1997 was the year when I published my album JANUS – my first album where all of the audio was recorded on the computer. Two years later, The Cosmo Sessions went one step further: this time, also the mix and all of the mastering had been done on the computer.
Since then, technology has stepped forward at the steady pace of Moore’s Law, and the studio power which was only 20 years ago only available to huge facilities with a giant mixing console, racks full of gear (effects, samplers, synthesizers) and impressive recording machines resides today inside of a laptop computer. The magic buzzword for that is DAW, the Digital Audio Workstation. Actually, there is already a generation out there recording and producing music recodings who only knows of those studios of old from books or tales.
There’s a lot of pages on the web which tell you how to assemble your DAW for a given task and with a given budget frame, and a lot of those recommendations are actually very good. However, most of those articles give but small consideration to the topic of the user interface: how you are actually meant to work with your computer and your DAW software.
This is where this article comes in. On the basis of a small to mid-sized DAW-based project studio, the focus is on the user interface – and nothing else.
A Look Into History
If we try to remember what a recording studio looked like in the 70ies, there were four main groups of components noteworthy with regard to this article: the center of all action was the mixing board, or console. It included connectors for all the inputs (thus also including mic preamps), channel strips which would contain some kind of EQ and aux sends, inserts per channel and subgroups. The second component was the recorder – at that time, typically a multi-track reel-to-reel machine. It did nothing else than record or playback audio. Usually, those machines had a remote control which was placed next to the console. Third, we had everything the engineer used to listen to audio. Most of the time, the board already had a number of functions to send the mix or specific channels to several speakers or headphones, so this group only includes those speakers and headphones. In group four, we have everything else – because it was not part of the board usually called “outboard”. This includes all kinds of effects processors – compressors, reverbs, etc.
The late 1980s saw the widespread arrival of MIDI, and with that, the advent of computers in recording studios. Via MIDI, computers could record performances on a MIDI instrument, edit the recording and play it back later – in other words, doing something the tape machine did for audio. It’s no wonder that most of those sequencer programs created then (and we have some of those still in use today: Cubase, Creator which is the ancestor of Logic, and Cakewalk which has developed into SONAR) worked essentially like a tape machine: you had parallel tracks which you could edit and which could be connected to different inputs and outputs. Of course, the nature of MIDI (and the storage of the information in a computer’s memory, rather than on a tape) made some advanced editing possible – which would later inspire the way today’s DAWs treat audio tracks. It’s also noteworthy that most studios then started to include some often-used synthesizers and samplers in their setups: the Yamaha DX7, the Akai S1000 or the Korg
M1 would be found in most studios, and formed yet another group of devices worth of consideration.
The next steps to the DAWs of today simply consisted of moving more and more of the studio components into the computer. It startet with moving the tape machine into the computer, and with that, also the basic parts of the console. To allow for that, dedicated hardware platforms were integrated with the computer, until by the second half of the 90s, those dedicated hardware solutions were no longer required. Next came moving the outboard equipment (and the rest of the board – mainly the EQs) into the computer: the technology used in most applications is VST. And with that, it was only another step to integrate the synthesizer and samplers as well via VSTi.
All of those steps brought huge advantages, most notably in the equipment costs. One thing that may get neglected, however, (if you as the DAW users don’t think about it specifically) is that of the user interface: how can the task you did earlier with a big board and a tape machine be transferred properly to a computer screen, a mouse and a keyboard?
The Basics of A DAW User Interface
0. Don’t skip on the user interface
A very simple rule indeed, but an important one nevertheless, and that’s why it comes in even before my first proper tip.
The user interface is as important as the computer, the software, the interface and the monitor speakers you choose. While it may not cost you as much money, it will definitely cost you some, and implementing it may cost as much or even more time. So start considering the user interface with your very first thoughts when assembling your DAW.
1. The Computer
The computer is, of course, the center of your DAW-based studio. Two recommendations come here. First, make sure your computer works. Although not a MMI topic per se, a computer which crashes, or does other odd things, will get in the way of your work, also from an ergonomics standpoint. Second, make sure the computer is silent enough. High-speed and reliable harddisks can be noisy, and the cooling for a high-powered computer can be noisy, too. You may need to listen to perhaps some very quiet tracks while sitting next to the computer, and you definitely will always hear its noise while working on your music. Shop for a special silent computer, or consider putting the computer or that big harddisk storage into another room (there’s great and affordable NAS solutions available today).
2. Standard Visual Output: The Screen
Your monitor viewscreen is the number one way the DAW communicates with you. As we’ve seen in the introduction, today’s DAWs will contain a lot of information: there’s usually a track view, there’s a mixer, and there may be any number of additional windows for editors, VST or VSTi plugins etc. The simple rule here is: there has never been too big a monitor, and there never have been too many monitors. I’d put the bare minimum at two 20” screens of high quality and brightness. High speed, as required for gaming applications, is not required here.
3. Standard Input: Mouse and Keyboard
Mouse and keyboard – there’s (usually) no desktop computer without either one. Most DAWs allow you to control each and every function and feature with keyboard and/or mouse (is there any that doesn’t?), and although we will be looking at some alternatives later, you will still need both.
I found the keyboard not to be that much key to the user interface for audio applications, so a proper keyboard that works for you otherwise will generally do. The reason is relatively simple: from an ergonomics standpoint, the occasional key hit usually applied when editing music is far less challenging than, say, writing texts. And those special “memorize some key shortcuts and sequences on one key” feature some keyboards do offer will be taken care of by other components we will be needing anway.
The mouse, however, is a very important MMI component for your work, if only to take care of everything we won’t find anything else for. Apart from your run-of-the mill computer mice, I found that there’s two kinds of specialized mice: those done specifically for graphics stuff (either art or CAD) and those for computer games. Oddly enough, I’m very happy with my choice of a gaming mouse. It comes with some weights to adjust its inertia specifically to how you move your hand, it’s very precise, it’s sturdy, and it allows you to adjust sensitivity on the fly – all of which I’ve found to be important aspects for my DAW work.
4. Where did all my faders go?
As we’ve seen before, the center of attention in studios of the past was the console. The charm of a console is that you have an immediate optical and tactile feedback of how “loud” your invidual channels are right now – and this combination has been gone on the screen of your DAW. The solution: a faderbox, which is essentially a device which has some (sometimes motorized) faders which send MIDI signals to your DAW (and also receive such signals from your DAW). Those faderboxes may include additional (possibly endless) rotary knobs, buttons, sometimes even a jog/shuttle wheel and a display.
For project studios, the de-facto industry standard is the Mackie Control Universal Pro. It includes eight channels plus a master channel, jogwheel, transport controls, a backlit LCD display, and most importantly, all the important DAW programs support it right away. With a street price around €1400, it’s also not the most affordable component available. As a cheapskate’s way around, you can make use of the fact that many faderboxes also support the Mackie protocol – and go with a Behringer BCF2000, which does not have that shiny display, much fewer buttons, one less fader, no jog wheel – but comes at roughly 10% of the price.
Depending on how you work, other controllers may or may not be necessary (and read on for some words on those), but a fader box which integrates seamlessly with your DAW is a must-have.
5. About monitoring – not the one you look at
In our brief history section, we’ve seen that the monitoring section – typically, at least one set of nearfield monitors and one pair of headphones – was connected to and controlled by the board. What do we do with them?
Your audio interface will already have one pair of outputs and one headphone jack – still, you need more, for a number of reasons. Reason one is that you may have situations where two people will want to listen to two different signals at the same time, both via headphones – and you want to be able to make that happpen easily. For mixing and mastering purposes, you may also want to connect another set of speakers, and those should be the same loudness when you switch between both pairs. And finally, having the buttons for mute/dim and the level knob in one central location is often a very good idea.
Some DAWs already include some of those features we’re looking for: Cubase has, with version 4, introduced the “control room” functionality (not available in the “Studio” and “Essentials” versions), and you may want to think about using this as well. “As well”, because you’re going to need some monitor controller.
As usual, prices start in the €50 range (with the Behringer MON800, which I would, without having actually tested it, recommend against, simply because this is in the signal path you use to listen to your stuff) up into the above-€1000 range and from a very basic feature set (like SPL’s Volume2, a simple high-quality passive attenuator) to full-fleged signal routing, level adaption and whatnot possibilities, like in Presonus’ Central Station.
Personally, I use the Monitor Station, also by Presonus. It’s a table-top design (which due to the connections required, may not work in every setup), it has three inputs and three speaker outputs, and four headphone preamps – all that I need. And, the most important thing, it gives me a big level dial in the center of my desk, which I did calibrate to c-weighted SPL values, and it’s got indicator lights so I always see what’s happening.
6. Controlling those VSTi instruments
If you’re also recording MIDI parts using your VSTi instruments, you will also need a controller for that, and most of the time it’s a keyboard instrument. Feature-wise, you really only need a keyboard which can send MIDI and has a feature called “velocity” (it detects how hard you hit the key) – everything else (including the number of keys) is up to your requirements as a musician.
For a really simple and cost-efficient setup, get one of those USB-equipped five-octave master keyboards, which start as low as €100. However, as you would do with an instrument, be sure to try how those feel. If you already have a MIDI-equipped synthesizer keyboard you like, there’s no harm in using that – actually, a lot of the really old synth keyboards (like, e.g. the Yamaha DX7 or the Korg M1) are still in use for that application, because those keyboards have a good feel to them and are reliable. You’ll need a MIDI interface to connect that to your computer – but by all propability, your audio interface may already have one of those. What you don’t need here are specific master keyboard functionalities like zone or velocity split. Typically, you won’t need that for your recording application, and if you do, you can easily accomplish this in your DAW. Actually, having this kind of functionality in your keyboard as well may lead to some confusing conundrums.
If you’re working a lot programming drum parts, an additional trigger pad may also be in order. The industry standard for those is Akai’s MPC series, and luckily, Akai has released the MPD series which is basically the trigger pads from an MPC – think of it as a “MPC master keyboard”. They also have both MIDI and USB connectivity, and at around €100 for the MPD18, they’re also affordable.
Personally, I do a lot of keyboard and synthesizer work, so my master keyboard had been selected both for its qualities as a keyboard controller and as a synthesizer – I use the Kurzweil K2600XS. And for those drum parts, I use an Akai MPD24 – which also extends the computer by a further pair of MIDI connectors, to which I connect the Kurzweil.
7. (Level Metering)
This is almost beyond the scope of this article, because strictly speaking, level metering is a kind of audio analysis tool, but still, as it’s overlooked that often, I decided to include it as well:
You will need proper level metering. This can happen in your DAW software, as a software component on your audio interface, as a hardware component on your audio interface, or in your monitor controller (see section 5).
What you need to do is to have a look at both digital peak levels and some kind of “loudness” level, and the latter is the tricky part. Interfaces by RME Audio come with a software called DigiCheck which gives you both. For use in your DAW (and chances are that your DAW does not include meters which live up to what you actually need here), there’s a free VST plugin by PSP called VintageMeter which will give you the loudness level (you get the peaks already from your DAW). It’s also best to simply reserve a place on your computer screen where you put nothing else but that meter – it’s that important for your work. And don’t think that metering is just a simple colored light either – it’s also possible to spend up to €1700 for nothing but a precision loudness meter as the TC Electronic LM2!
8. But I still need more…
By now, we’ve covered all of the components that I consider must-have for any serious kind of DAW-based studio environment. Following is a non-exhaustive list of additional components, which you may or may not need – depending on the work flow or even the DAW you’re using.
8.1. Remote and Hands-Free Control
This is mainly relevant if you do record your own performances. In addition, some hands-free (read: foot-operated) control is also helpful sometimes even if you’re only manning the computer and have others perform.
The mother of all those controls is the punch-in footswitch. From the early days on, tape machines would often allow you to trigger punch in/out with a standard footswitch you can buy for a few bucks. Of course, in a DAW, this footswitch can be used to control almost anything. Fortunately, several of the devices we’ve already covered allow for connection of a footswitch. The Mackie Control has a connector, as does the BCF2000. This is especially helpful if you’re recording acoustic parts in another room altogether (because of different acoustic properties, or to evade the computer noise, or if your grand piano just happens to stand in another room).
Taking the approach of the remote control one step further would be a remote which allows you to control even more functions, like track selection, arm record, transport control etc. – something like the detachable remotes available on some reel-to-reel or harddisk recorders. One example is the Frontier Tranzport. It integrates with the usual suspects of DAWs (again, via the Mackie Control interface) and gives you transport and track selection/arming controls and even a two-line LCD display – in short, everything you need to control or see from that other room. And of course, you can also connect a footswitch. Connected via a proprietary wireless connection, this is one recommendation for your remote control demands.
If you want to control even more features with your feet (people who’ve been working as secretaries transcribing dictaphone recordings may want this), you can still use a foot controller with more buttons than one – either using MIDI or mapping the button presses to keyboard shortcuts.
8.2 And I’d also like more knobs…
As of section 4, we’ve assumed we’re using something like a Mackie Control or something similar, which integrates with the DAW. However, we may want to have even more rotary knobs or faders at our fingertips – e.g. have the control room volume on one fader, or use eight dials permamently mapped to Cubase’s Quick Controls (by now, you may already have guessed that I am in fact a Cubase user). For all those applications, I’d recommend a device with endless rotary encoders. Fortunately for me, the aforementioned Akai MPD24 has eight of them – enough for those quick controls – and even adds six (albeit non-motorized) faders. Prices for those things start around €40 for the Korg nanoKontrol, which offers nine faders and rotary encoders (not endless unfortunately) plus 18 programmable buttons and a transport buttons section – another example for something you can use well and which comes at a low price.
Another thing you might want to have is a jog/shuttle wheel. Again, some of the devices we’ve been looking at already bring that. If you don’t have one and want one, I can recommend the products by Contour – the Shuttlexpress and the Shuttle Pro V2 (that’s the one I’m using). In addition to the jog/shuttle combo, both do also include additional buttons, and those can be mapped into application-specific key or mouse action sequences, so this will not only help you with your DAW, but also with other programs you choose to use it with (check out their website for a list of templates they supply with it). Perhaps more important than the jog/shuttle wheel are the additional buttons – it allows you to have your most-used commands (say, next/previous marker, start/stop etc.) one one dedicated button away from the keyboard, and this even works with commands which would require some Alt/Shift key action or key sequences. At €50 or €100 (for the bigger one) usually well worth the investment, if your other devices do not already cover those bases.
8.3. Going application-specific
Everything we’ve discussed so far works with each and every DAW solution, sometimes (as with the mouse) with every software on your computer. However, companies have begun to offer MMI solutions specific for one DAW, sometimes also including non-DAW functionalities. Obviously, Digidesign was the first with their ProTools-specific hardware, but, to give just two other examples:
Akai has, in collaboration with Ableton, developed a series of controllers specific for Live. The main feature here is a matrix of clip-launch buttons which provide optical feedback via multi-colored LEDs. Add to that nine (non-motorized) faders and, in the case of the bigger APC40 (selling at €390), sixteen endless rotaries with LED ring, transport controls, cursor buttons and some application-specific buttons (plus, you guessed it, connectors for two footswitches), and you really have something like a “Mackie Control optimized for Live”. The APC20 has none of the additional features, but costs only roughly half as much (€200).
Steinberg has both the CI2 and the CC121 available. Both share as the most important feature a rotary knob which will control any paramter you just pass your mouse over. The CI2 adds some dedicated knobs and buttons, plus a simple audio interface. The CC121 is all controller (meaning: no audio interface, without which you’re most probably able to do, anyway). It does of course also have that “mouseover rotary knob” (which doubles as a jog control), plus a motorized fader with all the important status buttons (e.g. record, mute, solo) with LEDs, plus a whole Cubase EQ section with all the knobs and buttons, a full-fledged transport section and some user-configurable buttons. Apart from that mouse-over feature, one important selling point is of course the seamless integration into Cubase. Still, with a price tag of €185 for the CI2 and €380 for the CC121, you’ll still think twice about that investment (just to bring that into perspective: those few knobs and colorful lights cost as much as the much more impressive-looking Akai APC40, more than two BCF2000 or nine Korg nanoKontrol!)
So far, we’ve looked at hardware (and sometimes, software components) to expand your DAW. The next step is to integrate all of that into your DAW. And this starts with the configuration of the DAW itself.
The DAW’s User Interface
DAWs, like many computer applications, have usually a very complex and sometimes well-laid-out user interface structure. This typically begins with a myriad of keyboard shortcuts to your most-used functions – and sometimes, those can even be configured. It’s useful to spend some time dealing with those: for a work step which requires you to click in a second sub-menu, using the keyboard shortcut instead saves around 800ms every time – which can easily sum up to considerable time savings in the course of a studio day.
We’ve already seen that most probably you’re also going to have a lot of different windows in your workspace: typically, a track view, a mixer, transport controls, perhaps an editor and some VST plugin windows. Some applications allow you to store several workspace configurations and seamlessly switch between them, and if that’s possible, you should exploit that feature. The rationale is rather simple: you typically need completely different information sets when tracking, when mixing, when editing etc.
Note that this task will require a lot of time, and will most probably need some iterations as well. Just remember: time spent here is usually time well-spent and pays off after a few studio days.
Another thing worth mentioning are project templates. This feature allows you to use a standardized basic setup as a starting point for your projects, where you already created the relevant tracks, included some VSTs etc. If your DAW doesn’t offer this feature, you can always fake that by simply saving an empty project (make it read-only to be safe), load that when starting on a new project and immediately do a “Save As” to your intended file name and location.
Why do I mention this here? There may be controller assignments that you can’t store in your DAWs main configuration. Say for some reason, you’d like to have one of your rotary encoders always mapped to the compressor threshold on channel 1. For that to work, you would simply create a template which already contains a “channel 1”, has the relevant plugin in it, map the encoder to its threshold, and then store that template.
Your new components and the DAW
Now it’s time to bring in all of our fancy new devices. Most probably, you’ve already connected your new computer screen, and perhaps also the mouse. The mouse may have additional keys in addition to the application-supported three ones, so you can either stick with their standard mapping or make them do something else (like undo/redo). If you can adjust the mouse sensitivity while working, again find your important work steps that require different sensitivity – mixing and sample editing might be the two main use cases – then adjust your sensitivity settings according to them, and remember to use them.
If you’ve followed my implicit advice, you’ve gotten yourself a faderbox which integrates directly with the DAW, such as a Mackie Control. Still, for those there’s still user-assignable keys (this includes the optional footswitches). Again, see what works well for you here.
The MIDI keyboard and trigger pads work as a normal MIDI input devices for your tracking needs – no need to consider something out of the ordinary here. However, your trigger pad might also have some rotary encoders, which you’d want to assign to some controls in your DAW – now’s the time to think about it.
Putting it all togehter
By now, you’ve most probably spent a considerable amount of time and money to get to the point we’ve reached now – a DAW with an optimized, ergonomical user interface.
How much money, you ask? If you’ve started with your run-of-the-mill computer and got only the simpler variants of all the “must have” components, you’ve spent around €160 for a second monitor, €60 for a decent mouse, €170 for a faderbox, €120 for a monitor controller, €150 for a simple MIDI keyboard and perhaps some €50 more for “small stuff” (including perhaps an USB hub, a footswitch – you name it). All in all, you’ve spent more than €700 for that user interface stuff, which may very well be more than you’ve spent for computer and audio interface together. Is it worth it?
The short answer is “it depends” – and right now, we’ve finally reached the point where we’ll have a look at the actual use of those user interface considerations. Generally, an ergonomical and efficient user interface will have you work faster, better and exhaust you less – and you also happen to minimize health damage to yourself. What’s more, a considerable amount of our spendings (the €220 for monitor and mouse) will not only have a beneficial effect on your studio work, but on anything you do on the conputer. Finally, the MIDI keyboard is not really part of the user interface, but can also seen as being part of your music instruments. Which leaves you with around €300 for faderbox, monitor controller and “small stuff”. And in my opinion, with the benefits coming from that – working with a proper monitor setup will actually make your tracks sound better (because you hear more clearly what happens), and the same is true for the faderbox (because you’re more efficiently able to translate your mixing commands into software), something with such a beneficial effect on the quality of your work, which even benefits your work speed (and let’s not forget those ergonomical, or in the long run health-related issues) makes the cost equivalent of an acceptable large-diaphragm condenser microphone acceptable.