Digital audio workstations are mainly divided into two types, which are integrated and software DAW`s. Even though they share common functionalities, I’ll explain them separately.
An integrated DAW consists of a mixing console, control surface, audio converter, and data storage in one device. Integrated DAWs were more popular before commonly available personal computers became powerful enough to run DAW software. As computer power and speed increased and price decreased, the popularity of costly integrated systems with console automation dropped. Systems such as the Orban Audicy became standard production equipment at radio and television stations.
A software DAW is a computer-based software. It possesses 4 basic components: a computer, either a sound card or audio interface, digital audio editing software, and at least one input device for adding or modifying data. This could be as simple as a mouse (if no external instruments are used) or as sophisticated as a piano-style MIDI controller keyboard or automated fader board for mixing track volumes.
The computer acts as a host for the sound card/audio interface. On the other hand, the software provides the interface and functionality for audio editing. The sound card/external audio interface typically converts analog audio signals into digital form, and digital back to analog audio when playing it back; it may also assist in the further processing of the audio. The software controls all related hardware components and provides a user interface to allow for recording, editing, and playback.
Computer-based DAW’s advantages
Computer-based DAW’s have an extensive recording, editing, and playback capabilities (some even have video-related features). For example, musically, they can provide a near-infinite increase in additional tracks to record on, polyphony, and virtual synthesizers or sample-based instruments to use for recording music. You can use a DAW with a sampled string section emulator to add string accompaniment “pads” to a pop song. DAWs can also provide a wide variety of effects, such as reverb, to enhance or change the sounds themselves. Journalists usually use simple smartphone-based DAWs, called Mobile Audio Workstation (MAWs), for recording and editing on location. You can find them on app stores such as the iOS App Store or Google Play.
As software systems, DAWs have many user interfaces. However, generally, they are based on a multitrack tape recorder metaphor, making it easier for recording engineers and musicians already familiar with using tape recorders to become familiar with the new systems. Therefore, computer-based DAWs tend to have a standard layout. It includes transport controls (play, rewind, record, etc.), track controls and a mixer, and a waveform display. Single-track DAWs display only one (mono or stereo form) track at a time. Producers and musicians alike still use the term “track” (from the era of tape-based recording) in DAWs.
Multitrack DAWs support operations on multiple tracks at once. Like a mixing console, each track typically has controls that allow the user to adjust the overall volume, equalization and stereo balance (pan) of the sound on each track. In a traditional recording studio, additional rack-mount processing gear is physically plugged into the audio signal path to add reverb, compression, etc. However, a DAW can also route in software or use audio plug-ins (for example, a VST plugin) to process the sound on a track.