In the world of music and audio, in which you’ll commonly find scores of studios with racks full of analog processing hardware, acoustic instruments, microphones, and hundreds if not thousands of synth and effects plugins, there is one integral component in the equation that allows the producer or engineer to bring everything together under one “digital” roof — the digital audio workstation.
If you have had any involvement with music production as of late, you will have inevitably already noticed advertisements for DAWs ranging from the industry-standard.
Most Commonly Used DAW’s
There are DAWs that are specifically designed to be used as recording and music production DAWs, such as Ableton, FL Studio, and Reason, whereas other DAWs, like Pro Tools, Nuendo, and Reaper, are equally suitable for music production, recording, post-production (which incorporates sound design and editing for sound-to-picture mediums such as video commercials and film), mixing, and mastering alike.
Additionally, there are also DAWs that are designed to be full-scale mastering suites, such as Pyramix, SADiE, Sequoia, and WaveLab.
The Nuts And Bolts Of A DAW
So, what is it that exactly makes up a DAW?
Essentially, every single DAW that you can find out there will feature a sequential arrangement view that’s formatted with a timeline for the placement (or arrangement) of audio files and other metadata that is essential for the project, such as the tempo and project markers that denote specific functions or events that take place throughout a timeline, for example.
Depending on the DAW, you will also find editing tools or a slew of editing commands that you can access via a few keystrokes or a couple of mouse clicks.
Also, DAWs that are designed for music production come with metronomes and time signature and tempo settings that are immediately available through what is called a transport, which is where the basic “play”, “stop”, “record”, “rewind”, and “fast forward” commands are located.
For example, let’s take a look at Logic’s arrangement view:
At the bottom, you’ll see the transport view denoting the location of the playhead in both SMPTEtimecode and bars and beats along with the location of the start and end phases of the cycle or “loop” device (a.k.a. the green rectangular “blob” on top of the blue audio region on the first audio track, which allows any event to be repeated as much as necessary within a specific interval as defined by the cycle.
To the left, you can see what’s called the “Inspector View”, which displays the level fader and plugin chain of any selected audio or instrument (i.e. MIDI) track that is inserted into Logic. However, to view all of the tracks at once in this fashion, you can pull up the mix view by pressing “X” to toggle the view underneath the arrangement or pressing “CMD+2” (on the alpha-numeric row) to pull it up as a separate window, like so:
Locked and Loaded
While using third-party plugins is definitely a must for many a producer, certain DAWs , such as Logic Studio, already come well-equipped with a respectable number of superb and highly effective stock plugins that you can pop right onto your tracks. In Logic, you’ll find 80+ plugins that are very useful for pulling off all kinds of amazing effects or creating gnarly bass and lead tones as well as various interesting and otherworldly sounds, like some of the following plugins:
No, Not That Kind of Bus
All DAWs feature what are called “buses”, which are simply pathways for audio or MIDI to be routed through for the purposes of applying an effect to a sound without modifying or altering the original sound source, which is commonly known as sidechaining. Here’s a basic example of sidechaining in action using one audio track with a loop sample, a bus, and an auxiliary track with a basic reverb plugin:
If you look closely, you’ll notice that there is signal coming out of “Audio 1” alongside the fader button that reads “0.0”. Above that, you can see that I inserted “Bus 1” in the “Sends” section, which is routing the signal to “Aux 1” via the “Bus 1” return in the “I/O” (input / output) section for the purposes of adding reverb to thicken up the sound a little.
Here’s a sample of the raw, dry loop with no sidechained reverb:
Audio Download (It’s safe, I promise)
And here’s the same loop with a nice dose of reverb to give it some dimensional enhancement. Notice how you can still hear the dry sample in spite of it being doused in tons of reverb:
2nd Audio Download (It’s safe, I promise)
What Kind Of A DAW Would You Recommend?
To be honest, it really depends on your overall preferences and what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re a singer or songwriter and don’t really like the thought of tweaking synths and routing stuff all day long, then something simple like GarageBand would probably do.
However, for other producers who need access to more sophisticated tools such as multiband compressors, expanders, exciters, and filters as well as a decent selection of instruments, loops, and synths to experiment with and tweak to your heart’s content, I would certainly recommend Logic as a starting point, namely because it’s relatively inexpensive ($200!) in comparison to other offerings (the full version of Cubase 7 costs $500 while the standard versions of Ableton Live and Reason cost $379 and $449, respectively.
Of course, if you’re really on a tight budget and need a solution that can deliver the goods without restricting you to limited features, I would go download the evaluation trial of Reaper.
Reaper is an amazing DAW with an incredible amount of sophisticated functions and features that really make a lot more expensive offerings pale in comparison with its ridiculously low price tags and generous evaluation trial policy!
That’s right folks; Cockos (the company behind Reaper) will allow you to use the trial version of Reaper for as long as you need so you can freely test it out with your current setup and configure it just the way you like it.
Some Practical Advice For Beginners And Pros Alike
If you are entirely unsure as to what package to start off with and want access to tons of loops and stock synths that are of decent quality, your best bang for the buck will certainly be Logic Studio, as it comes fully loaded with up to 50 GB of high-quality loops that span a wide range of genres as well as sound effects for post-production purposes, if need be.
Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, you’ll get access to tons of synths and plugins that can help you produce a quality product if you know what you’re doing. However, for those of you who have had significant experience with other DAWs and find that they are sorely lacking in key features when it comes to audio editing and mixing, then I highly recommend that you give Reaper a try.
It’s certainly a breath of fresh air to be able to edit, mix, and perform on-the-fly changes without the system belting out so much as a hiccup in the process. At a mere $60 (assuming you don’t own a commercial studio that rakes in more than $25,000 a year) coupled with an unlimited evaluation license, you simply can’t go wrong!