1. What is a DAW
  2. Basic tools included in a DAW
  3. Midi Tools
  4. Additional tools in a DAW
  5. Which DAW is best?


What is a DAW

A Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, is a software studio environment that allows users to work with MIDI and VSTs, as well as record, mix, edit and produce audio. A modern DAW is very powerful for a producer as it is a cost-effective and space-saving way of building and linking together all the equipment you would need for a typical music studio, but instead of physical equipment, the tools will be software-based.

All DAWs will include the following tools...


Basic tools included in a DAW

The following is a list of the basic tools included in a DAW, some DAWS will include more than what's listed, and it is rare for a DAW to include less than I've listed below. I will discuss different DAWs available further in this article but if in any doubt, please check the DAW manufacturer website, manual and documentation.


Mixing console

A DAW offers a virtual mixing console which is very similar to a mixing desk found in professional studios. The user can route their digital audio signal inputs and outputs through multiple channels or combine audio channels through a bus. Much like a typical mixing desk, you have the ability to add insert-FX units, route the signal out through auxiliary busses and back into a separate channel, change the input and output gain/volume level, Pan the audio from left to right, and EQ each individual channel.

The mixer will also include a master channel which will sum all the channels to the main audio output. From this channel, you can record your digital audio data to a digital file format such as WAV or MP3 as well as monitor the output through speakers or headphones via your digital-to-analog converters, such as a sound card or audio interface.


Audio sequencer

All DAWs will include an Audio sequencer to cut, copy, time stretch, automate and arrange audio files. The audio sequencer can be described as a timeline for audio where multiple channels can be set up to edit each audio file and layer multiple audio files together.  This is where the track arrangement happens and gives a overview of the whole track.


MIDI sequencer

MIDI is a language used by computers and music production hardware that communicates musical information such as what notes are being played, how long they are played for, as well as expression, such as pitch bend, aftertouch, or velocity. MIDI is data only so doesn't have a sound your computer operating system will normally have preset MIDI sounds built in, so when you play a MIDI file you will still hear the composition however with a MIDI production you would typically run the data through a VST or synthesiser. The MIDI will give the synthesiser compositional data, the sound can then be designed using the parameters within the synthesiser.


MIDI tools

Nearly all modern DAWs include most of the listed MIDI tools, some are more comprehensive than others, but if something sounds useful to you then I would recommend searching the DAWs website or user manual.


Arpeggiator

An arpeggiator is a MIDI tool that creates MIDI messages based on user-selected options. The Arpeggiator will play an arpeggiated pattern of selected chord intervals when a MIDI note is triggered. The notes will play in rapid succession. More advanced arpeggiators will offer more options or control on rhythmic patterns, note patterns and note length.


Chord Tools and Scale Tools

Chord tools are a useful resource for music producers who may struggle with concepts like keys, scales, and chord progressions. Many digital audio workstations (DAW) include some form of music theory and chord progression assistance, but the specific features and capabilities of these tools can vary greatly from one DAW to the next. I have personally used the chord and scale tools in Ableton, Cubase, and the third-party plugin Captain Chords, and found that Captain Chords had the best user experience. Cubase made use of the "circle of fifths," while Ableton used a more math-based scale format, which I personally found to be very useful and flexible.  


Groove templates

Groove Templates help add swing and groove to MIDI and the audio sequencing grid. Most DAWs will include groove templates to add humanised swing or the feel from Hardware drum machines and samplers. You can also find alternative groove templates on the internet and by third-party companies which can enhance this DAW feature.


Audio FX (audio VSTs)

Each digital audio workstation (DAW) has its own set of built-in (VST) plugins, but they are also capable of running third-party VSTs from other companies. The VSTs will always include audio VST but sometimes MIDI VSTs and VST instruments.

Typical Audio FX VSTs found in a DAW includes..

Gate - A gate mutes the signal when the volume falls below a certain level. It is used to eliminate background noise in a track and improve clarity in a mix. The threshold, attack, and release parameters can be adjusted to fine-tune the way the gate opens and closes cutting out unwanted low-volume sounds.

Reverb - A reverb simulates the natural reverberation of sound in a physical space. 

Delay - Delay is an audio effect that involves repeating a sound after a period of time. It can be used to create an echo, or to add depth and complexity to a sound. The length of the delay and the number of repetitions can be adjusted to achieve the desired result. Delay is often used in music production to create rhythmic effects and to add depth to a mix.

Compressor - A compressor is used to control dynamics, it will lower the volume of the loudest parts of the track, which means the average volume of the track can then be raised.

Distortion - There are many different distortion types, generally distortion compresses the signal and adds extra harmonics.


There are many other FX that are equally useful, which can change the audio dynamics, add extra harmonics, take away frequencies and change the stereo image. Audio FX can all be useful but the skill is knowing when to use them. To get clean audio with maximum clarity, I would recommend using these tools, only, when the track or mix needs it. Using multiple audio FX tools in extreme ways can create audio artifacts which can slightly degrade the final mix.



Additional tools in a DAW

DAWs will normally offer different versions, the lighter version can restrict the number of audio channels you can work with whereas the professional version typically comes bundled with samples, virtual instruments, and virtual audio FX.

The following describes additional elements, or tools you can find included in some DAWs, or more professional DAW packages.


Virtual instruments (VSTs)

Virtual Synthesisers are a massive part of music production, they offer the opportunity to create any sound imaginable, limited by only the software, and your sound design knowledge and experience. All DAWs include simple VSTs which all sound great, and are loaded with presets to quickly select a patch that sounds close to the sound you're after. 

Virtual synthesis can be a very deep topic, so I have purposely kept this section brief and only mentioned the most common instruments.


Samplers and Romplers

A sampler is an instrument that can playback samples or loops at different speeds with varying velocities. Modern-day samplers can be much more than that, they often have capabilities similar to those of subtractive synthesizers, allowing users to shape the sound of a sample using envelopes and filters. One key difference between samplers and subtractive synthesizers is that samplers allow users to use any audio file as the source sound, rather than generating sound using oscillators.

A Rompler is a sampler that generally includes multi-velocity recordings designed to give greater and more natural pitch control than using a single sample in a sampler. Romplers are generally included in the majority of DAWs, they have a great ability to give quick but great-sounding results.


Video sequencing compatibility

The only DAW I recommend for syncing audio to video is Nuendo. It's not video editing software but it works great for syncing audio with a video timeline. If you're wanting a more video package then I would recommend a video editing suit, however, if you need to take the audio further then Nuendo is great.


Audio Sample packs

Most DAWs will include samples or loops, especially drum sounds. Sample packs can be very specific in genre or production style, but much like any DAW, they will provide you with the most needed or useful tools for a great quality product.  


MIDI Packs

MIDI packs can be especially useful for those who are new to music theory, rhythm patterns, song arrangement, or drum programming. These packs offer a wealth of material for inspiration and learning, including chord progressions, leads, basslines, polyrhythms, euclidean rhythms, and expertly arranged compositions. By using MIDI packs, you can not only get ideas for your own music but also improve your skills and understanding of these concepts.


Which DAW is best?

There are many different DAWs available, each with its own set of features and capabilities. Some of the most popular DAWs include:

  • Ableton Live
  • FL Studio
  • Logic Pro
  • Pro Tools
  • Cubase
  • Studio One

There is no best DAW. The majority of DAWs give you the fundamental tools to achieve great and similar-sounding results. Having said that, I have used many different DAWs and some have very unique workflows and user interface features. For example, FL Studio is built around a step sequencer which I find great for composing loop-based music and especially drums. I find the arrangement page in Cubase, Nuendo, and Logic easier to track longer arrangements and larger projects. Ableton has a similar arrangement page to Cubase as well as a performance view, which is great for testing samples and working with loops. Ableton graphic interface makes it very easy to set up audio effects and plugins, track the signal path, create and view modulation and attach and assign hardware MIDI devices. 

Personally, I do have a preference, but this is mostly down to my workflow habits and familiarity with certain DAWs. I have used Cubase and Nuendo extensively in my professional life, so I am very familiar with their layouts and keyboard shortcuts, which allows me to work more efficiently. If I had spent more time using Ableton or Logic, I may have developed similar habits and preferences for those programs instead.

The best DAW will depend on your individual needs and preferences. It is worth trying out a few different DAWs to see which is the best for you. Many DAWs offer demos or free trials, so you can test them before making a purchase. It is also worth considering the type of music you are producing and what your budget is, as some DAWs may be more suited to certain genres or may have a higher price point. Ultimately, I have not tested a DAW which couldn't fulfill my production needs, however, some do make the process slightly easier and give a more enjoyable experience. the best DAW is the one you are comfortable using and meets your music production needs.


Conclusion

In conclusion, a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is a software environment that allows users to work with MIDI and VSTs, record, mix, edit, and produce audio. A modern DAW is a cost-effective and space-saving way of building and linking together the equipment needed for a typical music studio, but instead of physical equipment, the tools are software-based. All DAWs include a mixing console, an audio sequencer, and a MIDI sequencer for working with MIDI data. Some DAWs also offer additional tools such as samples, MIDI, and virtual instruments. When choosing a DAW, it is important to try and match your specific needs and preferences to match the features and capabilities of different DAWs.