A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is fast becoming as essential a part of a guitarist’s gear list as picks and strings. From the early days of Tascam’s cassette-based “PortaStudio” line, home recording has appealed to professional and semi-pro guitarists who want to compose and record demos, masters or just to hear themselves layering parts on songs.
Once the leap was made from analog cassette versions to digital machines like the Roland VS series, ease-of-use, audio quality, portability and lower price points put recording technology onto the desktops of bedroom guitarists. Modern DAWs like Avid’s Pro Tools 8, Steinberg’s Cubase 5, Ableton’s Live 8, Cakewalk’s Sonor and even low-cost applications like Reaper or Apple’s Garageband offer laptop or desktop recording studios beyond the dreams of any musician from 20 years ago.
While all of the major DAWs do the basic tasks: record and edit audio, process the audio with various plugins and end up with a mixed final stereo track, guitarists might find certain DAWs to be better for them based on workflow. Nearly all manufacturers offer a free trial period, so I suggest if you are in the market for a new DAW, download the demos and try them out in your room, working in the fashion you prefer. Music stores can be great environments to try out gear, but recording is a processing of trial and error, of re-doing and re-recording and editing, something that a limited time in a retail store can’t duplicate.
Here’s a run-down of a few of the major DAWs and their features:
Pro Tools. The industry standard of DAWs, Pro Tools has been the market leader due to early saturation of the market and the relatively high cost of the top-end versions. Once studios invested in the program, it was costly to abandon it for any other, and there have not been many reasons to do so anyway. Now in version 8, Pro Tools has three levels, Pro Tools HD, which is the top of the line and is found in most major studios, Pro Tools LE and Pro Tools M-Powered, both cut-down versions that eliminate a few of the features of HD. All of the Pro Tools versions require proprietary hardware to run.
Cubase. Parent company Steinberg was acquired by Yamaha a few years ago and since then, Cubase has been steadily upgraded and is considered a stable and easy-to-use DAW, with excellent MIDI implementation. With version 5, Cubase includes REVerence - a convolution reverb, Groove Agent drum machine and expanded loop tools.
Live. Ableton’s Alt-DAW has morphed into being a full-fledged program with great MIDI and audio workflow. Live is designed to be used on stage as well as in the studio, and its unique take on how audio can be manipulated is worth checking out.