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Is the DAW doomed?

"DAW" is an abbreviation for digital audio workstation; it's basically defined as any computer that can record audio digitally and has features to edit that audio, such as cutting/pasting, EQ, nominalization and so on. And yes, this technically means any PC or laptop can be a DAW as long as it has the right software such as Audacity.

The traditional definition of a DAW heavily leans towards software. I've always thought that odd because "workstation" has always meant multi-function hardware, but for some strange reason everyone thinks DAW = software now when it doesn't and never did.

For example, a "synthesizer workstation" literally means a synth that can perform on-board editing and sequencing functions. The modern Korg Krome-61 is a great example of this, and is in fact called a "workstation" right in its product description.

But of course everyone now thinks workstation means software, i.e. Pro Tools or like software title.

That being said, the real question is...

Is the PC-based software DAW doomed?

Yeah, I think this is true for three reasons.

First, the PC is dying, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just fooling themselves.

With self-contained multitrack recorders like the Tascam DP-008 that have direct-in 1/4-inch and XLR inputs (which is something the PC definitely does not have), this makes the PC-type DAW inconvenient at best.

Third - and this is the biggie - DAW software is way too difficult for most people to operate (it's so complicated that even seasoned pros hate them) and you can't justify the cost for a software DAW either.

Here's what that means in plain English:

To run Avid Pro Tools, you need a bitchin' fast PC or a bitchin' fast Mac, so that's at least $1,300 right there (regardless of whether it's Mac or PC). Then after that you need the Pro Tools software and interface. That's another $1,000...

...and that's before you even spent anything on guitar effects.

So yeah, you've spent $2,300 even before recording your first track.

It should be no wonder why so many people illegally download DAW software via torrent to save anywhere from $300 to $600, but... could you use it? Doubtful. You would think that "pro" software would mean "easy-to-use". Wrong. "Pro" means "powerful", meaning "insanely difficult to use".

Let's just say for the moment you have a fast PC, and illegally downloaded pro-grade DAW software to do your recording stuff. You're feeling good because you just saved a ton of money by stealing the software, but then you go to actually use that software, and.. whoa.. you're presented with this ridiculous amount of options when all you want to do is mash the RECORD button and, you know, RECORD SOMETHING.

Let's compare this to the DP-008 I mentioned above.

Yeah, you have to spend the money to get the DP-008, however it's well under 300 bucks. And even if you didn't get the DP-008 specifically, there are plenty of other multitrack recorders out there that are available for cheap. The older Fostex MR-8 for example is well under $200 new. I personally don't recommend that one because it uses CompactFlash cards, but the point it that it's out there and cheap.

Here's the difference between the standalone multitrack recorder and a PC DAW:

With the DAW, it will take you at least 3 days if not a week before you can figure out how to lay down a few tracks in one of those with any sort of effectiveness (meaning quickly and easily with no nonsense involved).

With the standalone recorder, you're recording music easily the day you get it. Plug in, arm a track, record, finish, disarm track 1, arm track 2, record, finish, etc. You're doing the recording thing and getting it done with no problem at all and with very little learning curve.

What about the tablet?

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That's an option, but it hasn't matured enough to the point where it's as easy as a multitrack recorder...

...but it is getting cheaper.

A good example of this is the Alesis iO Dock. The price is fair for what it is, and it can turn an iPad into a pretty good audio workstation. But of course it's not compatible with iPads that have a "Lightning" connector...

...and that brings up another point I want to make concerning tablets. Every time a tablet design change comes along, something in your audio workstation setup will then suddenly be obsolete and totally incompatible with newer hardware.

Difficulty level ruined the PC/Mac-based DAW

Using a PC or Mac based DAW was at one point not that difficult to use. I'll admit they've never been totally easy as they were always designed for audio professionals, but the deal is that DAWs these days are difficult for the sake of being difficult just to make a sale.

The best example of how much a PC/Mac-based DAW sucks is what happens when you throw one in front of a 16-year-old kid. And bear in mind that teens today are very technically adept, meaning they know a lot about computers, so it's not like today's teens don't know their way around computer environments.

Let's say I took a brand new Mac loaded with Pro Tools and the proper audio interface, plopped it in front of a 16-year-old, provided him nothing but the owner's manual and said, "Record a few tracks with this." That teen wouldn't have the first clue what to do and be very intimidated by that setup. And even if that kid was the nerdiest of teenage guitar players, it would take him a good 2 to 4 hours before he actually got the thing figured out on a very basic level.

Now take the same situation, but instead of the Mac and Pro Tools, I plopped a DP-008 in front of him, its owner's manual and a set of headphones (you'd need that to hear the 008's output). How long it would take for him to lay down a few tracks? About 15 minutes. Maybe less.

Here's why: The 008 or like multitrack recorder makes it very obvious how to actually record something. Arm a track and a red light illuminates. Disarm a track, the light goes out. How to adjust levels? There are physical knobs right in front of you which makes that super-easy to do. That teen would very easily be able to figure out the 008, get stuff done and done fast. In fact, it would get done so fast that he'd probably say, "Yeah, that expensive Mac with Pro Tools is nice and all that, but... the Tascam is just way easier to use. And I can use it at band rehearsal too which is pretty cool."

When you compare digital to what was around before it...

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The point of digital audio recording is simply this: To record audio in the "cleanest" and most convenient way possible.

But the only way to actually do that is with a little digital multitrack recorder.

I'll explain.

Imagine for a moment it's 1975 and you have absolutely no options to record anything digitally because the technology wasn't available yet. So how do you record anything that would sound any good? You would use a reel-to-reel machine like the Ampex 354 using 1/2-inch tape; this was a huge, bulky unit.

To use something like the Ampex 354 required a good amount of knowledge. You had to know how to load the tape properly, know how to have your levels set absolutely right before laying down a track (remember, no "undo" here!), and so on.

In other words, using a reel-to-reel multitrack system back in the day was difficult, expensive and you really had to know what you were doing so you didn't waste a bunch of time and money.

Fast-forward 25 years to 2000.

Digital recording has been around since the 1990s by this point, and is now available and dirt cheap compared to the old reel-to-reel method. Anyone with a moderately-powered PC or Mac can now use a "virtual studio" to do the same stuff the reels could, plus a whole lot more. Now you can punch-in/out of tracks with ease, directly edit audio after being recorded since it was all data and not on physical slack, and even write your finalized mixdowns to MP3 or CD. Things were going great.

Fast-forward to the late 2000s (around 2008).

Software DAWs have been around for a while, but they have "progressed" to the point where any sense of it being easy-to-use is gone. The companies who make DAW software titles realized that they are running out of reasons to release new versions, so they keep adding in crap that nobody needs, labeling it as "innovative" and then selling it to the masses. Those that didn't know any better kept buying this crap.

Now in 2013:

There is no such thing as a pro-grade DAW software title that's easy-to-use anymore. Every one of them is - by design, mind you - insanely difficult to use. One of the only software DAWs left that's not a total pain in the ass to use is a "consumer-grade" title called GarageBand for the Mac. But of course the Mac doesn't have anything on it to plug a guitar into, so you either have to spend extra for a proper audio interface, or optionally use a USB-equipped guitar like the Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III - assuming you even like that guitar.

Taking all of the above into consideration concerning DAWs, ask yourself this question:

Are we better off now compared to what we had before?

Concerning the software DAW, no we're not. Concerning the standalone recorder, yes we are.

When you talk about progress, you have to compare what we have now to what we had before.

Is a PC/Mac-based DAW easier to use than reel-to-reel? No.

Can you record more quickly with a PC/Mac-based DAW compared to reel-to-reel? No.

Is the cost of a modern pro-grade PC/Mac-based DAW cheaper and better (keyword there) than reel-to-reel was? No.

The only place for a PC/Mac-based DAW these days is in a professional studio, because the guys and gals running one of those are the only ones who can use it properly (they probably went to school and took classes on it) and make their money back (maybe) for what they spent on the stupid thing.

Conversely, the standalone digital multitrack recorder is exactly where we should be with modern digital multitrack audio recording. It's small, easy, quick to learn and most importantly your recordings sound good, which is to say they sound better than they would with the old analog rigs.

Any guitar player can learn a DP-008 or like recorder in a few minutes and record to it easily; that is progress; that is the promise of modern technology working for us and not us for it. We went from the big, bulky, difficult-to-use reel-to-reel machines of before and condensed that into a small super-lightweight rectangle with buttons and knobs on it and can even run that rectangle off AA batteries.

As for the PC/Mac-based DAW, leave that to the guys in the pro studios. They can afford it and moreover actually know how to use those things. For the rest of us, stick to the little digital multitrack recorders; you'll be glad you did.

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