What is a DAW (Digital Music Workstation)?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

If you're just getting started in music production, you're probably wondering what a DAW is, this guide is what you need.

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In this guide we’re going to answer the most important question music production today—

What is a DAW?

What is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)?

We all make music in so many different ways—

Some people play instruments, other people sing, others write their music down and play it.

A Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a software that lets us mix and manipulate sound in a huge variety of ways. A DAW is the central hub of contemporary music production.

One of the most daunting aspects of getting started in music production is deciding which DAW to choose for the work you’ll be doing.

Your DAW will be the central location where you’ll record, create, edit, and mix your audio and MIDI files, so it’s essential to find the one that works best for you.

As you dig around, you’ll quickly find that there are dozens of options out there.

Sometimes there are even multiple flavors of the same DAW, each designed for specific needs.

But generally, most professional level DAWs these days are capable of the same things as their competitors. Over the last few years, most DAWs have converged on a very similar set of core features.

All DAWs allow you to take recordings (MIDI or Audio), and edit mix and manipulate them into a final project.

Some DAWs are more suited for recording live audio, while others are geared more towards making electronic music working with synthesizers and sequencers.

Some DAWs come packed with tons of stock plugins and effects, while others come with robust features out of the box.

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What is a VST? DAW Plugins

The most important aspect, besides the DAW, is the idea of a plugin.

With plugins, we might be looking at a drum machine, synthesizers (subtractive and additive), samplers, and so on.

A DAW plugin is an external piece of software that extend the functions and capabilities of your DAW.

It can process audio (creating audio effects, such as reverb and delay), or take MIDI data and produce audio.

It is a piece of software that you can actually buy from third parties to bring in different types of functionality to your DAW, such as, say, a different synth engine than your stock, or an effect, for instance.

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.

A VST is a type of plugin but the term VST is commonly used, instead of the term plugin.

DAW Plugins Types/Standards

Different DAWs support different plugin standards.

Currently, there are 4 main plugin standards/types:

  1. VST (Virtual Studio Technology) — commonly seen on Windows
  2. AU (AudioUnit) — commonly seen Mac OS X
  3. LADSPA — first major plugin standard for Linux
  4. LV2 — the successor of LADSPA

You can run some VST or AU plugins on other platforms, but this can be rather complicated, and extremely difficult to debug (generally unreliable) without vendor support.

Many LADSPA plugins are available free and open-source. Many LADSPA plugins have now been ported to LV2.

It is strongly advised that you use VST plugins on Windows, AU plugins on a Mac and LADSPA, LV2 plugins on Linux.

We’ve looked at what is a VST plugin and different plugin formats much more in-depth in a separate guide. Have a look at that if you haven’t already.

Selecting a DAW

The features of a DAW is not going to be the only determining factor in selecting a DAW. Other factors include—

  • Platforms a DAW is available on
  • Whether you need specialized hardware to run the DAW
  • Price

Almost all publishers of DAWs offer a free trial or limited-feature demo versions of their software.

A demo should be enough to give you an accurate idea of whether or not you should be able to use a particular program for your work and projects.

The Good DAWs

The best DAW is the one you can work the quickest and most comfortable with.

If there was one DAW for everybody, everybody would use it. There are many excellent DAWs for almost all platforms each with its own strength and weaknesses.

If you are just starting out, the best DAW may be the one you already have.

Generally, if you are a Mac user get Logic Pro X or Ableton. If you a Windows user get Cubase, Ableton or FL Studio (especially if you’re making hip hop). And if you are a Linux user get Ardour for LV2 plugin support.

Let’s take at some of the most popular options that are available for each platform at the moment.

  1. Windows
  2. Mac
  3. Linux

When you are starting out, your best resource will probably be Youtube.

You will find a ton of stuff for Ableton and Logic Pro X, but not so much for DAWs such as Cubase, Reason, and hardly anything for Pro Tools, Ardour, and all the other ones.

Keep that in mind because that’s a huge factor when you’re first getting started and you’re trying to soak in as much as you can about your DAW.

The Best DAWs for Windows

#1 — Cubase

Cubase’s workflow is perhaps the most similar the Pro Tools of all the DAWs here.

#2 — FL Studio by Image Line

FL Studio is great for people who like to work with virtual instruments and loops.

It doesn’t have the traditional workflow and layout that a lot of the other programs have and it has a bit of an image problem in the industry.

But if you are a solo musician, and you don’t care about the traditional workflow or the solid reputation of something like Pro Tools, FL studio might be the best DAW for you.

The demo gives you access to pretty much everything, but if you save a project, you won’t be able to open it until you purchase a license.

#3 — BitWig Studio

BitWig is a bit outsider DAW because it hasn’t been used in the past. It is only picking up steam.

That is definitely something you should consider when you pick your DAW.

The Best DAWs for Mac

Every is proprietary on Mac.

In summary, on a Mac, Ableton Live has a very fast workflow and is good for live performances (DJs especially), Logic Pro X is perfect for pitch correction and working with samples, Pro Tools is really good for controlling and editing a lot of audio and MIDI data really fast.

Each of these has its best qualities but there is really nothing that one can do and another can’t.

#1 — Ableton Live

Ableton Live has a solid reputation as the DAW for live performances because of it’s workflow.

It’s a little weird to get used to but once you get the hang of it, it starts to make a lot more sense.

#2 — Logic Pro X

If the last few years, Logic Pro X has come in as being a very heavy hitter.

If you want to perform more sophisticated edits, or you begin to find the features of something like GarageBand lacking, Logic Pro X is a good way to step things up to a professional level DAW.

For Mac users, a natural progression from Garage Band would be Logic Pro X.

It takes the concepts and workflows from Garage Band and advances them while throwing an incredible number of plugins and an enormous library of sounds.

Logi Pro X is Mac only.

#3 — Pro Tools by Avid Technology

I see Pro Tools less and less these days.

It was the gold standard studio software for a long time (I often wonder why that still the case anymore), and you’ll still find it in every huge multimillion-dollar pro studios.

For me personally, the reason I still use Pro Tools is because it’s what I learned music production on. But the times I have to fall back on Pro Tools are becoming fewer and far between — especially over the last few years.

Pro Tools is wildly expensive.

If you walk into major recording studios, this is most likely what you’ll find. But it is not like the hip, cool DAW because it’s just unaffordable for most people.

So if you’re thinking of getting into audio engineering, especially working in a major studio, then you should at least learn Pro Tools as you’ll likely run into it quite a bit.

The Best DAWs for Linux

All the DAWs we’ve looked at so far do not run natively on Linux and are not available in source code form.

This is understandable given the rather small share of desktop environments Linux has.

Linux users are a zealous bunch—

I don’t say this lightly. I run Linux exclusively myself.

Why Linux?

You don’t need to buy or pirate proprietary software to produce fantastic music. All the tools are already there, created and maintained by a community of wonderful people.

Ardour is a full-featured open-source DAW native to Linux. It also runs on Mac and Windows.

Like all the other DAWs in this list, it will let you record, edit, process, mix, and export audio and MIDI data.

It has everything you’ll need to record tracks, compose soundtracks and film scores, produce electronic music, audiobooks, podcasts, or design sound effects.

Ardour is open-source, so anyone can download the source code, make modifications, improve, bugfix, and build it. You can also download official pre-packaged, ready to run builds for $1 per month. Many Linux distributions provide their own builds completely free.

Audio is completely unlimited.

You can create and work on as many audio and MIDI tracks as you want. The only limitation is the hardware. You can also add unlimited amounts of effects to each track.

Ardour supports VST, LV2, AU, and LADSPA plugin formats.

#2 — LMMS

There is also a growing number of proprietary DAWs available natively for Linux.

Perhaps the music industry is starting to realize that Linux is a viable platform to make music on.

In Conclusion

Honestly, I don’t think the choice of DAW is all that important. If you work in a large studio, you likely don’t even have a choice of what DAW you work with.

As a home studio owner, you can get great results with almost any DAW. Pick one you’re comfortable with and master it.

To quote, Image-Line the creators of FL Studio—

The world is full of marketing departments trying to convince you that equipment and specifications can substitute for talent & hard work. This is not true, the ‘performance’ transcends the medium every time. The performance includes musicianship, vocals, orchestration, arrangement, and mixing decisions. These are all under your control and have little to do with the DAW software you use or the plugins you have.

Their Audio Myths & DAW Wars page makes for an interesting read.

I have upwards of a decade of making electronic music and I can agree with this sentiment.

You don’t see open-source software being advertised or marketed.

Of course, the list of DAWs I’ve mentioned here is not exhaustive, there are some other awesome ones such a Reaper — which is making its way into more and more studios.

If you like the traditional workflow of Pro Tools, Reaper is very similar but more customizable.

That’s it for this article.

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I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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