Digital Audio Workstations
The coming of age of the Digital Audio Workstation has implications that go far beyond being simply another item of interest to electronic musicians. Craig Anderton brings us up to date on what’s happening at the top-end of the professional recording world and how it will affect us mere mortals.
The coming of age of the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) has implications that go far beyond being simply another item of interest to electronic musicians. The DAW represents a plateau of maturity for the digital music revolution launched well over a decade ago (and accelerated through the widespread acceptance of MIDI). Without doubt, the Digital Audio Workstation will change the way we make music by giving the composer more power than ever over how a composition will be realised.
When modular synthesizers were first described by Robert Moog at the 1964 New York AES Convention, they represented new and uncharted territory. The modular nature of these machines encouraged experimentation and creative approaches - anything could be plugged into anything else, thanks to a standardised control voltage (CV) system. In those early machines, even the filters were broken down into modular components. There was no such thing as a bandpass filter in early Moog synthesizers; you coupled together a high-pass and low-pass filter to filter out everything except for a particular band of frequencies.
The downside of modularity was the excessive amount of time it took to create patches. Since every single timbral element of a sound had to be specified and interconnected, and many dials and switches needed to be set, the first synthesizers were anything but rapid production tools. Over the years, it was discovered that certain configurations of modules seemed to cover most musical needs. To this day, the chain of signal elements included in the Minimoog (oscillator-filter-VCA, with envelope generators to add dynamic timbral and level variations) remains the most popular normalisation scheme for analogue and hybrid synthesis. Although creative options were sacrificed thanks to the fixed configuration, synthesizers could be used in a repeatable way and set up in much less time than the modular monsters. This integration into a single package also reduced manufacturers' costs; when the Minimoog hit the market, the days of the £15,000 modular synthesizer were numbered.
Now we've seen a similar situation happen with MIDI and digitally-oriented electronic music devices. When MIDI first appeared, several people (myself included) felt that the days of modularity were back. For example, rack-mount MIDI sound modules could be driven from guitar, keyboard, or drum controllers. Various modular accessory boxes - mergers, Thru boxes, switchers, and so on - helped re-configure these modules into new variations. Computers were brought in as additional modules and, furthermore, the computers themselves were modular; you could swap boards, use a hard disk instead of a floppy disk, add on a modem, etc.
As with modular synthesizers, these modular MIDI systems offered extensive creative options, but at the expense of time and efficiency. Channels needed to be set, MIDI reception modes needed to be adjusted, interconnections had to be occasionally debugged, and boxes like channelisers and switchers had to be properly set up. All of this took time, as did trying to convince a computer designed for general purpose business applications that it was a musical instrument.
"Without doubt, the Digital Audio Workstation will change the way we make music by giving the composer more power than ever over how a composition will be realised."
Once again, it's time to consolidate. The Digital Audio Workstation integrates various digitally-based music-making elements into a single, efficient, timesaving package. What elements make a DAW? Although that question is subject to debate, I pretty much agree with WaveFrame's definition that such a system should be principally based in the digital domain and should include synthesis facilities (sound generation, typically through sampling), storage and editing, signal processing, sequencing (sometimes), and mixing. However, when compared to systems like the Fairlight, Synclavier, WaveFrame, Soundstation II, etc, it becomes clear that there are different levels of power. A sampling keyboard may have sufficient sampling time to store numerous waveforms and sounds, but it would be hard to pull off a complete project that needed a lot of acoustic recording solely with a sampler. Therefore, I think it's important to differentiate between a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), where it is possible to take an audio project from conception to completion, and a sampling keyboard, which - although capable of being used for some stand-alone recording projects - is more typically part of a modular system consisting of other synthesizers, a computer running a sequencer program, etc.
One of the most significant aspects of a quality DAW is the speed with which tasks can be accomplished. As with synthesizers, system integration results in faster operation and a more focused approach on the part of the operator. Defaults don't have to be set for a variety of instruments, because all 'instruments' are part of a single system. There's no need to interface a computer with sound generators; they're already integrated in the DAW package. Controls and the user interface can be optimised for musical applications, as opposed to being part of a general purpose machine. This means a lot to the composer, who is constantly fighting to get ideas out of the imagination and into some form of audio with the least amount of creative interference. Those who have watched ideas dissipate while waiting for a disk to boot, or a program to re-start after a crash, know all too well what creative interference can mean. For the present, the fastest route between imagination and reality is the DAW.
Another advantage relates to the archiving of sounds. Ideas can be seized as soon as they appear and can be stored in the DAW for later use. As Sting said last year in a press conference on behalf of New England Digital (the Synclavier manufacturers), every musical idea he has had over the past few years is digitally stored and ready to be pulled out at a moment's notice. Even with a Synclavier, I've been able to do much the same thing with my Emulator II sampler and Macintosh sequencer. Sometimes, a 'hook' composed two years ago will all of a sudden mesh with a chorus written yesterday. All of these musical fragments are captured with a spontaneity that greatly improves the overall quality of the music, yet can be edited and refined in a totally pre-meditated way at any point after the initial creative impulse.
"One of the most significant aspects of a quality DAW is the speed with which tasks can be accomplished."
At the moment, a true Digital Audio Workstation is still expensive. The WaveFrame starts at about £45,000, a typical Synclavier system will set you back about £100,000, and the Fairlight Series III falls into the same general price range. But there are alternatives...
The new Emulator III, for example, combines a very capable 16-bit sampler with a very capable multitrack sequencer, and provides many of the functions of larger DAWs. The ADAP system from Hybrid Arts piggybacks on the Atari ST to provide hard disk recording with reasonably good editing, all for a few thousand pounds. [Editor's note: the Lynex system from Commander Electronics also mates with an Atari ST computer and offers similar facilities to the ADAP.] PPG's hard disk recording system is already being used for jingles and to 'fly in' sampled sounds for multitrack recordings. And it is possible to assemble a modular DAW; if you are willing to cheat a bit and use analogue multitrack recorders to handle high density storage needs (ie. acoustic signals that would require a prohibitive amount of memory if recorded digitally), combining a sampler, sequencer, tape recorder, and some means to synchronise all these system elements will enable you to do much of what the 'big boys' can do but at a fraction of the cost.
We can also look forward to prices ramping down in the years ahead. Already, hard disks have plummeted in price, and economical optical storage technology is just around the corner. [In fact, Atari recently announced that they would be releasing a CD-ROM machine this year for under £500 - Ed.] These technological advancements will someday make today's £100,000 Digital Audio Workstation seem just as financially outrageous as the £20,000 modular synthesizer of the mid-60s.
Every musician wants to be able to create music as painlessly and efficiently as possible. The fact is the Digital Audio Workstation is bringing us closer to that ideal than ever before.
© 1988 Electronic Musician magazine ((Contact Details)). Used with the kind permission of the Publishers.