Once upon a time, if you wanted to record music, you had to fork over a huge sum of hard-earned green to your local pro-audio shop to fill your room with the consoles, compressors, tape recorders, patch bays, thousands of meters of cable and every conversion box conceivable to get the job done. Or you had to shell out just as much (if not more) dough to a professional studio for its gear, time and engineers to accomplish the same thing. Thankfully, in the late 20th century, the concept of the DAW showed up on the scene, causing a radical plot twist — and a happy ending (at least for some) — to this story.
Nowadays, most project and professional studios, alike, use DAWs at least part time as their tool of choice for recording. DAWs, or digital audio workstations, are software applications that record multitrack audio and sequence MIDI information. Following is a short tour around the world of DAWs, as well as a description of what are arguably the single most powerful pieces of recording gear ever made.
ALL ROADS GO HERE
Hailing from several companies, DAWs come in many different shapes and colors, but beyond the advertising hype, they all perform essentially the same core tasks. Digidesign Pro Tools, Emagic Logic, MOTU Digital Performer, Steinberg Cubase, Cakewalk Sonar and the rest are all made to accomplish two major things: record and play back digital audio and MIDI.
So why choose Pro Tools or Sonar or Cubase? For starters, only a few run on multiple platforms (Mac and PC). Therefore, no matter which machine you run, your choices are automatically narrowed. Another reason to sway your choice is compatibility. Most professional studios run Pro Tools, so if you want to be 100 percent compatible with the pros, you need a Digidesign system. But if your friend runs Sonar, it might make sense for you to go with Sonar. No matter which of these you choose as the central nervous system for your studio, they all share some pretty powerful features. In addition to recording digital audio and MIDI, DAWs are capable of advanced mixing, audio and MIDI editing; audio processing; and manual and auto score. They can even generate complete chronological lists of every event that occurs in a song. All of this and many real-time automation functions are possible with each of these applications.
Probably the most important window in all DAWs is the track, or arrange, window. In this space, you view all audio and MIDI that has been recorded on different tracks along a timeline. You can move the elements around; add, cut and duplicate them; and loop different parts. It is here that you compose and arrange, as well as apply automation, such as volume fades. You can generally resize the elements in this window horizontally and vertically, and you can resize individual tracks independently as you work on them, allowing you to zoom in closely on details.
The second most vital window or workspace in a DAW is the channel mixer. This area includes the different track volume faders, as well as group, or bus, faders; master faders; and sometimes faders for the outputs of your soundcard. Reminiscent of traditional consoles, these virtual mixers include some or all of the following: signal-level meters; pan, solo and mute controls; inserts for effects and dynamics control (usually in the form of plug-ins); and sends and input/output controls. Some DAWs put audio and MIDI channel faders in the same space whereas others arrange them in separate windows.
Did you just record a piano solo that smokes, only to find that you recorded it too low? No worries: Just call up the audio editor, and work it out. DAWs provide a wide array of tools for editing both digital audio and MIDI. Although most DAWs' audio-editing tools can't compete with those found in dedicated editing programs, they can accomplish basic tasks such as volume changes, fades, tuning and time stretching quite well. However, all DAWs are well-equipped to handle extremely complex MIDI editing, such as minute changes in note length, subtle velocity changes and so on.
Another flexible attribute of DAWs is their score feature. Closely tied to MIDI activity, this window gives users the tools to write a traditional score on virtual staff paper, which can be edited at any given time. The score can automatically be translated into MIDI notes to be played by MIDI sound modules. The reverse of that is also possible: Recorded MIDI notes are automatically scored, and the resulting sheet music can be printed out. Finally, some say that music is math, and DAWs prove it with their automated event lists. Event-list windows display a chronology of every single MIDI event (or scored event, whichever you prefer) that occurs in a song in a single tidy column that displays the note or chord played with corresponding bar and beat, volume and velocity of each note and other parameters. The great thing about this is, if you want to, for example, change a single C to a G or adjust the volume of just the first three notes, the event list is the perfect place to swiftly accomplish it.
The sweet thing about these superapplications is that no matter how in-depth you get with DAWs, you always seem to find something that you didn't know they could do. And by the time you think you've mastered one, a new upgrade slays the previous version's features. So if you already have a reasonably powerful computer and haven't already invested your Benjamins in Logic, Pro Tools, Sonar or one of the others, I highly recommend that you do.