If you’ve ever had tech-savvy musical friends discussing their craft in relation to ‘doors’ you were probably very confused and desperate to find out what on earth the knobbed guardians of our homes had to do with making music.
They say that a magician never reveals his secrets, but luckily, we’re not magicians. We’re musicians.
Bad puns, poorly written jokes and even worse analogies aside a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is an electronic application or device that has the capability to record, edit and produce audio.
In some cases a DAW could just be a gaming keyboard and Audacity, though this would make a professional sounding recording difficult to achieve.
This technology that allows the chopping and changing of multi tracks with complete precision has changed the way we record music forever.
No longer do you have to get every take right – you can record a song second-by-second, if you so pleased.
While some argue that modern DAWs have detracted from the musical prowess involved in producing songs, their advent has ensured music creation is no longer a process gatekept by those in the industry.
Anybody at any time can possess the power to make music and manipulate audio in ways that were unthinkable just a decade or two ago.
So while the popularity of modern DAWs has meant that there’s a lot more crap music floating around, there’s just as much great music – *cough* yours *cough* – too.
What Can You Use a DAW for
Now, I could tell you that a DAW can be used to work with, edit and produce *inhales deeply* songs, albums, mixes, masters, remixes, podcasts, narrations, film scores, sound effects, radio shows, voice acting, and essentially all types of audio that you can dream of, but this would make for a very boring article.
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, the lesson that is constantly drummed into your head is ‘to show, not tell’. So instead of telling you what a DAW can be used for, how about I show you some of the potential of these now-powerful applications.
Fifteen Things You Can Do With a DAW
1) Record and Arrange Music
The most common reason for getting a DAW is probably the best one too – to make music. A DAW is simply essential if you want professional sounding music. Or if you want unprofessional sounding music.
The ability to multitrack record, cut and paste audio with the simplicity offered by DAWs has revolutionized the way creators and engineers think about music.
Do away with iPhone ‘voice memos’ for your band practice, or having a great idea for a hit stuck in your head with no way of showing it to the world.
Whether you want to record a full studio album with live instruments, arrange an electronic EP, compose an entirely virtual orchestra, or just have a space to save your precious, precious, ideas, a DAW is for you.
This sample track was made using random DAW instruments in under 5 minutes, demonstrating the ease of which recording and arranging music can be accomplished in a DAW.
2) Use Virtual Instruments
Using a DAW, you can have the power of an orchestra at your fingertips, or the might of a 10-thousand-dollar grand piano pumping out your meticulous compositions.
While professional-grade virtual instruments can set you back thousands of dollars (check out instruments like Berlin Strings, Spitfire or Keyscape) there exists innumerable cheap or free options that can provide flavor, fun and new ideas to your compositions.
The strings used in this were free, called Section Strings by Simon Larkin.
This brings us onto the next feature…
3) Use Crazy VSTs
Short for Virtual Studio Technologies, VSTs are a staple of every musician and engineer’s arsenal. As technology has advanced, VSTs have become so powerful that they are beginning to take over analog hardware due to their price, portability and modeling accuracy.
If you ever wanted Tibetan monk overtones in your smash pop hit, look no further than such plugins as ‘Delay Lama’. Be careful though, VSTs can be a trap.
You can spend so much time researching, downloading and trying out new VSTs that you forget why you got a DAW in the first place – to make great music. No amount of money or time spent on VSTs can compensate for hard work and creativity.
Though to be fair, they probably aren’t far off.
Using a basic piano composition, I add two random VST plugins — a rather insane tape emulator and a reverse delay — to almost entirely alter the sound.
Have you ever listened to a song and thought to yourself: ‘Wow those vocals sound great! I wonder what makes them sound so smooth?’ or in general wondered what it was that made ‘x’ sound good?
Well, the answer is invariably reverb.
A song without reverb is a ghastly prospect. It would be dry, unnatural and sound as though it should belong in the discount bin for all of eternity.
Reverb can serve a multitude of purposes – it can liven up a dead recording, help vocals sound more natural, create a sense of space and ambience in a track, or glue everything together.
If you’ve ever wanted to make a song, you’re going to want to use reverb. If you want to use reverb, you’re going to want to get a DAW.
A before and after with and without a simple reverb.
5) Make Songs Without Knowing How to Make Songs
Hear me out. I’m sure a lot of you are proficient pianists (the URL of this site is piano dreamers after all) and technically skilled at composing music of all shapes and sizes.
Some incredible instrumentalists may be able to learn an exuberant Bach piece in less than an hour and recite every chord known to humanity, yet are still unable to piece together a cohesive song.
A huge online community exists for a style of music called ‘plunderphonics’, which involves using samples and piecing together creative material from this.
A truckload of free samples exist online, so commercial tracks can be released by someone without a shred of musical knowledge.
While you may scoff, and huff and say ‘well back in my day you needed TALENT to make a song’, you should try crafting a cohesive and non-generic track using entirely other people’s work. It requires a unique skillset.
And through practice and persistence, this method of composition can actually give theoretical newcomers way of learning how to play an instrument, understand harmonies and theory through visual and auditory prompts.
This was made using a free lo-fi sample pack.
6) You Can Use Autotune
Ahh yes. The infamous autotune. Another controversial addition to my list.
If you want to think using autotune is cheating – that’s fine. But it has been used in nearly every major pop song in the past ten years and its label as a mere ‘correction tool’ is incredibly outdated. The days of T-Pain are over (I should hope).
Autotune can be used for a number of things, from fixing up slightly off-pitch vocals, to completely altering the sound of someone’s singing. Look at artists such as Bon Iver, Kanye West and SOPHIE for innovation in this field.
Using a free vocal sample from Landr, I used pitch correction to create vocal harmonies.
7) Perform a Live Set
While something that’s typically associated with a specific DAW (aptly called ‘Live’), you can perform a live set on literally any DAW with the right preparation.
You can set up entire backing tracks to accompany you playing a piano and vocals, or any other instrument you desire.
Another thing DAWs allow you to do is livestream on platforms like twitch.tv and Facebook, where instead of going through the hassle of booking a gig, getting a manager and lugging your gear to and from the other side of the country, you can perform to your fans without having to leave your room.
Your e-concert is only a few clicks away!
Using a midi controller, pad samples and pre-selected drum loops, this piece was improvised and performed live to an audience of one — me.
8) Use Your Digital/MIDI Keyboard
It would be remiss of me on a site called Piano Dreamers to not mention the potential for using a digital or MIDI keyboard with a DAW.
Though it will differ based on the make of your particular piano/keyboard, many models will offer the versatility of recording both directly (the stock sounds of your digital piano) as well as tracking MIDI (which can be used to play virtual instruments, synths etc.) into a DAW.
MIDI can be used as a tool for live recording virtual instruments, or for constructing layers of a song meticulously and specifically, much like you would when scoring a composition.
I used my digital keyboard to record its native piano sound and then converted and used that same notation with Ableton’s stock piano sound. Both vastly different sounds that could fit into any number of different compositions.
9) Turn a Sample Psychedelic
Psychedelic is a very popular sound of music that is used across all genres, from pop to metal to EDM.
For those wishing to replicate a psychedelic mood for their tracks, a DAW and its plugins can provide them with all the tools required to send their listeners to their trippy demise.
Using a phaser, reverse reverb and an eq filter I turned this simple guitar sample into a spacious, otherworldly texture.
10) Practice an Instrument
This might be something you’ve never considered, but a DAW can be an absolute game-changer when it comes to learning a new instrument.
Not only do they have in-built metronomes to practice rhythm, you are able to record yourself playing which is vital for those that are motivated by visible progression.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell you’re getting better when you can’t hear yourself play – so recording each session is a good way to track progress.
Additionally, you can record and create backing tracks to make you feel like you’re practicing with a full band, add songs you’re trying to learn to compare it with your own recordings, as well as just have a constant reminder of all the effort you’ve put in paying off.
A demonstration of how you can use a DAW to record progression on a song.
11) Remix or Remaster a Song
With many artist’s stems available somewhere online (that is the individual audio files for each instrument) remixing a song for practice or commercial gain has become easier than ever.
While it is 100% illegal to just grab someone’s stems and publish a recreated version of their song without their permission, such illegality doesn’t stop it from happening. Ten seconds on SoundCloud will prove this.
Copyright issues aside, remixing and remastering other’s tracks for non-commercial benefit can be a great exercise for practicing your production skills, honing your creativity and improving pivotal decision-making qualities that go into crafting any piece of art.
To avoid aforementioned copyright issues, I am providing my loyal fans with something I know you’ve been dying to hear – a remix of my international hit ‘Untitled #9’. I know, I’m lost for words too.
Not every use of a DAW is for the creation of music – quite the contrary in fact. DAWs have numerous applications outside of composing your next masterpiece, and can be a vital weapon for those not just in the music industry, but in any industry that involves audio.
This can include podcasters, streamers and film-makers to name a few.
12) Become a Mixing/Mastering Engineer
When you hear the word music, chances are the first thing you think of is ‘song’ or ‘sound’. The reality is, the music industry is a spectrum that involves people of all skillsets.
There are many people love music but lack the drive, know-how or desire to create it, so they turn to engineering. Some simply prefer mixing and mastering to making music. Many do both.
Mixing is the process of taking unedited stems and ‘mixing them down’ into a cohesive, single track. Essentially, the goal of mixing is to get every instrument to sit at a desired volume within a song and avoid clashes among tracks.
Mastering is the process of taking a finished mix and making it ‘radio ready’ by applying holistic, but often subtle changes.
Of course, these are generic definitions, and mixing and mastering are rarely so formulaic. In fact, it can often be a creative process in and of itself.
A DAW is an essential starting point for anyone looking to get into mixing and mastering. Not only will it allow you to practice mixing your own demos, it’ll allow you to use other artist’s work to hone your skills.
One of the best ways to learn about important mixing/mastering topics such as compression, equalization and gain staging is through the practical application of these concepts to real-world songs.
If you’ve ever wanted to become a mixing or mastering engineer professionally, the truth is you NEED a DAW. You simply cannot get by without one.
Going with the theme of rehashing old material, let’s apply some generic mastering tools such as compression, EQ and a limiter to ‘Untitled #9’ and see what we come up with. This song just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it!
13) Tune Instrument
You might think this is a redundant use for a DAW, but it really isn’t. Not everyone can tune by ear, or even by comparing with a tone. Most of all, they’re just convenient.
It’s always a good idea to check that your instrument is in tune before doing anything with it, and DAW’s tuner capabilities make this a delectably simple process.
Additionally, you can use the tuners after something’s been recorded to ensure that certain notes are in tune – not just with vocals, but with literally any instrument. If not, you can use pitch correction software to fix them up if necessary.
I’d include a sample of a guitar being tuned, but you know, will hearing that really make your life any better? SO instead, here’s your favourite song, pitched up 9 semitones for no reason other than because I can.
14) Fix Audio Degradation
Horrific background noises, dastardly glitches and downright malevolent hissing sounds are all problems that can be encountered when working with audio from all mediums.
Fixing it in post is not a good strategy and getting a strong recording should be your top priority, as the above-mentioned issues can prove to be extremely troublesome to amend, even for a seasoned pro.
Those new to the audio restoration game will find themselves having trouble converting such awful sounds into the pristine recordings they might be expecting.
MythBusters once did a segment that suggested the saying ‘you can’t polish a turd’ was actually a myth. But it’s important to remember – even though it’s possible you can polish a turd, ideally, you wouldn’t want to.
I’m no ‘seasoned pro’ at audio restoration, but some basic EQ and noise reduction on this random sample obtained online demonstrates the ability for even a beginner to fix-up sounds that one might assume belong in the garbage bin. Original is first 20 seconds, edited the next 20 seconds.
15) Edit and Produce Podcasts
As the ease of instantly accessible portable entertainment has begun to take over the world, the popularity of podcasts has logically followed suit. Everyone has a podcast about everything these days, and this trend only seems to be going upwards.
Though some mightn’t think it, a well-produced podcast isn’t just recording a bunch of people talking at a studio, pressing an upload button and then reveling with a drink as wads of hundred-dollar notes get sent straight to your home address.
Post-production is a vital element of podcast production.
EQ, compression, de-essing (you know when people Say Stuff SuCH aS thiS and the harSH ‘eSS’ Sound aSSaultS your earS?) and limiting are just some of the elements that need to be fixed up before a podcast (or even a YouTube video, stream etc.) goes live.
Not only this, a DAW allows producers to cut, paste and edit a podcast. That’s right, this means no more excessive ‘ums’, irrelevant tangents or phones ringing throughout your meticulously planned podcast interview!
This before and after piece of audio demonstrates the ability to cut out unwanted sounds and errors in audio recordings such as podcasts. And in case you were wondering, no, I do not have an accent.