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electronic MUSICIAN

Conquering the DAW

By Kevin Smith | June 1, 2004

Your computer purrs next to you as you read the advertisements touting unlimited tracks, real-time digital effects, virtual-instrument hosting, onscreen mixing, full automation, and on and on. You think, “I've gotta have that!” But before you march down to your local dealer or surf to your favorite online shop, make sure you take the steps necessary to ensure that you need what you get and get what you need. In this article, I'll walk you through the crucial steps in choosing digital audio workstation (DAW) software that matches your computer, your needs, and your budget.

Although the term DAW is often reserved for high-end systems that include both hardware and software, most of what I'll cover here applies equally well to any software designed to arrange and play back audio and MIDI files. The charts for “Computer-Based Digital Audio Workstations” and “Sequencers” in the EM 2004 Personal Studio Buyer's Guide, available online at http://psbg.emusician.com, list all programs of that type.

The first question you must ask in evaluating a DAW is whether your computer is up to the task of running it. To answer that, you need to know what you have (or, if you'll be buying a computer, what you're getting). Take the time to research the main components of your system. What type of the central processing unit (CPU) does it have? How fast is the CPU? How much random access memory (RAM) is installed? Can the memory be expanded? How big is the hard drive? How much space is still available? What types of expansion ports do you have? How many of each? What size is your monitor? What resolutions does it support? Can you add a second one? Finally, what version of the operating system (OS) do you have? Will your computer support an OS upgrade if necessary? You shouldn't overlook any of those questions; your computer's System Properties (PC) or System Profiler (Mac) window can provide many of the answers (see Fig. 1). It's a little like finding out whether your car has antilock brakes and air bags; you don't want to just assume it does.

Although PCs running Linux are beginning to appear on the music scene, for all practical purposes your decision is between a PC running Microsoft Windows and a Macintosh running Apple OS X. I am often asked which is better. Historically, the Mac has been the computer of choice for music and graphical design, but the PC has now bridged the gap. PCs usually require a little more research; Macs tend to be more expensive. Not all digital audio software runs on both platforms, so your chosen DAW may make the decision for you. Compatibility with your collaborators is another important consideration. It ultimately comes down to your personal preferences and the requirements imposed by the software you use and the environment in which you work. (For some helpful tips, see the sidebar “Computer Checklist.”)

SPEED IS KING

It's true that DAWs that include digital signal processing (DSP) hardware, as Digidesign's Pro Tools does, tax your computer's resources less than native systems, which rely on your CPU for all their processing. But a fast processor, lots of RAM, and a big, speedy hard drive are always better. Native systems are less expensive, of course; however, when you add the cost of the extra computing power necessary to achieve equivalent performance, the savings you anticipated may vanish.

All of that means you need to be realistic about your computer's capabilities. Whereas your die-hard Pentium III/466 MHz lets you surf the Internet like nobody's business and never crashes, it will probably not be able to handle 24 tracks of 24-bit, 96 kHz digital audio. Add DSP plug-ins, real-time automation, virtual instruments, and so on, and you're going to need a considerably more powerful machine to get any work done. That your computer meets the DAW's minimum system requirements simply means the DAW will launch and successfully record and play back a track or two. You can set yourself up for success by investing in a machine that is designed to handle the workload you intend to give it.

You can save money and headaches by evaluating your needs carefully. How many tracks do you need to be able to play back simultaneously? Will you be recording live at all? If so, how many tracks at a time — do you plan to record your whole band at one go, or to track them one instrument at a time? Are you going to be doing post-production mixing and finalizing, or will you simply be recording and editing tracks? Do you plan to use a MIDI control surface for automation and a MIDI keyboard for playing virtual instruments? Once you've defined your primary goals, you can find the product that meets your needs, offers potential for growth, and fits your budget.

Unless you are on the cutting edge of technology, there's a good chance that other people are using the exact system you're contemplating. Find out about their experiences. Don't just read the manufacturer's brochures and visit the dealer's Web site; look for real-world accounts. Use your favorite Web search engine to compare products. Just search on the word review or compare along with the name of the product you are considering. Yahoo Groups are another great resource. You can use them to connect with other users and learn about potential pitfalls before you commit to a product. Many companies host user groups or product forums on their Web sites. There, customers discuss issues and exchange ideas with the manufacturer. Some companies also provide downloadable manuals. Reading the manual is a great way to get a better idea of the product's features and requirements and to get a feel for how it works before you buy.

ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES

Once you have settled on a program, you are ready to prepare your computer for digital audio. Here again, thinking ahead can save you a lot of grief. You may not have anticipated the extent to which a DAW will take over your computer. I strongly recommend dedicating a computer to your DAW. Keeping your favorite games and graphical-design software and their associated drivers on the same machine as your DAW will increase your system's susceptibility to conflicts. Space is not the issue — the days of small hard drives and limited RAM are over. The problems a separate computer lets you avoid are program and driver conflicts that lead to crashes and loss of data.

If you're not in a position to dedicate an entire computer to digital audio, the next best option is to partition your hard drive and install an OS on each partition, placing your DAW on one partition and any software unrelated to audio on the other. Because you have to restart your computer when you want to switch systems, it's not exactly like having two computers, but the added stability is worth the inconvenience. Macs and PCs come with utilities for formatting and partitioning hard drives (see Fig. 2). Remember that partitioning a drive usually requires you to erase all of its contents, so be sure to back everything up first.

Whether you're using two computers or two operating systems on the same computer, I suggest running your DAW on a fresh copy of the operating system. That way, the only drivers that reside in that system are those installed by the DAW and its ancillary hardware and software.

File management is another crucial aspect of digital audio, and you need to know how your computer works with files and folders. DAWs typically rely on the operating system for file management. You need to know how to save, retrieve, find, move, copy and delete files on your system. Audio files are just like other types of data and can be handled in the same way. The difference is that you'll eventually have hundreds or even thousands of audio files to keep track of, and one misplaced file can be a showstopper.

I also recommend that you start with a clean hard drive— one that has been freshly partitioned or at least recently defragmented — for your audio projects, and that you use that drive solely for your audio-project files, not for your software or operating system. Create a folder hierarchy that makes sense and is easy to follow. For example, you might set up a folder for each client; within those folders, you could create a folder for each client project, and within the project folders you could have separate folders for DAW project files, audio files used in the project, and other data files related to the project. You might also have a folder for audio resource material and, within that, separate folders for different types of audio files such as sound effects, instrument samples, percussion loops, and so forth.

It's vital to know where your files are being saved by your DAW and to have instant access to all your data. Diligence in naming and dating your files is also a must. Invariably you'll wind up with two versions of the same song (perhaps the guitar player took a version home to lay down some tracks) and want to keep only one. If everything is clearly named and dated, you'll have a much easier time sorting it out.

TAKE YOUR TIME

A rushed job is usually a botched job. Not only is it important to take your time when installing a new system, but it's crucial to do so only when you are not facing an impending project deadline. It takes just one missing driver or flaky piece of hardware to put you out of action.

Whenever possible, I suggest doing a new installation or an upgrade in stages. If you are relatively new to the process, try to work a couple of hours a day for several days rather than doing the installation in one marathon session. Remember, it's exacting work, and when you're tired, you are more likely make mistakes.

It's also important to take your time learning to use the system and your software. You may not like reading manuals, but doing so is well worth your while. Also, don't neglect any tutorials that came with the software. Understanding your software will save you time and money you might otherwise spend on tech support. Hanging on a long distance phone call for 20 minutes only to have the technician point out that your question is answered on page three of the manual is avoidable.

On the other hand, don't be afraid to seek assistance from tech support if all other avenues fail. To get the most out of your tech-support call, be prepared. Have your hardware, operating system, product version, and registration information at hand before you call. Do your best to formulate your question clearly and omit unnecessary details. Remember that the person you're talking to is not looking over your shoulder and has just started working on your problem. The more information you can provide succinctly, the better. See the sidebar “Tips for Successful Tech Support” for more suggestions on calling tech support.

As the excitement of getting started with your DAW takes hold, keep the points I've discussed here in mind. Advance preparation is invaluable, and making informed decisions will save you time and money. Once you decide on a system, take the extra time to prepare your computer, because it is the hub of your studio. There is no such thing as downtime insurance, so avoiding a crash, or at least its most dire consequences, is your best hope. (Aren't you glad you made that backup?)


Kevin Smith is a San Francisco — based writer, consultant, and musician. Visit his Web site, www.familytreeproductions.com, to see what he's up to.

COMPUTER CHECKLIST

With so much riding on the decision, choosing the right computer is a critical part of setting up your studio. Here is a checklist of some of the more important factors you should consider in order to make the right choice.

  • The computer's age

    You can update the processor, RAM, and hard drive in most computers, but that's not the full story. A number of equally important features — bus speed, number and type of expansion ports, number of hard-drive slots, and maximum RAM capacity — usually cannot be upgraded. A current processor may make it easier to surf the Internet, but if your computer is showing its age, consider a new machine for audio instead of an upgrade.

  • Processor speed

    You should usually get the fastest processor you can afford, especially if your DAW is going to rely on it for DSP. A faster processor allows for more tracks, more plug-ins, and increased stability. However, you don't necessarily need to buy the latest model to get a fast processor. Frequently, excellent used machines are offered at bargain prices by users who do insist on the latest thing. Keeping your eyes open for such an opportunity can save you lots of money. Furthermore, if your DAW doesn't take advantage of new features such as dual processors or 64-bit busing, you're wasting your money buying a machine that has them.

  • RAM

    Have at least 256 MB more RAM than the minimum stated requirements for your DAW. More is always better, and 1 GB is now common on music systems.

  • Hard drive

    Have at least a 100 GB internal hard drive. Better still, have two internal drives and dedicate one to recording and playing back audio files. Also consider getting a separate hard drive (internal or external) for backing up your files.

  • Expandability

    Expandability extends the life of a computer by allowing your system to grow along with your needs. It is an area in which desktop and laptop machines differ significantly. Whereas laptops give you a variety of expansion ports, including FireWire 400 and 800, USB 1.1 and 2.0, Ethernet, and PC card slots, desktop models typically give you those as well as multiple PCI slots, multiple peripheral bays, and greater RAM capacity. Think about your expansion needs and buy a machine that can meet them.

  • Operating system

    The latest operating system is not always the best choice, especially if it represents a recent and major upgrade. Software and peripheral manufacturers typically take some time to iron out compatibility issues, and if you've jumped on the bandwagon too early, you can find yourself with a temperamental (or worse, inoperable) system. Before you upgrade or buy a new machine, make sure the new version of the OS is supported by all your critical software and by the drivers for your audio card and other peripherals.

TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL TECH SUPPORT

The success of your tech-support phone call is largely in your hands. Even well-trained, patient tech-support representatives are only as effective as the information they are given. I asked the highly regarded tech-support specialists at Digidesign to tell me the five most important actions callers can take to make a tech-support call successful; here's what they said.

  1. Be prepared

    Having as much specific information available as possible will greatly improve your chances of solving your problem. Know as much as you can about the components of your system. Search for the answer in the manual and online before you call. Carefully note the steps that led to the problem and the steps you've taken to try to solve it.

  2. Have patience

    The hold time for tech support for popular products is usually long. Starting out with a bad attitude because you've been hanging on the line for 20 minutes, however understandable your frustration, is guaranteed to get the conversation off on the wrong foot. Remember that in all likelihood, the tech-support representative just got off the phone with someone who was as anxious as you are to get things up and running.

  3. Have realistic expectations

    The immediate solution to your problem may be a work-around — a makeshift and possibly awkward way of achieving the desired result. Although you should continue to push for a long-term solution (that's what you paid for), bear in mind that tech support's primary objective is to keep you productive.

  4. Listen

    In many cases the solution will not be a simple, one-step fix. A tech-support representative typically needs to make educated guesses to get to the root of the problem and solve it. That means you need to listen, follow directions carefully, and be willing to repeat something you may have already done.

  5. Be courteous

    Tech support may well be your only path to a solution, and courtesy can make all the difference in getting results. Keep in mind that many tech-support representatives are working musicians and can understand your position. And although they're trained to take the heat for problems with the product, a personal attack will lead most representatives to terminate the call.

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