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About the Digital Audio Workstation – Absolutely Important!

Everybody from music enthusiasts, all the way to professional producers, talk about and use this software application. Its probably the most important tool in any music production in the modern age. And if you are totally new to this whole music production thing, and are serious about it, then you definitely need to know all about the Digital Audio Workstation!

In today’s article I hope to be able to give you a comprehensive overview on what the Digital Audio Workstation is all about, and its relevance to audio and music production. We will go through some of its history, functionality and other relevant concepts surrounding this software application. Don’t worry, as it won’t be too technical and will be easy for beginners to understand (I promise!).

Digital Audio Workstation – A brief overview

Recording Studio

Photo by Intermediapost / CC BY-SA 3.0

Also known as “DAW” for short, the digital audio workstation is fundamentally an electronic device or computer software application, used for the production of audio files (involving recording and editing) such as music, interviews, or sound effects.

Various configurations of DAWs range from software programs on a PC, to integrated individual units, all the way to a highly complex system of components that are managed by a central computer. However, today’s modern DAWs, regardless of its various configurations, all have a centralised user interface that will allow you to modify and mix multiple audio tracks (usually recorded) into a finalised audio or music production.

You will also find that DAWs are not just being used for music production and recording, but also in radio stations, television broadcasts, podcasts, multimedia studios and pretty much in any other situations that involves complex manipulation of recorded audio.

The various aspects surrounding DAWs that I will be covering here today would include:

  • History
  • Integrated DAW
  • Software DAW
  • Common functions
  • Plug-ins

History – How it all started

Tape Multi Track Recording

Photo by Bubba73 at English Wikipedia / CC BY 2.5

Digital audio workstations started to be developed in the 1970s and 80s, however it was limited by the high price of storage, and inferior processing and disk speeds in that era. “Soundstream” (one of the pioneers of digital audio tape recorders) then developed the first digital audio workstation by making use of the various current computer hardware that was available at the time.

It was called Digital Editing System (by Soundstream) which was made up of a custom software package called DAP (Digital Audio Processor) running on a “DEC PDP-11/60” minicomputer, and a “Braegen 14″-platter” hard disk drive. To display audio waveforms for editing, a storage oscilloscope was used, and a video display terminal was also incorporated to allow the user to control the system.

Later on in the 80s, some consumer level computers were developed (Apple Macintosh, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga) that had enough power to support digital audio editing. Tools such as Macromedia’s Soundedit, Microdeal’s Replay Professional and Digidesign’s “Sound Tools” and “Sound Designer” were used by sound engineers (at that time) to manipulate audio samples for sampling keyboards (E-mu Emulator II, Akai S900 etc.).

Atari PC

Photo by Marcin Wichary / CC BY 2.0

It is only after Digidesign introduced its famous “Pro Tools” software (designed based on conventional methods of signal flow in analog recording devices), that many major recording studios started to “go digital”. Most DAWs were Apple Mac based (e.g., Pro Tools, Studer Dyaxis) at this time, and the first Windows based DAWs only started to be developed in 1992 by companies such as IQS Innovative Quality Software (now SAWStudio) and Soundscape Digital Technology. From this era onwards, all DAWs have dedicated hardware for their audio processing.

Integrated DAW

Roland

Photo by Daniel Green / CC BY-SA 2.0

Before there were DAWs that you see music producers and engineers use on their laptops and sometimes even tablets, people in the industry use to rely on “Integrated DAWs”.

Within an integrated DAW, you will find various components such as a mixing console, control surface, audio converter, and data storage; all combined in a singular device. These types of DAWs were very commonly used before the development of personal computers (powerful enough to run a DAW software) were made readily available.

As computer technology improved dramatically while the prices steadily decreased, the demand for expensive integrated systems with console automation saw a drastic decline. Systems such as the “Orban Audicy” took over as the standard production equipment for most radio and television stations.

Software DAW

When you hear the term “DAW” you are probably thinking of the software itself, but fundamentally, a computer-based DAW consists of four main components which includes a computer, a sound card (or audio interface), digital editing software, and a minimum of one input device (external instruments, MIDI controller keyboard, mixing console etc.) for adding or modifying data.

Digital Audio Signal Flow

Photo by Teeks99 / CC BY-SA 3.0

The computer functions as the “brain” of the workstation by providing processing power for the software (used for audio editing functions) while at the same time acting as a host for external sound cards or audio interfaces. Analog audio signals are converted into digital form (during recording), and back to analog signal (for playback). The whole conversion process happens through the sound card/audio interface.

Hence, the software is responsible for managing all external and internal hardware components, and also provides the user interface that allows for recording, mixing, mastering or playback. Computer based DAWs these days have an extensive music production capability (even video-related functions). For instance, they allow an almost infinite number of tracks for recording, using virtual synthesizer or instrument samples to produce music.

DAW Software

If you have say, a DAW with a sampled string section emulator (most DAWs have them), you can then use it to add string accompaniment (also called “pads”) to any section of your song. Engineers also often use DAWs to provide a variety of effects, such as “reverb” or “delay” for sound enhancement or modification.

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Common functions

There are plenty of DAWs out there, and all are designed with different user interfaces. But generally, they all adapt to the multi-track tape recorder concept, as this makes it easier for the majority of recording engineers and producers who are familiar with analog tape recorders, thus speeding up the adaptation process.

Channel Strip

Photo by Justin Gaudreault / CC BY 3.0

Hence, PC-based DAWs usually have a universal layout that features transport controls (play, rewind, record, etc.), track controls and a mixer (with faders), and a waveform display. There are also single-track DAWs out there, displaying only one track (mono/stereo) at a time. The term “track” is still very much used within DAWs, even though physically, there is no “track” any more (like the ones found on tape-based recorders).

Very similar to a mixing console, multi-track DAWs allow each track to be tweaked by controls that adjusts the overall volume, stereo balance (pan) and equalization. In a conventional recording studio, additional rack-mounted signal processing gear (Reverb units, compressors) are physically connected into the audio signal path. However, a DAW emulates this process through software plugins (or VSTs), to add effects to each track.

The “Undo” functionShortcuts

Perhaps the most revolutionary, yet underrated function of the modern DAW, is the “undo” option. Undo makes it very convenient, as it helps us to avoid permanently deleting or recording over previous audio tracks by accident. In the event that a mistake or an accidental change is made, the undo command will simply revert the current (altered) data to a previous state.

I am sure you know that “Cut”, “Copy”, “Paste”, and “Undo” are universal computer commands and are found in most document editing programs (Word, excel etc.). All of these functions are also available in most DAWs in some form. Other also commonly used functions are “wave shape”, “pitch”, “tempo”, and “filtering” which modifies several factors surrounding sound.

Automation

Every DAW in the market offers some form of automation feature, usually performed through “envelopes”. Envelopes are essentially procedural, line interactive graphs, that are segment-based or curve-based. These lines and curves found on automation graphs are connected by or comprised of flexible and adjustable points.

Track Automation

Photo by golemus / CC BY 3.0

By drawing out and adjusting these multiple points along an audio waveform or sequenced events, the user can fine tune parameters of the output over time (such as volume or stereo positioning). Automation data may also be manipulated through human gestures recorded directly by a control surface or controller. MIDI connection is a common data interface used for transferring such electrical signals (gestures) to the DAW.

Plug-ins

Plugins

Photo by StudioTips / CC BY 3.0

A “plug-in”, in computing, is essentially a software component that extends or provides an additional, specific function to an existing computer program (in this case, its DAWs).

You can find many software plugins designed for DAW software, with each of them having its own specific functionality. Hence, they allow for the extensive manipulation and expansion of various sounds. Very commonly used functions of plug-ins include distortion, reverb, equalization, synthesizers, compressors, chorus, virtual amp, limiter, phaser, and flangers.

Each of these plug-ins have their own unique process of manipulating soundwaves in order to alter tone, pitch, and speed of any sound sample to make it more suitable for your creative direction . You can take the manipulation process even further, by “stacking” multiple plugins or use them in layers, and also further automate various parameters to drastically alter original sounds and shape it into a completely new sample.

Okay people, we have reached the end of this subject for today. I really do hope you guys have benefited from this in some shape, wave or form.

Thanks for reading, share if you like, and do leave comments or questions below!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

8 Comments

  1. Definitely very interesting product to me. Wow!!! This is some in depth details here. You certainly have your history on the Digital Audio Workstation.

    I was wondering, Is there available software for this available for Mac OS currently? I am a Mac user for the most part and I know there has been something of this magnitude for mac before.

  2. Oh yes! Recording has been reaching for this for a long time! I remember ADAT, D12, and much more, not to mention analog. Recording has made great strides in the last five years, no doubt. Personally, I’m still hooked on the old philosophy of, “Lay it down dirty, and play it back clean.” I like to record in analog, or as close to it as possible, and master in digital. I may be locked in my ways. I still don’t trust in the ability of one device to handle it all, though I’d love one! I still like to make use of tape recordings, and would be reluctant to stop using them. Still, I like this technology, and see how it can bring out the best of your audio dreams! Check it out!

    • Hey there Sam. thanks for swinging by.

      Its always a pleasure having someone who comes from the traditional analog recording world, commenting on my site. You guys have a better perspective on how recording used to be, and often times, come packed with a wealth of experience =)

      Even though I am an engineer that is pretty much born into the digital recording era, and have no real affinity to full analog recording, I have the same opinion about not trusting that one device can “handle” it all. However the boundaries of digital recording technology are constantly being expanded, and I have to say, its just getting better every time.

      Thanks and do drop by again for updates!

  3. Hello, there,
    Wow! That article “About the Digital Audio Workstation – Absolutely Important!” very good!
    I remember back in the day, when I was film producer, going to Alamo Studios for sound and music editing. Those were the highlights o a production for me.
    O also read you article about the best software.
    Are those options all professional? Is there free or very inexpensive DAW setup that could play with just for kicks?
    Keep the great work
    Cheers!

    • Hello Caito, its great to have you here =)

      It seems like you’ve had some pretty extensive experience with music and video production. Always good to have a fellow industry practitioner commenting on my website!

      If you are looking for a free “software”, then “Audacity” and “ProTools First” definitely comes to mind:

      Audacity: http://www.audacityteam.org/

      ProTools First: http://apps.avid.com/ProToolsFirst/

      Or a very cheap option would be “Ardour”: https://ardour.org/

      Thanks and do come back for more!

  4. Hey, great review!
    It’s nice to know where we where, where we are and how we got here. Thanks for the post!

    By the way, I missed a comparison of different DAW’s, are you planning to make it?

    By the way, how right you are saying the undo is one of the most powerful tools on software DAWs! If it weren’t for that, I would have killed myself already, hahaha

    • Hello Juan, thanks for commenting!

      Yeah, the “undo” function is definitely a HUGE thing in my opinion, I mean why wouldn’t it be? It pretty much revolutionizes the music editing process.

      Oh and here’s an article on the various DAWs that are widely used: http://myaudioeducation.com/best-home-studio-recor

      Have a nice day =)

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