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Between some friends and me, we are finding it evidently more difficult to learn how to use DAWs than to use video editing programs like Sony Vegas and Premier. We are trying Roland CakeWalk Sonar 8, and Ableton Live and finding it complicated. It seems like there must be a concept in the DAWs, music production/editing which is hard to grasp and is avoiding our understanding. With Video the tracks, overlays, effects, transitions all seems to make sense for the final product. But the DAWs are losing us. It seems like the features and tools are scattered and do not all piece together. The terms used in the programs just don't have an intuitive translation to common sense which is easy to find.

Are there a few sentences that should come to mind when engaging a DAW? Such as-Consider XX, whether you want YY and ZZ, also whether you want WW then address A/B/C

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Which aspect are you finding the most difficult: recording, editing, adding effects...? –  Friend Of George Feb 16 '12 at 16:46
@FriendOfGeorge, there are so many buttons, MIDI here, MIDI there, consoles, filters, effects etc, We are getting lost. Nothing to direct and streamline the thinking process. –  Vass Feb 16 '12 at 17:37
perhaps I should have asked what type of music you want to make before I answered below. Anything in particular? –  bot_bot Feb 16 '12 at 18:22

1 Answer 1

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I've only used Premier, dabbled with it that is, and I did find it reasonably straight forward to get into (with some perseverance). The only thing I can think of with music production software is the fact you're dealing with multiple concepts. When using music production software it may help to separate each area into it's constituent components and study them that way. typically you'll have a range of instruments, a multi-track recorder, a sequencer, processing units and effects units. If you break things down like that it'll be easier to get your head around what's going on. With the way technology is going the line between these various elements blurs more and more and can make it more difficult to get your head around. I use logic studio and ableton live. Sonar looks a lot like logic. I'd imagine it's easier to get your head around the concepts within sonar than it is with Ableton as it has a more traditional structure to it.

OK -

Sequencer: Used to control virtual or hardware instruments via MIDI messages. Due to the nature of MIDI being 8 bit messages generally things will work with settings from -128 to 0 to 127 (or is that the other way around) with a maximum of 16 channels per instrument. As such MIDI instruments use controllers to control the various aspects of their sound. Each channel can have up to 128 parameters that can be adjusted at the same time. There are various mappings for these controllers such as GM GS and XG. Some info on MIDI here:


It's worth learning some of those control numbers off, especially if you're using hardware. Most Sequencers have multiple methods of working with data. Obviously you can record straight in, then there are usually score, matrix/piano roll, Hyper(in logic) and event editors. I find the matrix and event editors by far the most useful - not comfortable with the score editors at all and I think for techno, D&B, Dubstep etc they make much more sense to use anyway. Matrix/piano rolls are a nice visual way to edit your events. The hyper editor in Logic is like a visual representation of sequenced events that the matrix doesn't show, like breath control, or random controllers that you might have assigned to specific things like lfo's on an external synth for example. The event editor will show you EVERYTHING a particular channel on your sequencer is outputting - hardcore nerdyness in there - excellent when you know what you're looking at/for.

  • Learn the basics of your sequencer -
    • adding and setting up an instrument or midi channel
    • assigning a VST or external hardware instrument
    • making an empty pattern
    • adding notes and controller information via the Martix Editor/Piano Roll
    • adding/editing controllers messages through the event list (might not use this in the beginning, but after a while you'll how useful itcan be.
    • adding and editing controller automation both within a clip and on the arrange view (that'll be similar to the video stuff).

Synth/sampler/drum machine/VST/AU: Your instruments come in all shapes and sizes; hardware will stick to a lot of the MIDI rules outlined above, software may be a little more intuitive to use. VST's come both as multi-instruments (like hardware, usually up to 16 instruments per synth) and as single instances. Personally I'll generally use single instances as it's easier to look at IMO. to start with, pick one insturment you like and LEARN IT. rpesets are well and good, but if you have a synth you like and study it carefully, treat it like a PROPER insturment - think of how much time you'd spend trying to learn to play guitar, synths are no different - even if you're not physically playing them you have insane power at your hands and someone who knows what they're doing with one simple synth will produce far, far better results than someone who has every big brand plug in going, but little or no comprehension of how to use them. I'd recommend a good subtractive synth to begin with, very versatile and can do a lot. Spend 6 months with something like logic's ES-1 will serve you far better than struggling with more complex instruments for the same period, especially when you're learning drum machines, sequencers and other complexities that go with a sequencer. As far as drum machines, the same rules apply - I love my Novation Drum Station, and I'm quite fond of NI Battery too.

Learn your synths:

  • -Study different types of synthasis, start with subtractive.

    • learn what each control on your synth does, how they relate to the sequencer and how they can be controlled by a keyboard with control messages.

    • study the different types of envelopes, what they do and how they are controlled.

    • study oscillators, what they do and how they are controlled.
    • learn polyphony, parts and voices.
    • remember drum machines default to MIDI channel 10.

Processors and effects: Devices that effect or change the sound it self are split into two camps, processors and effects. Processors are things used to sculpt the sound, I suppose, generally used subtly and usually applied before effects (although, there are no rules so to speak, take this section as a guide) and at insert points, located mid-way in the mixers signal path after the gain, and usually before the EQ if I recall correctly. Although with software you can place them anywhere you like, it's good to be aware of the principle. The reason being, if you have a noisy signal you're likely to want to remove that noise for example, before your apply your delay or reverb or whatever. Processors are things like Compressors, noise gates, energisers, filters, de-essers etc. Effects are the usual suspects like delays, reverbs, distortions, flangers, echos, phasers etc. Learn both, learn the difference. Processors used to enhance the best qualities of or remove the bad qualities of the sound, effects used embellish or totally fuck up the sound. To start with, it's good to know what each of the following processors does and what it's used for:

  • compressor
  • noise gate
  • de-esser
  • filters - low, medium, high and band pass filters.

For effects, just play with them and see what they do, always good to have a well understood reverb, delay or distortion to hand though.

It's an endlessly massive subject, but if you break it down into manageable chunks you should move along more easily. Might help, since there's a group of you, if you took on specific aspects each. Take a synth each and become expert - one of you become the EQ/engineer guy, one of you take the effects etc...

I won't even go into the Multi-track recording here. I'll leave that for another question.

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Nice to see how much time and effort you put in this to help him! :) –  Friend of Kim Feb 16 '12 at 20:08
I just want to tell my story: –  Friend of Kim Feb 16 '12 at 20:09
I play the piano in a band and had a look at some DAWs to set up Autotune, but I didn't figure the logics of it until I learned to do live mixing. I went on the internet and searched and read about live mixing. I started mixing for our local church. Now it's really just logical to me. I suggest you do the same to get the basic understanding of audio. Good luck! –  Friend of Kim Feb 16 '12 at 20:11
Yes, I totally agree, learning a physical mixer would help immensely with the process. The above is kind of a "how long is a piece of string" question, it's very difficult to get a grip on what a music production suite is when starting from scratch. It doesn't click at first, that when you start using something like Logic or Cubase, Ableton or whatever, you're basically looking at the entire music industry on your computer, throw in a blog and the ability to publish straight to iTunes or Beatport and you would literally be looking at the entire music industry on your pc. –  bot_bot Feb 17 '12 at 7:34
The data words in MIDI are actually 7 bit (strange though it seems), i.e. the range is 0-127 by default. I ofter wonder how long it'll be till some format replaces it that's not from the digital bronze age, but I'm not very optimistic... –  leftaroundabout Feb 17 '12 at 9:45

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