What is a digital audio workstation?

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What is a digital audio workstation?

Computer-based recording and editing systems are often referred to as digital audio workstations, or DAWs. DAWs are made up of the following components: a computer running a music production software program such as Ableton Live; an external hard drive to store your library and audio files; a microphone, which can capture a sound from a singer or instrument, and convert it to an electrical signal; an audio interface, which converts the audio from an electrical signal to a digital signal, and then so we can listen to the audio coming out of the computer, it converts the signal from digital back to electrical; a MIDI keyboard controller, which will allow you to send MIDI signals representing the notes and chords you play to Ableton Live; and headphones or speakers, which convert the electrical signal back to sound pressure waves, so that you can hear and evaluate your music.

If you don't currently own some of these components, and are considering purchasing one or more of them to complement your home recording setup, here are some things you should consider. Most of the processing required by a music production application like Ableton Live is handled by the computer. So the experience will be more enjoyable if you use a fast computer with at least 4 gigabytes of RAM. Also, your system will run more efficiently if you store and access your Live projects and sets on a separate drive from where your operating system and applications are stored. This additional drive can be an internal drive, but you'll probably find it more convenient to use an external drive.

I'd recommend using a FireWire drive, but USB 2 drives can also be used. In either case, use a drive with at least a 7,200 RPM spin rate. Ableton Live will run without an external audio interface--instead using the computers built-in converters. However, these converters are not nearly as good as those found in an audio interface. As a result, your recordings will not be as good. The available audio interfaces have many options. For example, some interfaces connect to the computer using a USB cable. Until recently, most of these were USB 1.0, which has a transfer rate of around 10 megabits per second.

This is slow for audio, and so most of these interfaces only offer a maximum of two simultaneous inputs, and a maximum of 48-kilohertz sampling rate. Both the newer USB 2.0 and FireWire interfaces are a better choice in my opinion. Both offer sampling rates of up to 96 kilohertz, two to eight simultaneous inputs, and an overall more robust performance. Look for an interface that offers instrument and line inputs in addition to microphone inputs. You'll probably appreciate options like multiple headphone outputs, built-in MIDI interface, guitar tuner, and effects.

If you're looking to purchase a new MIDI controller, there are several controllers that are designed to work specifically with Live. A list of those controllers is available on the Ableton web site at These native controllers offer remote control over launching scenes and clips, instruments and effects, as well as mixer controls. Most of these devices have knobs that map to Live macros using instant mapping, which will greatly enhance your automation and your live performances. Purchasing a microphone can be a confusing experience.

It's best to focus on a microphone purchase on a very specific choice. For example, a small diaphragm condenser microphone is often the mic of choice for recording acoustic guitars. Dynamic microphones are typically used to record guitar amps. Large diaphragm mics are often best for recording vocals. Before you purchase a microphone, do some research, and if possible, borrow or rent before you buy. Also, if you're recording vocals, I'd suggest purchasing a pop filter. They help to knock down those nasty plosive consonants, and can also protect the microphone.

Purchasing speakers and headphones are a lot like microphones; there are so many to choose from. In either case, you want to use reference headphones or speakers. They accurately reproduce sound without the coloration that you typically get in similar consumer devices. Again, research is important. Auditioning speakers with recordings you know well is critical. In the end, you want to be able to record and mix your projects, knowing that what you're hearing will transfer to other playback systems. Now that you understand the important issues in choosing equipment for a home recording studio, you can begin assembling the necessary devices.

In the next video, we'll talk about connecting equipment, and the best way to power on and off your home studio.

What is a digital audio workstation?
Video duration: 4m 13s 7h 20m Beginner


What is a digital audio workstation? provides you with in-depth training on Audio + Music. Taught by Rick Schmunk as part of the Ableton Live 8 Essential Training

Audio + Music
Ableton Live
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