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Digital Subscriptions > MusicTech > July 17 > The Complete Guide To DAWs

The Complete Guide To DAWs

Welcome to the all-new MusicTech Beginner’s Section – if you’re new to the world of music production, then this is where you need to be. We open up our first instalment with a guide to the very centre of the music-making universe – the Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW…

MT Beginner’s Guide

Awarm welcome to the first in a regular series of features aimed specifically at newcomers to music production. In every article, we’ll cover a specific subject in music making with a view to explaining it from a very basic level, and will get you up and running with simple step-by-step guides. We’ll also feature Buyer’s Guides – and each month, we’ll suggest a music-production starter setup for different budgets, genres or a specific task.

So, where better to kick things off than with the central component of today’s recording studio, the Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW)?

From sequencer to recorder

DAWs used to be known as sequencers: software (or hardware) that simply allowed you to sequence or arrange notes together to make tunes. They became popular on home computers like the Atari ST or Commodore Amiga, recording digital note information in terms of its note length and pitch. The digital information was – and still is, for that matter – recorded via a standard called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). You play a note on a MIDI keyboard, and that note’s position (key) and length is recorded into your sequencer. Simple! These notes could then be played back to trigger sounds from inside the computer (back then, it was sounds from the computer chips) or outside, via sound modules. All recording was done by way of a set of ‘transport controls’ for recording, playing back, fast-forwarding and rewinding, much like the tape or video recorders of the time.

In the late 80s, audio was added to this sequencing capability, so you could take sounds in from the outside world – vocals, guitars and so on – and blend them with the MIDI notes. By the end of the 90s, computers became powerful enough to run their own instruments which became ‘plug-in’ instruments for sequencers, so the software could trigger complex software emulations of real instruments (known as virtual instruments), or software synthesisers capable of producing sounds never previously available. Because of all of this extra functionality and the ability to handle audio, the term ‘sequencer’ gave way to the more all-encompassing term ‘Digital Audio Workstation’, or DAW for short.

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