What Is a DAW (And What Can You Do With It)?
To answer your main question right away, DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. But to answer your second question — what does it do? — we have to dive a little deeper.
What is a DAW? We’ll explore how a DAW can be used in regards to:
- Recording a live instrument or voice
- Recording virtual instruments
- Audio looping
- Audio editing
- Audio mixing
- Audio effects
What Is a DAW?
As I just said, DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation. It’s a piece of software that allows you to record multiple tracks, edit them, and mix them together, resulting in a single audio file (i.e. a song).
There are also audio editors, but those are slightly different than DAWs and often can’t do as much. The unique thing about a DAW is it allows for multiple track recording and audio editing, while an audio editor is mainly just for (you guessed it) editing audio.
You can get a DAW whether you have a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer (although some of them work only with certain operating systems). We’ll get into the specific DAW options in a bit.
What Can You Do With a DAW?
In general, there are four main functions of a DAW that at one time were held in separate programs. Nowadays, these four things are packaged into most DAWs:
- Digital audio processor (record, edit, and mix audio digitally)
- MIDI sequencer (record, edit and mix MIDI notes)
- Virtual instruments (receives MIDI info and translates it to different instrument sounds)
- Music notation (turn MIDI notes into printable sheet music)
But what do these functions look like in real life? Here are the things you can do with a DAW…
Recording a Live Instrument or Voice
Using an audio interface along with your DAW, you can record live instruments and/or a singer.
Let’s say you want to record acoustic guitar. You can set up a mic that goes through your interface and record the guitar that way. You can also plug the guitar right into the interface with a guitar cable. Or you can record two channels at once — the mic on the guitar and the cable going direct in. With an interface that has four or more inputs, you can record a live drum set and get a decent sound.
A good DAW will make it easy to slice audio items, move them around, snap them to the grid, and crossfade. This is a crucial step to making quality music, so the DAW you choose needs to make this part manageable.
Recording Virtual Instruments
Virtual instruments are just a digital version of live instruments. Do you want to record piano but don’t have access to a real one? You can get real piano sounds digitally. Do you want to record drums but don’t know how? Easy, just use a drum plugin and play the parts virtually.
When recording virtual instruments, you can do this a few different ways.
You can use musical typing, which is where your computer keyboard corresponds with notes on a piano which give you the different sounds of the instrument. You can also use a MIDI controller, which is typically a keyboard that connects to your computer which allows you to play the virtual instrument. Lastly, and most inconveniently, you can add the notes or sounds of the instrument directly in your DAW by clicking the mouse and dragging the notes to where you want them.
And the good news is, many DAWs have built-in virtual instruments (more on that later).
Related to virtual instruments is the idea of audio looping. Some DAWs, like GarageBand, include a library of loops — drums, strings, horns, and many other instruments. Usually, these are manipulatable MIDI files, so you can start with a drum loop then edit it to fit your song.
You can also loop audio you’ve recorded. So if you have a chord progression you’ve played on the guitar, you can highlight that section then copy and paste it as many times as you need.
An integral feature of a DAW is the ability to edit audio. A good DAW will make it easy to slice audio items, move them around, snap them to the grid, and crossfade. This is a crucial step to making quality music, so the DAW you choose needs to make this part manageable.
Mixing is the step after your song has been recorded, edited, and arranged the way you want it. With mixing, you can polish up the sounds and add effects — it has a lot of overlap with the production stage.
This is when you EQ your tracks and add compression to make them sound more professional. Some DAWs make mixing very accessible, even coming with built-in EQ and compressor plugins, while others have limited features for mixing. If that’s the case, you can always send the files to a Mixing Engineer and let them mix it.
During the mixing stage, you’ll also add effects (written “FX”) on top of EQ and compression. Most DAWs have effects plug-ins included, like delays, reverbs, autotune, chorus, and others. These effects can really take your song from sparse to full, dry to ambient, amateur to professional.
Now let’s dive into the most popular DAWs. Some of these are in the highest quality recording studios and have recorded some of the biggest songs ever. The price tags range from free to several hundreds of dollars.
So regardless of your situation, one of these DAWs is bound to work for you.
Pro Tools (Windows / Mac OS)
Avid’s Pro Tools is sort of the music industry standard.
Go into any professional recording studio where Michael Jackson or Beyonce has recorded and you’ll probably find Pro Tools. It was one of the first programs to combine digital recording, editing, and mixing into one product. Basically, anything you can do with a DAW, Pro Tools allows it, like using the built-in virtual instruments and loops.
Granted, it costs about $600, so you pay for what you get. But if you’ve got the budget, it’s one of the first programs you should consider. And you do get a free trial before you have to buy it.
Ableton Live (Windows / Mac OS)
In terms of popularity, Ableton Live is right up there with Pro Tools. If they’re not tied, Ableton Live is a very close second. It pretty much does everything Pro Tools can do — it just comes down to your preferred interface, cost, and what plugins and loops are included.
The price ranges from about $400 to about $700. Once again, you get a free trial to give it a test-run.
Logic Pro (Mac OS)
Apple makes Logic Pro, so it makes sense that it’s only compatible with Macintosh computers. It’s known for having superb virtual instrument options and sound effects. And it’s relatively easy to use.
It runs about $200, so it’s a great option for the indie musician on a modest budget. It’s sort of like the extra fancy version of GarageBand.
Most DAWs have effects plug-ins included, like delays, reverbs, autotune, chorus, and others. These effects can really take your song from sparse to full, dry to ambient, amateur to professional.
GarageBand (Mac OS)
If you have a new Apple device — iPhone, iPad, MacBook — you have GarageBand on that device. MacBooks are nice in that they provide a computer and a DAW in one purchase.
It’s famous for its fantastic audio loops, virtual instruments, and its beginner-friendliness. Once you’re done, you can easily AirDrop it (i.e. distribute it) to iTunes and Soundcloud.
Reaper is my favorite DAW — and it’s free. Well, sort of. You get to download the full version for free, but then they ask you to buy a license depending on how you’ll be using it. It’s $60 if you’ll be using it as an individual commercially and you make $20,000 or less from music, or if you’re an educational or nonprofit organization.
And pretty much anything Pro Tools or Ableton can do, Reaper can do. It’s super easy to use and allows you to do all the basics and more. Plus, it comes with some virtual instruments and a ton of stock plug-ins that allow you to mix a song to sound professional.
Audacity is a free, open-source DAW that’s just about as simple as it can be. It’s a great place for beginners to start. You can record multiple tracks, edit them, and even add effects like EQ and compression, although they’re much more difficult to use.
But if you want to learn how to just record and edit audio, Audacity is a great place to start.
How to Choose the Right DAW
I can’t say one DAW is good for every Producer and artist across the board. So what I’m going to do is break it down by the common situations people are in:
- Beginner who’s never recorded before: Audacity or GarageBand
- Intermediate beginner who’s looking to get better at recording, editing, and even mixing: GarageBand or Reaper
- Indie Producer who’s looking for a solid long-term DAW: Reaper or Logic Pro
- Someone who is currently or is looking to become a professional Producer: Pro Tools or Ableton Live
For more on your DAW options, check out our blog on the Best DAWs of 2019.
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