In this post we’re going to talk more about DAWs and VST plugins. DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation and it’s essentially computer software that's used for recording, editing and producing music. VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology and is an interface that allows for integration of software audio synthesizer and effects in DAWs. You can get VSTs that reproduce analog effects gear such as compressors, EQs, reverbs and delays, or better yet, VSTs that generate sounds very much like analog synthesizers but in a digitally reproduced environment.
Let’s start with DAWs. Most of the modern ones come in a bundle package, which consists of the main application and a bunch of plug-in instruments and effects. Most of them have their own exclusive plug-ins, but you can later add third party plug-ins which can be more sophisticated and better suit your needs. We’re going to talk more about the choices that you have and I’m going to pick some of the top DAWs out there, so you can get a better idea of what you’re getting with each. Although they are very much alike, the way that you work with each one of them can affect the final result. Another thing you could do, is get the demo version of a DAW of your choice and see which one is best for your needs. Also, all of the top DAWs have a video demo presentation, which could help you get a better idea of what you’re getting.
A computer based DAW consists of a computer (Mac or Pc), a sound card (external, preferrably with at least one input so you can record vocals trough a microphone or an instrument), digital audio editing software and a midi controller for adding or modifying musical note data. Having in mind that there’s a great variety of DAWs out there, I’m only going to be able to talk a little about some of the top brands out there, such as Cubase, FL Studio, Ableton Live and Logic.
I’m going to start with Cubase and there’s a good reason for that. Steinberg, the company that created Cubase, also invented the first VSTs out there. Cubase can run on both Mac and PC. Personally, I think Cubase is a great DAW, but I don’t see it as my first choice when it comes to how fast you can get the job done. Also, I think it is not so easy to work with sends and returns. Apart from that it can also get a bit tricky when working with the multiple windows as they are not fixed in place. The main idea behind this concept is that it enables users to work with multiple monitors. But if you only have one, everything tends to get a little too crowded. But having said that, it’s great software for recording multiple tracks at once and it is very transparent on the sound that it records. It is also great for manipulating your recordings in a fast and simple manner.
FL Studio would be a better choice if you’re into electronic or hip-hop music, since it started out as drum machine software (originally called Fruity loops) and worked its way up to a very complex and powerful tool for music production. It has everything you need in one package to compose, arrange, record, edit, mix and master professional quality music. I’d have to say it’s not the best choice for recording multiple tracks, but it provides a really good workflow for music creation. It comes with a great variety of VSTs and it has everything that you need to create a high res finished product. At the moment FL Studio only works on Windows machines. Recently Image-line, the company that created FL Studio, expanded their territory making the software available for mobile devices, both IOS & Android. They also made a beta version for mac users, but it’s not yet certified for use on OSX.
Ableton Live is a really awesome DAW since it has everything that you need at your fingertips and it provides a really good workflow for recording and editing your tracks. Rooting channels is very easy and fast. One of its main features is that you can root multiple parameters from different VSTs to a single knob, which can control all parameters at once, which can turn out to be handy for live performances. Basically, Ableton was built for improving the experience of a user when performing in live mode. You can record sounds on the fly and manipulate them while still playing the main song. Like FL Studio and Cubase, Live also comes with its own VSTs, which could be everything that you need to make your songs sound great. Recently, they’ve created a midi controller to use with LIVE, called Push. Together, you can improve your workflow and the overall experience of bringing your ideas to life.
The last DAW that I’m going to talk about is Logic Pro, an exclusive app for mac users, created by Apple. The latest version of Logic introduces advanced new features for EDM and Hip Hop track creation, which makes it suitable for all types of music production. It comes with a wide variety of instruments and effects in the package so that you can have everything you need to create a finished product with the program's features alone. The down side is that you can’t run VSTs in Logic since it doesn’t support them. Even so, there is an alternative for mac users, Audio Units, the equivalent of VSTs. Audio Units (AU) are a system-level plug-in architecture provided by Core Audio in Mac OS X developed by Apple Computer.
Finally, I would like to talk a bit more about VSTs. Most VST plugins are either instruments or effects, although other categories exist. Let’s take for example spectrum analyzers and various meters that reproduce the analog VU meters in a digital environment. VST plugins usually provide a custom graphical user interface that displays controls similar to physical switches and knobs of audio hardware that they reproduce. Breaking them into categories there are three types of VST plugins out there:
VST instruments – audio generators. They are generally either virtual synthesizers or samplers. Many recreate the look and sound of famous hardware synthesizers.
VST effects – audio processors—they perform the same functions as hardware audio processors such as reverbs, EQs or delays. Other monitoring effects provide visual feedback of the input signal without processing the audio. Audio monitoring devices such as spectrum analyzers and meters represent audio characteristics visually, much like VU meters do in the analog world.
VST MIDI effects - process MIDI messages (for example: arpeggiate, transpose or velocity) and route the MIDI data to other VST instruments or to hardware devices.
To control a VST, you can use various midi controllers. All you have to do is map the controls of your VST to the physical controls of your hardware. This comes in handy if you’re recording automations for tracks, so you can give them that human feel, rather than have everything sound perfect. Some VSTs come with specific hardware to control them. For example, Maschine from Native Instruments is a DAW but it also comes as a VST or AU, which means that you can load an entire DAW into another one. Maschine comes with a very powerful midi controller, made specifically to work in harmony with its virtual engine. Also, everything that you see on your computer is shown on your controller’s displays. Another example is Arturia minilab, a controller that comes with Analog Lab VST. Every control of this VST is already mapped to the midi controller it comes with. You can change and manipulate sounds straight from the controller, without ever needing to touch your computer. This also makes it great for live performances, giving you an analog feel rather than a digital one
That's it for today. All that is left is to explore DAWs and VSTs yourself. Good luck! And do not hesitate to share your personal opinions about the various DAWs.