Someone recently asked me (probably because I am on Mac most of the time) why I wasn’t using Logic as my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). It’s complicated.
Three things I do not often discuss or want to get into with anyone:
- Analog vs Digital
- Mac vs PC
- DAW A vs DAW B (especially if either of the DAWS being compared is ProTools)
Let’s start with a timeline…
Early 90s – Cakewalk Pro Audio version 9.0 – We were a PC family, and didn’t have the budget for expensive Macs. Even when I started working, that was not an option. I used Cakewalk for some plays and demos and learned a lot about MIDI sequencing hardware (drum machines, analog synths, effects, patch bays, etc).
Late 90s – Cakewalk eventually becomes Sonar. In 1999 I release my debut album recorded mostly with a combination of Roland VS-1680 hardware recorder and Sonar.
2000s – Sonic Foundry Acid Pro offered a loop paradigm that Sonar lacked. It was nice to have access to some different ways to explore ideas. Sonic Foundry eventually sold Acid to Sony, and after a bad support experience with Sony (relating to MiniDisc, not DAWs specifically), I boycotted Sony and looked for other options. By that point I started to mess with Propellerhead Reason.
2000-2008 I got deep into Reason 4.0 for the virtual instruments, workflow, and stability. At that point, Reason did not include audio recording. I learned how to Rewire with Sonar and had a blast keeping everything running to get the best of MIDI instruments in Reason and audio capabilities in Sonar. I watched hours of online tutorials and read dozens of magazine articles. I had a lot of fun creating stuff that I would not have created any other way. Sonar became a less stable resource hog, so I started thinking about solutions.
2009 – For a lot of different reasons (and because I could now afford one) I wanted to try Mac. Sonar was still not cross-platform, so during this time I worked almost exclusively in Reason (my single license was good for one Mac and PC). Before long it became silly to work in two DAWs, especially with an aging PC. Reason + a new Macbook (which was portable) won out. Keeping a PC running Sonar soon became chore. I left off around Sonar X1 or X2. I may still have some projects locked in their file format. I am not even sure at this point.
Garageband? Sure, I dabbled with it since it came free with MacOS. It’s a great tool for someone just starting out, and you can do full projects with it if you have a good interface. But it doesn’t offer the robust features I was used to in other programs. Logic Pro (which is really the big brother of Garageband) just didn’t seem worth while since I was committed to learning other DAWs.
2010 – I attend my first electro-music.com festival and meet tons of people (Mark Mosher stands out) using Ableton. Considering it a fun challenge to learn something new, I eventually dove into that paradigm. The clip view and Launchpad control were not available in other DAWs at the time (until BitWig came along later). Ableton of course also has the MAX for Live platform which opens all kinds of new doors. MIDI mapping and the “flat” UX of Ableton were big strengths as well. At the time, Reason still didn’t run native VSTs, so that was another area where Ableton excelled.
In the coming years I would do hours of Ableton video training and read dozens of Ableton articles, retooling my already colorful audio recording experience as needed. Eventually you learn that the tools are all basically the same at the core (recording/sequencing) but the workflow or special features are what stand out. No DAW is perfect.
2013 – I opened a small recording studio and wanted something that I could run remotely from across the room. Ableton and Reason didn’t offer that feature. Presonus Studio One offered a wireless remote control feature with iPad support. Studio One had some nice hardware coming out, and I though perhaps I would move in that direction. Studio One became my go-to for tracking bands who didn’t need the other production/performance options in more “electronic” focused DAWS like Ableton or Reason. I also recorded some folk projects with Ableton and Reason (using them as straight “trackers”). I love editing in Reason, but not so much Ableton (though I hear this is improved in Ableton 10).
2017 – Propellerhead Reason gets VST support. OK great. But by then I moved away from a lot of VST use because maintaining them during upgrades is a nightmare.
2018 – VCV Rack (which is 99% free) came to my attention and I jumped into the world of virtual modular. Some say it is a DAW, and I disagree, but it has had a major impact on how I do things. VCV Rack turned out to be so compelling that I almost ignored my other tools for an extended time. Part of this was due to a relocation from Central PA to Philly that required packing up my studio. Relegated to only a laptop, with no outboard gear, I figured it was a good time to learn as much as I could about modular theory and synthesis. VCV Rack has been a game changer (and I hate that word). But it will never replace Ableton or Reason in my workflow.
2020 – Stuck inside during the COVID19 social distancing period, I made an effort to learn about ambisonic audio. I discovered that my current version of Ableton (9.7) doesn’t handle the MAX for Live plugins that are needed. I was forced to download Reaper because it can handle multi-channel I/O much better. Pretty cool stuff. I really did not want yet another DAW on my machine, but once I hit a roadblock, I try to find a way.
Reason is moving to a plugin approach, and I can’t say I am in favor of that. I’d rather have the full DAW experience. Since Rewire is going away, the VST option might be great for some people who like the Reason instruments. I love the Reason editing paradigm and prefer to work there anyway, and while I live many of their instruments, I also use a lot of off-board gear.
MORALS AND THEMES YOU MAY HAVE GATHERED…
- No single app does it all, but the marketing about “bringing your creativity to the next level” is everywhere. Beware.
- New things are always around the corner.
- Sometimes companies get lazy (like Cakewalk did) and they simply can’t keep up.
- What tools inspire you the most? Keep those.
- What tools are stable and give you the least hassle? Keep those.
- Avoid anything proprietary to the largest extent possible.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning, but also actively using new software. Much of that learning carries over from app to app, especially when it comes to troubleshooting. But I’m not going to actively seek out a new DAW just because there’s something new on the block. When I heard Behringer was coming out with a free DAW of their own, I just rolled my eyes. We don’t need any more DAWs. We need all of the ones we already have to just get better. Better UX. Better upgrade/licensing process. Better transferability between platforms. More open source.
PS: I’ve been careful to not slam any DAWs here outright. But I must note that on a couple of occasions, I helped folks with Cubase and found the UX simply terrible. Maybe it was the “lite” versions my friends were trying to use, but just setting up an audio interface was way more hassle than it should be. But I know that hundreds of people – particularly in the UK – speak highly of Cubase. If compelled to learn it for some good (paid) reason, I could, but I am simply not compelled!
After posting this, it occurred to me that I left out a few things…
Audacity – this is the go-to free audio editor that many people experience before they dive into recording further. However, in my case I came to Audacity far after I was familiar with recording in other programs. As a result, I didn’t take to the GUI in Audacity (on Mac or PC) and found that it ventured too far from conventions established in other applications. Still, because it can be easy to use for newcomers, so from time to time I find myself helping friends, family and clients get started with it.
Adobe Audition – For probably about seven years or more I’ve used Adobe Audition as my go-to to track editor. It’s easily work the $22 a month that I pay on the subscription plan (which gives me some other tools besides, like the Bridge app with essential batch tools). I use Audition every single day. It can also serve as a multitrack platform, though I rarely bother with that unless I am doing A/B testing with other programs. Ableton and Reason remain my main multitrack platforms.
Luna – Just as I was writing my original post, Universal Audio was coming out with the “much anticipated” DAW Luna. Well, apparently they don’t call it a DAW (but from everything I’ve seen on YouTube so far it is).
LUNA Recording System is the new music production system from Universal Audio. LUNA transforms Apollo interfaces into the most inspiring and fully‑integrated Mac‑based recording systems on the planet. LUNA integrates with your Thunderbolt-equipped UA Audio Interface on macOS and provides a complete environment for recording, MIDI creation, editing, arranging, and mixing – all with an intuitive and contextual user interface.
I own a 4-channel UA preamp that I enjoy, but I don’t have any plans to jump on this bandwagon. Let’s see how it matures, but unless you are starting out, have money to spend on UA gear to benefit from the integration, and want to venture from time-tested platforms, I’d hold off.
Protools – If you are going to go into recording as a career, Protools certification is a requirement. If you are going into recording as an artist, I see Protools as less necessary. A few years back I did a shoot out between Reason, Ableton, and Protools LE, and in each test – from UX to CPU load, Protools just didn’t hold my attention. Protools simply cant compete with Ableton in a live setting (it was never designed for performance – but rather tracking).
Soundation – Finally we have the new trend toward online DAWs like Soundation. I’m not quite sure what I think of these platforms just yet. On one hand the collaborative nature of them is appealing, and compatibility is assured between users. Having backup in the cloud is nice too. But then I wonder about the logistics for copyright and how that is being handled. My creative process relies on all of the tools I have now, and adding another whole platform seems like unnecessary overhead right now. Perhaps one way to approach it would be to use only tools within that platform. Limitations can be nice. I haven’t felt compelled to jump into the online DAW craze because my collaborations tend to be few and far between, and because I have more than enough tools at my disposal.