Home Studio Essentials - Basic Terminology - part i

Basic Terminology

Have you ever spent time around a particular occupation and noticed that a particular lingo is used? It’s as if each job comes with its own dialect. I have got news for you. The same is true of producing audio.

No worries, though, it is all simple enough to learn and will really help you out as you continue reading these tutorials in the future. To start with, there is one term you need to know before all others:

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation and refers to any software used to record, edit, arrange, and mix audio on your computer. Everything involved with producing audio can be done entirely in the digital realm and is only limited by your computer’s hard drive, RAM, and the capabilities of your DAW.

DAWs come in every shape and size imaginable, ranging in price from free to several hundred pounds and capabilities from the bare essentials (recording just one track of audio) to incredibly robust powerhouses capable of 5.1 surround sound and more. Getting your hands on a DAW suitable to your work will be one of your first tasks in setting up your home studio. We will discuss which DAW may be right for you in a future blog. For now, all you need to know is that a DAW is where the magic, I mean “work”, happens.

Every DAW on the market operates on the same basic principles. Understand these principles, and you’ll be able to use any piece of recording software you come across. These principles generally fall in one of two domains: the Sequencer and the Mixer. We will cover everything you need to know about the Sequencer in this blog, and the Mixer in the next. Let’s get started.

Every DAW will, in some shape and form, have a sequencer. A sequencer is a UI (user interface) that displays the various audio, instrument and MIDI tracks and clips on a timeline.
“Woah! What’s a track or clip? What’s MIDI? What’s a timeline?” you ask. Good questions. Let me answer those and we’ll get back to describing the Sequencer.

Sequencers are comprised of tracks. A track is generally a lane that contains the audio or MIDI data related to a single input or instrument. For example, if I recorded one vocal take, the audio would be recorded to a track. Make sense?

A clip refers to a snippet of audio or MIDI data. This piece of data can range in length from a fraction of a second to hours long. It all depends upon hard drive space and what you’ve recorded and/or are editing.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. If you only plan on recording audio, then you will never need to know what this is, but if you plan on composing music or backing tracks using virtual instruments, then listen up. MIDI is a protocol, established in 1983, which standardised the way that instruments and computers can interact digitally. MIDI transmits information such as note on, note off, velocity, volume, vibrato, panning, and a number of other parameters which in turn are interpreted by your computer or device and translated into recognisable sounds. Pretty cool, huh?

This is the part of the sequencer which displays the clips, in their respective tracks, in such a way as to indicate a progression of time, from start to finish (and beyond). The timeline might be displayed in minutes and seconds or beats and bars depending upon your particular DAW.

Back to the Sequencer
Combining all these elements, the Sequencer allows you to record, edit, compose and arrange all of your clips in order to produce your finished product. It’s similar to a conductor’s score, except instead of notes on a sheet of paper, it’s data on a timeline.

There’s one more thing you need to know about your Sequencer:

The Transport Section
No, this doesn’t mean your DAW will take you from your home to the market. Transport refers to the buttons used to navigate your sequencer. Play, stop, rewind, fast forward, loop and record are all typical transport functions found in virtually every DAW. Most of these operate exactly the same, but each DAW may have its own transport nuances. For example, Propellerhead’s Reason comes with a dedicated “LOOP” button whereas ProTools loop feature is set by Ctrl + clicking (Mac) or right clicking (PC) the Play button. It doesn’t hurt to crack open the user manual for your DAW to learn all the tips and tricks of your transport section.

So there it is! You now know a decent amount of terminology and are well on your way to becoming a pro with your DAW. Spend some time playing around with these features and getting to know your software. 

Be sure to check out Pt. 2 regarding the Mixer.