Home Studio Essentials: What Is a DAW?
Updated: August 31,2022
Just a few decades ago, it was hard to imagine you would be able to share your songs with the whole world with the push of a button, and even harder to believe you would be able to create those songs in the comfort of your home. Still, that’s exactly how things are right now, thanks to a piece of software called a “digital audio workstation,” or DAW for short.
But what is a DAW, exactly, and how do you use it? Dive in and witness the magic.
A Brief History of a Digital Audio Workstation
The year 1977 was the year of some great albums from AC/DC, David Bowie, Bob Marley, etc. It was also the year Soundstream created the first DAW. It had built-in analog-to-digital converters, a waveform display, and commands for cross-fades and splices.
In 1989, SoundTools was released. The predecessor to today’s industry-standard DAW came out as a tool to edit samples from sampler keyboards and only had two tracks available for recording, but within only two years of its existence, it evolved into ProTools.
Not long after, Steinberg released software with eight recording tracks and a Digital Signal Processor (DSP), but it was not until 1996 that it leveled up the audio-engineering industry with a 32-track option and revolutionary VST (virtual studio technology), turning the audio-engineering world into what we know today.
Digital Audio Workstations Today
DAW is not just your mixer, but basically your digital music studio. Initially, four different devices were used for the following purposes:
- Music notation - writing down your MIDI notes
- A MIDI sequencer - a device to record and edit your MIDI notes
- Virtual instruments - virtual analog synths that produced polyphonic melodies
- Digital audio processor - used to record, edit and mix the recordings digitally
However, decades later, technology has evolved so much that we do not necessarily need any of the old hardware to create music, other than a standard computer.
You can use your computer keyboard as piano keys, strings, drumkits, and percussions, with each note assigned to a letter on your keyboard. DAW software today has its own faders and volume regulators, as well as unlimited recording tracks for however many instruments you might want to include, so it doesn’t matter if you are editing a solo guitar jam session or an orchestra.
A DAW system contains compressors, equalizers, reverbs, pitchers, MIDI sequencers, and samples from various songs, adlibs, or even non-musical instruments. You are able to play, record, mix, edit, cut, and shape your audio all in one place, and the best part is that most laptops today are more than enough to run whatever DAW you choose.
Even so, having a few hardware tools you can connect to your DAW would be beneficial, especially for a DJ. As DJs aren’t teaching themselves to play an instrument, but modulating sound and mixing it, working with hardware will result in faster learning, so we’ve created a list of the finest turntables you can get on the market today.
How To Use a DAW
First, you need to decide which one suits you the most, as there is a plethora of DAWs out there. They’re all very similar, with the only differences being fader position, stock plug-ins, and keyboard shortcuts.
For beginners, we recommend the FL Studio (soon coming with a new version - FL Studio 21), as it has one of the best and easy-to-use interfaces and a great library of prerecorded loops and samples you can use to create your own beats and instrumentals.
Choosing a DAW can be intimidating at first due to the sheer volume of options, but don’t let that scare you - they all run on the same principle. What’s more, most of them have a 30-day trial you can use to get familiar with the software and see if it’s to your liking.
The first step in figuring out how to use the DAW you got is to locate your loops, stock plug-ins, faders, volume pitchers, effects, etc. Learn to turn on the recording, connect your channels to your monitors, MIDI, and microphone, and import your own plug-ins.
Then comes the creative process: Find a blueprint that works for you and run with it until it bores you. Create a drum pattern that will act as a base to your melody, or create a melody first, to which you will add that boom. If you have writer’s block, you can simply use one of the prerecorded loops and samples and mix them to create a tune you like.
Apart from creating a song from scratch, you can create your own samples and remix songs using a DAW, meaning you can take a part of a song you like, cut it out, loop it, pitch it, add your drums, or mix it with another song you think would go great with it.
The options are limitless, but that can be tiresome, as well as inspiring. If you get stuck, relax, take a breather, save the project and come back later once you find some new ideas. Whatever you imagine doing with your sound, you can do it with the right plug-ins and effects.
Top DAWs for the Top Dawgs
With so many types of DAWs to choose between, we thought it would be helpful if we introduced you to some of the best DAWs in the industry:
Avid ProTools - The first real DAW, ProTools became the industry standard, so much so, that you will find it in 90% of studios that worked with any of today’s superstars. Along with Cubase, it was one of the first programs to unite mixing, recording, and editing. It’s not only used for music, but sound design for movies and games as well.
Image-Line’s FL Studio - the best digital audio workstation for beginners, previously known as “Fruity Loops,” it is the most popular pick amongst hip-hop producers and EDM artists. It is compatible with both macOS and Windows, offers a lifetime of free updates, and is the most user-friendly.
Steinberg’s Cubase - Steinberg struggled with user interface issues for a while, but that seems to have changed with one of its recent updates, which upped its game. As the company that created VST as we know it today, it incorporates plenty of new features that allow you to both work on your music and create a sound picture for whatever purpose.
Conclusion - The Future of DAW
More and more companies are creating mobile apps for sound production, and although they are not nearly as functional as their desktop counterparts, they are a big step forward. If you are on the go, stuck in traffic, and inspiration hits you out of the blue, having a DAW app like FL on your phone does come in handy.
With the development of VR, DAWs are slowly moving on to the virtual reality field with TribeXR, already available on Oculus and Steam VR, allowing you to not only mix music, but learn how to be a DJ. Software like 42Tones enables you to work with synths and modules you would usually have to pay enormous prices for, as well as modulators, regulators, and switching cords.
Or maybe you are more interested in learning how to play the piano, in which case VRtuos is the pick for you. Although not entirely in the category of DAW applications, it allows you to record what you play and use that in your mix. If you connect your real-world piano with a VST and your VR headset, it is a decent substitute for a live tutor.
Whatever area interests us the most, the technology today allows us to create music from our own homes and share it with the world without relying on distributors, marketing agencies, agents, managers, etc.
Try it, and see where it takes you. You might surprise yourself with what you create, and you might be even more surprised with how many people connect to it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some examples of a DAW are ProTools, Studio One, Cubase, FL Studio, or GarageBand. These are all considered DAWs, and some of the best in the industry.
Yes, and it’s one of the best free DAWs you will find. It has all the necessary tools a music producer might need, but the downside is that it is only available for macOS.
This is a tricky question to answer, as all of them are similar, but the most user-friendly would probably be FL Studio and Ableton Live.
In most professional studios, you will find ProTools as the go-to DAW.
DAW stands for “digital audio workstation.” It is a computer program designed to act as a digital studio, allowing you to record, edit and mix your own sounds into songs.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.