Back in the era of analogue tape and non-automated analogue mixers, you could walk into any studio and — other than perhaps trying to figure out the patchbay — start recording and mixing. There were different brands of tape machine and mixer, but they all worked in pretty much the same way, as did the more limited amount of outboard that was available then. Today's studio landscape is very different: software has largely taken over from hardware recorders and mixers come embedded in every piece of DAW software. Some engineers still prefer to use external hardware mixers, but even then the signal flow in and out of the mixer is often directed from within the DAW software, and if the external mixer includes some kind of automation system, it is likely to differ in operation between models.
It might seem that as three or four pieces of software seem to dominate the professional music recording world, all you need to do to ensure familiarity with pretty much any studio is to learn how to use those popular DAWs. After all, they tend to do pretty much the same job, so the main challenge is in locating all the features and functions that you know must be there somewhere. That's definitely a good first step, especially if you're on a music technology course and intend to look for a job in the industry. Get familiar with as many different DAWs as you can. However, it doesn't end there...
Unfortunately, one of the great strengths of DAWs — user configurability — also acts as a barrier when it comes to working in somebody else's studio. Because each user can create their own set of key commands, their DAW essentially becomes unique, and while 'unique' can be a good thing if you're the only one using the system, it can seriously impede anybody else's attempt to operate it. While it is usually possible to import key command preference files, few DAWs make it a straightforward process and it certainly isn't practical if members of a songwriting team are handing the DAW control to each other every few minutes.
What's actually needed is what lamentably few DAWs offer; the facility to save your own key commands and other personalised settings on a memory stick that you can take to any studio running the same DAW, then by simply hitting a 'Guest' button on the DAW screen your own settings immediately become active. Properly implemented, such a feature would allow two or more people to work on the same project, swapping back and forth between user settings at the touch of a single button, allowing any member of the group to 'drive' the mouse at appropriate times. Surely I can't be the only person who feels that adding a feature of this type should be close to the top of the priority list for any DAW development team?
Paul White Editor In Chief