I. Picking the Right DAW
“Faster, better, cheaper; pick only one of the three.” This adage is truer than ever in the age of digital audio recording. Occasionally you can get two out of three, but never all three at once. As computer power has become cheaper, more companies call themselves “manufacturers of recording hardware.” It’s now possible for a couple of guys to “invent” a Digital Audio Workstation in their basement out of a computer, an audio board, some mail order hard disks, and a little software glue. There are many startup companies trying to sell you the latest DAW-mousetrap, and with some flashy advertising, the world may beat a path to their door. Is the analog tape recorder dead? Have the days of precision-engineered mechanical parts and quiet roller bearings bitten the dust? Can you really get the quality of a $20,000 high-speed, widetrack analog tape recorder with the newest digital wonder consisting of computer, board and hard disk and costing less than $4000? How much should that quality really cost, with current computer technology? In this article, we’ll try to separate your expectations from reality.
This article will take a look at DAWs, digital tape recorders and digital mixers in a fashion you may have never considered. First, the DAW…yes, it may slice and dice, but does it sound good? Before you buy the latest cheap box, don’t forget that it takes a lot of talent and man-hours to produce good DSP software. One man-year is not enough time to produce a set of good sounding equalizers, a software digital mixer, mature editing tools, and recording and overdubbing tools. In five man-years, a talented set of individuals can create a working, reasonably dependable software-based system, and in ten man-years, a very sophisticated system. The key word is talented. The company producing this gear must have the right combination of skilled DSP engineers, user interface engineers, alpha-test supervisors, beta test supervisors, and a sufficient beta tester user base to give feedback. Because every computer program has bugs, lots of them. The trick is to turn them into little bugs before the program makes it to the street, where those bugs’ll bite you. For we’re not creating word-processing documents here, we’re trying to make high-fidelity music. One misplaced bug in DSP code can produce subtle, or severe sonic fatalities.
5 x 1 Does Not Equal Five
So, the first rule in choosing a DAW is to be skeptical over the newcomers. Be wary of the one-year old company producing DAWs. In order for a one-year-old company to have the requisite five man-years of software development, they would need at least five very talented and coordinated DSP engineers. Coordinated, because during program development five people can easily get in each other’s way; this can cause far more bugs (and missing features) than one software engineer working by himself for five years. In the case of software development, five times one does not always equal 5. So the one-year-old (or two-year old, or five-year old) company better be well-managed, with software engineers lured (or stolen) from their nearest competitors, excellent business capital (to survive those lean years and still be around to support the product you invested in), and lots of talent. But talent does not guarantee good product. Company management must be quality-oriented. When a large corporation wanted to get into the DAW market, very fast, they hired a crew of talented DSP engineers, but management cut corners in software development, in order to bring out the product in a year or so, and make dollars fast. Needless to say, that company’s DAW division has made a rough start.
Learn everything you can about the company whose products you are about to invest in. A company which has been around five years and has a strong presence in the marketplace has a good potential of surviving. But maybe five years is not enough. A while back, a certain DAW manufacturer that had been around for five years was bought out by a large conglomerate, which soon decided to get out of the DAW market. Overnight, thousands of loyal users became owners of a white elephant. That’s why I like 10-year-old companies even better….
Besides the obvious questions about development capital and financial stability, here are some other important technical questions you should ask before buying. Talk to the users (all ten of them?). How satisfied are they with the product, its performance, its potential, and most of all, its sound? Be very wise-don’t rely on the company’s “feature-promises”. Don’t expect the new ones to arrive as fast as the company predicts. All software manufacturers miss their deadlines and leave announced features out of their products. If leaping to conclusions were an Olympic event, software marketing directors would get gold medals every time. So if the product does not have the features you want today, don’t buy it on the basis of “real soon now”.
What Does It Really Cost?
Quality, features and reliability do not come cheap. Man-hours of R&D really do cost. More realistically, instead of “a few thousand dollars”, a robust workstation may require an investment from $8,000 to $20,000 especially if you want sophisticated video-synchronization features or high-quality noise reduction. Some manufacturers permit purchasing a system in incremental modules, so you may be able to get in on the ground floor of a quality system for less money.
Yes, check out the DAW’s editing features. Make sure you can cut, paste, drag, drop, scrub, mix, and equalize. Talk to a user who’s doing the exact work you are doing. A workstation that does well at video post may not be good with CD mastering. An editing station that’s good for 60 second radio commercials may not be able to do long radio dramas. Watch over the user’s shoulder. Get a real-world demonstration, not showroom hype. Are they demonstrating the release product, or a beta? How’s the learning curve? Is it long or short? High power is often accompanied by a long learning curve, so you have to decide which is more important to you. Personally, I choose high power, even if the learning curve is longer, because the rewards are greater in the long run. But you may have lots of users at your company, and they all have to take a turn at the workstation. In that case, pick a DAW with a short learning curve.
A Sound decision…
It’s a good start if the users give a DAW high marks for sonic quality. But ultimately the equipment has to pass the test of your ears. Shortly, I’ll tell you how to perform an easy, foolproof listening test for sound bugs that you can perform on almost any DAW. Digital is digital, right? What goes in is what comes out, right? Not necessarily. My article The Secrets of Dither, describes how mixing, equalization, gain changing, and digital processing increase the wordlength of digital audio words. Your DAW has to be able to handle these operations transparently in order not to alter sound. The first requirement for good sound is 24-bit data storage or even higher, and even higher resolution processing. If you want your music to lose stereo separation, depth and dimension, become colder, harder, edgier, dryer, and fuzzier, then don’t look “under the hood”.
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