Intro to DAW’s
Last month we talked about setting up your workspace and some alternatives that may help with the creative juices and getting more done. This month we're going to take a better look at some of the software that's available for writing and recording on your computer. There are different variations of a couple of definitive themes and once your get to know the basic layout of one program you will be able to use another (albeit with a bit of a learning curve depending on the program). DAW is acronym for 'digital audio workstation' and not only is it used to describe the computer you're using but the software as well.
The Playing Field
The biggest names in audio software are Digidesign (Pro Tools), Steinberg (Nuendo, Cubase), Apple (Logic), Cakewalk (Sonar) and MOTU (Digital Performer). There are also other companies like Propellerheads and Ableton that produce audio software but there is a difference that we'll get into in a future post. There are also separate audio editors that are available such as Sony Sound Forge and Steinberg Wavelab. These programs are used mostly for editing and not multi-track recording. The big names all produce multi-track audio recording software and the basic layout and method of operation are pretty close. You're given two screens to work with. First there's the multi-track view (or edit page) that allows you to see all of your recorded tracks on a horizontal grid. There's usually a timeline along the top indicating time in SMPTE or bars and beats (or both). The tracks are arranged in lanes and each lane contains the audio files for that particular track. Second, there's a mixer view that contains all of your tracks in a mixer view with faders, inputs, eq's and so on. It's important to note that both views represent the same tracks, just different views. For example if you change the volume on the edit page, that volume change will also be reflected on the mixer.
There are a few problems that you might encounter that are inherent in every audio software program. One is setting up an external hardware unit to get your audio in and out of your computer. Some computers come with inputs and outputs but for serious recording you will want to go out and get hardware that is specifically designed for the purpose. Some programs like Pro Tools won't work without their proprietary hardware although all of the other audio programs will work with most of the major hardware manufacturers. Most manufacturers provide drivers with their products that are specifically designed to work with specific programs. For example Steinberg programs use ASIO drivers with their programs and most hardware manufacturers will provide drivers to use their product with that program. If you purchase an external unit make sure that the manufacturer provides drivers for the program that you are using. You are also going to need a MIDI controller if you intend on recording using the instruments included with a lot of these programs.
The Technique of Recording
Another prerequisite is all of the knowledge inherent in recording and getting a good signal. That includes getting the right level to the computer, setting up microphones and instruments properly etc. The topic of audio engineering is too vast to cover here and will be covered in a future posts. Suffice to say that audio recording is all about 'garbage in, garbage out. A badly recorded track is going to sound bad no matter what software you're using.
Something that people new to audio recording (and recording software) have a problem with is the fact that there are connections going on that aren't reflected on screen. For example you should know the basic signal flow of a mixer to know what's going on with the software. You should know the difference between an insert and a send effect. You should know what groups and auxiliary sends are. This is just basic knowledge that is ingrained in all of the software that you should know before tackling any major recording projects. Most major DAW's now come with a good selection of plug-ins and instruments. Knowing your signal flow is the first thing you should know before going in a tweaking any of these.
Effects and the Like
Another thing that you will need to know about is the different plug-ins available in recording. These include reverbs, delays, chorus, equalizers, and compressors to name a few. It's good to have a basic knowledge of what each of these plug-ins do and how to use them in a mix. Not only is it good to know what the effect does but where it's useful and how to make basic settings. A lot of the programs now come with instruments too. Using one of the available instruments not only includes some knowledge of synthesizers but MIDI as well since the programs use MIDI to translate your performance from you MIDI controller to the program. You may also want to go in tweak some of the settings in your MIDI performances.
There are a ton of things that you need to know when staring out into the world of DAWs. There is a learning curve in getting familiar with the layout and tasks within each program. Beyond that there is the inherent knowledge that you are expected to know before you even begin. Within each discipline there is a world of knowledge. Recording, engineering and mixing are all disciplines in their own right that can take a lifetime to learn. While this may seem like a lot to absorb at once it all becomes worthwhile in the end. We now have the ability to record, edit and master a complete album all without leaving your computer. Software programs with this level of depth usually take a while to learn. Make sure that if you're just starting out, just learn the basics that I've mentioned here as it can be a lot to absorb all at once. A basic knowledge is really all you need to start and then you can take your time learning new things while creating your masterpieces. Everyday will bring a new understanding or a new piece of valuable info. You may find that you always have something new to learn: the journey really never ends.