Los Senderos Studio
Digital Audio Workstations
 Issue 81 June 2016 
DAW Mixer

Words from the Glossary

This month we take a look at digital audio workstations.

This month's terms: digital audio workstation, in the box, out of the box, outboard, plugin, hybrid, Pro Tools.
(Note: Click on the term to view its definition in the glossary.)

Digital Audio Workstations

Before the days of digital music, recording studios were all analog and used multitrack tape recorders and big mixing consoles. However, once computers became fast enough and memories became large enough, it became practical to convert audio into digital signals. Although the software used in recording studios in the early days were crude by today's standards, they were quite remarkable.

The software used to make recordings is called a digital audio workstation or DAW. In a sense it takes the place of the tape machine and console, although consoles are still used in some of the larger studios. This is as much by choice and habit as a DAW can fill that function. In fact, many DAWs have a screen that looks very much like a console. (See the image at the top of the page.) However, DAWs can do so much more.

One of the things that makes using digital music so attractive is the editing functions. Just like a word processor, you can cut and paste, copy, add, delete, move, do, undo, and many more things to a digital audio file. When recording tape was used, such editing could be done, but not so easily. It often involved recording a track to a new tape and painstakingly cutting and splicing the tape, a very tedious process.

Pro Tools Edit
Pro Tools Edit Screen

Another thing DAWs can do is signal processing—the manipulation of audio files to adjust equilization, add delay, reverb, and other effects. Such effects were also used in the days of tape recording. These studios had many banks of processors used for this purpose. In fact, in the early days of DAWs, most studios continued to used the hardware processors they already had. This is a process called out of the box (OTB). It involves sending a signal from the DAW to an outboard piece of hardware, adding the effect and sending the signal back to the DAW. The term outboard is used to distinguish such hardware from its software equivalent known as a plugin.

A plugin is software added to a track to impart a particular effect. In the early days of DAWs, some plugins were not very good. That is the reason engineers operated out of the box. Today, however, many plugins provide excellent results. Many of them emulate famous pieces of equipment and do a very good job of sounding like the original hardware. They have become so good that many engineers now operate entirely in the box (ITB)—that is, they use only the plugins they have in their DAWs.

While some engineers operate totally in the box or totally out of the box, there are many who still do both. This is called a hybrid operation. After all, if you have an expensive piece of hardware in the studio, you probably want to continue to use it. However, operating in the box no longer has the stigma it once did. The plugins are that good.

Although most commercial studios use Pro Tools as their DAW, many new DAWS have come on the market in the last several years, some with features that have made some studios make the switch. However, Pro Tools still remains the unofficial standard in most studios.

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