Music Production

TYPICAL SETUP

The basics to music production, digital audio information, file types, midi and more...

Typical Setup

WHAT IS A DAW?

A Digital Audio Workstation is defined by any piece of Digital technology designed in for the purpose of working with audio in any way or form.

DIGITAL AUDIO INFORMATION:

Digital Audio information is the digital representation of an analogue signal (such as a microphone) in the form of Binary Digits or Bits (a varying series of zeros and ones).

SAMPLING:

Digital is most easily understood when referring to the act of ‘Sampling’ audio or to capture an analogue signal in the form of the digital protocol or language (Binary). The analogue signal is represented typically by 16 Bits at 44,100 KHz (sampling rate). This means that every 44,100ths of a second a new piece of the analogue information is represented by 16 binary digits of information. The 16 Bits of information record the amplitude of the signal at the point when it is represented. Through time (in a virtual environment), this could be viewed as a waveform, made up of many segments of digital information pieced together to form what appears to be a continuous or analogue waveform. At a closer (higher resolution) inspection, it would appear much more unnatural.

FILE SIZE:

The length of an audio recording directly reflects the size of the file in terms of storage. Therefore the file size is increased when working at higher bit rates i.e. 24 bit and higher sampling rates i.e. 48,000 KHz as there is a more information recorded, resulting in a more accurate representation of the sound source.

16 bits at 44,100 KHz was decided as the standard rate for sampling audio, at which an accurate audio representation could be demonstrated by the human ear. This is known as the Nyquist theorem (or Nyquist-Shannon Sampling Theorem). Any less than this rate and you would hear a reduction in quality (or less accurate representation) of the signal source.

NYQUIST THEOREM:

It was articulated in 1928 by Nyquist and demonstrated in 1949 by Shannon, that audio needed to be sampled and at least double the highest frequency of the source signal, in order to be accurately reconstructed, without aliasing.

Aliasing occurs when frequencies that are greater than half the sampling rate enter into the signal. This may be translated as false signals and can often be heard as harmonic distortions or misrepresentations. Nowadays, anti-aliasing filters are built into most recording equipment in some form (to prevent aliasing) and the settings can sometimes be tweaked to work more appropriately in a recording situation.

DIGITAL/ANALOGUE:

Digital signals are different to Analogue signals, in that analogue signals are continuous signals of varying voltage, over time. Digital signals are a set amount, or frequency (44,100 kHz), of a varying series of continuously changing numbers over time (16 bits).

SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO:

When working with analogue despite the advancements in technology, noise is inescapable, particularly when recording from one analogue source to another. It is important therefore, to ensure a good ‘signal to noise ratio’.

THE MODERN DAY DAW:

Arrows on connecting wires indicate the Signal Flow (Power sources not included).

The typical modern day digital audio workstation comprises of mainly user defined, computer operated, software based systems. This is made up of the following components and peripherals: (refer to picture above if necessary)

Computer/Processing Unit:

The computer or processing unit is the core element of the modern day DAW. It is more common for the processing unit to be an Apple Mac operating OSX or a Windows based Personal Computer. As compatibility issues die out through technological improvements, numbers in Apple Mac users are increasing. This is partly due to the greater stability of the machines in terms performance and running capabilities, as much as overall reliability. The more recent benefit of having an Apple Mac is the option to set up separate partition on a hard disk and install a different operating system such as Windows XP. By having the two operating systems and the choice of switching between, users can install and operate a variety of different software designed for use in simply one or the other. This therefore offers the potential for use of all of the main DAW software on what is more likely to be a superior processing machine (computer).

The Computer in itself can be divided up into various pieces of hardware that have a specific function within the machine. Quite simply this is:

The power supply: supplying power to each aspect of the machine that requires it.

The memory/RAM (Random Access Memory): Works as short term (volatile) memory as it does not store information (starts fresh each time the computer is started). This handles the processes as the user operates the computer; the more you have the more the computer can do at once with greater reliability. This is particularly important when using a computer to run software DAWs and CPU intensive plug-ins as it makes heavy demand of the machine as projects become larger, more complex and when dealing with large amounts of audio file sizes. Ram amounts is measure in bytes a reasonable amount for a typical setup would be between 2 and 4 Gigabytes, though it is becoming progressively cheaper to buy higher amounts.

The CPU (Central Processing Unit): The CPU is the processor of the information when operating the computer and carries out the instructions of the programmes accordingly. The speed of the processing unit defines how fast information can be processed when using a computer. Computers nowadays operate as many as 8 processors in a single machine. Each one operates anywhere from around 2 Gigahertz (Hertz - frequency measurement - the frequency at which it can process binary information).

The Motherboard: The motherboard named appropriately so; is the piece of circuitry to which all other aspects of the Computer unit are interconnected to allow each one to work and function in conjunction to each other part as intended.

Hard Disk/Storage: The hard disk is the most common form of digital storage, due to its ever increasing potential for capacity as well as the rate at which it can read and write information to and from the hard disk itself. The hard disk is often integrated into the processing unit either as a separate drive to that, on which the operating system(s) is/are installed on, such as an external hard drive due to mobility and reliability. It is not uncommon for modern day DAW setups to contain multiple hard disks of varying size. This is to ensure work can be backed up as much as often, in multiple places and because working with digital audio can require massive amounts of storage space, particularly when dealing with higher bit rates, uncompressed audio formats or simply vast projects containing huge amounts of digital audio information.

Controls/Peripherals: The computer would always be accompanied by some form of Mouse & Keyboard to allow the operator to control and operate the computer and sometimes even the mixing console/desk specifically when dealing with consoles with digital capabilities such as instant recall of settings/ghost faders.

Graphics Card/(Visual) Monitor: A monitor or view screen would be wired to the computer to allow the DAW operator to view all the digital information (via the software installed onto the operating system) and therefore work and edit accordingly. Some people chose to use multiple monitors (normally two). This is so different aspects of the DAW can be viewed on each; whether it's the mixer on one and the arrange window on the other, or plug-ins and a sample library. In such case a graphics card with multiple-monitor functionality would be required. A graphic card simply deals with all the visual elements of the computer and the quality and capability of graphics viewed on screen are dependant on the efficiency of the card itself (as well as the resolution of the visual-monitor).

Software:

The DAW software (along-side the processing unit itself) is fundamental to the modern day recording studio though the platform is often subject to the preference of the user. There are a range of different manufacturers, intended uses and functionality of the DAW software available. The software based DAW allows the operator to work and edit the captured audio (represented by digital information - pictures of digitally constructed waves) with extreme precision, in a digital environment.

All the leading DAW software; function in much the same way, with the same or very similar features. The software DAW system principle is based around an arrange window. In the arrange window all the digital audio information recorded into it (via the sound card or hardware) can be viewed graphically, edited with a variety of tools, processed with various effect plug-ins and exported out or bounced from the program as a completed mix (ready for master).

DAW software works in much the same way as a physical mixing console. All DAW software contains a virtual mixing console of some sort. The arrange window is like the tape or ADAT (Analogue to Digital Audio Tape) screen to which the digital information is recorded and portrayed as a waveform.

Here are some of the leading brands of Software DAWs available:

Apple Logic Pro:

Logic derived from the original Apple 1 based software Notator. The program itself was designed around MIDI functionality and software synthesis through the means of software based virtual instruments. Alongside Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro is the Leading software in the music industry. It is a purely computer reliant software but can be configured to work with Pro Tools or other third party hardware. Apple Logic Pro has been designed by Apple for producers. This can be demonstrated particularly by the layout and visual appeal of logic itself as much as its functionality.

Digidesign Pro Tools:

From the birth of the early program Sound Designer, derived the modern day Pro-tools; a hybrid system of computer integrated PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) cards working with high end external hardware and software to provide the ultimate in recording capabilities in a stable environment. The modern day program as we know it has been designed around producers, for producers and the logical functionality of the program demonstrates this

The nature of the Pro Tools setup reduces the need for high amounts of processing power from the computer on which it is configured. The external hardware processes the analogue signals on input and converts the signals to the digital protocol. The information then travels to the PCI cards where the DSPs (Digital Signal Processors) integrated into the cards, process the digital information received. The audio information can then be easily recorded into the Software for later editing with less demand for processing power than any software-computer compliant DAWs.

The latest Pro tools 8 offers advancements in virtual instruments and the MIDI capabilities of the software, plug-ins and is set to bring the program even more so, into favourability in the public eye.

Other leading software based DAWs include Cakewalk Sonar, Steinberg Cubase, Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live.

Soundcard/Analogue & digital Conversion:

Soundcards are either internal or external, or a hybrid of integrated cards working alongside external hardware (Such as Pro Tools), to reduce performance and/or reliability issues of computer/software capabilities.

The soundcard provides the means to input audio and often MIDI information to and from the processing unit. The soundcard converts the Analogue audio signal into Digital Audio information so the processing unit can interpret it accordingly (so it can be recorded). It also converts the Digital Information back into Analogue signals on output through the speakers (so it can be heard). With higher graded Soundcards the processing capabilities can often be so great, it can significantly reduce the necessary processing power of the processing unit and the accuracy of the conversion process will often be greater, which results in a more accurate representation of the analogue signals in the digital protocol.

Mixing Console/Audio Signal Control:

A mixing console can be analogue or digital and is used in a DAW setup as the means of controlling all audio input and output between the computer, software and the monitors.

Often with digital consoles, the design works much as a soundcard, aside from the input/output control functionality. This is due to its digital nature ensuring its compatibility with the computer and its familiarity with the digital protocol. It is common nowadays for major manufacturers of digital mixing consoles to integrate computer systems, processing units and storage into a complete DAW system, however in the typical (affordable) setup this would not be seen on this scale. There is however smaller digital recorders that have been manufactured as a complete units for this convenience at affordable prices. The functionality is often less than the typical setup with less editing capabilities and ease.

Analogue desks work in a setup, in much the same way, aside from the advantages of modern day digital desks, the instant recall of settings and various different kinds of desk automation. Hybrid systems have been known to integrate the favoured aspects of analogue and digital hardware, to allow for compatibility between hardware, computer or software, ghost faders, instant recall and desk automation, with the advantage of an analogue circuitry based systems.

Monitors/Speakers:

The Monitors are the means through which all audio information throughout a working process can be heard or monitored. They are usually connected from the main output of the mixing console or sometimes directly from the soundcard particularly if a mixer is not contained within the DAW setup. Most DAW setups in the present day simply use two monitors (left and right) this is due to the fact that the majority of people that listen to music do so in a stereo format, on a stereo system. People providing music for film will often mix or create music in surround sound; this would therefore be done on a multiple speaker system (5.1 or 7.1 etc.). However this is very specific to film type projects and would not be a main feature of most DAW setups. It is not uncommon however to have multiple sets of speakers known as reference speakers, often of different size in different positions. This is to allow the listener to hear the sound in different contexts and to ensure a good mix on a range of different systems.

The best kind of (main) monitors for producing music are generally those with as flat frequency response as possible (ideally with switchable boost and cut of frequencies for added preference). This means that the sound output should be an accurate representation of the true sound of the audio information being received by the speakers (from the computer etc.).

MIDI Controller Keyboard:

A MIDI based keyboard is often a must have in a DAW setup, as it allows for the programming of the digital protocol (Via MIDI Input on Soundcard) in a much more musical way. It can be used to program different things in a variety of different ways dependant on the capabilities of the Keyboard itself.

There are also a range of other MIDI devices which include samplers as well as a variety of MIDI controllers (devices with knobs, buttons and faders designed to control/trigger the MIDI information in a computer for recording or even a live performance situation).

FILE FORMATS:

Listed below are the main file formats we deal with in the modern day recording editing and exporting situation. Including compressed and uncompressed formats for the purpose of reducing file size and/or quality for the intention of uploading to the internet, sending by email or streaming without dealing with large file sizes.

Uncompressed Formats:

WAV (Wave)

Jointly Developed by IBM and Microsoft; used mainly when dealing with Personal Computers operating Microsoft Windows therefore.

AIFF

The AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) was developed by Apple Computers; it used mainly when dealing any Apple Mac (or OS users).

Even though there have been a variety of different file formats throughout the development in audio and computing technology, “AIFF and WAV have emerged as the de facto standard for storing uncompressed, professional-quality audio data on the DAW”.

Compressed Formats:

When compressing a file format, an algorithm would be used to reduce the size of the file, known as a compression scheme. This would be executed based on the CODEC used which is the specific implementation of a compression scheme.

MP3

Coded by the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) with intention to define the standard for Audio and Video compression. MP3 can be compressed as high as 320kB/s (any less than 120kB/s results in a noticeable reduction in audio quality) and can store information in reference to the files content. It is today the one of most widely used file formats, particularly when dealing with almost any memory or storage based music player, such as an iPod.

AAC

The AAC format has been developed by Yamaha and Sony alongside the VQF (Video) Format. It leads to a more recent format know as MPEG-4 (synchronized audio/video format). The AAC format has been proven to be significantly superior to the MP3 file format in terms of quality, even when compressed at the same bit rate

There are usually sixteen channels in general MIDI as well as sound cards and synthesizers. Therefore, by assigning different instruments to different channels, you can essentially have sixteen instruments playing at the same time (multi-tumbrel). The number of channels can vary because the sound card or synthesizer can only produce a fixed number of notes simultaneously. This means if a synthesizer/device is 32-voice polyphony, only thirty two notes can be played at the same time and you can hear them all. The thirty-third note will be either ignored or the first note will be cut off. You are also not entirely limited to 16 channels, for example if an instrument was used on an introduction to a song only, you can ‘steal’ that track and use it for a different instrument later in the song/piece. All of the MIDI information on all 16 channels is sent through one MIDI cable, which is also a big difference to .WAV music.

Through the MIDI, Audio, DAW, samplers and sound generating capabilities today there are many different ways of creating weird and wonderful music. The impact of these technologies has therefore affected musical style and the overall availability of music. Music today is heavily shared (pier to pier) through the internet and the ‘download market’ is the fastest growing method of distributing music. Most people are using iPods or something similar to store and listen to their music and their seems to be a growing demand for a single device to store photos, music, phone numbers, surf the internet, email, download music as well as make a phone call with the release of the ‘iPhone’ as well as the ‘Nokia N95’ (and others) that provide unlimited music downloads when you buy the handset. Music in general combined with the use of music technology has helped in the development of cultures as well as styles, this can be seen particularly with hip-hop and the use of drum machines, synthesizer and turntables and the voice in terms of the message in the music, telling the world of the life they lead and the things they stood for

MIDI/FILE SIZE

The term MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface. MIDI is a digital protocol (language) created for the purpose of communication between different pieces of equipment (Synthesizer to PC). This makes it possible for information to be sent from one device to another in a compatible format. MIDI emerged in 1982/83 when it was agreed upon by the major manufacturers of electrical equipment as the common digital language that would be used to provide a means of communication between devices. It enables keyboards, synthesizers, computers, tape decks, mixers, samplers and even stage light controllers to communicate with each other.

A MIDI interface consists of three 5-pin ports found at the back, labelled in, out and thru. All the information is controlled and sent via these ports. IN would come from an external source (synthesizer); it processes the sound generators of the synthesizer and allows the information to reach the computer. OUT sends MIDI information out to the rest of the MIDI set up (or back from computer to play on synthesizer). The THRU port sends an exact copy of the data received at the synthesizer IN port to the rest of the MIDI set up; no changes are made to the information when sent from the THRU port. MIDI data is sent via a special three 5-pin conductor cable, only pins 1 and 3 transfer MIDI information, whilst 2 is shielded and connected to common where as pins 4 and 5 are not in use. It is very important to use these cables due to the reliability of data transmission being absolutely necessary for MIDI and the nature of the information sent.

The difference between audio (.WAV) and MIDI is the limitations to editing the file. When dealing with MIDI information, it can be easily transferred or opened on any MIDI programme and can be edited with ease. The information recorded contains what the composer (person who played it) did on a keyboard/synthesizer (for example). This includes what note was pressed, how hard it was pressed, when it was played and for how long the note was held. In order to playback a MIDI file from a computer, the sound card must have the capability to generate the ‘General MIDI’ sounds of the common instruments i.e. guitar, bass drums, piano. The binary information or note data is sent to the sound card/device, which generates the sound intended, if configured correctly. In comparison to a .WAV or WAVE (audio) file, MIDI is miniscule and because it’s easy to edit, the instruments can be changed completely. However a sound that is not in the memory of the sound card/device you are using (general MIDI) cannot be generated, for example your voice. The quality of the sound is dependent on the quality of the synthesizer or sound card. MIDI information can be used to trigger other sounds too, entirely dependent on the software and/or the DAW you use. General MIDI is universal to MIDI, hence the name and it is the ‘general’ bank of sounds that the majority of soundcards nowadays have, allowing any basic MIDI file to be played from almost any computer. With a WAVE or .WAV file it is the digital recording of an actual sound or instrument. This makes it very difficult to edit unless it is short or you have access to a DAW. When a computer plays back a .WAV file it is converting the binary signal (zeros and ones) into the audio signal that comes out through the speakers. . WAV format is always bigger in size than MIDI. A standard .WAV file is 16bit 44.1 kHz in Stereo (left and right), therefore a one-minute track is ten megabytes on average, and so a six-minute song would be about sixty megabytes. MIDI information is purely a digital format, but in the same way as a .WAV, it is converted to an analogue signal on playback through the monitors (speakers - through sound card).

MIDI is very useful to composers and teachers alike and has been around for about twenty years, during which time it has been used to write music more perfect than a human could ever perform. This is a result of the ability to ‘Quantize’ or snap the MIDI to the nearest 8th or 16th for instance (potentially correcting one aspect amongst others, of human inconsistency). The synthesizer became recognised in the music industry as midi was used more and more, changing the ability of musicians in the industry.

There are usually sixteen channels in general MIDI as well as sound cards and synthesizers. Therefore, by assigning different instruments to different channels, you can essentially have sixteen instruments playing at the same time (multi-tumbrel). The number of channels can vary because the sound card or synthesizer can only produce a fixed number of notes simultaneously. This means if a synthesizer/device is 32-voice polyphony, only thirty two notes can be played at the same time and you can hear them all. The thirty-third note will be either ignored or the first note will be cut off. You are also not entirely limited to 16 channels, for example if an instrument was used on an introduction to a song only, you can ‘steal’ that track and use it for a different instrument later in the song/piece. All of the MIDI information on all 16 channels is sent through one MIDI cable, which is also a big difference to .WAV music.

Through the MIDI, Audio, DAW, samplers and sound generating capabilities today there are many different ways of creating weird and wonderful music. The impact of these technologies has therefore affected musical style and the overall availability of music. Music today is heavily shared (pier to pier) through the internet and the ‘download market’ is the fastest growing method of distributing music. Most people are using iPods or something similar to store and listen to their music and their seems to be a growing demand for a single device to store photos, music, phone numbers, surf the internet, email, download music as well as make a phone call with the release of the ‘iPhone’ as well as the ‘Nokia N95’ (and others) that provide unlimited music downloads when you buy the handset. Music in general combined with the use of music technology has helped in the development of cultures as well as styles, this can be seen particularly with hip-hop and the use of drum machines, synthesizer and turntables and the voice in terms of the message in the music, telling the world of the life they lead and the things they stood for

TECHNOLOGY - THOUGHTS AND PERSPECTIVES:

It is the direct result of particularly synthesis and sampling technology that has greatly improved the DAW. This is due to the programming of the many forms of the digital language throughout the years as a means of generating waves through computers, digital instruments and software programmes.

The advancements of digital technology in general have in some way contributed in advancement of other areas of technological application. This includes Television and the Internet, as well as Vehicles, Housing, CCTV, Lighting, Clocks, Radio and even Health technology benefits. Much of (if not all) the technology in any household today, is derived from the advancements in digital technology. For example the Hi-fi, home computer, televisions and mobile phones. When referring to the future of computer music Max Mathews stated that by 2010 "almost all music will be made electronically, by digital circuits." (http://120years.net/machines/software/)

In the future we can expect to see much advancement in technology in a way which is probably hard to imagine in the present day. This includes: smaller more affordable technology with greater functionality, Improved processing speed, processing power, bit depth, sampling rates, plug-ins, software and improved capture & editing capabilities. This can be based on the rate at which technology is improved; every half year computing technology doubles in speed, capability and performance, yet the price to consumers reduces by about half. This results in greater technology, ever becoming more affordable to the public.

In the near future we can expect to see mobile phones with holographic imaging capabilities as well as computers made up of five, pen-like, holographic imaging devices which may eventually replace laptops and even desktop units. This would in theory be heading towards an ultra mobile, ‘Super Micro Processor’ that you can carry around in your pocket.

Looking back on how the technology improved to give us the modern day DAW, it is clear that the combined efforts in advancing computing technologies has been utilised by the DAW manufacturers. It has been the direct result of the advancements of micro-computer technology that has furthered the advancement in audio technology or the DAW as a whole. One would expect to see large scale technology becoming all the more affordable to the average consumer as technology is outdated and bettered by new technology, however the credit crunch may suggest otherwise. Digidesign are the leading company within the industry today and continue to bring out new better quality, faster processing equipment. After looking at their website I noticed the new ICON series desks (Pictured Below). It is a clear step forward in terms of integration, which seems to have always been Digidesigns plan. It is a fully automated Digital desk, with the likes of desk recall, ghost faders etc, integrated and sold with the latest HD system (the most recent and powerful Pro Tools hardware). Everything you need together, operated from one piece of amazing technology. It would also feature the capacity for upgrading as new technology or advancements are realised and would more than likely feature many high end plug ins as well as advanced compatibility with other hardware and possibly software.