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What Does a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Do?

Audio producer uses digital audio workstations to create music

Aspiring musicians now have more options with the help of the innovation of digital audio workstations (DAWs). With a digital audio workstation (DAW), an artist can make something powerful with little more than a laptop. There are always different types of software and hardware to learn, but for a beginner, a software digital audio workstation will be a good first step.

What are Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)?

The definition of a digital audio workstation is broad. Two different people could say they have a DAW, but one might have a program installed on their computer, while another might have a larger setup featuring software, mixers, and other audio components. The software can range from simple to complex; some DAWs could be good for recording simple rock and pop songs and others for making elaborate electronic music.

Those starting out will use a software based DAW. It can be very intuitive, especially if someone has experience with recording music and working with computers. While a more complex digital audio workstation may be an industry standard, it can feed a particular image and be prohibitively expensive.

While digital audio workstations are most associated with music, they have purposes for anyone with recording needs, including podcasters. Their origins are also far older than many would realize. The kind of DAW on an original Macintosh computer in the 1980s might seem antiquated compared to what we have now, but it was a marvel at the time.

As DAWs became more sophisticated, they became easier to use. Thanks to laptops, people can create music while sitting on their couch or at a coffee shop. Smartphones have made it even more accessible. For instance, someone can use music with Apple’s popular digital audio workstation, GarageBand, from their iPhone. Portable MIDI controller keyboards and synthesizers are affordable and allow anyone to create nearly anywhere.

How Does a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) Work?

You might hear about a digital audio workstation and wonder if it’s really worth learning. A DAW won’t make your songs for you, but knowing how to use it well it can definitely make you a far better audio producer. This all hinges on whether you’re willing to learn and grow.

When you listen to professionally made music, you can easily take for granted how difficult it is to mix and master music. Even great musicians can find their work sullied by poor mixes.

The reason each instrument, including vocals, on a song bears a level of clarity is because the tracks are recorded and mixed individually. With a software DAW, an audio producer can easily record each track and adjust the levels so that the sounds are balanced and clear. If you make a mistake, you can easily undo it. You can also copy and paste different sections, like you would in a text document.

The theory elements of music aren’t neglected with DAWs. You can set time signatures and tempo, as well as recording along with a metronome to ensure you stay on beat. There still needs to be an effort put into your songwriting, but many of the more complex aspects of music production can be handled using a digital audio workstation.

DAW Software

Even with just software, you can do a lot with a digital audio workstation. One of the most popular DAWs is Pro Tools. There are also DAWs available for free download. One of the biggest free digital audio workstations is Audacity, which can act as a good introduction for anyone who’s not yet comfortable with more advanced software.

DAW Hardware

Once you’ve figured out software DAWs and have the passion and funds necessary for something greater, you can start looking into hardware. These add functionality to recording in amazing ways. Some keyboards and other digital instruments can be connected directly to the computer for use in the DAW. To record with microphones, an audio interface will be needed to accept XLR connectors to send signal to the computer. While DAWs also let you record straight from the software by picking individual notes and beats to build up a MIDI track, utilizing hardware makes recording a lot easier.

As proficiency with a DAW increases, you may build a full home studio, complete with acoustic treatments. Although the software might not be the flashiest part of your setup, it’s the one that can have the biggest determination as to the quality of the music.

Why Producers Need Digital Audio Workstations

Anyone can use a digital audio workstation, but those learning about music production need the firsthand experience that comes with using a DAW. A lot of the concepts, such as mixing, can make more sense after implementation on a DAW. While book knowledge is important, actually using a digital audio workstation will give you real world experience with music production.

Skills Needed to Use Digital Audio Workstations

Working with a DAW can help you come away with a lot of lessons, but there are also ones that need to be learned before the program is installed. The main skills a music producer will need to use a DAW include patience, computer literacy and an ear for music.

Skill #1: Patience

Users need to be patient. Don’t try to get produce a song before you really understand how a digital audio workstation operates, or else you will come up with subpar music. It is best to take your time to learn the digital audio workstation. There is always something new to learn.

Skill #2: Computer Literacy

You should also have computer literacy. Tutorials for DAWs are designed with the assumption that you know how to perform basic commands and work with different programs and files. Before you get started with a digital audio workstation, you should make sure you know how to use your computer and a few programs. Skills are not always transferable between different programs, but becoming comfortable in complex software is important and builds confidence

Skill #3: Ear for Music

Another important trait for DAW users is an ear for good production. A digital audio workstation can only do so much. If you don’t have enough familiarity with proper mixing, you could end up making music that’s imbalanced and amateur sounding, even if it’s made with software used by professional producers.

A pair of studio-quality headphones goes great with a digital audio workstation. This lets you really hear your tracks. These type of reference headphones are readily available and shouldn’t break the bank. Then, you can make gradual adjustments over the course of a song’s creation, instead of realizing that it needs to be scrapped completely when finished.

Taking Audio Production Classes

Some people are self-starters and can learn DAWs all by themselves. However, others need the added motivation and guidance that comes with instructor-led courses. Having in-person courses can make things easier to grasp while learning how to use a digital audio workstation. Someone is there to ask questions and offer guidance while you learn.

DAWs Make a Difference

Digital audio workstations represent a cross-section of creative and technological innovation. At first, they can be a little complex, but as long as you start small and don’t try to get ahead of yourself, you’ll have a great experience with a digital audio workstation.

Users can work with different DAWS at different times. Starting with a free program like Audacity and graduating to a more advanced one, such as ProTools, can help you to grow confidence. You don’t need to have ambitions of musical stardom to use a DAW. You can just use a DAW as a more convenient way to produce music and let your progress and ambition carry you along.

Digital audio workstations have revolutionized music, and they have even further to go. When you hear an addictive beat on a hit song, it was likely made with a program that you’ll end up using. A DAW can follow a beginner musician into an advanced one, and advanced musicians into experts. If that seems like a major feat for software, just wait until you see how much a digital audio workstation can do for you.

Want to Learn More about DAWs?

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.