In the past five years there have been huge developments in the use of sampled beats within DAWs. Most DAWs can take a raw beat that you’ve recorded and slice it apart — into separate sixteenth-note segments, for instance (Fig. 4). If you need to speed up or slow down the song, the slices can be spaced closer together or further apart, thus preserving the sound while changing the tempo.
Fig 4. Slicex, the loop utility in Image-Line FL Studio 8. The beat is sliced apart in the waveform window near the bottom. Each slice can be processed separately using a big set of synthesis modules, such as filters and envelopes, in the upper part of the panel.
Once a beat has been sliced, you can perform various tricks with it. By changing the start times of certain slices, you can add a shuffle feel or advance the snare slightly for a more aggressive backbeat. As long as the snare or kick isn’t mixed in with a cymbal or some other sound, you can replace the slices with different samples, thus preserving the beat that you played while swapping in a different snare drum.
After inserting a beat, which may be only one or two bars long, into a track in the DAW, you’ll be able to extend it so that it repeats for a whole verse or the entire length of the song. In most DAWs, you do this by grabbing the right end of the loop with the mouse and dragging it. If you want to leave a hole for a break or fill, grab the scissors or eraser tool and get rid of one of the repetitions. Building up a song arrangement this way can be quick, painless, and fun.
Pre-sliced beats are available in several formats. If you’re planning to use beats from an existing library, check to see whether your DAW will load such formats as REX files, Apple Loops, and Acidized Wave. Many DAWs will handle all three, but the details will vary.
Though drum loops may be the most common type of loop (because most musicians can’t play drums!), you’ll also find loops containing bass and guitar riffs, wind instrument licks, and many others.
There are two types of plug-ins: instruments and effects. Most DAWs come with a variety of plug-ins of both types. If what you need isn’t supplied, or if you want better quality, you can purchase plug-ins from third-party software manufacturers. On the Mac, the standard plug-in format is called AU. VST plug-ins are found on both the Mac and PC, and DirectX plug-ins will operate in Windows. In addition, Pro Tools uses a format called RTAS. Many of the plug-ins you can purchase are available in all of these formats, but a few are not, so check for compatibility before you buy.
Every time you add a plug-in to your project, you’ll be using more of your computer’s CPU power. (The CPU is the main chip that does the processing.) As computers get more powerful, manufacturers tend to create plug-ins that use more and more CPU. If your computer is more than a couple of years old, newer plug-ins may require so much power that your mix will choke and grind to a halt during playback.
This is annoying, but not a disaster. Most DAWs allow you to “freeze” one or more tracks so as to reduce the CPU load (Fig. 5). When you freeze a track, it is rendered to your hard drive as an audio file, and the plug-ins are turned off. Playing back audio from the drive requires much less CPU than running a bunch of hungry plug-ins, so freezing a few tracks will allow you to go on working on your song.
Fig 5. Plug-in synths are hosted in Steinberg Cubase 4 in the VST Instruments window (lower right). Clicking on the button that looks like a snowflake will bring up the dialog box in the center, allowing you to freeze the instrument’s track. In the background is the Zebra2 synth from U-He Software.
Many plug-ins have built-in browsers or some other utility with which to save new presets that you’ve created. But if you’re mainly concerned with recording songs, you don’t actually have to take the extra step of saving an edited preset. When you save your song file, the settings of all plug-ins should be saved as part of the file. When you reload the song, it should sound exactly the way it did before.
Your DAW will probably be able to operate in tandem with another DAW, and with other types of music programs, using a protocol called ReWire. ReWire is especially useful for using Propellerhead Reason in conjunction with a DAW. Reason is not a full-fledged DAW (it won’t record audio tracks or host third-party plug-ins), and it’s not a plug-in either. But ReWire lets it operate, to a limited extent, as if it were a plug-in.
The reason to use a DAW is, of course, to produce finished mixes of your music, suitable for sharing with audiences. Your DAW will include a number of tools that can help produce more professional-sounding mixes.
The first step, after you’ve finished recording and editing the music, is to set the levels, panning, and EQ of the various tracks to produce a rough mix. The mix can then be refined using automation (Fig. 6). You’ll be able to automate almost any parameter of any device: When a parameter is automated, its setting will change during playback. For instance, you might want to automate a reverb send or output level, raising the level so as to produce a cavernous echo at a dramatic moment.
Fig 6. Automation envelopes in Ableton Live. The numerical value is displayed in a pop-up for the breakpoint over which the mouse is hovering (upper right). The piano-roll data is gray in all of the automation tracks except the top one, because it’s just shown for visual reference: All four automation envelopes are controlling the same device.
There are two basic ways to record automation. You can move the faders and other controls while the music plays, or you can create automation envelopes by clicking and dragging with the mouse while the DAW is stopped. If you have a big budget, you might want to get a control surface, a hardware device with a number of physical faders that can be mapped to controls in the DAW. But if you create all your automation with a mouse, your listeners need never know the difference.
All DAWs can save the finished mix in stereo 16-bit format, suitable for a CD. Many of them can also export mp3s, which are suitable for uploading to the Internet.
At the end of the day, it’s still about the music; it’s about what your listeners hear, not about the technology you used to create it. Equipped with a DAW, even an inept musician can sound amazing — until you listen closely. As a result, good musicians have to scramble harder to stand out from the pack. Being a DAW power user isn’t guaranteed to give you a successful career, but if you’re willing to put in some time learning the new tools, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
When recording audio tracks to a computer, you’ll create large files. After every session, it’s vital that you back up your work by copying the new files to another disk — either to an external hard drive or to a CD or DVD. Computer disk crashes are rare, but not unknown.
Most music software is copy protected. This is annoying, but without copy protection a lot of companies would have gone out of business a long time ago, and we wouldn’t have nearly as many cool toys to play with. Buying a legal copy is the right thing to do, but it also makes practical sense: After registering your copy with the manufacturer, you’ll be able to post questions on the user forum and get quick answers to thorny technical questions.
After installing your new software (usually from a CD or DVD), be sure to go to the manufacturer’s web site to check for updates. Most software is updated semi-regularly, both to provide fixes for bugs and to add cool new features.