About DAWs

DAW Software Collage
A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an electronic system designed solely or primarily for recording, editing and playing back digital audio. DAWs were originally tape-less, microprocessor-based systems such as the Synclavier. Modern DAWs are software running on computers with audio interface hardware.

Different Types of DAWs

Integrated DAW
Integrated DAW

An integrated DAW consists of a mixing console, control surface, audio converter, and data storage in one device. Integrated DAWs were more popular before personal computers became powerful enough to run DAW software.

As computer power increased and price decreased, the popularity of the costly integrated systems with console automation dropped. Systems such as the Orban Audicy were standard production equipment at radio and television stations.

Today, some systems still offer arranging and recording features with a full graphic user interface (GUI) without the use of microprocessors.

Ableton Live
Software DAW

A computer-based DAW has four basic components: a computer, a sound card (also called a sound converter or audio interface), a digital audio editor software, and at least one input device for adding or modifying musical note data. This could be as simple as a mouse, and as sophisticated as a MIDI controller keyboard or an automated fader board for mixing track volumes. The computer acts as a host for the sound card and software and provides processing power for audio editing.

The sound card (if used) or external audio interface typically converts analog audio signals into digital form, and for playback converting digital to analog audio; it may also assist in further processing the audio. The software controls all related hardware components and provides a user interface to allow for recording, editing, and playback. Most computer-based DAWs have extensive MIDI recording, editing, and playback capabilities, and some even have minor video-related features.

Common Functionality

As software systems, DAWs could be designed with any user interface, but generally they are based on a multitrack tape recorder metaphor, making it easier for recording engineers and musicians already familiar with using tape recorders to become familiar with the new systems.

Therefore, computer-based DAWs tend to have a standard layout which includes transport controls (play, rewind, record, etc.), track controls and/or a mixer, and a waveform display. In single-track DAWs, only one (mono or stereo form) sound is displayed at a time.

DAWs are capable of many of the same functions as a traditional tape-based studio setup, and in recent years have almost completely replaced them. Modern advanced recording studios may have multiple types of DAWs in them and it is not uncommon for a sound engineer and/or musician to travel with a portable laptop-based DAW, although interoperability between different DAWs is poor.

Perhaps the most significant feature available from a DAW that is not available in analogue recording is the ability to 'undo' a previous action. Undo makes it much easier to avoid accidentally permanently erasing or recording over a previous recording. If a mistake is made, the undo command is used to conveniently revert the changed data to a previous state. Cut, Copy, Paste, and Undo are familiar and common computer commands and usually available in DAWs in some form. More common functions include the modifications of several factors concerning a sound. These include wave shape, pitch, tempo, and filtering.

Apple Logic Pro

Commonly DAWs feature some form of automation, often performed through "envelopes". Envelopes are procedural line segment-based or curve-based interactive graphs. The lines and curves of the automation graph are joined by or comprise adjustable points. By creating and adjusting multiple points along a waveform or control events, the user can specify parameters of the output over time (e.g., volume or pan). MIDI is a common data protocol used for transferring such gestures to the DAW.


The earliest attempts at creating digital audio workstations in the 1970s and 80s were limited by factors such as the high price of storage, and the vastly slower processing and disk speeds of the time.

But in the face of this, the company Soundstream (who previously came to prominence in the early days of digital audio by releasing one of the first commercially available digital audio tape recorders in 1977), built what could be considered the first digital audio workstation in 1978, using some of the most current computer hardware of the time.

The Digital Editing System, as Soundstream called it, consisted of a DEC PDP-11/60 minicomputer running a custom software package called DAP (Digital Audio Processor), a Braegen 14"-platter hard disk drive, a storage oscilloscope to display audio waveforms to be edited, a video display terminal for controlling the system, and interface cards that plugged into the PDP-11's Unibus slots (the Digital Audio Interface, or DAI) that provided analog and digital audio input and output for interfacing to both Soundstream's digital recorders and conventional analog tape recorders as well.

The DAP software could perform edits to the audio recorded on the system's hard disks, as well as provide effects such as crossfades.

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By the late 1980s, a number of consumer level computers such as the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga began to have enough power to handle the task of digital audio editing. Macromedia's Soundedit, with Microdeal's Replay Professional and Digidesign's "Sound Tools" and "Sound Designer" were used to edit audio samples for sampling keyboards like the E-mu Emulator II and the Akai S900, and soon went on to be used for simple two track audio editing and CD mastering purposes.

In 1994, a company in California named OSC produced a 4-track editing-recorder application called DECK that ran on Digidesign's hardware system, which was employed in the production of The Residents' "Freakshow" LP; this combination of audio software and hardware was one of the earliest examples of what we today would call a DAW.

Many major recording studios finally "went digital" after Digidesign introduced its Pro Tools software, modelled after the traditional method and signal flow present in almost all analog recording devices. At this time, most of the DAWs were Apple Mac based (e.g. Pro Tools, Studer Dyaxis, Sonic Solutions).

Around 1992, the first Windows based DAWs started to emerge from companies such as IQS Innovative Quality Software which today is SAWStudio, Soundscape Digital Technology (which was later acquired by Mackie then by SSL), SADiE, Echo Digital Audio and Spectral Synthesis. All the systems at this point used dedicated hardware for their audio processing.

In 1993, German company Steinberg released Cubase Audio on Atari Falcon 030. This version brings DSP built-in effects with 8-tracks audio recording & playback using only native hardware. The first Windows based software-only product, introduced in 1993, was Samplitude Studio (which already existed in 1992 as an audio editor for the Commodore Amiga).

In 1996, Steinberg introduced Cubase VST, which could record and play back up to 32 tracks of digital audio on an Apple Macintosh without need of any external DSP hardware.

Cubase not only modelled a tape-like interface for recording and editing, but also modelled the entire mixing desk and effects rack common in analog studios. This revolutionised the DAW world, both in features and price tag, and was quickly imitated by most other contemporary DAW systems.