Sound Evolution: The Story of the World’s First Digital Audio Workstation

The story of the first Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is an intriguing journey through the evolution of music technology. The consensus among historians and technologists is that the British company, Soundstream, which was founded by Thomas Stockham, a professor from the University of Utah, developed the very first digital recording system in the late 1970s. This system wasn’t a DAW in the modern sense, but it was a crucial stepping stone towards the development of modern DAWs.

Stockham, known as a pioneer of digital audio, used a computer to record sound on a digital tape, marking the first time a computer was used for sound editing and processing. The Soundstream system, although revolutionary, was primarily a digital tape recording system with basic editing features, such as cut, copy, and paste, which were operations performed with a digital representation of the audio signals.

The journey from Soundstream’s digital recording system to the first true DAW involves another significant development – the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument), released in 1979. The Fairlight CMI was more of a digital sampler and synthesizer than a comprehensive DAW, but its ability to sample sounds, along with a rudimentary sequencer and a digital synthesizer, laid the foundation for the integration of computers in music production.

However, the title of the first true DAW is widely credited to the Sound Tools system, introduced by Digidesign in 1989. Sound Tools was a computer-based system that allowed direct-to-disk recording and stereo editing. Running on the Macintosh platform, Sound Tools offered a graphical user interface that allowed users to visually manipulate audio waveforms. This was a revolutionary development, as it provided an unprecedented level of control over audio editing and production, shifting the paradigm from linear tape-based editing to non-linear, non-destructive editing on a computer.

This innovation by Digidesign paved the way for the Pro Tools system, released in 1991, which expanded upon Sound Tools by offering multi-track recording and further advanced editing features. Pro Tools is often considered synonymous with the modern concept of a DAW, providing a comprehensive suite of tools for recording, editing, mixing, and mastering audio within a single software environment.

The development of the first DAW is a cornerstone in the history of music production, marking the transition from analogue to digital, and from physical to virtual tools. This technological evolution has democratized music production, making it accessible to a broader range of artists and producers, and has forever changed the landscape of the music industry.