At first glance, you may be asking yourself, “What the heck is a DAW?” No, it doesn’t mean “D’aww, she’s so cute” 😀 It means, “Digital Audio Workstation”. But Stu, that doesn’t explain anything! Ok, I will break it down further then:
A DAW is simply 3 things in your studio that are in conjunction with each other.
- Your Computer
- Your Audio interface
- Your Recording or Music Production Software
Perhaps you already have a work-horse CPU. Maybe you don’t. Chances are you have something adequate enough, and that’s fine. There are a few things to consider when you are looking into computers:
RAM stands for “Random Access Memory”, and it functions as the short-term memory of your beast. It dictates how much she can handle at one time, (i.e. windows open, programs running, etc.) Think of it as your own brain. If you have ADD like me, your RAM is low and nothing ever gets done. 😛 LOL.
Generally, I would say make sure this # is as high as possible (8 GB is adequate, but 16 GB has become sort of the standard). My setup now is running 32 GB, which is lightning fast.
In 2019 I got a new Lenovo X1 Extreme Laptop with all the bells and whistles and I love it. I previously had a Lenovo T510 with only 8GB of RAM. It’s incredible what a difference it makes when you’re doing a lot of things at one time.
- \Hard Drive\
Speaking of enough, you can never have enough space on your computer for stuff and things. I have 1 TB (1000 GB) of hard drive space on mine right now, and never has it felt so good. No longer am I worried about overloading my poor little laptop. I can have as much nonsense as I want! Even with this much room, you will find yourself doing what I like to call “Skimming the fat”. I’m constantly deleting stuff, disk cleaning, and getting rid of excess to ensure my little buddy is always running at peak performance. I would also recommend getting a separate HD for all the stuff you don’t need on your main rig. I have a 1 TB external drive and it’s invaluable.
- \Processing Speed\
For clarity’s sake, I have an Intel Core i7 8850H running at 2.60GHz. This is more than enough for me.
The point? make sure your processing speed and your RAM capabilities both match. You don’t have to go crazy here, but don’t skimp either.
- \Monitors & Video Cards\
When I had the T510, I upgraded my computer monitors to dual 24″ Asus PA 248’s. The X1 Extreme however displays 4k. I’d need 4k monitors to match, but I’ve decided to stick with the Asus’ as they look great regardless. Still, if you haven’t seen what 4k looks like, you owe it to yourself. I’m kind of spoiled by it at this point.
I think the monitors are worth keeping because of how much room you’re afforded, plus, they still look fantastic. While there is a difference in clarity/resolution and color, it’s not enough of one for me to go out and spend a bunch of money right away.
- \Operating System\
At the end of the day, go with what you are most comfortable with. I have been using Windows since I was born man (imagine Cheech Marin just said that). I have experience with Mac and enjoy using them, but I choose to continue using Windows. Maybe it’s tradition, familiarity, ease of use, or some other subconscious reason. Maybe it’s because I can vividly remember my first experience with computers and Windows 3.1. The proof is right here:
That is my dad’s old IBM PS/1, (model 2155) running on MS-DOS/Windows 3.1, with an Intel 80486SX processor @ 25 MHz, and a memory of 6 MB. Still to this day it can be found in my grandmothers guest bedroom in Smithtown, Long Island.
Think about it like this: For comparison’s sake, My X1 Extreme runs at 2592Mhz! Unbelievable.
I played Wolfenstein 3D on the one you see to the right! You know, the first-ever 1st person shooter? Good times. Endless fun was had playing games like Duke Nukem, Crystal Caves, Wheel of Fortune, Wolfenstein, Shooting Gallery, and a whole slew of other favorites that I can’t even think of right now.
Remember floppy disks? No? Well, this thing used them. Wow, I feel old. I’m gonna stop reminiscing now. Check out my article on The Best Headphones for Gaming for a trip down memory lane.
Onwards my nostalgic brothers and sisters…
This may perhaps be the most important component of your studio outside of the computer itself. What does an audio interface do? A good interface is priceless and will be the backbone of your whole rig. These powerful little boxes serve a few different purposes. First and foremost, they are sound cards. What is a Soundcard? They allow your computer to send and receive audio data from the outside world. Bit depth vs. Sample rate. They act as mediators between the analog (outside) and digital (computer) worlds. A good interface should have 3 things:
- A/D converters, which takes the analog electrical input signal and converts it into a digital form that your computer can grasp.
- Microphone preamps, to take the weak microphone signal and boost it to a higher level.
- Phantom Power, to provide your condenser microphone with enough power supply required to function.
If you want to hook up a synthesizer or MIDI keyboard, there are some interface models that have those inputs as well. What is MIDI? Most nowadays come equipped with USB/Firewire capability and are a breeze to set up. They will be packaged with software and an instruction manual. The Audio Interface: USB vs. Firewire. Just pop in the CD, complete the steps, and you are good to go!
Let me digress for a second…
A lot of people also like to be able to physically turn knobs and adjust faders and stuff. I have never been that guy, but if I had to recommend something, I would go with a control surface. It gives you all the functionality of a mixer, without actually being a mixer. The nanoKONTROL 2 is perfect for this scenario. Why do you ask? It’s affordable, has great reviews, and I absolutely love Korg products. They are durable, easy to use, and won’t break the bank. I originally had a white KORG padKONTROL from 2007, but had it replaced in 2016. One of the knobs broke on a flight overseas due to poor luggage handling. It still worked though! I eventually invested in a black one and it looks real slick in my studio. It also STILL outshines nearly everything in its class.
When it comes down to actually choosing the right interface for you, there are a few factors to consider: How many microphone preamp inputs do you need? Preamp vs. Interface Meaning, how many tracks do you want to record at one time? If you are an emcee looking to lay down some vocals on a sick ass beat, you really only need a couple (most come with 2). If you want to record yourself playing guitar, again only 1 or 2. In my case, I needed 2 line outputs to power my monitors and a couple of mic inputs just in case I get the urge to record some vocals. I ended up going with the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 after much research, and I’ve never been happier. This little man is an absolute BEAST! The build construction is rock solid, it’s a breeze to set up, and it looks amazing in my studio.
Check out my original Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 review!
Let’s say you wanted to hook up a MIDI keyboard or a synthesizer to your rig. It’s understandable, sometimes you just gotta bang out that sick piano riff. Go with the Scarlett 2i4, as it has MIDI inputs on the back. Just remember though, you will need TWO midi cables to power one keyboard or synth. Two wires must run from the back of your synth to the back of your interface.
Update: Most MIDI devices nowadays don’t need MIDI cables anymore. They are all mostly plug and play which makes it even more simple and straightforward.
A quick note about direct boxes…
For recording guitar sounds as mentioned above, an alternative to actually having expensive AMPS and miking them would be to buy a direct box. The concept is simple: You run a 1/4″ instrument cable from your guitar (or bass) to the input of the direct box. Then, you would use an XLR cable from the output of the box into the microphone preamp input on the front of your audio interface.
In a nutshell, though, your direct box provides a more accurate signal transfer by electrically mimicking the input circuit from a standard guitar amplifier. In other words, it boosts the quality of your sound and takes the microphone out of the equation.
For most people…
You can easily just record your electric guitar using a combo input on the front of the Scarlett Solo or 2i2.
To finish the discussion on audio interfaces, there are a few more options you may want to consider. Let’s face it, at the end of the day we are still consumers. Our mouths water at the prospect of incorporating a new toy into our studio space.
The Bottom Line…
Know exactly what your requirements are before buying. These units are all under $300, come equipped with what you need (A/D converters, Mic preamps, and Phantom power), and all have MIDI capability (the exception being the 2i2), as well as a balanced line output.
Also a word of advice: Make sure you aren’t trying to use a brand new unit with old technology. This cannot be understated. You will be in for a world of headache when dealing with all the driver and connectivity issues. Take it from a person (me) who has been there before. It’s super important to make sure that you have a good core (your computer) before buying a ton of gear.
Your recording software is what you will use as the motive for all of this other gear. Without it, you can’t record a track, make a beat, or do much of anything! It’s the link between your ideas and the realization of those ideas.
A lot of people like to use the word DAW very loosely. Your recording software, coupled with your computer and audio interface is what makes up your Digital Audio Workstation. That said, there is a ton of recording software out there. Truth be told, no one program is tangibly better than another. It all comes down to personal preference, or simply what you have tried and enjoyed. All that matters, in the end, is the sound you produce.
For me, 4 programs have served me remarkably well over the years:
- Image Line’s FL Studio
- Propellerhead’s Reason
- Steinberg’s Nuendo
- Audacity (free!)
As a sample-based producer, I can easily lay down tracks inside of FL studio. The program lends itself very well to this style and proves to be remarkably versatile when it comes down to mixing, EQing, chopping samples, and sequencing loops. I simply don’t have a need to switch!
As a producer who also crafts original beats, Reason is by far the easiest and most satisfying program I have ever used. In fact, if it weren’t for the less than stellar ReCycle option for slicing samples, I would probably use Reason for all of my beats. The feeling you get from banging out a loop or melody inside here is unmatched.
When it comes to vocals, Nuendo gets my vote. It’s super easy to use, and the interface is clean and organized. Even when I knew very little about recording vocals and editing them, I was able to open this program and lay down a track.
If you are hell-bent on using other programs, by all means, you should. There aren’t any awards for best software program (as far as I’m concerned), and for good reason. There is no best. It all comes down to how much effort you put into learning one.