Tech Roundup: Digital Audio

Are you a musician who doesn't know much about technology? Or perhaps a techie who simply needs some information on available technologies involving music production and sound? If so, then this article will give you a break-down of the major technologies involved in computer audio.

Let us start with the big picture. A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) is the heart and soul of the digital studio. They typically process, record, and mix sound; as well as give you the ability to use different plug-ins. Examples of DAW software include:

Steinberg Cubase - http://www.steinberg.net/
Propellerhead Record Reason Duo - http://www.propellerheads.se/
Energy-XT -  http://www.energy-xt.com/
Cakewalk SONAR - http://www.cakewalk.com/products/SONAR/
Ableton Live - http://www.ableton.com/
Pro Tools - http://www.avid.com/US/resources/digi-orientation/


A common format used in composing music, MIDI (Musical Instrument Data Interface) actually doesn't contain any sound data. Instead, it uses instructions to interact with devices or software. MIDI is a standard "language" used by software and hardware to talk and interact with one another. For example, a MIDI file on your computer sends instructions to your MIDI player software to tell it which notes to hit, when to release notes, how much velocity to use when hitting a note, and so on.


Loops are short "chunks" of music - such as a drum pattern - that can be used to form a baseline for a song. These can come in multiple varieties: Some are divided into separate beats and can be quantized and matched to a beat; while others are simply a single sound file. Common loop formats include:

WAV - A standard, uncompressed sound file.
Acidized WAV - Similar to a wav, but "sliced" into segments that can be adjusted for tempo.
REX Loop - One of the most common loop formats. This format was engineered by the creators of Propellerhead Reason and Record.
Apple Loop - A loop format used in Apple software, such as Garageband and Logic.


Samples are small sound files that represent a note played from an instrument or other source. These sounds can be used individually, but are often packaged into sample "libraries" that include many related samples. Some of these libraries can be used in conjunction with MIDI data to change the sound. The most common of these is SoundFont; a format created by E-mu Systems, Inc. that includes sampled sounds arranged in categories called "banks". SoundFonts are commonly used to render "enhanced" MIDI music.


Plug-ins include virtual instruments and effects that "plug in" to your DAW to enhance and shape your sound. These can be anything from reverbs, distortion effects, overdrive effects, and vocoders. They can also be instruments such as synthesizers and sample-based sound engines. Plug-in standards include:

VST - Designed by Steinberg, VSTs are programs that are loaded into a DAW as effects processors and the like.
VSTi - Similar to VST, but generally contain sampled sounds from one or more musical instruments.
RTAS - This format was developed by DigiDesign and Avid.
AU - Apple's own plug-in standard.

Putting it all together

It can be daunting putting together the right combination of software for music production. After all, not all DAW software will use all plug-in formats, loop formats, or even sample formats. It is important to keep in mind a few things as you shop for digital audio tools:

Compatibility. Do the formats supported by your DAW match the formats of the loops, samples, and plug-ins you want to use?
Copy-Protection. Do you have to buy any extra copy-protection hardware, such as a dongle?
Performance. Will your computer be able to handle the overhead of the software and all effects/instruments you plan on using?

If you are seriously considering moving over to the digital music standard, it will pay off to be patient, do your research, and learn the ins and outs of each piece of software in which you are interested. It may take some time to settle on something that fits your needs - and budget - but knowing what you're looking for is the first step in making the leap.

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