An Introduction to Using Digital Audio Software
This document provides some background information regarding digital audio production software and discusses some important precepts and explains some common terminology unique to digital audio software.
This document is written for those wishing to begin working with digital audio software (DAS). It aims to gives some background information regarding audio software and few consideration for getting started to working in the software environment, with clear explanations of common terminology used.
It is also aimed to provide clarity to those who may have basic experience of using DASs and provide tips and advice otherwise unknown.
This document is not based upon or written for any one specific piece of software but draws on common aspects and features from some of the most common software you may come across, from the free and simple to the highly expensive and complex.
The generic software discussed in this document is specific to audio production software, as part of a digital audio workstation.
It is recommended that you read the advice document An Introduction to Digital Audio, as a prerequisite to these papers on editing.
A Digital Audio Editor (DAE) is different to a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) as a DAW is a complete recording and production system of software and hardware. DAW software programs are much more complex than standard DAEs with more advanced features and tools. For consistency throughout these documents and to add some simplicity when using more than one abbreviation, documents in this section refers to all of these programs in the overarching term digital audio software (DAS).
Most digital audio software allows you to:
- Record from an external device into the DAS saving the audio onto a hard drive
- Import audio from a file directory.
- Edit audio files. This could be performing cuts on the beginning, end or any location of the file
- Arrange the position of audio files into a desired sequence
- Perform alterations to digital audio files, including gain and pitch adjustment
- Mix separate tracks together, adjusting channel volumes and pan positions
- Apply effects to single and multiple audio channels, such as reverb or filtering
- Export audio ‘mixdown' files to a hard drive directory.
Digital Audio Workstations were first developed in the 1970's as a means of digitally manipulating sound once it had been recorded. As a complete hardware and software system for analogue to digital conversion and then for storage and digital processing, the editor was small part of the system as a whole and extremely primitive in its capabilities. The DAW was initially used with digital tape as a storage method on slow computers which used programming to perform functions on waves displayed on an oscilloscope, but as technology caught up the role of the computer and the size or hard drives allowed for faster and more intuitive editing.
The early digital systems were designed to be used by studio recording engineers whose only experience was of analogue recording systems. The result was that DAEs mimicked the functionality of analogue tape editing and the audio routing paths associated with analogue mixing desks. This proved to be a popular format and has stood the test of time, with the basic concepts of editing and the user interface having hardly changed since conception.
These days DAS comes in a variety of packages and is far more than just audio editors. Some are marketed to novices wishing to perform simple editing whereas high end software packages offer complete solutions for editing, programming, mixing and mastering audio and MIDI.
The fundamental difference between digital and analogue editing is that adjustments can be digitally undone when a mistake is made or a different process is later decided upon. This form of non-destructive editing (see the document Working with digital audio files for more information on non-destructive editing) was previously impossible with analogue tape machines and revolutionised how people worked with audio.
Before getting started on a computer based audio project, here are a few points you may wish to consider to help a more productive workflow.
1. Prepare your listening and working environment. For information see the advice document Preparing your Workstation.
2. Make sure your computer system specification matches the requirements of your software package. Similarly, ensure that it matches the requirements of your project as a whole.
3. Ensure you computer system has enough hard drive space for the project, the software with an extra amount to avoid the system becoming slow.
4. Create a file directory, preferably on a separate drive to the operating system which hosts the software, for your audio files and project data.
Sessions and Projects
When you load files or record into a software program, the settings of the program are saved in what is known as a session or project file. These files save the states which you have altered within the software, such as the volume of a channel or the location of a region, separate from the sound files themselves.
Project files are saved in format specific to the DAS and contain information regarding the work you have done and the changes you have made inside the DAS. They do not contain any actual audio, and the audio files imported into the DAS are saved separately. When you save your project file you automatically write over the previous saved copy, restricting you from returning to the former version. For the inexperienced user it is recommended that you save newer project files with different names from previous ones. Such as Project1, Project 1.1, Project 1.2 etc. Why is this? This practice allows you to return to previous versions if you end up finding that you have altered the project in an undesirable way. This is a common mistake when first using DASs as the temptation to make visual adjustments without following with your ears is often followed through.
Before importing your original audio files into a DAS for editing and/or optimisation ALWAYS save an archived copy beforehand. Any edits or processing incurred cannot be undone when further saved.
For best practice a project folder should be created containing the project files and a sub folder containing all the audio files for editing and/or optimisation. All audio files within this subfolder should be named appropriately.
For information on choosing software which is going to fit the requirements of your project, see the advice document Choosing your Digital Audio Software
Other useful tips
- Always save backup copies before editing. Essential practice in archiving projects is to always backup audio files before any secondary copies are made. The same principal applies when undertaking any kind of project where audio is being re-mastered. This is simply to save an original copy if any destructible editing (editing which cannot be undone) is performed, or if the file is accidentally deleted or lost. The original file can also be used as a reference when undertaking any editing or re-mastering.
- Setting the ‘undo' history to maximum. Most, if not all, audio editors and software packages have an ‘undo' function, which acts in the same manner as in all other software packages; it allows you to amend the last function that was made in order to return to the state beforehand. When editing and processing audio, you will a lot of what you do is through ‘trial and error' processes (especially when you are new to this), in order to find suitable sounds. It is therefore important to set the ‘undo' function to the maximum allowable limit. As a result you can go back to a previous state in your editing. Setting this feature is commonly found in the global preferences of the software program you are using. For specific instructions refer to the software manual.