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DAW Wars and More

Where do things stand with the current crop of top DAWs?

PreSonus Studio One 2.5 is the “youngest” DAW on our list, yet even it is considered a mature piece of software.

MOTU’s Digital Performer DAW has long been a Mac-only product, but is now Windows compatible.

Most of us base our studios around digital audio workstations (DAWs) running as software on Macs and PCs. So when a new version of our DAW of choice is released, it’s big news. New versions mean new features, new capabilities, and, potentially, a new learning curve. Fortunately, the major DAWs are all mature pieces of software that have been around for quite awhile. Even the new kid on the block—PreSonus Studio One—is now a few years old and well into its second version. Not only that, it was designed by a programmer with a huge amount of experience from previously working on a successful DAW for another company. So where do things stand with the current crop of top DAWs? Here’s a quick rundown.

Avid Pro Tools 11
The big dog in the DAW world has made a major move with Pro Tools 11. The spotlight change is the move to 64-bit support (64-bit referring to how the software uses computer resources such as memory, not how it handles audio). This is a big deal. In fact, there are many changes under the hood of Pro Tools 11 that promise greatly enhanced performance. This version does mark the end of the line for Avid’s older plug-in formats because Pro Tools 11 only supports AAX format plug-ins. Fortunately, if you still need access to your older plug-ins, Pro Tools 11 includes a “co-install” for Pro Tools 10, which still supports RTAS format.

Propellerhead Reason 7
Among the newest releases in our tour is Reason 7, having just been released as I’m writing this column. Reason offers a very powerful environment for music creation, with racks of effects, synths, drum machines, loop players, and samplers, as well as a mixer modeled on a million-dollar SSL console. Reason 7 brings new features such as audio quantizing (time correction), easier mixer routings, a new Spectrum EQ, the Audiomatic Retro Transformer for adding personality to tracks, and the ability to drive external MIDI hardware devices from within Reason.

Steinberg Cubase 7
Cubase 7 ups the ante with a new, friendlier mix console with integrated equalizers and dynamics processing (compressor, gate, etc.). There are 66 new processors included, along with eight virtual instruments boasting more than 2,800 sounds. The new Chord Track feature helps with composition, songwriting, and arranging. Other powerful new features include VariAudio 2.0, which can be used to instantly create complex harmony parts. There are also tons of workflow improvements, designed to make music creation easier and faster.

MOTU Digital Performer 8
The major news in this version of Digital Performer is Windows support. A Maconly piece of software from birth, Digital Performer now jumps the chasm over to the PC world. Digital Performer is also 64-bit compatible on both platforms, optimizing the use of computer resources. And Digital Performer 8 comes bundled with powerful new virtual instruments and plug-ins. A cool one in particular is a modeled spring reverb called “Springamabob.”

Ableton Live 9
Live has always been popular with the loop-based crowd, but with this new version, it moves even more solidly into the studio DAW camp. Among the powerful new features is audio-to-MIDI conversion, which allows you to play a part on your guitar, convert it to MIDI, and then use it to drive a synthesizer sound—no special pickup required. You can even convert beat-boxing into drum parts. Other new features include a redesigned browser for finding content, automation enhancements, and a new library of content.

PreSonus Studio One 2.5
The latest version of Studio One includes more than 100 enhancements, including all new plug-ins. One example is Ampire XT, an amp/effects/cabinet modeling plug-in. Transient Detection allows you to quantize (time correct) multitrack drum parts. And Celemony’s amazing Melodyne is built-in, so you also have pitch correction available. PreSonus Exchange is an available free service/feature that lets you share and download content—such as effects chains, presets, soundsets, and more—with other users. Automation has been improved, and there are new file export options.

Cakewalk Sonar X2
With Digital Performer’s move to Windows, Sonar remains one of the only DAWs that support just one platform—Windows, in this case. The advantage to that is that Sonar is optimized for Windows, and with Windows 8 it gains some neat new features, such as support for large, multi-gesture touch screens. The Skylight user interface has been revamped, and there are many new enhancements, plugins, and instruments. This is a big update for Sonar, and this latest version no longer supports Windows XP or Vista. You’ll need Windows 7 or Windows 8 to run the software.

This is not a comprehensive list of DAWs, but the good news is there are so many options that can be used to create a professional production, from basic demos to full-on, major-label releases. Should you jump ship from your current DAW to one of these shiny new releases? If your current DAW is doing the job, then you may be happiest (and have the shortest learning curve) by simply updating to a new version. However, if one of the others has features you need or want, then it may be time to make a change. Fortunately, most DAWs offer trial versions, and the affordably priced “competitive upgrade” offers may entice you from one program to another.

Mitch Gallagher's latest book is Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Guitar Sound. He is the former Editor in Chief of EQ magazine. In addition to being a writer, he is a freelance recording engineer/producer/mastering engineer, teaches music business and audio recording at Indiana University/Purdue University, and is Sweetwater’s Editorial Director.