The History of the Computer DAW

In the Beginning

Over the past 30 years computer technology has revolutionized the way we make and listen to music. At the heart of the modern studio is one piece of software which dictates how we record, produce, mix and master audio; the DAW.

What does DAW stand for? It’s short for Digital Audio Workstation.

In the early days of recording there was analog tape. It was convenient during the time because you could cut it with scissors and splice together different sections/takes to create a song. But it had its issues. Good tape was expensive, cheap tape suffered from distortion and hiss, copying from tape to tape led to loss of audio quality and other issues. But at the time this was the way it was done.

Early Development

The late 70s were a turning point as computers become more powerful and digital instruments started to become more viable.

In 1977 Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs developed the Apple II personal computer which offered colour graphics. Later that year Micro Technology Unlimited began shipping music-synthesis software for the Apple II.

A year later, in 1978, SoundStream, a company from Utah created the Digital Editing System. The system consisted of a DEC PDP-11/60 minicomputer which ran a software package called Digital Audio Processor, a 14” hard disk, an oscilloscope for displaying waveforms and a video display unit to allow users to control the system.

The system had Unibus slots to allow input and output of audio from digital as well as analog sources such as tape machines. The effects that the DAP could perform were extremely limited and included things which are very basic by today’s standards such as cross-fades.

That same year the New England Digital Synclavier was developed at Dartmouth College. It was initially a digital audio synthesis instrument, but it eventually morphed into a production environment which featured disk-based recording, synthesis and sampling.

By 1979 Fairlight had created the Series I Computer Musical Instrument (CMI), which helped popularize sampling; the ability to take snippets from pre-recorded sounds/music and then use them in another context/song.

Another pivotal year was 1983. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) was demonstrated publicly for the first time. MIDI enabled input of digital signals and notes from instruments into a computer. The standard has been around for more than 30 years now.

In 1985 Lucasfilm and Convergence Corporation released the SoundDroid workstation which offered sound synthesis, multi-track recording, mixing, special effects and video synchronization as some of its key features.

During the same year, Digidesign released Sound Designer, which enabled sampling and editing of samples from the E-mu Emulator II and Akai S900 keyboards. This was the first step towards what would eventually become Pro Tools.

Various companies popped up in the 80s, each with its own workstation.

  • Lexicon released the Opus and later the Lexicon Studio which was able to time code sync.
  • Sonic Solutions released the NoNoise application which was used for removing noise, clicks, hiss and pops.
  • AMS released the AudioFile; a disk-based audio recorder and editor.
  • WaveFrame released the AudioFrame which offered recording, editing, sound synthesis and mixing capabilities.
  • Twelve Tone Systems released a MIDI sequencer for Microsoft DOS called Cakewalk.
  • Integrated Media Systems introduced the Digital Dyaxis in 1988 which offered two-track recording and editing capabilities.
  • Solid State Logic (SSL) released the ScreenSound which was controlled using a pen and tablet interface.
  • In 1989 German company Steinberg released the first version of Cubase, which at that point was a MIDI sequencer.

Democratization of the DAW

On January 20, 1989 Sound Tools was unveiled by Digidesign at the National Association of Music Merchandisers show. The software was a basic audio editor which allowed non-destructive editing.

In 1991 Sound Tools functionalities were combined with Opcode Studio Vision’s MIDI sequencing capabilities to create the first version of Pro Tools.

Pro Tools was able to process four tracks and sold at $6,000 per copy. Yikes! But this was a huge leap forward in multi-track recording on a computer.

By 1992 the Digital Audio Labs Card D was released. It was a plugin card which came bundled with audio production software. The card essentially transformed an ordinary IBM 286/386-based PC into a digital audio workstation. The card became quite popular.

Around the same time Innovative Quality Software released the Software Audio Workstation or SAW which also became very popular as it offered a cheaper alternative to the DAL Card D’s bundled software, even though SAW also became bundled with the Card D at a later stage.

In 1994 Digidesign unveiled its TDM system which opened up the Pro Tools platform for plug-in developers to incorporate effects that were not native to Pro Tools.

Pro Tools crept into studios, not as a replacement for analog gear but as an additional production tool.

In 1995 Butch Vig used Pro Tools extensively to record and produce Garbage’s debut studio album. Beck’s Grammy Award winning album Odelay which was released in 1996 as well as Björk’s 1997 album Homogenic both used Pro Tools as tools for innovation.

The first US number 1 single that was produced in Pro Tools was Ricky Martin’s 1999 song “Livin La Vida Loca.”

Also in the mid to late 90s Steinberg’s Cubase was maturing at a fast pace. In 1996 Cubase VST 3.0 was released which introduced one of the most important technologies in modern day DAWs; Virtual Studio Technology (VST). Cubase’s user interface also helped popularize it further resulting in its adoption in professional studios.

By the end of the 90s DAWs were being used as the center piece of some studios to control and host hardware instead of just being used as supplementary tools.

Software Synthesizers & the VST Standard

Software synthesizers originated way back, however many software synths were not practical up until around 1997 when Propellerhead created the ReBirth RB338 which was capable of emulating two Roland TB-303 bass synthesizers, a Roland TR-808 drum machine and a Roland TR-909 drum machine all at once. ReBirth was able to run on both Mac and PC and became quite popular among dance musicians.

Around the same time Steinberg developed one of the most important software interfaces in digital audio, the Virtual Studio Technology or VST for short. The VST interface normally runs in a DAW and allows third party effects and instruments to integrate with the DAW thereby increasing its capability.

The VST standard has lead to the growth of the software instrument and effects industry as there are companies who dedicate their time to developing them such as FabFilter, Native Instruments, Waves, iZotope and many others.

One plugin that has had a notable impact on modern music is Antares Auto-Tune. The plugin reared its head in the late 90s on songs such as Cher’s track “Believe” which was released in 1998 as well as Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”. But it wasn’t until 2005 when T-Pain released his debut studio album, “Rappa Ternt Sanga” that the vocal effect really took off and has been used in countless songs since.

On the instrument side plugins such as Lennar Digital Sylenth1, Native Instruments Massive, Xfer Records Serum, reFX Nexus and many others have become extremely popular amongst music producers.

Modern DAWs

The second generation of DAWs started in the late 90s and early 2000s. Many of the DAWs which are now extremely popular released their first iterations around that timeframe.

1997 saw a partial release of Image-Line’s initial version of Fruity Loops, which would later become FL Studio. It started out as a four channel MIDI drum machine but eventually grew into a fully-fledged DAW which has been used by many notable producers including Metro Boomin, Martin Garrix, 9th Wonder, Aviici, Lex Luger and many others.

Sonic Foundry released Acid; a loop-based sequencer which became wildly popular among musicians due to its ability to automatically time-stretch loops. 

Propellerhead Software released Reason 1.0 in December 2000. Part of Reason’s uniqueness was in its GUI which was developed to look like a studio rack with various devices that you could route using virtual cables. This made it an easy GUI to transition to for people who were used to working with rack mounted hardware.

Ableton released Live 1.0 in October 2001. It became apparent quite quickly that the program was great for use in live situations due to its looping abilities, good interface design, and stability. It has since become one of the most popular DAWs especially among electronic musicians and DJs.

By 2002 Apple bought Emagic and along with it came the DAW Notator Logic. Notator Logic initially came out in 1993. Once Apple owned the software they renamed it to Logic (and later Logic Pro), developed it further and it grew into one of the most popular DAWs. But it runs only on Mac.

Cockos released REAPER version 1.0 in August 2006 as shareware. The platform quickly gained popularity as an alternative to Pro Tools and Cubase due to its light-weight nature, flexibility, customizability and huge feature set. It was also one of the cheaper fully-functional DAWs.

Other notable DAWs that gained popularity include Bitwig Studio, Presonus Studio One, Native Instruments Maschine, Tracktion, Renoise, Magix Samplitude, Sonar, Adobe Audition, Mixcraft, MuLab, and Steinberg Nuendo.

The Linux, Free and Open Source Community

The Linux operating system started to gain traction in the late 90s. The advent of desktop environments such as GNOME and KDE made it possible for developers to create audio editing software with a graphical user interface.

The Renoise DAW which was released in 2002 was one of the first DAWs to become available on Linux.

Other big DAW developers didn’t view the Linux platform as a particularly lucrative one so it suffered from lack of software. Not to mention the ecosystem was and still is heavily fragmented due to the hundreds of different Linux distributions available out there.

Due to the lack of software, various developers and communities within the Linux ecosystem sprung up and began to develop several open source DAWs which ran natively on Linux.

The JACK Audio Connection Kit API which was implemented in 2002 became the standard for pro audio software on Linux. JACK enables you to route the audio output of any program to any other program on your system, which makes for some incredibly flexible routing possibilities.

The year 2004 saw the emergence of Linux Multimedia Studio (LMMS) which was developed as a free alternative to FL Studio.

Rose Garden which was designed to be a free alternative to DAWs such as Cubase was released on February 14, 2005. The software has a history dating back to 1993 but version 1.0 only saw the light of day years later. It came with audio and MIDI sequencing capabilities as well as score writing functionalities.

Traverso DAW is another application that gained some popularity on the Linux platform.

Development on another Linux-only DAW Qtractor began in 2005. Unfortunately growth of the software is relatively slow as it’s developed by one man.

One of the most well-known DAWs on Linux is Ardour which was designed to rival the big boys such as Cubase and Pro Tools. It has audio and MIDI sequencing/recording capabilities, supports VST and LADSPA plugins, and a plethora of functions.

Other tools such as the Hydrogen drum machine have become integral parts of the music creation process on Linux.

The Audacity audio editor is another great tool which has become extremely popular even among non-Linux users.

To this day, the Linux ecosystem doesn’t have as huge a selection of software when compared to Windows or Mac but this is changing. Bitwig Studio and Tracktion both have native Linux versions. REAPER’s Linux port is still in the beta stages.

Over the years various Linux distributions which are dedicated to multimedia creation have sprung up. These often have a low latency kernel already installed, which allows you to input audio with minimal delay. They also normally come with a preconfigured instance of JACK as well as various DAWs, audio editors and music creation tools.

Some of these multimedia-centric distributions are:

  • Ubuntu Studio
  • KXStudio
  • AV Linux
  • Apodio

Mobile DAWs

The advent of the smart phone and later modern tablet computers resulted in a new avenue for creating music.

The initial focus of most early mobile apps/mini-DAWs was to allow musicians who are on the move to be able to get out their ideas which could later be fleshed out when they’re in their studio.

However, this quickly developed into fully-fledged DAWs. Apple in particular played a pivotal role with the introduction of the GarageBand app for the iPad and iPhone in March 2011.

Image-Line revealed a mobile version of FL Studio for iOS and Android devices called FL Studio Mobile.

In 2013 Steinberg released Cubasis which was a heavily stripped down version of Cubase for the iPad. It supported MIDI as well as audio tracks.

Caustic is another popular mobile DAW which is easy to use. Its design was inspired by rack mounted hardware in the same manner as Propellerhead Reason.

There are many free and commercial DAW apps for Android and iOS available, many of which are much more powerful than the very early DAWs of the late 80s and mid 90s.

Commercial mobile DAWs are generally much cheaper than their desktop counterparts and have only a fraction of the functionality. However, they are very capable nonetheless.

One of the best illustrations of the potential that mobile DAWs and music creation apps have is the Gorillaz album The Fall¸ which was made entirely on an iPad.

These mobile DAWs have also become live performance tools for some musicians.

Final Thoughts

The computer DAW has been revolutionary. It has made the process of making music more affordable and accessible to the average person. It has created an industry on its own.

And on a personal note, it has changed my life by allowing me to easily express my creative side through music.

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