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.