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What is a DAW, and How Can One Help Me?

by | Master Your Craft, Mastering

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely encountered the term ‘DAW,’ as it gets thrown around a lot amongst almost anybody involved with contemporary music. 

A DAW is a ‘Digital Audio Workstation’ – but what exactly does this mean, and what does it do? 

Well, without these incredible features of ingenuity and technological capabilities, music production would not be accessible to the general public without a hefty price associated with it. Audio recordings reach back a whole century before the introduction of digital audio, with Thomas Eddison’s phonographic cylinder paving the way in 1877. However, the first DAWs were introduced in the late 1970s. Before this, everything was analog (hardware equipment used for tracking and producing music) which meant that only a select few people had access to the necessary technology needed to produce music. 

This article will focus on a few essential areas when determining what a DAW is and how one can help us in our musical endeavors. We’ll take a look at the abilities, history, and application of these programs to determine their potential as an addition to our daily lives. 

Essentially, a DAW takes the fundamental components of a recording studio, equipment, and processing abilities and packs it all into a single functioning software that allows you to complete a variety of audio needs within a computer. This might not sound too complicated given the presence of technology in our everyday lives; however, once upon a time, this would have required a great deal of hardware, space, money, and practice. 

Before we begin, we must take a look at a brief history of Digital Audio Workstations to understand how and why certain elements are required for the functionality of these programs and establish how we got to where we are today. 

In the mid-late 1970s, a company called Soundstream began developing the first digital tape recorders that would become available commercially in 1978. Bearing in mind that a DAW can also be hardware equipment, this was pioneering in the field. It was an incredible creation as the developers used the most advanced technology while facing many challenging factors (cost of storage, less developed computing abilities). This specific system used various hardware components such as minicomputers, audio interfaces, hard drives, and a visual display, allowing one to do simple editing and crossfades to the audio files. 

Not more than a decade later, consumer computer brands such as Apple Macintosh, Atari, and MSX had begun developing products that could accommodate DAWs due to their advanced processing power. This was the real turning point, audio editing and recording became accessible to the public for the first time in a way that was never before possible. 

In the words of Mike Levine, it “democratized music production.”

While this was happening (around the early 1980s), Roland was producing and then released the first MIDI sequencer. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) refers to a device’s ability to communicate with other devices, scanning and interpreting digital audio, storing information, and creating digital sequences that play notes of various musical instruments/sounds. This allowed devices to be connected and perform multiple functions simultaneously, such as mixing, sequencing, etc. It’s a hardware DAW! Awesome!

With the introduction of MIDI, the ability to digitally record and edit audio, and the advances in computer technology, there was a convergence of technologies that lead to the progressive moves in DAW development. 

The 1990s provided a decade to behold as the progressions during this time shaped modern DAWs into what we know them as today. 1991 saw the release of what is today’s industry-standard, Pro Tools. This software modeled its system function off of typical analog signal flow, which allowed for never-before-seen digital capabilities. It wasn’t long before a record produced in a DAW would hit #1 in the charts, proving digital audio’s competitiveness to analog audio. 

A few years later, Steinberg released Cubase Audio and then revamped it by 1996, introducing the ultimate DAW. A 32 track interface, MIDI incorporated software that avoided the use of external DSP (Digital Signal Processor) hardware – birthing the VST (virtual studio technology). This meant that everything could be achieved purely in the box for the first time. 

Okay, now that we know a little bit about where the modern DAW came from, here is a list of things that we’ll examine to help determine what one does and why :

  • Non-destructive editing.
  • Recording.
  • MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).
  • Automation.
  • VST (Virtual Studio Technology).
  • Mixing.
  • Mastering. 

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty stuff, the usefulness of a digital audio workstation. All of the points mentioned above make up a DAW and allow endless possibilities for anybody who can access the software. 

Let’s start with ‘non-destructive editing.’ Believe it or not, this is one of the most important elements of a DAW. When analog was the only way to produce music, it was costly to store the audio as this is a physical phenomenon requiring actual space for storage and various mechanisms for storing data (tape reels, vinyl, CDs). In contrast, now it’s all handled by our computers. 

The physical storage mechanisms can only handle a certain amount of over-dubbing (re-editing) before the quality of audio diminishes, which means that you have to be sure of any changes before committing an edit and recording it out. With a DAW, you have the freedom to chop and change audio as much as you want without ever affecting the original file because it’s so easy to make a copy or undo a mistake. This gives editing and production infinite possibilities with endless space to experiment and achieve your desired sound. 

We all know what recording is but let’s look at what makes it unique in a DAW. Some of the bigger analog studios have massive controllers that span tens of meters across, have an abundance of cables, patching, and other physical requirements for them to work and successfully track big sessions. Remember that each microphone requires its dedicated track (channel). So if you have a session where you’re tracking 50+ microphones at one time, you’ll need enough physical channels on your console to accommodate this (hence the reason they’re so big!). 

However, DAWs have an almost infinite amount of tracks available within our computer screen, making this all possible with much less of a hassle. Depending on your processing power, you might be able to handle this all on a single computer; all the hardware you’ll require are microphones (and various other essential features used to capture audio). 

Let’s look at price as a comparison. It might help to contrast the differences even more – some studios (such as Abbey Road) have equipment that costs millions of dollars to undertake the same tasks that one can achieve with a decent computer and the right recording equipment; which although is not cheap itself, it is a whole lot more accessible than the price range mentioned above. 

Next, we’ll examine the use of VSTs, MIDI, and automation within DAWs. Within your program of choice, you’ll have access to several features that aid in music production, namely VSTs, MIDI, and automation. Some of these will be native (meaning they come included with your DAW) and others will be externally sourced, but either way, you can implement them into your production. 

Starting with VSTs, let’s take a look at what they are and do. Virtual Studio Technology is an audio plugin interface that operates (virtually) within your software, assimilating real-life hardware and its functionality, allowing the user to apply various processing and audio effects within the DAW. These devices are designed to either achieve a desired audio effect or mimic an existing piece of hardware. 

These are handy features as they make audio processing elements accessible to us where they otherwise might not be. For example, you can purchase numerous plugins from companies such as Waves and Steinberg that simulate specific popular processing devices from world-class studios, granting us the ability to use equipment (virtually) with proven track records of success and specialty.

Following on from this is MIDI, a system that affords a single user the possibilities to achieve musical productions that would otherwise require musicians’ ensemble. Not only that, but it also gives us the ability to generate and edit notes and melodies that can be programmed and sequenced. So if you’re not a musician, you can still make music that sounds great because you can revisit what you’ve made until you’re happy with it. One more thing, it gives us access to an array of musical instruments (virtually) that we can apply this to (you can be your band or orchestra) to produce an entire song by yourself. 

There’s so much more to MIDI that we could go into, but that needs to be a blog of its own as the possibilities are ceaseless, especially when we start incorporating hardware and software to create music. All of this can happen within your DAW, and that’s what matters. 

Automation is the next thing on the list, and it comes after the previous points because this is where it plays its part. In an analog environment, all of the movement in a song, changes in pitch, loudness, etc., happen due to human intervention. However, DAWs can handle this themselves via a process known as automation. Automation allows us to map and configure various parameters of almost anything inside our DAWs. It stores the information and plays it back the same way every time, but you can still go in and tweak every little detail. With analog, you are stuck with what you did unless you want to redo the whole take, which costs money and requires physical storage. 

This is one of the critical elements of a DAW because we can non-destructively experiment until we achieve a great feel. 

Finally, we’ll cover the mixing and mastering side of the DAW. When you hear clarity in music, this comes from the ability we have to separate audio files into their dedicated channels and treat each accordingly. Without this, we would have music that sounded terrible in so many ways – muddy, crowded, boxy, nasty, and all of the bad stuff. Having access to infinite channels creates the opportunity to control each correctly and create a single audio file at the end of it. 

A lot goes into making a track, but it may not sound great without the right mix and master. With these kinds of programs, we can create music from almost anywhere and at a competitive standard. Some of the most popular music in the world has been produced with entry-level equipment and a basic DAW, it purely depends on how you use it. 

In conclusion, it is clear that DAWs have revolutionized music production – they did so when they were invented. It’s fascinating to note that DAWs have been a progressive contributor to music evolution and will continue to be so. Who knows where we’ll be in a few years at the rate technology is developing now? I’m sure the unimaginable will be possible as it has been in the past.

One thing is sure; if you’re into music production, you will most likely need a DAW. It may be daunting to think about what is out there and the complexities associated, but as time goes on, they will become ever-more user friendly. Don’t waste time getting involved because there is so much out there, and the right DAW for you and your sound is waiting!

If you’re interested in taking this a step further, check out our previous two articles to help you find the right DAW:

Best Free DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations)

Digital Audio Workstations: How to Pick the Best DAW for You

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