A modern digital audio workstation typically consists of a Mac or PC computer, an audio interface, and digital audio software supporting multi-track recording and monitoring.
The audio interface is required to convert analog audio (usually captured by a microphone) into the digital audio that can be visually edited by the audio engineer on a computer display.
The audio interface is also responsible for converting the edited digital audio signals back into the analog audio waves that are pumped out of loudspeakers or headphones. The DAW software makes it possible to seamlessly (and non-destructively) edit and manipulate the digitized audio captured on the computer’s hard drive.
Integrated Digital Audio Workstations
Besides the computer-based digital audio workstation, there is another type of DAW worth mentioning – the integrated digital audio workstation. This type of DAW is a stand-alone device containing all of the necessary components such as an audio interface, an on-board computer with dedicated software as well as a control surface and graphical user interface. In other words, a separate computer system is not required but may be used for archiving or deeper editing.
These integrated DAWs were more popular in the 1980s and early 1990s when personal computers were significantly less powerful and very expensive in relation to today’s PCs. However, some manufacturers (such as Roland and Open Labs) still produce high-quality integrated DAWs for a small but dedicated portion of audio engineers and music producers.
Why use a DAW?
It is rare for an audio engineer of the 21st century to be versed in less than one type of DAW software. But up until the late 1990s, many audio engineers were hesitant to make the switch from the analog studio to the digital audio workstation.
To be successful at that time, DAW manufacturers had to emulate traditional multi-track tape recorder/mixer systems in order to ease the transition for seasoned sound engineers uncomfortable with the new digital technology. Although reluctant at first, many audio engineers quickly discovered the undeniable benefits of working on a digital audio workstation.
Some of the more distinctive features of digital audio workstations include:
- Non-destructive editing including the ability to “undo” and “redo” an edit on any given audio file an unlimited amount of times without affecting the quality of the audio file.
- Customized internal mixer configurations allowing for the instant addition of new audio tracks or aux busses.
- Total recall automation – while not exclusive to DAWs, the ability to save, edit and recall automation of entire mixes via MIDI has always been an option with digital audio workstations.
- Virtual instruments and plug-in signal processors – with advances in technology, modern digital audio workstations can now incorporate high-quality softsynths and plug-in effects that are arguably as good as the hardware counterparts.
The Importance of Today’s DAW Software
Computer-based DAWs have become the norm with audio engineers around the world. Because of this, it is now common practice to differentiate between DAWs based soley upon the type of digital audio software used by the recording computer. While technically not a DAW per se, digital audio software (such as Cubase or Pro Tools) is arguably the defining part of modern day digital audio workstations.