Line 6 Guide to Home Recording, Part 3: DAW Software

Are you running the DAW software that's right for you? Continuing the Line 6 Home Recording series, this article explores a few different software options and offers step-by-step instructions for one we think you'll like. Make sure to read Part 1 (the Computer) and Part 2 (Choosing Microphones) of this series.

By Philip De Lancie

In the previous articles of this series we looked at computers for home recording and choosing microphones. This time we’ll look at a couple other essential ingredients of a home recording setup, touching briefly on the audio interface and then focusing on the software that turns a computer into a DAW (digital audio workstation).

Today’s DAW is a computer-hosted hardware/software combination that handles several related tasks, some of which include:

Conversion — the changing of audio signals from external instruments and microphones into digital data on the way to the computer, and back to analog signals on the way out.

Recording and Playback — the storing and playing back of audio data to/from the computer hard drive.

Synthesis and Sampling — the generation of “software instrument” sounds by the computer, either sampled (based on actual recordings) or synthetic (built by modifying and combining waveforms).

Sequencing — the storing and playing back of MIDI data that is used to play software instruments from the computer and also to control playback of external devices (e.g. a MIDI keyboard or sound module).

Editing — copying, cutting, pasting and otherwise modifying and reordering recorded sounds.

Effects — modifying recorded sounds or software instruments by applying reverb, chorus, distortion, etc. to make them sound more pleasing or to create a desired mood.

Mixing —  combining and balancing all the recorded and software-generated sounds into a final mix, typically two channels (stereo) but possibly surround sound (e.g. 5.1), often using automation.

The first of these tasks is handled by audio interface hardware. When you plug a guitar or mic into the interface, it handles the conversion so you can get the sound onto your computer. The details of interfaces are a subject for another day, but bear in mind the old adage “garbage in/garbage out.” In other words, to get a clean, accurate recording of the signal you are sending into the computer, you must use an interface with high-quality converters and microphone preamps. You’ll also want to be aware of how different interfaces deal with latency (the delay between when you strike a note and when you hear it; see Sound on Sound article). Recording interfaces from Line 6 offer superior signal-to-noise performance and use an exclusive ToneDirect monitoring design that makes latency a non-issue.

Audio interfaces come as either a card that goes into a slot (e.g. PCI) in the computer or a standalone box that connects via USB or FireWire. The most common and flexible setup is a USB 2.0 box like Line 6 POD Studio™ interfaces. Depending on what you plan to record (Guitar and bass only? Vocal microphone? MIDI data?) There’s a Line 6 interface tailored to your specific needs. And direct integration with POD Farm 2 software means there’s no more convenient or better-sounding way to add high-quality effects during either recording or mixing (more on this in a later article).

The Role of DAW Software

Interface hardware lets you get sound into and out of your computer, but everything else you do with that sound is controlled by software. Early on, MIDI sequencers such as Performer were distinct from audio editors such as Sound Designer, which in turn were distinct from DAWs like Pro Tools. But these days most DAWs handle to some degree all of the remaining tasks in our list above. That’s not to say, however, that all DAWs are alike. Top-end DAWs like Pro Tools|HD and Nuendo offer lots of features in areas such as sound-for-picture that may not be of great value to the typical singer-songwriter, while consumer-level programs such as GarageBand can lock you out of features that you may later wish you had (e.g. in-song changes to meter or tempo).

For musicians who are just getting into home recording, one option is a reasonably-priced package that gives you most of what you need to get started (sufficient audio and MIDI tracks, access to high-quality sounds and plug-in effects, etc.). Depending on model, for example, Line 6 POD Studio interfaces are bundled with a “lite” version of Ableton® Live® as well as Propellerhead® Reason® Adapted. You’ll also get Line 6 POD Farm™ 2 modeling software, which can apply a huge variety of effects to guitars, bass, vocals, keyboards, and other instruments, either as they are being recorded (standalone mode) or during mixdown (plug-in mode).

Other DAW options for working with POD Studio interfaces include Avid® Pro Tools®9 and Propellerhead Record, a new DAW contender that’s been turning a lot of heads since its late 2009 release. Record features a very appealing graphical user interface that is designed to look like the dedicated mixing and effects hardware typically found in a recording studio, giving you the flexibility of software with the intuitive ease of hardware. In the rest of this piece, we’ll use Record as a vehicle to take a closer look at using a DAW together with the POD Studio/POD Farm combination.

The Record Layout

First, carefully follow the installation procedures for both Record and POD Farm 2. After the install, remember to free up processing cycles and RAM on your computer by quitting any unnecessary programs (learn more about computer optimization).

Let’s start with a quick overview of Record. When you launch Record, you can check the Preferences to be sure that that your Line 6 interface is selected as the Audio Card Driver on the Audio page. If your interface is a Line 6 POD Studio KB37, you can also confirm that it is selected as the control surface on the Keyboards and Control Surfaces page.

Now let’s get familiar with Record’s user interface, which is made up of three main areas. The Rack is home to the program’s devices, which are either effects that can be applied to tracks, such as reverb and delay, or software instruments, which are samplers and synthesizers that play sounds (drums, bass, strings, brass, etc.). The sounds are generated from “Sound Banks.” With the included Reason Factory and Orkester banks, Record gives you plenty to work with right out of the box. You can also buy “ReFills” — collections of additional software instruments — from Propellerhead, and even find free ReFills on their website in the Community.

The Sequencer is a timeline used to build compositions from audio and MIDI tracks, which are each made up of one or more parallel “lanes” holding clips. Audio lanes hold audio clips that you record via your audio interface. MIDI lanes hold notes that you either play in from an external MIDI controller like a KB37 or, if you’re in the Sequencer’s Edit pane, draw with the Pencil tool in the pane’s “piano roll” (MIDI sequence editor). The Sequencer also hosts the Transport panel (at bottom), which includes a Ruler (timeline) to show you where you are in your song as well as controls such as Play, Record, Stop, etc.

The last main work area is the Mixer, which controls the level (volume) of the tracks relative to each other and also allows you to apply EQ and dynamics (compression or limiting). The three work areas may be used together within a single window or the Rack and Mixer may each be “detached” into their own separate windows.

Getting a Beat

Now that we’re oriented to Record, let’s get started building a composition. Most home recordists aren’t set up to record live drums, so one crucial DAW capability is sequencing a MIDI drum track. For simplicity, we'll use a readymade drum loop:

» With Record launched, choose Dr.Rex Loop Player from the Create menu. The electric blue Dr.Rex device will appear in the Rack. If the device is "folded" (minimized), click the right-facing triangle at far left to show the hidden controls.

» A new track for the device will automatically be added to both the Sequencer and the Mixer. To see it, open the Sequencer window from the Window menu (or use the keyboard shortcut F7). You should now be in the Sequencer's Arrange mode (if you're in Edit mode instead, toggle views with Ctrl/Cmd+E). Notice the left and right Loop Locators on the Ruler, which define the current loop playback region as measures 1 through 8.

» Find the track corresponding to Dr.Rex, double-click in the name label at the far left of the track, and enter a clever name like "Drums."

» Back in the Rack (F6), click the Browse button (folder icon) at the upper left of the Dr.Rex device, thereby opening the browser dialog. Select one of the available loops (e.g. ACS01_StrghtAhead_130.rx2), and click OK.

» On the Dr.Rex front panel, click the Preview button (just above the waveform display) to hear the loop. (If you hear strange clicks, try bumping up your buffer size on the Audio page in Preferences.)

» On Dr.Rex, click the To Track button to move the loop to the Drums track in the Sequencer. Go back to the Sequencer, and you’ll now see the drum pattern in the first lane of the track, looping for the eight-measure duration of the loop playback region (for longer looping, extend this region before clicking the To Track button).

» Drag the ruler's song position marker to the start of the sequence (measure 1, beat 1). If your computer keyboard includes a numeric keypad (and Num Lock is on), you can do this by pressing 1.

» Switch to the Mixer window (F5) and find the master fader and the fader for the Drums track. Make sure the faders are up.

» Click the Play button in the Transport controls (or hit your computer keyboard's space bar). You should now hear the drum part play through the Mixer.

Overdubbing Audio

Now that you’ve inserted a MIDI drum clip to play against, you’re ready to create an audio clip in Record by recording from an instrument such as bass or guitar. To do so, we’ll use a Line 6 audio interface via POD Farm 2 (recording with a mic is the same process, but using a different input on the interface):

» Plug your instrument into the Instrument input of your interface.

» In Record, choose Create Audio Track from the Create menu:

A device corresponding to the new track will be added to the Rack, and the track will be added to both the Mixer and the Sequencer.

In the Sequencer you’ll find the drop-down Select Audio Input menu (just to the left of the new track’s horizontal meter), where you can set whether the track is mono or stereo, and also confirm that the track’s source is a send from the Line 6 interface.

» In POD Farm 2, use the Mixer View to route your signal:

Click the Mixer View button (just to the right of the Line 6 logo in the Main control Bar at top).

By default you’ll be in single-tone mode so your input will be Tone A. Use the Tone A Input drop-down (just below and to the left of the logo) to select the input that you’re plugged into on the interface.

Set the Tone A level knob so that when you play or sing your loudest the Input meter reads just below 0.
If the clipping indicators for the Tone A output meter come on when you play, bring down the Tone A output fader (just under the Mute button).

To keep it simple for the moment we’ll record without POD Farm effects, so set the REC drop-down (toward the right) for Send 1 - 2 to Dry Input. You can adjust the output of this send by using the send’s fader and, if needed, the +18 dB boost button.

» Back in Record, check that the fader on the audio track is up, and adjust the track’s input fader so you see a good signal level when you play. The Mixer’s master fader should be up as well, with signal showing on the master meter. If you see a signal in POD Farm but don’t see or hear anything in Record, check that Monitoring is set to Automatic on the Audio page of Record Preferences.

» Start recording by clicking the Record button in the Transport. You’ll hear the drum part play, and you can play along. As with most DAWs, when you stop you’ll see the waveform of the recorded audio appear in the track display. You can now overdub more layers of recorded instruments on new tracks by repeating the process outlined above.

Editing Audio Clips

Once you’ve recorded audio clips, you can perform another key DAW function, which is to piece together parts of several takes into a good track. In Record you are not destructively cutting and pasting the audio clip source files, but rather determining when the various “takes” of a given track are heard. For example, let’s assume that you made a mistake in one measure of a riff, and you want to replace it with a good measure that you played elsewhere in the same take:

» In the Sequencer, enter Edit mode and click on the track that you just recorded. You’ll see a heavy dark outline on the track, which defines the portion of the track that will play back. You can use the handles on either end to trim the clip (adjust in/out points non-destructively).

» Double-click on the track to enter Comp mode (the Comp mode button to the left of the track’s waveform display should appear pushed). In Comp mode a track’s available takes are displayed in the track’s lane as a set of parallel “Comp Rows,” only one of which can play back at any given time. At this point the only takes shown will be Silence (colored gray) and your just-recorded clip, which is colored to indicate that it’s the take currently set for playback.

» Click on the Razor tool at the top left of the Sequencer. The cursor will change to a razor.

» Holding down the Ctrl (Windows) or Cmd (Mac) key, click-drag in the Comp Row of your clip from the beginning of the good note to its end (the resolution of your selection is determined by the Snap setting). When you release, a new Comp Row will appear that duplicates the original. The region you selected will be bracketed by start and end handles. The region between these handles will be colored; the rest of the new take will be gray.

» Drag the start handle of the new take until it lines up with the beginning of the riff that you want to replace. Drag the end handle of the new take until it lines up with the end of the riff that you want to replace. If you listen back, you’ll still hear what sounds like your original recording, but while the playback location is between the start and end handles you’ll be listening to the new Comp Row rather than the old.

» In the new Comp row, click and hold at the start of the good riff, dragging it in time until it lines up with the start handle in that row. Now when playback gets to the start handle location you’ll hear the good riff instead of the bad. When playback gets to the end handle, the source will switch back to the original Comp Row. If needed, you can use the crossfade handles at either end to create a smoother transition.

Record is a rich program with a lot of features, and the quick rundown above barely scratches the surface of its recording, sequencing, synthesis, and editing capabilities, as well as it’s ReWire support and its integration with Propellerhead Reason. To find out more, check out the Propellerhead website, which features Record tutorials on many topics including how to use the program together with Reason. Also check the Line 6 Community page, where free Reason ReFills are sometimes available to registered users of Line 6 products such as the POD Studio line.

Philip De Lancie is a freelance writer covering all aspects of audio and multimedia production and distribution. His work, which has appeared regularly in leading publications for production professionals, draws on his own professional experience in audio engineering and multimedia production