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Technology: Digital Audio Workstations

Dr. Marc Jacoby • Technology • January 21, 2014

Web-based apps for the music classroom

AudioSauna

In a previous edition of SBO, Dr. Jay Dorfman wrote about the growth of cloud-based computing and its impact on education. This model of computing leverages access to networks (both local and internet) for most, if not all, activities that a user may do on his or her computer. Very little is actually stored on the user’s computer. Instead, applications and documents are accessed from remote servers. The netbooks (i.e. Google Chrome) are a good example of this new trend. It’s almost as if we’ve come full circle from the early 1970s when mainframe computers handled tasks sent from “terminals,” primitive keyboard and printer devices. Of course, today we have media-rich experiences with images, audio, and video at our beck and call, which can be invaluable resources for the music classroom. 

While Dr. Dorfman identified productivity software and some music apps available, I’d like to focus on three music production tools that are in a category commonly referred to as Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). While they may not give professional-level applications like ProTools a run for its money, these web apps are quickly becoming more powerful and feature-rich, while also including elements of social networking that defines a large part of our Internet experience.

 

The Digital Audio Workstation

Before looking at specific sites, let’s address what the term “Digital Audio Workstation” has come to mean in music production. Think of it as a complete recording studio on your computer. First, while it may seem obvious by the name, apps in this class of software provide for the playback of audio files, both single instance and loops. In some circumstances, direct recording into the app is also possible. Many of these apps utilize a layout similar to programs like ProTools or GarageBand, where tracks are used to hold and synchronize the playback of simultaneous audio events. Many also include MIDI tracks (both playback and recording) synchronized along with audio tracks. The information on MIDI tracks only represents the performance information (things like note value or duration) and not the actual sound. A synthesizer or sampler instrument generates the sound we hear. These “instruments” are often software recreations of hardware found in the real world. Finally, there will be a mixer of some sort that blends all of the discrete tracks and effects together for output to your speakers or stereo audio file.

Let’s take a look at three options. While free, they do require you to set up an account to gain the ability to both save your work sessions and final results as an audio file. By creating an account, you’ll also become part of a community of users who share their creative output for others to use.

 

Three Cloud Options

Soundation’s Studio (soundation.com) is, of the three covered here, probably the web app most similar in design and usage to DAW programs like GarageBand or Mixcraft. Like many DAW apps, it provides tracks for both audio and MIDI sequencing with views for editing and song arrangement. Studio has eight virtual synthesizer instruments, a variety of effects like reverb and delay, track automation, and the ability to import both MIDI and WAV files or record audio.

The virtual instruments in Studio include multiple types of subtractive synthesis models (even a device called The Wub Machine), two drum boxes, a sample player, a General MIDI sound module, and a noise generator. All have well-marked and easy-to-use controls – although, except for The Wub Machine, they are not particularly graphically interesting. Virtual instrument tracks are MIDI-style event tracks and have the ability to enter pitch information with a pencil tool, virtual keyboard, or via a connected MIDI keyboard. Editing tools include quantization and velocity.

The audio tracks can use pre-recorded audio from Soundation’s libraries or files you upload. You can also record directly into an audio track with any input source connected to your computer, including built-in microphones or audio interface boxes. Audio tracks have limited editing capabilities but do have the ability to be either pitch or time-shifted. In other words, you can slow down the playback of an audio track independent of the pitch and visa versa. These are very powerful, easy-to-use features.

Files can be saved in Soundation’s “sng” format, either on your computer or on Soundation’s servers. Projects can also be exported as WAV files, allowing you to share your final mixes with others. Soundation’s “Publish Tracks” function creates a mixdown of your project that’s saved to Soundation’s servers with embed code provided for sharing on your own website or publishing directly to Facebook.

Soundation Studio is a subscription service with four levels of membership. The “free” account gives you access to all of the Studio’s functionality but with limited storage space and sound libraries. The three paid yearly subscriptions range from $20 to $99 and include additional storage (up to five GB) and access to a greater variety of sound sets and audio libraries. If you want to do any serious work in Soundation, especially recording your own audio, you will quickly realize that either the Power ($50/year) or Premium ($99/year) are a necessity because of storage. There is a section of the Soundation web site devoted to explanations and tutorials on using the Studio, including video guides.

 

Created by Naive Solutions, AudioSauna (audiosauna.com) is a great introduction to music production technology and powerful teaching tool for using synthesizers and MIDI recording. The app contains three types of synthesizers: a two-oscillator subtractive synth, an FM synth, and a sample player. Each can be used multiple times for up to a total of 10 tracks. The sample player is very powerful with the ability to have multi-layered sounds, key range mapping, and effects. You can also load your own MP3 or WAV files into a sampler to create custom instruments. The tracks in AudioSauna are designed to hold MIDI-style performance data that can be created by using a pencil tool to draw the notes into a staff or by using the QWERTY keyboard to record in real time.

With the use of software synthesizers, latency (the amount of time between pressing a key and hearing the sound through your speakers) is always a major concern. Low latency is desirable during recording but puts a lot of demands on the computer. While many DAW programs have preference settings to control this, this is not adjustable in AudioSauna. Educators and students working with older computers might notice this more than others.

While AudioSauna has some nice features and great sounding synthesizers, it’s missing some key functionality compared to both Soundation Studio and AudioTool. There’s no automation available, so any changes to volume, panning or synth parameters cannot be automatically reproduced every time on playback. No external MIDI keyboard entry is available, so the only way to do live recording is by using your QWERTY keyboard. There’s also no looping function, so any time you’re planning on using repeated patterns you must copy and paste each segment.

 

AudioTool (AudioTool.com) more closely resembles Propellerhead Software’s Reason program than it does the typical multi-track DAWs.  While it has tracks that can contain audio or MIDI data, AudioTool uses the model of a workspace (Reason’s “rack”), where devices simulate real world hardware and are connected by cables. If you want to create “beats,” you add a drum machine (from three different choices) to your setup. Need an effect like reverb? Drag a reverb device to your workspace and connect it via its virtual cables. This is a great starting point for a novice to learn and engage in music technology that can start off very simple and grow in complexity as needs and understanding change.

What really makes AudioTool devices unique is that many of them are recreations of some very classic electronic music hardware. For example, two of the drum machines available look exactly like Roland’s TR-808 and 909 beat boxes from the early ‘80s that were used in early hip-hop and rap recordings. No multiple screens or menus here; every control is a button, knob, or slider with layouts that mimic the controls of each device right down to the on/off buttons. This style of drum machine is in a class called “pattern-based sequencers,” and can be “programmed” in non-real time. Beats are created by selecting from a 16-step grid that is set up in groups of four and color coded for easy identification. Instrument parts (bass drum, snare drum, and so on) are created separately.

 

Final Thoughts

Each of the three web apps covered here have their strengths and weakness. Soundation is most similar to GarageBand or other DAW apps with both audio and MIDI tracks, but some may find the free version limiting especially in storage and access to sound libraries. AudioSauna is simple to use but only has MIDI-style tracks and no way to connect a MIDI keyboard. AudioTool is very different from the traditional DAW model, but unique in its use of recreations of classic hardware devices. Which is best? I can’t answer that other than to suggest trying all three. The best part about cloud-based apps is that you don’t need to download and install anything to use them. Just open up your web browser and go!

 

Dr. Marc Jacoby is an associate professor of Music at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where he serves as Jazz Studies coordinator and teaches in the Applied Music and Music Education programs. Jacoby is the co-creator and contributor to TheMusicInteractive.com, a web site that distributes music games and activities designed for interactive whiteboards. In addition to his own titles, Jacoby has developed educational multimedia including games for Yamaha/PlayinTime Productions, Mark Wessels Publications, and CD-ROM’s for Rowloff Productions. Jacoby is a certified Apple Pro Apps trainer, an artist/clinician for the Yamaha Corporation and Vic Firth, Inc., a Sibelius Ambassador, and is on the Educational Advisory Committee for Latin Percussion, Inc.

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