A Beginner's Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW)

A Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW) is a computer dedicated to professional sound, either in a recording studio or at a live performance. With the right software, a DAW can replace truck-loads of gear, giving you more capability in much less space. Also, since DAW can stand in for a lot of tradition audio gear, there can be fewer cables, less hassle, and quicker setup. A perfectly good DAW is often just a PC or Mac with a good audio card or interface and pro-audio software, often costing less than that truckload of old-school audio gear. These three advantages – consolidation, convenience, and cost – make a DAW especially attractive to beginner pro-quality sound. If you are just getting started with audio, the cheapest and best place to start in selecting your gear is an affordable but decent DAW setup. With the computer in place and up-and-running, it's easier to then add other equipment to the computer, and go from there.

This is a guide for the complete begginer. It lists the minimum recommended hardware and software for your DAW. From there, you will have enough to start recording and composing, and you can add or upgrade at your own pace from this starting point.

Basic DAW Hardware:

  1. A modern/recent Apple with USB & Firewire ports, along with dozens of gigabytes (GB) of free hard drive space, running at least OS X 10.3.9 or higher.

  2. A USB audio interface with stereo inputs and outputs, like Griffin's iMic

  3. A stereo headset with headphones and a microphone, like the headsets for internet gaming, Skype, or connecting to voice recorders.

  4. Audio adapters to connect 1/4” to stereo, RCA to stereo, etc.

  5. A USB keyboard controller (sometimes called a “master” keyboard) or a MIDI keyboard with a USB-to-MIDI adapter.

For software, GarageBand is perfect. It does everything a begginer needs. And it's cheap, easy-to-use, and sounds good. You have to buy iLife to get GarageBand, unless it was bundled with your Mac originally.

If you don't want to or can't buy iLife to get GarageBand, there a few freeware programs that can substitute:

Finale NotePad – lets you score classical sheet music or guitar tab and print out copies on paper. You can also play back the music like a player piano, but the output is agonizingly quiet. There's no audio control, and it doesn't support even basic song logic, like repeat symbols and accents are both ignored.

Audacity – lets you record and manipulate audio into your computer and run effects on it. Audacity function like a multitrack tape recorder, except you have unlimited tracks, nearly unlimited tape, more control, more effects, and of course the ability to Undo.

Beyond that, most OS X audio & music freeware is complete crap. GarageBand does the job so well, there's little incentive other than the cost of iLife.

Ableton Live Lite or ProTools LE are the next steps up. Both of these are bundled with some audio interfaces and keyboards. If you have the money for a better audio interface or keyboard, spring for those with bundled software. Ableton Live is designed to be used on stage, either for performing music with a computer, or for recording the performance. You can use it as a step-sequencer or an effects processor for live instruments. ProTools LE is the cheap version of ProTools, the de facto standard, the Photoshop if you will, of recording studios.

This hardware will let you input four kinds of music into your DAW:

A Modern Apple Computer

Most Apple computers these days are plenty fast enough for basic audio, and the newer machines can handle pro-audio just fine. The three things you want on your DAW are USB and/or Firewire ports, a hard drive with dozens of gigabytes or free space (or the ability to add more hard drives easily), and the latest version of Mac OS X.

If you want to use a PC instead, there are a few things to think about. First, Windows is notorious for getting infected with viruses or spyware, usually via installing 3rd-party software, visiting a hacked web site accidently, or just by even connecting the PC to the internet. Viruses and spyware can cause Windows to crash or slow performance waaaaaaay down by hogging the CPU and other resources. This is not what you want when you're working with audio. You want to be able to work uninterrupted with hiccups or surprises. Windows by itself is actually fairly reliable, but once it gets a virus or spyware all bets are off, and it's very difficult to guarantee that Windows stay virus free unless you never, ever connect it to the internet. Apple computers, even if you don't like them, simply don't have virus and spyware problems, and they don't require much software maintenance, so long as you have good hardware with stable drivers.

The other reasons to prefer an Apple DAW are software reasons. More on that later. If you already have a PC you want to use as a DAW, go right ahead. Windows has tons of good software for it, and a lot of good freeware. But be careful to keep it uninfected or you could end up with a real headache on your hands.