Q. How do normal DAWs differ from mastering workstations?

Published in SOS June 2010
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Why are there specific systems like SADiE, CEDAR, Sonic Solutions to master with, as opposed to, say, Logic, Cubase and Pro Tools? To me, they both seem to just be multitrack DAWs!

The capabilities of DAWs and mastering workstations have converged over the years. An example of this is in Pro Tools 8, which started off as an audio editing system, but now has very sophisticated MIDI facilities and plug‑in support.The capabilities of DAWs and mastering workstations have converged over the years. An example of this is in Pro Tools 8, which started off as an audio editing system, but now has very sophisticated MIDI facilities and plug‑in support.

Via SOS web site

SOS Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: I think it's inevitable that DAWs of all kinds will converge in functionality over time. The evidence of that convergence is already plain to see in many cases. However, in the early days of digital audio editing and workstations, the complexity of these new technologies meant that manufacturers tended to specialise in specific areas of functionality.

The original MIDI‑based sequencers — such as Notator (now Logic), Cubase and their ilk — have all gradually added audio recording and editing tools, while the originally pure audio-editing systems — such as Sound Designer, SADiE, Sonic Solutions and Pro Tools — have gradually added MIDI facilities and plug‑in support. So the difference between systems is far less clear now than it once was.

However, the inertia of change has meant that some systems still retain strong specialisms and are favoured on that basis. For example, CEDAR started as a largely off‑line post‑processing platform for audio restoration, but its current incarnation includes sophisticated audio recording and editing facilities to improve the convenience of using it as an 'on‑line' tool.

SADiE started out, fundamentally, as a radio programme production platform. Its audio editing tools and workflows are geared up for very slick and versatile audio manipulation, which is precisely why it has been seized upon as the almost de facto music mastering system, essentially replacing the original king in that role, Sonic Solutions. However, there are other popular alternatives, such as Sequoia and Pyramix (in the professional sector) and very capable lower‑cost options, such as Wavelab and Adobe Audition.

In the mastering role, the most important features are very accurate and flexible editing facilities combined with all the behind‑the‑scenes tools for PQ creation, ISRC (International Standard Recording code) and so on, as well as the ability to generate the industry-standard DDPi mastering files. So generally these systems tend to have less well‑endowed MIDI facilities and internal or plug‑in processing, simply because they aren't required.

However, when it comes to the music production platforms, MIDI is obviously fundamental, so, while systems like Cubase, Logic and Digital Performer, for example, tend to have slightly more clunky audio editing tools, they do incorporate sophisticated MIDI features, very comprehensive internal signal processing, and support for plug‑in effects.

Pro Tools started out as an audio editing system, but has gradually acquired more and more sophisticated MIDI facilities and plug‑in support. This platform, perhaps, represents most clearly the idea of total convergence.  

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