Friday, July 4, 2008

Intro to DAW’s

The Set Up

Last month we talked about setting up your workspace and some alternatives that may help with the creative juices and getting more done. This month we're going to take a better look at some of the software that's available for writing and recording on your computer. There are different variations of a couple of definitive themes and once your get to know the basic layout of one program you will be able to use another (albeit with a bit of a learning curve depending on the program). DAW is acronym for 'digital audio workstation' and not only is it used to describe the computer you're using but the software as well.

The Playing Field

The biggest names in audio software are Digidesign (Pro Tools), Steinberg (Nuendo, Cubase), Apple (Logic), Cakewalk (Sonar) and MOTU (Digital Performer). There are also other companies like Propellerheads and Ableton that produce audio software but there is a difference that we'll get into in a future post. There are also separate audio editors that are available such as Sony Sound Forge and Steinberg Wavelab. These programs are used mostly for editing and not multi-track recording. The big names all produce multi-track audio recording software and the basic layout and method of operation are pretty close. You're given two screens to work with. First there's the multi-track view (or edit page) that allows you to see all of your recorded tracks on a horizontal grid. There's usually a timeline along the top indicating time in SMPTE or bars and beats (or both). The tracks are arranged in lanes and each lane contains the audio files for that particular track. Second, there's a mixer view that contains all of your tracks in a mixer view with faders, inputs, eq's and so on. It's important to note that both views represent the same tracks, just different views. For example if you change the volume on the edit page, that volume change will also be reflected on the mixer.


There are a few problems that you might encounter that are inherent in every audio software program. One is setting up an external hardware unit to get your audio in and out of your computer. Some computers come with inputs and outputs but for serious recording you will want to go out and get hardware that is specifically designed for the purpose. Some programs like Pro Tools won't work without their proprietary hardware although all of the other audio programs will work with most of the major hardware manufacturers. Most manufacturers provide drivers with their products that are specifically designed to work with specific programs. For example Steinberg programs use ASIO drivers with their programs and most hardware manufacturers will provide drivers to use their product with that program. If you purchase an external unit make sure that the manufacturer provides drivers for the program that you are using. You are also going to need a MIDI controller if you intend on recording using the instruments included with a lot of these programs.

The Technique of Recording

Another prerequisite is all of the knowledge inherent in recording and getting a good signal. That includes getting the right level to the computer, setting up microphones and instruments properly etc. The topic of audio engineering is too vast to cover here and will be covered in a future posts. Suffice to say that audio recording is all about 'garbage in, garbage out. A badly recorded track is going to sound bad no matter what software you're using.

Basic Connections

Something that people new to audio recording (and recording software) have a problem with is the fact that there are connections going on that aren't reflected on screen. For example you should know the basic signal flow of a mixer to know what's going on with the software. You should know the difference between an insert and a send effect. You should know what groups and auxiliary sends are. This is just basic knowledge that is ingrained in all of the software that you should know before tackling any major recording projects. Most major DAW's now come with a good selection of plug-ins and instruments. Knowing your signal flow is the first thing you should know before going in a tweaking any of these.

Effects and the Like

Another thing that you will need to know about is the different plug-ins available in recording. These include reverbs, delays, chorus, equalizers, and compressors to name a few. It's good to have a basic knowledge of what each of these plug-ins do and how to use them in a mix. Not only is it good to know what the effect does but where it's useful and how to make basic settings. A lot of the programs now come with instruments too. Using one of the available instruments not only includes some knowledge of synthesizers but MIDI as well since the programs use MIDI to translate your performance from you MIDI controller to the program. You may also want to go in tweak some of the settings in your MIDI performances.

The Journey

There are a ton of things that you need to know when staring out into the world of DAWs. There is a learning curve in getting familiar with the layout and tasks within each program. Beyond that there is the inherent knowledge that you are expected to know before you even begin. Within each discipline there is a world of knowledge. Recording, engineering and mixing are all disciplines in their own right that can take a lifetime to learn. While this may seem like a lot to absorb at once it all becomes worthwhile in the end. We now have the ability to record, edit and master a complete album all without leaving your computer. Software programs with this level of depth usually take a while to learn. Make sure that if you're just starting out, just learn the basics that I've mentioned here as it can be a lot to absorb all at once. A basic knowledge is really all you need to start and then you can take your time learning new things while creating your masterpieces. Everyday will bring a new understanding or a new piece of valuable info. You may find that you always have something new to learn: the journey really never ends.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Monitoring Your Mixes

In the perfect world we would all have the ultimate studio set up. This would include a proper space to record and produce your music. The room would have the right dimensions and would be tuned and treated for sound properly. Of course this world is far from perfect and for most of us out there, the space we use to do our thing musically is usually a spare room or basement where sound was the last consideration. A lot of musicians simply do with what they have and hope for the best. The problem is that your monitoring system is one of the most important parts of the recording chain. With a less than optimum system you can never be sure of exactly what it is you’re tweaking or listening to. Problems not only include the room that we’re mixing in but also the gear we’re using to monitor the sounds. So if you’re like most people out there and have a less than optimum monitoring situation what do you do? Obviously the best situation would be to get the best monitors you can buy and acoustically treat the room. If you’re not able to do that, or it’s something that you plan on doing in the future but would like to get some work done in the meantime, what are some things that you can do to optimize your monitoring situation?

The Importance of Monitoring

Aside from the front end of your recording system (pre-amps, mics, etc), the monitoring system is one of the most important parts of your recording studio. This is the system that you’re using to gauge everything that you are listening to and recording. If it isn’t set up properly, then it isn’t representing the audio accurately and you can never be sure of what you’re listening to. It’s the equivalent of doing graphics on a crappy computer monitor with improper color settings. You may spend a ton of time getting the colors just right only to find that on different computers the colors look way different. Likewise, you may spend a ton of time getting the mix tweaked perfectly only to listen to it at your friend’s house and have it sound like crap. One of the things I hear musicians say all the time is that the tune sounded amazing in the studio but sounded horrible when they played it on their car stereo. There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, not all studios, even some ‘commercial ones’ are treated properly. I use the word ‘commercial’ because these days the lines between pro and amateur can sometimes get skewed. Some places look great from a visual perspective; unfortunately, acoustics don’t care how great it looks. The other reason why your mix sounds so different is because you lose your sense of reference. What happens when you spend enough time in any space, your ears become accustomed to the space and it becomes harder to discern between was sounds good and what doesn’t. In essence, your ears start to play tricks on you.

Your Space

So you don’t have an acoustically treated or space or the best monitoring system but you want to get some tracks done anyway. The best way to start out is to get used to your room and see if you can make the room sound better without spending any money. There are systems out there that you can use to test your space and see if there are any problems. These can get pricey and there is a bit of a learning curve involved, but can be useful for all the DIYers out there. There are also some basic things that you can do such as making sure that you cover big open walls with some sound dampening material. If your room is perfectly square it’s also a good idea to put up some furniture or move some things around so it’s an irregular shape. Keep speakers away from corners and walls if you can. There are a ton of articles out there about treating your room with some basic acoustic treatments too. Familiarize yourself with basic acoustic theory just so you know what’s happening. Thanks to the internet there’s a ton of info out there about this stuff that’s readily available and most of it doesn’t cost a thing.

The Ubiquitous Reference Track

The best way to start off is to listen to some tracks that you’re familiar with and have heard many times. By playing CD’s that you’re familiar with, you may hear some problems immediately or at least know what sort of problems you may be dealing with. For example you know that the mix sounds great but in your space the bass is a bit boomy. Sometimes it may sound better in your studio than in other rooms but you have to be careful with this too. Some frequencies may be boosted artificially and even though it sounds good with extra bass (for example), it’s not giving you’re an accurate representation of what’s going on in the mix. In this example you may think that there’s more bass there than there actually is only to find that on other systems your mix sounds thin.

Take your time with this step and try to see if there are some small things that you can do that will make a big difference. Where you put your speakers and sub may have a huge effect on the sound: not to mention where you sit. Don’t worry as much about the aesthetics for now and just try to get a good sound. There’s a lot of grey area here since we’re simply using our ears and not being very scientific about it. The thing is that you may notice a lot of difference if you take the time to really pay attention to the room you’re in. Sometimes in our eagerness to make music, we may skip some small steps or simply not take the time to really get things set up properly. Listen to different tracks in different genres. Listen at different levels. Try listening from different parts of the room. I’m often surprised at how different a mix can sound in different places within the same room. Although it may make sense as far as space and design goes, try not to box yourself in a corner or up against a wall. Look at pictures at high end studios and see how things are arranged. Notice how the small monitors are positioned. Notice how the mixer is usually sitting in the middle of the room. Notice how the room and the ceiling are irregularly shaped. Notice the position of the mixer relative to the position of the speakers. There are always exceptions but you will find a lot of similarities between studios.

Multiple Monitors

Once you’ve tested your space and made the necessary adjustments, you’ll have a basic idea of what you’re dealing with in your studio. If you’re not sure about your space and/or don’t have the resources to fix it all just yet, what can you do about making music in the meantime? The best solution for getting something that you know will translate on many other systems is to simply check it on other systems. This involves a couple of things. First of all you need to have a couple of different sets of monitors in the studio. You will obviously want to get the best nearfield monitors that you can get. Beyond that you need a couple of other monitors. Besides my main monitors, I have a set of cheap computer speakers set up on the desk in front of me; just like you would with your own computer monitors. The important thing here is they’re cheap. I have better computer speakers that I use on my multimedia machine but the ones in my studio are old and cheap. This helps me in two ways. First of all it gives me a good idea of what the track will sound like on cheap music systems and TV. Keep in mind that even though we have HD TV and all of that, a huge portion of the population still watches TV through the cheap mono speaker on the set.

Make sure you always check your tracks in mono. Some of those great huge mixes end up sounding not so great when listened to in mono. If you don’t think that mono is that important, think again. Not only do a lot of people listen to TV and watch videos in mono, a lot of other places (like restaurants and pubs) pipe their music through their space in mono speakers. A lot of the time when music is piped through PA systems, it comes through in mono.

Other Systems

I also have a couple of sets of headphones that I use to check the mix too. Headphones are great for checking the stereo separation and making sure things aren’t out of kilter with your panning or balance. Beyond that I’ve found that as many different types of headphones there are, each as a personality of its own. I have three sets that I use on a regular basis. One set is really bright, one has huge bass (accentuated) and one set are just really good (expensive). Here again is another example where the most expensive aren’t always the best. Yes, I like the most expensive ones the best and they are the ones that I use for vocalists, but the others are just as useful to me.

If you have a regular stereo in another room in the house check your mixes on that too. The most important part of this system is that it’s in another room. It’s always good to check your mix in another room before making any final decisions. To take this principle a step further, sometimes when I’m working on a mix, I’ll go and listen to the mix from another room. I’ll turn it up a bit, leave the studio door open and listen to it from the next room. You’ll be amazed sometimes how different the mix can sound from a different perspective. Some professional mixers will also move around the studio when mixing to get the same effect.

Another system I check my mixes on are my mp3 player. It’s a fact of life now that this is the way your music is probably going to be heard. I convert the mix to a 128kps mp3 file, put on my not so great ear buds and go for a walk and listen to the mixes. I listen to a couple of my favorite tracks before and then I’ll stick my mix in the middle of the playlist. This is usually the best indicator of how my mix translates. Any problems with the mix usually jump right out at me after listening to a couple of commercial tracks in a row. Its great having a sub cranked when listening to your music but if I can hear the bass and kick clearly on my little mp3 player, I know that I got it right. This also lets me know if I got those troubling mids right too.

Once I had gotten the mix to where I liked it, I had one more system to check it on; a professional system at a club that I DJ’d at. This was my last check and it was something that I did only after I was absolutely sure that it was ready to go. This was usually the best test of all. If it sounded great on a loud, professional system I knew that it was ready. If you produce dance or hip hop I would suggest that you do this if at all possible. If you aren’t a DJ, go down to your local club and see if you can get it played there. Chat the DJ up and let him/her know who you are. Offer a drink or something if it helps. This is one of the best ways to see how well your mixes translate because it allows you to see not only how your mixes sound on a professional system but also if the energy and feel of the song translates to the people at the club.

I know a lot of people who spend a lot of time in their car and have a good system in there. For these people, how the mix sounds in their car stereo is usually the best check for them. You may have your own place or system that you use to listen to most of your music. The most important thing is to have a couple of different systems in different spaces so you can make sure that your mix translates well.

A lot of Work

You may be reading this post and thinking ‘wow, that’s a lot of work’. Well, yes and no. Yes, it would be great if I could just sit in front of my monitors in my studio and know that what I was listening to was an accurate representation of what was actually going on but we’re talking about working in less than optimal conditions; a problem that a lot of musicians face. But, by checking your mixes on multiple systems in multiple environments you’re assured that it will translate well on most systems out there. You will have to make that extra effort to ensure that it sounds great. In the meantime, your mixing skills will most likely improve and you may find yourself getting better at identifying problems before even leaving the studio. After all, even with all of the great gear that’s out there, it still comes down to your ears and imagination!
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