We’re heading up to Vancouver tomorrow for VCON! We’ll be there for the weekend, hitting Chapters and Siegel’s Bagels and picking up some desperately-overdue cider rations and kicking around town. Mmm, Growers, how I miss thee. If you’re around, yell!

Also, there’s an exciting special event coming up here next week; you’ll want to read about it. More on that below the fold.

Right now, let’s talk Digital Audio Workstations.

First, what are they? Simply put, Digital Audio Workstations are software implementations of the physical hardware you’d use in a large recording studio to record your music. They include virtual mixing board, virtual patchboard, virtual tape recorder, virtual cables, virtual effects plug-ins, virtual equalisation – and depending on the package, even more.

The goal is simple. If you can do it on one of these:

I’ll be in my bunk

…then you should be able to do it in your digital audio workstation (or DAW) software.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as basic recording. Were it, you could get a little digital recorder and be done. What that giant hunk of hardware – or your software DAW – gives you is the ability to record several tracks of sound, separately or all at once.

A DAW lets you play those tracks mixed together in a synchronised fashion, move and edit your recorded sounds, adjust their levels (both relative to each other and in absolute terms), adjust equalisation, add effects such as reverb or distortion or overdrive or whatever you have plugins for, and so on.

Some DAWs include integrated MIDI support; some include sequencers as a core component. Some even support remote boards that give you all those sliders and knobs, so you don’t have to use the mouse or keyboard so much. Those are cool, and easier to use in some important ways, if less portable.

But at the most basic level, you have recording, editing, mixing, and playback. At the most basic level, you have GarageBand.

I will not be in my bunk.

Now, I’m not mocking GarageBand. GarageBand is a great introduction to concept, and surprisingly capable. It makes a whole bunch of tasks really easy, has integrated MIDI support, and includes a bunch of virtual MIDI instruments.

While from a features standpoint it’s pretty limited, and while it handles tracks in a way that implies they’re less generic than they are by naming them after instruments and making them sticky in weird ways which might confuse you later, it’s still a great first experience.

If you just want to get the idea with GarageBand before tackling something more complex? Go right ahead. Because I am not going to lie to you: the learning curve on the more advanced DAWs can be brutal. Particularly on the free/open source ones.

So, what’s out there? Well, if you have the money, and a Mac, I hear great things about Logic Pro. For both Mac and PC you have Pro Tools, which is called an industry standard because it is one. Pro Tools Express is free with some hardware purchases – but it’s also limited enough that I wouldn’t use it myself. Reaper, for Mac and Windows, has fans in the professional community. (And as Tom Smith noted last week, IK Software is having a big sale right now. This is relevant to your interests.)

But we’re about dirtball DIY. Let’s talk building your own kit, and doing it the cheapest way.

There are really two topics here: hardware and software. We’re already talking software, so let’s carry on.

The cheapest route, in dollar terms, is always open source. Linux is free software. You may have to be able to do a lot of internals work – no, that’s not fair; you’d better be ready to rip its guts out – but you can do it.

Afraid? You will be. You will. be.

Audacity is a relatively-simple open-source DAW. It runs on Windows, OS X, Linux, and some Unix OSes, not that you’re likely to run into those. It’s easier to set up and it works. I ran into its limitations in the first hour, but that’s because I already had aggressive goals; it’s the GarageBand of the open source world.

Ardour is my workhorse, and it is a monster. It runs atop specialised sound server software called JACK, and runs on OS X and Linux. If you run it on Linux, you’ll have to grab PulseAudio by the throat, slice off its head, and salt the ground on which it dies. This will not be easy in some Linux variants (Ubuntu, I’m glaring hatefully in your direction) but it must be done. Ardour is monstrously frustrating (at times), is possibly the most difficult to learn software I’ve ever used outside of 3D modelling…

…and it can do anything. But it will make you cry getting there.

MusE has a fair bit of traction in electronica, because it’s really a sequencer. But it also has DAW capabilities, and the stated intent is to expand into the DAW arena. It’s Linux-only. If you anticipate a lot of sequencer use, and have relatively light physical instrument requirements, give it a look.

Rosegarden started out as MIDI and composition software, and that’s still where its heart is. But, as with MusE, it’s headed into DAW territory and added at least some of the basics of the functionality. If you like sheet music composition and MIDI, you may want Rosegarden.

So, what about the hardware? I’ll approach this from the idea that you’re building a new box for this, or upgrading an old one substantially. If you’re not, well, skim this anyway.

Screw you, Best Buy

Here are things not to care about: what the case looks like. How cool anything on the motherboard sounds. (We already talked about external sound interfaces; if you skipped it, go read up.) The graphics card. You’re not doing video: you do not care.

What you do care about: fan noise. Bus throughput, on the hard drive side and on the USB chain side. (I’m assuming you’re on USB and not FireWire or Thunderbolt, mostly because that’s where we are in the technology curve right now.) Raw CPU power. Lots and lots of RAM. If you want to spend some money, throwing some dosh at an SSD drive is not misallocated funds.

Basically, you want to build a lean box dedicated to math – because math drives your virtual effects – and moving audio data around, and nothing else. Every other toy, every other frob, adds interrupts and takes CPU and bus time away from what you’re doing with audio. Rip that shit out.

One particular task you’ll want to figure out is probing your USB bus for onboard devices. A lot of motherboards will share device assignments between on-motherboard equipment and external USB ports. This is technically correct – the best kind of correct – but in high-demand applications results in more interrupts on the bus and slower throughput. This can and in my case did result in higher latency and buffer overruns. Find and use ports which are unshared for your external audio card.

Also, for Linux in particular, you may find that wireless internet will be a problem. It’ll work, but will interoperate badly with your realtime kernel, hammering you with interrupts and popping you out of realtime mode.

Some people ditch networking entirely. If that’s not okay, go wired. If you must go wireless, get an external wireless bridge and connect it via ethernet cable to your wired (and realtime-kernel-compliant) ethernet card. This will solve many weird network problems.

But I said we’d talk about hardware, dammit! So okay! Where do you get performance hardware for cheap?

Well, you shop around, of course. Check your local parts stores, but the cheapest route I’ve found is to get a copy of CPU magazine’s motherboard roundup issue – preferably the last couple of years’ worth – and to go the gaming kit-out sites.

Yes, I know, I just talked about case mods and all that: don’t care. You don’t go for the frills: you go there for the motherboard clearance sales, because last year’s gaming l33tness is this year’s dogshit, as far as they’re concerned, and they just want it gone.

As a result – the fire-breathing motherboard inside my DAW? 75% off retail. The CPU, 60% off. The RAM, sadly, not as much, but still: bargains are to be had, and I had them.

When browsing, though, choose wisely! Look over the supported hardware list for your operating system and DAW and follow them. The last thing you want to be doing is tracking down some obscure kernel bug and finding that it’s only fixed in a downstream revision your distribution doesn’t even support yet, so you end up installing a custom kernel configuration and doing haxx0r insanity, not that I know anything about that.

Fuck yeah, meme baby. Fuck yeah.

And that’s an overview! Believe it or not, that is an overview; there are an endless series of twisty passages you can run down on this topic, all alike. I’d browse a little, pick one, and dive in.

If you’ve already built a DAW, what do you use, and why? What problems did you hit that I haven’t covered? Is anybody out there using Thunderbolt yet? Share your experiences!

Finally, I teased an announcement up top. It’s super awesome. Get this:

NEXT WEEK, we have a special event! We’ll be kicking off a series of monthly guest DIY posts with one from JEFF BOHNHOFF.

You may know Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff from their YouTube hit, Midichlorian Rhapsody, or some of their many albums and awards. Jeff and Maya also built Mystic Fig Studios, and Jeff has engineered and recorded literally dozens of albums in his 30-year musical career.

And next week, Jeff will be stopping by here, to talk about DIY sound control in your home studio. We’re thrilled to have him, and YOU WILL WANT TO READ THIS, if you have any DIY recording interest at all.

Until then – see you in Vancouver!


This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.