What Is A DAW? – A Guide To Digital Audio Workstations

Martin Kristiansen

Martin Kristiansen

My name is Martin Kristiansen and I’m the founder and chief editor of HomeStudioIdeas.com. I’ve been playing, recording and producing music for the last 10 years.

If you’re a beginner and looking to start producing your own tracks, you probably heard about the term “DAW”. What is a DAW and what can you do with it? A DAW, or digital audio workstation, is a powerful tool that allows you to record, edit, and mix audio and MIDI.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the many features and possibilities. Let’s dive right in!

What Is A DAW?

A digital audio workstation (DAW) is computer software used for music production, audio editing, and recording. It allows the user to create, edit, and mix digital audio files.

A DAW typically consists of a sequencer, which is used to arrange and edit music; virtual instruments, which are used to generate sound; channels and a mixer, which is used to mix the audio. Some DAWs also includes features such as a notation editor and an effects processor.

So who benefits from using a DAW? Anyone who works with audio! DAWs are used by both musicians, producers, sound engineers, and DJs. They’re also often used for sound design in film and television production, video game development, and radio broadcasting.

The Evolution Of DAW Software

The first DAW was created in 1977 by Soundstream. However, it was not until the late 1980s that DAWs began to be used widely in the music industry. This was due to the boom of the personal computer and the faster disk and processing speeds that came along with it.

In the late 1980s, Steinberg started developing a digital audio workstation (DAW) called Cubase. The first version of Cubase was released in 1989, and since then it has become one of the most popular DAWs in the world.

Cubase was originally designed for the Atari ST platform, but it was quickly ported to other platforms like Macintosh and Windows. Over the years, Steinberg has added many features and improvements to Cubase, making it one of the most powerful and popular DAWs available.

In 1991, Pro Tools was released and quickly became the industry standard DAW. Pro Tools was developed by Digidesign, which was later bought by Avid Technology.

Today, there are many different types of DAWs available on the market, including both paid and free options.

The main reason for the transition from analog to digital audio is the increased flexibility and capabilities of digital audio equipment.

What Can You Do With A DAW?

DAWs allow for non-linear editing of digital audio files, meaning that you can easily make changes to the order of your recording without having to re-record the entire thing. This is a huge advantage over analog tape machines, which require recordings to be made in a linear fashion.

Today, digital audio workstations offer a wide array of functionality.

Audio Recording and Arrangement

audio editing
Audio editing in Pro Tools

DAWs, or digital audio workstations, have revolutionized the music industry by making it easier than ever to record and edit audio.

In the past, recording audio was a tedious process that required a lot of gear and often resulted in headaches. But with a DAW, all you need is a computer and a microphone, and you can be up and running in no time.

Plus, with a DAW you can easily adjust tempo, time signature, and playback speed, as well as add samples and effects.

Record And Edit Virtual Instruments (VSTs)

A VST is a virtual instrument that can be used with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). VSTs can be used to create a wide variety of sounds, from traditional instruments to more unique and synthesized sounds. Many VSTs are available as plugins, which can be added to a DAW to expand its capabilities.

VSTs have gained popularity in recent years as they offer a more cost-effective and convenient way to create music and manipulate sounds. With a VST, there is no need to purchase or maintain physical instruments or recording equipment.

While some VSTs are designed to replicate the sound of specific instruments, others offer more creative options for sound design. Many VSTs come with built-in effects and presets, making it easy to create new sounds.

Overall, VSTs offer musicians and producers versatile and powerful tools for creating music.

Record MIDI

midi note editor
The MIDI Note Editor in Ableton Live

First and foremost – MIDI is a protocol that allows electronic musical instruments and computers to communicate with each other. It does this by sending control information from one device to another. This control information can be used to trigger sounds, change parameters, and even synchronize devices.

Assuming you have a MIDI controller, recording MIDI in a DAW is a relatively simple process.

First, open your DAW and create a new project. Then, create a new MIDI track by clicking the ‘create new track’ button or going to File > New Track. A dialog box will appear – select ‘MIDI’ from the track type drop-down menu. 

Next, select your MIDI input device from the drop-down menu next to the record button. If you’re not sure which device to select, click the ‘MIDI Devices…’ button and make sure the one you want to use is checked and highlighted in blue. 

Now you’re ready to record! Click the record button (it will turn red when it’s active) and play your instrument.

Note that you don’t need a full-fledged DAW for practicing piano or messing around with a MIDI controller. Unless you want to record and edit MIDI files, you’re perfectly fine with a simple MIDI keyboard software.

Mix And Master Your Tracks

A DAW can also be used for mixing and mastering. When mixing, you can import your tracks into the DAW and adjust the levels, EQ, and add effects such as Autotune VSTs to create a polished final mix.

For mastering, you can export your mix from the DAW and use it to create a mastered version of your song. By using a DAW for both mixing and mastering, you can get the best possible sound for your music.

Edit Audio (Not Only Music)

Sound design is the art of creating new or manipulating existing sounds. A sound designer may work in film, video games, theatre, or any other medium that uses sound. Sound design is a creative process that can be used to enhance the emotional impact of a story or add realism to a scene.

A DAW can be an excellent tool for sound design. With its ability to record, edit, and mix sounds, a DAW gives you a lot of control over the final product. You can use a DAW to create original sounds or manipulate recorded sounds to achieve the desired effect.

The Anatomy Of A DAW

Despite different looks and workflows, all DAWs essentially consist of the same functionality. Below are some of the most important aspects of digital audio workstations.

Timings And Bars

In a DAW, timing and bar controls are used to set a project’s tempo and time signature. The tempo is the speed at which the project will play back, and is measured in beats per minute (BPM).

The time signature is a way of dividing up the project into measures, or bars. Each measure contains a certain number of beats, based on the time signature. For example, in 4/4 time, each measure contains four beats. In 6/8 time, each measure contains six beats.

The timing and bar controls can be found in the project settings of most DAWs. To set the tempo, simply enter the desired BPM into the field provided.

To set the time signature, select from one of the common time signatures or enter a custom value. Once these values have been set, they will be applied to the entire project.

Arrangement Window

The arrangement window is probably where you’ll spend most of your time in a DAW. So what is it? It’s a visual representation, from left to right, of the MIDI notes and audio files that make up the song or project. 

It is used to edit and arrange elements to craft the desired arrangement. Think of it as the “score” of a song, as it shows all the parts that need to come together to create the final product.

With the arrangement window, you can add or remove elements, change their order, or even completely rearrange a song on the fly.

Transport Controls

The transport control is a button or series of buttons on the DAW that are used to control the playback of the audio. The transport controls typically include a play button, a pause button, and a stop button. In some cases, there may also be a loop button.

The play button is used to start playback of the audio from the current cursor position. The pause button is used to pause playback without changing the cursor position. The stop button is used to stop playback and reset the cursor to the beginning of the track. The loop button is used to toggle looping on and off. When looping is enabled, playback will continue from the starting cursor each time it reaches the end cursor.


A channel can be either an audio track or a MIDI track.

A channel in a DAW (digital audio workstation) is a single track that carries audio or MIDI information. They’re used to record, edit, and mix audio or MIDI clips.

Each channel can be assigned to an individual instrument or MIDI controller. Channels can also be used to route audio signals to external devices, such as effects processors.

An audio track in a DAW is a digital representation of an audio signal. The signal can be anything from a microphone to an instrument. MIDI tracks are similar, but they represent MIDI data instead of audio. Both types of tracks can be edited and processed in a DAW.

Channels are the bread and butter of most DAWs. They allow you to record, edit and process audio signals. You can add effects to audio tracks, mix them, and even automate them. MIDI tracks are similar, but they deal with MIDI data instead of audio signals.

MIDI tracks are often used for virtual instruments, as they allow you to send note information to the instrument.

Mixer Window

logic pro mixer
The mixer window in Logic Pro

The mixer window is a key component in a DAW. The mixer is made up of all channels in your project.

The mixer window allows the user to mix and route various audio and MIDI channels. This can be done using a variety of methods, such as faders, panning, and EQ.

By adjusting the levels of each channel, the user can create a unique mix that can be saved and recalled at any time.

Notation Editor

A notation editor (or score editor) is a type of tool used to create, edit, and print musical scores. It can be found within most paid DAWs and allows users to enter notes using standard music notation symbols.

Notation editors usually include features such as playback, so that the user can hear how their score sounds.

Notation software can be used for a variety of purposes, such as creating sheet music for an upcoming performance or transcribing a piece of music from an audio recording.

Some notation editors also have MIDI capabilities, which allows them to be used as composition tools.

Popular Paid DAWs

A paid DAW is packed with premium functionality that takes your creative arsenal to the next level. There are no limitations on the number of tracks you can record, no time limit, etc.

The best DAWs to date include:

  • Pro Tools (regarded as the industry standard)
  • Logic Pro (includes an extensive library of loops and samples)
  • FL Studio (largest userbase)
  • Ableton Live (includes features for incorporating the DAW into live performances)
  • Steinberg Cubase (strong MIDI editing and orchestration capabilities)

Popular FREE DAWs

Using a DAW doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to cost you a dime and there is a great deal of free DAWs you can download within minutes.

On the other hand, many of them have reduced functionality and are stripped-down versions of premium software.

These are the most common limitations found in free DAW software: 

  • A time limitation – you can only use the DAW for x amount of days
  • A track limitation – you can only record and mix x amount of tracks
  • You can only play music during x minutes – your recording stops playing after x minutes, after which you need to press play again.
  • Only comes with specific hardware devices – For example, Ableton Lite only comes with some specific devices, although there are dozens of them.

Nevertheless, a free DAW is perfect if you’re a beginner who wants to start producing music. Also, consider them if you only need a simple DAW that can cover a few parts of your workflow. Additionally, a free DAW is great if you want to try a paid DAW before making a purchase.

Here are some of the best free DAWs today:

  • Tracktion Waveform Free
  • GarageBand (macOS only)
  • Ableton Live Lite
  • Pro Tools First
  • Cubase LE
  • Podium Free (Windows only)

Frequently Asked Questions

Which DAW Should I Choose?

It all comes down to personal preferences and what you want to accomplish with your DAW. FL Studio is a great option if you’re into songwriting and producing.

If you’re focusing on the more technical side of music production such as recording, editing, mixing, or mastering, try Pro Tools or Logic Pro.

Ableton’s inspiring session view made it very easy to experiment with loops and samples, making it a strong candidate for electronic music and live performances.

What Is The Best DAW?

Music producers and other industry professionals have always argued about which DAW is best. Truth be told, there is no answer and if you ask 10 professionals you’ll get 10 different answers. You might need to try a few popular DAWs on the market before you eventually find the one best suited for your workflow.

What is the Easiest DAW to use?

Apple’s GarageBand is an entry-level DAW that features a simplified set of options and controls to make recording music easy for everyone.


DAW is an acronym for Digital Audio Workstation. The era of digital music production has been shaped by DAW software that allows musicians and producers to record, edit, and produce audio files.

Notable hit recordings have been created with the aid of DAW programs such as Pro Tools, Logic Pro X, and Ableton Live. They are commonly used alongside an audio interface, mixing console, or other pieces of external equipment.

Some DAWs are compatible with different operating systems and have different workflows than others. Still, they’re built with the same parts. You’ll always find a mixer, an arrangement window, audio/MIDI channels, transport controls, and timing and bar settings.

And there you have it – The ultimate guide about DAWs. Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

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