When technology fuels creativity

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After years of cutting analog tape with a razor blade, I assembled my first digital audio workstation during the stone age of computer editing in 1991. This was the Turtle Beach 56K system, running on a 386 PC with Windows 3.1. At a total cost of $6,500, it was less expensive than, but quite comparable to, Digidesign's Sound Tools (the primitive precursor to Pro Tools), which ran on a Mac. Both were 16-bit, hardware-based machines using largely destructive editing and clunky playlists to assemble audio clips. Both stored audio on SCSI drives costing more than $2,000 per gigabyte. Neither was immune to crashes. Neither always worked the way it was supposed to, yet both saw plenty of professional work in the early 1990s.

By 1994, I had exhausted the capabilities of my first DAW, and Turtle Beach, in an increasingly familiar business cycle, was getting out of the workstation business. Casting around for a better system, I chanced upon the Microsound DAW from Micro Technologies Unlimited (MTU). Its 32-bit internal architecture, totally non-destructive operation and free-form editing paradigm all seemed unique in that era, and, to my ears, sonically superior. I made the difficult business decision to spend $12,500 for my first turnkey, hardware-based MTU box.

Fast forward to 2002. I had spent eight years creating radio shows, editing and mastering CDs and putting together soundtracks for long-form TV documentaries and commercials on the Microsound system. Never once had I lost a file or seen the system crash, and it still sounded great. Somewhere along the way, however, support and upgrades, which were initially fabulous, dried up. MTU did not have a large enough customer base or deep enough pockets to keep up with the changes in the pro audio market, and had to turn its attention elsewhere. The features I now needed to work efficiently — plug-ins, multiple file formats, surround support — would never be part of this otherwise flawless system, and it was becoming useless without them.

The challenge of finding a new editing and production environment was daunting, especially because I had not dealt with a serious software learning curve in eight years. Luckily, the world of computer digital audio had been busy while I was away, and, after several months of research, I settled on a pair of native software packages (Steinberg's Nuendo and Wavelab) that more than met my needs. What I learned during that process and during the following four years should be useful and heartening if you are interested in taking the plunge.

The state of the DAW

Support and longevity are key issues. The "faster, better, cheaper" pressure that has driven so many digital audio products into oblivion is still at work, but the marketplace has served to stabilize many of the more venerable players. Part of this process has been the absorption of successful software developers by large, well-established companies. Among others, Sony has taken in Sonic Foundry, Adobe bought Cool Edit Pro, Yamaha purchased Steinberg, Avid merged with Digidesign and Apple purchased Logic. Virtually every other company left standing now seems solid. The result is a strong field of software developers that are in direct competition with each other for price, power, features and support.

Better support, however, still requires cost efficiency in this competitive atmosphere, and does not necessarily imply personal contact. Good manuals, well organized FAQ, forums and e-mail interactions will be your primary resources, because talking to a human on the phone, with a few exceptions, will probably require a credit card. Like everything else now, support is driven almost entirely by the economy of using the Internet.

With this system in place, you may find yourself downloading software, drivers and upgrades frequently, and you will have to deal with any associated security issues. These concerns lead many pros to keep their workstations offline permanently, and use separate business computers for downloads and Web communications. If you must use your DAW computer for your Internet connection, realize that your audio software may not run properly when the anti-virus software is activated.

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