Understanding DAW Software – What They Are And How They Work
Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) Software or simply called sequencers are at the heart of most modern day professional recording studios. The term is unfamiliar to many music enthusiasts not involved in the recording industry. To others, this is some foreign sounding term they vaguely remember sound engineers and music producers throwing around.
In this article, we shine some light on this sometimes little known, but very important and integral part of any professional and home audio setup. You will find it hard today to encounter a single home or commercial studio not using DAW software as part of their setup.
As with so many other creations, Digital Audio Workstations were developed over the years as a result of the birth of the personal computer. Basically, a DAW is a digital interface that replaced the functions of a host of analogues equipment to record, process and output any piece of audio production. This may vary from a single vocal performance, to a full orchestra of 70 musicians and a full choir.
Before DAW software became powerful enough and are now standard in any recording setup, traditional studios were filled with big clumsy pieces of analogue equipment. Hardware based sequencers communicated with other pieces of hardware like synthesizers and drum machines through MIDI interfaces. Analogue equalizers, compressors, mixers were all thrown into the mix and everything were recorded on multi-track tape recorders. (I don't need to go into detail, but you get the idea of how complex and cluttered the traditional studio was.)
The Digital Audio Workstation replaced almost all of these functions, and even added host of functions and features previously unavailable. Some functions still requires additional hardware though. (We will briefly touch on that later on.)
In order for you to best understand DAW software is to have a look at how exactly it works. We do it by following the process, from recording to final output.
The first stage of any audio production. Voice and instruments recorded through a microphone are the obvious (but not only) sources that springs to mind when thinking of recording. This is just one of many tasks of any DAW. And here it needs some hardware help.
Instruments and voices are captured by microphone and needs to be interpreted and converted into a signal that the DAW software can work with, called digital audio tracks. The normal computer setup don't have the hardware able to perform this task.
This a the job of an audio interface. (The one piece of hardware still needed by all recording studios.) It captures the analogue signals, amplify it if necessary and converts it to digital audio tracks that gets send to the computer through a high speed interface, normally a USB 2 interface in most smaller systems.
Multiple tracks can be recorded and received by the DAW, depending on the amount of input ports the audio interface have. These analogue sources however, are not the only digital tracks that gets created during the recording process.
Digital sequencers in your software are able to create "virtual instruments", able to mimic basically every possible instrument you can thing of. These tracks that gets created are called MIDI tracks. They can be created by you mouse or an external keyboard and can be completely edited or altered in the software, (Quite a step up from the old analogue sequencers that communicated with a few external devices like synthesizers or drum machines to create "virtual instruments".).
With virtual instruments, you are basically able to produce a whole sequence of music without having access to any "real" instruments. (This feature is often frowned upon by purists, but are gaining popularity and acceptance, and can be a real lifesaver for artists who need additional instruments to complement their own music, but don't have access or the budget to hire additional musicians.)
You are even able to import sound samples. They are prerecorded sound sequences of various instruments, drums and even vocals in digital format that can be added to your other tracks. This a quick way to add a sequence of sound you are unable or don't have the time to create yourself.
Each digital track is represented by a horizontal timeline on the computer screen. This represents the beginning on left, to the ending on the right of the entire music production. You can have as many of these horizontal timelines as there are tracks.
The sound from each track is represented by the vertical "waves" wherever it appears on this horizontal timeline.
This is where arrangement comes in. You can move, rearrange and even delete any track on the timeline to change the beginning, mid-section and ending, and move tracks together or further apart to create the desired sound or effect you require. This whole exercise is called arrangement.
(This is obviously a lot more complex than I just explained, but there is so much to DAW software and the sheer amount of features and extensive functions they possess, that its best to keep it simple at first to understand the basic process.)
The following step in the process is to take all these recorded tracks or digitally created MIDI tracks, and change the way they sound. In short, mixing is the process of editing and manipulating the audio of a track by balancing, boosting volume, equalizing and adding filters and effects to alter or correct the final sound on the track.
During this process you can correct errors and make enhancements to all recorded tracks. It is just important to note that the purpose of any mixer, whether digital or analogue, is to add to an already good quality recording. Mixing should not be used to correct a poorly recorded sound or mask negligent errors made during the recording process. Always make sure you have the best quality recording available before starting the mixing process.
The digital mixing console onscreen sometimes closely mimics the look and feel of traditional analogue mixers, as the layout is very logical and practically set up. It is also familiar to traditional sound engineers, making the transition from analogues to digital a lot easier.
Many elements are not controllable during the recording process though, which the DAW's mixer can address. The sheer amount of features adjustments can be the subject of whole separate article, but we will briefly look at the most important ones.
Equalizing is on of the most used functions of the mixer. You are able adjust the sound by adding or reducing bass or treble if the frequency of the sound is either too high or low. (Remember the goal is to create a rich and clear sounding track. It is very easy to overdo it, especially adding too much bass, which will result in a dramatic effect but negatively impact the overall balance of the sound.)
Adjusting the volume (gain) of a track is another important feature that can be adjusted during this process. Especially when played back in conjunction with other tracks, the sound of a track my be be too soft or completely overwhelming. This can easily adjusted by the equalizer by lowering or increasing the gain to create a much more balanced overall sound. Sound is normally measured and adjusted in decibels (dB).
You also have complete control over the stereo effect of your track (the balance between the left and right channels). You can control where you want to position your track in the "audio space". It can can be placed anywhere between the far left, center or far right position. Just remember that you want to create a balance when positioning your tracks, so be careful and maybe a bit conservative when you start placing sounds away from the center.
Adding effects to your tracks is a very powerful feature of any mixer that forms an indispensable part of your DAW. Reverb (reverberation or echo) is one the first and most important effects to be added to a track. (Ironically this is the one thing you tried to reduce as much as possible or even completely eliminate during the recording process.) Yet, without adding some kind of natural sounding reverb, your track sounds dead and lifeless. Modern digital mixers are able to mimic the reverberation of practically any space: from a cellar, concert hall to sports stadium.
Effects are not limited to reverb though. Special effects like making a digital instrument sound like an analogue one, or making an acoustic guitar sound more electric are just a few of countless sound effects. Basically every possible thing you can think of doing to a sound, can be done by some special effect.
This is the final step in your audio production before outputting the final product. This the step where you add some final touches to you composition, to give it that little boost and smooth out the rough edges to give it that polished professional look.
Its very important that mastering is only done after you are completely happy with your mixing before you even think of moving on to the this final step. Each track's equalization, balancing, volume adjustment and effects adding should be completely finished before moving on to mastering.
At this point you can still do adjustments like do some equalization and compression, and some noise reduction. Just remember, every adjustment you make at this point is across all tracks and the whole composition. That simply means that at this stage changes you make should be kept to minimum and only done to round off and polish a basically an already finished product.
Important Hardware Considerations
As good as a your DAW is, it will not be able to reproduce the results you want if not accompanied by suitable high a quality hardware. I already mentioned the audio interface earlier in this article and its necessity for recording. Although not necessary for your software to function, the following two components are critical to the quality of your final audio composition.
Your Microphone: As I mentioned earlier in the article, your DAW is there to enhance and compliment an already good recording. And it all starts with your microphone. If you read some of the other articles in on this site, you will know that I make now secret of the fact that I consider this the most important part of your audio setup. You can read more about it in this article. All you need to know is, get the best possible microphone you can, even if it means saving a little longer.
Headphones/Speakers: Being able to have a clear indication of what your end product will sound like, you need to be able to listen to your audio throughout the whole process with a pair of high quality headphones (to catch the finest details) as well as good pair of desktop speakers / studio monitors. You can read more about the difference between high quality desktop speakers and studio monitors in this article.
You may have noticed that I said headphones as well as speakers. I firmly believe that you need to monitor your audio through both sources, as sound through your headphones sounds different to sound produced by a pair of speakers filling the room with sound.
Popular DAW Software
There many types of DAW software available on the market, ranging from completely free to hundreds of dollars. Some hardware devices already ships with "limited" editions of high end DAW software.
The six most popular and widely used DAW software available are:
- Pro Tools
- Ableton Live
- Logic Studio
- FL Studio
As the aim of this article is to give you a general introduction to the DAW and how it works, we are no going to focus on each individual software tool. In a future article I go into more detail as to how each software tool function and perform, and help you choose which is best for you.
This was quite a bit of information to absorb, but I tried to keep it as simple as possible to make each process understandable. I hope everything makes better sense know and the purpose of DAW/sequencer and how it works, is much clearer.
Obviously we have just touched the tip of the iceberg here. The sheer size of these Digital Audio Workstations, the power of their capabilities and the amount and complexity of features they incorporate, can fill an encyclopedia. There is just too much to cover, even in a separate full online manual.
Don't be intimidated, it is a steep learning curve to learn the basics, but keep at it and you will have it mastered in no time at all. The good news is that you will be using your DAW software and still be discovering new features two years plus down the line. A good quality DAW grows with you and your needs. As you grow and develop your skills, functions you never even thought existed will become available waiting for you to fully express yourself.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!