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Digital Audio Workstations Daws Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3015 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When we speak of a digital audio application, the hardware (Pc or Mac) and the software used (Logic, Cubase) can be collectively termed Digital Audio Workstation or DAW. Two Manufacturers have been at the forefront of the development in this area.

The Macintosh was always ‘audio ready’ because it was designed with an audio capacity beyond the PC’s dumb ‘beep’. Other small personal computers (especially Atari ST) became very popular in music applications. [i] 1

During 1950’s recordings were made on two track analogue tape recorders and no matter whether the performance was from a soloist of a full 80 piece orchestra any good takes were taken and separated from bad ones and physically joined together using scissors and sticky tape.

Analogue recordings degenerate after frequent use, playback, rerecording and storage and because of this the quality of the tape that left the studio to be sent for pressing to disc was less than perfect in terms of the signal quality. Digital audio has brought about a new range of possibilities in sound editing.

The main advantage of using a digital storage and recording medium is the ability to duplicate the finished track(s) any number of times for editing or pressing to disc, vinyl or storing for download. Editing digital audio on a computer has two major advantages:

(1) An edit may be made with sample accuracy, by which I mean a cut may be made with a precision of 1/40 000th of a second. [2] 

(2) An edit may be made non-destructively, meaning that when the computer is instructed to join two separate takes together, it doesn’t create a new file with a join at the specified point, but instead records two pointers which instruct on subsequent playback to vector or jump to another data location and play from the new file at that point. [3] 

Out of this the all in one solution began to emerge in which sample-accurate editing, multitrack mixing and signal processing and this came to be what we now know as the Digital Audio Workstation.

In 1991 Steinberg released Cubase Audio and the following year E-magic produced Logic Audio. Both of these programs depended on external devices for their audio. In 1996, Cubase VST (virtual studio technology) was released, that had audio totally integrated, complete with on-screen mixing with effects. It also featured the ability to use audio plugins, including many developed by third parties – this became a standard file format still used today for both digital signal processing and virtual instruments.

Cubase on the Atari home computer system circa 1992

The influence on composition and production values

The digital audio workstation has done more to dramatically reinvent music production, and this also applies to film and video post-production, radio spot production or any other audio process that may require detailed editing.

“A Digital Audio Workstation is a computer-controlled system or networked collection of components that allows all of the major digital recording, processing, editing and replay functions to be controlled from a central location. It also enables companion audio production tasks and functions – including, for example, the integration of MIDI information, or time code/sync data from an editing or synchronization system – to be coordinated from the same control surface.” [4] 

As well as providing a “Studio in a Box” environment digital systems bring many sophisticated functions, including remappable control surfaces, full memory recall of every control element, soft key assignments, improved speed of performing non-destructive edit sequences and more.

Today’s DAW market leaders are the culmination of a legacy that reaches back to the late 1970’s.

We take for granted 24-bit/192 kHz recording, high-speed sample-accurate editing functions and multi-channel surround-sound mixing with sophisticated DSP-performance that would have seemed a dream less than 30 years ago.

It can be said that using digital recording technology can introduce a kind of painting by numbers approach to recording, where a musician could take 25 takes at a guitar solo have them burnt to disc and take a week to decide where to take the components or each take join them together to create the perfect solo. In the past of course the cuts could only be made to the whole track on which the rest of the performance was sitting and that meant that either

1 the whole ensemble had to re do the performance or some part of it

2 all the musicians had to be very accomplished players.

These days we are used to hearing very polished tracks and most if not all of this is down to the time afforded by digital technology in post-production and why producers and engineers are in such high demand and this has in recent times due to the availability of affordable computing hardware and recording software led to the growth of the smaller scale studio / producer who has taken the leap from bedroom recordings. There is also the case to be argued that the technology has helped artists who perhaps do not have the benefit of music training in the classical sense behind them to be creative in using the technology to get their ideas down and to develop new ways to use the technology.

Samplers and sampling

The opportunities offered by such technology

A sampler is a device that records audio either as single notes (one-shots), musical excerpts or acoustic noises. The device can process audio and store it ready for playback. A brief overview of the development of the sampler is set out in the table below.

In the early days samplers were part of a keyboard system or a rack-mounted unit that was triggered externally. Software samplers often focus on the playback of preset samples rather than sample editing and recording, unless they are built into a DAW (digital audio workstation) where recording facilities already exist.

Around the end of the 1990s, computer memory and processing power had developed sufficiently to allow computers to become the perfect sampling devices. They did not have to contend with the limited memory and processing power of hardware systems, and offered greater ease of use with on-screen sample manipulation and editing. In 1997, the release of the software sampler, NemeSys Gigasampler,

This marked the beginning of the gradual decline of hardware samplers, as musicians were able to access large banks of samples and could integrate the software into their computer-based studios. Musicians today still struggle with the reliability of software-based equipment when touring, so hardware still has its place in the working musician’s equipment.

The technique of using every day sounds in music began seriously with the musique concrete movement of 20th-century experimental music. Other composers had used recorded sound as part of live performances before, but Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry took this to extremes by recording ‘found sounds’ – sounds of the environment around them, manipulating and combining them to create new musical textures. Along with other experimental composers in 1950s Paris, they utilised the world’s first electroacoustic studio to experiment with the building blocks of sound, and ask some important philosophical questions about how we understand the word ‘music’

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The tape recorder was the main ‘instrument’ for composers who adopted this style of music. They would use the tape recorder to capture sounds and would then manipulate them by cutting and splicing the tape, making loops (by splicing the ends of a length of tape together, forming a literal loop), reversing the playback direction, altering the speed of playback and combining/layering sounds. This process formed the basis for modern-day sampling. Unfortunately it was impossible to alter the speed without affecting the pitch and this was one of the limitations of the technology.

The idea of sampling sounds ignited interest in the world of popular music. During the 1960’s instruments emerged in the pop music field that could play back samples (playback only – there was no facility for capturing or manipulating the sounds in any way).

It was the Mellatron that first achieved widespread acceptance in the pop and rock fraternity. It used different banks of pre-recorded tapes (one tape strip for each key) giving several choices of sound (including strings, brass, flute and choir). It was expensive, and notoriously fragile. 1963 The Mellotron was released – a precursor to the sampler. It used tape recordings to playback sounds; it was a favourite instrument of many bands including the Beatles and used on Strawberry Fields Forever MELLOTRON (1962)

When a key is pressed on the Mellotron, it triggers a short tape strip to start playing (max. length 8 sees). Each key has a separate strip of tape. Each pitch was originally recorded separately by live musicians. Common sounds are strings, brass, flute and choir. To change a sound the bank of tape strips needs to be physically changed.

The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ features the Mellotron using a flute sound (Which can be heard clearly in the intro).

Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Rain Song’ features the string sound from 1:36 onwards.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI incorporated digital sampling into their product lines, but these again were largely prohibitive in terms of cost to all but the highest grossing bands. In the early-to-mid 1980s, E-MU and Akai developed samplers that were much more affordable, launching digital sampling into the mainstream.

Fatboy Slim- ‘Praise You’ (1999). This track is famous for the dodgy looping of the vowel ‘oo’ in the word ‘should’, where the loop points have been poorly chosen to create an audible step instead of a smooth, sustained note.

Ever since the house-music boom of the late 80s, sampled fragments of vocals were used in place of conventional vocals. Narrative was abandoned, and the vocal element was reduced to a few intense, sampled phrases. The reasons for this were twofold – sampler memory was still limited, making it difficult to sample longer phrases; and such short, catchy phrases sounded great under the effects of Ecstasy. The drum-machine rhythms of house and techno were augmented (and often replaced) by sampled hip-hop break beats, speeded up to faster, more urgent tempos.

Puff Daddy had a string of hits, many based entirely around samples of other songs. Known for his work as a businessman, A&R man and producer as well as a rapper, Puff Daddy ensured the success of many of his tracks by basing them on established hit songs – tracks like ‘Let’s dance’ by David Bowie (on ‘Been around the world’) or ‘Every breath you take’ by the Police (on ‘I’ll be missing you’).

The multi-track studio soon began to use a wide range of technical equipment – tape recorders, microphones, mixing console, monitors and signal processors. Mixing has come to be regarded as an expert task, using specialist engineers

How it has influenced composition and production values

It can be impossible to tell that a sound source has been sampled when done well, just as it might be impossible to spot a well-executed edit in a multi-track recording. Done badly, sampling can introduce artificial noises such as clicks when a loop’s points are badly chosen. Also, any problems that are possible with digital recording in general are also possible with sampling, as it is essentially digital recording in miniature. For example, if the sample rate is too low, some aliasing will be introduced when capturing high frequencies. If the bit rate is low (8 or 12 bit), the sample can sound very grainy and hiss can be audible.

The table below provides details on how recorded samples can be edited and then saved for later recall.

Sample edit

Using cut and paste


Editing the start and end points for a clean sample.


The sample repeats to either increase its sustaining length or create a real- time rhythmic pattern. Triggering a rhythmic pattern from a different note changes its speed of playback: for example, an octave higher doubles its speed. The loop point is settable and the sampler can calculate the best place to return to, in order to get the best match and avoid a click for a sustained sound. The sampler will search through the sample for a zero level that can serve as a loop point.

Zone allocation:

Multiple samples can be stored and triggered from different areas of the same keyboard or on the same MIDI channel. This is useful as the sample playback changes its character when played very much higher or lower.

Velocity layering

Different samples are assigned to respond to varying velocity levels: for example, a brighter sounding sample of the same instrument could be triggered when a key is depressed with high velocity.


Filters and modulation can be applied using synthesis techniques

Sample reverse

The recordings can be played backwards

Synthesis techniques

Parameters such as attack and release time can be changed: for example. with a long release time, a rhythmic sample can be left to complete its pattern after only a short stab on the keyboard

Time stretching

The length of the sample is changed without altering the pitch.

Sample rate change:

The original sample rate can be changed to match other systems. CD quality sample rates are set by the Red Book Standard at 44.lkHz and 16 bit. Lower sample rates produce a lower quality of sound but also have a gritty quality that is sometimes sought after

As memory has become cheaper and processors faster, many synthesizers now have large numbers of samples on board, which can be processed through filters and special effects to digitally recorded fragment of sound taken from a pre-existing source for use in a new one: it could be a drum rhythm, a keyboard phrase or a whole section of a song, the Queen’s speech or the sound of a vacuum cleaner, or indeed anything.

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There are basically two applications for sampler technology within popular music. The first is in the digital reproduction of one instrument’s timbres for playback by another instrument. Typical examples might be sampled brass or string instrument sounds. This type of sampling technology was designed to make studio recording cheaper; the necessity to hire an orchestra is eliminated if the sound of orchestral instruments can be copied accurately enough by a digital device. Similarly, a drum machine might use samples of real drums, to give a realistic drum sound without having to hire a session drummer.

The other application of sampler technology is in the field of dance music, such as drum’n’bass, where the sampler is the essential element. Starting with a fast beat – around 160bpm (beats per minute) – drum’n’bass tracks are created by adding layers of sampled sound. These elements may then have live instruments and vocals added.

Digital samples of existing records are also used as the basis for new ones. Often the sample will be of a rhythm-section part, e.g. a bass-line or drum beat, looped as the foundation for a track.3 Some songs have lifted a sizeable proportion of one track to make a new one.4 Thus sampled sounds are as much a part of the modern producer’s arsenal as synthesizers and sequencers, with the history of recorded pop music an ever-growing resource for the creation of new records.

The sampler takes ‘snapshots’ (like film frames) of the sound. These are then converted to a stream of numbers, i.e. digitally recorded. The number of snapshots taken per second is known as the ‘sample rate’. The higher the sample rate, the better the finished sample. To get a really faithful impression of a sound, 44,100 snapshots are taken per second. When the stored sample is triggered, these snapshots are played back in order, giving a smooth reproduction of the original sound, like film frames in a cinema projector.

Bit resolution is also important in determining the quality of a sample. The incoming sound is measured (or quantized) against a series of numbers; the higher the resolution, the more numbers are used. The accuracy of the final sample is dependent on the number of bits used to represent the height of the wave-form (amplitude). It is rather like the image resolution of a computer monitor – higher resolutions give a clearer image on your monitor. In the same way, the higher the resolution, the higher the sound definition and the closer to the original the sample will sound.

For example, how much a sampled cello sounds like a real one will depend on the level of resolution. Most samplers have a bit resolution of at least 16 bits and some as high as 96.The first commercially available sampler was the Australian Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument), which went into production in 1979.


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