A digital audio workstation, also known as DAW, is a crucial part of a music-making process.
Professional musicians typically use this program to create music and improve their artistic skills.
If you are a passionate music lover, an upcoming musician, or a professional artist, you may probably be aware of what a digital workstation really is and its role in the production of music.
But if you’re not really sure of what DAW is and want to learn more about it. You have come to the right place. Here you will find everything you need to know about DAW – what it is, its brief history, most popular DAWs on the market, and lots more!
- 1 What Exactly Is DAW?
- 2 Brief History of DAW
- 3 Most Popular DAWs
- 4 Free VS. Paid DAWs
- 5 Conclusion
What Exactly Is DAW?
DAW is an acronym for “Digital Audio Workstation” and refers to a digital device or application software that is used to create, edit, and record audios.
There are many types of programs that are known as DAWs. Different DAWs have different layouts and features that make them stand apart from one another. However, the main functions that every DAW typically performs are:
- Record a live singer or instrument
- Record virtual instruments
- Loop recorded audios
- Edit audios to enhance the music quality
- Mixing different audios together for more effects
- Add effects into songs
Brief History of DAW
The modern musical landscape has totally changed with the advent of the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This device/software is commonplace to the extent that many artists rely on it to enhance the quality of their tracks.
The earliest version of the modern DAW emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. However, those models were limited in their capacities as they were extremely slow and overly priced.
In 1983, the MIDI standard came about, which made it possible for computers and keyboards to connect. Soon after, the sequencing applications emerged that allowed musicians to record and edit their MIDI music into their computers.
In many ways, MIDI standards were the predecessor of the modern DAW that we all know. Take note that those were the times when primitive computers were a luxury.
Microsoft hadn’t even released its window software, and MAC was still a year away from making its mark in the world of technology.
In 1985, two German men – Karl Steinberg and Manfred Rurup – produced Pro-16 – a MIDI sequencer that allowed MIDI recording and editing for different tracks.
That’s how the concept of producing and editing digital audios came about. Scientists continued working on finding ways to record, mix, and edit digital tracks in a more enhanced manner.
In 1989, a technical company – Digidesign – released Sound Tools, enabling “non-destructive” editing.
This was a great leap forward for artists who didn’t have to cut, copy, or paste audios without affecting the original track. Up until then, musicians had to physically cut and edit analog tapes.
In 1992, another milestone was achieved when Steinberg produced a computer-based DAW – Cubase Audio Mac for the MAC Company.
In 1994, Steinberg released a mind-blowing digital application – Cubase Audio Falcon for composing and editing tracks in the Atari Falcon computers.
What was so special about this invention was that it was the first digital-based recorder that didn’t necessitate the use of a hardware device for digital signal processing.
Instead, it used the PC’s inbuilt DSP features. Within 10 years, DAWs became a leading recording and editing format. They proved to be a great, hassle-free alternative for tape-based applications that require separate processors to edit and mix recordings.
Most Popular DAWs
DAWs are undoubtedly the most important software pieces in any studio. You can’t possibly imagine a modern DAW without a digital work station.
As we said earlier, there are many types of DAWs; each of them has different features and benefits. Let’s look at the best ones available on the market today:
1. Apple Logic Pro X
Logic Pro X is one of the most sought-after digital audio workstation and a MIDI sequencer app for Apple users. The DAW comes with innumerable features that allow you to be more creative and inventive with your music.
Apple Logic Pro X comes with a huge sound library with over 7000 royalty-free Apple Loops, which allows you to choose and load unique sounds in a matter of minutes.
With Smart Controls, you can easily tweak and edit different tracks to get the right beat. The DAW also features Flex Time that enables you to efficiently manipulate the tempo and timing of your tracks.
With this feature, you can easily rectify the sounds of a virtual drum, guitar, or any instrument.
The device also comes with a variety of online instruments such as drum pads, guitars, and keyboards so that you can produce music on the spot.
2. CakeWalk SONAR
Cakewalk SONAR has ranked among the top DAWs over the years now, and this software deserves to be on top because of its unbeatable features that can take your music to uncharted heights.
This is a well-designed and affordable audio station, built specifically for PC users.
It comes with a remarkable 64-bit engine and an accurate sample rate of up to 384 kHz. This allows you to load and work on innumerable audio and MIDI tracks.
Other than recording and editing audios, CakeWalk SONAR allows you to chop, stretch, and loop tracks in a number of ways.
3. Steinberg Cubase
This is old but gold. Since its first release in the late 1900s, DAWs have considerably evolved by leaps and bounds.
While it may not be as commonplace as it once was, it still thrives to be a top contender in today’s cutthroat digital audio market for PC and Mac users.
The digital audio station is known for its irreplaceable plugin integrations, synthesizers, drum tools, and samplers that are easy to work with, even by first-time users.
And let’s not forget its audio editing processes. The two most non-destructive features of the Cubase’s audio are its VariAudio and Render in Place.
Both of them offer quick conversion of all types of tracks and audios. With the software’s timing correction tool, you can chop up files and manipulate them to your liking.
Cubase is exceptional in the way it allows MIDI connections with virtual instruments – guitar, drum, keyboard, etc. What’s best is that it enables you to modify MIDI events with the help of MIDI modifiers.
4. FL Studio
FL Studio is a popular digital audio station designed by the famous Belgian company – Image-Line. One of the most stand-out features of this software is its lifetime free upgrades to FL Studio users.
This means that FL Studio users can easily consider automatic upgrades to the newest version on both Mac and PC versions. In this way, they can automatically upgrade their software whenever they want and enjoy its many upgraded features.
Speaking of features, FL Studio is equipped with many features that make it stands out from the crowd. The software comes with NewTone that allows you to integrate auto-tune with the software.
The software also supports Sound (ASIO) Drivers and VST3 Support system. Even though this software started off as a beatmaker, over the years, it has accumulated a large variety of beats, loops, and plugins for its users.
5. Ableton Live
Ableton Live appeals to many users not just because it is great for creating and recording music, but live performances as well. Even though it is slightly pricey, it is worth it, especially for serious musicians and professional artists.
The software supports plugins and VST instruments and is great for track-based recording and audio warping.
With this software, you can easily manipulate any tempo, rhythm, or MIDI audio; and when it comes to MIDI editing processes, Ableton Live is priceless.
Whether you want to fix a timing issue in a recorded song or want to touch up some computer-based music with some additional beats and rhythms, you can easily do all of this (and more) with Ableton Live.
You can find this software in three versions – Intro that offers 16 tracks and a few instruments; Standard Version that has basic sound and effect sets; and last but not least, Suite that features everything related to sounds, effects, and instruments.
6. Bitwig Studio
If you’re a fan of Ableton Live, you will definitely love Bitwig Studio. The software is produced by the same Ableton engineers and share many amazing features with that of Ableton Live.
The software features a complex layout with multiple profiles that are easy to switch and fun to work with.
However, if you have no experience of working with this software or alike, don’t worry; the software comes with the Grid that will provide you with all the necessary basics that will help you become a pro at digital audio processing.
It also comes with a wide range of video tutorials to help you learn audio tuning, sampling, tempering, etc., in Bitwig Studio.
The Bitwig Studio’s newest version Bitwig Studio 3 is the best one yet as it comes with mind-blowing features including Global GUI Contrast settings for a more visually appealing interface; Realtime Ruler for displaying timelines instantly; Poly Grid for creating sequenced patches, synthesizers, etc; FX Grid for creating audio FX for playing several voices simultaneously and lots more!
7. Cockos Reaper
Since its 2006 launch, the digital audio workstation has come a long way.
It lets you perform all the basic DAW functions such as live audio and virtual instrument recording, notation edits, mixing different tracks together, changing the rhythm and setting the tunes, etc.
However, Reaper goes one step further than its competitors by allowing users to build their own toolbars, macros, and menus. It offers a customized user interface by letting you change its color scheme, layout, etc.
Since the User Interface is pretty straightforward to use, you can easily locate different options according to your needs and preferences.
You can also record several audio channels simultaneously from different interface inputs, making recording and editing music super easy and fun nonetheless.
With such a fun and easy-to-use UI, creating and mixing tunes has never been simpler.
The Reaper is also known for its mixing panel that lets you group different tracks together and achieves the desired result in a matter of minutes.
GarageBand is perfect for both pros and beginners. Unlike most modern DAWs, this software features a basic yet effective user interface that does not scare off a beginner.
The DAW allows you to record at 24 bits with a mic and mix about 255 tracks. The best part is that you can record different takes at the same time and edit it as you please.
The software comes with multiple advanced features such as Flex Time that gives you a certain degree of tempo elasticity. With Groove Matching, you can match the tempo and timings of one track to the one you have set up already.
When using this software, you may also come across a massive built-in sound library that includes a wide array of electronic and acoustic sounds of drums, basses, pads, leads, etc.
With hundreds of sound options, you can pick the sounds you like best and incorporate them into your music or create a new track out of it.
Free VS. Paid DAWs
When looking for the best DAW on the market, you will come across this software in two major types – free DAWs and paid DAWs.
You may wonder whether these two DAWs have any prominent differences other than the fact that one is available for free while the other has to be bought for money.
Well, both types of DAWs have some major differences that are worth the discussion. Here’s a comprehensive insight into how free DAWs differ from paid DAWs and vice versa.
Number of Features
When it comes to features, paid DAWs have better offers than the free ones. That doesn’t mean you won’t get what you are looking for with free DAWs.
It’s just that paid DAWs have all those features that you can’t possibly expect to get for free.
Paid DAWs have better audio editing and recording options and audio mixing and mastering options. Often times, free DAWs lack options for automation and samplers.
Many of them do not support a real-time midi chord player, a MIDI interface, or other important features that you can easily get if you invest in a paid one.
DAW Latency Issue
Latency is a common issue that users often face when using a DAW.
At times, this issue is indispensable because it is a technical one, and you can’t really do much about it except for taking your device to a professional that can fix it or investing in better software that has a low latency level.
Many free DAWs have latency problems that can be super annoying and pose difficulty in your music-making process. On the other hand, manufacturers of most paid DAWs use low latency networks to keep the latency issue away.
Lack of Third Party VSTs
Most software programs come with an option to insert third-party plugins, especially DAW software. These third-party plugins offer additional functionalities that allow you to expand your skills and explore new things when processing music.
Most paid VSTs feature third party plugins, but with most free DAWs, you have to invest in them separately in order to use them.
Ease and Convenience
Most paid DAWs are designed in a manner that helps streamline your tracks and mixes without any trouble. Since they are professional software made specifically for professional use, they provide a smooth and efficient workflow.
Even if you are mixing two different tracks simultaneously, you won’t have any trouble with that when using paid DAWs. However, you can expect a slight inconvenience in this regard when using free DAWs.
A digital audio workstation is an integral part of any modern digital audio workstation. Anyone who is a music enthusiast or has a flair for music production would know what a valuable asset DAW can be if used properly.
As it is with every software, DAW comes in many types with different functions and features. When purchasing a DAW software, make sure that you invest in an original copy and offer a dongle-free download.