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Setting Up The Ultimate Digital Home Studio, Part III

Welcome to the third installment of the Virtual Studio!

In the first two issues we covered the hardware needed to put together a PC based studio. What I'm going to get into now is the software side of the equation. There is so much software out now that deals with recording and/or editing that the range of choices is enormous but we can break them down into a few categories and then talk about the features that we really need to do a given job. Since the focus of this article is on the PC as a home studio and is written for musicians composing and recording their own music, we're going to talk in terms of what is needed with those goals in mind. What we want to be able to do is write and record with the greatest ease and efficiency and still have plenty of flexibility to edit and mix everything the way we want. What I have always looked for in software since the days of Atari sequencers (and even before that but let's not get into the dark ages here) is a program written as logically and intuitively as possible so that I don't have to learn a whole new language just to get something done.

These days I get a little annoyed when I have to pour through a manual to figure out the labyrinthian hierarchy of a program before I can do anything. Sometimes the nature of the task at hand is diverse enough that the programmer is forced to write the software to satisfy more than one type of user or approach to the job. This is sometimes the case with graphics software etc. and I can appreciate the complexity of it and deal with the learning curve involved. When it comes to music, however, I have no such patience. The job at hand is very clear and the method of achieving it should be very direct and intuitive. If you're a songwriter you know how important it is to be able to get an idea down before it slips away,because inspiration doesn't always wait for you to get all your gear working.

At the same time we want ease of use we also want flexibility. I am open minded enough to realise that if another approach to doing things offered some huge benefit in flexibility or enhanced the end result to a great degree that it may be worth the effort in learning this new way of doing things. Fortunately, we do not need to make any such leap into uncharted territory or leave behind the familiar trappings of the analogue recording world. Instead we can work in much the same way as one would with tape but without all the limitations of tape.

If you have experience recording on tape of any kind and working with outboard gear, you can use and adapt that knowledge to working in the digital world. If you have no such experience there will be many things you will never have to learn or be concerned with and you should be able to get "up to speed" much quicker than you would have been able to in the "old days" of tape.

So, with all that in mind and considering that cost is an issue as well, there are two programs that must be talked about first because they will fit the bill for most of you. These two are "Cooledit Pro" by Syntrillium and "Cakewalk Pro Audio" by Cakewalk. There are some major differences between them but they both share the traits of ease of use, flexibility and value for money.

Cooledit Pro has some unique features and represents a very complete package in that it contains a wide assortment of very high quality effects and processing capability. What Cooledit Pro does not have is integrated MIDI recording ability. It is strictly intended for recording editing and mixing audio. So, if your music is put together by playing live or otherwise does not depend on MIDI sequencing, Cooledit can pretty much do it all. What makes this program such a good value is the selection of high quality effects and the ability to easily edit a waveform in almost any way imaginable. The other reason it is one of my top choices is the absolute joy of working with it. Cooledit is so logical and intuitive it is hard to imagine how you could make it any easier. A somewhat unique feature is the way it deals with multiple tracks in playback from a CPU processing standpoint. Cooledit Pro has the ability to playback 64 tracks simultaneously, a feat that would not be possible using most other recording software on a normal PC. This is because what happens is the tracks are mixed together in the background rather than relying on the computer's CPU power to actually play all those tracks as individual wave files. The only time you become aware of what is happening is that when you have more and more tracks there is a longer wait needed for the software to assemble it's background submix before starting to play.

There is an indicator that shows when it is ready and it will also buffer to some degree if you hit play before then. I do not find this trait an inconvenience in practice and the upshot is a huge amount of available tracks. One of the main reasons I got Cooledit Pro was for the effects and the editing ability and I am so used to using it for all my waveform editing that it's an inseparable part of my recording environment. It will do all of it's processing for effects etc. in stereo, so it works brilliantly for stereo compression or programming precise fades on mixes and many, many things.

I absolutely love Cooledit Pro and use it for a large part of my own recording work but I do not use it for recording the tracks in the first place. This is because I, like many of you, create the basic parts by recording MIDI first and then when the parts are played correctly and the song is arranged I record the audio. For this I use Cakewalk Pro Audio. As of the date of this article, the latest version to my knowledge is Cakewalk Pro Audio 8.4. Cakewalk features MIDI recording right alongside audio and allows you to easily compose music and get it just right in MIDI before committing to actual audio tracks. You can import an existing MIDI file or do it all in Cakewalk from start to finish. Like Cooledit Pro, the layout keeps some of the tape environment conventions such as a linear approach to recording from start to finish (where repeated sections are cut and pasted as opposed to the loop or chain function employed by some MIDI sequencers).

Both programs also feature a vertical list of tracks which then go left to right as the song progresses. For editing, Cakewalk has several different "views" you can jump to as well as the ability to zoom in and out to a drastic degree. For effects Cakewalk has a few basic items built in and then utilises active-x devices for all the serious work. It comes with the bare necessities and can get you a pretty long way without any other software but I found myself wanting some better reverbs pretty quickly. Cakewalk integrates very well with Cooledit Pro so if you have them both you can open Cooledit from the pull down menu and have the best of both worlds. What I do is use Cakewalk for the MIDI part, then also to track and mix the audio and Cooledit Pro is used for all types of editing and many effects. What makes Cakewalk really slick for mixing is it's ability to function just like a mixing console and patch in realtime effects either as a track insert or assigned to a auxiliary bus. The only limitation is the CPU speed but I find I can usually get a couple realtime effects at least and maybe more if there are not too many tracks (also some effects are more CPU-intensive than others).

As I mentioned before, Cooledit Pro is somewhat unique in the way it treats multiple tracks on playback. Cakewalk, on the other hand, does not use the same type of background mixing and relies on the CPU to play back the tracks as separate wave files. This means the amount of tracks you can playback at once is limited to the transfer rate of your hard drive and the CPU speed of your computer. On my P266 with a rather ordinary UDMA hard drive I can get about 13 or 14 tracks at the same time. Now keep in mind we're talking about continuous tracks. Many tracks will not be continuous, they will stop and start. For example a guitar lead only comes in for 8 bars, during the guitar lead there is no lead vocal etc. So what you find in practice is that you can really put down quite a bit of music before running into any limitations. If you do "run out" of tracks you can get around that by simply submixing some of them down in order to free up the space you need. Since you can always save the unmixed versions you still have the flexibility of going back and changing anything you want at any time.

Cakewalk Pro Audio 8 does have the ability to mix more tracks than it can actually play back because it can create a mix of all the tracks (including the realtime effects) which it does non-realtime using a mix function. So, theoretically you could create a piece in sections and use all the effects and as many tracks as you want and it would be able to mix it all down. I have not tried to get crazy with this idea but the possibility is intriguing. Don't worry about the track issue. If you have even a modest computer you should have no problem recording and mixing the average rock, pop, R&B or country song without any fear of running out of tracks that can be played back. What you will most likely find is that your CPU will only let you run a few realtime effects at once. We get around this problem by editing the track in question to incorporate the effect. Once again, you can always revert to the original version (if you save it) in the event you don't like the effect later on.

So in summary the two big guns of the software world (in my humble opinion) stack up like this; Cooledit Pro offers a very complete solution for those not needing MIDI recording capability and excels in the area of editing and effects. It also has the ability to play back and mix a whopping 64 tracks of audio.

Cakewalk Pro Audio 8 offers the best solution for those needing MIDI capability as well and although it does not have all the editing and effects features, it makes up for it with realtime effects and many other useful features too numerous to mention. Both programs were chosen largely because of their logical and intuitive user interface and are both about equal in that department. Cakewalk has made several major improvements in Pro Audio 8 over previous versions whereas Cooledit Pro has not changed much since it's introduction.

I'm only scratching the surface here because there is so much more to each of these programs but I will save that for future articles where we talk about actual practice in working with them. Obviously all of this is my opinion and I know there is other software out there that will also do the job but when you consider the price, the ease of use and the practical features, these two are almost impossible to beat.

Go to Part II of this article

Go to Part IV of this article


Digital recording column author Stewart Meredith has worked on the road and in the studio with the likes of Leon Russell and played on sessions in Nashville, Houston and Los Angeles. He was a content developer and beta tester for inovative software company Hotz Interactive in Los Angeles and has worked as assistant engineer in studios as well as session singer and keyboard player/programmer. He is available on a limited basis for freelance consulting in the London area.