A digital audio workstation (DAW) is software that allows you to record, edit, mix, and master audio on your computer as easily as editing a document. Not just for musicians, these powerful tools are useful for creators of all kinds, as long as it involves audio.
If you’ve been looking to produce music, podcasts, or other audio projects, you’ve probably heard of digital audio workstations. So what are these tools, who are they for, and how do you know which one to use? Let’s dive into everything you need to know.
What are digital audio workstations?
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is a piece of software that essentially recreates the various functions of a studio inside your computer. With DAW software, you can record, edit, and mix multiple channels of audio.
The only thing a digital audio workstation doesn’t do is get the audio inside your computer. For that, you’ll need an audio interface, which takes the place of a standard computer sound card and adds additional inputs, outputs, and features.
One of the main advantages of a DAW over the analog tape machines of yesteryear is that each audio track is displayed as a waveform in the software. This makes it easy to edit audio and crossfade between multiple clips. Showing the audio waveforms also allows you to easily see if they have been recorded too loud or too soft.
Dealing with recorded audio is just one aspect of DAW software. All but the most basic digital audio workstations have support for MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). This allows you to record and play virtual instruments such as virtual synths or strings within the software. MIDI also allows you to control synthesizers and other instruments outside of the DAW.
Who is DAW software for?
The first group you think of when you think of a recording studio are the engineers who run it and the producers who make a lot of decisions. In fact, walk into any recording studio and you’re sure to find a computer running digital audio workstation software. That said, this is far from the only place where DAW software is used.
Individual musicians use DAW software all the time. Many musicians are skipping the studio altogether these days, recording music on their own and offering it directly over the Internet. That being said, musicians even use DAW software to play live.
Of course, musicians aren’t the only people creating audio. If you’re creating a podcast or audiobook, you’ll likely use a digital audio workstation to record and edit the audio. DAW software is even used a lot in movies.
When you think of movies, you probably think of video editing software, but DAW software is also used. This ranges from sound design to foley work to the virtual instruments used in elements of the score.
The main functions of a digital audio workstation
One of the key features of a digital audio workstation is that it can record and play multiple channels (commonly known as “tracks” in a DAW) at the same time. This means you can record and play all the instruments in a band or just the voices of multiple guests in a podcast.
While multitrack recording is perhaps the key feature of a DAW, it’s not the most useful. That would be the editing capabilities. Editing audio on a digital workstation is as easy and efficient as moving text in a document or editing multiple layers in a photo-editing program like Photoshop.
This isn’t limited to audio either. You can cut, copy, and paste MIDI note data even more easily than audio. This means that once you’ve edited a performance, you can play it back through multiple virtual instruments or other devices to get exactly the sound you want.
Once you’ve edited your tracks, it’s time to mix them down. The basics here include adjusting each track’s volume and EQ, as well as panning it to determine where it is in the stereo image. You can also add other effects to each track, such as compression to even out a performance, or reverb for a sense of space.
Once you have your mix set, you can export it to a stereo file. From here you can use the same DAW software to master recording. This is a complex subject, but basically mastering is doing all the finishing touches and bringing a track to the same volume that you would expect to hear on Spotify or another service like Apple Music.
Choosing the right DAW for you
The industry standard digital audio workstation for professional studios is Avid Pro Tools, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one out there. Ableton Live is quickly gaining momentum, especially with producers and musicians thanks to its live performance features.
If you’re looking for a free way to start experimenting with DAW software and you’re using a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, Apple GarageBand is a free and easy-to-use option. If you need more power, it’s easy to bring your GarageBand projects into Apple Logic Pro DAW software.
For Windows and Linux, you have many free options. Audacity is one such tool, and while it’s a very basic DAW, it’s more than enough to get a podcast started. If you’re more interested in music production, Ardor is a free and open source option.
If you’re looking for a mobile option, Steinberg Cubasis, a mobile adaptation of their Cubase DAW, is available for iPhone and iPad, as well as Android devices. For more information, check out our guide to creating music on iPhone and iPad.