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Digital Audio Workstations

How did the legendary engineers of the past use them? 



At The Recording Session Vault, it is an important component of our mission to promote an understanding through education about how the great music of the past was created. While part of my mission is to write biographies of the people behind the music, feature articles about the great studios, and also to examine the technologies and to spotlight the companies that created them that have been so crucial to the development of popular music, it is also important to understand how the process of creating music actually worked, as well. With this educational series, we will explore the following topics: how the process of recording worked and how and why the technologies that were so important to that process were utilized. Plus, we will also discuss the products that engineers use to record the great popular music that we have come to love and to cherish. Digital audio workstations are relatively new programs in the world of professional audio recording, but they are probably the most important component in the process of recording music today. In this article, we will explore three important facets of digital audio workstation programs: what is a digital audio workstation, how do you use a digital audio workstation and what do legendary engineers use them for in today’s world of professional music recording. 

What is a digital audio workstation?


At its core, a digital audio workstation is simply a software program that lets you record, edit and mix music in your computer. It requires hardware— such as an interface or a series of converters, so that your sources can be brought into the computer and recorded using the program. It’s really that simple to use. These software programs are actually built around analog console layouts, so if you were an older engineer it is quite easy to understand how to use just about any digital audio workstation software program. Each of the functions that an older engineer would find on an analog console or an analog tape machine can be found in a digital audio workstation software program. Each of these software programs were actually developed for ease of use. These programs are incredibly powerful, not just because of their inherent feature sets, but also because of their allowance for software extensions, or what are referred to as plugins. Plugins are essentially extension programs which allow you to use emulations of the great analog gear that could be found in the racks that were featured in the legendary recording studios of the past and present. Though digital audio workstations had long ago replaced analog tape machines as the dominant medium for professional music recording, among some smaller studios and even among a few major record producers, they have also served to replace their analog consoles as well, as touchscreen devices, interfaces and even summing mixers have become their equipment of choice. Another nod to the growth of the power and importance of digital audio workstations in the professional audio world is the fact that even most of the traditional analog console companies have either incorporated the ability to control a digital audio workstation program, or have been designed to work with one in mind. It has truly been a revolution in the world of professional music recording, but digital audio workstation software programs did not just appear overnight.


I may have been among the first assistant engineers to make the transition from using analog tape to working with a digital audio workstation software program. From the end of the Second World War, until the mid-1980s, analog tape machines were the preferred method of professional music recording. By the mid-1980s, 32-track digital tape machines manufactured by both Mittsubishi and Otari and later, 48-track digital machines manufactured by Sony gained traction and though they never fully replaced 24-track analog tape machines, quite a few producers and engineers used them to record the great music of both the 1980s and the 1990s.  But, both analog and the digital tape machines of the period were limited in their track counts— neither could record beyond 48-tracks and locking machines together so that they would work in unison was often a headache. Plus, the ability to edit music involved ping-ponging, or essentially, bouncing tracks— a trick perfected even early on during the 1960s to try to increase the number of tracks for recording (bouncing involved playing four tracks for example and then recording them onto two tracks on the same machine by placing two open tracks in record while you are playing back the other source material, just as an example). However, locking machines together was not the only headache, with each bounce to tape, in the analog domain, the source material degraded. By the mid-1990s, digital audio workstations appeared for the first time. 


The first major digital audio workstation program, Digidesign’s (now Avid) Pro Tools, caught the professional music recording world by storm in the mid-1990s. I first learned how to use Pro-Tools in the spring of 1997 and at the time, the program was mostly used just for editing and vocal tuning and comping. At the time, the problem was that the accuracy of the signals being recorded into the software programs were not close to the quality of what could be recorded in analog. It all boils down to sample rates and as they improved dramatically over time, so did the use and capability of digital audio workstations. It’s probably simpler to think of sample rates as similar to pixel rates when we are speaking about the sharpness of an image— the more pixels, the sharper and more life-like the image will be— sample rates, work in much the same way, the higher the rate, the sharper and more natural sounding the recording will be. As sample rates rose and interfaces allowed for the ability to reproduce signals with virtually unlimited track counts at the fidelity of analog, it became only a matter of time before digital audio workstations would replace tape-based mediums for professional music recording. By 2010, it was safe to say that digital audio workstations had totally supplanted not just tape-based mediums, but were even changing the nature of the recording business itself. With their small physical footprint, low cost and powerful feature sets (particularly with the onset and development of software plugins), digital audio workstations enabled artists, engineers, musicians and producers to be able to record their work at home and this has led to the closing of quite few major recording facilities around the world. It is safe to say that if you want to become involved in the process of professional music recording, you must know how to use a digital audio workstation. In the next section of this feature article, we will discover how to use a digital audio workstation software program. In the next section, I will use Apple’s GarageBand which is a digital audio workstation as an example and highlight how it is similar to other digital audio workstations which are used in the world of professional music recording. I have taught both Apple’s GarageBand and Logic Pro Studio and Avid’s Pro-Tools, which is the standard program for professional music recording. By the way, if you can learn how to use GarageBand, then you can easily make the transition to working with either Logic Pro Studio or Pro Tools, or even MOTU’s Digital Performer, another prominent digital audio workstation program. 

How do you use a digital audio workstation?


When digital audio workstation programs were first introduced, the idea behind them was to create a software program that could allow engineers who had been working in the world of analog to be able to make the transition to doing their work in the computer. Therefore, when you use a digital audio workstation program, you will still see the elements of the old analog world of music recording— but, with a twist. What made digital audio workstation programs unique from the beginning was the fact that they could be used to edit music in much the same way that you would edit a word processing document. In other words, anyone who could use a computer and had a background in music could use one effectively. However, if you understand the world of music recording and can use a computer then working with a digital audio workstation is a snap.




In order to be able to record into a digital audio workstation, you need an interface that has a microphone preamp and an instrument input. If you have an interface, it is as simple as plugging your microphone into the microphone input (or XLR input), adjusting the preamp gain to your preference and on a track in your software program, selecting the interface channel that you have plugged your microphone or instrument into and putting it into record mode. You will see your source— either your microphone or instrument and then you can easily record it. It is really that simple— it’s not complicated at all. By the way, the process is exactly the same in a major recording studio environment whether you are using Pro-Tools or Logic Pro Studio.




If there was a function that digital audio workstations were built for from the beginning, it was editing audio. It is such an easy process. Simply select your track and an editing window opens for you. You can then use your cursor to select the area of the audio that you wish to edit by simply highlighting it and hitting your delete key. It is really that simple. Please, note that these instructions are for GarageBand, in Pro-Tools, it is even easier— just move your cursor to the area of the track that you wish to edit, select it and press delete. If you want to move a file, just click on it and drag it, or, of course, you can just copy and paste it where you want for it to be located. 




If recording and editing are easy to accomplish in a digital audio workstation, mixing is a pure joy. If you were mixing in the days of analog, you would have to patch in or connect each of the pieces of gear that you wished to use to create the signal chain of processing for your source. In a digital audio workstation, after switching from editing mode to mixing mode, you can select each of your software plugins with ease and apply them to your source. In Pro-Tools, the process is a bit different, but from your auxes or busses (just as you would have used on an analog console) you can insert your software plugins and use the incredible array of processing tools that your program can access. Again, it is really that simple. There is absolutely nothing complicated about using a digital audio workstation program— no matter which program we are discussing. 

What do legendary recording studio engineers use digital audio workstation software programs for in today’s world of music recording?


The answer to this question is also very simple, too. The vast majority of the creative work for a recording studio engineer in today’s world of professional music recording can be done and is accomplished— for the most part, in a digital audio workstation software program. In recent years, interface hardware and software plugin technologies have increased to the point that they sound quite similar to the gear that you would have found only in a major recording studio environment. Due to these tremendous advancements, digital audio workstations have found a home quite literally in the homes of artists, engineers, musicians and producers who due to the portability and high-quality of work that can be done in a digital audio workstation are doing so much more of their work in their own homes. It has had a major side effect, in that, it has also led to quite a few recording studios closing their doors. In fact, most of the engineers that I know quite well split their time between working in a few major studios which are very large-scale operations with multiple rooms and in their home recording studios. Digital audio workstations and state of the art digital interfaces, along with new and enhanced digital monitor controllers have allowed for new surround sound formats and immersive technologies to emerge. These new technologies are simply an extension of the power of digital audio workstations. The legendary recording studio engineers of the past and the great engineers who are working today use digital audio workstations to record or track the vast majority of their work. Such tasks as comping, editing and vocal tuning and sampling are now handled almost exclusively in digital audio workstations. And, of course, more than ever— songs are being mixed entirely in digital audio workstations and now with new touchscreen-enabled technologies such as the Slate Raven, now artists, engineers, musicians and producers can do all of their work in a virtual environment— and many of them do. In fact, I know of a Grammy-Award winning engineer who uses a Slate Raven to do almost all of his work in his home studio. 


There are also quite a few recording studios who have adopted these new technologies— plus, some major console manufacturers also make desks (consoles) which offer full digital audio workstation control such as the Neve Genesys Black and the SSL Duality Delta. As a nod to the importance of the digital audio workstation, other major console manufacturers have also created custom producer's desks within their console frames— both API and Trident offer this as an option for their top-of-the-line consoles, the API Legacy and the API 2448 and the Trident 88C. It should be noted that through their Final Touch Automation System, the following API console models also offer digital audio workstation software control: the 1608, 2448, and their Legacy and Vision console models, plus their BOX console is designed specifically to work in the digital audio workstation environment. 


Digital audio workstation software programs enable you to record, edit and mix music— plus, they also allow you to be able to both compose it and to develop your music in a singular, virtual environment, which is also entirely portable. Though it has not entirely replaced the brilliant, warm sounding consoles, gear and microphones that have been the hallmark of the world of professional music recording and there are some facilities who still offer analog tape machine recording services, digital audio workstations represent the greatest leap forward in the growth of new technologies in the recording industry. Digital audio workstation software programs represent not just the current moment in the world of professional music recording, but because of their development and expandability— the also represent its future possibilities, too.


What are some of the digital audio workstation software programs used by the legendary engineers of the past and the great engineers of today?


The following digital audio workstation software programs represent those that have been used by the legendary recording studio engineers of the past and the very best engineering minds at work in the world of professional music recording today.


Avid— Pro Tools

Apple— Logic Pro Studio

MOTU— Digital Performer

Steinberg— Cubase Pro

Ableton— Live

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