Lets Talk DAWs - A DAW For Everyone
Today, I want to talk about something that a lot of new voice talents ask about and as I see it, needs some clarification. When new voice talent decides to move into voice over, one of the first considerations is how to get my voice onto a computer? Its common to ask and there are so many options out there. It can be confusing. So what we’ll go over today are these options and what to expect.
Its not rocket science, but there are somethings to think about. Not all software that’s used in voice recording is the same, but they do work about 90% alike. By that I mean, when you hear something like “To do this, bring up your parametric EQ and…”, you’ll know that your software has a parametric EQ, you'll know where to find it and you'll know what to do with it. And there are a ton of options and terms that you might come across when using your software.
But first, lets call it what it is. Its a DAW – short for Digital Audio Workstation. What I mean by that is you have software installed, usually on a computer, that takes the incoming feed from your microphone and creates some sort of audio file or files from that. DAWs are especially good at this as they can lay down that audio file very efficiently and organize them so that playback is even better.
Now, we have a good number of DAWs and a few others I might need to address first. See, when I say DAW, I mean software that can not only aid in the recording of any audio, but also process the audio in a very efficient manner. However, there are some software that will do this, but processing is a one-way street. Confusing? I get that and I’ll explain here:
DAW – Digital Audio Workstation. As mentioned, this software is designed to write audio files with the ability to edit and alter the audio on the fly without destroying the original. Think of it like recording something on a cassette or reel to reel tape (ok, a bit old school, but bear with me). Then taking that tape and running the playback through a set of effect hardware such as volume, reverb, echos, compressors, gates, expanders, limiters… you get the idea. The tape isn’t affected but the effects can be changed, added or removed. This can come in quite handy when there is some change to the processed sound is required.
Audio Editor – An Audio Editor is a different animal altogether. While VERY useful, its like taking a microphone, running it through a mixing board or some other effects unit, then recording to tape. You get what you get and if you need to make a change to the sound, you have to re-record. I use an audio editor quite a bit and I used to use one to do my podcast. It was very easy to use as most are, but there were limitations.
Effects Chain – An Effects Chain can be used in DAWs very easily and in some audio editors, you can set a series of effects off automatically. Effects chains come in really handy when not only tweaking the output/playback of the audio, but when discussing a particular concept of audio editing (editing the audio either in a DAW or an audio editor). Its mainly a concept thing when discussing them as I watch Youtube videos from various audio masters and they may mention using and effect or technique, and even though I might not use their software of choice, I can easily grasp what they mean. I can therefore go to my software (DAW in this case) and use that technique.
On top of that, effects, or FX are what they call Plugins. That is, a small snippet of software that can be used usually in two or more DAWs.
So now that we have a better understanding of what the differences are, lets see how they are used and why.
So audio editors are great. They are easy to use, cost very little if not nothing at all (free) and get the job done. There are a number of audio editors out there:
TwistedWave (online or as a downloaded app for Macintosh/Apple)
This is not a complete list, but they are some of the more prominent titles. Bear in mind that some are free. Some may charge you or you have to buy the software. Audacity is free. iZotope is not. I’m not going to go into the specific features of each one, but if you want a great matrix illustrating the titles, visit this link at g2.com.
Some of you might ask why I put iZotope as an editor. Well, if you know what iZotope RX is, you’ll know that if you make a change in RX and save it, its saved. Done. No going back. No “undo”. Like I said earlier, its a one-way street. I do know that there are voice talents that use iZotope RX as their recording software of choice. Great. Have at it. I wouldn’t personally.
Now, DAWs being what they are, probably won’t come in the “free” category, however I think there are a few. Here are some of the more popular and most widely used titles:
Image-Line FL Studio
PreSonus Studio One
Cockos Reaper **
Avid ProTools (Expensive)
Now, to let you know what the “**” was for, I use Reaper. Its a MONSTER. By that, I mean try to get Godzilla not to attack Tokyo just by asking him nicely. However, when you master it, its very very very useful. Sorry, not trying to plug Reaper or anything. Just sayin’. But then again, I’m a masochist I suppose.
When you use a DAW, the first thing you will see it a confusing layout and terminology and tracks and takes and preferences and waveforms and… well you get the idea. It will look like the cockpit of a 747 if you’re not careful. And you can spend countless hours configuring and researching and setting up your DAW, no matter which one you choose. Contrast that with Audacity where its open it up, press R and start recording. In my case, Reaper took me about a month to get it where I wanted it and I still find new and improved ways of using it.
I’ve tried Cakewalk but didn’t find it as flexible as I do my DAW. But for what you need, which might just be the step up from an audio editor, it will indeed do the job.
Now, I’m not going to go into audio editors much, mainly because they are so easy to setup and use. RTFM (read the fantastic manual) if you need more on those.
One of the first things you will do to your DAW will be to configure it. The look, the feel, what are you trying to get it to do (voice versus music). Configuration is key to how your use your DAW. I set mine up for voice that (in my case) doesn’t have any “snapping to the time signature” or “grid” or “tempo” or anything else music related. See, Reaper is mainly used as a music mixing software.
While we’re on that, some if not most DAWs are or were designed for the music industry. I know Reaper is and I’m pretty sure GarageBand was or is. I mean, come on. It has “Band” in the name. What else would it have been for. That said…
Ok, lets say you have it “fitted out” and you want to start recording. That should be simple enough. Plug the mic and/or interface (you might have to have one of those) into the computer and press the record button. See what happens. What??? Nothing? You don’t see anything happening? That’s typical. Now go RTFM. Seriously. You didn’t and now you’re stuck.
Whew. Now you have some response on your DAW. Hmmmm, didn’t have the right input set? Perhaps didn’t arm the track for record? Maybe the settings or preferences were wrong. Maybe the sound card or driver wasn’t right. Mainly happens in Windows, but who cares. There was something wrong.
Now you can record. And record you do! Woooo Hooo. You have something. You see a big set of squiggly lines there and when you play it back, you don’t hear anything. Ok. More troubleshooting. Wrong sound output? Wrong drivers? Wrong lane (sorry, wrong blog)? Now the manual comes back into play. Once again, you have success! You can hear a playback! Splendid.
Uhhhhhh, sounds a bit… what’s the word? Horrible. Why is there so much high end and why is there a weird humming? Ohhhhhhhh. Forgot to shut off the ceiling fan. And the radio. And the cell phone. And let the dog out. And…
You try it again, and still doesn’t sound great, but better. You need some adjustments and there are a number of them that can make your day go a lot better. Here are some that almost every DAW seems to have. Learn them. Live them. Love them.
EQ – Equalization. This allows you to enhance or dehance (is that a word?) certain parts of a recording. “It sounds boxy.” Reduce the mid tones. “Oooooo what is that screeching sound?” Attenuate (that’s the word!) the high ends. “Man, I can feel that boom in my chest. Can we get rid of that?” Drop the low ends. EQ can do that. Read up on EQ as I won’t go into that here. That is a WAY too complicated and involved subject. Learn that on your own time.
Compression – Again, this is a very involved subject. Compression confuses a LOT of people and I bet you might be on. If you want a brief explanation on compression, I suggest a few resources on Youtube. You can also read one of my blogs here.
Limiting – Limiting is like compression on steroids, but it does have one advantage: It makes your audio louder with out distortion, commonly called clipping. You don’t want clipping. I have a great blog on this as I discuss how I made an old demo sound MUCH better by using Limiting along with some other effects.
Gate/Expander – This is used when you want to attenuate the quiet space between words or sentences (see, I can use my new word now!) The expander still lets some signal through but at a lower level, resulting in a signal of lower volume. I use gate/expander on my hardware pre amp which is a great time saver, but I also have a custom gate that I created using reverse compression. Read about that here. You can also read about gates versus expanders here. Its not complicated but there are reasons why both are valuable and useful.
Reverb – So you think you might want to add a little room presence without recording in your poorly treated space eh? Ok, you can ad reverb. I’m sure you’ve heard this on songs as there are a plethora of examples (means “a lot”). Try it, but do know that in most voice recordings, you really don’t want that unless you need it as a specific effect.
These are about all I use. My hardware pre amp is a Behringer Ultravoice UV1 which does come with a few effect settings build in such as compression, de-esser (takes out the harsh “S” sounds), a gate/expander and a high/low signal enhancer which does a very basic EQ, though its not an EQ.
So, I said mine was hardware, what about software? Take a look at your DAW and see what it has. 99 times out of 10 it will have most if not all of these. I mean, they mainly have to. I have rarely seen one that doesn’t. And yes, I did say 99 times out of 10. It was a joke. Get the joke or over it.
Most DAWs will have some sort of window or dock that you can add, remove or move effects around to suit your needs. The can even be bypassed and added to other tracks. Sometimes you can have multiple tracks using one effect, but I’m not going to go into that now. Safe to say that you have multiple options.
Ok, you now have an effects chain – a collection of effects in your DAW and you’ve messed with the settings on them and your playback sounds worse than it did before you started. Ok, big deal. Remove or change the effect. Wow. Now it sounds great. That was easy and did I tell you there was a difference between audio editing and a DAW? There you go.
Ok, big shot, now you have to save it. But I did save it. Where is the finished product? Well Mr Audio Master, you have to export it in some way as a finished file. You know what I’m gonna say: RTFM. Once you save it, listen to it. Does it sound the way you thought? No? Well give up then.
No, no, no. don’t do that. Go back and edit some more. Export. Listen. Curse life and all that’s in it. Rework the settings. Export. Listen. Ahhhh, now we have something!
That’s basically the concept behind a DAW. NOW for the question of the day: Which DAW or editor is the best?
Why are you asking me that question? The answer is simple: Whatever editor or DAW you feel the most comfortable with and/or know the best. There is no right answer. This is really why I’m writing this today and if you got this far, there you go. Your answer in over 2200+ words.
Now. My fingers are tired. I’m going to bed. Have fun. Hope ya learned something.