubase, MultiTrack DAW, Xewton Music Studio, GarageBand, etc.). The DAWs can be adapted to different areas of application depending on the expansion level.
There are two types of host-based systems, native and DSP systems.
Native systems consist of a computer with audio software, whose processor takes over the complete processing of all signals. As a result, this solution is very inexpensive and you can use different software applications such as Logic Pro or Pro Tools alternately. However, older, less powerful CPUs can easily reach their limits, as the computer has to use computing power not only for audio processing, but also for other processes, which is why native systems are more common in home studios whose budgets do not allow for a more elaborate solution. Due to the technical development of the CPUs, solid-state drive and RAM, even native systems can currently show very good performance.
DSP systems have built-in DSP cards, on which audio processing is done by their own processors. The CPU of the computer remains free for the usual tasks such as graphics display. A DSP system is much more expensive than a native system, but it is also much more powerful.
In any DAW, the performance of a system depends on the processor power or speed. Consequently, the CPU should be as fast as possible. It is also advantageous to use a very large amount of memory (RAM). A fast and powerful system can use many plugins and play a high number of tracks at the same time. It is also advisable not to record audio on the system hard drive. If you are using hard drives, you should have a separate hard drive available for recording, but if you are using solid state drives, this does not matter. Another important criterion is the volume of the hardware. For example, a fanless power supply, a noise-absorbing hard drive enclosure or the complete elimination of hard drives and replacement with noiseless SSDs and very quiet CPU and system fans are recommended. Since the noise level increases in more powerful systems (e.g. auxiliary fans to cool the hardware, noisy graphics cards, etc.), these systems can also be housed in an air-conditioned, soundproof server cabinet.
The user interface of a DAW usually consists of several program windows, which include a virtual mixing console, among other things. This is where the tracks/channels are displayed with loop and output paths, bus assignment, pan controls, solo and mute buttons, and faders. All parameters can be changed with the mouse. Automation is also possible. Some programs can also be operated via an external remote control (Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, Samplitude, etc.). This is similar to a conventional mixing console and thus facilitates the analogue adjustment of the digital values.
- Standard DAW : A DAW that can perform normal audio applications (recording, audio editing).
- Special DAW : A DAW that only covers a specific task (recording only, audio editing only, sound design only, etc.)
- Advanced DAW : A DAW that can be used for all kinds of applications (recording, audio editing, mixing, mastering, video voiceover, etc.).
Free / Open-Source Wave Editors (Digital Audio Editor): Audacity, Muse
Free/open-source DAWs: Ardour, Audio tool, LMMS, Rosegarden etc.