Music Production Jargon-Buster
Below is a list of common terms that music creators encounter and use.
DAW - Digital Audio Workstation, a term for music composition/production programs including Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, Digital Performer, Ableton Live, FL Studio, and more. DAW programs allow you to sequence MIDI data for software instruments, record and edit audio, use loops, and apply mixing and production effects to create music. DAWs are also used for sound recording, editing, mixing, and audio post-production and sound design -- not just music! These programs also act as the host for plugins.
Audio Interface - A piece of hardware that plugs into your computer, usually via USB, and connects to your speakers/headphones so you can hear sound from your DAW. Audio interfaces also allow you to plug in microphones/guitar cables/other sound sources, depending on the types of connections it has, so you can record audio into your DAW. The audio interface is a key component of a music production setup.
Plugin - A program that runs inside another program (your DAW). The term "plugin" encompasses both software instruments and mixing/audio processing effects (DSP). There are thousands of different plugins made by various companies, including those that make DAWs and 3rd party developers. Music creators working in a DAW will usually employ a variety of plugins to achieve different results, and building a collection of plugins often ends up being an expensive part of setting up a music production studio.
Plugin Format - The software identifier for how a DAW is able to recognize a plugin and be able to use it, which varies based on Operating System and other compatibility requirements. Plugin formats were developed as a standard by the DAW manufacturers, and 3rd-party developers of plugins work within those companies' ecosystems to create tools that become available in their formats. The most common plugin formats encountered today are:
- VST - Virtual Studio Technology, a plugin format developed by Steinberg, the makers of the popular DAW Cubase, typically found on Windows systems. The term VST is often used as shorthand (incorrectly*) in forums and social media groups to reference any virtual instrument -- though the plugin being discussed may or may not in fact be a VST.
*VST plugins can also be DSP effects, so the format is not limited to virtual instruments, which is why it's technically not correct to use the term "VST" interchangeably. End soapbox moment.
- AU - Audio Units, the proprietary Apple plugin format for Logic and Garageband, found on macOS systems.
- AAX - Avid Audio eXtension, the plugin format for Pro Tools, developed by Avid. Pro Tools is the industry-standard DAW for recording found in every high-end recording studio in the world.
Software Instrument - Also called a Virtual Instrument (or VI), a software instrument is an interactive program that runs as a plugin in your DAW, which can be used to play musical sounds in real time using a MIDI Controller or data in the computer. This can involve recorded audio (sample libraries) or software-based synthesizers (softsynths), depending on the type of music being created.
Modern Virtual Instruments include extremely powerful tools to add realism and expression in a musical performance, as well as the ability to create unique sounds that can't be achieved any other way. Software Instruments are an integral part of nearly all music produced in the modern world, and can create sounds of anything from an orchestral film score to a piano to a drum beat to an acoustic guitar to an electronic synth sound, and everything in between and beyond.
There are many virtual instrument plugins made by various developers, and the DAW is the environment that allows music creators to work with all these different tools under one roof. The software instrument that powers Cinesamples libraries is Kontakt, made by Native Instruments. Kontakt loads as a software instrument plugin in your DAW, and Cinesamples libraries load inside Kontakt.
Sample Library - A specific type of software instrument based on recorded audio, often shortened to "library." Sample libraries are created by recording instruments playing one note at a time (which is called "sampling"), editing the recordings (samples), and putting those edited samples into a playable format to be controlled as a software instrument. Programs (like Kontakt) that specialize in this type of virtual instrument are often called "Samplers."
Recording a sample library can take anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending on the complexity of what is being sampled and how much variety there is available to capture. Some of the questions we ask ourselves when conceptualizing a library are:
What instrument are we recording? What is its playable range? How many different ways can this instrument be played to get a variety of sounds (articulations)? Where are we recording it, and what kind of sound are we trying to capture by recording in the space?
Cinesamples primarily creates sample libraries of cinematic, orchestral instruments and ensembles for use by composers in scores and soundtracks for film, TV, games, animation, and more. Our CineSymphony series libraries captures the true Hollywood film score sound by sampling orchestral instruments in the MGM Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures Studios in LA, a legendary recording stage used for blockbuster films for decades.
MIDI - Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a type of computer data that is used for controlling software instruments, both with note values and CC data. MIDI notes in your DAW contain Note Number, Note On/Off, and Velocity information. By itself, MIDI data makes no sound -- it is a trigger for other things that make sound, either in the software realm like in a DAW or even hardware like an analog synth that uses MIDI input.
CCs can be used to add expression and volume changes or apply various different effects over time. Side note: MIDI data is not necessarily only used for music -- it can also be used to program events that are coordinated in real-time, like fireworks displays or light shows.
MIDI Controller - A hardware device, usually a keyboard, that can be used for sending MIDI data to a DAW or software instrument for playing notes and controlling different functions. Many types of MIDI controllers exist, allowing for keyboard-style playback, beat pad performance, wind/breath control, and a variety of other playing styles. Most MIDI controllers do not make any sound when not connected, unless they include onboard speakers and built-in sounds (which is rare, and more common of things like synthesizers and digital stage pianos).
MIDI Note - The most basic representation of MIDI data. Tells the DAW/Software Instrument Plugin which note to play (with note indicator and octave number); when to start and stop playing that note; and at what Velocity to play the note. The note may or may not be an audible sound -- MIDI notes can be used in Software Instruments as triggers or switches for different functions.
Velocity - The speed at which a key is pressed, most often used by software instruments to control loudness. Has a value of 1-127, and can be used for a variety of functions beyond loudness, such as articulation switching, filter cutoff, or other parameters depending on how Velocity is assignable within a software instrument.
Dynamics - A musical term indicating the loudness/softness of playing. This is not only about volume, as many instruments take on different sonic characters as they are played "louder" -- for instance, brass instruments tend to get much more brassy and bright when playing at a higher dynamic, while sounding more subdued and warm at a lower dynamic. This difference in sound is more significant than the change in volume. Instruments are typically sampled at multiple dynamic levels, to capture a variety of what they can sound like, and using this effectively is an important part of fine-tuning MIDI editing.
CC - Continuous Controller, a component of MIDI data that allows for realtime changes of different parameters of software instruments, such as volume/dynamics, Breath Control, filters, or other functions that can be manipulated. Any time you move a knob or fader on your physical MIDI controller, you are sending MIDI CC data to your DAW. Each MIDI CC has an assigment between 1 and 127, and each of these 127 parameters can be set at a value between 0 and 127.
Automation - realtime changes applied using MIDI CC values and similar data in your DAW to adjust volume/dynamics and other various controls of different effects. Automation can be used to change relative volume, panning (left/right stereo postioning), filters, effects settings, and many other functions of software. Automation data can be recorded using a knob or fader on your hardware controller, or by drawing and writing data into the track in your DAW.
DSP - Digital Signal Processing, a catchall term for effects plugins like EQ, Compression, Reverb, Distortion, Flanger, Chorus, etc. These types of effects are very commonly added during the mixing stage of a music production.
Keyswitch - A MIDI note that is outside the playable (sounding) range of an instrument, used to trigger a function other than sounding a note. This can be used for switching between articulation types, selecting a different configuration of controls, or similar control function. Remember that MIDI doesn't always make sound!
Articulation - a particular type of long or short note, played by an actual instrument and captured in sampling. Examples include Spiccato, Staccato and Marcato for strings, the Short 1/8, Short 1/4 and Short 1/2 note articulations in CineBrass, and others. Different instruments have various ways of articulating their performance, and we have captured a large selection of these options. Multiple articulations can be included in one instrument, and switching between articulation types in real time is an important part of achieving a realistic performance, as live players change their articulation type throughout a performance.
True Legato - A type of articulation available in instruments that play long notes, transitioning into another note. This playing style is called Legato, and True Legato is a method of sampling that captures these movements between notes, and allows for realistic playback of complex lines.
Quantize - A function of MIDI editing that automatically adjusts the rhythmic position of notes to a specific value, which can be very useful for correcting timing issues in a performance. Best deployed carefully, as over-quantized MIDI notes quickly sound robotic and artificial.
The word "quantize" can also mean to set something to a specific value -- for example, we have a Quantize Mode available for our libraries that support Adaptive Legato that lets you set a fixed rate for the speed of transitions between notes. This is useful when you are working with a passage of notes that are locked to the grid in your DAW and you want the same transition speed between each of them.