This article will discuss how you can develop your own DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
So you want to build your own DAW. Whether for making more innovation, commercial use, or just a learning project, developing it is a complex and resource-intensive endeavor and can involve many specific skill sets and tech stacks.
So, firstly, let’s explore what a typical DAW does. Essentially, it provides an environment for music creation, sound design, and mixing. Typically, it has a timeline where you set a tempo and arrange tracks. There are windows for editing the audio, recording audio data, recording MIDI data, mixing audio/adding effects, etc.
How To Develop a DAW Audio Program?
Define Goals and Features
So, you must first address why you are taking up this task. Is it for learning purposes? Is it a hobby project? Do you want to build a business out of it? There can be any reason, but it’s important to be clear since it’s a resource and time-heavy job.
With that clarity, decide your goal regarding your DAW’s core functionalities, like recording, editing, mixing, mastering, MIDI support, virtual instruments, etc. Again, this will give you more clarity for the steps ahead and help you plan better.
Also, consider what platforms you want your DAW to be compatible with, like Windows, Android, MacOS, etc.. It’s also okay to treat it as an uncharted category where you start with something simple and leave the rest up to the process so you can decide things as you move forward and develop your skills and team/manpower.
Once the concept is clear, you can start thinking in terms of its GUI.
Design the User Interface (UI)
Before going on to developing the DAW, it’s good to have its overall workflow and user interface sketched out. How do you visualize your DAW based on the tasks it performs? Consider what you want the user experience to be like.
How the controls would be like? Which tasks would be placed on which windows? How would the user access different functionalities? It’s also important to answer who you are making the DAW for. Is it for musicians? Is it for the general public? Is it for DJs? It could be for just singers or maybe just rappers!!! Whatever your idea is!
You can use apps like Sketch, Adobe XD, Figma, Photoshop, Axure RP, and Illustrator to design the UI. You may also need a mockup to showcase your team, investors, or just for yourself to reference.
Choose your Tech Stack
Usually, C++ is the programming language on which most audio applications are coded. The industry standard is the JUCE framework, also based on C++. For example, FL Studio is primarily developed using Delphi (Object Pascal), though other languages might be used for specific functionalities.
Ableton Live is believed to be developed mainly in C++ for the core functionalities. Logic Pro is developed by Apple and is likely a mix of Objective-C and C++ for macOS. Steinberg, the company behind Cubase, likely uses C++ for its core functionality and interface development. It’s known for using the Steinberg SDK, which involves C++.
Audio plugin developers like Waves, Izotope, LANDR, UVI, Antares, etc., use JUCE. You can also try the Tracktion Engine, which is an audio software development kit (SDK). This engine allows developers to create their own DAWs or audio applications using Tracktion’s technology and features.
Imagine having everything you need in a DAW, like audio input/output, MIDI functionalities, a timeline, a synth engine, etc., but you are developing your own user interface for it. That’s the flexibility that Tracktion gives you.
The Tracktion Engine SDK provides libraries, APIs, and tools to build audio-related applications. This SDK includes various modules for audio playback, recording, editing, MIDI handling, and more. You can utilize the building blocks provided by Tracktion and its modular nature and customize the interface and functionalities according to your vision.
You can utilize Tracktion’s SDK to integrate new functionalities, effects, or instruments into your DAW. This could involve creating custom modules or plugins that work seamlessly within the Tracktion framework. The Tracktion Engine also comes in the JUCE module format.
Audio, MIDI, and Effects Processing
If you want your DAW to record audio, you must enable its input/output functionalities. You can use specialized audio libraries like PortAudio, RtAudio, or JUCE for handling audio input and output.
Then, there are audio manipulation, visualization, and editing tools that you may need to develop if you’re not using Tracktion. Next, for your DAW to interact with external devices, you need to develop its MIDI functionalities. You can use MIDI libraries like RtMidi or JUCE to manage MIDI communication.
For VST or any other forms of audio development, you can read our guide on the best tools to develop VST plugins. There are a bunch of modular tools, like Max/MSP, SynthEdit, Fraust, FlowStone, etc., that you can use to craft your audio plugins.
Testing and Optimization
You must ensure the DAW is stable and operates reliably without crashes or errors across dedicated operating systems (Windows, macOS, Linux) and hardware configurations (different processors, RAM sizes, etc.).
You will also be required to test it in different studios and speakers to ensure consistency. Testing will also evaluate the DAW’s performance under various scenarios to ensure it handles tasks efficiently, especially critical for audio processing where real-time performance is crucial.
Next, audio processing demands high computational resources. You must refine algorithms, minimize resource usage, and enhance performance without compromising quality to ensure the DAW runs smoothly, even on less powerful hardware.
User feedback and interaction
Once the DAW is ready and working fine, you must share a beta with various individuals of decent sample size, get it beta-tested, and have early users collect insights on usability, functionality, and potential bugs. You must also do bug resolution and clear your product of any issues.
- If you’re considering a commercial launch and distribution of the DAW, get its legalities cleared up and consult an IP lawyer for all aspects of it.
- Leverage open-source libraries like JUCE or FluidSynth to accelerate development and utilize existing functionalities.
- Engage with the audio programming community through forums, conferences, and online communities to learn from others’ experiences and gather best practices.
How long does it take to program a DAW?
It can take a day to a decade to program and develop a DAW. For example, consider FL Studio, first launched in 1997 as Fruity Loops but took six years to call itself FL Studio. With every new release of FL Studio, the company behind it, Image Line, keeps updating and improving it based on customer feedback.
So FL Studio has two decades of history behind it and continues to develop and evolve. Similarly, Ableton Live, developed by Ableton AG, began its development around the late 1990s and was officially released in 2001. The software’s initial version, Live 1.0, was a result of several years of development, which included conceptualization, design, and programming.
On the other hand, you can develop a DAW even in a single day using Tracktion. Hence, it depends on the scope and complexity of the DAW, your team size and expertise, the technology and tools that you’re using, the customization and innovation involved, etc.
What skills do I need to program/develop my own DAW?
You must have a good knowledge of Digital Signal Processing, Music/Audio Engineering, Software Development (C++ and JUCE recommended), UI/UX design, testing and bug-resolution, and project management skills.
You can either be proficient with all those skills yourself or have a team of developer(s), designer(s), musician(s), manager(s), etc., to develop a DAW.
Developing a DAW is definitely not easy and requires a combination of specialties, as discussed above. Creating something great requires a lot of effort, time, patience, and relentlessness! With that being said, in today’s time, it’s a doable job, even for a one-person team/business.
With the No-code revolution and the help of AI, tasks like programming, bug-hunting, graphic design, etc., have become considerably simpler. So, if you are considering developing a DAW, you can consider this as a guide.
If you’re someone who doesn’t have much experience or background in coding, I suggest you start with developing simpler audio apps and programs first. Use tools like Max/MSP and FlowStone to develop plugins. Then, move on to more complex applications and build your way up to developing your DAW.
I hope you found this article useful. Thank you for reading!