What is a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation | Home Recording Basics

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Before personal computers became commercially available, sound engineers were using mixing desks and tape machines to record music. So, what is a DAW or digital audio workstation anyway, can it really turn our computer into a recording studio?

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the digital audio workstation (DAW) is that it completely replaced the tape machine. How expensive do you think recording an album was back then, compared to now? Here’s an even better question… How much time and energy do you think we saved by going digital? Now, you’re most likely here because you’d like to embark on a musical journey. You’re here to gather information so that you can get started. Purchasing your first DAW can be a little intimidating, so I’m here to help. We’ll be covering everything you need to know about the software itself and how you can go about purchasing it. Let’s get started!

How does your digital audio workstation keep time?

Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to align the various tape reels associated with a project? In your digital audio workstation (DAW), you’ll never have to worry about calibrating your individual tracks.

what is a daw or digital audio workstation

In Apple’s Logic Pro X, this is what we refer to as the “timeline” along with the “track lanes” on the left.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Everything is lined up perfectly and synchronized to what we refer to as the grid.

Believe it or not, we can actually interact with this grid in a variety of ways to change our project’s arrangement by…

  • Changing the tempo
  • Changing the time signature
  • Changing the subdivision
  • Changing the key signature

If you’re not familiar with any of these terms, don’t sweat. It will all start making sense once you start making music!

Let’s look at the “track lane” for a moment…

Screen Shot 2019 09 16 at 9.45.23 PM

do you notice the buttons labelled “M”, “S” and “R”?

  • Mute (M)| This button temporarily “mutes’ the selected track.
  • Solo (S) | This button temporarily “singles out” the selected track (muting all the others).
  • Record (R) | This button “arms” a track for recording.

And that fader on the right… It basically controls the individual track’s “output volume”.

Great, we’re now ready to start learning to navigate our DAW effectively which, as you may have noticed, will be much easier than a tape machine.

Since we’ve now been acquainted with our digital audio workstation’s (DAW) “timeline”, we can concentrate on navigation. You’ll begin to see some similarities with a tape machine, but also some elements that you wouldn’t find on analog equipment.

Let’s take a look at the “timeline”, but specifically the “transport bar”…

Screen Shot 2019 09 16 at 9.58.58 PM

This is how we’ll be navigating our project on the “timeline”.

  • Reverse | “Backs up” the playhead in small increments.
  • Forward | “Forwards” the playhead in small increments
  • Back/Stop | “Returns” the playhead to the beginning and/or “stops” playback.
  • Play | “Engages” the track for playback.
  • Record | “Engages” the track for recording.
  • Loop | “Sets up” a section for looped playback.

Now let’s move the right of our “transport bar” to our “display/counter”…

Screen Shot 2019 09 16 at 9.59.17 PM

This is how we’ll be orienting ourselves on our “timeline”.

  • Bar/Measure | This is the most basic unit of measure in the musical language.
  • Beat | In this case, our bar is equal to 4 beats.
  • Division | This is how we are subdividing each beat (1/16 notes in this case).
  • Tick | This is a unit of measure that you may NEVER need to know, so don’t pay attention to it.
  • Tempo | The speed of your playback measured in beats per minute (BPM).
  • Time Signature | This defines how many beats there are in a bar.
  • Key Signature | The key of the project represented in a major or minor key (G minor in this case).

Once again, if you have never heard of any of these things it doesn’t matter. As you begin working on projects, you’ll learn how all of this works.

How does editing work in your digital audio workstation?

The days when we needed to edit tape reels manually using “physical” tools are no more. Your digital audio workstation (DAW) comes equipped with a variety of “virtual” tools to edit your digital tracks.

Screen Shot 2019 09 16 at 8.30.31 PM

As you can see, Apple’s Logic Pro X includes quite a few tools (more than most DAWs), so I will cover the ESSENTIALS…

  • Pointer Tool | This is the “default” tool that allows you to do things like “drag and drop” tracks.
  • Pencil Tool | This tool will allow you to draw a variety of things such as automation lanes, MIDI note lanes, etc…
  • Eraser Tool | This tool basically allows you to “delete” a clip, usually a specific section.
  • Scissors | This tool allows you to “cut” clips, usually to remove a particular section.
  • Glue | If you have TWO clips on the same track lane that are separated, you can use this tool to “glue” them together.
  • Mute Tool | Basically, this tool will permanently “mute” a clip, usually a section though.

As you can see, these are essentially the “digitized” versions of the tools sound engineers used in the past.

However, everything they did to a piece of tape was FINAL. We have the possibility of “undoing” any mistakes we may have made.

You’ll also learn that the “timeline” is not the only place where you’ll be using these tools.

There’s another component to our recording software that you’ll most likely be using as you gain more experience.

Your MIDI sequencer is like your musical “word processor”

With the advent of digital recording came the creation of a protocol (or language) known as MIDI. In essence, this allows your computer’s binary code to be translated into pitches and other parameters like velocity, pitch bend, expression, volume, etc…

what is a daw or digital audio workstation

This time we’ll be studying Propellerhead’s Reason 10 just to give you an idea of the different options out there.

Although, keep in mind that EVERY digital audio workstation (DAW) includes a MIDI sequencer (except Audacity).

But what is this thing for anyway?

In essence, we use MIDI to control “virtual instruments” and believe it or not, we can actually control “physical instruments” as well.

However, we’re going to focus on triggering sounds from an instrument plugin (VST, AAX, AU, RTAS).

If you were going to manually program these “performances” with your mouse, you would find it quite inefficient.

Most music producers provide themselves with a MIDI/USB keyboard controller to make things easier.

Think about it… If we use an alpha-numeric keyboard for word-processing, then we need a musical keyboard for MIDI-processing.

I won’t get into the details in this article, but your MIDI sequencer is basically an extension of the “timeline”.

You’ll get to edit your “MIDI performance” like any audio track, but this editor is much more detailed…

  • Edit the pitch of any given note
  • Edit the placement of any given note
  • Edit the duration of any given note
  • Edit the velocity of any given note
  • Align your performance to the grid using “quantization”

These are but a few things you’ll be taking care of in the MIDI sequencer, but don’t panic. It’s easier than it looks.

Mixing in the digital world

Each digital audio workstation (DAW) will come equipped with a mixing console to replace the need for a mixing desk. Mixing and mastering is much easier in the digital realm since all your plugins will be available to you at the click of a button.

what is a daw or digital audio workstation

However, it may be a little less intuitive than using a mixing console which is why most producers use one anyway.

Let’s focus on a specific “channel strip” to better understand how they work…

Screen Shot 2019 09 13 at 12.09.30 AM

For the moment, let’s focus on what we NEED to know (bottom to top):

  • Volume Fader | This controls your track’s “output volume”.
  • Pan | This controls how your track is distributed in a “stereo pan”.
  • Output | This controls where your track’s output is routed.
  • Sends | This allows you to route your track through a “bus”.
  • Audio FX | This is where you can insert your effect plugins.
  • Input | This determines where your signal is coming from (usually your audio interface).
  • EQ | This loads up an instance of your DAW’s default EQ.

If some of this stuff doesn’t make sense quite yet, it will once you start getting your hands a little dirty.

The best way to learn how to use a DAW is to select one and start playing around with it.

It will take quite some time in the beginning, but there are plenty of resources on this website to help you get started.

Which DAW is best for beginners?

In this article, we took a look at Apple’s Logic Pro X and Propellerhead’s Reason 10. However, you may decide to use something different which is completely fine.

What I recommend you do is take a look at least TWO digital audio workstations by downloading their trial versions.

Here are a few links to some of the ones I have used in the past…

The first three I mentioned are more catered to electronic musicians while the last three are the most versatile.

If you have an Apple Computer, I suggest you take a look at GarageBand since it is FREE. It’s very similar to Logic Pro X and comes equipped with EVERYTHING you need and MORE.

If you’ve got some time to spare, I also suggest you take a look at some of my other posts starting with this one.

Getting started is all about acquiring the proper knowledge and having a sense of direction when it comes to providing yourself with the tools. Let us know which DAW you have decided to start using in the comments and feel free to send me a personal message if you need any help.

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