Digital audio workstation

From Academic Kids



A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a system designed to record, edit, and play back digital audio. A key feature of DAWs is the ability to freely manipulate recorded sounds, much like a word processor manipulates typed words. DAWs generally come in two varieties:

  • Computer-based DAWs consist of three components: a computer, a sound card, and digital audio editor software. The computer acts as a host for the sound card and software and provides processing power for audio editing. The sound card acts as an audio interface, typically converting analog audio signals into digital form, and may also assist in processing audio. The software controls the two hardware components and provides a user interface to allow for recording and editing. Many radio stations in the U.S. prefer using computer-based DAWs over intergrated DAWs. Pro Tools, Sound Forge and Adobe Audition (formerly known as Cool Edit) are widely used PC-based DAWs.
  • Integrated DAWs consist of a mixing console, control surface, and digital interface 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 dropped. However, systems such as the Orban Audicy once flourished in the radio and television markets.


Musicians and composers long had a desire to integrate stereos, turntables, recording equipment, MIDI keyboards and even electric guitars with computers. Serious computer-based composition tools began to appear with the Atari ST and Amiga computer systems. Enthusiasts continued to seek more integrated, easier-to-use and higher-performance tools for audio creation tasks. Many current DAWs even support integration with video streams allowing full A/V production.

See also: digital audio, digital audio editor, VST (Virtual Studio Technology)

Commercial Systems

Consolidation and commoditization in the commercial space has left Pro Tools by Digidesign as the de-facto standard for multi-track production on Mac and Windows. The main competitors are Apple Logic and MOTU Digital Performer, however both products are Mac-only.

Nuendo and Cubase suffered from fragmented development and marketing and a recent bout of "pass the potato." Despite a rabid fan base many were surprised to learn that Steinberg was running at a significant loss, even cancelling an IPO. In under a year the products were acquired by Pinnacle, then spun off again prior to Digidesign/AVID acquiring Pinnacle, and are now owned by Yamaha. Mac support is poor and future development uncertain. Steinberg's VST standard lives on, however, and is supported by all commercial DAW products in some fashion (additional third party adapters are sometimes required).

Sony Sound Forge (acquired from Sonic Foundry) and Adobe Audition (acquired from Syntrillium) are leading products primarily used for single-track editing. Both are only available for Windows. BIAS Peak fills the void on Mac.

Propellerheads Reason is cross-platform and has a tremendous installed base. However, the product lacks many of the core features of a DAW and as such requires a DAW for many production tasks.

Open Source

Audacity screenshot
Audacity screenshot
Given the chaos in the commercial marketplace, it's not surprising that open source DAWs have flourished. They are free-to-use and often designed to run on a variety of operating systems. For example, Audacity is an open-source DAW that can run on Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, and GNU/Linux. Ogg Vorbis is an open-source codec which Audacity supports in addition to mp3 and wav audio file formats.

Open source development of digital audio workstations created technologies such as ALSA drivers and JACK. The Linux Audio Development mailing list, LAD is a major driving force in developing standards like the LADSPA plugin architecture for Linux systems. The LADSPA plugin architecture, the JACK API and the ALSA soundcard driver represent the 'cutting-edge' in open source DAW development for professional audio production.

Linux and BSD also support the aRts (audio Real-time synthesizer) platform, distributed with the K desktop environment, KDE. The aRts system is a modular software synthesizer and soundserver that handles system sounds, recording, playback, and other audio tasks within KDE. aRts modules may be assembled in custom configurations using aRts Builder and used in audio production. Despite these achievements, audio support within the Linux kernel itself is widely considered to be lacking (even among supporters). As of [2005], this severely limits the adoption of open source audio solutions beyond Linux hobbyists.

VST has not yet found much traction within the open source DAW community, which is surprising because thousands of VST products exist including many with full source code available. Although VST host support is fully documented and royalty-free, the Linux community has chosen to create alternative open/free standards that do not yet offer matching functionality. Like graphical plug-ins for GIMP, this has created a climate where audio plugins are seriously lacking in quantity and quality versus commercial offerings. Even worse, existing shareware/freeware products cannot be used. This is unfortunate because most commercial plugin shops are small, 1 to 3 person operations perfectly suited for contributing to and leveraging the capabilities of the open source movement.

Common Functionality of Computer-Based DAWs

Missing image
Setting envelope points in Audacity
Most computer-based DAWs 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.

Multitrack DAWs support operations on multiple tracks at once. Each track typically has controls that allow the user to adjust the overall volume and balance (pan) of all of the waveforms contained within the track. The pan control allows the user to adjust the balance between speakers. In addition, plugins can be placed on a track to process the sound.

Another common DAW feature is automation, commonly performed through "envelope points." Each dot represents one envelope point. By creating and adjusting multiple points along a waveform, you specify parameters of the sound over time (e.g., volume or pan). During playback, the characteristics of the waveform change in real-time.


Commercially-available Macintosh or PC-Based DAWs include:

Free and open source PC-based DAW systems include:

Integrated DAW systems include:

External Links

Manufacturer Home Pages

Developer Links


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