Choosing the right DAW or tracking scheme for your beats
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
Mackie VLZ 1604 Analog Mixer(Photo credit: Amir Said)
Recently, a BeatTips reader asked me for advice on choosing a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). It wasn't the first time...and I'm sure it won't be the last. So during our discussion, there was one key issue that had to be reconciled. Thing is, although he did indeed initially want my help in choosing a DAW, his real concern was about tracking (recording) from his Akai MPC into his computer. Specifically, he wanted to know what sort of compact mixing console he could use in conjunction with a DAW. Since I receive this sort of question all the time, I thought it would be helpful to expand my reply here in this article.
For starters, I informed him that I use Pro Tools. Although Pro Tools is indisputably the "industry standard," it is not, by any means, the only suitable software-based digital recording solution. There are many recording artists (beatmakers included) who prefer to use other alternatives like Logic, or Ableton Live. In my experience, (and the experiences of many recording artists that I know), the decision to use Pro Tools, Logic, or Ableton Live really comes down to one thing: the way in which one intends to use the DAW.
Pro Tools, made by Digidesign, is excellent for mixing and editing your beats after you've made them; but some have found less agile if you intend to actually "make" your beats using it. (It's worth pointing out that there are some well-known beatmakers like Statik Selektah who now do make some, if not all, of their beats in Pro Tools.) Logic, made by Mac maker Apple, is also ideal for mixing and editing your beats. In some circles, Logic even ranks above Pro Tools, particularly because of its perceived ease of use and flexibility. Also, Logic is "more agreeable" if you intend to do more than mix and edit finished beats, that is to say, if you want to "make" beats using it. Finally, Ableton Live, made by Ableton (Germany), like Pro Tools and Logic, can be used for mixing and editing your beats. However, because it's actually a DAW and sequencer, it's also perhaps the most agreeable and flexible when it comes to actually making beats using the application.
Here, I should note that Pro Tools' dominance in the DAW field is due as much to Digidesign's early lock on the industry as it is to its design and capability. Thus, many Pro Tools users, who are now entrenched with not just the product but the brand as well, typically find it hard to migrate to a new DAW. And, again, Pro Tools is the industry standard, there's no denying that. However, you should be aware that any commercial recording studio worth a dime can easily work from your Logic and/or Ableton Live data files.
And What About the Compact Mixing Console
There are some who prefer to track their music into a mixing console, then from there into their computer. Many beatmakers—myself included—use this approach for various reasons: amplification, custom sound stylization, management of multiple pieces of analog gear, that sort of thing. So when deciding on which compact mixing console to go with, it's important to first ask yourself whether an analog sound matters to you or not. Of course, there is considerable debate surrounding this. On one hand, there's the argument that the analog component creates no noticeable difference in sound and audio quality. Still, others like Dr. Dre, DJ Toomp, and/or DJ Premier will tell you that there is indeed a noticeable difference...a difference that they, in fact, prefer.
Thus, if you're persuaded by the argument that the analog component does make a difference, then I recommend going with a Mackie compact analog mixing console. Mackie's VLZ series mixers come in the 4-, 8-, 12-, 14-, and 16-line input variety. However, you can also go with another solution: a FireWire analog mixer that gives you the mixing, recording, and monitoring capabilities of an analog console while offering the flexibility and convenience of digital. Among the compact FireWire (digital) analog mixing consoles, the standouts are: the Mackie Onyx series (8-, 12-, and 16- line inputs), and the Yamaha n8 or n12 FireWire Digital Mixing Studio (8- and 12- line inputs).
Finally, there's one more solution that works if you can't afford a hardware interface for your DAW, but you still want to track through a compact analog mixing console. You can record your beats from your compact mixing console straight to a CD recorder—that's right, straight to CD! Listen, until I had a DAW, that's exactly what I did. Going straight to CD directly from analog mixer will help you develop a stronger feel for sound and other audio nuances. Moreover, it will also help you build mixing skills as well—mixing skills, I should add, that the average beatmaker today does not have. Having your beats on CD is no disadvantage, anyway. Once you’ve recorded your beats to CD, you can always convert them to MP3 files if you need to email or upload your music. And if it becomes necessary to track your beats into an DAW (like in the case of selling a beat), you can bring your gear to a local recording studio and re-track your beats into whatever DAW they have.
I understand working on a next-to-nothing (or truly nothing) budget. But when it comes to building the setup that's right for you, it should never be about trying to acquire a "quick fix." I spent years building out my setup. I know how hard it can be to want to do something musically but you can't because you lack the right gear or the funding to get it. I've felt the anxiety (and pain in the gut) from wanting to move forward, even though I didn't have the tools that I knew I needed. That's why I empathize with other beatmakers who grapple with this everyday. But what I learned (over time) is that it's always more important to invest in your future overall music goals (in this case, to develop a strong skill for and understanding of beatmaking) than it is to take quick-fix short cuts. The gear will always be available. But the time it takes to really develop your craft waits for no one. And, having squandered away your time fixated on a piece of gear rather than developing your skills, you may find that you have a dope setup, complete with all of the latest bells and whistles, but only to find that you have poor beatmaking skills.