Looking to get into recording? Been in recording for a while? Want to learn more about recording?
Whatever the case, you’ve probably come across this term and wondered what it meant. So, what is a “DAW” anyway?
In this guide, we cover all the ground, answer all your questions, explain what a DAW is, show you what you can do with a DAW, and put a few examples of DAWs in front of you so you can see how they work.
Here’s what you need to know about DAWs:
What Is A DAW? – DAW Definition
A DAW is a software application designed with the purpose of audio recording, MIDI sequencing, editing, mixing, and mastering in mind (sometimes even publishing).
Some DAWs have limited functionality and do not allow for audio recording. Others are more robust and feature a wide selection of high-quality proprietary virtual instruments and effects (VST plugins).
DAWs are generally used on desktop and laptop computers because of their processing power, but there are options available for mobile devices as well!
Essentially, a DAW replaces digital and analog recording consoles (although some producers still like to use hardware recording solutions). Computer recording is so convenient these days that you can overdub tracks a near unlimited number of times, comp tracks (stitch together the best takes you recorded), add powerful, game-changing virtual effects (like autotune), record to the “grid” for perfect timing, and a great deal more.
In practically every regard, a DAW is a far more powerful, convenient, and fast solution compared to hardware recorders.
DAWs haven’t completely replaced hardware recorders (and it’s quite possible they never will), because hardware consoles have also become smaller, more convenient, more feature rich, and more affordable. But in terms of functionality, they still can’t compare to DAWs.
Many producers and sound engineers feel a software working environment complemented by hardware gear (like MIDI controllers, control surfaces, tube preamps, compressors, effects units, etc.) is the best of both worlds. Virtual effects are just that – virtual. “Real” effects tend to sound better, and often come in big rackmount units costing thousands of dollars. But you can connect them to your DAW and that’s the rub.
There are many DAW programs available, and we will be looking at a bunch of them a little later.
What Does “DAW” Stand For?
You may have noticed that my name is David Andrew Wiebe (which means my initials are D, A, and W). Although some of my friends call me “DAW,” in this case, we are not talking about me.
DAW stands for “Digital Audio Workstation.” A Digital Audio Workstation is a computer software recording application. There are both free and paid options available, and that does not affect their qualification as a DAW.
What Can You Do With A DAW?
As already noted, this is going to depend somewhat on the DAW. But we’ll cover the basic functions of a DAW below in more detail.
Audio Recording & Editing
Audio recording and editing is the reason most DAWs exist. Ironically, there are free DAWs like LMMS that don’t allow for native recording, but they are few and far between (and they still serve their own function).
Audio recording means the ability to record voice and instrument tracks using a mic, direct input, amp, multi-effects unit, or otherwise. This requires the use of an audio interface (often connects via USB and other convenient computer ports).
If your audio interface can handle it, you can record multiple tracks simultaneously. This is a common technique for guitar and drums these days. Multiple mics or inputs are used to capture different dimensions, tones, and shapes of the instruments.
Editing audio includes a wide range of functions – the most obvious being the ability to split, cut, drag, and shorten clips. But you can usually do things like add edge and crossfades, loop, copy and paste, comp, and more.
MIDI Recording, Sequencing & Editing
MIDI is like a digital recording language standard that allows different digital recording units to interact with each other. So, for instance, a MIDI controller can send information to your computer.
MIDI itself is not music. It’s just information. But the information can be used to create MIDI tracks, and virtual instruments can “play” said information.
These MIDI tracks can be created using a MIDI controller, but they can also be created manually. The manual process is called MIDI sequencing, and it can be done one click at a time.
Most electronic tracks are MIDI heavy. Stacks of melodies, riffs, chord clusters, basslines, and even drum lines are often created using MIDI, and this is a common practice not just in electronic music, but also for pop, hip-hop, and sometimes even other genres.
MIDI is easy to edit and manipulate. You can loop. You can copy and paste sections. You can take entire sections and move them up or down an octave. Some DAWs have built-in chords and grooves. And MIDI chord packs are promoted heavily on YouTube these days.
Editing and mixing usually go hand in hand and sometimes they are even thought of as the same thing.
If there’s any kind of distinction, it would basically be that editing is the process of cleaning up a track, removing unwanted artifacts, comping the best performances, adding fades, and so on. This process might also include deleting large sections of unneeded tracks, looping some, and even copying and pasting (even though this is sometimes considered lazy or “cheating”).
Meanwhile, mixing is like adding the final coat of shine on everything – adjusting levels, panning tracks, adding filters and effects, stereo expansion, and generally ensuring all recorded tracks interact nicely with each other and “sit” in the right place in the mix.
But you can see why the two tasks almost appear the same. They tend to go hand in hand in a DAW, where with a hardware recorder it ends up being more of a linear process with fewer convenient options for editing.
Mixing is essential to getting a track sounding the best it possibly can, though that is somewhat of a subjective thing.
A “mastering chain” usually includes EQ, de-esser, compression, stereo expansion, and limiting. As these effects are generally included in most DAWs (and there are also plenty of free and paid options online if your DAW software accepts third-party plugins), you can do the job of a mastering engineer inside your DAW.
Whether it even makes sense to do this is up for debate. An engineer who has spent extensive time mixing tracks often “loses” their ear, unable to hear the micro (and sometimes macro) adjustments that need to be made to create a master that sparkles in all its full glory.
As well, a mixing engineer might not possess all the same skills a mastering engineer has. That means they might need to go through the same learning and experimental process a mastering engineer had to go through to get just as good as they are. Not entirely practical.
Either way, the job of a mastering engineer can be carried out inside most DAWs.
Record Ideas & Sketches, Engage In Preproduction & Make Demos
There’s no rule saying you can only use DAWs for producing professional quality songs. You can also use the software environment to record ideas and sketches, map out your demos and experiment with arrangement and instrumental ideas in preproduction, and even make demos.
These days, the industry term “demo” refers to a fully-fledged professional quality release, but in this instance, I’m referring to your completed track in rough, mostly unedited, and unmixed form.
I tend to keep a lot of half-finished projects on hand, as I never know when I might end up with a collection of songs that work as a “demos” style release. My fans like the rough, half-finished, basement demos of it all, and I’m always happy to share when I feel I have a collection of songs I wouldn’t be embarrassed to publish.
Additionally, in DAWs like GarageBand, you can load up loops and samples, drag and drop (arrange them), and experiment endlessly with different beats and ideas.
Compose Scores & Make Beats
I’ve already talked about pop, EDM, hip-hop, and so forth, but just in case… You can compose entire film, video game, or TV show scores and even make beats inside your DAWs too. Some DAWs, like FL Studio and MPC Beats are better suited to making beats than others though.
Create Professional Quality Voiceovers, Podcasts, Songs & More
If your DAW is capable of recording audio (and most are), you can create professional quality products, whether it’s voiceovers (e.g., audiobooks, radio ads, TV ads, etc.), podcasts, or songs. DAWs put the power at your fingertips to take on any kind of audio recording project and create a finished product you would be proud to share with the world.
Of course, the quality of your product will depend a lot on your skill level, as well as the quality of the performances you capture. A word to the wise – editing and adding effects can’t fix bad sources and performances!
Examples Of DAWs
And now, it’s time to look at several real-world examples of DAWs.
We’ve already mentioned a few throughout this guide, but here we’ll go into a little more depth with some of the most popular and most used DAWs available.
Pro Tools is largely considered the industry standard DAW. Go to any professional recording studio, and you’re bound to find it installed on their studio machines.
Whether it’s the best is certainly a matter of opinion, and so far as popularity contests are concerned, Pro Tools regularly gets outvoted by DAWs like Ableton Live nowadays.
Ableton Live (or simply Live) is fast becoming the top DAW of the day. If you’ve spent any time watching YouTube tutorials on home recording, then chances are you’ve come across this lightweight, minimalist DAW multiple times.
My impression of it is that it does electronic music best, but that certainly isn’t to say it doesn’t handle other applications.
Logic Pro is a go-to favorite for Mac users, especially as it’s like the more professional, more powerful version of GarageBand (which many beginner producers cut their teeth on and eventually graduate from).
Logic Pro works great for all types of studio applications.
FL Studio is an electronic producer’s dream. Its workflow is simple and easy to understand, it accepts third party plugins, and the powerful mixer lets you manipulate your tracks with ease to create the perfect blend.
FL Studio, like other professional DAWs, can be used for singer-songwriter, band, or even mixed applications. But unless it’s your favorite DAW, or you’re already used to the workflow, there are better DAWs suited to those purposes.
Doubtless, you will have come across the Cubase name if you’ve been around DAWs and the home recording world for a while. Cubase is Steinberg’s own, and it has been praised for continually improving with each iteration. Cubase is also the “reference standard” for other DAWs, so if its interface seems familiar, it could just be that others are copying Cubase.
PreSonus’ Studio One is a highly capable, award-winning DAW. It has certain quirks, to be sure, but the creative tools it sets at your fingertips is simply astounding. Like other DAWs, there are different versions of Studio One, but you get access to a complete suite of effect plugins for effective mixing. Its price point is also slightly more reasonable than some of the other pro DAWs.
REAPER blew onto the scene as a cheaper, just as effective alternative to the big guys, and it has kept that reputation through the years, even as they add new functionality.
REAPER covers all the basics. We really don’t see any limitations here. The interface has some quirks that take some getting used to, though, so if there’s any downside, it would be that.
Whether the paid or free versions of Waveform, it has often made it to the top of our “best-of” lists. It’s not for everyone by any means, but for beginners, and even for music producers and sound engineers who emphasize workflow over functionality, Waveform is perfect for all kinds of projects – singer-songwriter, band, EDM, podcasts, or otherwise.
The more you’re willing to spend, the more added functionality and virtual effects and instruments you can get access to, but Waveform also works with most third-party plugins, meaning you can make this DAW into just about whatever you want it to be.
GarageBand is a popular, free (for Mac), beginner-friendly DAW. A perfect place to start your journey, GarageBand comes with loads of loops and samples you can mess around with, and in my opinion, some very capable and usable virtual instruments as well.
You can take your project from start to finish in GarageBand, but the limitations don’t make it the ideal choice for professional quality productions. It’s great for preproduction, sketches, ideas, and demos though.
Popular especially among podcasters, Audacity is an old guard audio recording and editing suite, and this is reflected in its old school design as well. Despite its somewhat limited feature set, it still takes well to a variety of third-party plugins, making it quite versatile for podcasts, voiceovers, and even demo recording.
You can make beats and record singer-songwriter and bands using Audacity (sort of). But if you want to take your project over the finish line, best take the tracks you’ve recorded inside Audacity and load them up in another, more capable DAW for final editing and mixing.
What Is A DAW In Music? Final Thoughts
So, at the end of the day, a DAW is a digital recording essential. It’s a piece of computer software that acts as your central operational ecosystem for recording, editing, mixing, and mastering. Most DAWs are compatible with a range of hardware too, and that means you can use your DAW in conjunction with your favorite MIDI controller, outboard preamps, effects, and more.
My advice? If you’re ready to get started, go, and download a free DAW like Waveform Free and start cutting your teeth on it now. What do you have to lose? You’re going to need to develop your skills anyway, so better to start now than later.