So you’re ready to record your next smash hit? But how do you get the sound in your head into a mp3 file? The answer is a DAW, or a Digital Audio Workstation. But what exactly is DAW software and how do you choose what is right for you? In this article, we will explore a brief history of recording, how it has evolved into the modern technical miracle we know today, and how to choose what’s right for you.
What is a DAW?
A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a software program with the purpose of recording, editing, and producing audio content. DAWs can range from simplistic to complex and depending on what you are using, can accomplish a huge array of desired outcomes and effects. They are used for music, podcasts, films, soundtracks, sound effects, and other audio mediums. A DAW is run on your computer.
The Night is Darkest Just Before the DAW
Before audio was able to be recorded digitally, musicians and studio engineers recorded audio on reel to reel tape machines. This is what is known as Analog Recording. If you’ve ever heard a record that came out before the 1970s, you can guarantee that it was recorded using this technique. Many musicians say that Analog sounds “warmer” and prefer this style, but even with this proposed sonic benefit, there are disadvantages as well.
Unlike today when you can record an entire symphony from your bedroom by yourself, recording using tape required a team of engineers. Knobs, levels, and other factors that contributed to the desired sound had to be adjusted in real time (while the music was being recorded) and it rarely could be performed by one person.
Another disadvantage was the need for hardware. Today, you may simply have a computer and midi keyboard and you’re off to the races making music that can be released all over the world. In the past, the list of equipment necessary could be long and the capital needed upfront could be costly. This is why record studios ran the music industry. In order to enter the Land of Milk and Honey, you had to get past the gatekeepers first. Most of the time, people simply didn’t have the hardware necessary to produce music themselves.
Dawn of the DAW
So if recording by tape is analog, what’s recording using a DAW? The answer is Digital Recording and it arrived in the 1970s (although it wouldn’t be popularized until the 90’s and even that looks very different than what we recognize today). Digital recording takes an analogue signal like the sound coming from your guitar amp, and recreates it digitally so that it can be stored on a computer and played back. This alters the original analogue signal so that it can be stored in a computer (something that musicians comment about frequently), but technology has advanced to the point where even the most discerning ear may not be able to tell a difference between true analogue and high-fidelity digital recordings.
The first DAWs began to develop in the late 1970s, but due to the inferior processing and memory of early computers, these early attempts were widely abandoned. As computers developed into the 80s, companies began to push for the development of DAWs since these new computers could handle them. DAWs and computers developed hand in hand-as one gets more technologically advanced, so does the other. While early DAWS were mostly designed for Apple computers, there now exists a wide variety of DAWs to choose from that are compatible on both Apple and Microsoft operating systems.
The benefits of digital recording and DAWs in general are plentiful. The fact that you can record, mix, and master an entire album from your computer by yourself would have been unthinkable just 40 years ago. These sounds can be manipulated, synthesized, edited, and exported much easier than was ever thought possible in the past.
How to Choose What is Right for You
Shopping for a DAW can be daunting. The choices seem to be just as plentiful as if shopping for a new computer, or guitar, or microphone. But just like all of these, the answers lies in asking yourself “what do you really need?” Here are a few things to consider:
- Mac or PC?
First you need to ask yourself what computer you will be using to record audio. Some DAWs are only compatible with Mac, some only with Microsoft. Many however will work for both. It is of the utmost importance that you choose a DAW that WILL ACTUALLY WORK WITH YOUR COMPUTER. Always do your research before blindly buying what looks to be heaven sent for your needs.
- Free or Paid?
If you’re new to audio recording, chances are you’re probably interested in something free, especially if you’re strapped for cash. This can be a good way to try things out before dropping any cash. However, it is more than likely that if you are going to stick with this whole music and recording thing, you will eventually graduate to a paid program. The abilities of these professional DAWs are just too amazing compared to what you would get from free software. Many musicians suggest spending some money early and getting experience with a program that you will be using in the long run, instead of wasting time on something you will move on from. That being said, there are free DAWs that can still accomplish a lot and we explore those in a future article.
- What Do You Need it For?
Different DAWs are better for different needs. For example, you may be interested in producing beats for rappers and so you may like Ableton Live. Need to record tons of live audio all at once? Maybe you’d be interested in Avid Pro Tools. Each DAW has it’s own strengths and weaknesses and unfortunately, this can often only be discovered through use. However with diligent research, you can set yourself up for success based on what you’re looking for. We will explore the different niche needs of musicians everywhere and how to navigate the DAW marketplace to find your perfect tool in a subsequent article.
- Start Now
This is a point that we emphasize consistantly here at Music Buying Guide. It is important to START NOW, to take action and just take that first step toward achieving the dreams you’ve always had. Sure, it can be scary to throw down money for something you don’t have any experience. Sure it can be scary to buy something without knowing that it is the perfect system for you. But every second that you delay, stuck analyzing your vast array of options, is a moment that you could be creating. And you’ll never get that second back. Do your research, compare options, and then trust your gut. The experience and insight you will gain, even if you find it wasn’t the perfect choice, will be more valuable to you then than the few dollars you saved. Good luck and happy creating.