What is a digital audio workstation? – (DAW)

What is a digital audio workstation? – (DAW)

14/03/2019 2 By Nigel

The ‘DAW’ is the heart of any home studio set-up but exactly what is a ‘DAW’ or what is a Digital Audio Workstation?


A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an electronic device or PC application software that is used for recording editing and producing audio and midi files. I have personally used many types of digital audio workstations over the years from Midi keyboards synced to an analogue tape machine to computer based DAWs.

DAW the early years.

My first DAW was a Korg M1 a widely used digital synthesizer and music workstation. The workstation had an 8-Track sequencer and could hold only ten songs and 100 patterns and up to 7,700 notes which is peanuts in comparison to the unlimited tracks and songs I have today. This great little keyboard was used by 80s bands such as Depeche Mode, Gary Newman and the Pet Shop Boys to name but a few. To put my guitar and vocal parts on the recordings I would used a Fostex R8 8 track Reel-to-Reel tape machine and a Yamaha YMC10 Midi to Tape Converter. The YMC10 synced the digital MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) Korg M1 with the Fostex R8 analogue multi-track tape recorder so that the MIDI instruments and the tape’s audio tracks played at the same time. The YMC10 converts MIDI synchronization signals into an FSK (Frequency Shift Keying) tape sync signal. This tape sync signal is recorded onto one of the tracks of the multi-track recorder. When you playback the tape, the YMC10 converts the tape signal back into MIDI data and synchronizes the MIDI equipment with the tape machine.

What is a digital audio workstation picture of old Midi time code set-up

Along Came the Home Computer.

In the early 1980s a number of consumer level computers were produced with enough power and processing speed to handle digital audio editing. My first computer for the job was an Apple LC111 computer. I then used DAW application software called Cubase by the German company Steinberg. Then in 1996 Steinberg introduced to the home studio world “Cubase VST” (Virtual Studio Technology) which could record and play back up to 32 tracks of digital audio on an Apple Macintosh without any external hardware needed. Happy days!

Today I have a 12 core PowerMac with super fast processing speed in my studio and for live work I use a MiniMac. There are four main components to the DAW set-up a computer, either a sound card or audio interface, a digital audio editor software app and at least one input device for adding and modifying data. I now use Logic Pro X software with my Apple Mac. I also use dual monitor screens so I can have the sequencer on one screen and the mixer on the other.

What is a digital audio workstation picture of a dual monitor screens

So What Can I Produce With This DAW Software?

With this DAW software I can record analogue audio, guitars, bass guitars lead vocals and backing vocals live drums and a complete live band all on separate tracks. The analogue instruments are converted to digital form. So I can then speed the sound up, slow it down, time stretch it so it fits the tempo of the song perfectly. I can then add digital effects such as reverb, echo, flangers and chorus effects and then pan the recording from left to right across the stereo spectrum without the need of a mixing desk. All done within the DAW. I can also treat the sound so it sounds more powerful using compressors.

I can then record digital sounds store in the computer itself. Or synchronize the midi data from an external keyboard or tone generator.

I can then use the sequencer to step-time record one note after another. Take a music manuscript and add one note and then the others to make up a complete song. Or play chords into the computer and it will score it for me, telling me what chord it is and I can transpose the entire piece of music to a new key if I want.

Computer-based DAWs have extensive recording, editing, and playback capabilities. The transport controls (play/record/rewind) are very standard and look very similar to a tape recorder. Even the term ‘track’ is used with DAWs however I can have as many as my computer can handle not just the 4-8-16-24 tracks of old tape machines.

On the mixer side you still have things like volume equalization and stereo balance (pan) on each track. You also get additional rack mount processors as plugins, compressors limiters gates all of which you can simply drop-into place on the track strip.

I think one of the major advances over the tape based recorder is that it is non-destructive i.e you can ‘undo’ a command or recording. Go back to the last saved file. Very useful indeed! I really love that about how it’s changed overtime, gone are the days when you could forget to make a recording ‘safe’ with analogue tape and record over something you have been spending hours over. A friend of mine once recorded over a fantastic sax solo on a Spandau Ballet recording session that had taken days to get right! If only he had such non-destructive recording methods in those days, chances are it would have been save to file. My DAW auto-saves which is a great feature.

You can also use automation, which means you can change the volume of an instrument automatically overtime by adding key-points to adjust events, anything can be adjusted automatically Pan – change instruments change the EQ or the complete waveform.

There are countless ‘plug-ins’ you can get for the DAW software including digital effects units which modify the signal with resonators, synthesizers, equalizers, distortion phasers and flangers all with multiple sound scapes to play with.


So the DAW is at the heart of every good home studio. The sequencer lets you build complex songs and arrangements in real-time or step-time. The mixer gives you the flexibility to add effects and dynamic processors.

I think Garage Band is a great free DAW that comes with the Apple computer. There’s lots of open-source software programs that are great DAWs however, if you want to get serious then Logic ProX for the Apple and something like Cubase for the PC are hard to beat.

I hope you enjoyed this post and if you have any questions about what a digital audio workstation is, or you want to add to this post, please leave a comment below.