Digital Audio Workstations

MODERN DIGITAL AUDIO WORKSTATIONS— portable computers that are powerful enough to be self-contained multi-track studios—are so ubiquitous that it’s shocking to discover they’ve only been around since the ’90s.
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The Studio On Your Screen

Cakewalk Sonar-X1MODERN DIGITAL AUDIO WORKSTATIONS— portable computers that are powerful enough to be self-contained multi-track studios—are so ubiquitous that it’s shocking to discover they’ve only been around since the ’90s. In those two decades, however, DAWs have grown faster, more capable, and easier to use, which is great news for those of us who haven’t yet jumped into computer-based music production.

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Now is an exciting time to jump in: Almost every manufacturer offers free or very inexpensive entry-level versions of their software, and most of these programs run on both Mac and PC platforms. In fact, the hard thing is deciding which program to get. How much MIDI do you plan to use? Do you want to record just yourself, or your band? Do you need lots of virtual instruments? Do you want to be able to print charts? What can you afford?

Although every DAW has its specialties and its limitations, the most important thing is to find the one with the interface, workflow, and capabilities that suit you. Talk to your friends, download the trial versions, and test-drive them. Perhaps you’ll discover that there’s no such thing as the “best” DAW—whatever works best for you is the one.


Th is staple of the laptop musician’s arsenal may not seem like a typical DAW in the mold of Logic or Pro Tools, but once you’ve recorded into it, there are an astounding variety of ways to manipulate, arrange, loop, and otherwise morph your tracks. Prices range from $99 for Ableton Live Intro to $850 for the full suite with a packed library, audio content, and instruments.


This PC-only DAW has everything you need to get started, including a healthy loop library, almost a dozen software instruments, and simple but effective score editing and printing. It’s a big package that’s easy to use, even if it does get a little crowded on laptop screens, and the price ($75) is definitely right.


Audition’s lack of notation view, MIDI, or support for control surfaces (such as hardware mixing boards) means that it isn’t for everyone, but if you messed around with Cool Edit Pro or work with Adobe Premiere, you might dig it. Mac users can get Audition for $94; it’s $320 for PC people.


Don’t need fancy effects, lots of loops, or a boatload of virtual instruments? Try Audacity. It’s free, easy to use, blessed with an uncluttered user interface, and barebones but stable. It also doubles as an easy way to convert old recordings into digital files or analyze your favorite bass solo by changing the pitch and speed.


Despite challengers to the throne, this king of the DAW world stays on top thanks to its audio-editing tools, which are second to none. PT10’s biggest news is that it’s the first iteration of Pro Tools that doesn’t require proprietary hardware. Try a free, 30-day trial or go for the gradually more full-featured SE, MP9, Express, Pro Tools 10 ($700), or Pro Tools HD 10 ($880) versions.


Sonar occupies the middle ground between laptop/electronic-friendly DAWs such as Ableton Live and Propellerhead Record, and more traditional sequencers such as Cubase and Logic, with some of the advantages of both. This PConly program comes in several flavors, including Essential ($70), Studio ($150), Producer ($300), and Producer Expanded ($50 more).


What it lacks in instruments, notation view or printing, and sample libraries, Reaper makes up in strong core features, a small footprint (it’s a 2MB download), lots of plug-ins, an unusually customizable interface, and its $65 price.


One of the oldest, biggest, and most full-featured DAWS, Cubase has bolstered its latest iteration with better audio-editing capabilities and new synths and stompbox/amp simulators. Like other manufacturers, Cubase offers tiered pricing that ranges from $99 for Cubase Elements 6 to $500 for the full version.


GarageBand, part of Apple’s iLife package, comes standard on new Macs (you can also buy it for $79). It’s not ideal for MIDI-heavy projects or odd time signatures, but its thousands of loops, its piano and guitar lessons, its virtual instruments, as well as its selection of virtual amps and pedals make it perfect for DAW novices.


GarageBand’s big brother is a similarly intuitive and beginner-friendly DAW bolstered with more editing flexibility, more loops and samples, a wider palette of instruments, full MIDI capabilities, and MainStage, which makes it easy to bring your favorite sounds onstage. In 2011, Apple discontinued entry-level Logic Express, but Logic Pro Studio 9 is only $200.


Many musicians have deserted this classic Macplatform DAW for Pro Tools or Logic, but fans stick with DP for its highly adaptable interface, multiple workflow options, and deep audio- and MIDI-editing tools. DP7 prices range from $325 to $495; DP8, which will run on both Mac and PC, is expected to be available sometime in 2012.


This new kid on the DAW block is easy to use and learn, and it’s packed with cool plug-ins. Although there’s no notation view or quantizing, it does have surprisingly good mastering tools. Try Studio One Free, do the Artist edition ($100), dig into the Producer package ($200), or go pro with the Professional version ($300).


Boss BR-800 Digital Recorder

  BOSS continues its top selling tradition of portable, affordable multi trackers with the new BR 800 Digital Recorder, a battery powered studio to go. The sleek new design is made possible by touch sensor switches and

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Wireless Systems 101

IN A WORLD WHERE REMOTE CONTROLS, PHONES, Internet connections, computer keyboards, mice, and head- phones are wireless, it’s surprising to learn that wireless technology is barely 70 years old.