DAW nostalgia?



me: niche tweet:

who is old enough to remember ProTools FADES Folders?

I used to love browsing them, especially from AMB sessions – it was like listening to little hissy ramps & percussive decays… Might have to restore some from archives…


What got me thinking about ProTools goddamn fade folders, was an article posted to Lines forum which created some really fascinating discussion on the role and impact of the DAW.

If you use a DAW I highly reccomend reading, first the article:


And then the fascinating replies and comments to it, at Lines Forum here

I held off commenting, partly as I always feel like a bit of dinosaur… but eventually spent some time reflecting on what the existence of the DAW means to me, personally, and how I view its evolution.
My reply is at the end of that Lines thread, but I’ll post it below too. Some of it won’t make much sense without at least reading the original article that some specific comments address, so do that first.

“I’d really like to hear how you understand DAWs in your practice”

For me the “DAW” and specifically Digidesign ProTools enabled my career, as a film sound designer. For that I am eternally thankful. Before I got access to a DAW, my audio manipulation tools were a borrowed Nagra 4.2 and an SPX900 with very limited sample time. But even back then (late 80s) the potential was clear. I left Film School at the end of 1990 and got my first proper job as a trainee sound FX editor with a one man studio who had Digidesign SoundTools (not a DAW) and a year or so later bought the first ProTools to NZ, which totally did not function as a complete DAW, in fact many of its basic features did not work. Why I mention this is over the next 30 years I suffered through every ProTools update. And the birth of other DAW platforms… So reading your article I had one question, which you eventually answered in passing, like it wasn’t that important…

“I’ll concede that I don’t have first-hand experience with pre-digital home recording, so I haven’t personally experienced the seismic shift from DAT to DAW or whatever.”

I really think that statement should be at the start of your article. I dont see it as a concession, it is more a fundamental point of reference for everything that follows. For example to apply some of your thinking to pre DAW history, do you think studio engineers worried about the concept of linear time and the existence of a timeline, when they were using tape? When the DAW was introduced, one of the most important descriptive terms used was non-linear, because the linear timeline already existed. But also re bedroom producers, back in the day did composers worry about how lonely they might become through using a pencil & paper to write music? Those ideas seem quite odd to me. Also plenty of albums were made preDAW with a sampler, MIDI sequencer & tape machine, and all follow a linear timeline. The DAW did not introduce this concept, it already existed.

FWIW I also used ProTools throughout this era for music production, as well as Opcode StudioVision Pro & ableton LIVE from v1… And so many things that are now taken for granted, were the bane of our existence back then… For example if I now accidentally enable preroll, it frustrates me as I am completely used to instant lock of all music, sound & picture. But to listen to anything at all pre DAW required 15 second preroll just to get all the machines in lock… And DAWs were used for many years before they were capable of also playing video in lock, so that pre-roll was still a necessity. I appreciate your article exclusively focused on music, but that is only part of the motivation and specifics of the development of the DAW.

“I’ve never seen a Pro Tools session for a big-budget chamber music recording but I really want to. I hear they’re wild. If anyone has an image or wants to share a screenshot, please do!”

I’ve visited a few orchestral film score recording sessions, and they aren’t as wild as you might imagine. The DAW – always ProTools here, is essentially acting as a digital multitrack. If you were to be impressed by anything it would be the number of locked IO, and the ability for an entire orchestra to drop in on a recording, with just a few bars pre roll, to fix a mistake or “new interpretation” requested by the director. Those humans are far more impressive than any of the DAW tech. For playback, at best all the DAW is providing is guidetrack DX and a clicktrack with video feed (& maybe streamers) to the conductor. The DAW is only impressive due to this: respect to anyone who fronts up with a computer and records hundreds of tracks of audio, locked to video, 100% reliable, take after take. Managing the data, and documenting all the takes is a lot of work, which is why a team of people do it. And their systems are highly evolved. Mistakes are expensive, not due to gear rental costs but due to the combined hourly rate of all of the humans involved. An orchestra might require 80 people. Add the director, producers, composer, music editors, engineer & tech team and maybe you have 100 people involved. Whoever is footing the bill for the average hourly rate of this aspect is completely dependent on one thing: that DAW doing its job. Think about the quirks we each deal with, using our chosen platforms, then imagine 100 people standing around watching while you reboot afetr a crash etc… Amazing tech – highly evolved & by necessity completely stable.

What I personally consider far more impressive than orchestral recording, is the final mix on a film, which will likely involve 5-10 ProTools rigs, all locked to timecode and word clock. The level of complexity is mind boggling. What are these DAWs doing? DX PT is replaying DX predub stems and keeping available every line of dialogue & ADR recorded for the project. Music PT is replaying predubs stems and again, keeping all material available. And sound design usually equates to seperate sessions replaying Foley, AMB and FX predubs as well as keeping all material available. The other DAWs are locked & acting as stem recorders.

All have to be 100% reliable because again, the hourly rate of the dub stage is one thing, but the cost of the humans is far greater. Now lets add another layer of complexity: constantly updated VFX shots and/or picture recuts. Every session of every one of those DAWS now have to be conformed and patched overnight (eg maybe there are 300 picture changes – sync and content changes) All so the director & rerecording mixers can walk in to start work the next day and their work is ready to go.

This is the evolution of the DAW that I have experienced. From the very first DAW (a) that did not work and (b) cost the same as a house deposit, to a system that enables large scale work to be achieved, to incredibly tight deadlines, all within 30 years. It is quite frankly a creative & technical miracle!

I dont have any screenshots to share of chamber music recording but a a few screenshots from back in 2010, from a film temp mix, which usually occurs in the first few weeks/month of the sound post team starting, just so the studio can do test screenings… They always feel like trying to sprint a marathon, but are invaluable for early feedback from the director hearing work in context. NOTE: the clumps of regions are from the film broken into 20 minute reels, so at this stage the film was in 6 x 20 minute reels = 120 minute run time.

My PT sessions for FX and Foley for a temp mix (track count = 140 tracks, maxing out 192 voices at the time – internally bused to 5.1 stems as no time to deal with individual elements) – you can see where the action is, by the density of sound editing in areas, especially in the latter reels…

And PT sessions screenshot for my AMB and Fixes

Similar scale sessions would also be running into the temp mix for MX and DX.

From this stage, our team expands and eg for music, the score recording is eventually scheduled etc… The final mix involves predubs, consolidating massive sessions from each sound editor down to stems, endless conforms, then the final mix, screenings, final mix changes and fixes, screen mix again, eventual lock off, then print mastering, then versioning for M&E & any other delivery requirements. All achieved thanks to the existence and relentless evolution of a piece of shit DAW that didn’t work back in 1991.

Sorry for the long reply, much you may consider irrelevant to your article.
But what a trip it has been!!





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *