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It's been several years since I last found much time to indulge my music hobby but I'm starting to think about it a lot lately so I want to get back up to speed a bit, at least conceptually.

When I was last active, MIDI was already well established and it did a lot of wonderful things but programs like Cubase 1.0, which is what I used, had no ability to handle analog sources like voices or guitars. I suspect things have come along quite a lot since then. When I looked for a MIDI interface the other day to connect my MIDI keyboard and drum machine to a more modern bit of software - I'm looking seriously at Cakewalk due to budget issues - I found interfaces that had the standard MIDI ports AND inputs for guitar and voice. I am really hoping someone who is far more current on the technology than me can tell me just what can be done if I buy such an interface.

For instance, will I be able to modify the analog sources by applying effects of various kinds to the guitar (assuming I record it more-or-less "dry")? Will I be able to apply things like autotune or doublers to the voice channel? Will I be able to raise or lower the pitch of analog instruments? Will I be able to edit the analog sounds the way I can a MIDI instrument by holding a note longer or moving its starting point? Or do the analog channels remain pretty much untouchable, meaning they have to be perfectly played when recorded and have all the necessary effects applied outside of the program?

I hope someone who is much more current on the technology can enlighten me so that I have a realistic idea of what is - and isn't - possible.

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    If you have a tight budget you might also consider Reaper. Great DAW. $60. Aug 20, 2022 at 20:56
  • I feel like there must be a more accurate word to use in the title than "analog," but I'm not sure what that would be. After all, if you record some singing using a computer, then that recording will be stored digitally, not analogically. One option would be to ask "What can a modern DAW do with waveform audio," but I don't know if most people would understand that. Aug 21, 2022 at 19:24
  • @Todd Wilcox - I'll keep Reaper in mind but I'm going to start with Cakewalk which is free ;-)
    – Henry
    Aug 23, 2022 at 12:10
  • @Tanner Swett - I understand your point but "analog" seemed the most concise way of indicating that I had non-digital sound sources like voice and guitar and that I needed to know how a modern DAW would handle them.
    – Henry
    Aug 23, 2022 at 12:12
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    @TannerSwett I think “audio” might be the word that makes sense for DAWs. Most DAWs have “Audio” tracks, “MIDI” tracks, sometimes “Instrument” tracks (audio plus MIDI), and many have “Aux” tracks which are used for mixing. Some have hardware sends and returns with various names. It comes down to DAWs processing two main types of data: audio data and MIDI data. The DAW does not care if the source of the audio is an analog voice or guitar or a digital synth. To a DAW, audio is audio. Aug 23, 2022 at 12:40

2 Answers 2

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Taking the question literally, the answer is nothing – because DAWs are completely digital. But they can certainly record and represent any analogue sound.

will I be able to modify the analog sources by applying effects of various kinds to the guitar (assuming I record it more-or-less "dry")?

Absolutely. In fact most DAWs have lots of effects built-in, though those often aren't as good as third-party plugins. That includes emulations of guitar amps, speakers, studio consoles and whatnot – which can do pretty much anything a studio filled with 100k €/$/£ of analogue equipment could. (There's still some debate whether they're as good as “the real thing”, but I think it's now more about what's better to use – I think even the strongest proponents of analogue equipment acknowledge that the best simulations are now nearly perfect, given the right setup.) You can still spend a lot of money on such plugins.

IMO it's unwise to only think of a DAW as a bunch of simulated analogue equipment, though. You're more flexible, and definitely cheaper, if you learn how to compose primitive digital building blocks like IIR and FIR filters and generic nonlinear elements, to get the benefits of various analogue processors without their effects that may not be benefitial for your music.

Will I be able to apply things like autotune or doublers to the voice channel?

Yes, and indeed I think something like that is built in in most DAWs now. The industry standard for pitch processing is Melodyne though, which again costs extra.

Will I be able to raise or lower the pitch of analog instruments?

Yes, pretty sure that is available in all proper DAWs now.

Will I be able to edit the analog sounds the way I can a MIDI instrument by holding a note longer or moving its starting point?

Yes, although it's not quite as flexible as with MIDI events. Changing duration of recorded notes with algorithms like Elastique works well if you only stretch a few percent, but stretching something that was 0.2 seconds to 3 seconds will sound weird.

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  • I really appreciate your answer. Handling of analog sources was the huge shortcoming I saw in the gear that I was using back in the day and I am DELIGHTED that this shortcoming has now been rectified. You used two acronyms I've never seen before, IIR and FIR. Can you clarify or should I ask a separate question? Also, for your information, when I installed Cakewalk, it also installed Melodyne for free. I don't know if that's a stripped down version or the full version though.
    – Henry
    Aug 23, 2022 at 12:46
  • @Henry very simplified, both are equalizers. An IIR filter (infinite impulse response) is the digital version of the kind of filters you find in synthesizers, wah-wahs, microphone low-cuts. Most analogue-modelling effects are to a large extend just a bunch of IIR filters combined together, in particular a parametric EQ can be implemented entirely as IIRs. A FIR filter (finite impulse response) can also approximate analogue filters, but additionally do a lot of stuff that's basically impossible in the analogue realm, likely emulating the reverberant response of a particular room. Aug 23, 2022 at 13:10
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All the sounds in a DAW are digital, not analog. What you're working with is a digital recording of your analog sound source (guitar, voice, whatever). Every digital effect can be used on every digital sound in a DAW. The only real limitation is that the effect has to exist in the first place.

In brief, you will have access to a digital version of nearly every analog effect that has ever seen widespread use. This includes guitar pedals and studio rack effects units. You will be able to use modern effects that never saw a real analog predecessor (autotune, for example), but you will probably have to buy these separately- and they're usually not cheap, either.

As far as editing actual performances (timing, tuning, pitch, articulations), this is where you will start to hit some limits. There are a variety of techniques, and there are plugins such as Autotune, Melodyne (which really is a technological marvel), Beat detective, Vocalign, and more, but the easiest technique is frequently just recording a better take. The other place where you will really hit limits is if you record two sound sources together and wish to separate them, or apply an effect to only one of them- the easiest fix to this problem is recording instruments separately.

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    “just recording a better take” is in particular the technique that makes for a more musical recording. Aug 20, 2022 at 19:44
  • @Edward - Thank you for your answer; it was very helpful!
    – Henry
    Aug 23, 2022 at 12:38
  • @leftaroundabout - You're assuming I can make a better take :-) I'm not sure I have the chops to necessarily give a good performance on some instruments; I expect that the DAW will be an important tool in fixing the flaws in any recording I make from an analog source.
    – Henry
    Aug 23, 2022 at 12:40

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