As with any other craft, we Audio guys collect tools that we use in our work. Back in the “analog only” days, “tools” meant hardware, as in tape recorders, mixers, microphones, and so on. Today, most of us record and mix with computer hardware and software (although we still need things like microphones, preamps, etc.). The current dominant recording system is Digidesign’s ProTools, and most PT systems are run on Macs.
There are now a number of viable, and often cheaper, alternatives that are gaining popularity, and many of these run on any Windows PC. The better known of these include Nuendo, Cubase, and Sonar. I have used Nuendo (v. 1.6), and found it to be a pretty decent performer. It sounds good, has an easy to learn user interface, and is reasonably powerful. In fact, Nuendo would currently be my second choice as a DAW. Cubase is supposed to have similar performance, although its features are somewhat different from Nuendo. I also checked out an earlier version of Sonar, but I was not as impressed with it. On the system I saw, it was not stable enough, but that may have improved with later revisions.
My DAW of choice, however, is SAW Studio. There are three versions, referred to as Full, Lite (which I use), and Basic. Each of these has a particular feature set and price geared to the needs of different users. All versions use the same internal “engine”, and share the same performance in terms of audio quality and speed of operation. SAW stands for Software Audio Workshop.
The first SAW program came out when most people thought that a professional computer recording setup required special DSP hardware because the cpu of a personal computer wasn’t powerful enough. Bob Lentini proved otherwise by offering a 4-track recording program that could run with any Windows compatible sound card and did not require any dedicated processing hardware. This ran well on the 486 platform with 8 meg of ram. I bought that product, and have purchased every upgraded version since because of the power and quality that each of these programs has had.
SAW is not well known in the way most of its competition is. This is partly because of Bob Lentini’s refusal to go the usual mass market advertising route. He did a little bit of this early on, but for the most part has relied on his (often fiercely loyal) customers/users to get the word out.
RML Labs is a very small operation, which limits its capital resources but also makes it far more flexible and responsive to customers than its competition. For example, bug reports from customers are often addressed in days, sometimes within hours, leading to an immediate update of the program available to all customers. Some of the features in the software are the result of customer requests (just TRY getting, say, Steinberg or Cakewalk to even respond to you individually, let alone actually listen and DO something!). I have never used any product for which the customer support was anywhere close to what RML Labs routinely offers its customers.
Another interesting thing about SAW is its copy protection: there isn’t any! There is no dongle to fail, no limitation on re-installs, none of the stuff that can, with other products, stop you cold in mid-session for days at a time.
Like other DAW programs, SAW Studio makes use of plugins to extend its processing power. It can use VST, DirectX, or “Saw Native” plugins. Bob was not satisfied with the performance of VST or DX standards, so he developed his own, which has what he considers the best combination of both speed and features. He makes the API freely available to anyone who wants to write plugins for SAW, and a few developers have offered SAW native plugins.
I could go on for quite a while, but you can find out a lot more by visiting the SAW Studio website and its user forum.
For all its virtues and performance, SAW is not what you would call cheap. If you are new to using a computer for multi-track recording and production, and you are looking for an inexpensive way to get your feet wet, you could try Fasoft’s n-track. For well under a hundred dollars you can have many of the standard features of a DAW, and it is possible to do some pretty decent production with this program. It won’t compete head-to-head with something like SAW Studio, but for the price it offers very good features and performance. If you can’t get SAW yet, this is a good “starter” program.