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Digital Audio Workstation

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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.

The term "DAW" simply refers to a general combination of audio multitrack software and high-quality audio hardware — the latter being a specialized audio converter unit which performs some variety of both analog to digital (ADC) and digital to analog (DAC) converters. For example a digital 8-track system could have eight discrete inputs, and a certain number of outputs — perhaps only stereo output for playback and monitoring.

Because "tracks" are symbolic in the digital medium, multitrack systems could have only a pair of mono inputs and outputs — the discrete audio inputs and outputs provide for simultaneous multitracking capability, whereas limited inputs require audio mixing or later overdubbing.

A professional DAC performs the same function as a common sound card, but is generally an external and sometimes rackmounted unit which offers the advantage of far less noise, higher recorded resolution, and better dynamic range, when compared with its consumer cousin.

While almost any home computer with multitrack and editing software can function somewhat as a DAW, the term generally refers to more powerful systems which at minimum have high-quality external ADC-DAC hardware, and some usable audio software, some of which is commercial such as Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, SONAR, and Digital Performer, some of which is free software such as Audacity or Ardour.

DAWs generally come in two varieties:

  • Computer-based DAWs consist of three components: a computer, an ADC-DAC, 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 integrated DAWs. Pro Tools, SONAR, and Adobe Audition (formerly known as Syntrillium Cool Edit) are widely used commercial PC-based DAWs. Stand alone audio editors such as Sound Forge are also used.
  • 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.


[edit] History

The first ever system to function as a digital audio workstation was first developed by Soundstream Inc. in the late 1970s. It utilized a Digital PDP-11/60 minicomputer running a custom software package called "DAP" (for Digital Audio Processor) written in-house by Soundstream for digital audio editing and for digitally adding audio effects such as crossfades. A storage oscilloscope manufactured by Tektronix that was connected to the 11/60 acted as the audio waveform display.

Audio on the system was stored on Digital RP04 disk pack drives connected to the 11/60, with the audio being transferred onto the drives digitally from Soundstream's digital audio tape recorders of their own design, using a special Unibus tape-to-disk interface also of the company's own design. Soundstream also developed a digital-to-analog interface for this system for interfacing to conventional analog tape recorders as well.

In the late 1980s, computers that were available on the consumer level, such as the Apple Macintosh, started to have enough power to handle the task of digital audio editing. The first major capitalization on this fact was done by a company called Digidesign, who in 1987 introduced one of the first hardware & software packages for a personal computer for editing audio (and the predecessor to the now-industry standard Pro Tools system) called Sound Tools for the Macintosh, which would later be renamed to Pro Tools I. Many major studios finally "went digital" due to the fact that Digidesign had modeled its Pro Tools software after the traditional method and signal flow present in almost all analog recording devices.

[edit] Development

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)

[edit] Common functionality of computer-based DAWs

Much of the functionality of DAWs borrows from, and enhances on, analogue recording technology. Therefore, computer-based DAWs tend to 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. Like a mixing console, each track typically has controls that allow the user to adjust the overall volume and stereo balance (pan) of the sound on each track. In a traditional recording studio additional processing is physically plugged in to the audio signal path, a DAW, however, uses software plugins to process the sound on a track.

While DAWs are capable of mimicking the functions of a traditional recording studio, there are areas where they excel, and in some cases they can do things that are impossible without a DAW.

Perhaps the most significant feature available on a DAW that is not available in analogue recording (some other forms of digital recording do have this) is the ability to 'undo' a previous action, which makes it much easier to avoid accidentally erasing or recording over a previous recording.

Commonly DAWs feature some form of automation, commonly performed through "envelope points." Each dot represents one envelope point. By creating and adjusting multiple points along a waveform or control events, the user can specify parameters of the output over time (e.g., volume or pan).

[edit] Commercial systems

Consolidation and commoditization in the commercial space, along with the early adaptation by most major recording studios has left Digidesign's Pro Tools for recording and editing and Apple Logic for music production and composing as the de-facto standards for studio production on Mac OS, while the Windows market is more commonly dominated by Steinberg's Nuendo / Cubase and Cakewalk Sonar.

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 canceling 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. Steinberg's VST standard lives on, and is supported by all commercial DAW products in some fashion (additional third party adapters are sometimes required), as well as some open source packages. However both Nuendo and Cubase maintain significant market share due to a historically strong brand, and they are one of the few DAW systems that have a history of operating in a cross-platform manner on both Mac and Windows platforms.

Apple Logic, initially owned by eMagic prior to an Apple buy-out, historically had a much stronger grasp on the Windows DAW market than it does today. However this was all but obliterated by Apple's buyout, which left the Windows version of the product orphaned from version 6 and up. While some Windows users switched to the Mac platform to follow the software and others remained locked at version 5, the big-picture result of this was an expansion of a number of comparable music production and composing systems on the Wintel platform, as remaining Windows Logic users have gradually switched away to currently supported applications. Logic remains a dominant player in the Mac market, and in the music industry market itself that gravitates around the Apple platform.

Cakewalk Sonar was one notable beneficiary of the departure of Logic from the Windows platform. Along with Steinberg's Windows-based DAWs it is one of the most popular Windows consumer applications and will reliably run on almost any audio hardware. It was differentiated from Steinberg's offerings early on in its life by its close adherence to Windows OS standards, using the Windows 2000/XP WDM driver model for its audio card support and DirectX plugins for effects and virtual instruments. However the strong market share and developer support enjoyed by Steinberg resulted in support in later versions of Sonar for Steinberg's ASIO and VST technologies, rendering these an effective de-facto standard for many PC drivers, effects plugins and softsynths. Sonar is single-platform and heavily tied to Windows OS internals, making porting to other platforms an unlikely prospect.

Pro Tools is currently seen as the most used MTR (multitrack recorder) in the industry despite the features are more and more obsolete compared to other DAW's for many professional recording studios. Available on both PC (Windows) and Apple Macintosh platforms, it started life as a dedicated hard disk recording application requiring proprietary DSP hardware to function. As time has passed and CPUs have grown in capability, more and more of the functionality of the software has been making use of the extra computational power available and therefore, less custom hardware has been required. However, the software end of Pro Tools remains tied to Digidesign's proprietary audio hardware which requires it in order to run. Until recently, Digidesign's interfaces were the only audio hardware supported by the Pro Tools software, however a recent buyout of M-Audio by Digidesign/Avid has resulted in the release of the host-based Pro Tools M-Powered software that can be used in conjunction with a range of M-Audio sound cards and audio interfaces.

Digital Performer rounds out the last of the major professional DAW applications. A Mac-only product from MOTU it competes primarily with Logic on the Apple platform for musician/composer customers and is notably popular with many film composers.

Apple has developed an alternative to the VST plug-in standard for OS X based Macintosh systems. This new standard, the AudioUnit (AU), has become very popular for Macintosh OS X based DAWs and was designed in some respects to overcome limitations of VST.

Sony Sound Forge (acquired from Sonic Foundry) and Adobe Audition (formerly "Cool Edit Pro" and acquired from Syntrillium) are leading products primarily used for single-track editing. Both are only available for Windows. However, the Adobe Audition has the capability of doing multi-track work too. BIAS Peak fills the void on Mac, and Apple's GarageBand incorporates much of the technology of Logic to create a somewhat different take on the DAW for consumer use. Metro is a very competent Macintosh DAW that supports both VST and AU.

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

Though initially a beat-sequencing tool, FL Studio has a Producer edition that offers most of the DAW features of Cubase SX and it is steadily gaining credibility as a professional tool. Among it's more unique features is a built-in Edison waveform editor with an embedded Pascal language compiler, allowing users to simply create new sound filter 'plugins' easily and without external tools or an API like VST. Though the pattern-based approach to sequencing might be off-putting to traditional DAW users, FL Studio seems to strike a good balance between ease-of-use for beginning users while being a very flexible, extensible environment for advanced users.

The high end of professional DAWs are dominated by two manufacturers; Sonic Studio, with their line of cross-platform products, and SADiE, with their Windows-only line of DAWs. Both offer both LPCM and DSD production tools and both provide much higher levels of fidelity than low cost, off-the-shelf products.

[edit] Open source

There are many viable open-source DAWs available. They are free-to-use and often designed to run on a variety of operating systems. The open source development of digital audio workstations created technologies such as ALSA drivers and JACK. JACK (using ALSA drivers) allows any JACK-aware audio software to connect to any other audio software running on the system. It is a virtual audio patch-bay for a computer. This is a significant advantage for users who use multiple applications to edit and process audio as it removes the need for analogue conversion, or, saving and then reloading files in another application. A similar commercial product is ReWire.

Audacity is an open-source DAW that can run on Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, and GNU/Linux; it is particularly popular in the podcast community, and also has a large following among the visually-impaired due to its keyboard interface.

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.

The VST plugin standard is supported as an option by some open source programs, but is generally implemented as a separate plugin, not a built-in option, due to Steinberg's licensing scheme. Among others, the creators of Audacity provide an optional, somewhat minimalist VST-to-LADSPA bridge plugin for their software, but it is a separate download.

[edit] Products

[edit] Commercial

[edit] Free PC-based DAW systems

[edit] Integrated DAW systems

[edit] See also

[edit] Manufacturer links

[edit] Developer links

[edit] External links

This article was started using a Wikipedia Audio Workstation article
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