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

  • Which aspect are you finding the most difficult: recording, editing, adding effects...? Feb 16, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 at 18:22
  • Not the answer you want to hear, but: if you're serious, you should specialize. In other words, you are trying to learn too many skills at once. If you are drawn to video editing and visuals, then hire someone to do your sound who is trying to make a career of it- they need the practice. And maybe they can teach you cool stuff in the bargain. Oct 7, 2014 at 4:51
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    @he_artburns - I disagree, there are 2 schools of thought, one is the hollywood, specialize avenue, involving specialists for each task, with big crews and big budgets, but (hopefully) maximum quality. The other school of thought is the much more independent film maker school of thought where you work with small, multi-talented crews that can handle multiple roles and have cohesive vision. Understanding at least the basics of a DAW isn't out of the question for a person in that kind of role. You are correct, however, that it is important to keep in mind they are related but distinct fields.
    – AJ Henderson
    Oct 7, 2014 at 14:13

3 Answers 3


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.

  • Nice to see how much time and effort you put in this to help him! :) Feb 16, 2012 at 20:08
  • I just want to tell my story: Feb 16, 2012 at 20:09
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    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! Feb 16, 2012 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, 2012 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... Feb 17, 2012 at 9:45

DAWs are not intrinsically harder to use than NLEs. The thing is that most people really don't know their NLE either. Most consumers and beginners don't use many advanced features of their NLE. Since video is visual, people are inherently better at separating out and visualizing what is happening with multiple layers and accomplish what they want without really touching the power of their NLE. Sound has layers as well, but as a passive listener we process sound as a whole, not layers.

When we see video of a man standing in front of a sofa and behind a TV, we clearly see where each object is and how they are oriented to each other. With sound, we may hear a guitar, a drum kit and a vocalist playing, but we don't really filter out which parts are which and who is lounder than who, we just hear the overall sound.

Audio mixing is an inherently different style of thought to it as you have to think about sound in layers similar to how you think of layers for video. You have to think about how the sounds interact across volumes and frequencies and alter them in such a way as to make them fit together. Humans are much more skilled at placing round peg in round hole (such as seeing a blank area of background to put a title over) than figuring out that there is a gap in the sound between 200hz and 400hz that can be filled by EQing the guitar just so and adjusting the level so that it blends.

There are many more advanced features in NLEs that are hard to conceptualize and those are more challenging, but most people don't have to deal with those. If you get in to high level animation keyframing in something like After Effects (ok, that's not actually an NLE), you quickly give any automation stuff in a DAW a run for its money.

The only thing that really could be said to make a DAW more complex than an NLE is that it includes both the editing and acquisition components. True NLEs do support a batch capture module for old deck control purposes, but it is a distinct module that makes clips. DAWs on the other hand support live and direct acquisition of audio directly in to the timeline on multiple channels, so this adds some complexity.

Conversely though, NLEs not only have many of the basic audio features of a DAW, but also have to support features for manipulation of video as well, thus adding complexity that a DAW doesn't have when working on the high end.

Both NLEs and DAWs have third party plugins, though it is often more common for an average DAW user to use third party plugins for particular sounds than it is for an NLE user to need one, so there do tend to be far more audio plugins for different types of processing. This isn't really a major distinction though since both have fairly large libraries of built in plugins and you can get by at a basic to fairly advanced level without extra plugins, it just takes a bit more work.

So, in summary, the apparent difference in difficulty is not due to the software, but rather the user's experience. A DAW and NLE are roughly similar in terms of difficulty, however they both require a skillset in the medium to use and understand well. The skillset for video is more naturally acquired in day to day life, so it seems easier. The skillset for audio isn't as natural and is harder to tell what is happening when you try something without knowing the terminology, so it seems harder, but if you had a background in mixing audio (but had never touched a DAW), it would be pretty trivial to sit down to a new DAW and start working.


I believe the main difference is that in video you mostly edit while in a Daw you create. Compare editing a podcast with video editing and there is not much difference.

Imagine having to create the video using modelling and animation.

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