The Essential Guide To DAWs – The Basics

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Welcome to the all-new MusicTech Essential Guide Section – if you’re new to the world of music production, then this is where you need to be. We open up our first instalment with a guide to the very centre of the music-making universe – the Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW…


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DAWs – The Basics

A warm welcome to the first in a regular series of features aimed specifically at newcomers to music production. In every article, we’ll cover a specific subject in music making with a view to explaining it from a very basic level, and will get you up and running with simple step-by-step guides.

We’ll also feature Buyer’s Guides – and each month, we’ll suggest a music-production starter setup for different budgets, genres or a specific task.

So, where better to kick things off than with the central component of today’s recording studio, the Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW)?

From sequencer to recorder

DAWs used to be known as sequencers: software (or hardware) that simply allowed you to sequence or arrange notes together to make tunes. They became popular on home computers like the Atari ST or Commodore Amiga, recording digital note information in terms of its note length and pitch. The digital information was – and still is, for that matter – recorded via a standard called MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).

You play a note on a MIDI keyboard, and that note’s position (key) and length is recorded into your sequencer. Simple! These notes could then be played back to trigger sounds from inside the computer (back then, it was sounds from the computer chips) or outside, via sound modules. All recording was done by way of a set of ‘transport controls’ for recording, playing back, fast-forwarding and rewinding, much like the tape or video recorders of the time.

In the late 80s, audio was added to this sequencing capability, so you could take sounds in from the outside world – vocals, guitars and so on – and blend them with the MIDI notes. By the end of the 90s, computers became powerful enough to run their own instruments which became ‘plug-in’ instruments for sequencers, so the software could trigger complex software emulations of real instruments (known as virtual instruments), or software synthesisers capable of producing sounds never previously available. Because of all of this extra functionality and the ability to handle audio, the term ‘sequencer’ gave way to the more all-encompassing term ‘Digital Audio Workstation’, or DAW for short.

Open DAW

The modern DAW features all of this plug-in instrument power, multitrack audio recording and a whole lot more. Typically, you build up a song within a DAW track by track – beats, instruments, guitars, vocals and so on – by either recording that audio in via a separate hardware interface or using the software’s virtual instrument plug-ins. Most DAWs come with a huge variety of these instruments, although there are many third-party software companies producing different ones, sold separately.

Pretty much every real instrument has a virtual counterpart and there are plug-ins that can make sounds impossible to produce in the real world, such is their complexity. You can even recreate an entire orchestra within your DAW, with plug-in instruments that come with huge libraries of gigabytes of individual recordings made by each orchestra member that you then trigger and record – still via MIDI.

Apple’s Logic – a DAW overview






A. Tracks – Your song comes together track by track. In this case, we’re showing four different tracks labelled Synth, Lead, Bass, and Audio

B. The song – This is shown in the main arrangement window, where you can see the information – notes, etc – as data that corresponds to the tracks on the left

C. Timings and bars – As this song plays, it moves from left to right (indicated by the pointer). The window at the top shows your song position in bars, or minutes and seconds

D. Transport controls – You can move the song pointer (C) by pressing various transport controls for play, record, rewind or fast-forward

E. Instrument track – You have either instrument tracks or audio tracks. In this particular project, Logic is triggering one of its own onboard piano emulations

F. Instrument – This instrument comes from Logic’s own library, which is listed on the left of the screen. You can load in instruments here, or via the mixer

G. The mixer – And here is the mixer. Virtual faders allow you to adjust the volume levels of each track, by clicking and dragging them up or down with your mouse

H. Audio track – The other type of track is an audio track and the audio information is shown as a graphical wave (white on blue)

Looping the loop



guide to DAWs


One of the fundamental aspects of sequencing or using DAWs is looping. A loop is a sequence of notes like a bassline or piano riff, or it can be an audio loop, like an 8-bar drum loop. You create your song by repeating a drum loop, for example, to make your entire drum track for the duration of the song, maybe adding some fills and variation along the way.

Similarly, repetitive basslines can simply be looped to take the strain out of recording fairly basic patterns over and over. Software like Ableton Live (above) specialises in looping clips to make songs.

Tricky for no particular reason

It used to be that DAWs came packed with almost too many features, but in recent years, DAW producers have concentrated on ease of use. So it is now fortunately much easier to switch between them and make music. The features are still there if you want them, but workflow for the main tasks – recording and arranging – takes priority and is relatively straightforward.

Putting together pieces of music is logical enough a process, and one that’s still based on those early sequencers. Generally speaking, when recording each of these tracks, a DAW will show what you record from left to right – so how the song progresses through its arrangement. The tracks within the song will go from top to bottom. Some DAWs, such as Ableton Live and FLStudio, favour a more looping environment, and you then arrange these loops to make your song.

Once you’ve recorded your audio or instrument tracks, the beauty of the DAW comes in the arrangement. It’s very easy to cut, copy and paste parts of an arrangement to produce a complete song. Think of it as a word processor for music making and you won’t be too wide of the mark. The relative volumes per instrument or track can easily be adjusted with onboard virtual mixers – usually simple sliders, which let you raise of lower volume levels per track.

There will always be a pan control, too – this allows you to push the sound left or right within the stereo space. Very often, the changes you make with volume levels or changing other parameters can be recorded – meaning you can record the movements of a track slider or fader to create a drumbeat or vocal, for example, which fades in and out during a song.

Editing notes

If you wish to change your tune, or you’ve made a mistake when recording your initial notes, there are usually several ways to edit notes in a typical DAW. Score editing is available in software like Sibelius for those musicians brought up in the ways of traditional notation. For the rest of us, grid editing is available, where you get a virtual keyboard shown on screen and can click on notes to drag them around, or change their lengths and their velocities (which determines how loud they sound). Once again, the beauty of DAWs is that you can copy-and-paste individual notes or groups to take the strain out of playing and recording.

Steinberg Cubase – a DAW overview






A. Tracks – Again, in Cubase, the tracks are shown from top to bottom and this time, they’re more colour-coordinated. Don’t worry, you can change all colours to suit

B. The tools – The Tools within a typical DAW are at the top or bottom of the screen and allow you to select between tools to drag, cut or glue notes and sequences

C. Audio data – Most sequencers operate with audio and note data. The audio is ‘real’ sound shown in waveforms, which could be a vocal or guitar recorded externally

D. Note data – This is the MIDI note data, which can be recorded to trigger internal virtual instruments, or external MIDI hardware

E. Track info – You’ll see that the mixer has the same names as the tracks above, as it is controlling them. You can also note whether the track is stereo (two hoops) or mono (one)

F. Song position – The song position – ie, how far you are within your arrangement – can be shown in minutes and seconds or, as here, bars and beats

G. The mixer – Like most DAWs, Cubase’s mixer design emulates what an audio mixer looks like in real life, with faders to increase and decrease volume

H. Transport controls – Here, the transport controls for playing, fast-forwarding, rewinding and recording are at the bottom of the screen

Panning permission

Once you have your song arranged in a DAW by copying, pasting and dragging note information and sequences, the next step is to mix the song.

On a very simple level, this is achieved by raising and lowering the track faders so you can hear everything you need to. You’ll also need to position all of the parts onto the stereo image of the track, so that they don’t clash with each other by panning them left or right, usually with a virtual dial.

We could, of course, write an entire feature on the art of mixing – and we’ve done so many times in the past, so visit MusicTech.net to read more in-depth info on the process – but there’s one simple rule when it comes to panning a typically acoustic or band-produced song.

Imagine the band is on stage and pan your sequencing parts accordingly – so that, for example, your singer is in the middle, meaning your pan dial for the vocal stays central. The bass guitar, too, can sit in the middle; the guitars slightly outwards, left and right, keyboards just slightly left and right of centre, and the kick drum in the middle, too.

Try and fill the stereo image from left to right, and you’ll soon feel that your mix has breadth and depth to it – which is the hallmark of professional productions.

DAWs come packed with effects that do a huge variety of jobs. They can be used creatively, to add notes (with delays); or to fatten sounds and vocals up with choruses; or simply to add a nice sheen with a bit of reverb. Once again, we’ll cover these in future Essential Guides… but there’s one rule to take away now: less is more! Don’t overuse effects when mixing, and try and get a decent recording in the first place – you don’t want something that you have to repair with too many effects or edits later.

Ableton Live – a DAW overview






A. Tracks – Like other DAWS, Ableton Live has audio and MIDI/instrument tracks. But rather than running top to bottom, they run left to right

B. Clips – The software utilises ‘clips’ within these tracks, which you can click on and they will play together or loop to make a song or live performance

C. Audio clip – Most clips shown here are MIDI clips triggering internal plug-in instruments, but here’s an audio clip triggering the drum loops shown at the bottom of the screen

D. Effects – Live comes packed with effects and you can have several per track as standard. When selected, they also appear in the bottom window

E. The mixer – As with Cubase and Logic, the main mixer is a virtual set of faders and dials used to adjust volume and pan positions of the tracks

F. Main browser – You load in all of your audio, samples, plug-in effects and instruments via this main browser

G. Other instruments – As well as the effects shown in (D), Live’s instruments and other devices pop up here when you click on the relevant track or icon

H. Arrange view – Here, you can flip Live into an Arrangement View, which is more like the Cubase and Logic ones shown on the previous pages

Finishing up

Once you’re happy with the results – and it’s rare this happens, as once you understand all of the options you have with a DAW, you’ll want to explore them all – you will need to mix the track
down to an audio file.

All DAWs have easy ways of doing this. It’s usually known as ‘bouncing down’ to a variety of audio file types, which range from higher quality WAV files to MP3s, to upload to iTunes. Some DAWs even have direct ways of uploading to specific sites like SoundCloud.

Professional DAWs are designed to run on desktop and laptop computers and we’ll run through a dozen of the most common over these pages in a separate Buyer’s Guide. However, there are also some great ones available for iOS, too, meaning that you can turn your phone or iPad into a fully-fledged music-making device (usually for a fraction of the cost of the desktop version). We’ll run through four of the best options for this, too.

Elsewhere, we’ve highlighted three of the main DAWs – Logic, Cubase and Live – and shown the differences between their main screens, but you can also see they all share many of the same types of features and icons.

Check out the tutorial, too, which offers a quick guide to creating a complete song – so we should have you up and running with the world of DAW music production in no time. Next month, we’ll take a more in-depth look at interfaces.

Click here to learn how to create your first song in a DAW


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About Author

Andy Jones

Andy Jones has an MA in Music Technology and has been writing about it for 25 years. He has launched and edited several magazines on the subject and was editor of MusicTech for the last four years. Naturally, he has far too many synthesisers...

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