A PC based home studio (part VI)

Part VI - Working with a DAW

Sometimes I will refer to previous articles since I don't want to repeat myself too much.

In this article I will refer to the audio PC which is the basis of the home studio I'm talking about as "DAW" (Digital Audio Workstation), simply because it is shorter.

In this issue I will talk about some general working techniques and approaches to the DAW work which differ from tape-based recording - be it analog or digital. I'll try to hint at the possibilities of the DAW, many of those I didn't know either when I started working with it. I came from tape-based analogue recording, and in the beginning I thought along those lines, too.

This is only a general overview. I won't go into specific details here, because those depend on what software and hardware you use, what kind of music you want to create...

I also won't give detailed mixing instructions (or better: suggestions), because I've found a nice article on the web that sums it up in a great way. It's called "How to Mix a Pop Song From Scratch", and you can apply the info of course to rock/blues/heavy metal/alternative/dance music as well. It was written by Jezar from http://www.dreampoint.co.uk , you find it on his website. I know that I quote this guy quite frequently, but that is because I like his work and his way of thinking.

Physical differences

Let's take a look at a tape machine - a digital 8-track like an ADAT for example. You have 8 inputs and 8 outputs, each of those is hardwired to a certain track. As a medium you have a tape cassette, on which you can store 8 tracks in parallel, and that's it. The whole system works linear in time. By that I mean that the temporal relations between tracks are fixed, and the temporal relations between the tracks and the tape material are fixed, too. That means, you cannot shift the tracks in time on the tape.

Now harddisk recording with a PC is substantially different. You have a number of physical inputs and outputs, how much depends on your soundcard (see part II). This limits the number of tracks that you can record simultaneously - if you want to record a live drumkit, a soundcard with at least eight inputs would be desirable. This also limits the number of different outputs that you can use. Everything else is open. And I mean everything else. For example, since you can mix in the DAW internally, the number of tracks you can use is only limited by your imagination (and your PC's horsepower, and by the software). And the temporal relation between tracks and between tracks and the medium (the harddisk) is not fixed anymore. You can shift single tracks in time, insert new takes at the beginning of the song etc. Also the tracks are not hardwired to a specific input or output.

Different working methods

With a tape machine, when it comes to recording, you have to know already what your want to record and when you want to record it. You have to start recording the intro of the song, because if you start recording the first verse of a song at the beginning of the tape, you cannot record anything before it. And then you have the limited number of tracks to play with. That means, when you've made a mistake, you gotta re-do the take, but you lose the old take on the way (except you have so many tracks that it simply doesn't matter). You work with punch-ins and punch-outs to correct mistakes. When you've done that for a time, you've learned to think "tape-machine-based" and avoid certain things which are complicated or impossible to do with a tape machine.

Now a lot of people have learned the recording trade with tape machines, and when they start with a DAW they apply the "tape-machine-based"-thinking to harddisk recording. While this is not wrong, it limits the possibilities for working. It took me some time, too, to stop thinking of my PC as a virtual tape recorder.

Maybe the next generation of musicians and engineers who grow up with HD recording all the way will avoid this trap.

The DAW as a recording tool

What do you have to consider when recording with a DAW?

  1. An input of your soundcard isn't physically tied to a certain track.
    If you have your guitar connected to input 1 of your soundcard, you can record it to track 15 in your recording software. All you have to do is specifying from which input to record when you arm the track for recording. There's no need to patch the guitar into another input anymore, you change only the track number in the software.

  2. You can have more tracks than inputs or outputs.
    With a stereo-in soundcard you can record an unlimited number of tracks, you only have to record them one stereo track after another. This means, if you have a tight budget and don't want to record, say, a drum kit, you're fine with a stereo soundcard for the beginning. This point is closely related to point 1)

  3. You can keep all the takes.
    If you are not satisfied with a take you did (like a vocal performance or a guitar solo), you can of course delete it and do another take on the same track. But you can also mute the track you have done (that way it won't even need processing power during the internal mixdown) and do another take on the next track. You could end up with a lot of versions for the solo, but you can always go back to the first if you decide that this was the best one after all. It is all very nondestructive. Of course you could decide to create a take from bits of several other takes. You have all the editing possibilities to achieve this. Take the beginning of that solo from take A and the end from take B.

  4. Your recordings with a DAW are very flexible in the structure. You can cut a song apart in the middle and add another section afterwards, for example. This is possible with analog tape, too, but not as easily undone as with a DAW. And it required the virtuous use of the razor blade and glue.

  5. You can use the same material more than once in a song. While many may consider this as cheating, this is in fact often used in today's radio hits. Let the singer do one perfect chorus and then copy-paste it four times in the song... the result is probably very sterile, but you can do it. Another application for this technique is the drum loop. Your DAW can act as a sampler in this regard, just load the drum loop into the program and copy-paste it several times...

The DAW as a composing/songwriting tool

Now this is the point where the DAW, especially the PC home studio, really shines IMHO. Collecting ideas and making them into songs has never been easier. Especially if you work with a combined MIDI/Audio package and compose your works with the use of synths and keyboards. For info on the possibilities of MIDI, see part V.

  1. You have always an impression of how your song will sound, which is not that simple if you write it with a pen and paper method. You can try out many different things, shuffle the whole structure around, and listen to the result immediately. For example: you think the chorus after the first verse is too early in the song? Cut it out, and paste it after the second verse. Or your song is lacking an intro? Push the whole song 16 bars behind and add one.

  2. Also, you can get a quick result which you can listen to, if you use the method of point 5) of the previous paragraph. While this may be evil if you actually record the final version of the song, it is a wonderful method to quickly write a song which has repeating parts in it (like several verses for example). Put together the music for the first verse, and for the chorus, copy-paste those parts as a whole to the appropriate positions of your song, sing the lyrics over the whole thing, and you'll have an impressive thing to play to your bandmates when you want to show them your new material. You can then use this structure as a skeleton for the song. Then you fill this with flesh during the final recording, which you can do with the same software you wrote the song with.

  3. You can use the DAW as a great sketchbook for musical ideas - those tidbits you can afterwards use in a totally different or new song simply by pasting them into it. Try this with a tape machine...

Mixing with a DAW

Mixing with a DAW is all about "total recall" and automation. Total recall means that all your mixer settings like levels, pan positions, eq settings, FX settings and all are saved together with the actual project you're working on. After some time this will seem natural to you and you won't worry about it anymore. Imagine you would be mixing with an analog console and outboard FX. You could mix one song at a time, you couldn't just hop to another project inbetween, because your mixer settings would be all wrong, and you had to reset everything. With a digital console, this is better, but you still have to load the settings for your mixer, your outboard FX and all manually. While on your DAW, you just click "load project" and everything is right where you left it. You can even save several different mixer settings for one song and do a quick compare between your mixes.

Most software packages allow extensive automation of the mixdown. You can record changes in the volume, pan, eq, FX-processors.

Some software packages have a mixer window that looks a lot like a hardware mixer. It has faders, knobs and the like. This is easy to learn if you have worked with hardware mixers before, because everything works similar. Other packages don't have that, but feature clickable volume envelope curves right on the track graphics. While this looks strange for people who are used to hardware mixers, other people who never worked with hardware mixers and had their "first contact" with audio recording on a DAW told me that they found this approach easier to comprehend. In the end it all boils down to what you like.

One thing is common to all solutions at this point: you have to mix with the mouse on the computer screen. This is bearable for a static mix where you just set everything before you press play. But if you want to record a smooth fader movement, this is difficult with a mouse. Moving a hardware fader with your fingers is soo much easier and smoother. This is one downside of the DAW thingy.
But there's hope. Manufacturers see this problem, too. The solution is a hardware controller, a thing that has real faders and knobs, and acts as a remote control for your software. The movements of the faders could for example be transmitted via MIDI. Those controllers range from simple, inexpensive MIDI faderboxes to expensive controllers with touch sensitive motor faders and a display... The nice thing is, when you start to work with a DAW, you don't need them - everything works fine without, but if you've got some money again, you can buy one and add it to your working system. Another benefit of the modular character of the DAW.

To save the mixdown you don't even need another medium (like a DAT recorder for example). You can with all the software packages simply export your mix to a stereo file, which you can then edit further. During this export process, the mix, the FX, the automation and all is calculated and written to the stereo file.

The DAW for mastering

So now you have the stereo mixdown of your song. You could either burn it directly to a CDR, or you could decide to do some mastering. Mastering is usually the stage where the completed mixdown is edited and further processed to be then ready to be the CD Master (hence the name). There are expensive mastering studios, with engineers with golden ears, who can do marvels for your sound that you won't achieve with your DAW, but even on your PC you can substantially improve your tracks to be burnt on a CD.

The mastering process on a DAW usually takes place within a stereo wave editor like Wavelab or SEK'Ds Red Roaster (see part III). The processes applied most often during mastering are compression and equalizing. Compression to make the signal louder - which seems to be very important if you compare CDs from 1999 with ones from 1989. Both CDs will probably have the same maximum peak level (0dBFS, see part IV), but the CD from 1999 will be much louder to the ear. This is achieved by compression. On the other hand, compression reduces the dynamic range of an recording, so you have to be careful with it or the result may sound flat and "compressed".

All in all, mastering would be worth a whole article, only that I'm not gonna write it. At least not this year - I still have the feeling that my knowledge about mastering is not that great. Go to http://www.digido.com if you want to know more about that.

After you are done mastering, you can burn your music to a CDR directly from your DAW (provided you have a CD writer), and have made a CD from the recording of the source material to the final product entirely on one machine. For musicians and for people with home or project studios times have never been better.


I hope that you have some ideas now about how powerful such a PC based home studio can be. I know that I have given only general advice so far, but I hope that I've given enough of that so that a person who wants to start all this gets some ideas about how to proceed.

So if you want me to write another article on a specific topic, drop me a line. Or if you have a specific question, that is not answered in this series. Or if you want to comment/criticize/whatever. Just give some feedback if you want more info and about what.



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Part VII

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