Your DAW: getting engaged, married, or divorced?

By • August 7, 2012

Most of us spend a lot of time composing in a DAW so which we choose to use is a big deal. They all pretty much can do the same things with MIDI and audio and nowadays they all come with less or more decent plug-ins so for most users it comes down to workflow and stability.

Stability is a tough one. Because with native systems there are so many choices for audio interfaces and third party plug-ins, you can go on forums and see wildly divergent opinions on how stable any specific DAW is. Most would agree that a classic ProTools TDM/HD rig is the most stable since it allows limited choices for audio interfaces and plug-ins, which is why it is still the standard for post houses and client-based recording studios, but now even PT has gone native. More later. So for most of us, workflow and features are key.

I am a Logic user and have written three books about it ,but I am not going to be an evangelista here, just give an overview of the choices. I m also not going to address the “sounds different” issue as I believe that it is minor compared to other factors.

There are several stages of DAW choice.

It is hard to really try out a DAW. Some, like Cubase (if you have a Steinberg key) and Reaper, allow you to download demo versions that expire after a certain amount of time. Others, like Logic Pro and Digital Performer, do not.

In my opinion, the best way to decide is to sit down with an experienced user of each and watch him work for a few hours. You may very well find that one workflow simply speaks to you.

if nothing else, all have user forums and going to them and seeing what people are praising and complaining about can be instructional.

At some point, since they are complicated beasts, you will have to make a choice and spend some serious time learning how to use the damn thing. In his great book “Outliers: The Story of Success” Malcolm Gladwell presents convincing evidence that ten thousand hours is the required amount of time to get really good at something. it will not take you as long as that to get proficient with any given DAW, but yes, you have to spend a lot of time.

So now you have learned a DAW and while you like certain things about it, there is other stuff that drives you freaking crazy and you read about this other wonderful program that addresses some of that.
Here is what you have to consider:
a) It will take another big investment of hours to get as proficient with the new app. They all do the same stuff but they all do it very differently.
b) Many things that your new DAW does differently than your present one will now strike you as “wrong” because the original app has taught you to think the way IT thinks.
c) The new one will also have things about it that will drive you freaking crazy.

So if you are going to do so, I suggest that you should either be convinced that the workflow of the new choice will save you almost as many hours as it takes to learn it or that the things that drive you freaking crazy with the new one will be less than the previous choice. So think long and hard before you choose the nuclear option 🙂

Here, in no particular order, is what some folks say they like and dislike about their DAWS.

Users who are mostly happy with it like that it is very CPU efficient and can load more software instruments than any other Mac DAW. it is 64 bit, which means that it is not limited in OSX to using 4 GB of RAM or under, as 32 bit apps are. They also say that it includes the best suite of virtual instruments and fx and until recently, I don’t think anyone could argue with that but the competition has sin e stepped up and upgraded their included content. RedOne, of Lady Gaga fame, says that he composes all his productions for her ONLY using include Logic stuff, although it is later mixed in ProTools. Logic Pro’s Environment is unique and very powerful and allows you to do things that almost no other app can do. The single window workflow that was implemented in Logic Pro 8 is laptop friendly.

Logic Pro also features a very capable score editor, featured in my new book “Scoring With Logic Pro”.

Common complaints among Logic users are single core spiking with multi-timbral software instruments (any software instrument that is record armed becomes “live” and all the patches in it go to 1 core). Automation can be unpredictable at times and there are lots of annoying little things like only being able to re-order tracks in the track list one at a time. Also, Logic Pro still lacks Melodyne-quality pitch shifting, although its Flex works really well for audio retiming. Some find the color scheme bland to the point of being uninspiring.

As Apple has apparently now decided that it does not need to make money with Logic Pro, only encourage people to buy Macs, it is now cheap, $199.

Cubase and Nuendo
Cubase is 64 bit as well and can be run on either a Mac or a PC. It is generally agreed that Cubase’s approach to folders is the most powerful and versatile and long time users cannot imagine working any other way. Also, its VST Expression feature for navigating though articulations is quite brilliant and its drum editor is considered by its fans to be both intuitive and powerful. Unlike Logic Pro, which uses the Audio Units plug-in format, Cubendo uses VST and especially on the PC, there are lots of freebies and inexpensive choices. Also, Cubase has almost Melodyne-quality pitch shifting.

Also, it is available at different levels of features with different price points, so that it need not be one size fits all.

Detractors have complained about its included virtual instruments, although they have recently been upgraded, and CPU demands. They don’t like that it still requires a dongle. Some cross platform users say that it still runs better on a PC than on a Mac. The color scheme appears to some to have been designed by a West Hollywood hair dresser, but that is of course, highly subjective.

Digital Performer
Users praise its mixer and audio editing workflow, which they believe to be the most intuitive in the market. It has some tools for film scorers that I envy. With its Chunks feature, it is easy to compose multiple cues within a project, it generates steamers for those who actually conduct to picture, and its plotting hit points ability is very powerful. In its latest incarnation, the look of it can be varied according to “themes” and its included virtual instruments and plug-ins have been upgraded.

It has been Mac only and only 32 bit but both 64 bit Mac and Windows compatible versions have been announced. The Windows version could be a big plus for opening up Europeans to DP, which has had little market penetration there, as Mac users for music are a smaller percentage than in the U.S.

The biggest knocks on DP have been that it is still only 32 bit and its CPU efficiency for software instruments is widely regarded as inferior to either Logic Pro or Cubase. Also, it supports AUs rather than VST. (Older versions support MAS, a plug-in format that no one else adopted).

And as a guy originally from Boston it pains me to say it, but there are people who absolutely hate Mark Of The Unicorn, a Newton, Massachusetts based company. They cite poor tech support and bad attitudes. I myself had one encounter on the phone, admittedly several years ago, that I would describe as “service with a sneer”. But I have talked with the MOTU guys at many NAMM shoes and they have always been really friendly and have assured me that mostly this is urban legend.

Pro Tools
Now we come to the big Kahuna. There is simply no denying that ProTools was and has been the industry standard for pro audio work. Users praise its consistent workflow from studio to studio, little to no latency with TDM/HD versions, and the fact that for many audio recording and editing tasks, where others provide several ways to accomplish them and PT only has one, that one will be the most direct and logical. ProTools started life as audio only but over time has added more and more MIDI, software instruments, and even Sibelius integration for score prep although limited.

The problem has been that a TDM/HD rig was prohibitively expensive to all but the most successful composers and its native versions, like PT LE or PT M-Powered were severely crippled, inefficient CPU hogs, and simply a totally different experience than the “real’ PT. Also, it was Mac only.

Since Avid acquired Digidesign, it has charged into the native world much more competitively, adding MIDI, etc. and more features included at lower prices. For the first time, a professional PT experience can be had at a more affordable price.

But it has its critics who say that a lot of the MIDI implementation feels half-done and not on a par with Logic Pro, DP, Cubase, etc. Reports of it performance on the PC are quite mixed and there is a general uneasiness in the industry about Avid’s finances and it’s staying power with PT. So while this seems to be a transition time for PT, there is no sign that in the pro audio world a well-maintained PT HD rig is going anywhere.

Also, did I mention it still has no offline bouncing?

Sonar has been perhaps a sleeper in the pack with pros, although it has a large and devoted user base, Like Cubase, it is available at different levels of features with different price points, so that it need not be one size fits all. Users praise its simplicity and like its included plug-ins. Many believe it’s learning curve to be the least steep of any DAW. It has been PC only but is now coming to the Mac as well.

Critics say that it looks amateurish and lacks the multiple automation modes. They also dislike its insert implementation.

Sonar, Cubase, DP, PT, and Logic Pro have all been around for a long time and therefore each new version has to deal with a lot of legacy code. In the last few years, several new DAWS have appeared that are not burdened with this and already have their fans and their detractors. I cannot go into them at depth, but here is an overview.

Users praise its modular design. It is certainly the most customizable DAW I have seen. That is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness perhaps. Users say that compared to others it feels fast and less bloated and praise the developer’s response to the user base. Its critics moan the lack of a score editor, unless you like it to MuseScore or FInale, and it does not split MIDI regions in the same way as traditional DAWS. They say that there are lists of missing features that other DAWS have from 2008 that are still missing, but that can also be said of long established DAWS as well.

Clearly, it is an up and comer.

Presonus Studio One
Yet another up and comer. No less than Teddy Riley is now using it, having moved from Logic Pro, to Cubase, to Reaper and winding up with this, at least for now. (Some guys change their DAWs more than others change the oil in their car’s engine:)

Adopters praise its simplicity, speedy workflow, drag and drop capabilities, responsiveness with the faders, and Melodyne integration. I supports VSTs and is cross platform and 64 bit.

Others say its included virtual instruments and plug-ins are sub-par and that it is quite easy to accidentally record over regions that you do not wish to record over. It has no score editor but can link to Sibelius with ReWire.

In all candor, if I were to ever consider moving from Logic Pro, this would be the one I would be taking the closest look at.

Ableton Live is a wonderful app that has grown steadily in popularity but it is a totally different approach and not surprisingly, geared to those who do live work or want to work as if they were working live.

Fruity Loops was simply a loop based sequencer that has now added more DAW functionality. I think it is fair to say that not too many professional film scorers are moving to it.

Good luck, wherever you are on your journey to DAW nirvana.


By Terry Jones on August 8th, 2012 at 7:54 am

I’m currently using Cubase LE. I’ve used Cubase in one form or another for a number of years and have even considered upgrading to the full version eventually. That said, I have been trying out the demo for Presonus Studio One too recently and it’s pretty impressive. The only downside is you need to buy one of the top two versions to have access to VST plugins, which is a bit off-putting for me at this point.

By Dwarak on August 12th, 2012 at 10:22 am

You missed out Garageband…. it is worth to mention that Garageband for iPad is a very powerful tool… especially with the iPad compatible Condenser microphones… seriously guys, this combination works. Period.

By Jay Asher on August 14th, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I don’t personally consider GB a professional tool. The iPad version is OK for sketching but not as a primary DAW.

By Micah on August 14th, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Garageband and Logic are semi-synonomous in terms of layout and capability. Logic, however, is the more capable of the two. I use Logic Pro 9 and have been happy with it for our first year of “marriage” haha

By Jae on August 16th, 2012 at 7:42 am

I didn’t see Harrison Mixbus 2 in your list.

By Mike S on August 19th, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Reason? Reason 6 has full audio support and a great work flow. I have used protools
but for occasional use reason has the fastest startup time and never crashes. With protools everything is too hard unless you use it daily.

By Rya on September 3rd, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I use Fruity loops and I know it’s frowned upon, but I once tried Cubase and realised I was doing the same thing but I just had to click more buttons and it took me longer to compose a piece. I want to make better music, but I don’t have the time for learning a process I find my self not liking after all those hours. Really can someone tell me what’s wrong with using FL studio? As long as you can write notes in your best way then thats what matters. ‘Sounds’ can be retrieved from elsewhere.

By Ms. Jipthgrae Elnern Waaaaayne-Getthedoor, Sr. on January 19th, 2013 at 1:34 am

This is the fairest and most comprehensive comparison I’ve seen on the web despite the stated allegiance to Logic and swipe at MotU attitUde (which doesn’t matter — we can always find employees who will make us hate a given company, and the writer’s from MotU’s turf, which means more anecdotes and encounters). The sticking point there is whether the Windows version is buggy or primetime and the 64-bit helps alleviate CPU clobbering as well as users might hope.

AUD to VST becomes an advantage with Cubase and Studio One if the one wants varied, cheap and free plugins, but a liability if the idea is to transfer the plugins one has to a new package. Those who have already spent money on VI and sample and effects libraries should think twice about moving from Logic or DP to a platform that supports them.

Cubase and Studio One might be also attractive to seasoned users who wanted options for variation as opposed to commitment (though commitment can change).

Jay: What are your reasons for choosing Studio One as a possible change from Logic above all other platforms? You didn’t discuss that in detail, and your endorsement is too powerful to make elliptically.

My question about Ableton Live is whether its approach offers any advantages in terms of thinking about the composition. I’ve noticed that work from certain of its users sometimess offer an unusual sense of structure. Trained percussionist turned microhouse producer, Sasu Ripatti, sometimes composes music which can go on for forty minutes without any barline or sense of pulse, yet Live is considered loop-based. Michael (not John) Zorn builds layers with metrical modulations I hadn’t heard in loop-based repetitive music before. This made me wonder if the app’s workflow and features might suggest novel ideas about structure to a composer who tends to write through-composed and pieces and might like to be thrown off by a different process — not by my primary DAW, but by a second DAW to be used for experimentation.

People like to say that Live doesn’t “sound” as good as various MIDI, wave-edit-enabled and notation-rich DAWs, but if that’s so, then why does so much techno and house sound so perfect when the producers claim only to be using Live’s VI and effects?

By Jay Asher on January 22nd, 2013 at 11:02 am

I would be tempted by Studio One as an alternative because unlike Logic, Cubase, DP, PT, etc. it is entirely fresh code and when I tested it, seemed very fast.. It also has a intuitive and attractive GUI . But it is still missing too many features at this point.

Ableton Live is a great app but not well suited to traditional orchestral-style composition, which is mostly what I do.

By Tom Hicks on February 18th, 2013 at 10:41 am

Jay, I can not find much on Finale for use as a DAW. Why is that? My version (2012 Mac) also came with Garritan & Garritan Instruments for Finale. Mine is the full program, is visually very pleasing and looks like it has the potential to be a top of the line DAW. I have not used it much yet as it is quite complex and detailed. Depending on the type of music you are composing and writing this should be a plus right? I will say that MakeMusic (from where Finale comes from) has GREAT on line video tutorials. I still use Garage Band for quick, simple 1-3 min scores but also use Ableton and Audacity. Any thoughts on Finale?

PS How about a matrix with twenty or so DAW/Softwares listed down the left hand column and features & benefits across the top. Then numbers (1-5) in each of the small matrix cells indicating the strength of that feature/benefit for each of the DAW/Softwares listed. There could also be a small section at the far right for comments on what that particular software is best for.

By Jay Asher on February 27th, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Because while it is an excellent score production program, it is not really close to being a full-featured DAW. It may have that potential, but my guess is that with so many choices in the marketplace, that will not be the thrust of their development energy. But time will tell.

That is a great suggestion for a future column.

By Edouard on November 27th, 2013 at 3:13 am

Reason is quite an amazing piece… I’ve licensed tracks with it, but due to its lack of VST support I am going for a “nuclear option” lol!. I gave myself a full week next week for training and got my basket on Amazon ready for purchase

I have two brides: Reaper and DP8. I think i’ll go for DP8 due to the praises I read from my fellow media composers. Besides I can download a demo for 30 days. Should be enough to get a feel.

Perfect article for me. Thank you very much for the read Jay.


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