In an age where computers and DAWs reign supreme for music production, can the traditional methods of the bygone era still be of value?
Over the years, DAWs have given producers worldwide the possibility to make all kinds of music with just their laptops and little else. But what if you wanted to take a break from the bright screen and explore the DAW-less world? Is there a way for contemporary sonic artists to experience such a rebellious composing style?
Today we’ll look into the various methods you could employ to make music without using a DAW, so let’s dive right in!
DAW vs. DAWless
An all-in-one solution with a plethora of instruments, tools, effects, and options.
A more tactile, authentic experience of music composition. And if you are using analog equipment (analog synth, compressor, EQ, saturation), an analog sound experience.
From $350 (inexpensive computer + free DAW) and more (paid software and equipment).
The cheapest gear starts from$140 (Korg Volca FM – Digital FM Synth), but the entire setup tends to be expensive.
With all the in-depth, step-by-step guides and tutorials available online, you can learn to use your DAW within a few weeks and produce songs within months.
It might take you longer to learn to work with a DAW-less setup. The reason is that in today’s world, almost everybody knows the computer. On the flip side, DAW-less can mean that you have to learn something new and never tried before.
Usually, DAWs are equipped with great synths, effects, and tools to make your music stand out and be unique and creative in the modern’s world.
With modern analog, modular and digital synths, you can create unique and original sounds.
DAWs offer boundless possibilities.
Versatile, but not as much as DAWs.
Long hours in front of a screen.
It’s more expensive and occupies more space.
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Let’s understand what comprises the music production process. First, you will need instruments — they could be a guitar, a keyboard, and drums, or they could be synths, samplers, and drum machines. Then, you will need something to record them. After that, you will mix them and produce a final master. Simple!
Each phase of the music production process has multiple options available for you, even more so than in the software world. Further, you could mix multiple options to fit your workflow best. So, they’ll be what we first talk about in this article.
Phase 1: Recording
While recording your music, you will be using your instruments, digital keyboards, microphones, etc. In this step, you will lay down the structure of your track, making sure everything is where it should be. Here are the equipment units that might be involved:
- Arranger Workstations
Arranger workstations, or keyboard workstations, are probably the best investment you could make. They are keyboards with factory soundbanks that you can expand by adding more banks. They include advanced virtual instruments and auto-accompaniment to help you make music straight from a single keyboard.
Other than the built-in features, you can also use these keyboards for recording midi data, which you can connect to various synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, and so on via a patch bay. Each instrument gets assigned a separate midi channel (and bus, in some cases) to keep them all functional.
Furthermore, you will notice that some keyboards even allow multi-track audio recording, editing, and mixing. And while they do get the job done, using separate mixing equipment sometimes achieves better results. Great examples of such keyboards include Yamaha Genos, Korg Kronos 2, Yamaha MX88, and Roland Fantom.
- Digital Multitrack Recorder
A multitrack recorder records multiple audio sources simultaneously, or one at a time, to separate tracks. Later, you can tweak the volumes and add basic effects to each track. They include overdubbing and replacing features to help you record a seamless performance.
While most people use multitrackers to record live instruments and vocals, you can also use them for recording individual instruments of, say, an arranger workstation. After that, you can connect your recorder to a mixing console and finalize your song there.
These recorders are generally straightforward to use. However, note that they aren’t designed for midi recording. They are solely for recording audio.
- Other Audio Recorders
There are two more common recorders used for music production: tape recorders and portable recorders. Tape recorders are primarily used by people who prefer warm analog sound. However, they can also be costlier and difficult to maintain in comparison to digital iterations.
Advanced versions of tape recorders function somewhat like digital multitrackers because they use separate tape per track/input. And while overdubbing and replacing are both possible, they are destructive. In other words, if you make a mistake while overdubbing, you have no choice but to repeat it all over again.
Similarly, portable recorders are pocket-sized digital recorders used primarily by traveling musicians. Most have built-in microphones and an input port. Editing features are often severely limited, but some let overdubbing. We would recommend Zoom H1N, H4N, and Tascam DRO5 as possible contenders.
We’ve talked about the arranger workstation so far, but what other instruments are at our disposal? Of course, the most obvious ones are acoustic strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion recorded using microphones. So, instead, we will be focusing on electronic instruments:
From the humble beginnings of the 1970 Minimoog to the insanely powerful Waldorf Quantum modern unit, synthesizers are a world of their own. There are several kinds of hardware synths available like analog, digital, hybrid, modular, etc.
The most powerful ones among them are hybrid and modular. Hybrids often combine analog, digital, granular, wavetable synthesis, and samples to provide an all-in-one sound design package. A fantastic example is Sequential Prophet X, which combines synthesis with samplers.
Similarly, modular synths come with individual elements like oscillators, filters, effects, modulators, etc., which can then be patched together in near-limitless combinations. The result is a soundscape that belongs to no one but you.
- Sound Modules
These are the equivalents of ROMpler software. Sound modules contain various virtual instruments that can be played using midi keyboards, guitars, or arranger workstations. In addition, they let you manipulate the sound. However, they are often replaced by arranger workstations for convenience.
Two of the best sound modules currently available are Roland Fantom-XR and Yamaha Motif XF.
- Grooveboxes & Drum Machines
If you’re into hip hop or dance music, the chances are that some of the music you love was made entirely on a groove box. Once nothing more than drum machines, grooveboxes now offer an all-in-one solution for electronic producers, such as multitrack recording and in-built analog synthesizer.
Grooveboxes are perfect for beat-making and dance music composition. Their sampling and resampling features and effects options will give you total control over your performance. Check out Korg Electribe and Novation Circuit as examples of grooveboxes.
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Phase 2: Editing/Mixing
At this point, you have recorded all of your instruments and, if any, vocals into a multitrack recorder or an arranger workstation. Now, you will require gears for editing, processing, and mixing your audio recordings. Here are the possible contenders for these tasks:
- Digital Mixing Consoles
Digital Mixing Consoles are advanced consoles that combine recording, mixing, and even DAW software control in one exquisite unit. They often feature a large number of tracks, built-in effects, multiple mic preamps, and computer-level precision and control.
If you own a digital mixing console, you can skip the audio recorders in our previous section and instead invest in instruments and arranger workstations. Further, these units provide sophisticated audio editing, mixing, and processing racks built into the hardware.
Our favorite digital mixing console is the Behringer WING, which has 24 motorized faders, dual SD Cards for recording/playback, intricate FX racks, and a large touchscreen display. It can work with up to 64 tracks and record 48 channels at once. If there was a worthy computer replacement to make music without a DAW, WING is it. You should also have a look at Allen & Heath QU32 as an alternative.
- Mixing Consoles
Mixing consoles are like digital consoles but without the audio recorder. Instead, mixing consoles focus on channel effects, sends and returns, expandability, etc. If you come from a software background, you might find mixing consoles somewhat less convenient than digital consoles, which tend to mix modern software elements more often.
If you already have a multitrack recorder, though, a mixing console will complete your recording setup at a lower cost. And we do mean a rather low cost. You see, most hardware musicians don’t tend to need many channels/tracks because most of their mixing is already done in the arranger workstation anyway.
Therefore, if you were to look at a budget unit like the Soundcraft EMP6 with only six input channels, the price would be a steal. However, it’s only good if you are only looking to mix a couple more audio tracks to your arranger workstation. For more extensive functionality, have a look at the low-mid-tier Yamaha MG10XU or the mid-high-tier Behringer X32.
- Outboard Gear
There’s always the chance that you are unsatisfied with the plugins built into your mixing consoles. That’s when outboard gears come into play. These include individual effect plugins like compressors, EQs, limiters, reverbs, delays, etc. Another common thing these are used for is mastering.
While mixing consoles do offer great-sounding effects, something as trivial as a discrete limiter unit can make a significant difference in your final master. However, the cost of outboard gears is also unnervingly high — we discuss the reasons in this article. And so, producers generally treat outboard gears as optional for starting, and we concur.
Benefits Of Making Music Without A DAW
There are plenty of reasons why you’d want to make music without a DAW. If you are an instrumentalist and are experienced with guitar amps or keyboards, a DAW-less setup will feel second nature to you. Similarly, even creatively speaking, music made on a DAW-less configuration can sound much more natural.
Even if you aren’t recording everything live, arranger keyboards give you a tactile sense, enabling you to get more involved in the instrumentation. Further, if you aren’t a tech-savvy person, a DAW-less setup will get rid of OS errors, updates, and the dreaded, “This software has stopped responding.”
Next, we are aware of how famous analog emulation software is, and it’s for a reason. When making music without a DAW, you can incorporate real analog hardware or tape recorders into your mix, which will sound more authentic than any emulation out there.
And finally, even if you are used to a DAW already, switching to hardware will give you a fresh perspective and inspiration. Often, it feels like there are too many options on a computer, to the point that people spend half their time searching for free plugins, presets, and samples instead of being creative. Making music without a DAW will force you to get creative with limited resources.
Downsides Of Making Music Without DAW
Going DAW-less cannot be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you are an electronic producer. Music has diversified into many genres, but we can agree that there are mainly two kinds of musicians: traditional and electronic, who use an extensive amount of automation and sound design.
For the people falling into the latter category, not being able to make automation clips and loops easily will be a severe limitation. However, we must note that digital consoles like Behringer WING remedy that. But in any other case, DAW software does have the higher ground here.
Similarly, DAW software enjoys a vast library of sounds and virtual instruments. And even if you can add instruments to your arranger workstation or sound module, you are often limited to the same brand. To find a greater variety, you will need to make a significant investment in another brand’s module/workstation.
Furthermore, hardware effect plugins are often less precise than software plugins because they lack the modern user interface software gives you. Again, digital consoles solve this issue, but they still lack a large number of tracks, FX slots, user-added plugins, and so on.
Cost Of A DAW-less Setup
Many people buy an arranger workstation, and that’s it. They record and edit their vocal recordings and anything else on that keyboard. These all-in-one workstations cost between $1,000 to $8,000. For recommendations, see our entry under Phase 1: Recording.
Similarly, others prefer a less powerful arranger workstation plus a digital mixing console. An example setup would be a Korg EK-50 ($449) with the Behringer WING ($2,999). You could also replace the arranger workstation with a midi keyboard and a sound module.
You could also go frugal by using portable recorders (as low as $100) and mixing consoles like the Mackie Mix5 ($59). We also recommend hunting for used hardware; you might find gems for a steal. And lastly, if you wish to add an analog synth, check out the affordable Korg VOLCA lineup or IK Multimedia UNO.
Whether you’re looking for a way to get away from your computer screen or explore different options of making music, you’ll need to make a decision based on your needs and budget. Going fully DAW-less can be a rather backward step in this day and age, especially if you make EDM and similar genres.
Therefore, we recommend a mix of software and hardware. Instead of spending on an ultra-powered gaming rig, invest in arranger workstations or a digital console. The heavy lifting of instrumentation and audio mixing will be done by the hardware, leaving only editing, recording, and playback, something even a cheap laptop could do.
If you are a performer, band recordist, or even a solo multi-instrumentalist, both hardware and hybrid setup could be of equal use for you. Hardware equipment is known for its reliability, whereas software is versatile. If you’d like to try, you can find free, fully-functional DAWs like Cakewalk by BandLab or Waveform Free.
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K. M. Joshi is a multi-award-winning composer and sound designer, specializing in film, game, and TV audio. He enjoys making cinematic music, rock, blues, and electronica. Read more..