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What is a Digital Audio Workstation?

written by: Kristina Dems•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/1/2010

A digital audio workstation can range from simple devices like two-channel editors to more sophisticated systems like a complete studio audio recording suite. Older digital audio workstations were bulky and expensive, but modern ones more affordable and they can even be portable.

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    What is a Digital Audio Workstation?

    A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is a virtual studio system that consists of host computer hardware, audio interface hardware, MIDI software and audio multitrack software. A home computer with these components can be considered as a digital audio workstation, but the term is usually used for computer systems with professional quality audio processing software and hardware.

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    The Origin of the Term

    The term digital audio workstation first referred to computer-based systems that used hard drives for data storage instead of using tapes. Back in the 1980's, digital audio workstations were used to play, record and edit digital audio tracks. These computer systems were extremely expensive and had a very high learning curve. That is the reason why early digital audio workstations were only used by professional musicians and producers. Modern digital audio workstations are now more accessible to the public.

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    Types of Digital Audio Workstations

    Digital audio workstations can range from simple two-channel editors to entire studio digital recording suite. However, there are only two general types of digital audio workstations: computer-based digital audio workstations and integrated digital audio workstations. Computer-based DAWs are composed of a computer, a sound card and digital audio processing software. Integrated DAWs use a mixing console, an audio converter, a control surface and a data storage. All these components are included in one device. DAWs were commonly used before home computers developed into a more advanced technology to serve as DAWs.

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    What Can Digital Audio Workstations Do?

    Whether it is a computer-based digital audio workstation or an integrated one, its primary function is to record, edit and play back audio tracks. Most professional recording artists are using all kinds of DAWs like laptop-based ones and old school DAWs in recording studios. Most professional recording artists prefer using computer-based DAWs because of their capability to undo unwanted actions like accidentally recording over parts of a track or completely erasing an entire digital recording. This convenience makes recording more efficient for artists.

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    Available Software for Personal Digital Audio Workstations

    A lot of software applications are now available for individuals who want to set up their own personal digital audio workstation on their desktop computer or laptop. There are premium software packages like Dexter Audio Editor that need to be purchased before they can be downloaded and installed, but there are also open source solutions for digital audio processing. These open source software programs are more popular with the general public. Macaw, Rosegarden and Audacity are some examples of open source software that does the job as far as quality digital audio processing is concerned.

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    Choosing the Best Digital Audio Workstation

    If you are interested in setting up a digital audio workstation on your personal computer to start your music mixing career or simply to indulge in your hobby, the first thing you should consider is your budget. For non-professionals, this is not an issue unless they are really serious with producing music. Quality open-source solutions are available for digital audio processing. The main issue with the software will be the compatibility with your hardware and their learning curve. Make sure you have the skills to install and manage digital audio processing software and hardware.