I am a singer and I would like to contribute to some projects in your studios but you keep mentioning this thing called a “DAW”. What is it, and how can I get one? P.S. I don”t have a lot of money to spend!
There are a lot of articles and even a few videos on the net that try to explain how to set up your own Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Yet I still get this question asked a lot. Primarily this is because the solutions on offer are either too complicated for the average person to understand, or recommend hardware that is too expensive for the average musician to afford.
If you have been thinking of contributing to the projects in our studios, you may be surprised at how basic your DAW needs to be in order to achieve a quality sufficient for a recording suitable for release. Indeed, some of the components of your future DAW may already be lurking in your attic! But before we start, you will need to become familiar with a few technical terms…
- Multi-track – This is a type of recorder that allows you to arrange multiple recordings (tracks) on top of one-another, yet still lets you edit each one individually and “mix” them together at the end. For the purpose of collaborating with us here at Bakehouse Online Studios, you will need to keep your individual tracks separate so that the producer can mix them for the final recording.
- Soundcard – This is a board that fits into one of the PCI sockets on the motherboard of your PC and has all the input and output sockets on the back. If your PC is less than eight years old, the on-board sound card is probably already sufficient.
- Full-Duplex – This is a type of sound-card that enables you to be able to listen to your backing track at the same time as recording your part. Most on-board sound has been full-duplex for several years, but if you have an older PC, it may be worth checking with the manufacturer. If you try to record and find that you can’t hear your backing track, it probably means that your on-board sound doesn’t support full-duplex. You will then need to buy a separate sound-card.
- Monitoring – This is the means through which you can hear yourself and your backing tracks together. Your monitoring hardware will either be a set of headphones, or a pair of speakers, or both.
- Mixer – This is a piece of hardware that allows you to plug several microphones and/or instruments into your PC all at once.
- Pre-Amp – This is a piece of hardware that enables you to plug a professional microphone into your PC line input. The microphone input on a PC is designed for a cheap PC mic and does not match the level required for a professional microphone.
- MIDI – MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and was developed back in the 1970’s as a means for electronic keyboards to “communicate” with each other. Fortunately, the technology was advanced enough to cover the massive variety of musical instruments and hardware that we have today. Multi-track recording software relies on MIDI to save and transmit the data required for you automate and mix your recordings, and also to hear the digital sounds programmed into your PC’s soundcard.
- Velocity-Sensitive – The harder you hit the key or drum pad, the louder the sound.
- Latency – This is the time it takes for a computer to process the input sound before it sends it to the output and into your speakers or headphones. You will hear about this a lot on the music-related forums, but you do not have to worry about it at all here! You’ll find out why, further into the article.
So firstly, you need to determine the minimum requirements that you would need in order to start collaborating with us.
Everyone will need…
- A computer with on-board sound, or a “Full duplex” soundcard installed. – Most computers made after 2007 will have on-board sound that is “full duplex”. Check with your supplier if you are unsure.
- Multi-track recording software.
- In Addition to the above two items, see below for the additions that fit your personal skills.
A singer or acoustic instrumentalist would also need…
- A microphone.
- A microphone pre-amp.
- A set of headphones that fully cover the ears.
An electric guitarist would need…
- An electric guitar.
- An adaptor plug that turns the quarter-inch jack plug on your guitar lead into a mini-jack plug that fits the line-in socket on your PC.
- A set of monitor speakers.
A keyboard player would need…
- A keyboard with a MIDI in/out and “Velocity Sensitive” keys.
- A MIDI adaptor cable – On older PCs this plugs into the joystick port on the back of the PC and splits into an extension joystick socket and two MIDI cables (one input and one output). Most modern PCs will use the firewire or USB connectors, but you’ll need a keyboard that supports USB or Firewire rather than the traditional MIDI (5-pin DIN connectors).
- A set of monitor speakers.
If you are a drummer with an acoustic kit, I”m afraid you will end up with the largest bill! If you play an electronic kit with MIDI, you will need the same as the keyboard player (but without the keyboard, obviously!)
An acoustic drummer would need…
- A drum kit.
- Between 3 & 8 microphones.
- A microphone mixer with sufficient channels.
- A set of headphones that fully cover the ears.
Important tip! -It is very easy to get carried away by all the shiny new gadgets available in your local music store and forget that all you really want to do is capture your performance. Remember that no gadget on earth will be able to make a bad performance sound good, so please avoid visiting the pro-audio forums for advice on what gear to buy!
The biggest audible difference in the sound quality of your recording is determined by what goes IN. The devices, software and hardware that are used in between the input, and what comes out of the speakers, make significantly less of a difference to the overall quality. For the purpose of online collaboration, you should spend the vast majority of your available cash on getting the best instrument or microphone that you can afford. The rest of the picture is defined by your producer who will have all the gadgets, and most importantly, the skills, that are necessary to turn your performance into a great record!
In this article, it is my intention to focus on getting a DAW together for the least possible cost. Therefore, here are some tips and recommendations for obtaining the necessary items…
1. Your PC – I should imagine you already have a PC, or you wouldn’t be reading this article! However, if you are here because you are at the Internet Cafe, or at work, and don’t have your own PC yet at home, here are the minimum specifications you should be looking for…
- A Pentium 500Mhz PC with a 16bit full-duplex soundcard (Such as a Soundblaster “Live” card), Windows 98, at least 256Mb RAM, and a 40Gb Hard Drive. You should be able to pick up a second-hand system such as this (or better!) for less than $100 today.
2. A velocity-sensitive keyboard. – MIDI keyboards specifically for DAW use can be purchased. These don’t have any of their own sounds on board and rely totally on the sounds made by your soundcard. However, surprisingly, a low budget keyboard with sounds can be purchased for less. Figure on paying less than $100 even for a new one! Of course, you don’t have to worry about the sounds it comes with because you are really only using it to transmit MIDI data. Provided you stick with monitoring the MIDI sounds from your soundcard, you will have no problems with latency. This is because it takes virtually no time at all for even a slow PC to process midi sounds. Latency only becomes a problem when you try to monitor artificially made audio sounds such as software synths and software guitar processors that need a lot more computations before reaching the output stage. Your producer will be doing all that worrying when he/she comes to do the mix!
3. A microphone – Make sure you check out the classified ads for a secondhand professional mic. An industry-standard dynamic mic such as a Shure SM58 is still very hard to beat and can be used to record almost anything! Furthermore, you can also use it for your live performances. You should be able to find a used one for around $50. There are more articles available on the Bakehouse Studio Online Forums regarding choosing a microphone and other hints and tips for using your DAW.
4. A microphone pre-amp – If you were lucky enough to find that old PC with a Soundblaster Live card installed, it will have a mic pre-amp and a headphone amp built into the breakout box that is fitted into a CD drive bay. If not, it will be a good idea to take a look around your attic for some old Hi-fi equipment. Any old amplifier or cassette deck that has a mic input, will do to get you started. The mic input should be at the correct level for your dynamic mic and you just need to find a cable that will connect the line-out from the unit to the line-in of your computer soundcard. This will probably be a twin-phono to stereo mini-jack cable. If the unit also includes a stereo amplifier and headphone socket, it will be useful for your monitoring system! Failing all this, a brand new mic pre-amp can be purchased for around $40.
5. Monitoring – If you are only playing guitar or keyboards that can be plugged directly into the line-in of your soundcard, all you need for monitoring are your PC speakers. If you are using a microphone, however, you will most certainly need to use headphones for monitoring. This is because the microphone will pick up the sound of your backing track from a set of speakers when you are recording your voice or instrument and will be noticeable in the background of your tracks. Even worse it may cause a sound loop or “feedback” that will completely mess up your recording. So, you will first need a headphone socket, and secondly, a good set of headphones. The headphones need to be the kind that have ear cups that are solid and fit right over the ears. This will ensure that there is no sound leakage into the microphone. Try the secondhand stores again if you are short of cash. A reasonable set of headphones can cost about $50 new. If your PC doesn’t have a headphone socket, you can try plugging your headphones directly into the “speaker out” or “line-out” socket. If the sound is too quiet, you will need a headphone amplifier. Unfortunately, most separate headphone amplifiers cater for the higher end of the market and tend to be rather pricey. As you are only using the headphones for monitoring and not for mixing, my advice would be to use the headphone socket on that old cassette deck or amplifier that you found in the attic or junk shop! Take a cable from the “speaker-out” or “line-out” of your soundcard into the “Record input” of a cassette deck, or a “line input” or “tape input” of an amplifier. You can then monitor the sound from your PC using the headphone socket on the amplifier or cassette deck.
Now that you have all the hardware connected, you will need to look at the SOFTWARE that you will need for your recording.
1. The Master Mixer – You already have this! It is the sound mixer that is built into your Windows operating system! You can access it by right-clicking on the little speaker icon in your system tray. If it is not there, go to START > SETTINGS > CONTROL PANEL and open “Sounds & Audio Devices”. In the window that appears click on the “Audio” tab. In the drop down lists, select your sound card. Click on the “Volume” buttons to open the recording and playback mixers. In the recording mixer select “What U Hear”. That will enable you to catch all sounds your computer makes including the midi sounds from your soundcard. You can then close that window. The playback mixer you will probably need to access to adjust the mix for monitoring purposes. It is therefore best to leave that window open.
2. The Multi-track Recording Software – By far the best FREE program we have found for our collaborators, is the KRYSTAL AUDIO ENGINE. If you have a 24bit soundcard installed, you are able to record at our ideal 24bit 96Khz resolution using this software. It also includes the necessary codecs for compressing your tracks to FLAC format before uploading to our studios. Full tutorials can be found on their site and they also have a user forum that should answer any further questions you may have about the operation of the software. For the purpose of collaborating with us, you can skip the section relating to audio FX and plugins, as this part of the process will be covered by your producer.
3. File Conversion Software – In order to convert the MP3 backing tracks that you download into a format that can be imported into your Krystal software, you will need a FREE tool that can be downloaded from HERE. Unfortunately, the MP3 codec is not open source, so in order to use it, you will need to register the program in order to retain the license to encode and decode MP3 files. It is not expensive though, and well worth the investment as the MP3 file format is still the most widely used audio compression codec.
Now you have everything to get started!
It is likely that you’ll encounter some problems when you first set up your DAW. So here are a few tips to help you overcome some of the most common problems…
The first problem you may encounter is that you start playing but no sound comes out! Although, the following things may seem rather obvious, there are a lot of them, and it is all too easy to miss something. I still do on occasion and I’ve been doing this for nearly 40 years!
- Is everything plugged in correctly?
- Is everything switched on?
- Is the “what U hear” channel selected in the Windows Recording mixer, and is the fader up?
- Are the correct channels selected and turned up in the Windows Playback mixer?
- Is the correct channel selected in your recording software?
- Is the track “armed” for recording?
- Is anything “muted” that shouldn’t be?
- Are the master and channel faders up in your recording software?
- Are your Audio drivers correctly configured in the audio preferences of your recording software?
- Does your monitor amplifier have the correct input channel selected?
- Is the volume control turned up for your speakers or headphones?
If you’ve checked that lot and you still have no sound, you could be suffering from a dodgy cable, or from driver problems. It may be worthwhile at this stage to check that your soundcard is working properly by putting it through the DirectX diagnostics program that you’ll find on your PC under Accessories > System Tools > System Information. In the System Information menu, select Tools, and run the diagnostic program.
The second problem you may encounter is hearing an echo when you are recording. This happens because it takes time for the computer to process and save your recording to your hard drive before sending the signal to the output. This is easily corrected by switching off “software monitoring” in the audio preferences of some recording software.
Another, less common, problem is that your recording sounds out of sync with the backing track when you play it back. Your recording program will probably by default have compensated for this by adding a 200 millisecond latency setting. This setting may have to be adjusted on some computers so that all tracks end up perfectly in sync.
I hope that this information makes it relatively painless for you to set up your DAW. Don”t forget to sign up for a collaborator account when you are ready to join our team of session musicians!