I’ve often run into musicians who seemingly have a terror of recording with computers — some of whom seem to have become convinced that a hardware option will make life easier for them. After all, the hardware has real faders and buttons, so how scary can it be? Something that works like a tape multitrack and then allows you to mix, add EQ and then maybe add a bit of reverb doesn’t have to be that complicated, but if you want a choice of effects and you need to do more than very basic editing, then the learning curve might be steeper than you expect.
What makes me say this? Well, ask Hugh Robjohns about the Studio SOS we did when we spent a futile half-hour trying to configure a simple reverb as a send effect in a particular Japanese digital multitracker — and that with the aid of the manual. It would have taken around 10 seconds in my DAW.
But then, on the other hand, one has to admit that modern DAW software is so incredibly powerful that it takes a fair bit of time to learn properly — and that’s once you’ve chosen the right computer and a suitable audio interface. Without a friend to help you get started, it can be very daunting. That’s why when asked to recommend a DAW, I always suggest using what your friends use as that way you get free tech support. Of course, one of the great advantages of DAW software is that it is often updated and you can add third-party plug-ins to give you new effects and new instruments. So, in the long run, they will reward the initial time investment.
However, there is another way, and that is to look into the lite. Simplified packages such as Apple’s GarageBand or the lite versions of the other established DAWs still offer plenty of creative flexibility, and pretty much anyone can find their way around them in hours rather than weeks. Another benefit of most lite versions is that when you do outgrow their capabilities, you can move up to the ‘full fat’ equivalent and still open your old songs to continue work. For example, a GarageBand song will open in Logic Pro.
What may surprise you, however, is just how capable some of these pared-down packages have become. If somebody told me I had to do an album using nothing but GarageBand, I might be frustrated at some of the omissions, but I could certainly do it. Pretty much any lite DAW package will allow basic track editing — often to a higher degree of sophistication than a hardware multitracker — and you’ll also get mix automation and all the essential EQ and effects, which is all you really need to get started recording and mixing your music. And best of all, when you do come to move up to the heavy guns version, the learning curve won’t feel nearly so steep.