Emerging technology has left the DAW at a crossroads. A combination of legacy code, compatibility restrictions and a user base who expect their favourite tools to remain familiar has left music-making software lacking innovation. As the pandemic, cloud-computing and generative AI shift expectations of how music-making tools should look and feel, Declan McGlynn asks: will the DAW adapt or die?
12 February 20204
Open a DAW from the year 2000 and it’s highly likely you’ll recognise the vast majority of the features — both functionally and visually — from any DAW you might use today. There’ll be an arrange page from left to right, a MIDI note editor, a browser on the left, a mix window with a row of virtual sliders and input slots for plugins. Of course, the tech powering our fave DAW has drastically evolved since then but, fundamentally, the experience remains almost identical.
DAWs are built on legacy code that can’t easily be pivoted as user expectation adjusts, or new technology arrives. Where DAWs stalled, plugins filled the gap, allowing developers to conceive new ideas to paper over the cracks, while DAWs remained the static, fairly reliable layer underneath. But plugins, too, have become stagnant: even with thousands of VSTs available on the market, with more arriving every month, very few truly innovative ideas are pushed out each year, instead copying existing tools or re-inventing the same analogue-modelled synths and hardware.
That’s not to say every DAW and every plugin are completely lacking in innovation — Ableton, Bitwig and FL Studio, to name only three, are all pushing the boundaries of what’s possible within a DAW infrastructure. But has the rapid rise of generative AI tools left the DAW companies vulnerable? How can they appease their core pro user base who expect familiarity and compatibility, while also adopting ground-breaking AI tools that the next generation of producers will come to expect from their music-making software? Can the DAW really remain offline as the world’s creative tools move to the cloud? Will the DAW remain at the top of the creative food chain? Or has something got to give?
We spoke to a series of experts, from the developers behind the world’s biggest plugins, to the innovators building the future DAWs, to find out where the DAW sits in 2023, how its limitations have held back innovation, and where we go from here.
“The main friction is in the unfortunate legacy codebase of the DAW,” explains Scott Simon, a pro audio consultant who spent a total of 18 years working at iZotope and Waves. “Everybody [working for] the DAW manufacturers knows it — they recognise and feel that friction.” Simon claims DAWs have become Frankenstein-style software, where new features were bolted onto an existing codebase, eventually causing a bottleneck for innovation.
“The DAW has created this fascinating cottage industry that went from zero to $2bn a year of collective stuff that works inside of it,” he explains. “But if you go back 30 years to now, it’s become this house that you’ve built 700 additions to. Now you want to put in your spa, your automated lights, your new heating system, it’s really hard to do that on a house that’s added 700 rooms. That’s how I think about the DAW.”
“I can see why no one in their right mind would undertake [building a DAW],” says Lex Dromgoole, CEO of Bronze, a company developing a new type of AI and Machine Learning-powered DAW. “If you add the fact that people can’t really make any money out of it because it takes so long to develop, you can see why there’s no innovation. I think that’s actually a big part of it — the economic incentives aren’t there.”
Joshua Hodge, founder and director of the Audio Programmer community — a YouTube channel, Discord server and events platform for plug-in developers — claims that things have also plateaued in the plug-in world. “One of the biggest hurdles used to be analogue modelling — being able to capture the warmth and expressiveness of hardware,” he explains. “From when plugins were first made up until about 2012, [it] was really about trying to get that sound back into these tools.” Hodge says that now analogue modelling has essentially been achieved and classic kit can accurately be re-created in the box, innovation momentum has been lost. “I feel like it’s hit a plateau in terms of creativity and where a lot of people are just creating the same thing. A lot of people are wondering: what is the next thing, what is it going to look like, how can [we] expand on the current capability of what we’re doing with a DAW? But I don’t think anyone has quite nailed what it’ll look like.”