Ok, so technically your daw, or your digital audio workstation, encompasses your interface, computer and software. However, in common conversation and reference, the DAW is the recording software. If someone asked me “what daw do I use”? I’ll answer “Logic”
The recording software (or daw) captures the incoming audio signals, and facilitates the playback as more tracks are recorded and layered on top. It will display each recording in a way that makes it easy to arrange and edit individual audio clips. Within the daw, you can edit the sound of each individual track, cut, copy, paste and drag tracks to rearrange a song, and playback all the tracks together to hear the whole song. You can also add effects such as reverb, compression and eq on each track to sculpt the final outcome of a song. So you can do the recording, the mixing, and the mastering all in one program.
Many daws also come with virtual instruments. This could be like a piano, or a violin, or any instrument really. You would have a midi keyboard attached to the computer, and when you select the desired instrument, you play that instrument on the keyboard.
Also part of the daw is midi recording and editing. This is comes standard in any purchasable recording software. It gives you what’s called a piano roll which displays the recorded midi information, and it is very easy and intuitive to edit the midi.
Some daws come with a library of loops. These are pre recorded tracks that you can combine into an arrangement, a drum beat, or a melody. There are also many 3rd party options for purchasing loops. The next lesson, 2.6, has more info about this.
The daw does not affect the sound quality of any individual track, however any processing that is done by the daw, such as summing or instantiated effects, the daw will impart its own sound based on the algorithm, and bit depth. Any of the top daws are on par with their summing, and can accept 3rd party plugins instead of using their native plugins that they come with, so it’s not really an issue. Pay attention to the operating bit depth of the software you choose though, because 64 bit will sound better than 32 bit, more noticeably on larger projects.
The most popular recording program is protocols. It is the industry standard used my most professionals. If you have spent tens of thousands of dollars on your studio, there’s a good chance that protocols is the right choice for you. For the average home studio though, I don’t recommend protools. The main reason is because they set limitations in the software, kind of like a trial version, that you can only unlock by using their proprietary recording interface, and their hardware signal processors. So if you are using a recording interface by apogee, metric halo, antelope, UAD... or anybody other than avid, you can only use a limited version of protools, which is still very expensive. That’s a deal breaker for me. The Avid studio gear is really good, but is very expensive. So, in my opinion, protools is only really worth it if you go all in with avid gear in a high end studio.
One potentially big factor in determining which daw software you decide to use is if you are on a Mac or pc. If you are on a Mac, I would recommend you use GarageBand, which is free and comes with the Mac operating system. If you outgrow GarageBand, then move up to Logic Pro. Logic Pro is a full featured recording and editing program that comes with lots of plugins, instruments, samples and loops.
If you are on a pc, GarageBand and Logic Pro won’t work, but there are many choices. My personal favourite is Cockos Reaper, because of its low price and excellent tutorial videos. If you want something more powerful, I would probably go with Cubase.
each daw has its own summing algorithm, so some might have better sound quality when playing back multiple tracks simultaneously. Also, most daws have effects which can be instantiated as plugins. Some daws offer better quality effects than others. So on a single track, with no processing, the daw has no effect on the sound quality, but when you start combining tracks and adding effects, there are sound quality considerations. The biggest indicator of sound quality within a daw is its operating bit depth. Just like a digital cameras resolution is measured in megapixels, well the processing resolution of a daw is measured in bits, and a higher number is better. Most of today’s daws are operating at 64 bit, and the difference in their summing is negligible, but some of the free, or lower quality daws might have noticeably inferior summing.
Also, some daws have more editing capabilities than others.