Sunday, March 29, 2009

Word of the Day : Digital Audio Workstation

Just a note before we get started : there are many different levels of skill and experience not only within our group but in the world at large. My approach is to make the digital music experience as accessible for as many different people as I can. Therefore my articles will seem a bit basic and oversimplified to many who read my entries. Now that that's out of the way...

Digital Audio Workstation

According to Wikipedia, "A digital audio workstation (DAW) is an electronic system designed to record, edit and play back digital audio. A key feature of DAWs is the ability to freely manipulate recorded sounds." In the context of this article, we will be talking computer-based DAW software.

Ok, look - I'm just going to cut right to the chase - the biggest issue for most people and DAW's is cost. These are ridiculously expensive pieces of computer software, ranging from $100 for something like Fruity Loops and Computer Music's energyXT all the way up to $600 or so for a fully trciked out version of Ableton Live. Therefore, I have categorized my list my price ranges.
  • Free options - sigh. Sadly, my friends, the old addage that you get what you pay for is never more true than in the realm of DAW. You can find a list that Google came up with here. But I'm going to suggest one that's not on that list : Buzz. Make no mistake about it - Buzz will make your head spin. Unless you have experience with "trackers" or are just really in love with information laid out in Excel sheets (guilty, sadly), this is going to be a very difficult mental training exercise for you. However, the community support for Buzz is nothing short of phenomenal which is what makes it my preferred choice. For an explanation of how Buzz works, I turn to one of my favorite artists you've never heard of : Andrew Sega aka Necros aka The Alpha Conspiracy aka programmer for Iris. He has two videos out on Youtube which are just about the best walkthrough of Buzz I have ever seen. You can find them here and here. If you need something a bit slower and more structured, try this.

  • Low Cost Options (~$100) : The magazine Computer Music provides a demo version of the DAW "energy XT" which you can upgrade to full for around $100. I'm not quite sure how they get away with calling that "full software" as they advertise, but it ain't. There's a lot of names neither you or I have ever heard of in the list of software that costs around $100 but to once again cut to the chase, the best one is FruityLoops. They offer a fully functional demo which allows you to record to MP3 but you can't save your work so that you could go back and edit it. Then there are 4 different "flavors" you can choose from if and when you decide FL is for you. The "Express" edition is $49 but nothing more than a drum editor with no piano roll and no recording. I'm not really sure how you do anything useful without a piano roll. I suppose you could use all your melodies as audio wave files and throw them into the drum machine but the usefulness of that is limited at best. The "Fruity" edition is probably where you get the most bang for the buck and it's $99. This allows piano roll but excludes recording. To record, you have to upgrade to "Producer" which is $199 and then they have a super, mega $299 pack that they call "XXL" which includes a bunch of VST's.

    • Let's get serious ($500-$600) - I found a really great side by side comparison of all of the most popular DAW software packages. There's another table here. The heavy hitters in this group are Ableton Live ($499), Cakewalk Sonar ($619), Cubase ($499) and Logic ($499-Mac). Reason is not listed above but is $499. The one we recommend from this group is Ableton Live. It is the software that we use in our group.

    Tricks - Now as with all things you see in life, the "sticker" price is always subject to reduction and negotiation. I'm sure there are a hundred different ways to get each one of these packages more cheaply than I have listed, but let me explain mine : In order to get started, you will need a couple things : a computer (duh) and the software. One thing that we really recommend though is that you go out and buy a midi controller keyboard. It makes the creative process far more authentic and in my experience usually produces better results. The M-Audio Oxygen series is sold in a couple of different flavors. I bought the 25 key version, called the Oxygen 8 v2. It's got 8 knobs, 25 keys and 2 rollers for changing pitch and modulation. It also comes bundled with a copy of Ableton Live Lite, which is sort of a stripped down but functional version of Live. But at least you can get started, writing songs, learning the interface, etc. Upgrading to the full version of Live is also discounted by $100, leveraging some of that cash you just spent on your new board.

    Make no mistake about it : getting into computer music is an expensive process and it's only fair to mention that they are upgrading these programs all the time. In the last 18 months, Live has gone from version 6 to the imminent release of 8.

    The Live-bundled keyboard version (about $100 at your local music retailer) is the one that makes the most sense to me. Live has the rest of these programs beat on ease of use in my opinion and since we're using it in our group, I'm naturally biased.

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