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What is DAW Software? DAWs Software Buying Guide

DAW Software Topics


What is a DAW software?

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation and is a general term used for modern recording software. Limiting the definition to ‘audio’ is slightly misleading – in reality, DAWs also feature MIDI, virtual instrument and effects and often advanced tools like score editing and video support as well. A DAW is a complete music production environment that can fulfil every step of the process from recording, editing and arrangement to mixing and mastering.

The DAW started life as a MIDI sequencer, triggering hardware that was in turn connected to a mixing desk. Over time, software has developed rapidly and gained more and more features. First came MIDI and then digital audio. Later, virtual instruments and effects were invented and most recently, tools like elastic audio and pitch correction mean that it’s possible to have everything you need on your computer. That’s not to say that hardware is redundant, but the majority of recording systems now feature computer-based recordings of one sort or another.

There are good reasons for this. DAWs have virtually unlimited track counts, are easily upgraded and expanded and replicate the functions of a wide range of hardware tools in a good value package. The increasing power of affordable computer systems in the last decade has meant the average musician now has the facility to achieve things that in the old days would have cost a small fortune.


Mac or PC DAW Software?

Mac OS X and Windows are the two major platforms that music software is developed for. Each platform has its fierce loyalists and opponents, but in truth they both have their strengths. In terms of hardware, modern DAWs are good at utilising multiple processor cores and lots of RAM. If you’re going to invest in a music system there’s no point in skimping on the computer since it is essentially the ‘brain’ of your whole studio. A six-year-old MacBook or a supermarket PC aren’t going to do the business when it comes to audio performance with an up-to-date DAW.

Many DAWs run on either platform – Mac or PC – apart from a couple such as Logic that’s Mac only, and SONAR that’s Windows only. So your choice might depend on other factors, and there are pros and cons to each platform. Macs tend to be more expensive and harder to take apart or upgrade yourself. Apple also has a set product line so it’s tricky to be really specific about your Mac’s components. On the other hand, Mac OS X is a very stable operating system, not particularly prone to viruses or other threats and Macs are widely used in the pro-audio world due to their reputation for glitch-free operation.

Windows PCs are much easier to configure and upgrade yourself, and a machine of comparable specification is slightly cheaper than a Mac. There is also more free software such as plug-ins available for Windows because it has a much larger market share than the Mac. It is more prone to viruses, however, and in general requires a more technically-minded approach to running and maintaining than a Mac. Windows 7 is generally more appreciated than its predecessor Vista, and like Mac OS X, is able to take advantage of the latest hardware.


DAW Software system requirements

Modern DAW software can use multicore processors and lots of RAM, so you’ll want a well-specified computer. DAWs list minimum system requirements but these are more for reference than anything else – if your computer only just meets them, you will start to run out of steam fairly quickly. Look at the recommended system requirements for an idea of what hardware you will need for a smoother ride. Remember that every time you add an effect or a virtual instrument to a project, you increase the power requirements of the DAW, so the more headroom you have, the better. You will need at least 2GB RAM and a dual core (or better, CPU) to run a modern DAW satisfactorily – the only exception being some ‘lite’ versions which have fewer features and therefore lower power needs.


Which DAW version is best for you?

Most DAWs come in two or more versions, typically ‘Lite’ and ‘Pro’ or something along those lines. They almost always share a lot of core technology, but the Pro version will have all the features and content, and the Lite version will be more feature-limited, though usually still competent. There will be a significant price difference between them in most instances, with an option to upgrade from the entry level to the full version in the future for an additional fee. This is a good idea if you are starting out or are on a budget, as you can see how your skills and needs develop over time, and only make the extra investment when you need to.

The differences between versions might mean you can get away with using the Lite version if your needs are less complicated. For example, they all do audio and MIDI recording, editing and mixing. It may be possible that the Lite version has a track limit, a smaller number of effect or instrument slots, and perhaps lacks some more advanced features like surround sound or specialised workflow tools. Lite versions will also generally come with fewer bundled plug-ins and less content, although again this may not be the end of the world for every user.

For Pro users or those wanting to learn more advanced techniques, the full version of a DAW can be essential, especially if you intend to make a living from using it. With Pro versions, you get a huge amount of bundled plug-ins and loops, which mean you’re less likely to have to shell out for additional ones later. Pro DAW's contain heavy duty, multitrack editing and drum replacement features – not something a beginner would probably need, but a professional might.


Entry-level DAW software

If you’re on a budget or just getting started in music, check out these entry level versions…

Steinberg Cubase Elements 6
You get up to 64 MIDI and 48 audio tracks and the same advanced audio engine as the full version of Cubase. It runs on Mac and PC and comes with three great sounding virtual instruments and 32 audio effects including pitch correction.

Cakewalk SONAR X1 Essential
For Windows only, this DAW has an advanced, customisable interface and supports 64 bit audio and unlimited MIDI tracks, a good selection of instruments and effects and IK Multimedia’s Amplitube X-Gear effect.

Ableton Live Intro
For Mac and PC, Ableton Live Intro shares much of the technology from its bigger brother and is geared towards loop-based recording and composition. It has a whopping 7GB of loops, instruments and beats as well as 200 built-in audio and MIDI effects.


Mid-level DAW software

Need most of the features but without the price tag? Check out these mid-level DAWs…

Pro Tools M-Powered 9
Based on the industry-leading Pro Tools software from Avid, this version lets you work with up to 48 tracks of audio using any M-Audio interface. It comes with over 70 bundled plug-ins.

Steinberg Cubase Artist 6
For Mac and PC and allows up to 128 MIDI and 64 audio tracks running at better-than CD quality. You get six great virtual instruments including HALion Sonic SE, LoopMash 2 and the MPC-style Groove Agent ONE drum machine and 41 audio and 18 MIDI effects including pitch correction and the VST Amp Rack suite.

Ableton Live 8
Running on both Mac and PC, Live 8 features a host of high quality instrument with a wealth of mixing techniques, a groove engine, warping, live looping, and powerful real-time editing.


Pro-level DAW software

For serious production work, you need a serious DAW…

Cakewalk SONAR X1 Producer
X1 Producer is Windows only, but takes advantage of the latest hardware available with its up-to-the-minute technology. As well as unlimited audio and MIDI tracks you get the new Skylight windowing system and an amazing bundle of instruments and effects including ProChannel, Session Drummer 3, Dimension Pro, TruePianos Amber and Guitar Rig 4 LE.

Avid Pro Tools 9
You can have up to 96 tracks of audio and the ability to use Pro Tools with any audio interface you like for the first time. There’s a good selection of content including many plug-ins, and up to 256 internal busses and 160 auxiliary tracks for advanced mixing and routing options. You also get advanced features like 7.1 surround sound support.

Steinberg Cubase 6
Cubase 6 runs on Mac and PC with unlimited audio, MIDI and instrument tracks, a great selection of plug-ins and instruments, the unique VST Articulation system for quick and accurate score creation, AudioWarp and VariAudio for sound manipulation and the legendary friendly workflow.