Introduction to DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations)

Introduction to DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations)

What’s a DAW?

A digital audio workstation (or DAW) is a computer program that is exclusively designed for the recording, editing and playing of digital audio files. A DAW allows you to edit and mix multiple audio sources simultaneously on a musical timing grid and to visually see how they line up over time. It also makes it easy to synchronize audio clips with each other based on a common tempo, meter, and beat.

(Technically, a DAW is more than just the software running on your computer. It’s also the hardware: the computer running the software along with any special interfaces routing audio or other signals into and out of the computer. For simplicity, we’ll refer to the DAW software as a DAW throughout this curriculum.)

In professional recording studios and in home laptop-based studios, DAWs are the main software being used today. If you’ve even seen GarageBand or Pro Tools or CakeWalk, then you’ve seen a DAW.

Within a DAW, it’s possible to apply effects to audio and control how these effects change over time. It ‘s also simple to remove any previously-applied effect from an audio clip. When you add and change effects in a DAW, it is done non-destructively. In other words, the original audio file on your disk is never changed: only the resulting sound in the DAW.

As we learn computer programming with EarSketch, we will run all of our computer programs inside of a DAW program called Reaper to create music.

To open Reaper, double-click the Reaper icon on the desktop:

The main user interface window for Reaper looks like this:

Opening a project

To open a project, look to the upper left hand corner of the Reaper interface, and click on the open project icon (the icon with the green arrow, shown in red outline below). Then navigate to the desired project on your computer. All Reaper projects have a .RPP file extenstion. We’ve included a sample project for you to open up and use for the remaining sections. The project is located at:


$USER\My Documents\REAPER Media\openSesameHabanero\openSesameHabanero.RPP


~/Documents/REAPER Media/openSesameHabanero/openSesameHabanero.RPP

What is a measure?

A measure of music is a block of time defined by a specified number of beats. In the EarSketch environment, a measure is always defined by four beats. It’s important for us to be able to identify a measure and its beats within the Reaper DAW.

In the picture above, the information in the red outline stands for one particular measure number and beat number within this measure. This red box is at measure number 1, beat number 3. We use measure and beat numbers to tell Reaper where to place audio clips on the timeline.

Playing a project

The play head (shown in red above) indicates at what measure and beat the project will begin to play. Before playing a project in Reaper, the play head should be placed at the location where you wish to start playback. This can be done by simply dragging the triangular top of the play head to the desired location. To rewind to the beginning of the music (measure 1, beat 1), simply press the rewind button in the transport bar:

Once the play head is in the correct location, press the play button on the transport bar to play the project:


What is a track?

In music, there are different components of a song. For example, you may have vocals, drums and guitar, each recorded separately in a production studio, that are then layered on top of each other to create the final mix of a tune. When you create such a song with a DAW, each of these layers has its own separate track. This enables us to play back multiple audio sources simultaneously (on multiple tracks) and to independently control the volume and effects of each track. A single track in Reaper is shown here:

Adding a track

To add a new track to your project, simply choose the menu item:  Insert -> New Track.

Adding an audio clip to a track

From an open folder in Windows Explorer or the Mac Finder containing audio files (we typically use .wav files, though Reaper accepts other file formats), drag an audio file onto a track, and drop it where you want it to begin playing in the track.  Do this by making sure that the left side of the dark grey box that appears is lined up evenly with the measure-beat line where you want it to begin playing. In the picture below, we are placing the sound to start at measure 1, beat 3 (1.3.00):

Once you have a few clips on a track, you can move them around by dragging the individual clips around, and dropping them at the measure-beat locations (and tracks) where you want them to sound.  You can also use the normal copy/cut/paste functions to rearrange clips, similarly to how you can rearrange text in a word-processing document.

To open the folder that contains all of the EarSketch sounds, choose Actions -> Open EarSketch Sound Folder.

Changing the volume on a track

You can change the volume of any track by moving the horizontal volume slider at the left of the track controls box.  Moving the slider to the right turns the volume up, while moving it to the left turns the volume down.  When turning up the volume, be on the lookout for any red appearing in the level meter (the rectangle shown below that says “-inf”).  If this meter is frequently turning red while the music is playing, then that means that the volume level for this track is too loud for the system (this is called clipping). This usually results in a poor quality sound.

Previewing a track (Solo button)

It is possible to quickly listen to only one track in a multi-track project. This is called “soloing a track”. To do this, press the solo button of the track that you wish to listen to (outlined in red below). When a particular track is soloed, the solo button will appear yellow. When a track is not soloed, the button will retain its normal grey color.

Soloing more than one track is also possible, by pressing the solo button of each track that you want to listen to.  This is a good way to quickly listen to just the bass and drums together, or just the vocals together, or any tracks that tend to go together in a mix.

Turning individual tracks on and off  (Mute button)

Next to the solo button is a button with an “M” on it, called the “mute” button.

Pressing this button on any track will shut off the sound from that track, allowing you to hear what your mix sounds like without this track playing.

Any combination of tracks can be muted, allowing you to listen to the mix without these tracks.

Changing the clip length

Clips can be manipulated to fill more time by looping or be cut off to fill less time on the track. To adjust the play time of a clip, bring the mouse pointer to the edge of a clip. The pointer will change to represent the clip edge and arrows indicating that the clip can be adjusted. Then just drag the clip to the desired length.


Saving a Project

To save a project, choose File -> Save or click the button with the grey arrow in the top left corner of the interface.

Optional steps to save to portable media (USB, CD)
Note that, by default, Reaper will not export all of the sounds used in your project when saving to disk (to save space). As a result, if you want to save all of the sound files as well, you need to copy all media into your project directory, and also convert the media to a format of your choice, as illustrated in the following screenshot:

Save with copying media files

Save with copying media files

Select the audio encoding of your choice in the pop-up dialog that appears when you click the “Format…” button:

Save with copying media audio format

Save with copying media audio format

Create a new project

After saving your work, if you would like to start a new project with a blank Reaper window, click on the new project icon with the green star located in the upper left hand corner of the Reaper interface.



Rendering .wav/.mp3 file

When you save a Reaper project, your music can only be opened in Reaper. If you want to share your music or open it in another program, you need to render it to a common audio file format. To render a project is to combine all of the tracks into one audio file. There are many different file types that  a project can be rendered to. The two main file types that we will be dealing with (WAV and MP3) are further discussed below.

To render your project to an audio file, choose File -> Render and the following screen will appear:

Render Your Earsketch Project

Render Your Earsketch Project

1       Choose Master Mix to render your entire project instead of only specific tracks.

2       Make sure that you save your file to a place where you can find it easily by setting the output directory and file name.

3       The Output format of your file should be either a WAV file or an MP3. In general, WAV files are best for when you wish to save the file on your local computer. WAV files preserve the quality of audio that you hear in Reaper. MP3 files are best for when you wish to share your song with others on the Internet. MP3 files have somewhat reduced quality, but attain a smaller file size (about 10% the size of a WAV file).  When saving as a WAV, be sure to set the bit depth to 16 bit PCM to ensure compatibility with as many other software programs as possible.

4       Click ‘Render 1 file…’ to render your project.


Play MP3 or WAV file in audio player

Once your project is rendered, you should be able to open the file in a program, like iTunes, that will play it. Alternatively, you can double click on your file and allow the computer to open it with the default audio player.