DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation, and is basically software that enables you to work with audio files – edit them, mix them, etcetera. There are multiple ones out there, and most of them have quite a high price attached to them, but there is a free tool if you’re not ready to spend that much.
- (Free) Audacity. It has existed for a long time, and is the most popular DAW for people just starting out with recording their own songs or compositions. It has a vast amount of features (especially for a free tool), and can be your first step into the business. You can play around with it a bit to get a feeling of what the world of audio mixing is like, but after a while you’ll notice the limits of the software and will need to upgrade. It is your decision whether you want to first learn audacity’s workflow and interface.
- (I use this one) PreSonus Studio One. The interface, overall look and workflow are better than in any DAW I’ve ever tried. It has all the features you will ever need, but still makes it easy for beginners to start using it to its full capacity.
- Ableton Live. Another big player in the industry, and is most known for creating instrumental tracks. It does support recording audio/vocals, but it was originally meant as a software for live mixing, and it still has the best feature set if you want to create dubstep or dance music.
- Propellorhead Reason. Doesn’t support audio recording, but is focused on instruments. It is therefore by far the best tool if you are creating instrumental tracks and want all possible options and variations in the world.
- Cubase. It is cheaper and more abstract/difficult for newcomers, but its lower price tag and long-time existence makes lots of people use it.
- Pro Tools. I’ve never used it, and I’ve seen lots of people migrate from this one to studio one. It does however offer roughly the same amount and type of features, and is often called the Windows equivalent of Logic Pro. It has the biggest use rate amongst professional studios that don’t use Apple devices.
- (I’ve used this one) Logic Pro. Mac only. If you own a Mac, there’s usually already a small sort of DAW installed that is called GarageBand. It is perfect for people playing around with mixing and mastering, and people who don’t need a lot of special options. If you do want more professionalism, you can use Logic Pro, which looks, feels and works mostly the same as GarageBand. I can recommend it, I only stopped using it because my Mac died.
Choosing your tools
With tools, I mean what you’re going to record with. What you’re using to listen to the sound is also important, but that is discussed in another chapter (monitoring).
Microphone. A microphone is needed to record any audio, like vocals, guitar strumming, etc. The proper ones start from a price of about 100-150 euros, and I have one in that range that has worked well for me for more than six years now.
MIDI Device. Usually, it’s a keyboard, but there are alternatives. It is basically a device where you can press buttons and turn around switches and all, and it will send those signals to the computer. Then your DAW will interpret them as the tones of an instrument, and that’s how you can emulate lots of instruments. A good keyboard usually also starts from about 100 euros.
Audio Device or Audio Interface. For a small setup, this is not needed. Your computer or laptop probably has enough USB ports to plug in the necessary items, or you can just swap them whenever you need one. However, if you want to record multiple things at the same time, or you want to have a setup where you never need to change or fiddle with it, you need an audio device. It’s a big heavy box that has lots of inputs, and (sometimes lots of) outputs. It also has some buttons on them with which you can already edit, alter and mix some of the sounds before or while they are put into the DAW.
Getting ready to Roll!
Now that you have all the tools you need, you might be tempted to think you can immediately start recording. But I have to disappoint you. Music mixing does not mean ‘magically making audio sound amazing’. You can use MIDI instruments if you’re okay with the way they sound, but if you for example want to record vocals, you’ll need to practice singing the song before pressing the big record button. With some effects, you can make your voice stronger, fuller and correct some very tiny mistakes in pitch – but that’s absolutely as far as you can go.
For example, for recording guitar, the sound of strumming and switching between notes or chords is also needed to create a proper recording. All I’m saying is: you’ll still need instruments and some skill with them to create a song.
Now you are ready to go! The first few chapters are about terminology and theory behind mixing & mastering – if you’re going to read something, at least read that. There’s a chapter about monitoring, but if you don’t have the money to spend on high quality monitoring systems you can skip the smaller section about that as well.