DAWs: There Must Be An Easier Way!

Most of us record on computer-based DAWs these days, and why not? There’s a huge range of choices in software platforms, recording interfaces, control surfaces, and plug-ins. With everything that’s available, and given the constant rate of improvement, they seem like the obvious choice.

But there’s been a concurrent development of standalone, hardware-based, all-in-one digital workstations that are the preferred tool of many, and are used in conjunction with — or even instead of — a computer-based system. Standalone multitrack offerings from Korg, Yamaha, Roland, TASCAM, Fostex, Akai, and more continue to be released and updated each year. But can these be considered “legitimate” recording tools? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of working with an all-in-one box?

We’ll start with the obvious disadvantages compared to a computer-based DAW.

--You’re limited to one company’s hardware, software and effects. You can’t use your favorite plug-ins, or take advantage of the huge pool of companies and independent developers who create them. You might get lucky and happen to like the built-in effects, but the chances are remote that you’ll like all of them better than the best computer plug-ins available.

--It’s tough to upgrade the core hardware without buying a whole new box. Although the manufacturer may provide software updates (as well as hardware expansion options), advances in preamps and converters may leave you in the dust in a hurry (although it’s debatable whether standalone boxes become obsolete any faster than computer hardware and software).

--Most all-in-one workstations have small LCD screens that make editing and scrolling through menus tedious. While you can hook up an external monitor to many of them, the display usually doesn’t equal that of computer-based graphics.

--All-in-one boxes generally have few user-serviceable parts. If something goes wrong, your whole “studio” goes in the shop.

However, in addition to these downsides there are a number of advantages to using a standalone workstation. In fact, a few of the “curses” can actually be blessings in disguise.

--An all-in-one box has its own specialized operating system. Because these boxes aren’t designed for general-purpose computing, they make very efficient use of processor power, have very low latency, and tend to be extremely stable.

--Standalone workstations are ideal for live and remote recording. Sure, you can get a laptop interface, but do you really want to leave a fragile laptop, your interface, and a Firewire cable sitting on top of the console at a club full of drunk patrons? I don’t! A standalone multitracker is much more rugged, portable, and sets up in a jiffy. And this ease of use can inspire musicians and engineers to take their rigs to record in places they otherwise wouldn’t have considered, such as a church, warehouse, or other acoustically interesting space that isn’t a permanent studio.

--I actually like the tiny video displays on all-in-one boxes. They minimize the visual distractions during recording and mixing, and force you to focus on the sound and feel. I might hook up a monitor during editing, but that’s about it.

--Most standalone DAWs offer ways to shuttle data back and forth with computers. If you want to track on your standalone box and edit and mix in a computer with all your favorite plug-ins, you can. Sometimes you can even use the mixer section of your standalone box as a control surface for your computer-based DAW. As I’m partial to certain specific computer-based plug-ins and editing features but I like mixing with real faders, I like this option.

--Perhaps most importantly, a standalone box offers simplified workflow for a musician or composer who is doubling as engineer. It’s a real buzzkill if you’re inspired to write a song or record a great performance, but have to go through a million steps to power up all the pieces of your rig and get the tracks armed and ready. With a standalone box you can often be ready to press “record” in a couple of minutes, including adding a few effects in the monitor mix for added inspiration. Many of them even have built-in amp simulators, drum machines, and other composition aids too. There’s a lot to be said for this kind of simplicity, and for many it can make the difference between accomplishing something on a regular basis or not.

Of course, all of these advantages are moot if the thing doesn’t sound good, and the lower range of all-in-one units can’t be expected to sound as good as top-of-the-line DAWs. But certainly, great results can be had from these little machines. They’re a no-brainer for composition and demos, field recordings, and jingles. Some are optimized for specific purposes (such as post production), where the all-in-one might actually make more sense than using a DAW. My own band recorded and mixed its first two independent CD releases entirely on the now ancient (circa 2000) Yamaha AW4416. To enumerate the specific features of each machine is beyond the scope of this article — but is this age of computer mania, be careful not to overlook the advantages that all-in-one machines bring to the process of recording.