DAW Fundamentals — Recording Audio

Creating a Session in a DAW

Pro Tools and Studio One both have free versions, but are crippled enough that we can’t show everything we want in either. Since it works exceptionally well for show-and-tell, we’ll use Studio One 3 Pro for our reference DAW; however, most steps and tools are available in every DAW.

1. Open the software and set up your interface: The time it takes to open a DAW depends largely on how good your computer is and how many plug-ins you’ve installed. Usually, a DAW will take longer to start the first time a bunch of new plug-ins has been installed, then quick thereafter. If you’re using Pro Tools and need to change playback settings (or choose an interface), hold down the “n” key while the loading screen is still up. Some interface settings are in the DAW and others may be located in a separate application. For Studio One, you go to Audio Setup (or click on the interface picture on the welcome screen) to go to the settings, then click on “Control Panel” to bring up the external settings.

2. Create a new session: The first thing your DAW will prompt you to do is create a new session/project.

Important settings:

• File Type: WAV and AIFF are the standards for uncompressed audio.

• Bit Depth: Unless resources is an issue, this is normally set to 24-bit to allow plenty of dynamic range.

• Sample Rate: This is usually set to 48k (the standard for video), then is downsampled to 44.1k for CDs. Surround files are often greater but are worked on at 48k, then edited in post-production to become surround.

• Buffers: With great hardware, this could be as low as 64 samples when recording, for the shortest latency; it’s usually fine around 256. If this causes playback errors, up to 1024 or higher may be used. Higher buffers are generally fine after recording is complete.

• Dual Mono vs. Interleaved Stereo: Unless a mastering house or broadcaster specifically asks for multiple mono, just stick with interleaved stereo. This will create a single file that’s easier to deal with than two mono.

• 32- versus 64-bit processing: This is only a selectable option on some DAWs. Usually, a DAW is either 32 or 64-bit and not changeable. The trend is to use a 64-bit architecture since this allows more than 4 GB of RAM to be addressed, and takes full advantage of modern CPUs. However, a lot of plug-ins haven’t been created in 64-bits yet, so there may still be reasons to use 32-bit processing at times. If a DAW allows for variable quantities of CPU cores to be selected, it’s usually best to use them all.

• Templates: This is one of the greatest shortcuts in pro audio. Some projects take less than a minute to set up, some take hours, and a complete film scoring template may take a week. Use templates wherever possible.

• File location: For beginners, this doesn’t matter too much. A pro may have the operating system, the session, the computer’s paging file, and virtual instruments all on separate solid-state drives, for maximum performance.

3. Create tracks: For many DAWs, this is as simple as double-clicking the empty space where a track normally goes. There is also always a “Create Track” option, which gives other possibilities and time-saving options.

Adding tracks in Studio One

4. Set in(s) and out(s) for each track: You need to specify where audio is going to come from and where it’s headed for each track. This is often easier in the mixer, but can also be done in the edit window. In this case, all four mic inputs were already selected as a result of the settings chosen in the Create Track menu. The default output of “Main” is already selected as well. If the options don’t match up with your interface, you will have to configure that in the I/O setup menu.

One thing you need to know is if each input signal is mono or stereo. A mono track has one channel of audio, such as a single microphone, lead vocals, or an electric guitar that’s plugged directly into the interface. Stereo tracks are two channels recorded to a single track; it takes two channels of input on the interface and two microphones to record in stereo. These are often pianos, a pair of mics over a drumset, or a pair in front of a guitar or choir. When selecting the input, it’ll say something like 1+2 (for inputs 1 and 2).

Specifying inputs and outputs for each track

5. Record-enable the tracks to be recorded and set the gain: The record-enable button is a characteristic dot or an R. If you step in front a mic and make some noise, you’ll see the audio input being metered in the DAW. Have the performer play/sing the loudest section of their performance. Adjust the input gain (usually a physical gain/level knob on the interface, corresponding to the appropriate input) to where the loudest signal coming in doesn’t go above -6dB. Ideally, most of the incoming audio should be between -12 and -6; it’s critical that the audio never peaks (goes over) 0dB—this causes the waveform to be cut off, adding distortion that is irreparable without special tools (if you’re lucky). If the signal is too weak, the difference between noise and audio (signal-to-noise ratio) will cause trouble later.

When you hit record, any tracks that have been armed for recording will begin to write audio data from the chosen inputs. After you hit stop, you’ll end up with something that looks like this:

Mono and Stereo Tracks Recorded in Studio One

In this case, there are two mics on a lead vocal (to give a little flexibility in mixing) and a stereo pair of mics on an acoustic guitar. Since all mics were recording at once, the vocals are heard in the guitar mics and even more guitar was heard by the vocal mics. If time permits, you can record sources separately for greater isolation between tracks.

6. Organize tracks and set up busses: Organization can happen before recording, after editing, or during mixing; getting it out of the way as soon as possible usually makes everything else run more smoothly.

Tracks can be resized (visually), color-coded, grouped, and sometimes put into folders. All of these tools help your session remain uncluttered and streamline your workflow. Grouping tracks allows you to record-enable, solo, and mute multiple tracks at a time.

In computers, a bus is something that moved data around. Besides your USB, Firewire, and Thunderbolt busses on the computer itself, you also have audio buses that sit in the signal path within the DAW. We’ll go over various uses for buses in the other sections. At this point in the process, buses may be used to combine the output signal of tracks. Once these are set up, you can use a single mixer channel/fader for applying effects and levels for the entire bus of tracks. Here’s an example where the drums, bass, strings, synths, and background voices are on busses. All of them are also sent to a “MixBus,” where their level/effects can be affected in one huge group, separate from the lead vocal (which is being sent straight to the “Main” output).

Audio Busses in the Studio One Mixer

Resources for this Section

Chapters 4, 10 and 11 are about setting up a session, organizing tracks, and the actual process of recording audio tracks within a DAW.