Sooner or later, you want a DAW. Why? Because in the long run, using a Digital Audio Workstation is the most cost-effective way to do quality music production. Yes, it takes a little more effort and learning at first, but this is true of most really powerful tools. It can also allow an easier and less expensive upgrade path as you gain the experience (and the budget!) to expand your capabilities.
The words “Digital Audio Workstation” can sound intimidating at first, but don’t let that throw you. A DAW can be a very complex tool, but it can also start out as a relatively simple setup. First of all, a DAW is nothing more than a computer that has been built or adapted for the recording, mixing, and processing of sound. In fact, just about every personal computer now has the ability to record sound, although only at the very simplest level, and with limited quality. You almost certainly already have a computer, which means you have the beginnings of a DAW right in front of you. With the right software and a few outboard add-ons, you can start recording your own music. A fully professional setup is somewhat more expensive and complex, but the good news is that you can build it up in stages without having to trash your whole setup for the next upgrade.
So why don’t music stores all push working with a computer? Basically it comes down to money, since a music store is a business and the end goal of a business is to make money. How much money a music store makes is affected by two factors: sales volume, and the cost of each sale. If you sell more, you make more. The less each sale costs, the more money you make. The faster you can make a sale, the less it costs. Explaining things takes time, so the less you have to explain the faster you make the sale. It is in the music store’s (short term) interest to sell things that are easy to explain, and computer systems are, well, not that easy. Let’s look at the alternatives, then.
First, there is the “old school” studio setup: a collection of equipment with each “box” doing one thing. You have a mixer, a recorder, and various outboard compressors, reverbs, and other effects. These are then connected together with a lot of cables. What you have to do is assemble all of these things into a system, which takes time and effort.
For the salesman, however, it is easier to explain each box, and each box is another sale. Better yet, the customer will probably need to come back later for even more boxes. It is also easy to point to a studio picture on a magazine cover, and gosh, look at all those boxes! If the “big boys” do it that way... You can indeed make some fine recordings this way, but before you can even start tinkering (the best way to learn is to DO, right?) you have to plunk down a lot of cash.
Since a pile of stuff like this can be intimidating, it can be tempting to look for a simple answer. What could be simpler than having everything in one box, ready to go, with no assembly required? The “studio in a box” option is fairly easy to sell because it looks like a simple answer: Here is a single stand-alone unit that can record and mix, and includes some effects as well. What often happens is that after a while the beginner is, well, not a beginner any more, and is no longer satisfied with either the features or the quality of his all-in-one box. When he wants to upgrade, he has to start from scratch, which generally means a fair-sized investment. Often the move is to a computer-based system, which is, IMO, what the beginner should have gotten in the first place.
The Correct Answer
A computer based system, though, is not easy for a salesman to explain quickly, and the customer’s learning process can ultimately be quite a hassle for the store. For many music merchandisers, then, the customer’s long term best interest does not quite fit with what they see as the store’s best interest. I’m not saying that the store is a bad place, only that you have to look at it as just a “purchase place” rather than a one-stop shop for all the answers you need.
Part of the difficulty with a DAW is that there is more than one way to build one. There are a number of different systems available, but they break down into two categories: systems that require dedicated hardware DSP (Digital Signal Processing), and systems that use the computer’s own processor to do the processing, which are often referred to as “Native” systems. The best known example of the first category is Digidesign’s top of the line Pro Tools system. Examples of native systems include, among others, Nuendo, Sonar, and Saw Studio (my personal favorite).
In my opinion, DAWs that require dedicated hardware DSP are often more expensive than they need to be for the performance offered. The required proprietary DSP hardware adds to the cost of the system. Years ago, of course, there really was no other choice. The first computer-based recording rigs used the computer mainly as a display and control device, because at that time computers did not have the power needed to directly handle audio in real time.
Since then, however, the power of personal computers has become much greater, and now even relatively “ordinary” systems can play and process multiple tracks using only the power of the computer’s own processor. These systems are called “native” systems, because the work is done in the computer’s own, or native, processor instead of requiring added “foreign” hardware DSP (digital signal processing) cards.
My personal preference is for native systems, and it is these that I recommend as being the best to start out with. Native systems let the user choose his own hardware in terms of sound cards and converters, which allows the user more flexibility in terms of options for upgrades of hardware.
Today there is lots of native DAW software available, at prices ranging from less than $100 to well over $2000. This price is just for the program, but you can use just about any sound card with it, even the sound hardware that came with your computer. For serious work, though, you will likely want to buy a professional sound card, and probably outboard converters, as well. Of course, there are the preamps, microphones, speakers and such that are used in just about any studio, but these cost the same no matter what recording setup you choose. The good news here, though, is that you can upgrade your system in easy stages, so you can start with something modest without having to lose all of your investment when you are ready to “step up”.
So, if you are just starting out and trying to choose your first recording equipment, I recommend that you look at your computer. You will have to go through a bit more of a learning process, but setting up a Digital Audio Workstation is the best way to develop your recording setup in easy, affordable stages. You will be able to keep control of the process, building up your equipment as you develop your ears and your skills. I will go from the “why” to the “how” of this process in future articles, so be on the lookout...