Digital Audio Workstations
Oct 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Chriss Scherer, editor
The daily routine of radio production can be as simple as a voice-over and music bed, or as rich as a multi-track, multi-element mix with layers of effects. Either way, the creative processes rely on a single piece of equipment to make it happen. While it takes several elements to make a production studio an effective workspace, the centerpiece of most studios is the digital audio workstation.
The powerhouse behind any production, the DAW’s hardware and software capabilities make multi-track functions routine. The significant power inside these devices can be used for basic productions or the most complex creations. The same tools can be applied to both.
Even the concepts are no longer a mystery to novice users. But before buying your usual brand of DAW again, consider the various aspects and features that are available.
The first point in maintaining audio quality in a system is the audio input. Don’t cut corners on the audio section if you can help it. Most PC-based systems use a standard audio card or USB audio interface. Too often, a budget system will be assembled using the PC’s on-board audio system. The embedded audio hardware in a PC is rarely of any quality. In addition, upgrading the audio hardware later can be a problem. While there may be settings to disable the on-board audio, the settings don’t fully disable the system. Hardware conflicts could occur.
If a compromise must be made, it may be possible to use a sound card with a limited number of inputs and a stereo output instead of a multi-channel audio card. Audio elements will have to be fed into the system one at a time, but in many installations, a production may be built this way anyway.
Higher-end systems use dedicated audio hardware, which usually has high performance specifications. This dedicated hardware may also offer additional features, audio format options and status or metering options.
The user interface of any piece of equipment is important. Most DAW systems have intuitive operation, but keep in mind that less-experienced users may be intimidated by large systems. Some manufacturers offer light versions of their systems that have reduced features and functions but are still practical systems. If the primary producer wants a larger system, consider installing a light version in the air staff production studio. The advantage to using a light version is that in most cases, the files created by the light or full system can be shared between each without conversion.
The interface can also be a crutch to some. Equipment users in radio tend to resist change of any kind. It’s certainly easier to continue the same process without understanding what is actually being done, but if the users are willing to experiment, they may find that something better exists.
Hard or soft?
In general, there are two styles of DAW. Both are valid approaches. The software-only systems run on user-supplied hardware. In the music industry, Macs reign for hardware, but in broadcast, the PC tends to be the popular choice. Because PCS and Windows are commonly used, maintaining a PC-based DAW instead of a Mac system makes sense.
The other approach to DAW design integrates a hardware system around the program. While a software-only system allows you to build a system around the software, the integrated hardware removes the task of building the system.
The software design usually allows for hardware updates with third-party hardware. Integrated systems may lock the user into hardware, but at the same time, there will not likely be any hardware conflicts to resolve. Many of the hardware-based systems offer plug-in cards to add functions and features.
Plug-ins are a software approach to provide additional tools for a product, usually audio processing effects such as equalization, compression, reverb and delay. They run on top of the host editing program. A DAW manufacturer may offer its own plug-ins, but through a few established plug-in formats, third-party plug-in packages can be used. Three common plug-in formats are VST (Virtual Studio Technology), created by Steinberg; TDM (time division or domain multiplexing), applied to DAW processing by Digidesign; and Directx from Microsoft.
Because there are so many plug-ins available, DAW support of any one format is not that critical. However, VST and Directx appear to be the most popular.
Once a production is completed, it has to be made available for playback on the air or delivery to its final destination. Some editors are made to be used in on-air applications where the file will be played from the editor, so the ability to export completed work is not as critical. If a DAW and an audio playback system do not share a common format, it is possible to play and record the audio in real-time, but that can be time consuming.
Most automation systems provide some type of file import. The DAW may be able to access the automation system network to save completed works. This may be as simple as saving the audio file in the traditional PC/network way. In some cases, the import may require an extra step. It may also be possible to save the playback file in a format that includes whatever header information may be needed for the automation system.
A sample of some digital audio workstations.
Orban Audicy 3.0 Designed specifically for radio production, the Audicy features 10 channels for 24-track editing and mixing. Work is automatically shadowed to a hard disk or removable Jaz drive, eliminating the need to regularly save a project. All audio is recorded as linear PCM without data compression. Mixes can be exported like carts directly to most audio delivery system networks. The dedicated controller has 13 100mm faders; a large scrubwheel; 11 rotary controllers for panning, submixes, auxiliary mixes or effects; and dedicated undo and help buttons. It features four-band digital parametric EQ and Optimod compression and Bob Orban-designed noise gates and Lexicon reverb.
Steinberg Wavelab 5 Now in version 5, Wavelab features multi-channel surround audio support of as many as eight channels. Surround-to-stereo down-mixing is user definable. Projects are edited in the Audio Montage window, which includes multi-channel metering and analysis. This version adds WMA Pro 5.1 and 7.1 file export and AVI audio import in addition to WAV, AIFF, AU, MP3, MP2, RAW, Windows Media 9 and AES-31. Files can be manipulated at 32-bit and 192kHz resolution. The software supports VST plug-ins and runs on Windows 2000 or XP. CD burning support is also included.
Sadie Series 5 Several configurations are available in the product family, including the PCM4 and PCM8. The PCM4 offers four inputs and four outputs and 96kHz/24-bit audio recording. It supports AIFF, WAV and BWF files and Directx plug-ins. An optional hardware control interface with moving fader mixing is available. Projects can be saved to AIT, DDS, DLT and DVD-RAM. The system fully supports the AES-31 interchange. There are 50 levels of undo, and editing can be done down to the individual sample.
Roland VS-2000CD Recording at 16 or 24 bits, the 16-bit mode provides 18-track playback and a stereo mastering track, while the 24-bit mode provides 12-track playback. As many as eight tracks can be recorded at one time in either mode. The unit features an internal 40GB hard drive, a CD-RW drive and a USB port. As many as 320 virtual tracks are available. Eight XLR inputs with phantom power, eight TRS inputs, a �” hi-Z input and a S/PDIF input are provided. Each channel has a four-band EQ for any input or track. On-board effects include reverb, delay, chorus, dynamics processors and EQ. An effect expansion board allows plug-in support.
Digidesign Protools This editor is available in two versions, Protools HD and Protools LE. LE runs on a Mac or a PC and includes an Mbox, Digi 002 Rack or Digi 002 I/O unit hardware interface and bundled software plug-ins and sound design tools. The HD version works with a variety of TDM hardware interfaces for audio and MIDI connections, which are controlled by the TDM software. Custom control surfaces are available, from a color-coded computer keyboard, to full console controllers that can be used as the production studio’s audio control surface. Files can be shared between either version of the software.
360 Systems Shortcut 2000 A two-track, hard-disk recorder and editor designed for fast editing and playback, the operating controls of this unit combine familiar tape machine functions and word processor labeling. The weighted jog wheel provides a simulated tape reel scrub editing, while a waveform display assists with critical editing decisions. One-handed editing is possible because of the grouping of the edit-function keys. Audio clips can be saved and recalled. Hot-Keys can immediately play 10 stored audio segments. A file conversion utility allows the unit to share files with other DAWs, and it can read and write WAV, BWF, SD-2 and AIFF file formats.
Adobe Audition 1.5 The first upgrade since becoming an Adobe product adds several new features, including integrated CD burning, Rewire support to stream audio data in real time to other audio software products, VST plug-in support, frequency space editing to isolate, select and modify sounds in frequency and time, pitch correction, enhanced video support, time stretching through visual dragging, automatic click and pop elimination, vocal or instrumental extraction, customized keyboard shortcuts and flexible envelope scaling. In addition, a new set of royalty-free audio loops are available. Projects can be saved to surround formats. The system supports 128 tracks and accepts VST and Directx plug-ins. The ADS Red Rover (sold separately) adds machine transport controls and track information.
Tascam 2488 A self-contained, 24-track recorder editor, audio is sampled at 24-bit resolution and 44.1kHz. Eight inputs can be simultaneously recorded into the XLR and �” inputs. There are 20 faders, and each channel provides three-band EQ and access to three of the eight built-in effects processors. A 40GB internal hard disk stores projects, and a USB 2.0 port provides connection to a host computer for backup, and an internal CD-RW drive can record audio CDs. Each channel has three aux sends. The stereo output has a dedicated compressor. Four XLR inputs have phantom power. In addition, there are eight TRS mic or line inputs.
Audion Labs Vox Pro 3.3 The latest version of this stereo editor revises the internal database format and allows for gain increase for selected audio for one or both tracks. Other upgrades include a resizable interface from minimal to full screen; compatibility with virtually all sound cards; MP3 import and export of multiple files; streamlined administrative features; and faster access to folders containing thousands of files. All master recordings are displayed in the current users’ account. Gain control volume adjustments in 1dB increments for a maximum of �24dB on either or both channels can be made. Users have four customizable, default settings for advanced options. Voxpro 3.2 systems can be upgraded to 3.3 at no charge.
Sony Sound Forge 7.0 This version adds features including Directx plug-in effects automation, automated time-based recording and audio threshold record triggering, VU/PPM meters for RMS playback and record monitoring, enhanced spectrum analysis tools, white, pink and brown noise generators, clipped peak detection and marking, Vinyl Restoration plug-in, Media Explorer, Sound Forge project file creation and support for 24fps DV video files. Audio is encoded at 8-, 16-, 24-, 32- and 64-bit depths at sample rates from 2kHz to 192kHz. Various waveform volume and pan envelopes can be applied to tracks, as can multiple types of fade curves. The software supports several file formats. It runs on Windows 2000 or XP. The Acid loop library is also available.
Steinberg Nuendo This editing software for a PC or Mac features customizable menus that allow users to hide features that are not currently needed. The controls for each track can be customized as well. It includes an array of virtual effects, ranging from standard dynamic processing and filtering to creative modulation effects or restoration processors, and it will accept VST or Directx plug-ins. Pitch and time elements can be freely manipulated. The system handles surround sound projects and supports WAV, AIFF, BWF, AC-3, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, AES-31, MP3 and Real Audio formats. 16-, 24- and 32-bit files at sample rates up to 192kHz are possible.