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DAWs (digital audio workstations)

This guide will help you get a solid understanding of DAWs and their role in the music production process.

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DAWs, short for digital audio workstations, are music production software programs that have a comprehensive set of tools for recording, editing, and producing digital audio. Their ability to function as a complete recording studio has made DAWs an essential tool for musicians, producers, and sound engineers of all levels.

With the combination of a DAW and Neural DSP guitar and bass plugins, you can effortlessly record your guitar or bass playing with world-class tones, whether you’re in a professional studio or the comfort of your own home. This is game-changing for musicians of all levels, as it provides an accessible and convenient way to create high-quality guitar and bass recordings.

This guide will help you get a solid understanding of DAWs and their role in the music production process. Additionally, for an in-depth look at the most popular DAWs and their features, be sure to check out our guide on choosing the best DAW for your needs.

    What is a DAW (digital audio workstation)?

    A DAW (digital audio workstation) is an all-encompassing music production software program that enables you to record, edit, and produce digital audio. With a DAW, you can record multiple tracks from different sources, edit the tracks independently with precision, apply audio effects, and mix and master the final product.

    DAWs can capture audio input from a range of sources, including microphones, guitars, and other instruments. The captured audio input is stored as digital audio files on your hard drive. Additionally, DAWs allow you to work with MIDI data, which can be used to trigger drum machines, hardware synthesizers, and virtual instruments within the DAW.

    In a DAW, you will typically find multiple panels or windows that provide access to various tools and features. The main panel displays the timeline of the project, where you can arrange and edit audio and MIDI clips. Each track is represented on the timeline, and can be edited individually. You can adjust the levels, panning, and effects, such as equalization (EQ), of each track using the mixer panel.

    Additionally, DAWs typically feature a transport panel for controlling playback and recording, a browser for importing audio files, and a plugin window for loading plugins. Although the layout of the interface may vary between different DAWs, the core functionality and tools remain similar across most platforms.

    DAWs have revolutionized modern music production, becoming the standard tool for musicians, producers, and sound engineers, and replacing traditional recording techniques. The versatility and flexibility of DAWs have democratized music production, allowing anyone with a computer to produce professional-grade music.

    There are many DAWs available on the market, with Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, Ableton Live, and REAPER being some of the most commonly used. Check out our guide on choosing the best DAW for your needs for an in-depth look at the most popular DAWs and their features.

    How does a DAW work?

    At the core of most DAWs is the sequencer, which is used to organize and arrange the musical parts of your project in a timeline format. The sequencer can be compared to a spreadsheet, with individual tracks represented as rows and time intervals as columns.

    Each track represents a specific instrument or element of your arrangement and can contain either audio or MIDI data. The performance information for each track, such as recorded audio or MIDI notes, is displayed horizontally in the time interval columns.

    When you play back the project, a vertical line known as the playhead moves through the timeline from left to right. As it reaches an event within a track, the corresponding sound is triggered. If multiple tracks contain events, they will play simultaneously.

    You can rearrange your musical composition within the sequencer by moving, cutting, copying, and pasting your musical parts as needed, or merge them together by using crossfades. Additionally, you can isolate specific parts by muting individual tracks.

    DAWs are equipped with a mixer that lets you adjust the levels and other parameters of individual tracks, as well as route them to various outputs. Each track has its own channel strip that includes controls for adjusting the volume, panning, and effects of the track. The channel strip also features buttons for muting, soloing, and arming the track for recording.

    The master channel strip is responsible for controlling the overall mix of the project. It enables you to adjust the overall volume and apply effects to the entire mix.

    Playback is controlled using the transport controls, which include the standard play, pause, and record buttons, as well as repeat controls for looping, and more.

    Although each DAW has a unique interface and workflow, the essential functions and capabilities are similar across all DAWs.

    What are DAWs used for?

    Recording and editing audio

    Recording and editing audio are the essential functions of DAWs. Audio can be recorded from various sources, such as microphones or instruments, and saved as separate tracks that can be edited independently. Moreover, you can import pre-recorded audio files for further processing and editing, giving you the flexibility to work with any type of audio source, whether it's a live performance or a prerecorded track.

    To record audio in a DAW, you need a source, such as a microphone or an instrument, and an audio interface to connect it to your computer. Once you have your setup ready, you can create a new audio track and start recording. Most DAWs come with a built-in mixer that allows you to adjust the levels and other settings of your input source before recording, ensuring that you get the best possible recording quality.

    After recording, the audio can be edited with precision by cutting, copying, and pasting your clips, moving them around the timeline, and adjusting their timing and pitch. This level of precision makes it possible to refine performances, correct mistakes in the recording, or create complex arrangements of audio clips.

    Applying effects

    DAWs typically come with a wide range of built-in audio effects, such as EQ, compression, reverb, delay, chorus, and many others which can be applied to individual tracks or the entire mix. Additionally, DAWs support the use of third-party plugins, which provide even more options for audio processing and sound design.

    By using audio effects, you can enhance the sonic quality of your recordings, shape the tonal character of individual tracks, and add creative textures and layers to your music. For example, EQ can adjust the frequency balance of a track, making it sound brighter or darker. Compression can be used to control the dynamic range of a track, making it sound more consistent and polished. Reverb and delay can create a sense of space and depth, while chorus can add an ethereal quality to the sound. 

    Effects are powerful tools in music production and provide endless possibilities for sound shaping and experimentation.

    Mixing and mastering audio

    Mixing and mastering are two essential parts of the music production process. Mixing is the process of blending all the individual tracks of a recording into a final stereo mix. It involves adjusting levels, panning, and EQ, among other things, to create a balanced and cohesive sound. The goal of mixing is to make sure that all the elements of the track work together to create an enjoyable listening experience.

    Mastering is the final step in the music production process where the track is polished to sound its best across various listening environments. This involves not only adding final touches like fades and transitions but also balancing the overall tonality, dynamics, and stereo image of the mix to create a cohesive and balanced sound. Additionally, mastering also includes preparing the track for distribution, such as creating a final master that meets the technical requirements of various streaming services.

    Both mixing and mastering can be done within a DAW. Many DAWs come with built-in tools specifically designed for mixing and mastering, such as EQs, compressors, and limiters. However, many producers and sound engineers also choose to use external plugins and hardware to achieve the desired sound.

    Playing and recording with guitar and bass plugins

    For guitarists and bassists, the ability to use guitar and bass plugins and record with them is an essential feature of DAWs. Neural DSP's guitar and bass plugins simulate the sound of amps, cabinets, and pedals within your DAW. This opens up an unlimited range of tonal possibilities, and allows you to record professional-grade guitar and bass sounds from the comfort of your home.

    Recording with guitar and bass plugins is a simple process. Simply create a new audio track, load your plugin on the track, and start recording. Once the recording is complete, the track can be edited and mixed just like any other audio track within the DAW. All you need to use guitar and bass plugins for recording is an audio interface to connect your instrument to your computer. Once you have your audio interface setup, check out our guide on installing plugins to your DAW.

    Neural DSP plugins are compatible with all the major DAWs, including Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Cubase, Ableton Live, REAPER, FL Studio, and Reason, making it easy to incorporate them into your music production workflow. With our plugins and a DAW, you can effortlessly take your guitar and bass recordings to a professional level.

    Working with MIDI

    In addition to recording and editing audio, DAWs enable you to work with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data. MIDI allows digital devices, such as computers, synthesizers, and controllers, to communicate with each other, enabling you to control virtual instruments, drum machines, hardware synthesizers, and other MIDI-capable instruments directly within your DAW.

    You can create MIDI tracks in your DAW to input MIDI data, which can be edited further in the MIDI editor. This data includes notes, velocities, and other performance information that is used to trigger sounds from virtual instruments or external hardware. Similarly to audio clips, MIDI data can also be edited.

    In the MIDI editor, individual notes are usually represented as blocks on a piano roll grid. Within the grid, you are able to edit the pitch, duration, and velocity, as well as countless other parameters of the notes.

    Additionally, DAWs typically come with a variety of MIDI effects and processing tools that allow you to manipulate MIDI data creatively. For example, you can use arpeggiators to automatically generate complex arpeggios from a single chord, or use MIDI quantization to correct the timing of MIDI notes to a specific grid.

    Working with MIDI gives you limitless creative possibilities and a high degree of flexibility.

    Playing and recording virtual instruments

    Virtual instruments are digital versions of musical instruments that can be played and recorded within a DAW. There are many types of virtual instruments available, including pianos, drums, and orchestral instruments. They have become increasingly popular in recent years and are now an essential part of modern music production. With virtual instruments, you can access a wide range of sounds and instruments without needing to physically own them.

    To play and record virtual instruments, you can use an external MIDI keyboard or input the MIDI notes directly into the MIDI editor within your DAW. This makes it possible to create arrangements and compositions with ease.

    In recent years, virtual instruments have become incredibly realistic and can even replicate the nuances and imperfections of traditional instruments. As a result, they have become a staple in modern music production and are widely used in all genres of music.

    Non-musical audio production and sound design

    While DAWs are primarily associated with music production, DAWs can be used to manipulate and shape any type of audio recordings. For example, DAWs are used for recording and editing dialogue for podcasts, audiobooks, or films. Editing tools such as noise reduction, equalization, and compression can be used to clean up dialogue recordings and improve their sound quality.

    Additionally, sound designers use DAWs to create unique sound effects for films, television shows, advertisements, and other multimedia projects, as well as produce other types of non-musical audio, such as field recordings, soundscapes, and foley effects.

    DAW plugins

    Plugins for DAWs are software components that add functionality, and enable you to create, enhance, or analyze audio within your DAW. Plugins are either built-in or third-party. Built-in plugins are included with the DAW and are typically essential tools for recording, editing, and mixing audio. Third-party plugins are created by independent companies and can be integrated into your DAW expanding your toolset beyond the built-in plugins.

    Different types of DAW plugins

    DAW plugins can be broadly categorized into four types: effects, virtual instruments, analyzing and metering plugins, and guitar / bass amp simulator plugins (commonly referred to as guitar / bass plugins).

    DAW effects plugins

    Effects plugins such as reverb, delay, distortion, chorus, and EQ, among others, allow you to manipulate the sound of individual tracks or the overall mix. They add depth, texture, and character to your music.

    Effects plugins are typically used during the mixing and mastering stage of the production process, allowing you to refine the sound of your tracks and create a cohesive final product. Some effects plugins are designed to emulate analog equipment, such as vintage compressors or tape delay units, while others are designed to provide new and unique soundscapes.

    Along with audio effects plugins, there are also MIDI effects plugins that modify the MIDI data controlling virtual instruments in your DAW. Unlike audio effects that modify the sound of the audio signal, MIDI effects alter the MIDI data, which controls how the virtual instruments respond to incoming MIDI signals. MIDI effects can be used to create arpeggiations or chord progressions, or modify the velocity, pitch, or length of individual MIDI notes.

    Virtual instrument plugins

    Virtual instrument plugins either emulate traditional instruments or create entirely new sounds. There are several types of virtual instruments, including synthesizers, samplers, and romplers. Synthesizers generate sounds by manipulating waveforms through various signal processing techniques, while samplers and romplers use pre-recorded audio samples to create sounds by manipulating these samples through various processing methods.

    There is a vast selection of virtual instrument plugins available, from those that replicate pianos, guitars, drums, and orchestral instruments to those that produce unconventional sounds and textures that are difficult to achieve with traditional instruments. As a result, virtual instruments offer endless creative possibilities for musicians and producers.

    Analyzing and metering plugins

    Analyzing and metering plugins are essential tools for music production used for measuring and analyzing various aspects of your audio signal. They provide information about the frequency, level, phase, and stereo image of the audio signal which can be used to make informed decisions during the mixing and mastering stage. They are particularly useful in ensuring that your mix has balanced levels and is free from phase cancellation issues that can negatively affect your final product.

    Some common types of analyzing and metering plugins include spectrum analyzers, which provide a visual representation of the frequency content of the audio signal, and level meters, which display the level of the audio signal in decibels (dB).

    Other plugins may provide more advanced analysis, such as phase correlation meters that measure the phase relationship between the left and right channels of a stereo signal, or loudness meters that provide information about the perceived loudness of the audio signal based on human hearing.

    Guitar / bass amp simulator plugins

    Guitar and bass amp simulator plugins, commonly referred to as guitar / bass plugins replicate the sound of guitar and bass amplifiers and effects pedals. These plugins give you access to a vast range of tonal possibilities within your DAW and enable you to create professional-grade guitar and bass recordings with ease.

    Neural DSP guitar and bass plugins are highly regarded for their exceptional sound quality, ease of use, and versatility, making them a top choice for musicians and producers. Our plugins are used and trusted by renowned artists such as John Petrucci (Dream Theater), Rabea Massaad, Tim Henson (Polyphia), Joe Duplantier (Gojira), Cory Wong, Plini, and countless others. In addition, all of our plugins come with a 14-day free trial, allowing you to try them out risk-free and experience the quality for yourself.

    All you need to get started using guitar and bass plugins is an audio interface to connect your guitar or bass to your computer. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that all of our plugins come with a standalone version, giving you the option to run them without a DAW.

    Plugin formats

    It's important to understand the different plugin formats that are available. Here's an overview of the most common ones:

    VST (Virtual Studio Technology)

    VST, developed by Steinberg in 1996, is one of the most widely used plugin formats in music production. VST plugins are compatible with both Windows and Mac operating systems, although they are more commonly used on Windows.

    VST3 is the latest version of VST and offers improved performance compared to its predecessor VST2. Despite this, many plugin developers continue to use VST2 due to its established and widely compatible format. As a result, plugins are often released in both VST2 and VST3 formats to ensure compatibility with a wider range of systems.

    The term VST has become so ubiquitous in the world of music production that it is often used as a catch-all phrase to describe any type of plugin, regardless of its format. This can create confusion among newcomers to the field since VST is a specific format of plugin, and using the term interchangeably for any type of plugin can lead to misunderstandings.

    AU (AudioUnits)

    AU is a plugin format developed by Apple for use with their macOS operating system. AU plugins are designed to work seamlessly with Apple's Core Audio technology, which is the audio processing system used by macOS. This allows AU plugins to take full advantage of the performance and stability benefits offered by Core Audio, resulting in efficient and stable plugin performance. As a result, AU plugins are often a go-to choice for macOS users. AU is compatible with most DAWs on macOS.

    AAX (Avid Audio eXtension)

    AAX is a plugin format developed by Avid Technology specifically for use with Pro Tools. The AAX format was introduced in 2011 as a replacement for Avid's previous plugin formats, TDM and RTAS. AAX plugins are designed to run efficiently in Pro Tools, offering low latency and high processing performance

    TDM (Time-division Multiplexing)

    TDM is another plugin format developed by Avid Technology for use with their Pro Tools TDM systems. TDM plugins were popular in professional music and post-production studios, but as computer technology advanced, the need for dedicated DSP hardware decreased. As a result, Avid discontinued the TDM platform in favor of AAX plugins that can run natively on both DSP (digital signal processing) hardware and regular computers.

    RTAS (Real-Time Audio Suite)

    RTAS is a plugin format that was used in older versions of Pro Tools. It has been largely replaced by AAX, but some older plugins may still use the RTAS format.

    32 and 64-bit plugins

    Plugins can be either 32-bit or 64-bit, depending on the system architecture of your computer. 64-bit plugins can take advantage of more system memory and offer better performance compared to 32-bit plugins, especially when working with larger projects.

    What do you need to use a DAW?

    To use a DAW, you will need a computer that meets the software's requirements. In addition to a computer, there are a variety of hardware and accessories that can enhance the experience of working with a DAW.

    Audio Interface

    An audio interface is a device that connects musical instruments, microphones, and other audio sources to your computer. It converts analog audio signals into digital data that your computer can record and process, and vice versa. A good quality audio interface provides high-quality audio input and output, reduces latency, and expands the capabilities of your setup. For more information check out our guide on choosing an audio interface and connecting your guitar or bass to your computer.

    Studio monitors and headphones

    Studio monitors and headphones are essential for monitoring audio in a music production environment. Studio monitors are speakers designed to provide an accurate and detailed representation of the audio being played. 

    Headphones are essential for monitoring audio in situations where using speakers is not practical or possible. They provide a more detailed and focused listening experience compared to speakers, allowing you to hear subtle nuances in the audio signal.

    Optional hardware and accessories


    A microphone is essential for capturing audio sources that cannot directly connect to an audio interface. Microphones are commonly used to record vocals, acoustic guitars, and percussion instruments. Most audio interfaces come with at least one built-in preamp and microphone input, allowing you to easily capture audio from a microphone.

    MIDI controller

    A MIDI controller is a hardware device that allows you to interact with your DAW and virtual instruments using MIDI messages. It can include keyboards, drum pads, faders, and other hardware controllers that transmit MIDI data to your DAW. A MIDI controller can greatly enhance your workflow and creative possibilities when working with virtual instruments and MIDI-based music.

    Control surface

    A control surface is a hardware device that allows you to control your DAW using physical faders, knobs, and buttons. It can greatly enhance your workflow and speed up the mixing and editing process. Some control surfaces are designed to mimic the look and feel of traditional mixing consoles, while others are more compact and portable.

    A Brief History of DAWs

    Before the emergence of digital audio workstations (DAWs), audio recording and editing were done using analog tape machines and other hardware. The process was time-consuming, laborious, and often prone to errors that were difficult to correct. To edit audio clips, for example, a method known as tape splicing was used, which involved physically cutting and reassembling the analog audio tape. As technology advanced, engineers began exploring new ways to integrate it into music production. This led to the development of DAWs.

    In the late 1970s, digital recording technology emerged, but it wasn't until the 1980s that the first commercial DAWs appeared. These early DAWs, such as the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI, were complex and expensive systems that required specialized hardware and software. However, they offered new possibilities for music production, including the ability to manipulate audio in ways that were very challenging or even impossible with analog tape.

    The late 1980s and 1990s were a period of rapid innovation in the world of DAWs and key players like Digidesign, Opcodes, and Steinberg introduced significant advances. A major innovation came in 1989 with Digidesign's Sound Tools (the predecessor of Pro Tools) which introduced non-destructive editing. This groundbreaking innovation enabled users to make edits to audio files without altering the original source material. Non-destructive editing represented a major step forward in audio production, as it allowed users to undo changes and make precise adjustments to audio files without having to start from scratch or risk damaging the original recording.

    Released in 1990, Opcode's Studio Vision was the first DAW to combine both audio and MIDI recording and editing. Another significant development came in 1992 with the release of Cubase Audio Falcon for the Atari Falcon computer. It was the first DAW that utilized the computer's built-in DSP (digital signal processing) capabilities, eliminating the need for external hardware. 

    In 1996, Steinberg's release of Cubase VST marked a significant turning point in the evolution of DAWs. It introduced groundbreaking features such as 32 audio tracks, a wide range of integrated effects, and the ability to use third-party effects plugins. However, one of the most revolutionary features was the introduction of Virtual Studio Technology (VST), which allowed users to integrate virtual effect processors and instruments into the digital audio environment. The VST format quickly became a vital component of modern music production and is still widely used today. Cubase VST paved the way for the modern DAW.

    As computer processing power increased, DAWs became more sophisticated and powerful, allowing for complex audio processing, virtual instrument hosting, and extensive automation capabilities. Today, DAWs are a ubiquitous part of the music production landscape and continue to evolve with new features and technologies.

    Next steps

    Now that you have a basic understanding of what a DAW is and what it can do, the next step is to find a DAW that matches your specific needs. Our guide on choosing the best DAW for your needs will help you navigate the features and capabilities of different DAWs to find the one that fits your requirements.

    While there is a learning curve, modern DAWs are designed to be user-friendly and accessible to complete beginners. With some practice, anyone can learn the basics of a DAW and start creating their own music.

    If you are a guitarist or bassist, we have guides to help you get started with guitar and bass plugins. Guitar and bass plugins are a great addition to your music production setup, allowing you to effortlessly record your guitar and bass with professional-grade tones.

    Guides for getting started with plugins

    All our plugins have a 14-day free trial

    Download a free trial of any of our guitar or bass plugins and take your tone to the next level.