Digital Audio Workstations
Having grown up in the era of analogue audio and tape recorders, I have been learning about the ways of the studio in the current era. The biggest technological change has been the widespread adoption of Digital Audio Workstations, DAWs, as the centre of studios. They are undeniably powerful, versatile programs, creating working environments that would have been hideously expensive, if not impossible in the last century. They have introduced new ways of working with audio, new tools for editing and processing sounds and music, higher levels of sound quality and innovative ways to collaborate online with other musicians and audio engineers.
The DAW was developed from the 1980s concept of a MIDI sequencer based on home computers, notably the Atari ST. I used an ST in 1987 to run C-Lab Notator software, the forerunner of Apple’s Logic DAW. The programs have developed very much since then. There are many software houses producing DAWs to suit different users and marketplaces.
I have used a number of different DAWs on PC in my home studio and on Mac at the University of Salford on my MSC Audio Production course. Here are some of them.
MAGIX Music Maker
Magix produces audio software for the professional and home markets. Music Maker 2022 is their DAW for the hobbyist, yet is capable of superb results. I used an earlier version as a low-cost introduction to digital audio. The DAW can serve as a vehicle to assemble its thousands of clips and loops into tracks, it can record whole productions from scratch using audio, VST virtual instruments and MIDI, or any combination thereof. It was a useful learning experience. Had I not been keen to explore what other DAWs had to offer in professional settings, I could happily have stayed with it. They offer a free version and options for more fully featured editions with lifetime free updates and very good technical support. The full version is incredibly cheap, it offers capabilities that would cost several times its price in other DAWS. I heartily recommend Music Maker for the hobbyist or beginner.
Ableton Live is a popular DAW with DJs and hobby recordists, also crossing over to the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) professional arena. Its unique selling point on introduction was the use of clips placed in a grid to build up arrangements which could be switched rapidly ‘on the fly’. allowing improvisation within flexible structures in live performance. Personally, I found it rather like making identikit music out of sonic Lego bricks and found its user interface rather simplistic. Maybe the tape-recordist in me likes to see things flow horizontally like a virtual tape recorder, the vertical columns of clips in Ableton didn’t converge with my imagination of how an arrangement should look. I prefer more control in a detailed yet user-friendly GUI. It clearly works well for many users, but it’s not for me.
Reaper is a flexibly priced DAW whose creators trust their users to pay different prices for the software depending on their use and professional status. It is a fully featured product which is uniquely suited to object-based immersive audio as well as the more usual uses of a DAW. I used it for a project at University. Having already tried several other programs, I found it hard work to learn the program’s features. Each manufacturer has their own set of commands and shortcuts, different commands for the same functions. Users who are accustomed to Reaper and its capabilities will be capable of excellence.
Steinberg Cubase has been in production since the 1980s. It is continuously developed and improved, the technical support is superb and in my experience it is a stable and reliable platform. As befits a mature application, the user interface is an excellent balance between clarity and detail, with a logical workflow and menu structure. It suits my way of working. Every function and control seems to be right where I’d expect it to be, even if I haven’t used that function before. I find it intuitive to use and obtain excellent results from it. Steinberg invented the VST specification for virtual instruments and plug-in effects; third party products integrate perfectly with Cubase. For me, Cubase is fast and user-friendly, massively capable and continuously improving. It is the choice of many professionals I respect, such as Tom Holkenborg, Kebu and others. The whole Cubase experience is a joy. My first choice DAW.
Avid Pro Tools
For many, Avid Pro Tools is the ultimate DAW. It comprises of systems ranging from music-making packages, through professional recording and mixing studio systems right up to massively complex hardware and software systems for producing movie and broadcast sound. Avid manufacture a range of audio interfaces, control surfaces and peripherals to suit the range of uses Pro Tools is suited for. Its proprietary AAX plug-in format allows added functionality from a large number of manufacturers. It has been widely adopted as the recording, broadcasting and post-production industry standard. As such, it is almost a pre-requisite for audio engineers to become competent with Pro Tools. Avid runs a training and accreditation scheme to this effect. I find Pro Tools to be very complex, user-unfriendly and difficult to learn, mainly because it has such a wealth of functionality and purposes. To a Cubase user, the user interface of Pro Tools has many hidden drop-down menus and options that are hard to become familar with and not always as obvious as in other DAWs. Its power is undeniable, whether it is the software of choice for each individual is a personal matter.
References: Magix.com (2022) Music Maker 2022 Premium Edition https://www.magix.com/gb/sem/music-maker-premium-edition/
Ableton.com (2021) What’s new in Live 11 https://www.ableton.com/en/live/
Reaper,fm (2021) Reaper Digital Audio Workstation https://www.reaper.fm/
Steinberg.net (2021) Cubase https://www.steinberg.net/cubase/
Holkenborg T (2021) Tom Holkenborg https://tomholkenborg.com/
Teir S (2022) Kebu Official Homepage https://www.kebu.fi/
Avid.com (2021) Pro Tools Music Software https://www.avid.com/pro-tools
Apple.com (2022) Logic Pro https://www.apple.com/uk/logic-pro/
Trask S (1989) C-Lab Creator And Notator http://www.muzines.co.uk/articles/c-lab-creator-and-notator/
Apolloboy (2020) Atari ST (platform) https://www.giantbomb.com/atari-st/3045-13/