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The DAW market diverges

Software-based interfaces are becoming an industry standard for audio production, making upgrades easier. Pro Tools photo courtesy of Digidesign.

At a time when convergence seems to be the operative notion in the digital domain, the digital audio workstation (DAW) market has experienced a significant divergence — split between a hardware- and software-based approach. While last October's AES revealed that the software component has become more pervasive, the show displayed a wealth of both types of systems.

A bit of context is useful. The last two years produced a slew of acquisitions by major brand names of audio software programs:

  • Adobe purchased Syntrillium.
  • Pinnacle Systems acquired Steinberg Media Technologies.
  • Sony Pictures DTV purchased Sonic Foundry.
  • Apple acquired Emagic.

Hardware systems have responded by getting smaller, faster, cheaper and better. It also has lubricated its upgrade paths — perhaps the biggest drawback to dedicated hardware systems in the past.

With a hardware-based system, mixers only have to do a major systems upgrade about every six years.

The interface is the consistent point of contention in the software versus hardware debate. Hardware-based systems have a familiar, dependable operator interface. If you're doing a relatively limited set of tasks, such as mixing sound for a sitcom, a hardware system works well. It dedicates movements for every task, which makes the process incredibly simple and allows you to focus on the task at hand, not on pull-down menus and mouse moves. Mixers who use hardware-based systems don't need a lot of upgrades.

But software-based systems residing on host computers perform better in another way that is critical for contemporary facility operations. Computers connect more easily to internal network systems like LANs, making it easier to move work around and through facilities, and to connect to increasingly large SFX and other audio databases. It's also easier to burn nonlinear media such as CDs and DVDs, which act as backup media for software-based systems.

This underscores another critical difference between the two domains. The software-based DAW is increasingly diffused with what has become a universe of third-party plug-in processors in which hardware-based systems simply can't participate. Like anything to do with digital, it's a double-edged sword.

Roy Latham, a mixer who has done much work on long-form animated projects, says he transitioned to Pro Tools primarily for the wide variety of plug-ins, many of which mimic the operation of vintage (and expensive) hardware-based processors. But he acknowledges that managing the myriad bundles of plug-ins can become a career in and of itself.

But third-party development is extending well beyond DSP plug-ins. The more complex operational aspects of Pro Tools can be integrated with QuickKeys software and a Kensington four-button TurboMouse.

The case can be made strongly for hardware- or software-based DAWs. The more specific the task and the more it keeps its operations within certain parameters like mixing, the better the hardware-based approach might be. When post projects require a lot of flexibility, or there is a constant need for multiple signal processors, the software approach seems to come out ahead.

Surprisingly, it might be a perceptual criterion that ultimately makes the decision for some users. Mixers say that clients have come to expect the use of Pro Tools.

Lathan says that it is a standard of sorts, and that expectation has tended to push the entire software-based array of systems. He adds that software systems do crash, which is something that his Fairlight rarely did. But you build that into your work-flow. He said that when he gets a crash, he just goes to lunch while it reboots.

Dan Daley is a journalist and author who covers business and pro audio technology.