The headaches and heartaches that stem from your time sat at your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and how to overcome them...

Know the pitfalls before you hit them…

As musicians and producers, we love the chance to record. Now, with all the super shiny amazing tech which is available to us, we have the opportunity to build entire studio setups at a cost which won’t make your eyes water. For less than it costs to buy a second-hand car, you could have your DAW or choice such as Presonus Studio One or Ableton Live, a Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol keyboard, and a pair of awesome KRKs.

It’s now a realistic proposition to record, mix and produce entire albums without leaving your bedroom. Crazy eh? Yet with this great power can come some pretty severe problems. Every producer will come up against them at some point in their recording career.

Hopefully, we can help. We’ve listed five obstacles you’ll face with your DAW, and then listed some of the techniques we’ve employed to overcome them.

1. Too much, too soon

The brutal truth about modern DAWs is that they have a learning curve. For some, the curve is too steep and they can’t commit the time to learn. That’s fair enough. But those who do often come up against the same issues. Audio routing – i.e. telling the DAW where to take an audio signal from and where to play it out – is a particular pinch point among many learner producers.

Warp Markers In Ableton

Thankfully there is a logic to most of what goes on in a DAW. One of the true joys of learning them is the sheer number of Eureka moments you’ll have where something which previously made no sense will all of a sudden become clear. This is called experience. Lap it up, because with each Eureka moment you’re improving as a producer.

Lesson: don’t get frustrated. Read the manual or, better still, go on YouTube. We can categorically guarantee you are not the first person to come across your particular issue.

2. Death by audition

This one hits particularly hard. Many a time I’ve sat down for (what I hoped would be) a productive session at the DAW only to find myself, four hours later, still trawling through an extensive snare drum library to find that one sound I’m after. Or at least I think I’m after? I can’t even remember any more.

The same problems lie when choosing a soft synth, or an effect. Particularly if you use one of the big sample libraries like Native Instruments Komplete, where there are potentially days worth of presets and sounds to get lost in.

Lesson: make a choice. Stick to it. Get the song done. Then, and only then, do you begin replacing sounds and effects out.

3. EQ envy

Having a reference track is a solid strategy. Taking an existing record or song, and loading it into your DAW so you can begin doing things like spectral analysis is audio geek heaven. It’s also an absolute hiding to nothing.

You’ve probably already realised that professionally recorded tracks sound, on the whole, professional. They were likely recorded in high-end studios, using heavyweight equipment, by somebody with a track record of music production. Be honest with yourself. You, in your bedroom, with your laptop, might not be able to scale those same lofty summits.

Don’t let it put you off though. Work within your means. Concentrate on getting the results as good as they possibly can be with the gear you have. Then, over time, make gradual improvements to your gear. Ergo, results will improve.

Lesson: Use pro recordings as a source of education, not frustration.

4. Overdoing it

This one hits new users particularly hard. We understand the temptation. You’ve worked out the basic stuff. You know how to arm your tracks to record, and how to drag and drop effects onto recorded audio. Then the itchy trigger finger takes over. You get greedy. You start stacking four different overdrives, two delays and a rack-reverb on top of each other. Each time you do it you convince yourself one of two things. Either a) this sound amazing (through a grimace) or b) I’m nearly there. One more effect and it’ll be the single greatest sound known to man.

Ableton Live 9 - EQ Eight

Unfortunately, neither of these things are usually true. By overdoing it, you’re merely giving the computer more to cope with and yourself less flexibility to make the minor tweaks which could make a mediocre sound incredible.

Lesson: exercise restraint. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

5. Finish line fever

Our final point concerns the ease with which we can become distracted. In our studio, there are approximately 32,375 30 second snippets of songs which we either lost interest in, or got distracted from. Admittedly we could make a big stack of paper selling them as stock audio but the more pressing concern is why this is happening?

Magic comes when magic’s ready, sure. But put simply, one of the most important skills you’ll learn as a producer – and one of the hardest – is how to finish a track. It requires steely determination to close your Facebook, ignore your phone and push yourself to finish a track.

Of course the other side to this is not knowing when to stop. Maybe you’ve been working on something for so long you simply don’t recognise that it’s as good now as it’s ever going to be. This is harder to help with because it’s your art. You’ve worked on it, and you want it to be perfect. But know that in music, perfection is rare. Take a break and work on something else.

Lesson: Can’t finish songs? Learn the art of bloody-minded determination.

Can’t stop finishing songs? Learn to let go.