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Could this be your next DAW?

Digital audio workstations have come a long way since software took over from hardware more than a decade ago. But is it time for hardware to make a comeback?

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So what exactly is it in the photo above? It looks a bit like the insides of a computer, and when it's hooked up to the power supply that it needs to make it work, then it will look even more like any other computer inside the case.

But it isn't. It isn't a computer.

You see, any computer can be programmed to compute anything that is computable. So a Sinclair ZX Spectrum from 1982 can compute the value of pi to as many digits as you like, no less accurately than than an up-to-the-minute machine with an Intel i9 Extreme at its heart. The Spectrum will of course take a while longer.

But the device in the photo, an Antminer S9, can't be programmed, so it isn't a computer. It is a purpose-designed machine that can do only one thing...

Mine bitcoins.

Yes, you can buy an Antminer S9, connect a power supply and plug it into the mains and Internet and off it will go, mining bitcoins all by itself.

Now I'm not suggesting that you actually do this. But if you do fancy your chances at making a profit from bitcoin mining, then make sure to do your research and factor in your electricity costs, which will be substantial.

Why not a computer?

A few years ago if you wanted to mine bitcoins, you could do it on your computer with mining software. But the way Bitcoin (small 'b' = the coin, capital 'B' is the whole system) works is that as more people mine, and processing power increases, the calculations needed to be done become more difficult.

So although you could mine bitcoins with your computer (CPU), your rate of work would be so slow you wouldn't stand a realistic chance of making any money at all.

So when computers became too slow, miners turned to graphics cards. Graphics cards (GPU) are great for mathematics, which means they can be programmed for mining and work very much faster than the computer itself, particularly when installed in multiples.

But guess what?

Graphics cards are now too slow.

ASIC

The gold standard in bitcoin mining (yes I know what I just said) is now the Application Specific Integrated Circuit, or ASIC. This is electronic hardware that has been purpose-designed to do just one job, in this case bitcoin mining. So where a CPU or GPU is wrestling with the math through software, in an ASIC-based bitcoin miner, the math flows through hardware circuits VERY much faster.

Which brings me to...

An ASIC DAW?

Although computers are very popular (understatement?) it's worth reminding ourselves why we use them for audio. In the early days of the digital audio workstation, computing technology was used to create hardware DAWs such as the AMS Audiofile and DAR Soundstation. But when Digidesign (now Avid) introduced Pro Tools in 1991, the writing was on the wall for hardware simply because of the cost. Computers were and are mass market so they could be very much cheaper than dedicated hardware. And so by around 2000 when software DAWs came fully up to speed, high-end hardware DAWs disappeared from the market.

But basing a DAW around a computer comes with a problem - computers are designed for a range of tasks, nearly all of which are something other than audio. My perspective on audio goes back a long way to the days of multitrack tape which - for all of its irritations - had a huge advantage that you could just switch everything on, the mixing console, the multitrack and the outboard rack, then make music.

With the computer, there always seems to be something to get in the way or that needs to be managed. And when a new operating system update comes along everything goes haywire for anything up to a year while plug-ins get updated.

So an ASIC DAW could be very attractive. Switch it on and start working, just like the bitcoin miner. And it would have the advantage of a massive gain in speed allowing less latency, more tracks, more processing and effects. And where the computer has software plug-ins, there's no reason an ASIC DAW couldn't have ASIC hardware plug-ins.

The downside would be that where software is updatable, hardware generally isn't. But the silver lining of that particular cloud is that where software developers are happy to release buggy software and fix it over time, hardware has to be right first time. Like your car - imagine if you bought a car with a steering bug and you had to wait for a patch before you could drive it in a straight line. Which is not to say that cars don't ever have design problems, but manufacturers make more profit when they get it right first time.

Hey, this is just a thought so don't get too anxious that things are going to change any time soon. But things could change. And if you look back into history, they always do...

By David Mellor Tuesday December 12, 2017
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