Okay I don’t suppose I am the first nor will I be the last to raise this question that is which DAW is best out of Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton or Cubase but here is part one of my thoughts and coming up soon, part two and the thoughts of Garnish School of Sound instructors, Al, George and Paul.
When I very first started in the olden days (early 90′s) we all used Atari STs with a whole 512k of Ram for sequencing Midi and not much else. Obviously all audio was dealt with using 24 track 2″ tape with up to 3 slaved together synchronised with lynx synchronisers. Back then for sampling, we had the classic Akai S900 and S950 and later the Akai S1000. I went freelance as an assistant as soon as possible as I got on well and was in demand from engineers and producers but didn’t get on so with with the management who ran the studios. Lisa and Maddy at the Roundhouse were the exception there – they went on to manage me when I went freelance as a mix engineer.
The two most popular sequencers were Steinberg’s Cubase and Emagic’s Notator. from what I remember, Notator looked like the event list in Logic and that was it. Cubase on the other hand was a lot more intuitive giving us the ability to drag, drop, copy and paste blocks of midi information. Later on Emagic changed the name from Notator to Notator Logic then finally settled at Logic long before Apple bought them out of course. I think before Notator, they were called Creator but let’s not go there! Speaking of Apple, in those days Macs were quite new on the music production scene and Atari ST’s were always thought of as more stable, and they were rock solid timing wise.
So back then, Cubase was my sequencer of choice and I zipped around on it like lightning as I knew it so well. Towards the mid 90′s Macs were creeping in, they were better computers, even better than the Atari ST 1040 model, they had colour screens and it wasn’t long until we had the capability to record and edit audio to a degree. I remember once I was on a session with a producer called Ian Green at Metropolis studios and two things stuck out; the fact that we were using a rack of Akai S1000 samplers so high, they were taller than Ian – he isn’t the tallest bloke but still. Obviously the more samplers you have, the more outputs to plug into the desk and more importantly, in those days, the more sample time you had. I think we had lots and lots of backing vocals and he wanted to keep all the harmonies separate triggered of course from the Atari ST running Cubase. We were chatting about computers with audio capability and I guess the first DAW. I’ll always remember that when we touched on audio capability, Ian asked me about plugins. I looked at him with a blank face because I had no idea what plugins were!
When I look at these dates as I’m writing this, unless I’m way off, things were moving FAST!!!! I think now with my 8 processors in my Mac Pro where five years ago it was a dual 1.8 PPC, I’m still doing the same thing on it, i’m just not thinking so hard about being economical with plugins and the plugins then were not so juicy as they are now. That’s the only difference between 5 years ago and now really. That and that people are finally realising that that the concept of DSP to be done outside of the computers processor is a dated one. Avid (used to be Digidesign) have a new generation of gear out now along with their Pro Tools 9. I really must make the effort to see what they have come up with. I do know that Pro Tools 9 software works on any audio interface which should be good news for some.
Okay went slightly ahead of myself there, sorry about that – back to the olden days; as macs were used more and more, Emagic Logic was emerging and at one point overtook Cubase, there was no question of that, because for some reason Emagic Logic and I think around version 3 was much better on a mac than Cubase was on a mac, and by this time, macs were the way forward. People then were mostly either using Cubase on an ST or Emagic Logic on a Mac.
Around about this time I could see macs running Logic were much better than Atari ST’s running Cubase so I switch and had to learn Logic. I learnt Logic by changing all the Logic key commands to Cubase key commands. I was amazed you could do that at the time and it certainly gave me a head start. All the key commands were stored in the one preferences file, and I would have easy access to my preferences file with my key commands because I had emailed them to my Hotmail account. By this time a dial-up internet connection was usually in most studios’ office and I thought I was 1 bad ass ground breaking mofo! For many years Emagic Logic on a Mac was by far the best all round DAW. Cubase had lagged behind massively, the MIDI in Pro Tools was appalling and Ableton was in its infancy and no one had heard of it. There was a period when I beta tested Logic for Emagic, which means that they would send me updates first before releasing them to the public to go over, and give them my feedback – I would try and make it break by pushing it as hard as I could, tell them the results of the tests and also tell them if I thought any of the new features were any good. In 2002, Apple bought Logic from Emagic so that all stopped and I guess they have guys in white coats beta testing full time. You can tell this because of some of the stupid features they come out with, like the comp tool and the loop end tool to name just a few. AND WHY CAN’T WE STILL AFTER ALL THE YEARS NOT ADJUST THE SIZE OF A REGION FROM THE LEFT??? Anyway, I’m not here to grump but I think if they had more people actually making music involved in the development, it’d STILL be the obvious choice DAW but it isn’t now.
It’s only recently and I’m talking in the last 5 years Ableton has emerged as a contender with its intuitive and very creative session mode and warp marking, although now we warp the audio instead of the grid in version 8, warping has been around for a long time now. I’ve been warping multi-track drums now for a while in Ableton. I’m currently working on a sample based record with Russ Jay and I warped the sample in Ableton because it wasn’t originally played to a click, it’s that old. Logic have come up with Flextime but it really is ‘Happy Shopper’ in comparison. It’s only recently and I’m talking in the last 5 years that Cubase has massively improved, particularly its audio. A friend of mine was showing me the way Cubase deals with the audio in a completely unique way just as Pro Tools’ playlist system is so different. Again in the last 5 years, Pro Tools’ MIDI has upped its game massively and now there’s not much you can’t do in Pro Tools you can do in Logic, and I know nothing about Pro Tools 9 which is bound to have further MIDI improvements.
It was around 7 years ago I sold my Digidesign HD3 and 192 system and swapped it for a G5 dual 1.8 with an Apogee interface. There were a few times my dual 1.8 PPC struggled and I wondered if I had done the right thing but I struggled through. Now I have my 8 x 2.8 intel, I can’t understand why anyone would need Pro Tools DSP on PCI cards these days, especially now Pro Tools 9 software supports any interface. I do wonder if Avid have shot themselves in the foot there, I do hope not and pat them on the back for giving people more options. I’m sure there’s more to it than doing it out of the goodness of their heart!
I worry that Logic is becoming a jack of all and master of none. In recent years they have copied others but not as well. ‘Flextime’ is a poor ‘Warpmarking’, their ‘convert audio region to sample track’ is a poor recycle. You would have thought with the might of Apple behind them, they would at least give the competition a run for their money when they copy them! I do hope Apple pull their socks up with Logic because I’m far too old and busy with other things now to go to the trouble of learning another DAW to the same standard.
I asked top engineer, Ableton guru and GSS tutor Al Riley to continue the debate. Which DAW is best – Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton or Cubase? My first multitrack workstation was my 4-track Portastudio (not a DAW, an AAW I suppose?), which gave me the novel luxury of changing the volume and panning different instruments after recording them! I could even use insert effects (a guitar pedal) and punch-in recording to fix questionable guitar solos. Things got a bit psychedelic after I realised I could record backwards audio by flipping the tape… Next up, the combination of Windows 95 Sound Recorder and a cover disk demo of FruityLoops v1 was the basis of much experimentation on the family PC. That would have been my first go at making sample-based tunes. Shortly after that I installed Cubase VST on my own cheap PC which was a revelation. Editing, recording, insert effects, automation (if somewhat limited) all in the same program. Although I think I could only manage about 10 tracks before the machine fell over, I can remember being blown away by how much you could do on a home computer. I got myself a dedicated soundcard, a MIDI keyboard and a C1000 mic and felt like there was already a mind-boggling world of possibility.
My first ever job in the music industry was as studio assistant for Coldcut. One of my first tasks for was to resurrect the classic audiovisual collage track ‘Timber’ for use in their upcoming live shows. As it was originally made in the mid-90s I had to record out all the parts from the Akai S1000 samplers being triggered from a Mac running a MIDI-sequencer (possibly an early version of Logic). That’s when I realised how easy I’d had it joining the digital audio game after the creation of software samplers…
At that time (2004) Coldcut were starting to use Ableton Live for their live shows and it was already becoming a weapon of choice for studio production too. I think that must have been around version 3 or 4. Features such as elastic audio and session view were so innovative and I fell in love with this new approach to a DAW. The icing on the cake was the intuitive instant mapping of MIDI and qwerty key commands. Suddenly audio felt less rigid and like something you could manipulate and mould. To me Ableton feels like it has an element of play even when you’re using it for serious work. As I moved towards working in professional recording studios it became clear that becoming proficient in Pro Tools was an absolute must. After that initial learning curve you get with all new DAWs, it became clear that this was a powerful beast. Where it succeeded (and i think this was version 7.1) was with a clear sterile lab-like visual layout, with extremely powerful and precise editing capabilities. Also, so much of the Pro Tools workflow is geared towards staying organised and keeping things simple. That is invaluable when you find yourself in high pressure sessions. All in all Pro Tools feels solid and I think the fact that you could only use it with qualified audio interfaces has done a lot for that reputation. It’s going to be interesting to see how version 9 is received now it can run with any soundcard.
Nowadays I do nearly all of my work in Ableton and Pro Tools. Generally, any editing or mixing will be the reserve of Pro Tools whereas Ableton will be the one if I’m composing or coming up with ideas. That said, improvements in both mean there is more and more overlap: Pro Tools now has an amazing elastic audio engine, and more bundled instruments and effects, and Ableton has more and more grouping and editing features. I still think Ableton is absolutely unbeatable for live performance and the recent addition of The Bridge for linking Serato Scratch with Live is perfect for laptop DJs wanting to do more interesting things with their live sets. So that’s my vote: Pro Tools and Ableton Live.