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Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) - Hardware vs Software Home Recording Solutions

Hardware vs Software Digital Audio Workstations for Off-The-Grid Recording Solutions:

This article is a comparison of the virtues and vices of a Hardware versus Software approach to home studio recording. Particularly with an emphasis on recording off-the-grid (that is - no mains power).

This article is NOT a comparison of individual hardware or software products. There are magazines and web sites that regularly provide side-by-side comparisons ... if that's what you are after ... go check'em out.

Since this article may appear to have an anti-software and/or anti-PC flavour ... I should probably mention that I have been using, building (several hundred) and repairing PCs since the days of the PC XT and DOS (mid 1980's). I've also clocked up a few thousand hours of writing software for the PC as well.

This is just to make the point that I'm not some anti-computer Luddite or technophobe. I'm familiar and more than comfortable with PC/Laptop related technologies at both the hardware and software levels ...

As with all things, we each have our own requirements. We have our needs, wants, wishes and of course, the reality of what we can reasonably afford and/or work with.

One of the biggest advantages (or so it appears at first) of the PC / Laptop / Software approach to Home Studio Recording, is that most people these days have a access to one or more computers. With processing capabilities generally being more than adequate, why not press them into service and use them for recording your music? It sounds perfectly logical and reasonable.

The catch of course is that (aside from Apple Macs) most PCs and Laptops are simply not up to the task of Home Studio Recording without a serious investment in Software, Additional Hardware and quite a bit of your time spent sorting out the bugs and glitches.

These interesting anomalies will of course vary slightly from one machine to the next. Meaning that there isn't necessarily a single fix that will work for everyone. So, by the time you finally get around to the 'recording' part of your adventure in PC based recording wonderland ... your enthusiasm may have taken a serious hit or two along the way (not to mention your wallet).

That's not to say however that PCs and/or Laptops won't be a part of the solution. For example ... I'd love to be able to completely avoid the use of a PC/Laptop in my music recording process. However, that is simply not going to happen. I'm already using a Laptop to write/play drum tracks and also as a Guitar/MIDI interface. Final mastering is generally done on a PC as well, why? Because it's so much easier! ... but that's for later ... first thing is to get some stuff recorded.

So, hardware or software DAW for Off-The-Grid Recording?

The following table should provide some insights ...

Comparison Items
Hardware DAW
Laptop / PC / Software DAW
Power Consumption As little as 12W for new SD Card Recorders. Older DAWs like Yamaha AW4416 use 80W or more. 80W (Laptop or All-In-One PC)
to Over 350W (Quadcore Desktop PC)
Laptop on battery 0W
Laptop while charging 80W - 120W
All-in-One (Green) PC 75W - 90W
Standard Desktop PC 250W - 450W
Features Fixed - Generally more than adequate for Recording, Mixing Down and basic Mastering. Software features (and Plugins) are limited only by your Credit Card. Software DAWs (like most PC software) suffer from Feature Bloat. Much of what you are paying for you will never use. And they will just keep on adding more and more!
Missing Features Most machines won't have motorised faders to allow Record, Playback and/or Edit of a Mix-Down.
Similarly, adding drum tracks can be a painful experience without a real drummer.
Micro-Editing individual tracks can vary from difficult to impossible.
Budget dependant. Will vary depending on manufacturer.

Generally speaking though, there is nothing that the software DAWs can't do. And if there were, some-one is already working on a program or plug-in to change that.
Portability Excellent - Everything you need is essentially in one box. With a good 12V regulator, it could be run from a car cigarette lighter socket. Only portable if on a laptop, and then you will still need to bring all your I/O hardware and connectors. For a Software DAW to be truly portable on a laptop you will probably need to have one that is dedicated to the task of recording, etc.
Additional Hardware
None. Good quality Input Preamps for A to D (Analogue to Digital) conversion and an Output section D to A (Digital to Analogue) conversion for Line Out / Monitor Out and Headphones (sometimes referred to as a Breakout Box). Can get expensive. Most of the readily 'affordable' options only provide 2 input channels. If you need more, you might as well purchase something like the Zoom R16 with 8 inputs that will also serve as a software DAW Control Surface.
Drum / Rhythm Tracks More suited to live or played and recorded rhythm tracks.

Though time-syncing is generally available to interface with rhythm machines, it is at best a cumbersome solution.
Rhythm tracks can be created and saved as MIDI data. This can be readily modified and/or edited as the song evolves.

More flexible, more options, simpler, faster..
This is one aspect where the Software DAW simply smokes the Hardware DAW.

It's a no-brainer, the Software DAW wins hands down when it comes to the creation of rhythm tracks.
    Latency Effectively, none Can vary from insignificant, to variable, to catastrophic. See latency explanation.
    Software Firmware does occasionally have bugs.

These are usually fixed relatively easily with a manufacturer's firmware update.
You will have software problems ranging from Operating System and Driver Issues to DAW software bugs including any associated Plugins. Expect this!

Another given - If it's installed on a Windows Operating System, it will crash eventually.
Generally (but not always), the more expensive the DAW software, the better the support and offered bug fixes.
    Hardware Control surfaces will wear out over time. However if looked after, they should be good for at least 2 to 5 years of steady use. Many older machines have lasted over a decade. HDDs (Hard Disk Drives) including the new SSDs (Solid State Drives) will both fail ... it's just a question of when.

That applies to both Software and Hardware DAWs (some of which utilize HDDs).
These days HDDs are only reliable for 2 years (despite what manufacturers claim). Apparently SSDs have an even shorter working lifespan than HDDs. I replace all my HDDs after 2 to 3 years (preferably before they begin to shake, rattle and fail).
    Noise Noise levels will be as good as the devices (guitars, pedals, keyboards, mics, etc.) that you plug into the hardware DAW. On a 12V powered system ... what noise? PCs are a hell-hole of noise sources. Even with a good front-end and good shielding, the noise floor will generally be around -60dB. That's not as good as it sounds by today's standards. Even if you can keep your input signal clean, PC's are notorious for dumping glitches and spikes into your audio. Not to mention an occasional dose of good old file corruption!
General Considerations
Upgrades None, apart from accessories. Limited only by your Credit Card Note: If it ain't broke - don't fix it!
Cost $800 to $2,000
Laptop $500 - $1,000
Green PC $900 - $2,000
+ Software $500 - $2,500
+ Hardware $300 - $2,000
These days even a modestly spec'd Hardware DAW shapes up very well when compared to the cost of a PC / Software DAW plus all the add-ons..
Ease of Use
   Learning Curve The learning curve can be steep initially, but once you understand the various processes, that's it! Ongoing learning curve particularly if you upgrade either equipment, Operating System or DAW software / Plugins. The difference here is between learning what you need to get your music recorded (Hardware DAW) and learning all the stuff that you don't want to use to do the same (Software DAW).
   General Functionality It's all in front of you, all the time.

Basically you've got whatever you paid for.
Can be convoluted and cumbersome to achieve even simple outcomes.

However ultimately more powerful / flexible (if you can get it all to work for you. Many don't).
I look at this as a simple time equation.

Which would you rather do ... record your songs or spend your time in forums looking for solutions to your hardware and software issues?

What is Latency?

Simply put, Latency is an unwanted delay that is generally specified in ms (milliseconds), which is usually a result of the PC's CPU trying to do too many things at once. A latency of less than 50ms is generally acceptable. Once it gets to 100ms (1/10 of a second) it may be audible and/or problematic. A close analogy would be like hearing an echo of your own voice during a telephone conversation ... it can be very distracting. Ideally of course, latency would be zero or very close to zero (as it is for most hardware DAWs).

Further Details...  Latency can have a range of causes (click for examples)
Latency Examples
  • Your PC's OS (Operating System) or your Anti-Virus software decides to download and install the latest updates (while you are ... recording, mixing or mastering ... of course :-)

  • Your PC's OS initiates some obscure but processor intensive Background Service (or three).

  • Your PC's CPU is unable (too slow) to play back all the already recorded tracks while you record yet another track.

  • Badly fragmented data on your HDD (Hard Disk Drive) makes it impossible to retrieve and play back already recorded track data in a timely manner. This is relatively easy to fix with a good Defragmentation program (like PerfectDisk), as long as it doesn't kick-in while you are actually recording.

  • An ageing HDD (Hard Disk Drive) or SSD (Sold State Drive) starts developing Write and/or Read Errors.

  • Your PC's Sound Card (or related Driver Software) is too slow to handle the required input and output tasks simultaneously. Possibly due to poorly written driver software, inefficient use of available RAM or even inadequate RAM.

    This is a fairly common problem (for non-Mac users) that no doubt sells a lot of third-party hardware that supposedly minimises the latency issue. Additional hardware can't actually remove the issue, because any hardware placed in the signal path must, by its very presence, add some latency.

The biggest problems with Latency are that it can be unpredictable, complicated to minimise (if that means manually shutting down background services on your PC) and of course potentially expensive (if the solution is to buy yet more hardware).

A Final Word on DAW Software:

It's been around for decades. I remember using an early version of CakeWalk on a Windows 95 box. Though the performance and feature set of software DAWs has improved out of sight, along with the A to D front ends ... you're still working on a machine (the computer / laptop) that isn't primarily designed to work with high quality audio. A PC is one of the noisiest and pro-audio hostile electronic devices you can imagine ... the true marvel is that so many people can get the great results that they do, in spite of this.

Jan 2016 update:

As control surface technology continues to evolve/improve, the distinction between hardware and software based DAWs also continues to blur. The increasing reliance on USB MIDI in a most new equipment (in place of the once universal 5 pin DIN MIDI in/out/through ports) is an annoyance however, as it makes the use of a PC essential rather than optional.

You will probably notice though that the more expensive or 'high-end' controllers ALL have 5 pin DIN MIDI ports available as standard.

There are several good reasons why manufacturers are are going down this USB MIDI only path. Firstly, they can build a box with mainly keys, knobs, pads and buttons that has greatly simplified electronics (seriously, you could make your own) - because the real work is being done by software running on a remote processor.

The result is maximum corporate dollars for minimal electronics/hardware and importantly, lower cost to the consumer. And of course if the driver software isn't too wonderful and overly 'class compliant', manufacturers also ensure that at some point in the not too distant future ... you will need to upgrade! Everything these days is built with a frighteningly short anticipated working life.

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Your Comments:

161007 - (Excellent) Quality information my friend, I played with this stuff for along time. Began in an electronic music class in HS on reel to reels and a moog model 55. The evolution of technology is amazing. After a little break I'm splicing my old Akai 8" deck into my hybrid 4416/software rig with some new energy.

I was looking for some reassurance that my aging hardware was still relevant. I have found incorporating a computer system helped with the organization and such, just by enlarging the monitor. I have to second your opinion on the  difficulty of drum tracks with my older hdware setup anyway. I've enlarged my space to incorporate an old set of Ludwig's.  Its a fact the tech end of this science, can pull you away from the music. Of course some of us are in it to record. I'm still about that thrill of the music myself.

Decent mikes and some preamps maybe can do a lot for your sound... Some of the software problems are less daunting if your recording a session, rather than punching in and out with simulated instruments. its tough to lay down some heartfelt grooves when your playing to a machine that's being difficult.... I've spent a lot a time on a few masterpieces... alone! Rewarding but you can't replace that live feeling.

Hey thanks again for your time...  Very useful information for anyone getting started, and us relics too. I'm biased myself to the all in one DAW's... I might add, older hardware based equipment can be had for a fraction of what it retailed at originally. A Yamaha 4416 was $4000-$5000 new. And state of the art when they came on the market. The instruction manuals are enormous. There's much more user friendly and less expensive modern lines out there  Prices have gone down across the board for equipment in general. Keep an open mind and you can put about anything to use. Truth is my 1st band we recorded on a cassette recorder, copied the tapes and sold them in the neighborhood... good luck!

Editor's Note:
Thanks for that note. In the end, it's all about the playing. About being creative and doing something you enjoy. I'm a dinosaur too. I still like to get hands-on once in a while and modify my gear when it suits me, or even make my own. Challenges are good, physical and mental ... ;-)

161007 - (Very Good) Good stuff. I've gone from a Teac A-3340 to a Roland VS 840 to a Tascam US-1641 with Cubase LE 4 and now considering a Tascam DP24SD. I'm just looking for a solid, reliable multi-track workhorse - and honestly don't have the time to deal with all the driver compatibility and latency issues of the Software / Laptop approach. Thanks for a good treatment of a complicated topic. Here's to creativity!

Editor's Note:
I use a Tascam DP24 (an older one with CD writer ... very handy for a quick demo). I wish it had motorised faders and that it could record/playback a mixdown, but otherwise awesome! No muss, no fuss, just play and record. Of course, if you want to edit out mistakes on individual tracks ... well, you probably won't ;-)

160313 - (Excellent) I am a musician who simply wants to concentrate on music, so the simpler solution for recording is the one I seek. I find the hardware option more attractive for its simplicity but I am concerned about compatibility with any studio I might use for mastering or mixing. Do you have any suggestions?

Editor's Note:
Firstly, any current model multi-track recorder (all of which now have USB connectivity) should be able to produce standard files (usually .WAV) that are readable by and/or transferable to a reputable recording studio for mastering purposes. If you have any local studios in mind - ask them.

As for the equipment itself ... well, the field is a lot smaller than it was ten years ago. Though, there are still several reputable manufacturers building equipment suitable for the Home Studio market, and these include:

  • Tascam who still make a full featured desk-top recorder/mixer (DP24 / DP32).
  • Roland (Boss) who seem to have essentially moved to portable only devices.
  • Zoom who are covering their bases by making their multi-track recorders also function as Software DAW control surfaces.
  • There are also still some classic machines from Yamaha, Akai, Korg and others that have impressive capabilities. Though by now they would almost certainly need new hard drives and perhaps a few other replacement parts. Great if you like a project.

What I have noticed over the last few years, is that the number of new hardware product releases has slowed dramatically. I'm sure that a huge part of that is due to the mainstream move to Software DAWs (read: lack of sales).

Another reason though, is that there is really not much else you can bring to the table in terms of Home Recording hardware. Building ever bigger desks with more channels would just mess with the high-end pro market, so that's just not going to happen.

Though if anyone from Tascam is reading this ... guys, I'd really like motorised faders and recordable/replayable mix-down. Yamaha had it decades ago on their AW4416 ... what's keeping you?

160313 - (Excellent) I've been searching for days for a clear explanation why one might choose hardware over software DAW. This is the best article out there. In the past I used a Windows computer with Pro Tools. I spent so much time plowing through the unnecessary and uninteresting stuff just to get simple things done that I found I started to dread sitting down to work on a song. I kept thinking that if I just stayed with it and kept learning, it would eventually be fun.

Then the software problems began. All of the ones you mentioned, I experienced. I finally gave up. Now, after a few years have passed, I'm getting the bug again. I have a new iMac and was planning to buy Logic Pro. But I started having flashbacks about the previous experience. So, I started to seriously consider a hardware DAW. I was just about there when I read your article. You basically voiced every apprehension I have about repeating the mistakes of my first pass at home recording. Thank you so much!

Editor's Note: Thanks. It's always nice to be appreciated. A couple of points worth mentioning here: Apple gear in general does tend to be more "Audio Friendly", though I can't comment on the software's actual performance.

And of course the very nature of software, that constantly changing fluidity, is ultimately the very thing that differentiates hardware from software. When I next plug into my Tascam DP24, it will predictably behave and perform exactly how it did the last time I used it. It won't suddenly fail because I downloaded some absolutely 'necessary' security, application or driver update required by my computer's operating system (or just some obscure application). The DP24 will just work - it will simply do exactly what it's meant to ;-)

Point in case: When I started using the latest version of MIDI guitar it wouldn't work properly (they had changed the way it interacts with the ASIO drivers). The recommended fix was to download yet another third party driver. So some great software went from working, to not working, to sort-of working (most of the time). Then I wanted to try out some hardware MIDI controllers (to get some drum pads happening) ... and guess what, now nothing MIDI works properly. You just gotta love those good old Windows driver conflicts. That's just life using a computer - whenever you change things, shit happens! ;-))

150226 - (Excellent) I have been using a Tascam 2488 Neo for about 5 years and it has stood the test of time with good usage. It has been in the shop for a failed switch but I bought the parts from Tascam and replaced most switches. The sound quality is awesome and setting up for recording is painless and quick. Thanks for this page. It validates what I've been telling my software buddies!

Editor's Note: Sometimes things will simply resolve down to personal preference and how comfortable we are at working with the tools available to us.

141027 - (Excellent) Exactly the question I'm trying to answer. My new problem: Should I go the hardware route if my budget is only $500 and I already have a Macbook Pro?

Editor's Note: I'm a firm believer in making the most of the available resources. Given the tight budget, going hardware would be difficult, whereas you just might be able to do the software approach (given that you have a decent computer). Of course, just about everything (particularly upgrades) is way more expensive to do on a Mac, so in the long run this won't necessarily be the cheaper option. But it surely would get you started.

141018 - (Excellent) Right up to this day I haven't spent any ideas between software DAWs and hardware DAWs. Thanks to this article I've now got a perfect first overview of this topic. I am totally new in music production, thinking in either investing in a MOTIF XF6 or purchasing some appropriate software DAW together with a simple keyboard. For what I have found out so far is that I might spend almost the same money for any software solution compared to the features that the MOTIF offers, if I'm not totally mistaking. Appreciating the effort you've spent for your valuable comparison, I am leaving an excellent rate for this article! - Cheers M

Editor's Note: Thankyou! :-).

141015 - (Not Useful) The only thing I agree to is latency. Everything else is a dish of random lack of knowledge.

Editor's Note: I truly appreciate when visitors take the time to post a comment. Even negative comments can lead to improvements when they are of a constructive nature.

Some visitors though, are just legends in their own mind and seem to miss the part (right before the comment box above) where it says "... If you decide to rate this article as Not Useful, please leave a comment explaining why, so that the article may be improved ..." Anyone can be a 'smart-arse', and it usually doesn't even require you to be all that smart. So, have a better one.

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