The earliest attempts at creating digital audio workstations in the 1970s and 80s were limited by factors such as the high price of storage, and the vastly slower processing and disk speeds of the time. But in the face of this, the company Soundstream (who previously came to prominence in the early days of digital audio by releasing one of the first commercially available digital audio tape recorders in 1977), built what could be considered the first digital audio workstation in 1978, using some of the most current computer hardware of the time. The Digital Editing System, as Soundstream called it, consisted of a DEC PDP-11/60 minicomputer running a custom software package called DAP (Digital Audio Processor), a Braegen 14"-platter hard disk drive, a storage oscilloscope to display audio waveforms to be edited, a video display terminal for controlling the system, and interface cards that plugged into the PDP-11's Unibus slots (the Digital Audio Interface, or DAI) that provided analog and digital audio input and output for interfacing to both Soundstream's digital recorders and conventional analog tape recorders as well. The DAP software could perform edits to the audio recorded on the system's hard disks, as well as provide effects such as crossfades.
By the late 1980s, a number of consumer level computers such as the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga began to have enough power to handle the task of digital audio editing. Macromedia's Soundedit, with Microdeal's Replay Professional and Digidesign's "Sound Tools" and "Sound Designer" were used to edit audio samples for sampling keyboards like the E-mu Emulator II and the Akai S900, and soon went on to be used for simple two track audio editing and CD mastering purposes. In 1994, a company in California called OSC produced a 4 track editing-recorder application called DECK that ran on Digidesign's hardware system, and which was employed in the production of The Residents' "Freakshow" LP; this combination of audio software and hardware was one of the earliest examples of what we today would call a DAW.
Many major recording studios finally "went digital" after Digidesign introduced its Pro Tools software, modelled after the traditional method and signal flow present in almost all analog recording devices. At this time, most of the DAWs were Apple Mac based (e.g. Pro Tools, Studer Dyaxis, Sonic Solutions). Around 1992, the first Windows based DAWs started to emerge from companies such as Soundscape Digital Technology (which was later acquired by Mackie then by SSL), SADiE, Echo Digital Audio and Spectral Synthesis. All the systems at this point used dedicated hardware for their audio processing.
In 1993, German company Steinberg released Cubase Audio on Atari Falcon 030. This version brings DSP built-in effects with 8-tracks audio recording & playback using only native hardware. It was an incredible solution for the price at this time.
The first Windows based software-only product, introduced in 1993, was Samplitude Studio (which already existed in 1992 as an audio editor for the Commodore Amiga).
In 1996, Steinberg introduced Cubase VST, which could record and play back up to 32 tracks of digital audio on an Apple Macintosh without need of any external DSP hardware. Cubase not only modelled a tape-like interface for recording and editing, but also modelled the entire mixing desk and effects rack common in analog studios. This revolutionised the DAW world, both in features and price tag, and was quickly imitated by most other contemporary DAW systems.
Read more about this topic: Digital Audio Workstation
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