Early attempts at digital audio workstations in the 1970s and 1980s faced limitations such as the high price of storage, and the vastly slower processing and disk speeds of the time.
In 1978, Soundstream, who had made one of the first commercially available digital audio tape recorders in 1977, built what could be considered the first digital audio workstation using some of the most current computer hardware of the time. The Digital Editing System, as Soundstream called it, consisted of a DEC PDP-11/60 minicomputer running a custom software package called DAP (Digital Audio Processor), a Braegen 14"-platter hard disk drive, a storage oscilloscope to display audio waveforms for editing, and a video display terminal for controlling the system. Interface cards that plugged into the PDP-11's Unibus slots (the Digital Audio Interface, or DAI) provided analog and digital audio input and output for interfacing to Soundstream's digital recorders and conventional analog tape recorders. The DAP software could perform edits to the audio recorded on the system's hard disks and produce simple effects such as crossfades.
By the late 1980s, a number of consumer-level computers such as the MSX (Yamaha CX5M), Apple Macintosh, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga began to have enough power to handle digital audio editing. Engineers used Macromedia's Soundedit, with Microdeal's Replay Professional and Digidesign's "Sound Tools" and "Sound Designer" to edit audio samples for sampling keyboards like the E-mu Emulator II and the Akai S900. Soon, people began to use them for simple two-track audio editing and audio mastering.
In 1989, Sonic Solutions released the first professional (48 kHz at 24 bit) disk-based nonlinear audio editing system. The Macintosh IIfx-based Sonic System, based on research done earlier at George Lucas’ Sprocket Systems, featured complete CD premastering, with integrated control of Sony's industry-standard U-matic tape-based digital audio editor.
In 1994, a company in California named OSC produced a 4-track editing-recorder application called DECK that ran on Digidesign's hardware system, which was used in the production of The Residents' "Freakshow" [LP].
Many major recording studios finally "went digital" after Digidesign introduced its Pro Tools software in 1991, modeled after the traditional method and signal flow in most analog recording devices. At this time, most DAWs were Apple Mac based (e.g., Pro Tools, Studer Dyaxis, Sonic Solutions). Around 1992, the first Windows-based DAWs started to emerge from companies such as Innovative Quality Software (IQS) (now SAWStudio), Soundscape Digital Technology, SADiE, Echo Digital Audio, and Spectral Synthesis. All the systems at this point used dedicated hardware for their audio processing.
In 1993, the German company Steinberg released Cubase Audio on Atari Falcon 030. This version brought DSP built-in effects with 8-track audio recording & playback using only native hardware. The first Windows-based software-only product, introduced in 1993, was Samplitude (which already existed in 1992 as an audio editor for the Commodore Amiga).
In 1996, Steinberg introduced a revamped Cubase (which was originally launched in 1989 as a MIDI sequencing software for the Atari ST computer, later developed for Mac and Windows PC platforms, but had no audio capabilities until 1993's Cubase Audio) which could record and play back up to 32 tracks of digital audio on an Apple Macintosh without the need of any external DSP hardware. Cubase not only modeled a tape-like interface for recording and editing, but, in addition, using VST also developed by Steinberg, modeled the entire mixing desk and effects rack common in analog studios. This revolutionized the DAW world, both in features and price tag, and was quickly imitated by most other contemporary DAW systems.
Stephan ValkærTfl: +45 91 52 45 45 firstname.lastname@example.org