Any music producer’s journey starts here. Mastering simplistic and elemental aspects such as the basic tools one requires to start his music production journey are imperative. This article will focus on one of the most essential tools you need to start your music production journey, the DAW or “Digital Audio Workstation”.

To sum up, we will respond to the following questions:

  1. What is a DAW?
  2. What are the elements of a DAW?
  3. Particularities and qualities of DAWs?
  4. How quickly can I master my DAW?
  5. Breakdown

This article contains excerpts of Rick Snoman’s “The Dance Music Manual (3rd Edition)”.

1. What is a DAW? Introduction & software considerations

A digital audio workstation can be defined as an “electronic device or application software used for recording, editing and producing audio files”.

About a decade ago, complex audio processes could only be made possible by a  complete studio setup!

Daw’s have propelled songwriting, beat-making, mixing and mastering to a whole new level by allowing you to record/edit audio, apply effects, process audio and employ various virtual instruments and effects. In that respect, today, it is possible to create an entire track on a computer. Indeed, a DAW does 75 % of the job for the general representation of ideas, structure, and arrangement.

The most popular Daw’s include Ableton Live, Cubase, FL Studio, Logic Pro, Pro Tools and Reason. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that you should not consider other DAW’s such as Reaper or Steinberg’s Nuendo. The point is that choosing your DAW is a personal choice like buying a new pair of shoes. Some may find them appealing and comfortable, others not.

As an example, Apple’s Garageband is not considered to be the most professional and complete software on the market. However, it is a great music software for beginners. The learning curve is steady and it prepares you for the more advanced version of the software which is Logic Pro. A downfall is that you might find yourself quickly limited with more restricted and less advanced software like Garageband.

As far as sequencers are concerned in general, regular updates are offered to constantly upgrade their features.

2. What are the elements of a DAW?

Most DAWs divide their editing and operational functions over a number of different windows. Generally speaking, the arrange window, MIDI tracks, the controller event data, the virtual instruments and effects, the sample editor, and the mixer are the most important elements.

Arrange Window & Tracks

Possibly the most evident feature in a DAW, the arrange window gives a “global overview” your project. Here you can see the number of tracks your project contains. You can also add new tracks and remove existing ones. Most of the time, the tracks, are visible on the left side of the arrange window. It is also through this window that you can access the different playback functions your software offers. These allow you to move the timeline from left to right, playing the desired parts of your project.

Other functions which you can edit from the arrange window are extensive. You can adjust volumes, pan tracks on the left or right side of the stereo spectrum, insert effects, processors or VSTs. Moreover, it is possible to slice tracks into smaller regions. Copying and pasting possibilities for your digital information are also accessible here.

When we were speaking about tracks earlier, there is a differentiation to be made between audio and midi tracks. Midi tracks are more CPU intensive since they correspond to a particular processor or virtual instrument. Audio tracks, on the other hand, are audio (mp3 or sample) tracks which are imported or directly recorded tracks inside your DAW. An advantage of using these is that they are less CPU intensive than virtual instruments.

Arrange windows of Ableton Live

Logic Pro 9

MIDI tracks

The purpose of MIDI tracks is to make the link between your MIDI controller and your software by transmitting MIDI information. This information is represented in the form of MIDI events. After initial difficulties, the MIDI standard was introduced by Roland in the 1980s to allow music creators to interconnect their electronic music instruments and computers in an effortless way.

However, a question you can ask yourself is: what do MIDI events correspond to? The answer is simple. MIDI events information can either be assimilated to how long (length) you strike a note on your MIDI keyboard or to the intensity (velocity) with which this particular note was struck. Nonetheless, this information can also be used for more complex parameters such as Modulation or Pitch of virtual instruments.

An important element which accompanies MIDI tracks is the piano roll editor which is featured in most DAW’s. With this editor, MIDI information is much more accessible and modifiable.

The piano roll editor in Logic Pro X (Source: Apple) 

A piano editor allows you to directly draw notes to your taste. You also have the possibility to connect a MIDI capable keyboard to your DAW through midi or USB. This is another way to record live event data, such as notation or velocity.

Another MIDI feature which can be modified through the piano roll editor is quantization. The Piano roll editor is divided into sections of quantized grids and the quantize setting will allow you to position any newly implemented notes. All DAWS will “specify this quantization resolution in terms of pulses per quarter note (PPQN), and the higher this is, the more note positions become available within the bar”.

Controller Event Data

When describing what this particular type of Data represents, we can talk about the specificity and textural motion a particular sound or key can play in a composition. The truth is that no sound is constant in music production. There is always an evolution of texture or pitch in a note and this is why music is interesting.

Defining the term more precisely, CC data or Control change information corresponds to data which is translating modifications of hardware synthesizer values such as velocity, aftertouch, filter cutoff, modulation or panning. These values can be recorded Live or inserted manually). 

Usually, event data is inserted by using a MIDI event page. Working in a binary way, controller event data is recorded and transmitted as two main values.  The first one being the parameter that is to be adjusted, the second corresponds to the extent of this parameter modification.

Source: Logic Pro Expert

Historical evolutions have permitted the elaboration of a more uniform and reliable standard, general MIDI. This new standard entails a generalized list of requirements which all synthesizers must take into account to be labeled with the GM symbol. This standard determines what sounds are assigned to certain numbers.

Virtual Instruments & Effects

Virtual instruments and effects are the elements which will give birth to your ideas. Different sounds will foster your creative process. Not so long ago, these instruments and effects were only available in hardware versions. Today, all these tools are integrated inside your digital audio workstation.

Steinberg was the company that introduced this Virtual Studio Technology (VST) in 1996. As a consequence, sequencers were able to integrate virtual instruments and effects processors. VST’s can integrate vintage or analog technology into a studio system without being as expensive as the original hardware units. Automation is no longer manual but fully automated with a mouse. Another advantage of this modernization is that plug-ins can now be routed internally and no longer need to be linked through cumbersome external cabling or complex audio interfaces.

Different formats (Audio Units, Universal Binary, Direct X and VST 2 & VST 3) are available for the rendering of these plugins. One of the particularities is that Audio Units and Universal Binary are only OSX-compatible interfaces. Direct X on the other hand, is solely compatible with windows. Compatible with both OSX and Windows, VST 2 & 3, are nonetheless workstation specific. As an example, Logic Pro 9/ X on Mac only accepts AU and UB-plugins with currently no support for VST.

An arrange window in “Logic Pro 9” with several opened Audio Units.

The Sample Editor

The sample editor window is known for encompassing more complex audio editing windows. Very “sequencer-specific” this feature can be considerably different from one workstation to another. Most of the time, however, it will feature functions such as normalizing, sample reversing, time stretching, dynamics, slicing and fade in and out.

Both the arrange page and the sample editor offer similar editable functions. However, there is a difference between applying edits in those two pages. The arrange page allows you to edit events and regions without modifying the audio file on the hard disc. Conversely, if you change a sample with the sample editor it will directly change the sample which is stored on the hard disc. As an example, if you reverse a sample in the sample editor, it will modify it’s structure unalterably on the arrange page.

The Mixer

Generally, the mixer includes features such as inserts, sends, aux channels, group channels. It is an essential part of your DAW in the sense that it is from this place that you will process all your sounds (applying compression, eq, effects etc.).

Creating a new MIDI or Instruments channel in your arrange window will make appear a new channel into the mixer allowing you to modify this channel’s parameters (effects, panning and change the overall volume of the channel).

The Hardware vs. Software debate

The last point worth mentioning in this section is the never-ending debate between defenders of digital audio workstations and those that still use old-school hardware step sequencers. The latter argue that hardware sequencers are “unparalleled and that it’s only possible to create strict rhythms with the use of a step sequencer”.

If we don’t want to pursue this never-ending debate, we believe that choosing a DAW is a very personal choice. One thing is sure. Both working methods require different approaches. Today, a lot of hardware synthesizers are still used by music producers, simply because you don’t get this vintage feel whilst sitting in front of your computer. Another argument is the fact that it is always worth it to invest in hardware step sequencers since they will boost your creativity.

3. The particularities and qualities of DAWs

When speaking about the rendered sound quality, there is no real difference between different DAW’s. Today, the industry standard provides (at least) 32-bit floating point calculations, even though some software already feature 64-bit.

This evolution was necessary because the speed (it enhances reading and writing processes on your hard disk) of the computer is now much faster than with a 24-bit file. Some sequencers such as Steinberg’s Cubase still offered this format only a few years ago.

Nonetheless, each DAW has certain specificities, advantages, and disadvantages. Therefore, it might be interesting to go through their particularities as a general idea. Having several options is an advantage in the sense that you can abandon the learning process of a DAW to switch to another one.

4. How quickly can I master my DAW?

The process of mastering a DAW is very similar to that of learning a second language. It will take time, practice and dedication. There is always something new to learn: a new mixing technique, a different plugin, various connectivity options.

Our best advice would be for you to read the manual of the DAW. This will give you more useful knowledge about the product you are using. In that particular aspect, certain DAWs will be more helpful by providing built-in tutorials (Ableton Live or Logic Pro X).

Demo or limited versions of complete software (i.e: Ableton Lite or Apple’s Garageband) can also be very useful to start your learning process. Indeed, Ableton Lite comes with very good sounding drums, instruments, sampling functions which will permit the creation of euphonious musical creations.

However, there is an undeniable learning curve which you will have to go through. But don’t underestimate your artistic capabilities, you will improve faster than expected. The first tracks you will make will certainly not sound good, but if you put the right amount of effort and interest, your songs will definitely start sounding better.

“Practice makes perfect” – this expression applies more than anything else for music production. The more you create projects, the more experience you will have and the easier it will be to detect your previous mistakes.

In addition, we recommend checking out all the useful resources you can (websites, podcasts, youtube tutorials etc.). A more and more popular and efficient trend is to recreate existing tracks (check our final ressources section).

5. Our breakdown

The DAW is extremely important in your music production setup. It links your whole chain of electronic devices. Surely, you must also have realized the extended capabilities of this music-making tool. It allows you to record vocals, compose moving musical compositions and practice on your beat-making skills.

This article explained which DAW elements you should be especially aware of. The arrange window, MIDI & audio tracks, controller event data, virtual instruments & effects, sample editor, and mixer constitute essential elements.

Our final thoughts consisted of giving you a few tips and recommendations for when you start out. They give a direction you should follow to succeed in mastering your DAW.

Having focused on the essential tool for music creation which is the music sequencer, it is now necessary to understand what basic hardware is required to start creating your own tracks.

Knowing how difficult it can be to pick a DAW, we have made a list of the 5 best music-making software out there. Our goal was to give you a list of solid and proven DAW’s with their advantages and disadvantages of allowing you to make your own decision.

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