Basic DAW Set-up
Set up the Studio
Before you can record audio, there is some gear and software to set up.
Types of Cables
XLR — A single cable usually has several separate wires inside (called conductors). In the case of a standard audio XLR, there are three. One conductor is positive, one is negative, and the third is a ground. The ground surrounds the other two wires, somewhat shielding them from interference. A single XLR connects to a single mono signal (like most microphones). For stereo microphones and sources, two XLRs are required.
The positive and negative conductors of an XLR carry the same audio signal, but the polarity is reversed for the second wire. This would cause a complete cancellation of the signal, but the receiving device flips the second back to its original polarity upon reception. The effect is that, since both wires pick up basically the same noise en route, most of that noise is canceled out. For this reason, an XLR can run more than 100 feet. Three-conductor cables with noise cancellation at the end are called “balanced”; the opposite is “unbalanced.”
Note: the fact that XLR stands for “Canon X Series, latching, resilient rubber” is more historical than necessary, but at least you’ll have an answer when a student inevitably asks.
TS (Tip/Sleeve) — These wires only have two conductors and are usually less resilient than XLRs in every way. Inside the cable, the wires are side by side. Since there is no cancellation of noise at the end of the journey, these types of cables usually shouldn’t be run more than 15-20 feet. They are often called instrument cables, since their primary use is to connect an instrument to an amp or direct injection box (a device that essentially converts it into a balanced signal).
TS connectors are also used for some speakers. These cables have a much thicker gauge of wire to handle the higher current load—they aren’t as interchangeable as you might hope.
TRS (Tip/Ring/Sleeve) — These are also three-conductor cables, but are used for stereo signals. There is one conductor for each signal, then a common ground conductor for both. It is essentially two, unbalanced cables in one and usually separates into two physical TS or coaxial connectors on the other end. In pro audio, these are almost always 1/4″ cables, unless used to connect a consumer playback device (such as a performer’s iPod at a live event) to an interface or mixer.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) — Also sometimes called 5-pin DIN, MIDI cables have five conductors. Three of these conductors are actually used. The beginning home studio may only ever use MIDI cables to communicate between a computer and a MIDI keyboard; though, with the proliferation of USB keyboard controllers, this is becoming a rarity amongst novices. MIDI is more thoroughly discussed here.
Signal Flow and Latency
Acoustic energy is picked up by a microphone or other input source, then sent via cables to an audio interface. It may run through some other gear before the interface, but we’ll assume this isn’t the case at the moment. That interface uses an analog to digital converter to sample the variations in electrical current and turn it into the binary ones and zeros that a computer can read, as explained in the section on sound. What wasn’t said then is that this takes some time, as does every bit of processing and bussing the signal goes through in it’s path to an output. Because of this delay (called latency), setting up and configuring your equipment and software can be critical to a live recording session. Bear with me, as this is the No. 1 issue when getting a studio to work.
The Haas Effect, named after Helmut Haas in his 1949 thesis, states that if a signal has a delay below a certain threshold (based on the listener’s hearing), then it’ll sound like a single source. A safe bet is that if the delay is shorter than 20 ms, it won’t bother a performer or listener. If it’s much longer than that, it becomes an audible echo. That echo makes it much more difficult to perform while recording.
Most modern interfaces attempt to fix this problem by having the performer listen to themselves before the signal is sent to the computer, instead of after. This fixes the problem of hearing an echo of yourself, but the playback you are performing to may still be delayed. Audio programs and interface drivers have settings to decrease or increase the amount of latency by changing the cache size; any decrease in latency comes at the cost of increased CPU usage and vice versa. There is also a minimum latency, determined by the interface and the computer’s bus (whether that be USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt, it’s usually at least 4-8 ms). Each audio effect or virtual instrument in a session may increase both latency and CPU load as well. For this reason, recording is usually done with all effects disabled and all instrument tracks printed to actual audio, and the lowest cache size that doesn’t create playback errors. Since everything depends on interfaces, computers busses, and CPU resources, better equipment usually makes it easier to get an acceptable amount of latency. A pro studio may not have to bypass effects and virtual instruments at all. There are also some interfaces with a special, zero-latency circuit and DAWs with automatic, variable cache settings.
Setting Up the DAW
The instructions for installing your interface may be confusing, especially if you require a special program like ASIO or have multiple audio interfaces you would like to use simultaneously (like the built-in speakers and an external interface). Each interface usually has a control panel to alter a few settings, then additional settings within the DAW itself. DAWs may require hardware keys or online activation to use. Some only allow a single install on a single system, while other allow many. Assuming you’ve followed the installation instructions correctly, you should be ready to configure your program and do some initial exploration.
When you run into errors and other issues, you may try to contact the manufacturer of your interface or DAW for support. There is also a multitude of online communities to come to the rescue.
The learning curve of each DAW is usually pretty steep. Recording an audio track and basic editing may not take long to learn, but there are literally hundreds of other tools and options that will take a while to get the hang of—try to be patient with yourself. You’ll probably find amazing, time-saving and/or creative features a year or two after recording your first track.