Digital Audio Workstations, or DAW’s, are used for the production and recording of music, radio, television, podcasts, multimedia and nearly any other situation where complex recorded audio is needed. Modern DAW’s have a central interface that allows the user to alter and mix multiple recordings and tracks, into a final produced piece. Technology like this gives even novice users the opportunities to create their own videos or movies, with ease. The result is a well-produced work of art that may be as smooth and seamless as if it was done by a professional. If you are looking to purchase a digital audio workstation, we will supply you with all the information you need in one place, so you can be sure to not waste your time on multiple researches.
At the heart of almost every DAW lies something called a sequencer. Modern sequencers are not fundamentally different, but because they’re software-based and incorporated into a powerful DAW, they’re much more flexible. You can change parts and move them around far more easily, and record actual sounds, (audio), as well as sending and receiving MIDI. Sequencers are used to organize several parts, and each of these parts is loaded onto a ‘track’. Therefore, a 64-track sequencer would enable you to have up to 64 different parts playing in unison. The performance information for each track is mapped out on a timeline, a space in which time is displayed horizontally and tracks are displayed vertically. When you press play, a vertical line called a “playhead”, moves through the song from left to right, and when it reaches an event within a track, the associated sound is heard. The transport controls contain everything from the standard play, pause and record buttons to repeat controls.
To adjust the volume of each of the tracks, your DAW also contains a mixer. A hardware mixer is a device used to balance the volumes of separate sound sources, and combine or ‘mix’ them, all to be played through just one set of speakers.
The software equivalent in a DAW works on exactly the same principle. Each of the sequencer’s tracks has something called a channel strip, and each track’s channel strip is where the volume, panning, (where the sound sits in the stereo field, left or right), routing, (where the sound comes from and goes to) and more, are all controlled. Each channel strip also has a few buttons such as mute, solo and record arm/enable.
The most significant feature available from a DAW is the ability to “undo” a previous action, using a command similar to that of the “undo” button in word processing software. Undo makes it much easier to avoid accidentally and permanently erasing or recording over a previous recording. If a mistake or unwanted change is made, the undo command is used to conveniently revert the changed data to a previous state. “Cut, Copy, Paste, and Undo” are familiar and common computer commands, and they are usually available in DAW’s, in some form. More common functions include the modifications of several factors concerning a sound. These include “wave shape, pitch, tempo, and filtering”.
DAW’s feature some form of automation, often performed through “envelopes”. Envelopes are procedural line segment-based or curve-based interactive graphs. The lines and curves of the automation graph are joined by, or comprise adjustable points. By creating and adjusting multiple points along a waveform or control events, the user can specify parameters of the output over time, (volume or pan). Automation data may also be directly derived from human gestures recorded by a control surface or controller. MIDI is a common data protocol used for transferring such gestures to the DAW. MIDI recording, editing, and playback is increasingly incorporated into modern DAW’s of all types, as is synchronization with other audio and/or video tools.
There are countless software plugins for DAW software, each one comes with its own unique functionality, thus, expanding the overall variety of sounds and manipulations that are possible. Some of the functions of these plugins include digital effects units which can modify a signal with distortion, resonators, equalizers, synthesizers, compressors, chorus, virtual amp, limiter, phaser, and flangers. Each have their own form of manipulating the soundwaves, tone, pitch, and speed of a simple sound and transform it into something different. To achieve a more distinctive sound, multiple plugins can be used in layers, and further automated to manipulate the original sounds and modify it into a completely new sample.
Modern DAW software can use multicore processors and lots of RAM, so you may prefer to have a well-specified computer. DAW’s list minimum system requirements, but these are more for reference than anything else – if your computer only just meets them, you will start to run out of steam very quickly. Every time you add an effect or a virtual instrument to a project, you increase the power requirements of the DAW, so the more headroom you have, the better. You will need at least a 2GB RAM and a dual core, (or better, CPU), to run a modern DAW satisfactorily, the only exception being some ‘lite’ versions, which have fewer features and therefore lower power needs. Many digital multitrack recorders offer additional virtual tracks which are very handy because they allow for non-destructive editing. For example, if you have 8 virtual tracks per track you can do 8 extra takes without ‘recording over’ previous takes. Alternatively, you might have drums on 8 tracks and bounce them down to 2 tracks, to free up tracks for other uses. However, if you need to change that mix later, you’ll still have access to the original 8 tracks, which you can reload then remix.
A DAW is a pretty hefty computer program, capable of bringing even a powerful computer to its knees, especially on a fully-loaded project. It will tax your memory (RAM), CPU, and can take up a good bit of hard drive space. If you are able to upgrade individual components of your computer, those are the three to focus on. There are tips and tricks out there to ease the load a DAW will have on your machine, but just be aware that if your computer is already slow and old, you might not have a great time working on your music, with a DAW that crashes, because you are too low on RAM, or hard disk space.
Most DAW’s come in two or more versions, typically ‘Lite’ and ‘Pro’, or something along those lines. They almost always share a lot of core technology, but the Pro version will have all the features and content, and the Lite version will be more feature-limited, though usually still competent.
There will be a significant price difference between them in most instances, with an option to upgrade from the entry level to the full version in the future for an additional fee. This is a good idea if you are starting out or are on a budget, as you can see how your skills and needs develop over time, and only make the extra investment when you need to.
The differences between versions might mean you can get away with using the Lite version if your needs are less complicated. For example, they all do audio and MIDI recording, editing and mixing. It may be possible that the Lite version has a track limit, a smaller number of effect or instrument slots, and perhaps lacks some more advanced features like surround sound or specialized workflow tools. For Pro users, or those wanting to learn more advanced techniques, the full version of a DAW can be essential, especially if you intend to make a living from using it. With Pro versions, you get a huge amount of bundled plug-ins and loops, which mean you are less likely to have to shell out for additional ones later. Pro DAW’s contain heavy duty, multitrack audio editing and drum replacement features – not something a beginner would probably need, but a professional might.
When multitrack recording was done on tape machines, you could record on all tracks simultaneously, however, digital systems usually only permit recording on a limited number of tracks, at the same time. Therefore, make sure the recording system you choose provides enough recording tracks for the kind of work you do.
The best production software tools include a multiband or mixer equalizer, so you can fine-tune your recordings to sound as good as possible. Pitch correction and time stretching can be helpful tools to fix audio blemishes, without having to re-record anything. The more insert and send effects can apply to an audio track, the more options you will have to achieve the right tone and texture for your recordings. A mastering suite is also a nice bonus if you want to boost your mixed audio to radio-quality volume.
If you want to expand your studio, hardware can be a good way to add some variation to your sound. Working with hardware can unlock sounds that may not be accessible with plugins. It’s better to integrate hardware in a way that creates a ‘hybrid’ system. You can set up your DAW for basic outboard processing. This will involve creating ‘virtual’ insert points to route audio back and forth between your hardware and DAW. Afterward, you can create a hybrid effects chain using a mixture of hardware and software inserts. Eventually, you can look at level balancing, bouncing results and even delay compensation techniques.
The Operating System (OS) of your computer can make some DAW’s unavailable to you. For instance, Logic Pro X only works on OS X, and Image-Line’s FL Studio is Windows-only. So, unless you’re willing to make a pretty drastic switch to a different OS for the sake of using a different DAW, definitely remember this limitation in future.
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