What is a DAW, you ask? It stands for Digital Audio Workstation. Yeah it is a term that gets thrown around a lot when talking about audio recording. But what does it really mean?
Okay, I said it stands for Digital Audio Workstation. But that isn't a whole lot of help is it? Like so many other terms in the audio recording world, it feels a bit overly complex for what it is trying to describe.
Let's make it easy. A digital audio workstation is audio recording and editing software that allows you to do 3 things - record audio (usually with multiple tracks), edit it, and produce a final playable audio file (mp3, wav, etc.).
So Why Call It A DAW Rather Than Just "A Recording Software Program?"
In general, there are two types of audio recording software - DAWs and audio editors. I say "in general," because there is sometimes cross-over between the two. Some editors also have DAW functionality (can do those 3 things). And all DAWs that I know of have some editing capability. So things can get a little confusing.
So can we simplify things even more?
I think so. Let's say we have a recording program. We want to record several tracks, like your voice first, on track one. Then maybe you want to put some music on track two. You might also want to add some sound effects on a track, some drums on another track, etc. When you're done, you'll have lots of tracks.
What do you do with all the tracks? Adjust all the volumes so you can hear everything together. this is called "mixing." You might also want to pan each track - some to the left, some to the right. And then you might want to add some effects, like reverb, etc.
One other thing that most DAWs allow you to do is work with MIDI sequencing. That allows you to play virtual instruments, which is very cool.
When all that is done, you export (the DAW term is usually "render" or "mix down") the final result into one single audio file.
All the above is done using a DAW - lots of different actions to help you create a final piece of audio.
If That's a DAW, What Is an Audio Editor?
In a digital audio workstation, you often work with lots of different audio items and mix them together. An audio editor works on one file at a time (remember, we're making things simple here).
For example, if you have a voice recording, you open that in an editor. You do all sorts of things to that one file, such as zero in on different areas of the file and adjust the volume up or down. You can slice out bits of audio, speed it up or slow it down, remove noise, add reverb, and dozens of other things.
Eventually, you get the file sounding just the way you want and save/export the edited file.
The editor allows you to quickly do a lot of things to a single audio file, whereas the DAW mixes lots of different audio files together to create something new. That's not an exact definition, but it is a useful description.
The Tasks Often Overlap
Sometimes a DAW can do editing tasks, and some editors (Audacity and Adobe Audition) can do multitrack/DAW tasks. So the line can be pretty blurry sometimes. Adobe Audition is an example of software that actually does both things. There is a toggle control that allows you to work in MultiTrack mode. When you do that, you are basically using Audition as a DAW. Then you can switch to Edit Mode (actually called "Wave Form" mode) for editing. I use Audition as my primary editor and never use its multitrack capabilities.
To muddy the waters even more, TECHNICALLY even the Editing/Wave Form mode in Audition is STILL a DAW! You can record, edit and produce (Save As) wav, mp3 or any number of other audio formats. See why this is a confusing topic?
Audacity can technically do multitrack recording, and can do all 3 DAW things in that it can record, edit and produce. But due to its limited capabilities for serious music production, many folks just refer to it as an editor.
Why Even Use An Editor?
One main reason why I exit my DAW (Reaper is my DAW of choice) to use an external editor (Adobe Audition) is that I often prefer working on one audio item/track/channel at once. It can get confusing and cluttered to work with multiple tracks. Also, editors don't slice up audio waveforms into multiple pieces in a track like DAWs do. So again, you can have a less fractured experience when working with an editor.
Here is just one example. Let's say that in a DAW, I select 5 seconds of audio that I would like to edit. Maybe there is a p-pop there, and I want to apply an EQ effect to correct that. I CAN do this in a DAW. But I would first have to place a slice before and after my p-pop, making that 5-second selection a separate audio item. That's the only way to apply an effect to JUST a small section. Otherwise, the effect would apply to the entire track or audio file.
So I would end up with 3 audio items in my track after just that one edit - the section before the p-pop, the p-pop selection, and the audio after it. Now imagine I had 10 p-pops to fix in this track. I'd have w whole bunch of sliced up bits of audio in my track.
In an editor, you highlight a section, apply the effect and it's done. All the audio is still intact, no matter how many times you do an edit.
What Are Some Examples Of DAWs and Editors?
Remember that I said most digital audio workstations do some editing, and vice versa? Keep that in mind as I present some examples of DAWs and editors here.
There are lots of programs I could add to each list, but those are some of the biggies.
I hope that helps to answer the question "what is a DAW?"
In my course - The Newbies Guide To Audio Recording Awesomeness, I teach how to use Audacity (an editor with some DAW capabilities which is free) and Reaper (a DAW which only costs $60) to create professional quality audio at home.
If you'd like to get started with the step-by-step using an audio editor AND a DAW, check out the free videos below: