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DAW Buyers Guide Contents
A word of advice
Which system is the best? That depends. Would you buy a Rolls Royce car to help you to collect and distribute food aid? Would you buy a three-wheeler for rally driving? The answer is that the best system is the one which meets your particular requirements and, of course, your budget.
For some, the price of a system will be the most important factor, and there are now many affordable packages available which take advantage of standard computer hardware.
However, calculating a realistic cost may not be so straightforward, given the number of variables involved in configuring a system for a particular application. If you are considering a software-only solution for your existing computer platform for example, do your CPU and storage have the required specifications and capacity, or must they be upgraded or even replaced? Packages which rely solely or partially on the host processor will usually require the latest models, and whichever platform is used, the number of continuous streams or channels supported, as well as the overall performance of the system, will be highly dependent on the specifications of the hardware you use, including the disk drive(s). For those who prefer not to deal with the insides of computers, many manufacturers also offer their card and/or software package in the form of a turnkey system, complete with platform and storage.
You must also consider what kind of display will you need, and whether mouse-driven operation will suffice, or whether you eventually require more tactile control. Will you be satisfied with the integrated mixing and effects, or will you need to use third party plug-ins or even outboard gear? Even if your computer has in-built audio capabilities, if you require professional or multichannel I/O, then appropriate cards or breakout boxes must be supported. In addition, does the system offer the type of synchronisation and machine control capabilities required, or must third party software and/or hardware be sourced?
While the computer industry is clearly driving the overall direction of the DAW market, it cannot be expected to completely address the particular requirements of the audio professional. There is still a need for hardware geared specifically to handling and processing audio, which explains why there are still so many proprietary processing engines available. These take the load off the host CPU and are usually provided as cards accompanied by proprietary software applications, but some also come in the form of custom rackmounts with all required processing, I/O, storage and synchronisation interfaces.
Ultimately for many users, especially those seeking guaranteed performance, the turnkey proprietary system is the ideal solution, particularly if supplied with an integrated control surface. Manufacturers obviously agree, as the number of such systems is on the increase, ranging from low-cost, compact self-contained desktop units, to high-end systems with integrated automated mixing and, in some cases, nonlinear video.
In fact even if all technical and budgetary requirements are met, 'the best' system will still vary from person to person. It may be determined by factors such as preference of operating style and confidence in reliable support. This Guide therefore, cannot tell you which systems to buy, but it should at least be the first step in assessing which meet your requirements and budget.
Having found one or more possible candidates, by far the best way to assess a system is to see them operating in a practical situation similar to the one in which you will be working. In reviewing DAWs, it will soon become apparent that each has its own way of presenting information. Take note of how easy it is to perform the types of function you will require the most, how familiar the terminology used is, and whether the demonstrator is making sense or just confusing you with jargon. This is often done, not deliberately, but because familiarity with a system inevitably leads to things being taken for granted, or it may be that the demonstrator does not have sufficient practical understanding of your particular line of business.
In our experience however, most are only too willing to explain even the simplest things, and when pressed, will acknowledge any limitations the system may have. So do not be afraid to ask for explanations whenever you are unsure about a particular feature or capability, no matter how basic it may seem, and if in doubt, ask to see it in action. Finally, we appreciate how much time it takes to review systems in depth, so if you need independent assistance, SYPHA offers a range of consultancy services.
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