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Which DAW and Why?



Synth and Software contributors sound off on their choices

We asked several of our top contributors to write a couple of paragraphs about why they use what they use. Stay tuned for more additions from contributors who use other DAWs, but in the meantime, without further ado we give you the following:

Marty Cutler, MOTU Digital Performer

I use all of the major DAW packages from time to time, but MOTU Digital Performer remains my go-to DAW. Being someone who works primarily with MIDI, I find DP’s MIDI editing features second to none.

The Region menu pretty much covers all the bases for massaging MIDI (and audio). “Modeless” editing provides a consistent and simplified process from practically anywhere in the program for a quick and intuitive workflow; tightening up a MIDI drum track (for instance) is done as easily from the main Track view as it is from the MIDI view as it is from the sequence view, as it is from the Event List view. Edits in any of those views can be done on a surgical level.

MOTU Digital Performer

If you need to accommodate multiple audio input devices, DP is cool with that. I often record audio with my Roland guitar synth, which has a USB audio input, but I need to monitor the recording against the track, using my audio interface. Most every DAW can do that, but surprisingly the process often requires jumping through a few convoluted hoops. DP only requires a quick trip to the setup menu, where you select your other audio sources, and you are done.

For all of other DAWs’ advances in nonlinear arranging and rearranging of song parts, I think the Digital Performer Songs window is the most flexible, graphically informative, and intuitive take I’ve seen since Opcode Vision. Define any region as a chunk: a track, a bar of a track, a half-bar, a quarter-bar of multiple tracks, and you can drag it anywhere in the song window, and you’ve created a new sequence. In fact, live performers can drag and reorder entire songs as chunks, creating a virtual set list.

DP’s got a mind-boggling feature set, and it still remains my go-to sequencer for getting the job done.

Jim Aikin, Reason and FL Studio

I’ve been a Reason user, off and on, since I reviewed the 1.0 release for Keyboard more than 20 years ago. (I did take a side trip into Cubase for a few years.) Today Reason is my main DAW. I’ll be the first to admit that Reason is not perfect. For starters, it still isn’t MPE compatible, and it may never be, because the MIDI channel information is stripped off at the MIDI input. I could list some other shortcomings, but let’s look at the positives.

ReasonStudios Reason

First, I use it because I have a truly massive set of Rack Extensions. Generally (though not always), Rack Extension synths are somewhat less expensive than the VST equivalent. Using Rack Extension synths or effects in another DAW, via the Reason Rack VST, is possible, but it’s easier just to open Reason and not have to juggle the software ins and outs. I love the Reason instruments themselves, especially Algoritm and Parsec.

ReasonStudios Reason

Second, the rear-panel patch cords are an invitation to experiment and do sound design. In essence, Reason is a single gigantic modular synthesizer, and I love that. With the aid of a few inexpensive third-party Rack Extensions it’s possible to craft arbitrarily complex control patterns.

Third, I’m fast on Reason. I know the user interface pretty thoroughly, so I don’t have to try to remember the key commands. When I have a musical idea, I can lay it down quickly. Also, while I’ve certainly read a few cries of woe in user groups, in my experience Reason is extremely stable.

FL Studio is a powerhouse, but it’s not a me-too DAW. The design is distinctly different. FL Studio’s first big plus, in my opinion, is the lifetime free updates. I reviewed version 1.0 for Keyboard (back when it was called Fruity Loops), and I’ve never had to shell out bucks for an upgrade.

Its second strength is that Image-Line is constantly adding new features! Mostly effect plugins, but other stuff too. The design philosophy is, if anything, just the opposite of Reason. Reason upgrades tend to be doled out in a stingy manner, almost as if the company regrets having to improve the software. If you make a suggestion to Image-Line about a feature you’d like to see in FL Studio, it seems as if their corporate philosophy is, “Hey, great idea! We’ll have that in an update next week!”

FL Studio lets you organize your music very flexibly in patterns, which you can drag around on the playlist. A pattern can have multiple instruments, so you can easily create one pattern with all of your drums and bass, another with three pad sounds, and so on. There’s a huge set of MIDI note editing commands. There’s also a math formula controller, so you can multiply one control input by another, then divide by three — whatever you want. You can design your own control surfaces.

Kays Alatrakchi, Logic Pro and Pro Tools

I use a combination of Logic Pro and Pro Tools due to their respective strengths in music composition and audio editing and mixing.

Musically, Logic Pro simply feels more natural and intuitive. The wealth of built-in plug-ins that span the gamut from virtual synths, samplers, modeling synths, vintage keyboards, to just about every imaginable type of effect are very focused on music creation.

Apple Logic Pro

Logic’s addition of a fairly robust music notation mode adds even more appeal to someone primarily focused on music composition. Lastly, the integration of Quicktime movies with the ability to adjust tempos and sync points makes it extremely powerful for film scoring work.

Conversely, I find Pro Tools to be a better environment to record, edit audio, mix, and master. My pipeline typically involves composing in Logic Pro and then sending out stems or individual bounces to Pro Tools, where I will make tweaks to the audio files and make a final mix and mastering pass.

I find Pro Tools’ interface and robust workflow to be more conducive to working in audio. Where Pro Tools lacks a bit is in the included plug-ins, which are somewhat limited compared to what comes with Logic Pro. Nonetheless, the basic tools are all there – compressors, EQ, maximizers, and reverbs. 

Pro Tools is also the established industry standard for audio production. So on projects where I need to share files with other departments, I can count on the other team members to have access to Pro Tools than Logic Pro.

Mark Jenkins, Hardware (and Logic)

For my early composing I used a couple of hardware MIDI sequencers, such as the Roland MSQ700, which was good for a handful of repeated patterns in two or three layers. But much more complex compositions became easier with the release of the MIDI-equipped Atari ST, and I got into using Passport MasterTracks Pro software, which was pretty much unlimited in terms of long complex MIDI compositions.

Mark Jenkins with Mike Oldfield running an early Logic package, at a time when that was a really big plasma screen…

Cubase and Logic (previously “Notator”) started pulling ahead, though, offering audio recording alongside MIDI recording. When Atari closed, both programs transferred to the Mac.

I certainly remained with Cubase on the Mac for some time, but for some upgrade reason or another ended up converting to Logic. VST virtual plug-in instruments were working successfully with Cubase, but the fact that Murray Gold (for the Dr. Who? music of the time) and Mike Oldfield both favoured Logic was a major factor in my move.

I had become very fluid using Cubase, patterns auto-correcting themselves discreetly, with both sounds and effects always coming readily to hand. By contrast, Logic was a bit of a nightmare. Everything sounded clunky and wrong, and I still find instances to this day where an invisible and unwanted 3- or 4-frame gap has multiplied itself disastrously from the start of a piece to its end. Menus, I still feel, are scattered around the screen at random, often in multiple redundant locations, and icons are cryptic at best.

So much for the massive resolution available in Logic MIDI recording – it’s more of a hindrance than a help. But given the wonderful selection of AU instruments now – the CS80, Moog Modular and others from Arturia, and the incredibly affordable GX80, Elka Synthex and others from Cherry Audio – it was worth fighting to master the software.

With the Eurorack revolution has come new interest in live hardware manipulation and improvisation, and I’ve found myself re-building hardware systems and once again having to look at questions of MIDI synchronisation, clicks, and clocks. While it makes a very satisfying type of live improvisation possible (basically, in my case, the sort of thing Tangerine Dream did in the mid-1970s with Moog 960 and other step sequencers), it’s very hard work of a type I hoped I had left behind.

I am now buying instruments that are used for nothing, except the fact that they have one type of input socket and another type of output socket, standing dumbly as they synchronise together three sorts of device that all come from different eras – and that should perhaps have stayed in them.

While I love the power, flexibility and speed of modern software DAWs, using a non-DAW system, improvising big chunks of music then editing them together into satisfying pieces (like Can, Tangerine Dream, and other bands used to do) comes up, for me, with very different styles of music, which is equally satisfying in its own way.

Nick Batzdorf, Logic Pro and Pro Tools

Like Mark Jenkins, I started with hardware sequencers (Yamaha QX-21 and then QX-5). And that leads to a historical diversion – in both senses of the word.

Because the QX-21 only let you edit whole bars, I recorded everything in 1/4 to be able to edit individual beats, so effectively there were no bar lines. Interestingly, it only took a couple of weeks for me to stop even hearing music in standard meters.

Avid Pro Tools

Now, it’s totally normal for film composers to throw in some odd meters to make their music hit cues, but I started writing everything in meters that shifted all the time. Whether it was any good, who knows, but it was an interesting phenomenon.

Another benefit to working in 1/4 was that every beat was numbered, which is very helpful for figuring out hit points in films. (And possibly more importantly, for figuring out the timings of things that had to be missed; there’s nothing worse than clobbering a minor cut on a big beat.)

Venturing even further off-topic, I actually worked with a partner, Trent Lange, to publish a book of charts with the timings of every beat at every tempo. It was modeled after the 1965 Carroll Knudsen Project Tempo book (still available for over $400!), which had the same in frame clicks. Originally, clicks were generated by punching holes in film every X number of frames/subframes; the click made a noise every time it went past an optical reader.

And then I got an Atari 520ST computer and switched to Passport Designs MasterTracks Pro – also copying Mark Jenkins (who I promise I didn’t know at the time!). The piano roll editing display made editing much easier, and of course being able to save to floppy disks was a huge advance over saving to cassette tape. (I almost lost six weeks’ worth of work when a data cassette jammed and broke, but fortunately only one cue that I’d already mixed was gone.)

After just a few months with the Atari, I saw how much faster MasterTracks Pro ran on a friend’s Mac Plus, and I switched.

Despite its having been left in the dust by several other sequencers at the time, I stuck with MasterTracks Pro for several years. And then the sadly late Mikail Graham came over (I was the editor of Recording magazine at the time) to demo the new “freshest code on the block” version of Emagic Logic.

Deeply habituated as I was to MasterTracks Pro, it lacked one basic feature: the ability to edit discontiguous notes together, i.e. you couldn’t make selections that jumped over other notes. Logic did that before breakfast, never mind all the other amazing features it had, and I made the switch for good.

As a music tech journalist it was important to know all the sequencers, and at one point I was able to find my way around Opcode Vision, MOTU Performer, and Steinberg Cubase (and much later Sonar, and to a lesser degree Ableton Live) as well. Sequencers were MIDI-only in those days, no audio, and the instruments were all hardware – plug-ins weren’t feasible on the computers of the day.

And then Digidesign Pro Tools hit the scene and sequencers became DAWS – digital audio workstations. Computers didn’t really have enough power to run a lot of audio processing, and Pro Tools had Motorola chips on its computer cards for that. 

Pro Tools did have a MIDI recorder, but it was very basic compared to all the other sequencers. What they got right was the audio editing interface, and I still use it for that (although I haven’t kept up with the updates). Music and sound effects editing in Pro Tools becomes like a dance when you get into it.

Most of the other DAWs could use the Pro Tools hardware in the early days, but not the other way around. Digidesign got a head start on everyone else with multitrack computer digital audio. If you wanted it to run it, you bought a Pro Tools TDM system on a Mac. Period.

The one DAW that didn’t use Pro Tools hardware as a front end was Cubase. Steinberg was working on native audio, which is what we enjoy today: off-the-shelf Macs and PCs running everything without add-on hardware. Steinberg got a head start on everyone else with native audio, including their VST plug-ins, even though the computers weren’t really up to it when they first started.

But I’d invested a fortune in Pro Tools TDM hardware, Cubase didn’t support it, so I lost touch with Cubase. And when I sold my last TDM system 20 years ago, I just kept using Logic. That says nothing about other DAWs, especially Digital Performer (which I kept half a foot in for years), it was just what I was used to. All these programs have been under constant development by some very bright programmers for decades now, and they’re all amazing.

However, there are a lot of things I like about Logic, whether or not other DAWs can do the same things in one way or another.

My new favorite feature, which Apple (who bought Emagic years ago) has improved a lot in the latest version, is the ability to play in without a metronome, and the program automatically figures out the bars and beats later – Free Tempo Recording. You can then do things like quantizing, use the program’s notation section, and so on.

Another feature I’m totally in love with, one that Logic added after other programs got it, is that the program is always listening to your playing, even when it’s stopped. If you play something you like, the phone rings with someone selling solar systems or something, and you forget what you played, you just use Capture Recording and it’s all there. Brilliant.

All the DAWs today come with a ridiculously large collection of instrument and processing plug-ins, and again, they’re all highly evolved programs. It’s hard to imagine going wrong with any of them.

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