When choosing a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), end users need to look for a system that fits well into the overall workflow of a post production or media environment, says audio engineer Peter Nash
One of the most significant issues affecting everyone involved in the production of audio – whether it’s for radio, television, film post production or location recording – is workflow.
Over the last two decades, production budgets have been continually coming down and it is no surprise that the people feeling the pinch the most are those who use the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) equipment that forms part of the workflow model.
Equally true, whether you are a studio manager in a team for a large broadcasting corporation or a single operator in a post-production facility, the need to comprehend the role of a DAW operator as being a fast, efficient and accurate component is essential.
Of course, part of this is making the right choice of system as your workstation. A system that offers complete flexibility in terms of editing as well as import/export and compatibility is vital. With the industry having standardised on one form of audio file, namely the Broadcast Wave (or BWF), the choice of system needs to focus on the editing of such files, their compilation and delivery in as seamless a method as possible.
So what makes a good DAW? Basically, the DAW needs to be good as an editing tool and be as efficient in stereo, surround and multi-track editing. We are assuming the DAW can record efficiently, without latency or rendering in a multi-channel environment if necessary, and that the move by the operator from stereo recording and editing to multi-channel is as simple as just adding new channels.
But what separates the professional systems that allow seamless workflow from the plethora of ‘home’ systems is the workflow process of the DAW itself. Sample accurate editing is a must, but so too is the way the edits are presented to the operator without other files being created each time a fade is made.
It needs to be free from clicks of course (which really narrows the field). When making drama or film soundtracks, you cannot be burdened with having to create a crossfade each time you do an edit.
I frequently find myself performing 2500 edits in a 45-minute drama-documentary; this really separates the systems! Processing, which is an inherent part of the DAW workflow should be based on a floating-point platform so that your internal headroom is massive, thereby allowing the processing somewhere to go and not crunching as it runs out of digits – assuming you want your sound to be pure!
To have a DAW that you can take out on the road is a real benefit.
When recording 48 channels of high-quality audio, the end user does not want to be lugging racks of gear around with them; a simple system that can effectively mirror record, is robust, reliable and secure in the event of power failure is an absolute must. The SADiE LRX2, for example, performs this task well and you can record on it, then edit in ProTools, SADiE or Pyramix – in fact any system that can read the standard file formats that SADiE, in this case, records.
The story as it were
Historically, many of the original concepts of DAW used as part of a workflow for post-production or broadcasting came about in a haphazard way because broadcasters were using a mishmash of audio systems.
Technologies such as AudioFile, SADiE and Pro Tools, all of which were introduced during the 1990s, were rapidly adopted by audio professionals but little thought was given to ‘best practice’ when it came to using them as part of the greater broadcasting picture.
As production companies and broadcasters got to grips with new ‘tapeless’ technologies, particularly with regard to playout servers and automation systems, best practices for DAW use began to emerge and workflows were considered against the backdrop of reduced capital expenditure on digital technology, and of course the resultant reduction in people to operate them.
So what does this mean to the process in audio terms? Workflow is really the process, from start to finish, of capturing audio, editing the audio as part of a production and delivering it to the end user. There are many elements and components to a workflow model and the DAW is only one.
Everything from the ideas stage to the scheduling, form ingesting, editing, mixing and server delivery form part of the broadcast workflow model. The slicker the model, the more all of these elements are integrated. This, in turn, means the ability to integrate becomes a significant feature of any DAW.
Digital Audio Workstations have always formed a central creative component of the workflow model; one where operators, producers or sound-designers get a chance to be imaginative.
These ‘craft editor’ elements of the greater workflow model provide for speed of operation, flexibility, ability to ‘undo’ and ‘re-do’ and sample-accuracy in edits, as well as the ability to retrace one’s steps so that another creative pair of ears can follow a previous operator’s trail and, if necessary continue the project or refine it. All of these elements need to be smooth and seamless.
There aren’t many that can really do all of this effectively, which is why the choice of DAW is often a major headache for post-production operators. Those who do find a system they are happy with tend to buy in large quantities and stick with it for the long term.
A good example of this is the BBC, the UK’s national broadcaster, which has chosen the SADiE system and is using it as the de facto craft editor for its national radio requirements. A key reason for this choice was the efficiency of the system and the fact that it integrates easily with the BBC’s huge automation playout server systems.
The Holistic View
During early part of the new millennium, PC-based audio editing systems became so much cheaper and more accessible that it was possible for them to make inroads into the semi-professional and home recording markets. The opportunity to make capital investments in this cheap technology was not lost on some broadcasters, but although this resulted in cost savings there was also a downside – namely the disruption this cheaper technology caused to the workflow pattern and workflow best practise.
Eventually, the more successful post production houses, freelance professionals and media houses began to look holistically at their major capital investments and came to the conclusion that effective, seamless workflow was a significant factor that had to be taken into account when considering long term expenditure.
They were undoubtedly right, but this philosophy shouldn’t just apply to the big boys because no matter what scale of workflow – whether it’s for a major national broadcasting system, a simple one-man editing or mastering project or a location recording task — workflow needs to be considered in order for budgets to be maximised. In a business where, increasingly, time is money, the time lost to bad workflow planning will nearly always negate the ‘saving’ made by buying cheaper equipment that is simply not up to the task.
As an audio engineer, I am often asked ‘why spend several thousand dollars on a Pro Tools, SADiE or Pyramix system when I can get my PC to do the editing for several hundred?’ It’s an important question, but when you look at the workflow over time, the figures balance out and ultimately move in favour of the more ‘expensive’ systems. The larger initial outlay approach gives you significant advantages such as (with certain systems), no rendering, no latency, no graphic redrawing, no ‘bouncing’ to a second system for further editing, no time lost from setting up sound-cards, and no quality lost from the same.
These more expensive ‘professional’ systems also give you instant recall and manipulation of edits back to the original, integration with playout servers and so on. All of this equates to a massive time saving, not to mention massive savings on budgets, because less time is needed in the studio, there is less need to re-work material and there is a much better chance that a professional system will integrate with other equipment in the broadcast chain. Ultimately you get what you pay for – and that applies whether you are making the investment as a corporation or as an individual.
Of course not all the big systems can do all of this – every DAW manufacturer offers a different set of features and in the end, it comes down to doing your research so that you end up with the right recording and editing system for your own needs.
If each component of the workflow is doing its own thing in isolation to everything else in the chain, then there is a risk of chaos. This is why, when considering investing in audio equipment, the major players turn to professional systems that allow for integration and a speedy conclusion of their part of the workflow chain.
There are a number of professional DAW systems on the market but the end user needs to look at which one offers better workflow advantages and integrates better with their existing systems. The reward of investing in the right DAW system doesn’t take long to manifest itself.
An efficient DAW paradigm results in a slick and highly accurate architecture, which means a user spends less time fiddling with bad edits, less time waiting for the processing of the DAW itself, and ultimately allows more flexibility for quickly fine tuning.
Peter Nash is an audio engineer and consultant for the post-production and broadcast sectors.