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When technology fuels creativity
There are only a few hardware-based DAWs still active in the marketplace, most recognizably Pro Tools TDM or HD, Sadie and Sonic Solutions. These machines are generally stable, well-supported and quite expensive by modern standards. They are expensive enough that anyone considering buying one will have already done extensive research.
Hardware-based systems have historically had some natural advantages, especially with latency issues, but when I purchased my two software packages, I "went native" because I no longer felt that the (small) business model supported spending the big bucks on a hardware-based system. This outlook is widespread and has driven native development, even resulting in native versions of traditionally hardware-based systems (e.g.- Pro Tools LE and M-Powered). With the help of rapid increases in computing power, native software has matured to the point where a properly integrated system can rival all the power of a hardware-based system.
Properly, of course, is the key word. Turnkey native systems where the vendor has done all the homework for you are available for fairly reasonable integration fees, but those who choose to save money by installing native software in an existing computer need to be careful about system setup. The rules for proper setup of a native digital audio computer are usually available via the software company's website. Here are some of the basic requirements that are more or less standard for PCs and Macs:
- Lots of RAM, the more the better
- At least one extra audio-only hard drive running at 7,200rpm or faster
- Verified compatibility with the operating system and motherboard
- Installation of all the latest drivers and most current software
- Verified compatibility with the I/O hardware
And speaking of PCs and Macs, despite the raging opinion wars on Internet forums, there is no evidence that either is better for audio or is less likely to crash or suffer integration problems with native operation. Additionally, software is increasingly being written that runs equally well on both systems with nearly identical features, and the two platforms are pushing toward compatibility. Choosing one platform over the other is simply a matter of personal preference or the suitability of a particular software package.
Latency and I/O
Programs that simulate outboard effects units and esoteric, vintage processors (EQ, reverb, mastering compression) have become a significant part of the creative process. Plug-ins are included in the DAW software and available as third party purchases. Some of these third party "plugs" are developed with the cooperation of the manufacturers of the expensive analog or digital equipment that they emulate (SSL, UA, Sony), and are regarded as being highly accurate.
One wrinkle accompanying the explosive growth in plug-ins is the continuation of several flavors of the software interface that allows the computer to stream audio (including plug-ins) in real time. These protocols are not necessarily directly compatible with one another, but can coexist within the same software or on the same computer.
- Direct X
This is the Windows-only internal interface that resides in the operating system. Although it has been considered sluggish by some in the past, this has not stopped some of the truly powerful plug-in packages from running well in this environment.
- Audio Core/Audio Units
This is the Mac-only internal OS interface. Programs for Macs will often include free plug-in bundles that run in Audio Core.
Virtual Studio Technology was developed by Steinberg as an open, cross-platform audio interface, and has become more or less universally accepted for non-Digidesign programs.
Real Time Audio Suite is the proprietary format for plug-ins running in Digidesign's Pro Tools. There are inexpensive third-party programs that allow plugs written for the other protocols to run in Pro Tools as if they were written for RTAS.
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