The Desktop Audio Revolution - A DAW Primer

by David Miles Huber

Desktop Audio...sounds catchy, but what does it mean? Specifically, it refers to the ability to create, edit, and assemble various types of audio media into a final program and/or product from a personal computer. The growth of this new production environment came about as audio and visual media systems became more digitized while computers were becoming more powerful and cost-effective.

By integrating digital audio editing, MIDI, and electronic instruments with video, graphics, and a dose of creativity, it’s literally become possible to create high-quality multimedia productions for personal, business, or music-industry use...right on your own PC!

So, how’d we get here from there?

As recently as 10 years ago, the recording studio was the only option for professionally recording music and soundtracks, primarily because equipment that could deliver pro-sound quality was extremely expensive. Multitrack analog recorders could easily cost tens of thousands of dollars, and studio consoles commonly came with a six-figure price tag. As a result, recording a project was (and often still is) an expensive proposition.

About 12 years ago, Sting recorded Nothing Like the Sun (the first “direct-to-computer hard disk” album). Shortly afterward, New England Digital stepped up production on their Synclavier system, which included advanced synthesis, sampling, and hard disk recording technology starting at around $150,000 for the basic system. At the time, the flexibility, sexiness, and speed offered by this fully-computerized system made its price tag more than acceptable to the top facilities.

Barely 4 years later, however, computers made the leap from application-specific (therefore extremely expensive), to general-purpose. Arguably the first personal computer to make its mark on the world of digital audio was the Apple Mac II. Its introduction made it possible for Digidesign to introduce cost-effective hard disk recording to the world of audio and music production. With Sound Tools, a two-channel editing system just under $2,000, the mid-to-entry level recording studio, broadcast media, and electronic music markets were finally able to afford the speed and performance benefits that hard disk recording could offer.

As computers became faster and less expensive, two-channel recording systems developed into more sophisticated multi-channel Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) that are capable of a multitude of music and audio-related production tasks. Today’s DAWs make it possible for content producers to record, sample, edit and mix works into a product from their own PC. In addition, the growth of multimedia and the World Wide Web have broadened the horizons of audio and media production and created new avenues for desktop audio.

Who uses Desktop Audio?

Desktop audio is not only for musicians or professional recording engineers.  The ease-of-use and widespread computer ownership has made this popular for any number of applications, and more are developing daily.

Musicians: Desktop audio can help musicians translate their creative ideas into finished songs or projects (with CD in hand) in ways that are very personal and flexible, varying from one musician to the next. For example, an acoustic musician might record and mix instruments and vocal tracks directly to a hard disk recorder, while an electronic musician might combine hard disk tracks with the power and flexibility of MIDI to assemble a variety of sounds into a final mix. Once done, both can “burn” their finished works to an audio CD that’s ready for distribution to the masses.

Video and Visual Media Creators: When synched to a video recorder using SMPTE time code, a multitrack hard disk editing program can be used to insert music, dialog, and special effects into a video with uncompromised, professional results. Likewise, a soundtrack for multimedia video clips or graphic presentations can be created without expensive hardware or supporting equipment.

Broadcasters: Creating com-mercials, editing newscasts, and inserting on-air effects with desktop audio requires a fraction of the time that it takes to get out the razorblade and cut analog tape by hand. Due to DTA’s ease and repeatability, multiple versions can be created, saved, and altered at any time.

Web Content Creators: Desktop audio can also be used to create sound effects, dialog, music scores, and music compositions. Sounds from various sources can be laid down to hard disk tracks, and assembled, effected and mixed into a compression format that can be directly placed into a website. For example, some kids down the block might use their mom’s PC to record their garage band. Using a PC that’s equipped with multiple inputs, the band can record direct to hard disk, mix a few songs and format them for the web. Next day, folks from Peoria to Pakistan can be screaming to the “streaming” sounds of the Gandga Girls.

Johnny and Jill Q. Public: Even the general masses have grabbed onto the power, fun and flexibility of desktop audio. Let’s not forget those weekend music warriors who want to record their husbands or wives at the piano or capture the excitement of the neighborhood down-home ragtime band. Using a hard disk editor, they can load their recordings into the PC, edit them, and then burn them to CD.

As for old recordings, desktop audio is a natural for taking much loved reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, or LPs; processing them to remove all the noise, clicks, and pops; and then burning the selected pieces to CD. This alone is a huge and growing market that can’t be ignored.

The Nuts and Bolts of Desktop Audio

What are the tools that have made this revolution possible? One of the most significant contributions to desktop multimedia is the two predominant operating systems that let both the Mac and the PC process data in a “multi-tasking” environment (one that allows multiple programs and media to be processed in a simultaneous and seamless manner). Next are faster CPUs, as well as larger hard drives, that can store more data and access it at continually increasing speeds. Of course, multimedia production also depends on huge leaps in hardware technology that have come about in the last few years. For example, sound cards now commonly offer high-quality audio, MIDI, sampling, and even real-time audio processing on a single, affordable card.

It would also be impossible to talk about desktop audio (or any desktop production, for that matter) without mentioning the newer generations of affordable CD-Recorders (and CD-Rewritable drives) that have changed the face of media storage and accessibility. These 650MB removable wonders have made it possible for multimedia data to be produced, edited, and assembled into a final form that can then be recorded onto CD.

Finally, another star that deserves equal billing with hardware advances is the vast number of software production packages that have come onto the market for taking raw media data and assembling them into a final, marketable product. These software systems include: two- and multi-channel digital audio editors, MIDI sequencers, software-based music samplers and synthesizers, hard disk-based video and visual editing programs...the list goes on.

All of these systems have been integrated into a single desktop PC that can help bring your vision to reality at a cost that’s unprecedented in technological history.

Why is this technology so important?

The importance and relevancy of desktop audio production can be simply summed up in three words: cost-effective power! Never before has it been possible to create music, audio soundtracks and programs, visual media, video and internet programming in such a cost-effective manner, with the degree of automation, repeatability, quality, and speed that can be offered from a personal computer environment. In short, all of the components to create a fully professional job are available to those that have the desire to fully explore and exploit the potential power of desktop audio. It truly is a revolution that’s bringing the power of media production to the people!

Terms

Here are a few definitions that can help you understand some of the technology that’s impacted by desktop audio.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) - a digital control language containing instructions for telling electronic instruments and other MIDI devices how they are to be played. A typical MIDI instruction could tell an instrument to play a certain note, at a certain velocity (volume level), and on a certain channel. Since MIDI tells instruments when and how to play sounds (and doesn’t contain a representation of the sounds themselves), it’s possible to play a simple melody or an entire score using only a small number of performance-related instructions.

Hard Disk Recording - The recording, editing, and reproduction of digitally encoded audio to and from a computer’s hard disk in either a two- or multi-channel processing environment.

Sampling - The storing and reproduction of audio waveform data into a musical instrument that can play back the “sampled” audio data at intervals that relate to our musical scale.

SMPTE Time Code - An analog and digital encoding system for synchronizing various media transports and devices together, so as to run in a constant time relationship. It “locks” the devices in time, so they can work as a unified production system.

Mixing - The combining of multiple tracks, channels, and sound files at various levels, pan positioning and with added effects, so as to create a finished musical or media product.

Streaming Audio - The ability to listen to compressed audio over the Internet in real-time. (Check out www.real.com to download the latest audio and video streaming applications.)

Burning a CD - Recording audio or media-related file data to a recordable or re-writable compact disk from a PC.

Who’s Who in the Desktop Audio World?

Some of the key manufacturers in the desktop audio arena: *

Digidesign, Inc. (www.digi design.com) - High-end digital audio hardware/software for the Mac and PC, ranging from the Pro Tools professional DAW to 2ch multimedia cards.

Digital Audio Labs (www. digitalaudio.com) - V8 high-end PC DAW, CardD+ 2ch card for the PC

Ensoniq Corp. (www.ensoniq .com) - Paris DAW for the PC, as well as a good entry-level PC sound card.

Event Electronics (www.event1 .com) - A wide range of professional soundcard systems for Mac and PC, as well as professional microphones and monitor speakers.

Korg USA (www.korg.com) - Soundlink DAW for the PC.

Mark of the Unicorn (www. motu.com) - A 24-channel cross-platform DAW hardware system, including real-time signal processing, ADAT and TDAT digital interfacing.

MIDIMAN (www.midiman.net) - High-quality sound cards for PC, as well as digital interfacing hardware.

SEK’D (www.sekd.com) - Samplitude digital audio editing software.

Sonic Foundry (www.sonic foundry.com) - A suite of digital audio editing, signal processing and CD burning software.

Syntrillium Software (www. syntrillium.com) - Cool Edit Pro and Cool Edit 96 PC digital audio editing, signal processing, and mixing software.

Sonorus, Inc. (www.sonorus.com) - High-quality PC soundcards, as well as digital interfacing hardware.

*(All brand names are trademarks of their respective companies)

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