With a modestly powerful computer, a digital audio workstation is capable of performing all of the functions that would have required a complete studio set-up a decade ago. DAWs make it possible to record and edit audio, apply effects and processing, compose music and beats using software emulations of classic synthesizers and drum machines, as well as mix and even master your tracks. The DAW has become such a complete application that some artists compose entire albums from start to finish on just a laptop.
Of the DAWs I previously mentioned, they all tend to divide different functions over multiple windows. The most important of these is the arrange window, which is what you most likely will be looking at when you open up your DAW for the first time. The arrange window will display all your midi instrument and audio tracks. This is also where you will find the most basic functions pertaining to arrangement and editing (hence the name). Other important features which are usually in plain view are the tempo, play, loop and record functions.
Audio tracks are where you place loops and pre-recorded audio. MIDI instrument tracks are where you create your own sounds using a software synthesizer. Most DAWs allow you to “flatten” MIDI so that it becomes audio, in which case a MIDI instrument track will change to an audio track. If you are using an analog synth connected to your soundcard’s audio input, the instrument will be recorded on an audio track. However, it is possible to write MIDI in an instrument track, send that MIDI to your hardware synthesizer and record it all on an audio track. This can get quite complicated so for those new to DAWs it is best to stick with software synthesizers for now.
MIDI instrument tracks contain MIDI events which the user can input, edit, import and export for later use. MIDI is a protocol that was established in 1983 to permit digital instruments to communicate with one another. The data transmitted via MIDI consist of various instructions for a digital instrument, the length of a note, when to play it, and how much emphasis to give that particular note and so on. Other more advanced data which MIDI is capable of transmitting include modulation parameters, filter settings, and tempo changes. Another important feature of MIDI is its ability to connect to external controllers, such as MIDI keyboards and mixers. Most DAWs are capable of “learning” the various functions of an external controller, and some of these controllers are capable of operating a DAW with little or no use of the computers keyboard.
When working with MIDI, creating notes is as simple clicking boxes on a grid, with each box representing a beat division which the user determines. The same goes for automating parameters such as filter cutoff, attack, decay, sustain, release, wet/dry and pitch bend. All of this info can then be easily manipulated just like numbers in an excel spreadsheet. Data can be copied, pasted, rearranged and duplicated with great ease, making for a powerful means of musical composition.
In addition to drawing in notes and event data the producer can also record these data live. By connecting a MIDI capable keyboard or controller to the DAW through MIDI or USB, performances can be recorded in MIDI. This allows the producer to keep the notes, and then play them back through any instrument of their choosing. Once MIDI data have been recorded or drawn in manually, all the parameters including but not limited to timing and pitch can be modified to perfect the performance. It is quite common for producers to record their ideas using a MIDI keyboard at a slower tempo at first, then afterwards they can bring the tempo back up and adjust any mistakes made manually without the need for an additional take. The beauty of this is that it makes even the novice musician capable of realizing his musical ideas without having to be technically proficient enough with any given instrument to record a flawless performance.
Different DAWs all share many features in common, though they all boast unique features as well. In addition, they range in price and ability, with many DAWs such as Steinberg Cubase and Ableton Live offering various tiers of their products, which become more expensive as the list of features enabled grows longer. It is not possible to discuss all the pros and cons of each individual digital audio workstation without taking up a few hundred pages, so the best advice is to start with a trial version of one of the big four (in my opinion), i.e., Ableton Live, Logic Pro, Steinberg Cubase or Presonus Studio One. Spend a few days or weeks with each one, then after some time has passed pick the one you like the most and devote a few months (if not years) to mastering it.
In future posts we will cover more advanced features of DAWs and perhaps even give some tutorials. For now it is important that aspiring producers give all the major workstations a test drive, and then pick one and stick with it. Knowing more than one DAW in its entirety has little value to a producer and with all the features available, learning just one DAW will be time consuming enough.