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Your DAW Debut

Tips for landing the perfect first digital audio workstation

Posted in Songwriter 101 on June 2, 2004 by

If you’re about to get your feet wet in the multi-track world, congratulations - there’s never been a better time. Yesterday’s $1,200 eight-track machines are now selling for a fraction of that amount; not only are today’s recorders cheaper, they’re also smaller and easier to operate. If you’ve put off procuring a basic digital workstation due to lack of funds or lack of skill, you’re out of excuses.

While there are a host of recording systems to choose from on the current market - including computer-based packages and hard-disc standalone units - for the newcomer, it’s tough to beat the all-inclusive digital audio workstation, which handles most basic tracking, mixing and processing requirements in one tidy package, eliminating the need for excess gear and unruly wiring. In addition to being a convenience store of recording capability, most mid-line DAWs include a “playlist” or “virtual track” feature, which lets you record multiple takes of the same passage on a single track. And by utilizing non-destructive editing, DAWs let you copy, cut, move, paste and insert parts at will, with numerous levels of undo at your disposal should you mess up.

Choosing Your Unit
Thanks to the ever-popular home-studio market, DAWs come in just about every shape and size imaginable, from the minuscule, battery-powered variety, to the powerful, pro-level systems with both tracks and storage to spare. Deciding which machine is right for you depends on a number of factors, including: a) the type of work you do; b) the number of features you’ll need; c) the number of people you work with (or if you work alone); d) the amount of money you’re willing to spend. However, don’t sell yourself short; even if you’re a solo act, at today’s prices, you can consider owning a machine that will continue to serve you once you join together with the band.

Workstation species. Basically, the DAW world is divided into three main sub-groups: entry-level (one or two mic/line inputs/simultaneous recording tracks, 32-128MB of removable-media storage); intermediate (up to 20GB storage, at least four mic/line inputs, 4-8 simultaneous recording tracks, built-in CD-RW); and pro-level (up to 16 mic inputs/simultaneous recording tracks, 40-80GB hard-disc space, built-in CD-RW, automation). Generally speaking, entry-level models are suitable for single-source projects only but are also exceedingly light and easy to operate, making them ideal for on-the-spot demos and basic remote applications; intermediate and pro-level models offer the advanced processing, XLR connections and multiple simultaneous recording tracks required for band sessions or other multi-source projects.

The first order of business when workstation shopping is determining the number of mic inputs you’ll need for a typical job, followed by the minimum number of recording tracks you’ll use on a daily basis. If it’s just you, your guitar and four walls, you could conceivably get away with the most basic DAW on the market, such as the Fostex MR-8, a pint-sized eight-track system equipped with a pair of XLR inputs and a 128MB flash card for storage, as well as the palm-sized ToneWorks Pandora PXR4, which also writes to a removable media card. Both run on batteries, include a built-in mic and offer basic effects processing, all for around $300. For another $200-$400, machines like the Boss BR-1180 and Fostex VF-80 offer substantially more storage space (20GB with included hard disc), additional patching capability and spiffier on-board processing.

By now there’s no good reason to be working with cassette tape, but if you must, both the Fostex X-12 and Tascam MF-P01 4-track Portastudio will get you there for less than a hundred bucks.

Intermediate and Deluxe DAWs
Because you’re working in the digital domain, lack of tracks isn’t necessarily a problem (unlike tape, you can bounce to your heart’s content without incurring sound loss). On the other hand, lack of inputs becomes an immediate liability once you decide to invite extra players to your recording sessions. Even if there’s a remote possibility of a multi-mic mix in your immediate future, you should strongly consider moving up one notch before you make your purchase.

Jumping up to the next level of DAW can cost you at least five times the amount of the basic entry-level machine. But if you have a band that has recording aspirations, or if you want to multi-mic drums or other live instruments, the extra-input/extra track versatility of an intermediate DAW isn’t really a luxury - it’s a necessity.

When browsing through the mid-sized market, consider your particular needs. For example, if you’re a guitarist who wants superior amp-modeling with tracks to spare, you might consider a machine in the order of Roland’s VS-1824 (around $2K), which sports first-rate processing (thanks to Roland’s patented COSM effects card) in addition to eight-simultaneous recording/18-simultaneous playback tracks and a host of other top-flight features. However, if you’re on a budget and you don’t mind sacrificing a few features, at the other end of the price spectrum is Tascam’s 788 Digitial Portastudio, which includes six inputs and basic processing (reverb, delay, compression, others) but still lets you go at it eight tracks at a time, all for around $600. Well worth considering in the $900-$1,200 range are the Fostex VF-160 (eight mic connections including 2 XLRs with phantom power, built-in CD-RW and a full 16 simultaneous recording tracks), followed by Yamaha’s popular AW-16G (eight tracks at once, eight mic/line inputs including 2 XLR connectors, 20GB hard drive and internal CD-RW).

If you’ve got the cash ($3,000-$4,000) and the technical prowess, you could conceivably take the big plunge and go for a deluxe model like Roland’s VS-2480 (or its newest companion, the VS-2400) or Akai’s DPS24, which put pro-grade features like 24-track recording and motorized faders at your fingertips. However, if this is your first trip to the digital planet, you’ll be better off saving your money and sticking with something that’s a bit more manageable.

Used Options
Like any other computer-based product, the DAW depreciates mighty fast - which means you can often score a great deal on a used unit for a fraction of its original price. Naturally, there is a boat-load of potential hazards when treading in the land of the pre-owned (no owners manual, no guarantees that the machine won’t go ka-put the second you turn it on). But if you’re willing to take the risk, the rewards can be substantial. Maybe $350 is only enough for the most basic new unit on the market, but for the same price you could walk away with a second-hand Roland VS-880, the trend setting eight-track that once commanded four figures. The market is flooded with many other DAW deals - just be sure to do your homework beforehand and proceed with caution.

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