When I first started recording, everybody was on a Korg D-16. Yes, there was a group of us music nerds in high-school that wanted to record our own stuff, so – the most popular and affordable device to do this at the time was the powerful D-16. This chunky purple box wasn’t exactly the most user-friendly device, but it got the job done and we’d crank out tune after tune. Of course, as it goes when you’re starting out, it sounded awful; but we didn’t care. To us it was a gift from the Gods; an ability to immortalize ourselves onto a CD. We were proud, even if every instrument had a familiar Lars Ulrich snare tinge to it.

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Later I graduated to the world of DAWs, otherwise known as Digital Audio Workstation. The key word here is digital, which completely changed the name of the game. My friend’s dad had a nice computer with Cubase and a little home-recording setup. During my metal years (that I never really grew out of) we would hang a single Shure-58 from the ceiling and our buddy would throw down an improvised drum track. Then we’d write our song, take that same 58 and mic-up a Marshall MG100. Finally, we’d use that same mic again and the drummer would improvise screaming over the whole thing. No words – just sounds… that sounded like words. And that was METAL \m/. If you’re interested the band, that would be Imperium and the specific track I’m describing was Twisted in Time.

Those days were glorious, but now I know a thing or two. Like how easy and convenient direct-in is. And how to emulate analog sound with a completely in the box setup. These days it’s hard to record a song that’s not at least listenable. There are so many presets to choose from where could you go wrong? This is mostly in part thanks to DAWS, and of those there are three major players that emulate the original console setup.

But first, let’s quickly review plugin formats so everyone is on the same page:

Plugin Formats:

VST (Virtual Studio Technology)
Introduced by Steinberg in 1996 in Cubase ver. 3.02. It is the most known interface type for effects and instruments. As of today VST has evolved into its 3rd version and is commonly referred to as VST3. VST is the most widely implemented format in the industry and is supported by DAWs such as Ableton, Cubase, Sonar and more.

AU (AudioUnits)
Apple’s proprietary audio technology, part of the Core Audio provided by Mac X OS. It is part of the operating system so it provides low latency and system-level support for the interface. Most DAWs developed for Mac OS X support the Audio Units interface due to its stability and system-level solutions (which also means faster processing). Apple Logic only utilizes Audio Unit format plugins, but other DAWs such as Ableton can also use these.

AAX (Avid Audio eXtension)
AAX is a unified plugin format which comes in 2 variations: AAX DSP, AAX Native. AAX was introduced as Avid created a 64-bit version of Pro Tools, and this meant that a plugin format with 64-bit processing was required. With AAX, you can share sessions between DSP-accelerated Pro Tools systems and native-based Pro Tools systems and continue using the same plug-ins.

RTAS (Real-Time Audio Suite)
The RTAS plugin format was implemented in the Pro Tools series by Digidesign up to Pro Tools 10. Many plugin manufacturers developed RTAS versions of their plugins for the sake of compatibility with the Pro Tools series of DAWs. RTAS plugins can only be used within Pro Tools (up to version 10 only).

Now that we’re on the same page we can get down to the main course. So without further-ado, let’s take a look at our competitors:

SPOILER ALERT: There’s no winner, but there’s some good information if you are trying to make a decision.

Avid Pro Tools

Cost: Pro Tools 12: $600 or $24.92/month subscription. Pro Tools HD: $2,499 or $999/year subscription
Supported Platforms: Windows and Mac
Plugin Format: AAX / RTAS

Pro Tools is the heavy hitter in the industry, although in the recent years the other two have been gaining significant ground. Pro Tools is considered the industry standard among the recording industry, mainly because it most closely emulates an analog console. This meant that there was an easier transition back in the day for all the console guys to learn a DAW. Of course, there are some guys that never made the transition such as Chris Lorde Alge, but hey – why would you change what’s working?

That being said, Pro Tools claim to fame isn’t just an easy transition for the industry. It also has quality key features that keep customers and recording studios returning. One such feature is Beat Detective and in my opinion is one of the best ways to go about editing drums. In fact, I loved Beat Detective so much that I bought Pro Tools just to use it and improve my workflow. I’m a Logic guy personally, but let’s just say it has room for improvement when it comes to editing.

Besides Beat Detective Pro Tools also comes with some of the best stock plugins. I’m mainly talking about its EQ and dynamic plugins. These along with it’s AIR line of reverbs and delays really are a treat to work with. In fact, if you’ve got the right ear, you could mix an entire track with just the stock Pro Tools plugins. What was once known as a DAW that didn’t come with very many plugins now features an array of distortion, virtual instruments, effects, filters and sound processers on first start-up.

Another awesome feature of Pro Tools is it’s Smart Tool cursor. This is a great feature that opens up all kinds of editing without switching your cursor tool. By simply moving your edit tool around different regions of a track you can select, grab, trim and add fades easily. This improves workflow greatly and can make mixing and editing a much process.

I recently reached out to Graham Cochrane of The Recording Revolution to get his take on Pro Tools. Here’s what he had to say:

I originally started using Pro Tools 15 years ago because I was in audio school and wanted to be able to take sessions back and forth from the campus studios to my laptop based project studios and keep working. In that time I’ve become super efficient with Pro Tools and it’s now an extension of how I work and actually how I think about digital audio.

Also, I’m a firm believer that switching DAWs is generally pointless 🙂

That being said here’s some of the things I love about Pro Tools:

  • Editing is faster and more intuitive than any DAW I’ve used. I can literally be in the middle of the mix and zero in on some final edits with surgical precision, all without having to change tools or windows.
  • The user interface is clean, simple, and uncluttered. Other DAWs seem littered with windows and things that distract me.
  • The metering, gain staging, and routing all make more sense to me.
  • Smart Tool is the best
  • Beat Detective and Elastic Audio are brilliant
  • AudioSuite processing is very helpful
  • The automation is powerful and easy to edit

Pro Tools is a great choice if you’re truly looking to do some real recording. By real recording I mean analog to digital and not digital to digital. Real instruments into a really mic (or DI) and mix from there.

That said, it’s not perfect. It does lack in the area of MIDI, specifically software and programming. However, with enough time, you can become just as efficient in MIDI programming in Pro Tools as with any other DAW.

 

Apple Logic Pro X

Cost: $199
Supported Platforms: Mac
Plugin Format: AU

Apple’s Logic has evolved over the years and found itself in some top studios. Packed full of features, plugins, and virtual instruments when you purchase Logic you are receiving a suite of a product. In some ways you could argue that you’re getting too much bang for buck. I’ll get in to this later, but for now let’s take a look at some key features that makes Logic a great DAW.

First thing first is that I LOVE to write in Logic. I actually exclusively write now with Logic. This is because it is so easy to load a template, record a few tracks, program some drums, and bounce it all out. Logic has a great MIDI interface and a recent UI makeover made it even greater. If MIDI is Pro Tools downfall, then that is where Logic soars.

This video is long, but skim through it to get an idea of how easy writing a song is in Logic

MIDI reigns king in Logic and is why a lot of the producer slash DJ type tend to gravitate towards it. Logic really does embrace everything digital. While Pro Tools keeps more traditional, Logic has added a few shortcuts here and there, which is why all the console engineers picked Pro Tools. However, it doesn’t go nearly as far as Ableton – which confuses me so much I left it out of this review as I have no business reviewing it.

Logic is also adapting to become easier for entry in terms of new users. This has its pros and cons in itself. The pros are features like Drummer make it really easy for non-experienced users to set up beats and mixes. Logic has added an entire new window filled with loops, sounds, beats and riffs.

The con to this is – for experienced engineers these are absolutely pointless and only cause bloat in the interface. I personally have no use for pre-programmed and bounced beats and loops. Recentlly, with a few of the updates they have added to Logic, it feels like they are merging Garageband and Logic together. Nevertheless, I am still a Logic user and here are some of my favorite features that keep me a customer:

  • Easy-to-use MIDI interface
  • Great assortment of stock plugins including EQ, dynamics, and effects
  • Pre-packaged auto-tune pitch correction
  • Take management
  • Freezing tracks
  • Excellent stock synthesizers and samplers
  • Cost, cost, cost

Steinberg Cubase

Cost: Starts at $99.99, Full version $579.99
Supported Platforms: Windows or Mac
Plugin Format: VST

Cubase was the first DAW that I used and while I don’t own a version today I do miss it. In my opinion Cubase struts the best “look” of all the DAWS available. There’s something very clean, fresh and un-cluttered about the way they have set up this UI. This is very important for your workflow when you’re starring at a screen for hours upon hours a day mixing songs. The darker hue means less strain on the eyes for those long hours and all-nighters.

Cubase also boasts some powerful features that are sure to compliment any recording engineer. Being the one of the oldest to design and manufactured music software and hardware, Cubase has a strong relationship and knowledge of what audio engineers, producers, and mixers want out of their DAW.

Reviewing Cubase 9 recently I noticed a few stand-out features among the crowd – The first being Cubase allows for unlimited, yes unlimited audio, instrument, and MIDI tracks with up to 256 physical inputs and outputs. I know this sounds ridiculous but it just goes to show how powerful their DAW is if it can handle that many tracks. I can attest to say that Cubase is one of the most stable and reliable DAWs that I have experienced.

Another feature where Cubase shines and I wish Logic was better at is automation. Cubase is my favorite DAW when it comes to automation. They’ve made it so simple and intuitive I could almost make the switch just for this feature.

On a side note – Cubase also finally made the jump to 64-bit (hooray!), being the last of the cage match competitors to do so. Pro-tip: You can still use your 32-bit plugin with a nice little piece of software called 32 Lives.

Finally, Cubase – not to be outdone by its competitors, comes with a suite of plugins and samples including over 40 audio effect processors, three virtual instruments and a comprehensive content library with thousands of loops and samples.

Cubase is a great option if you are serious about audio production and becoming a recording engineer. In the words of famed audio engineer and producer Joey Sturgis of Joey Sturgis Tones:

Cubase, in my opinion, is and always has been set up in an extremely intuitive way. I’ve always loved how the edit tools are designed, the logic of how those tools’ function and the extremely productive layout of the user interface. Plus, the VST format is such a great platform for creating tools in the form of audio plugins.

Wrap Up

So what’s the verdict? Who gets out of the cage alive? Well, if you skipped over my spoiler then I’m sorry to ruin your day and say that there is no winner. When it comes to DAWs and audio recording, there are so many variations of what you are trying to achieve that I can’t tell you one is better than the other. It all depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to produce beats then I’d probably recommend Logic. If you are all about recording live then go with Pro Tools. If you’re looking to open a studio one day then run with Cubase. But really any choice will be a good choice because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what DAW you are on, it matters what your ears and talents can do with it.