Digital Audio Workstations

A glimpse at computer based recording and editing

Written by: Brandon Miller

Caged-In Records / Monkey Studios

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Digital Audio Workstations, otherwise known as DAW, is a great and easy way for upgrading the sound quality and versatility of home and project studio recording. In fact, if you have a four-track machine and a computer, more than likely you too can have your own DAW.

As we know, the two important parts of a DAW is the digital medium- i.e. your computer-and your mixer. Here at Caged-In Records / Monkey Studios, I use a Mackie 1202 VLZ Pro. It’s a great mixer that can be picked up for under $400. It has excellent mic pre-amps, low cut filters on 4 of the 12 channels, 3 band EQ on all 12 channels, and 2 effect sends that allow stereo returns. It’s very versatile, at home in the studio as well as on the road.

For my computer I run a 400mhz Pentium II with 96mb of ram. One of the most important things to keep in mind when using you computer as part of your DAW is the amount of hard drive space you have. I have a 13gig drive on mine and I still run out of room after 12 songs or so. RAM is a very important part of it too because that is what is going to provide you with your power to run internal effects. I also purchased a CD burner for it for the sole reason of making copies of what I do. CDs are great for archiving your work.  Always backup your data in some format, whether it's on ZIP, JAZ, MO, CDR, etc.

The software is very important also. I recommend getting a copy of Cool Edit Pro. Despite the “cheesy” name, it is a rather powerful program with a terrific effects engine. Cool Edit Pro will allow you to record up to 64 stereo tracks. You can record to as many of those tracks as you wish at one time, provided you have enough inputs to allow it. Cakewalk comes recommended from quite a few people also, and is a great program too. I prefer Cool Edit Pro because of the simplicity to switch between either multi-track and wave form views.

Another very important part of the DAW is your sound card. I run two Turtle Beach Daytona sound cards. They have a decent signal to noise ratio and work quite well. They allow me to record either 2 stereo tracks or 4 mono tracks at once.

Most everything about a DAW is the same as your multi-track cassette studio. Outboard effects are great…especially for those of us that like to watch the blinking lights and fiddle with knobs. Near Field Monitors are also a must. Don’t throw out your headphones or pack up your little computer speakers yet though. They too have a purpose in a DAW. I have a run of the mill JVC satellite system that consists of a sub woofer and two smaller speakers. Powering them is a Pioneer stereo amplifier. Surprisingly they have an incredibly flat frequency response.

For outboard effects, I first run the signal through an ART FXR Stereo Multi-Effects processor. This provides me with all of my reverbs, delays, echoes, and other important effects. That is, unless the signal is a vocal track in which I run it through an Alesis Nanocomp for de-essing via an insert jack on the Mackie. After the ART unit, the signal then goes onto an Aphex Four Channel compressor for over all compression. If, for some reason, the compression takes a bit out of the sound, or I’m working with tape tracks, the signal goes through a BBE Sonic Maximizer…the stereo version. After that, it goes onto a Yamaha 10 Band 1 Octave Stereo EQ and then back to the board as a stereo signal.

Connecting everything together are high quality cables. If you want to get into the digital realm of home and project studio recording, you need good cables. The so called “Guitar Cables”, or crackly cords as we here so fondly call them, found at your neighborhood Radio Shack are not going to cut it. Buy good cables, and used balanced lines wherever possible.  Now, I’m sure that I don’t have to be re-stating all of this, but you know, some people's kids.

Other toys and goodies found in my studio are important too. I still have my very first 4-track machine. It’s an old Yamaha MT 100. Great little machine even though it has no onboard EQ. I use a Boss DR-5 Drum machine when I get an acoustic group that might need a click track or a little something to move their song along. One highly recommended toy is a minidisk player/recorder. I happened to have gotten a package deal with where I got an additional portable MD player. It’s great because I can bring it anywhere and know what the tracks sound like on any stereo I want. An outboard CD player is also nice to have so that you can have a reference point for your mix if you’re going for a certain sound. One of my favorite toys is my Akai 4-Track 1” open reel deck. Sure it might be analog, but it makes ANYTHING sound so much fatter and warmer. Remember, with DAW you can import a sound file from anywhere you wish and basically “drag and drop” it where ever you wish.

Microphones, as we all know, can literally make or break your sound just as much as cables can. For vocals and other light sources, I use a Rode NT-1. It’s an affordable large diaphragm capacitor mic. If your local music shop doesn’t carry them, check out Musicians Friend. They have them for around $300 or so. I also use a variety of Shure SM58’s and 57’s along with a few Radio Shack PZMs.

When asked to write this, I was asked to add any problems and/or hints about setting it all up. A lot of it will have to deal with what equipment you are using. I learned rather quickly that I had to have more than one way to listen to my mixes. Easy solution, get a couple of Radio Shack audio selector boxes. They are pretty cheap…..maybe 20 bucks a piece, but well worth it. Don’t get confused when you see that they expect you to use three selectable inputs to one output. You can easily turn it into 3 outputs from 1 input.

Another hint I have for you is to watch your meters. At first I relied upon what I saw on the mixer for signal output. It is important to watch the signal meters on the computer on whatever program you choose to use. Don’t forget that just as with cassette-based machines, boosting your input level  to compensate for a quiet signal can lead to the wonderful world of noise. Most good programs have a noise reduction engine that allows to get rid of the noise. Keep in mind that it will also affect your tracks frequency response if used too much. As a final thought, digital audio can get chewed up real quick by a hot signal. In the digital realm, there is no warm distortion as with analog. You will hate yourself if you don’t watch your software’s meters, get that “perfect” take, and then realize that the take is no good due to the fact that your input signal was too hot.

That’s about it for me. If you have any questions regarding Digital Audio Workstations, whether you’re utterly confused or just want a more in depth explanation of something described herein, drop me a line at Cage77@Netzero.net and I’ll get back as soon as I can. Until then, good luck and happy tracking.

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