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Insider's View of the Modern DAW

DAW Defined

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In today's studio, the DAW - Digital Audio Workstation - rules the roost. While plenty of people are still using analog machines or modular digital multitracks such as ADATs and DA-88s, there simply is no comparison when it comes to the sheer power, capability, sound quality, and cost-effectiveness of today's computer-based recording systems. Let's take a look at what goes into today's DAW, and how to choose the right one for your studio or live recording situation.

We'll be examining a number of aspects of the DAW story - software, hardware, computers, options, and much more. Read through the info here, then check out the product pages dedicated to each DAW program as well as all the audio interfaces that are available. When you've finished, contact your Sales Engineer for the full story on everything DAW.

It's a brave new computer-based studio world out there, and we've never had more power or capability available to us for less money. Choose your weapons, assemble your studio, and get busy making magic!

What is a DAW?

As you may know, "DAW" stands for "Digital Audio Workstation." Wonderful, if that question ever comes up on Jeopardy, you're set. But what does that really mean? First of all, when most people mention a DAW, they're referring to a recording system - a workstation - that has several components (in some cases you'll purchase each of these components separately, in others you can get a "turnkey" rig that includes everything you need from software to hardware):

Computer - The heart of your DAW system is your computer, whether Mac or PC. The computer and its subsystems (hard drives, etc.) will determine how many tracks you can record and play at once, how many plug-ins you can apply in real time, how long edits will take, and more.

Digital Audio Software - If your computer is the heart of your DAW system, then the software you choose is the brain! The software is where it all comes together, creating a virtual studio living inside your computer. There are a number of DAW software packages out there. Finding the one that's best for you can be a challenge. But the good news is, all the DAW software applications out there - even free ones like Garageband - are amazingly powerful, and can do more than most of us are likely to ever need (not that we don't all have our wishlists for features the manufacturers can add to the next versions, of course).

The big thing with DAW software (or any software, for that matter) is finding an application that works in the way you prefer to work. If your brain and creative process works a particular way, you're not going to be happy with a program that forces you to work in a completely different manner.

Fortunately, many DAW software companies offer demo versions of their software. Or they may offer a very inexpensive "entry level" version of the package that will let you get a feel for the software before you buy the full deal. Most of these "lite" versions can be upgraded to the full version for the difference in price, so you're not out anything if you decide to "make sure" before you take the plunge.

Digital Audio Interface - So you've got a computer and you've selected your digital audio software. Now you need to get sound in and out of the computer and software. Your computer may have built-in audio input and output capabilities. Pretty much all Macs, for example, have audio ins and outs. And some Windows PCs include a soundcard or built-in audio. In most cases, though, you'll want better quality and more flexibility than these can provide. A digital audio interface will provide two (in many cases many more) inputs and outputs, in analog and/or digital (S/PDIF, AES/EBU, ADAT, TOSlink, TDIF, etc.) formats. The quality of your interface will determine the quality of your audio, unless you add external analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters. It will also determine the number of simultaneous inputs and outputs you'll have available simultaneously - and this the number of external tracks you can record at once - and other things. These days, most audio interfaces are compatible with most software packages, but not everything works with everything else. Be sure to check with your sales engineer before buying.

There may also be other, optional pieces included in the equation:

Additional Digital Audio Interfaces - Some DAW packages come bundled with an audio interface, others are "a la carte." You mix and match the particular hardware audio interface with whatever piece of DAW software you want. Luckily, most of today's interfaces have drivers that make them compatible with almost any DAW software application. In many cases, you can also add more interfaces if you need more simultaneous inputs and outputs to and from your computer. Many interfaces today connect to the computer via FireWire or USB, and it's a simple matter to just plug another one in - assuming your software supports that function. The latest version of Macintosh OS X, v10.4, has this capability, called "aggregate devices," built right in. You don't even have to have matching interfaces or even interfaces from the same manufacturer. Just plug 'em in, and OS X will deal with it. Perfect if you need a couple of hundred inputs for making a live recording of the next Woodstock extravaganza....

Plug-ins - Plug-ins are small, "helper" software programs that work inside your main recording software and extend its capability. In most cases, plug-ins are processors and/or effects of some type: software compressors, limiters, reverbs, pitch shifters, and so on. But a new class of plug-ins is virtual instruments, software samplers and synthesizers that work right within your DAW software. This is an amazing breakthrough for composers, arrangers, and songwriters.

DSP Acceleration - Most tasks in a DAW, especially processing and editing, require DSP (Digital Signal Processing) in order to work; the power to drive the DSP comes from your computer. If you find yourself running out of computer power, then a DSP accelerator may be just what you need. Several are available; they all do the same thing: allow you to run more plug-ins without overloading your computer. Many DSP accelerators are dedicated to running a particular company's plug-ins: The TC Electronic PowerCore, Universal Audio UAD-1, and the Waves Netshell APA-32 and APA-44 are prime example; they only work with their parent company's plug-ins. Other accelerators, such as Digidesign's Accel cards can run any plug-ins that conform to the card's and the DAW software's formats and specifications.

» Choose Your Computer Wisely »

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