Music Technology Project -
Creating Music in a free DAW!
Welcome! This is the page where I'll be documenting the process of working on my tech project.
I'm planning to write and record music, using a DAW and gear I haven't used before and documenting the whole process.
To start us off, I thought I'd share what inspired me to think about doing this project.
A friend and I had talked about recording a cover of a dodie song for a while, so recently we got to together to give it a go. This is the song we wanted to cover:
(Bonus picture of my cat wondering what was going on)
This is the basic set up that we had. We used a zoom to connect to the laptop and to microphones.
Firstly my friend laid down the acoustic guitar part, recording straight into the zoom. Then we both recorded vocals seperately, using the Shure 55SH Series II mic which recorded into SoundTrap.
We also recorded playing on the conga drums. At first we mic-ed it from the top which sounded fine. Then we decided to try to mic it from the bottom, which you can see in the picture. This recording sounded bizarre - almost like a dubstep bass synthesiser! It was a cool sound but not what we were going for, so we stuck with the original recording.
Finally, I edited and mixed the recordings in SoundTrap. I added some reverb on the vocals and cut out any mistakes. The drums were pretty out of time so I found the best section out of what we recorded, looped it and added some reverb. Finally, I added a virtual bass guitar sound from SoundTrap because we didn't get time to record an actual bass guitar. This is the end product - definitely still a first draft but a good start!
I found this process a really creative and interesting one. During the last year or so I've becoming increasingly interested in how music is recorded and produced and really wanted to give it a go myself. However, I've never really been sure where to start and never had access to the programs or gear to make it happen.
That's why I'm really excited to do this for my tech project. I'm hoping that through this process I'll learn more and feel more confident to record and produce music, and this in turn will be useful knowledge for when I start teaching and can help students who also want to record their own music.
Through this project, I really want to explore how to create, record, edit, mix and master audio in a DAW I haven't used before. However, I also want to make this process relevant and accessible for music education in this day and age. I understand that there are many schools that will not have the ability or the resources to buy and provide paid music software to their students. Therefore, I would like to use this project to not only learn more about using DAWs, but to find DAWs that are free and easy to use, so that they can be easily accessible even to schools and students with limited resources.
What is a DAW?
DAW stands for Digitial Audio Workstation. It is essentially software that allows you to record, loop, edit, mix and add effects to audio. I found this website really helpful to explain what a DAW is and what it does:
These are the main things you can do with any DAW:
Record live instruments/voice Audio looping Audio editing Audio mixing Audio effects
These are some free DAWs I'm planning to look into:
- Pro Tools Free by Avid
- Studio One Prime by Presonus
- Cakewalk by Bandlab
All of the programs listed above have positives and negatives but they are very good (free!) options when it comes to DAWs. My current plan is to research and potentially test out each of them, see which ones I like and which ones I think will be easy to use and teach in the classroom. Then I'll actually use one to write, record and produce some music.
A Novice's Guide to Music Production Terms
The more that I research and learn about DAWs and music production, the more terms I come across that I've never heard of or I've heard of but have no idea what they really mean. As I go along and find out more about what these terms mean, I'll come back here and write down their definition - to help myself and to help you!
DAW: stands for Digital Audio Workstation - the software that allows you to edit, mix and master audio.
Virtual instruments: essentially what the name says - instruments that exist in a computer or computer software. They can be recorded sounds of actual instruments, software or plugins that try to imitate the sounds of actual instruments or instruments that are created on computers and don't exist as actual physical instruments. These are sometimes also called "soft instruments" or "soft synthesisers".
Plugins: software that only works within other software.
VST plugins: stands for Virtual Studio Technology. They are essentially plugins that enhance your audio projects, so they could be virtual instruments, effects etc.
MIDI: stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It is essentially a protocol that facilitates the transmission of digital information that allows for recording and playing back music on digital platforms. MIDI is super complex and interesting and also very hard to explain briefly - check out this website to find out more about it: https://www.musicianonamission.com/what-is-midi/
Audio interface: a device that connects audio input and output. For example, you may need an audio interface to connect your computer with a microphone to record audio into a DAW. Some devices will have an audio interface already built into them, such as a Zoom microphone.
Mixing: the process of editing and blending audio tracks to make a balanced recording. This includes cutting and pasting audio tracks, adjusting volume and adding effects such as EQ, compression and reverb.
Mastering: the final step of audio editing - the process of ensuring the track/s are polished and sound cohesive on an album.
FX: shorthand for effects. Encompasses any and all audio effects you could add to your music.
EQ: EQ stands for equalizer, a filter which allows you to adjust the volume level of the frequencies (such as treble, mid- range and bass) of audio.
Compression: the process of smoothing out the dynamic range of an audio track by boosting the softer frequencies and lowering the louder frequencies.
MIDI sequencer: a device that allows you to input MIDI data into a DAW - MIDI sequencers/keyboards are a common example.
Choosing a DAW
For this project not only am I going to be learning the basics of music production in a DAW, I'm also going to try to figure out how to use a DAW that is free, easy to to use and as close to a professional paid DAW as possible.
I've done some research and these are the best selection of free DAWs I've found:
SoundTrap Tracktion Pro Tools Free Studio One Prime Cakewalk Ardour
All of these DAWs have positives as well as their limitations. After doing some basic research into all of them I'm starting to realise that I'm going to find it too difficult to learn how to use all of them to produce music, because I simply don't know enough about music production and it would be a massive and unnecessary amount of work to try to learn how to use them all. So instead I've watched a lot of videos of people reviewing each DAW and taking notes on which ones they believed were easiest/best to use - based on this I'm going to pick one (or perhaps two) and focus on learning how to use it.
Here is a basic overview of each DAW from what I've researched so far:
I've used SoundTrap quite a bit so I'm pretty familiar with how it works. For that reason I won't be using it again for this project but nonetheless, I'll do a quick overview from my own experience.
SoundTrap is a DAW that runs in browser on computers and laptops but also is a free app on iOS. This makes it super accessible as it can be used on any operating system. SoundTrap can be used completely free, however the free version does have limitations. You used to be limited to four projects in the free version, however from June 2019 SoundTrap allow unlimited projects in the free version. The limitations you'll find when you use the free version of SoundTrap are basically the instruments, loops, effects and automation. For example automation (volume, pan and sweep) is limited to one track per project. The effects are also pretty basic and there isn't much scope to fine tune them. For example, there is only one option for reverb and it uses a dial interface which isn't the most accurate. The loops and virtual instruments you have access to are also pretty limited and frustratingly they show you all of the instruments you could have access to but lock them if you're not paying.
The paid version of SoundTrap gives you access to many more features and a better ability to edit audio. It's easy to use and has all the basic features that you'll find in any DAW. However, it is relatively basic compared with all the other options that we have to work with and I'm looking for something that's more professional and sophisticated. In terms of music education, SoundTrap is a great option to use with students to get them started with looping, recording MIDI and even recording their own instruments. However, if they want to go further with it they'll quickly run into limitations.
I spent a bit of time researching Ardour as I heard and saw it being mentioned quite a lot online. It runs on Windows, Mac and Linux which makes it very accessible. Ardour is freeware and open source, which means that the original source code is freely available and anyone can download it and build it. You cannot however download any official builds for free - to access updates and full support you need to pay something - you can choose how much you want to pay but regardless, you need to spend some money. This means that if you want to use Ardour completely for free, you need to understand to a certain extent how computer programming works. The more I looked into this the more complicated it looked and it started to detract from the actual aim of making music. I feel that if I can't figure out how to use Ardour then students with even less experience will have no chance, which doesn't really make it a very accessible program. I'm sure if I could figure out how to make it work it would be a good option, but there are other more accessible options I'd rather explore.
Studio One Prime:
Studio One Prime is the free and limited version of the paid DAW, Studio One. It runs on Windows and Mac. When I was researching it, not a lot of people were talking about the free version but instead were reviewing the paid version. My understanding is that if you use Studio One Prime and end up upgrading that the interface is essentially the same but with no limitations that Studio One Prime has. Studio One Prime has no limits on the number of projects you can create, has an intuitive interface and generally looks pretty easy to use. However, you are limited in the amount of plugins that it comes with and there's no 3rd party VST plugin support, so you cannot install your own VST plugins - you can only use what the program comes with. This is quite a big limitation as VST plugins include virtual instruments and effects. If you don't like the plugins that Studio One Prime comes with or you want to add a particular sound, effect or instrument you own or have downloaded you are unable to do so. This may not even be something that I will need for my project or something that students will use for music education but I don't like the idea that you don't even have the option.
Pro Tools Free:
Pro Tools Free is essentially a free limited version of the popular DAW Pro Tools. It runs on Windows and Mac. A new update in May 2019 means that the free version is now unlimited with the amount of projects you can create, however you are limited in other ways. Pro Tools Free gives you 23 included plugins/effects and 3gb of samples/loops - which is a lot! - however the full version of Pro Tools allows access to a lot more. Also, in Pro Tools Free you can only have 16 audio tracks in one project. This isn't such a massive issue as you can bump multiple tracks together to save space but that does then limit the editing capacity you have for the track. I was also curious after finding out that Studio One Prime, the limited version of Studio One, didn't support VST plugins whether Pro Tools Free had the same limitation. After some research it looks like Pro Tools Free doesn't technically support VST plugins but there are ways to get around it - ways that are probably too fiddly and difficult to get into with this project. So for my purposes, I'm just going to assume that it's not possible and look for other options.
Cakewalk is a free and complete DAW by Bandlab which runs in Windows only. Cakewalk used to be called Sonar which was developed by the company Cakewalk Inc., however it was acquired by Bandlab Technologies and then released under the new title of Cakewalk. It still retains a lot of the features that make Sonar successful so it has the potential to be a great free DAW.
Cakewalk looks really good to me as it runs a full version of the software with zero limitations. Hooray! The interface looks attractive and it's easy to change the layout, it comes with a good set of effects and a pro channel for each track and it also has a good range of free VST instruments such as a drum kit, bass guitar, piano and string section. As it is a free and full version of the DAW you can also download your own VST plugins. The only limitation that I can see is that it runs only on Windows. This is slightly disappointing but still, Apple does have its own DAW that come free with their products, GarageBand, so I don't mind that Cakewalk is exclusive to Windows. However, for my purposes it may be a little restrictive for music education, since my aim is to find a program that is as accessible as possible.
Tracktion has the potential to be a great option for a free DAW as you can download the full version for free and it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. It doesn't come with a massive range of virtual instruments but being a complete DAW with no limitations, you can easily download your own VST instruments to remedy this. From what I've researched it looks like Tracktion has some really cool features - it doesn't distinguish between MIDI and audio files which means you don't have to worry about whether the track is a MIDI or audio track, if you open up MIDI tracks far enough the piano roll appears and you can edit it in the timeline and the effects are dropped on the right of the track at the end which makes it easy to see and edit. The interface takes a bit of getting used to - if you hold your cursor on the timeline and scroll up it doesn't move the timeline sideways, it actually zooms in. Also to move up and down the tracks you need to hold your cursor to the left or right of the timeline. This feels a little counter-intuitive but would probably be fine once you get used to it.
It's fantastic that there are so many options out there for free DAWs that are at or almost at a professional standard. The options that I've researched are all great and any one of them would be a good option for this project. However, at the moment I'm leaning more towards the DAWs that are full versions rather than limited versions of paid DAWs - so that would be Cakewalk and Tracktion. Out of the two I think Tracktion would definitely be the more accessible one, as it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux while Cakewalk is Windows only. However I am curious about how Cakewalk works and a lot of reviewers raved about it. Therefore I may try to focus on exploring both of them and if I find it's too hard to learn how to use them both, I'll stick with Tracktion only. So off I go to test them out!!
Exploring Tracktion for the first time
So I finally sat down to figure out how to get Tracktion to work. I had a few basic things I needed to figure out before I could start recording any projects. I needed to:
- Figure out how to record using a mic straight into the program
- Figure out how to connect and use my MIDI keyboard
- Figure out how to change virtual instruments
Recording with a mic:
I'm lucky to be borrowing some gear from a friend, which includes a couple of condenser pencil mics and and a H4n zoom microphone. My dad also owns two AKG Microphones which I also wanted to test out.
I watched some tutorial videos on how to connect an audio interface to Tracktion to try to figure out how to get my gear working. I plugged in the zoom via USB and plugged a mic into that. I selected audio interface on the zoom and could see on the levels that the sound was coming through the mic, however it wasn't showing up in the Tracktion "audio devices" settings. Turns out I had to install a driver for the zoom so that it would appear in the settings in Tracktion. Then after recording some audio, I couldn't hear it through my headphones and it turns out I needed to plug my headphones into the zoom. Then it worked and I could hear the playback. All of this took way longer than I expected!
Finding virtual instruments
I recorded some MIDI in another program that I wanted to transfer across to Tracktion, but I was having difficulty finding the instrument plugins to program a sound for the MIDI track. Turns out after some research that Tracktion doesn't come with ANY VST instrument plugins. Great! No wonder I couldn't find them!
There's supposedly a simple solution to this - you can download free VST instruments off the internet which you can use. This shouldn't be a problem as I've seen in tutorial videos how to scan for VST plugins to add them to Tracktion but we'll see how it goes. My only concern now is with accessibility - how accessible is a DAW if it doesn't come virtual instruments? Students who are new to the software wouldn't know the first thing about looking for and downloading their own instruments - it would be a lot easier if it already came with it. I'm going to persevere with the program for now but I'm interested to see if Cakewalk, the other free DAW I liked the look of, comes with virtual instruments....
Downloading and using virtual instruments
So remember when I said it shouldn't be a problem to scan and use VST plugins? Well once again, the process ended up being way more difficult than I expected.
I managed to find some VST plugins and download them - specifically I wanted to try Native Instruments and their free Kontakt player/other plugins. After some frustration of downloading it and then realising I needed to put the files in a specific place so I could search for them in Tracktion, I managed to get them into the program. I also managed to connect my MIDI keyboard - M-audio Keystation 49e - to Tracktion, but when I was trying to load the VST sounds onto it they wasn't working. I'm guessing it's a problem with the input/output but to be honest, I'm at a point where I've just had enough. I've spent hours on this program already with barely any success. I know that if I persevere I could figure all of this out, but I can't help but think about how if this is difficult for me to figure out, how on earth would students be able to do it? And how could I teach it? The amount of time I've had to put in to find my way around the software and I still can't troubleshoot basic issues - how on earth am I going to be able to do more advanced operations such as adding effects? Out of frustration I decided to open Cakewalk and see if I could figure that out instead.
Trying out Cakewalk
My first impressions of Cakewalk is that it seems a lot more intuitive and easy to use than Tracktion. Within about 5 minutes I managed to connect my MIDI keyboard, load up a piano sound and get it working. I also managed to import a MIDI track I'd created in SoundTrap that I wanted to play with a piano sound and couldn't get working in Tracktion and it played perfectly first time in Cakewalk. Inserting a MIDI instrument track is as simple as right clicking and selecting "insert instrument". Who would have guessed?!? I managed to do all of this without watching heaps of tutorial videos or messing around for hours and getting nowhere. I know I've probably taken my experiences in Tracktion to Cakewalk which has made it easier to figure out the program, but it also just seems to make a lot more sense. At least, that's what I think after using it for about 10 minutes. I'm now thinking I'll use Cakewalk as my DAW for this project after all - I've wasted enough time on Tracktion and have barely got anywhere.
Questions of accessibility
My only concern that I now have is the question of accessibility. as a music educator Tracktion looked appealing because it runs on multiple operating systems - Windows, Mac and Linux - while Cakewalk only runs on Windows. This on the surface would make it seem like Tracktion would be a better option to pursue. However, how good is a program that's difficult to use and doesn't even come with virtual instruments? Students who get their hands on a program will want to start using it right away, and Tracktion prevents that from the very beginning. How offputting! Cakewalk seems much more intuitive and easier to use. I think you have to weigh up what is more important - compatibility across operating systems or ease of use. Personally, I'd rather learn to use and teach a program that's easy to use. So for that reason, I'm going to try out Cakewalk. I think another way I can justify my choice is that Apple users already have an amazing and easy to use DAW that comes free with any Apple product - Garageband. So why shouldn't Windows also have their own exclusive free DAW to counter this? Perhaps Cakewalk will be Windows' Garageband.
The Story of Cakewalk
Before jumping into my experience using Cakewalk the story of how Cakewalk came to exist - and to be completely free! - is actually really interesting. Turns out the program has a long and tumultuous history...
The story begins back in 1987, when the music production software company Cakewalk was created in Boston, Massachusetts (initially under the name "Twelve Tone Systems"). In 2003 Cakewalk formed an alliance with Roland who'd they been working with for a few years, and made the deal that all Cakewalk products would be exclusively distributed by Roland. One of the most popular products that Cakewalk produced during this time was a professional-level DAW called Sonar.
In 2013, Gibson Brands acquired Cakewalk from Roland. Cakewalk continued to operate in Boston, under the new brand TASCAM Professional Software, with talk of developing a version of their popular DAW Sonar that would be accessible not only for Windows but also for iOS. Unfortunately it was only 4 years later in November 2017 that Gibson unexpectedly announced that they would be ceasing development and production of Cakewalk branded products. This came as quite a surprise and for a while it was up in the air what was going to happen to the company and whether its products - such as Sonar - would continue to live on.
Luckily, in February 2018 the company BandLab Technologies announced that they would be aquiring Cakewalk from Gibson. Then in April 2018 they did something a little unexpected - they relaunched the Platinum version of Sonar - which up until then you had to pay for - as a completely free DAW, rebranded as Cakewalk by BandLab. This move was very much in line with the BandLab's vision of providing high quality free music production software to the world.
I didn't know any of this when I chose Cakewalk to use for my project - it really is as close to a professional DAW that you can get for free on Windows because it has all of the features that the paid professional DAW Sonar used to have. It's also relatively new to the market - it's only been over a year that Cakewalk has been available for free. Perhaps with some more time it could become the Garageband of Windows!
So far, Cakewalk has lived up to its name - it's much easier to use than Tracktion!! I'm finding the interface really intuitive and easy to navigate. I've had very limited experience with other DAWs but from what I can see, Cakewalk reminds me a lot of Logic. I really like the drop down menus at the top left of the screen and I like the menus that appear when you right click on the tracks. It also has a lot of features that are similar to SoundTrap, such as the automation graph and the presentation of the timeline. I'm really liking how the audio effects can be added easily on the side of the track by pressing the cross button under "FX". After you add an effect it appears under "FX" in a list which makes it really easy to see what you've added to the track and makes it easy to edit that if needed.
I found it relatively simple to figure out how to connect my keyboard, how to connect my zoom/mics and how to record audio and MIDI. It took a little bit of fiddling to connect the zoom but going into the audio settings and changing the inputs/outputs fixed that up quickly. I've started recording part of one of my songs for this project and it took me an hour or so to record about 30 seconds of audio drones and a melody - which is pretty good! I'm going to go into that song in more detail after this post.
Overall, Cakewalk has been really easy to use so far. I think my previous experiences with SoundTrap, Tracktion and also the research I've done into using DAWs has really helped me pick it up and feel comfortable with the software relatively quickly. However, it should be said that the software seems very intuitive and I feel like with some guidance students would also be able to learn how to use and start creating music with the software pretty quickly. Yay! A free DAW that is easy to use!!
Videos that have helped me
Most of the knowledge I've gathered about how to use Cakewalk has come from two amazing and comprehensive video series on YouTube that go through step by step how to set up and use the program. I thought it could be worth sharing what they are. I won't be going into too much detail of how to use Cakewalk but rather my experience using it, so if you're interested in the nitty gritty details, check these series out:
Cakewalk by BandLab: Basics by Creative Sauce
Cakewalk by BandLab Tutorials
by Your Home Recording
The first song I started working on in Cakewalk is called Sailboats. I wrote it in early October and it kind of came out of nowhere. I'd been thinking about this project and how I wanted to write some music for it and I knew I wanted to do a song that was in a free time and had a dreamy, perhaps modal melody that floated over the top of vocal drones. My inspiration was a song by dodie called Arms Unfolding that opens her Human EP. It's a song that's based on a dronal vocal accompaniment with a simple melody that sits over the top and some basic harmony. I also was inspired by a song by MUNA called Grow which opens their album Saves the World. Grow has a simple vocal harmony that sits on top of arpeggiated piano chords. Like its title, the song gradually builds and grows as it goes and feels like it is in an unpredictable time signature, or perhaps none at all. Here are both of those songs:
With these songs in mind, I starting just by humming melodies that came to my head and I liked the sound of. I ended up coming up the initial phrase of the song quite quickly and from there the words sort of wrote themselves. The day I wrote the song I'd spent the day catching up with a friend and we were talking about how we're both in a strange stage of life - where the decisions we make are almost like crossroads and depending on what we choose, we'll walk down one path and leave another which could change our whole lives. But at the same time, it feels like we're floating and not sure what's going to happen next - the only thing we can be sure of is that we're all in the same boat and we all have each other. I liked this boat metaphor and it sort of spun out into the whole song. Here are the audio tracks I recorded as I was coming up with the song. I recorded them all in succession within about half an hour.
Here are the lyrics to Sailboats:
Sailboats on the water
We don't know where to go from here
The tide is turning now
It's time to go my dear
I know you're scared of all
The rolling waves upon this sea
But take my hand and rise up tall
You're not alone when you're with me
These times will wear us down
The storms are sure to rise
But just like morning
We'll break through all the noise
Our sailboats on the water
Our course is set towards the sea
Can't turn away
Our future calls
You and me
The first thing I did in Cakewalk was to record the vocal drones - I wanted to record a sustained Eb and F. However, like most people, I can't sing one note for three minutes so I had to figure out how to make the drone continuous. I ended up recording myself singing each note twice and then taking one of the recordings, copying it next to itself and crossfading the two together. I did this for all four tracks - two tracks of the Eb drone and two of the F drone. I tried to make the crossfades across the tracks happen at different times so there was always one continuous note and this masks the crossfades in the other tracks - but the crossfades by themselves actually don't sound too bad so the drone is pretty stable. I also added some reverb which I may change later - it's the reverb that comes with Cakewalk and it's actually pretty extensive. You can choose from a whole range of settings - such as a hall or a small room. I chose small room for now just to see how the effect would work but I'll probably test out the rest of them another time to see which one I like the most. After setting up the drone I recorded the first verse of the main vocal and added some reverb - large hall! - and this is the finished product:
I obviously have a lot left to do to complete the song but we're getting there! This is my vague plan for it:
- Record and comp main vocals
- Edit drone so that it goes for the whole song
- Sample water splashing sounds to start the song and then fade it into the background and bring it up again at the end to finish the song
- Add some vocal harmonies
- Add some gentle piano/synth "droplet" sounds: kind of like the beginning of The 1975's song How to Draw/Petrichor
Basic Recording Setup
After figuring out the setup I'd need for my project, sourcing it, setting it up and using it, I feel like it's given me a good idea of what you would need in a classroom for the most basic of setups to get maximum results.
For a basic setup to start recording audio and MIDI in a DAW you would essentially need four things:
1) A good DAW installed on a computer (I obviously recommend Cakewalk if you want a free DAW for Windows, Macs will come with GarageBand or if you want to pay some money, you could purchase a program like Logic, Pro Tools or Studio One)
2) An audio interface
3) A MIDI sequencer (keyboard would be the best option)
4) A decent microphone
The audio interface may be the hardest problem to solve but you can kill two birds with one stone if you get equipment that comes with an inbuilt audio interface, such as a zoom microphone. However it's pretty easy to buy a separate audio interface or a mixer.
Here are some pictures of the setup I've been using to record my projects, so you get an idea of the kind of equipment you would need:
This is the setup I have on my desk. I have a Dell laptop which I've installed Cakewalk on and I'm using to record into. Then I've connected my MIDI keyboard which is an M-Audio Keystation 49e which connects to my computer with a USB. Then I've also connected a H4n Zoom with a USB which functions as my audio interface. I've then connected a basic condenser microphone to record through my zoom and into the computer. I've got the mic on a mic stand just to make it easier and I have a homemade pop filter that I use when I'm properly recording vocals.
This is a pretty basic setup but it actually gives me a lot to work with. There's a lot I can do just with this setup alone. My only concern is the mic that I'm using isn't great for vocals - the sound isn't very clear when I listen back to solo vocals that I've recorded. It's fine for now but I'll probably try to borrow a better mic to re-record my vocals on later.
VST Instruments in Cakewalk
One of the things that impresses me about Cakewalk and that makes it a good option to use in music education is that it comes with some free VST instruments IN ADDITION TO having the ability to download and install VST instrument plugins without any trouble. I think this is a key aspect in making Cakewalk a great program to use in the classroom, because compared to the other free DAWs I reviewed at the very beginning of my project, the use of VST instruments was something that wasn't handled very well by most of the free programs.
The free but limited versions of DAWs such as Pro Tools and Studio One don't have the ability to download and install external VST plugins and while Tracktion had the ability to download and use VST plugins, it didn't come with any VST instruments which was a real drawback (and actually downloading and using VST plugins was a lot harder than it should have been).
VST instruments that come with Cakewalk:
The VST instruments that come with Cakewalk are actually pretty good and are great basics to get your started with your project. There are four VST instrumental plugins that Cakewalk comes with: an Electric Piano VST, a string section VST a bass guitar VST and a drumkit VST. All of them have multiple sounds you can choose from and the ability to change effects. I personally appreciate that the drumkit VST also comes with some sample beats in multiple different styles that you can add to your project. Just plug in your MIDI sequencer and all of the VST instruments are super easy to input! And if you don't have a MIDI sequencer you can also use the piano roll.
Here's an awesome video
reviewing and playing
samples of the VST
Cakewalk comes with:
Adding VST instruments in Cakewalk:
I found it really easy to add VST instruments into Cakewalk (unlike Tracktion....). The program scans automatically for VST plugins when you open it up and setting up a pathway for the program to find them is simple. I've created a folder on my desktop that I've downloaded my VST plugins into and then I set up a pathway in Cakewalk by going to Edit - Preferences - VST settings and adding a VST scan path.
Free VST instruments I've been using:
The world of free VST instruments is large and amazing. I found it really easy to just Google a sound or an instrument I was looking for and to find one and download it within minutes. The thing that you miss out on with the VST plugins being free is the quality - it's really a tossup whether the sound is going to be realistic or not. But I suppose for free sounds you can't really complain. Here are some websites and VST instrument plugins I found/used during this project:
I ended up finding myself on this website a lot to download VST plugins - it has a massive range. Most of the time when I Googled a sound I was looking for there'd be a link to a VST plugin on this website. It seems like a good central place for a wide range of VST instruments.
I really wanted a brass sound on my Baby Steps composition (the page is linked up the top of
this page if you want to check it out!) and DSK brass was the best one I could find that worked..
sometimes. It did the job but if I'm honest I would not recommend it. It had a wide range of
brass and sax sounds but they were pretty unrealistic. They sounded fine when there were a lot
of them playing at once and there were also other audio tracks at the same time but any solo
stuff made it really obvious that the sounds were definitely synthesised. I would have been
willing to overlook this except that the plugin was also super glitchy - many times the audio
would just stop working for no apparent reason and several times it messed up the program
so much that it crashed without saving. At first I didn't think it was the plugin that was doing
this but I only had the problem in projects where I was using DSK brass. I put up with it for
the project but if I had to use a brass sound again I'd do a lot more research and find another
one - I'd even be willing to pay for one if it meant it worked properly and sounded better.
Kontakt's Native Instruments:
I've heard about Kontakt and Native Instruments but didn't really know anything about them. Turns out Native Instruments is a company that develops, manufactures and supplies software and hardware for music production. One branch of their software are their Kontakt instruments which are essentially VST plugins. To use these you need to download their free Kontakt 6 player which I did. This player will then allow you to download and use all of their Kontakt instruments: https://www.native-instruments.com/en/catalog/komplete/. Great! Except... most of them aren't free. However what you can download for free is their free production suite called Komplete Start (https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/bundles/komplete-start/) which comes with a number of their Kontakt instruments for free. I ended up downloading the Hybrid Keys and the Kinetic Toys instruments without really understanding what they were, but they had some cool sounds. I used one of the sounds from Kinetic Toys in Sailboats, just as a echo-y background drone. I really like the sounds that came in the Komplete Start kit, and there were more sounds that I could have downloaded as well but I didn't get a chance to. The only thing was that I found the player was also a bit glitchy in Cakewalk. When I had the player open and loaded up a sound from one of the virtual instrument sets I couldn't figure out how to switch over to another instrument set - it just wouldn't load up if I'd already loaded a different sound. I also found that I recorded some sounds into a project and when I played the track back the volume was so low I could barely hear it - but the volume on the mixer hadn't changed at all. It was really confusing and it meant that I just didn't end up using a lot of the cool sounds because I couldn't figure out how to fix the problem. I'm not sure if the problem is me not knowing how to use it correctly, the plugin being glitchy or Cakewalk itself not being able to handle it. Whatever the reason, I'll definitely persevere with the Kontakt instruments because they really do have some very interesting and unique sounds and would definitely recommend checking out the free Komplete Start kit.
I wanted a marimba sound in Sailboats so I Googled it up and found Marimbaphonic. I
made sure to listen to a couple of free VST instruments before downloading
Marimbaphonic because I wanted one with a good sound and this one impressed me.
It was easy to use, no glitches and the sound was exactly what I was looking for.
The controls to change the sound in the plugin are pretty basic but it would be easy
enough to add extra effects which I did - I added some reverb. Basic but perfect!
You can download it yourself from VST4Free:
A free 808 synthesiser?? Yes please! I didn't use TS-808 in any of my projects
because it didn't fit but I was really happy I found it. While it's not the actual
samples of the 808 it's pretty damn close- close enough to have fun playing
with it and adding it to projects. I'd need to actually use it in a project before
being able to review it properly but from what I've seen I'm really excited to
give it a go. You can download it here:
I've been working a lot on Sailboats recently. I ended borrowing a new mic for recording vocals - the classic Shure SM58 - and I've been using my trusty homemade pop filter to smooth out the vocals. It sounds so much better!
With this new mic I've rerecorded the main melody line and I've also recorded two vocal harmony parts. I originally just had one harmony part but there were a few moments in the song I wanted to expand the harmony even more so I added another line. I also added some water sounds at the beginning and end of the track to kind of "bookend" it. I found the water track on this website: https://www.partnersinrhyme.com/soundfx/watersounds.shtml and the name of the track was "ocean lap". Apart from that, I haven't added anything else yet. Here's what the track is sounding like so far:
Now that the foundations of the track are laid down I have a few sounds in mind I'd really like to add to the track to make it more atmospheric. There are a couple of sounds from Kontakt that I downloaded when I was testing out VST instruments that I want to add. Under "Kinetic Treats" there's a sound called Toy Turntable under Record Player Music Box and under Play Series Selection there are two sounds called Marimba Shimmer and Atmospheric under Hybrid Keys. I'd like to add some marimba/piano "droplet" sounds as well. The sound I have in my head is similar to the beginning of The 1975's track "How to Draw/Petrichor" - this atmospheric sound is something I'd really like to try to imitate:
Not What I Meant-Cover
Remember right back at the start of this project a friend and I recorded a cover of Not What I Meant by dodie? Well after that day we decided we'd do another proper recording session another time, so I decided to tie it into my technology project. We got together for an afternoon to record all of the tracks and I was in charge of recording everything into Cakewalk.
We started off with my friend Bouey recording all of the background guitar parts (because I'm utterly hopeless at guitar). He recorded the main acoustic guitar part, a second guitar part on acoustic and electric guitar and a bass part on ukulele bass and then normal bass because we weren't happy with the uke bass. We took multiple takes of each so I could cut them together later.
After that we tried to figure out the logistics of recording vocals. I was really interested to see if we could record two tracks at once into Cakewalk - turns out you totally can and it's really easy. You just plug two mics into the zoom, assign the inputs as left and right in Cakewalk according to which mic is in which input and then arm both tracks to record. This was more an experiment than anything else because we didn't have a headphone splitter so we couldn't record vocals together. But it was reassuring to know that it was possible and super easy!!
Bouey and I both recorded our vocals into the Shure SM58 Microphone and did a couple of takes each. We forgot to use a pop filter for his first take which was annoying - but certainly didn't forget it after that!
Finally we decided to try recording the piano. Bouey owns some fancy pencil Samson mics and you can see in the picture that we put one in the piano. The mic is suuuuuper sensitive so we had to be really quiet when I was playing but it recorded the piano part beautifully and with great quality. I did a couple of takes for that too so I can cut it later.
Another thing I tried with those sensitive mics was to try tapping on the side and top of the piano to record it, kind of like a drum beat but very gentle. The drums in the song are very subtle so I thought the tapping sound could be a good substitute since we didn't record drums. Otherwise I might use the MIDI drumset that comes with Cakewalk.
I found the experience of recording this song really fun and satisfying. I feel like I've gotten to a point in this project that using Cakewalk has become really easy now. After just a couple of weeks working with the program, it's become so much easier and quicker to figure out how to record, plug in and set up gear, edit, mix etc. It's also become easier to problem solve and trouble shoot because I know now how the program should work and how to fix it when it isn't working. It was so much quicker and easier to record the song than I expected and definitely more successful than last time we tried recording the song. I guess it speaks to the nature of Cakewalk that it's a really easy and intuitive program to learn and use so quickly - which makes it awesome for education!
I took the recordings that Bouey and I did and chopped them up,
added some effects, moved stuff around and now we have a finished
product! I'm not an expert by any means at mixing but I used all of the
knowledge and skills I've acquired from using Cakewalk to produce
the final thing and I'm really happy with how I did.
Here are what I did to produce it:
First I chose which recording of the main acoustic guitar part to use - luckily the second take was great and didn't need any editing.
I listened to all of the second guitar parts we recorded - we recorded the same part on the electric and acoustic guitar and also tried some takes in different octaves. I ended up settling on the lower acoustic guitar part because it was the one that was most accurately in time and also blended the best with the other guitar part. I cut together the best parts of the take and looped it.
I cut both vocal parts - we had multiple takes of each of us singing so I listened through and chose the parts that worked best alone and also with each other. I really wanted to make sure the timing and diction of the words lined up as closely as possible so there were parts I faded in and out to make it sound as clean as possible.
I cut the two recordings of me tapping on the piano (there was a higher and lower part) and fiddled with the EQ and reverb to bring up the bass and get rid of most of the treble and this made the tapping sound like I was playing on some drums! I was really proud of this - I haven't done anything like this before and was really impressed with how effective it was!
Finally I used the volume automation across the whole track to balance and also bring out parts that I wanted to hear better - for example, there are a couple of times where the piano has a small solo that I wanted to bring out in the texture. I also added slight reverb to the vocal tracks and the guitar tracks.
I'm really happy with how the song turned out and I was again very surprised at how easy it was to use Cakewalk to mix the track. I ran into no limitations with what I could do in terms of the program - the only thing I was limited by was my ability to know how to use the program to get the sounds I wanted, but after my experience learning the program I'm finding it easier and easier to do this.
I think I've finally finished Sailboats!
The main things I wanted to add to finish it off were lots of ambient and atmospheric sounds to sit in the background of the song. The sounds I ended up adding were:
A marimba sound: I downloaded a free VST marimba called Marimbaphonic which worked really well (http://www.vst4free.com/free_vst.php?plugin=Marimbaphonic&id=2013). I played single notes with it from the Eb major scale kind of randomly, to fill the spaces when I wasn't singing.
A piano sound: I used one of the free piano sounds that came with Cakewalk called Mello Wurly and added lots of reverb. Similar to the marimba, I just played single notes randomly so they sounded kind of like raindrops and added reverb.
A low string sound: I used one of the free string sounds that came with Cakewalk called Slow Strings and just recorded a low E flat drone to provide more depth from the second verse
Kontakt: I added the sound "Toy Turntable Resonance" from the Kinetic Treats collection from Kontakt: it has some really nice ambience but it has the potential to be overpowering so I just used it as another E flat drone quietly in the backrground
My waterbottle: I accidentally had my mic on while I was listening to the song and picked up my waterbottle .. and then realised it made a really cool sound! I recorded myself tapping it next to the mic, EQ'd it and added reverb and it makes a really cool ambient sound in the background. It almost sounds to me like the resonance of a big metal bell which works well with the nautical theme.
Apart from adding those sounds, I also added some automation to balance the vocal harmonies and also bring out some of the ambient sounds at particular times. And here's the finished product!
Effects & Mixing in Cakewalk
It occurred to me throughout the process of using Cakewalk that I have very little experience with the different effects you can use in the mixing process. I felt pretty overwhelmed with just trying to figure out how to use the program, how to record, edit and balance tracks as well as arranging and writing music that I ended up just sticking to the effects that I know how to use such as reverb and EQ. However I thought I'd do some research into some of the other effects that you can use in Cakewalk, just to see what is available and so I could use some another time.
Delay is an effect that does pretty much what the name says - it takes an audio signal and plays it back after a specified period of time. This gives the effect of a repeating, decaying echo. Delay is one of the effects that's really complex and needs a lot of knowledge and research to be able to apply effectively. I'd heard about delay and I've done a bit of research into it but I honestly had no idea how to use it or whether it would even be helpful for my projects, so I didn't use it. I'd need to do some proper research into it to figure out how to get the most out of it before using it in a project!
Compression is kind of like a refined volume controller - it decreases and increases certain frequencies of your tracks according to limitations that you specify. I didn't use compression in my songs either because I wasn't sure how to use it effectively, so I just used automation to control the volume of my tracks. After watching this video on compression I've got a better idea of what it does, but to use it to it's full potential I'd need to do some more research into how and when to use it, just like delay.
Here's the basics of what I understand about compression.
Compression consists of multiple parts:
Threshold: the level at which the volume should be turned
Ratio: the degree to which the volume of the signal is turned
down - the higher the ratio, the higher the compression
Attack: how quickly to turn the volume down when it
reaches the threshold
Release: how quickly the volume of the signal returns back
to normal after the compression effect
EQ stands for equaliser and is an effect that allows you to adjust the
frequency bands of an audio signal.
When I was recording Not What I Meant I used the sensitive condenser
mics to record myself tapping on the side of the piano. Then I used EQ
to boost the bass and decrease the treble of the sound which ended up
making it sound like a drum.
The screenshot next to this paragraph is the EQ on one of the tracks
on Sailboats - I recorded myself tapping on my waterbottle and then I
adjusted the frequencies to get a subtle metallic ringing sound to
use as ambiance in the background of the song.
This was about as far I got with EQ although I can see that it really has
the potential to be a really helpful effect to use in projects - it can really
transform a sound.
Some terms I've heard thrown around a lot in relation to EQ are low and high pass filters. A low pass filters lets the lower frequencies of an audio signal "pass" through and cuts off the higher ones at a particular threshold. A high pass filter does the opposite. To be honest, I didn't really understand what these terms meant when I was using EQ on my tracks, but looking back I probably wouldn't have used the filters anyway because for my purposes I really needed to fine tune the EQ myself.
Reverb is an effect that essentially simulates what your audio track would sound like in a particular space, giving a sort of echo-y effect. The amount/type of reverb you use really changes the effect of a song - using a lot of reverb would sound over the top in some songs but could be a really interesting feature in others. In Cakewalk you can pick from a range of different reverb presets as well as being able to adjust levels manually. Here's what the reverb interface looks like in Cakewalk:
The "banks" that Cakewalk has are Hall, Plate, Room, Inverse and
80s-90s. Hall reverb imitates the sounds of particular large spaces
like halls. Plate reverb is an artificial/synthetic reverb that gets its
name from how it was originally produced. Plate reverb was created
with the use of a steel plate with springs under tension attached.
Input was sent through the plate to create a reverberation which
was then recorded by another mic, producing a reverb effect:
is like hall reverb in that it is meant to imitate the sound of a
particular acoustic space, and room reverb simulates the sounds
of smaller rooms. Inverse reverb reverses the reverb signal
and 80s-90s reverb is a collection of vintage style reverb presets.
Terms that are commonly used in relation to reverb are "dry" and
"wet". The dry signal refers to the audio signal without a reverb
effect while the wet signal is audio with a reverb effect.
Panning is something I experimented a little with in my Baby Steps composition - I recorded 4 tracks of me clicking my fingers during the bridge section and then used the console mixer to pan two tracks hard left and two tracks hard right. This made a cool sonic effect that I was really happy with. Since I used the console to apply the panning it applied it to the entire track. This was fine for this project, however there may be some instances where you only want panning in a particular spot in the song or you want the audio to move between different sides. This is possible in Cakewalk with automation - and it's pretty much the same process as in SoundTrap if you've used that before. You go to the track you want to apply panning to, click on the automation button, select panning (automation will automatically default to volume so you'll have to select panning) and then you can adjust panning through the automation graph.
Final Thoughts on Cakewalk
We've made it to the end! My aim at the beginning of this project was to research and find a free DAW, figure out how to use it, produce some music and evaluate whether or not I thought the program would be suitable for educational purposes. I think I've made it pretty clear in these posts that I've really enjoyed learning about and using Cakewalk and I think it would be an amazing resource to use in music classrooms. Here is a quick summary of some reasons why I think this, after working in the program for several months:
1) It's FREE!
Hands down my favourite thing about Cakewalk is that IT'S FREE! Sure it only runs on Windows but Garageband only runs on Mac so why shouldn't Windows have an equivalent? Not only is Cakewalk free but it's a full and complete DAW, not a limited version of a paid DAW. If you know the history of Cakewalk you know that it used to be called Sonar, which was a professional paid DAW, so when you download Cakewalk you get a complete DAW that you used to have to pay for, completely for free. For schools where resources may be limited, this makes Cakewalk a great option.
2) It's easy to use!
I started getting into music production through SoundTrap and I know SoundTrap is also very popular in many schools. So I was very surprised when I started using Cakewalk that the interface and features were very similar to SoundTrap, which made it really easy to use. If students have previous experience with SoundTrap or other DAWs, Cakewalk should be pretty easy to acclimatise to. However, I believe that students with zero experience could very easily figure out how to use Cakewalk. With some basic guidance on how to set up, record audio and MIDI tracks and where to find effects, students could very easily find their way around the program. The interface is intuitive and has very similar features as other commonplace software such as Word with the drop down menu bar at the top of the screen and drop down menus when you right click your mouse. Simple features like this make it feel like a really familiar program to navigate before you've even started.
3) It comes with lots of stuff!
When you open Cakewalk you can get started right away! It comes with a great basic set of instruments and effects so you don't have to look any further to starting making music. This is amazing for education because it makes it really simple and easy to engage students from the very beginning.
4) If you want more stuff, you can get it!
Unlike free but limited versions of paid professional DAWs, you can install your own VST plugins into Cakewalk and it's really easy to do so. This means that when you hit a wall in terms of sounds and effects that already exist in Cakewalk, you can find pretty much anything you could want on the internet for free to add in. This opens up the creative potential of the program even further for students who want to go further with their music production.
5) it will take you as far as you want to go!
A concept that is really important in education is differentiation. No two students are the same and will learn at the same rate, so the teacher must be aware of how they can challenge students who are racing ahead and simplify content for students who are falling behind. My experience of Cakewalk is will work with you at whatever level you're up to. For students with very little experience, it's easy to learn how to do the basics of recording audio and MIDI into the program. For students who need to be challenged the program really has no limits - you can learn about and use all of the effects and instruments in the program and then add your own and use them too. There are so many parts of music production that I still have no clue about but I know that Cakewalk has the potential to do. If you want to learn how to produce music professionally, you can do it in Cakewalk. This is fantastic for education - a program that is easy to use but you can also never stop learning from.
The biggest thing I've learnt from this project is that music production is complex, but that doesn't have to stop you from producing music. You can go as deep into the nitty gritty details of music production as you like, and Cakewalk certainly allows for that if that's what you'd like to do. However, you can also use the program to learn about the most basic aspects of recording audio and MIDI. The brilliant thing about Cakewalk is that no matter what you want to use it for, it's easy and intuitive, there are no limitations and you can explore and push it as far as you want - you're only limited by your experience and imagination. This project has taught me a lot and has also shown me how much more there is to learn about the world of music production. I'll definitely continue to use Cakewalk in the future and I'll be seriously looking into how to use it in my music classroom when I start teaching.