Project Studio Essentials Part III: The Computer and the DAW

Beyond the microphone and audio interface, the path toward an efficient project studio becomes less clear. Waiting beyond these two pieces of relatively straightforward hardware is the software world – the computer and the digital audio workstation (more commonly known as the DAW).

Why has it gotten murkier? Well, this is point where opinions become more vociferous, tribal battle lines are starkly drawn. There is simply so much choice when it comes to facilitating the production of music “in the box” that almost everyone will have a different opinion.

There’s also a comparatively steep learning curve when confronted with the DAW. Options for sculpting sound in the software realm are almost endless, so a degree of patience is required if you’re new to this territory.

Another piece of ubiquitous, new age audio jargon is workflow. This is a byword for efficiency in music production – but efficiency doesn’t really do it justice. There are a myriad of directions in which you can take a song in the midst of production and having healthy workflow means that editing, recording, performance and composing can all take can all be facilitated without encountering too many frustrating technical hurdles.

So, the computer and the DAW work hand in hand, providing an environment that inspires creativity. Read on as we dive into the brain of the project studio.
 

The computer and the DAW make up the nerve centre of the project studio. Read on as we talk computer specs and ask: Which DAW is right for you?

The Engine Room

Few topics get audio types hot under the collar like computers. The whole PC vs Mac debate is interminable, and in some ways, driven more by grievances with company philosophies and tribal affiliations, rather than performance. 

The key components that actually affect performance in a music production context are the computer’s central processing unit (CPU), storage and RAM.

The CPU is a chip that can be found on the computer’s motherboard and controls all of its functions. While there is a wealth of detailed information and opinion available to you on the topic of best CPU for audio, it’s best to get a grip on the basics.

CPUs are made of cores – the more CPU cores you have available, the more simultaneous tasks your computer can perform. This will improve the smoothness and speed of your computer when working with audio, virtual instruments, plugins and so on.

If you’re aiming to create complex sound worlds that rely heavily on high fidelity plugins and numerous virtual instruments, a quad-core CPU will probably be a minimum. Hexa-core and upwards will be more desirable for running mixes with high channel counts.

Storage and Speed

Hard drives are also important for getting a smooth and speedy response from your computer. Hard disk drives (HDD) are comparatively older technology; Solid state drives (SSD) are definitely in vogue for audio production.

They are faster, with no moving parts and less prone to shock damage. They can be, however, quite pricey. Therefore, you’ll need to do the maths on how much storage you’ll actually need to run your sessions efficiently. A good compromise could involve running your projects off a smaller solid state drive, while backing up and archiving them with a larger HDD.

Potentially of importance in your computer is RAM (random access memory). RAM chips store data temporarily, which enables faster access.

If you were doing a DIY building project, it would be smarter to go to your shed just once, grab all the tools you need and have them within reach on your workbench, allowing you to work quickly and economically. RAM works like this. 

Therefore, if you had masses of data that you needed for a music project – for example, a large orchestral sample library – having more RAM would be beneficial. This might require you to have 16 or maybe even 32 GB of RAM on hand. Whereas for smaller projects, you might only need 4 to 8 GB.

Open That DAW

Now that you’ve researched and digested a dizzying array of technical computer specs, it’s time to get creative. The DAW is the software that records audio, plays hosts to numerous virtual instruments, facilitates editing of audio, MIDI and a plethora of other music production tasks.

Choosing the right one for your own needs is inevitably a deeply personal decision. And in an effort to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded market, each offers unique features that may or may not speak to your ideals when it comes to music production.

The DAW came to prominence in the professional studio system in the 1990s. With decades of incremental improvements, the DAW is well and truly a mature technology.

Which One is Right for You?

Pro Tools has cemented itself as the industry standard and is still highly sought after for its no-fuss recording and audio editing capabilities. Logic has also evolved to be a classic allrounder, though only available on Mac OS.

Programs like Fruity Loops, Ableton Live and later, Reason have taken an alternative approach to production, prioritising user interfaces that encourage modular building blocks, going on to be hugely influential in shaping electronic music.

In recent years, Reaper, Bitwig and an increasing number of DAWs based on mobile platforms have further democratised software based music production. And a number of programs like Garageband, Audacity and Soundtrap have little to no cost involved, so it’s easier than ever to start your journey without a significant cash outlay.

Translating the analog into digital and getting your sounds into the box is a tremendously empowering experience. Cutting edge computer power has fostered the growth of incredibly powerful tools for producing and manipulating audio. While DAWs are endlessly innovating, creating ever more intuitive ways for us to make music. In short, it’s a great time to be alive!

Arming yourself with a basic knowledge of the relevant specs and experimenting with a range of DAWs can help all elements of your project studio to work together in harmony.

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