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When technology fuels creativity
What can this stuff actually do?
Heavy use of plug-ins of any flavor in real time can tax the host computer and slow things down dramatically. This has spawned the production of processing cards and outboard hardware, like the Mackie UAD-1, TC Powercore or Waves APA32, that carry the load of plug-in processing and provide relief to the computer's CPU. Most programs will also allow plug-ins to be frozen in place by pre-rendering the effect, thus eliminating the need for real-time CPU horsepower.
Unlike the near-instantaneous travel of sound through analog circuits, digital audio is delayed while its bits are being crunched by computer processing. For practical purposes, the only time this latency tends to be a problem in a modern native DAW is during overdubbing, for example, when you try to record new material in sync with earlier material that you monitor while recording. The buffering and processing required for accurate playback, while not a problem during mixing and editing, can add enough delay to be disconcerting while adding new parts in real time. The latency can be reduced to low times by using fast computers and well-written software, but the major factor in latency control for multitrack monitoring has become I/O hardware.
Pro Tools, proprietary as always, will only work with specific Pro Tools-approved I/O, though some of its hardware can be used with other programs. Virtually every other piece of software out there can work with a variety of third-party boxes or cards. While the software may function adequately with onboard soundcards for basic editing and production, better fidelity and greatly enhanced multitrack performance will accompany the use of one of the large number of boxes or cards that are made specifically to handle audio for DAW software. These devices generally add monitoring and mixing software along with multiple digital or analog inputs and outputs. They can communicate with the computer and software via the internal protocols in the Mac or PC OS, or may, as long as the software is compliant, work with another Steinberg-developed open, cross-platform protocol called ASIO. ASIO can enhance the communication between your software and I/O hardware, and some hardware and software manufacturers are now advertising "near zero latency monitoring" using ASIO. In any case, your best latency settings are generally achieved by working with the protocol available to you and manipulating the software that comes with the I/O hardware.
Which program is right for you?
Although most of my production, and probably most of yours, is performed in stereo, there are only a handful of stereo-only native programs left; notably Sound Forge, Bias Peak and Wavelab (which now also offers surround). I found during my original search, however, that a multitrack program like Nuendo (or Samplitude, Logic, Adobe Audition, Pro Tools, Cubase, Vegas, Sonar or any of the others) could be equally fluid and powerful in a stereo-only project. The tracks can simply be used as handy organizational tools in a non-destructive mixing, editing and processing mode.
Virtually all of the multitrack programs allow you to create, delete and shuffle tracks in any quantity at will, while importing audio to them and moving that audio freely to mock up your production in an obvious and intuitive way. Processing and editing can be applied to tracks or clips and auditioned with little or no rendering time — and can be undone just as quickly. Files can usually be accessed directly (and destructively, if so desired) in a separate, traditional editing window, and the whole project can be mixed down to the file format of your choice when you have everything sounding the way you want. Many (but not all) of the programs offer direct mastering and burning of audio CDs from their multitrack windows.
That is the trend: the all-in-one program. The list of features found in a single program can include full video and SMPTE support, MIDI instrument playback, CD mastering, forensic analysis tools, full multitrack studio emulation, surround mastering, DVD-A mastering, high quality file conversion, looping of royalty-free music…and on and on. The depth and power available can be mind-boggling.
I have not attempted to give you anything like a complete list or comprehensive review of the various audio programs. I can say, however, that everything in the marketplace offers high-resolution, high-quality audio performance capable of fully professional output. The differences between the DAW systems, which are rapidly dwindling, are not so much in quality, but in the specific features offered; the emphasis placed on various features and the organization of the editing and production interface. In my situation, I chose Nuendo because of its robust support for video and associated EDL and file formats. I chose Wavelab because of its CD mastering tools (Nuendo has no audio CD burning) and simpler, more familiar editing interface. Colleagues who work on similar projects decided on Logic, Samplitude, Pro Tools, Sequoia, Sonar, Cubase and Adobe Audition. An interesting fact about this group of programs is that it ranges in price from a few hundred dollars to more than $2,000, sans computer or I/O (except for Pro Tools). They are all different, yet there is not a real loser in the bunch.
It is a big field to choose from, but the research tools are there. Demo versions of DAW software, often fully functional for a limited amount of time, can be downloaded for a serious test drive. Manuals are often available on the same websites in PDF format, as well as user forums that can be browsed by non-owners. Reviews of almost every product can be found online. As you peruse this material, understand that powerful programs often contain many ways to organize or present the work, and that these alternate approaches are not necessarily obvious at first glance. With a little patience, you should be able to stumble across the menus and windows that provide access to the features and workflow that will best serve your situation, sensibilities and wallet.
Manufacturers of digital audio workstations
Digital Audio Research
Digital Juke Box
Micro Technology Unlimited
Netia Digital Audio
Sydec Audio Engineering
Smith is the owner/operator of Muddy Hole Studios in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
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