What is a Digital Audio Workstation and what are the considerations for building a DAW?



Digital Audio Workstations

Digital Audio Workstations, or DAWs as they are commonly called, are the current state of the art in audio editing. They combine the power of personal computers to more conventional techniques, in order to put more editing power into the hands of the audio engineer than has ever existed before.

Early DAW systems were all-in-one units, which combined a sound mixer with a multi-track tape recorder. These all-in-one units have largely been replaced by computer-based units, which provide more power and greater control, with virtually unlimited tracks available for mixing separate sounds.

The Computer

The heart of a DAW system is a personal computer. While almost any personal computer will work, the more powerful the computer, the more separate audio tracks that the DAW can manipulate at one time, without bogging down. Ideally, creation of finished audio tracks is completed in real time, meaning that complex edits need a high end personal computer.

Both Macs and PCs are effective for use in DAWs. The choice between one or the other depends a lot on personal preference and the software one chooses to use. Some software packages only work with one platform, ruling out the other right away. Regardless of the computer chosen for the DAW, the amount of memory it has is important. Adding more RAM memory is the fastest way to speed up a computer’s operation, making it “more powerful.” A large hard drive or second external hard drive is necessary, as audio files are fairly large.

It is possible to use a laptop for a DAW, and in many cases they are used for portable DAW recording systems. However, desktop computers have the capability of installing higher speed hard drives, with 10,000 or even 15,000 RPM hard drives. These higher speed hard drives directly translate to higher DAW speed.

The Software

While the computer is the heart of the system, the actual editing is done by DAW software residing in that computer. There are many DAW software programs on the market, ranging from simple, free packages to professional packages that can cost hundreds of dollars. Even the free packages have an amazing amount of capability, especially when you compare them to the analog systems of old.

As with other types of computer applications, the software varies from brand to brand. Not only does the capability vary, but even more importantly, the interface does. Selecting an interface that the user is comfortable with, which works in the same way that the user thinks goes a long way towards shortening the learning curve and making it possible for the user to make changes in their recording and editing of sound much more rapidly.

Fortunately, most manufacturers of DAW software have free downloads of limited capability versions of their software, allowing you to download it and try it out before you invest the money in buying it.

DAWs don’t totally forget analog editing, as they are often styled after multi-track recorders. This provides an interface which is easy to understand and easy for professional sound engineers to adapt to. Additionally, since audio is analog, DAWs have to interface with analog inputs and outputs in order to accomplish anything.

The Interface

The third component of a DAW is some sort of a digital audio interface. While all computers today are built with audio inputs and outputs, they are somewhat limited, both in the number of inputs provided and their audio quality. For professional sounding audio, it is usually necessary to add a high grade digital audio interface. This will provide a minimum of two audio inputs and outputs, with a much higher audio quality than a typical sound card.

The more inputs that a digital audio interface provides, the more separate channels that you can record at one time. An alternative method that many small studios use is to attach a sound mixer board to the digital audio interface, providing as many channels of sound input as they need. However, this largely negates the advantage of using a DAW, as all those channels are mixed together and recorded as if they were one channel.

There are three basic types of interfaces used for DAWs. They correspond to the three input ports which are used for digital audio interfaces; PCI, USB and FireWire. Of these, the USB is the most limited, as far as speed and number of channels that it is possible to fit into the equipment. However, USB is easily accessible and available on any computer built within the last 15 years.

While most digital audio interfaces work with most DAW software, there are still some rare exceptions. So, it’s always a good idea to verify compatibility before buying. In most cases it is possible to run more than one digital audio interface with a DAW package, increasing the number of available channels of input and output. Once again, verify this with the software manufacturer or their documentation, before spending the money on an additional interface.

Additional Options to Consider

Some DAW systems have plug-ins available which will work with them. These can either by provided by the manufacturer or aftermarket devices. Plug-ins provide capability that isn’t included in the original software package. Generally speaking, this means adding additional signal processing and effect capability that isn’t part of the DAW software.

DAW works via digital signal processing (DCP). This is a function provided by the computer. However, not all computers are created equal, and not all provide the same level of DCP. Some DAW manufacturers also provide DSP accelerators to compensate in cases where the existing processing power isn’t enough. These can either be brand-specific, designed to work with a particular DAW, or they can be universal, working with all DAW systems.


Rich Murphy