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DAWs Detangled

October 1, 2004
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It's official: There are now more digital audio workstations than you can shake a stick at. And they come in myriad colors, shapes, sizes and flavors — a truly intimidating array of choices. Frankly, it's a mess! To decide what to use, you first have to answer one simple question: What are you trying to accomplish? Even knowing that, you have several competing products from which to choose. The goal of this article is to sift through the major products and provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision about which tools will best serve your needs. This doesn't claim to include every product available, but the list is comprehensive.

This survey of the DAW landscape broadly categorizes various offerings into three major categories — audio-, MIDI- and loop-intensive DAWs — to give you a basic idea of each program's features and functions. Some of the applications will not fit perfectly into tidy boxes vis-à-vis features, but they can still be roughly classified. But you won't find the synth/sampler/drum machine/sequencer-in-a-rack — type applications like Propellerhead Reason or Cakewalk Project5, as they are fundamentally musical instrument suites, not DAWs. So read on. Hopefully, this will help you straighten everything out.

AUDIO-INTENSIVE DAWS

First, audio-intensive DAWs are defined as those used primarily for recording, editing and mixing audio. Some do only that whereas others also feature MIDI and other music-creation capabilities. Those examined here all handle audio at 24-bit resolution or higher, some with as high as a 192kHz sample rate. Many of these DAWs have evolved to become much more friendly to music production than they used to be.

The prime example of this is Digidesign Pro Tools (Mac/PC) and Pro Tools LE (Mac/PC). MIDI emerged in Pro Tools several revisions ago, and although its implementation is pretty utilitarian, just having MIDI is welcome. Dozens of available soft synths are compatible with Digidesign's proprietary TDM and RTAS protocols, not to mention ReWire compatibility, which enables real-time streaming of audio from applications like Reason. This is the grand distinction between today's Pro Tools and that of yesteryear. Ten years ago, Pro Tools was strictly an audio recording, editing and mixing application; it has now become a robust music-composition and -creation platform. Pro Tools is still an audio powerhouse with near-ubiquitous penetration into the industry, but it is one of the only applications that is tied to its own proprietary hardware.

Steinberg Nuendo (Mac/PC) is another high-power application for audio and music purposes. Like other audio-intensive DAWs, it primarily provides sophisticated audio recording, editing and mixing. It is VST System Link — capable, so it can divide the workload across multiple computers, yielding more efficient usage of CPU resources to accomplish bigger and better things. Nuendo is compatible with VST and DirectX soft synths and signal processors. The MIDI-sequencing part of Nuendo is powerful, and when you couple that with the huge number of instruments available, as well as ReWire compatibility, Nuendo is an impressive music-creation platform. Like Pro Tools, Nuendo also has extensive surround-mixing capabilities.

Lexicon offers the Omega audio interface, which is compatible with a significant number of applications, but it ships with Pro Tracks Plus (PC) and BIAS Deck (Mac). The former has both audio and MIDI features, and the latter is strictly an audio application with no MIDI capabilities. Pro Tracks Plus was developed in collaboration with Cakewalk and integrates multitrack audio recording, editing and mixing with MIDI, with as many as 32 stereo audio tracks and unlimited MIDI tracks. Its DXi compatibility makes a huge number of software synths available. Deck allows a total of 32 stereo or 64 mono tracks with support for a max of 999 virtual tracks. VST plug-ins are supported, so hundreds of signal-processing options are available. This is not an ultrasophisticated application, but when used in conjunction with a MIDI sequencer, it can be quite useful.

Cakewalk adds Music Creator (PC) to the list. This application supports audio recording, editing and mixing with an array of third-party interfaces. This is one of the two audio-intensive DAWs in this collection that strays into the world of loop-based song construction. It ships with a library of Acid-format audio loops, and its MIDI sequencer can be used to drive DX and VST instruments. The program also includes a drum-editing grid and notation printing.

Sony Sound Forge (PC) is a sophisticated audio-only application that has been a stalwart of the industry for a long time. The recording, editing and mixing of audio are its main strengths, and Acid loops can also be created and edited. This application is DirectX-compatible and features the ability to eliminate clicks and pops with a Vinyl Restoration plug-in.

Another audio-oriented DAW with an extended pedigree is Adobe Audition (PC). It can handle 128 stereo tracks simultaneously, and users can record a total of 32 tracks at once. The system is ReWire- and VST-compatible, and a library of more than 500 loops is included. Sophisticated frequency-dependent editing and pitch-correction algorithms make Audition a powerful DAW.

Finally, Magix Samplitude Professional (PC) allows a maximum of 64 audio tracks, includes proprietary effects and is DirectX- and VST-compatible. It also has MIDI-recording and -editing capabilities with VST-instrument support but is still primarily an audio platform.

MIDI-INTENSIVE DAWS

Here, MIDI-intensive DAWs are those that are based on a MIDI sequencer but have audio capabilities, as well. These are applications that were originally MIDI sequencers exclusively but were eventually enhanced with audio capabilities. The obvious result of this lineage is that these apps are extremely powerful in the MIDI department, but they also have extensive audio capabilities, even overshadowing some audio-intensive DAWs in some cases. Most of these applications are evolving toward comprehensive loop-oriented production support (some have already), so the task of categorizing them is a bit complicated. When you have deep MIDI and high-end audio linked and synched (and maybe some loop capabilities), you can do some serious damage.

Emagic Logic Pro (Mac) is compatible with a large number of interfaces (including Emagic's own) and is now completely compatible with all Pro Tools hardware. It includes more than 50 plug-ins and supports Digidesign's TDM protocol. This DAW's Space Designer reverb is a convolution reverb, which enables the user to sample reverbs, yielding incredible results that are virtually indistinguishable from the original space or processor. Surround mixing and Audio Units plug-ins are also supported. In the MIDI domain, Logic is devastating with arpeggiators, chord memorizers and other powerful ways to manipulate MIDI data. In addition to supporting ReWire 2, Logic includes a comprehensive suite of soft synths.

MOTU offers Digital Performer (Mac), another music-production powerhouse. Like Logic 6, it's compatible with Pro Tools TDM hardware and supports a large selection of third-party interfaces, including MOTU's own. The program is compatible with ReWire 2 and supports surround mixing. DP ships with its own powerful plug-ins and is compatible with Audio Units plug-ins, too. When DP4 is used with a MOTU USB MIDI interface, timing resolution of better than one-third of a millisecond is available. MIDI truly is DP4's strength, with powerful editing and manipulation features to enhance creativity.

Steinberg Cubase SX (Mac/PC) is another excellent MIDI-intensive DAW that is similar in most respects to Steinberg's more sophisticated and audio-intensive Nuendo. The only features that exist in Nuendo and not in Cubase are certain postproduction and surround capabilities, support for specific sync and controller hardware, and a small handful of other minor features. Otherwise, Cubase retains all the horsepower of Nuendo. It has an excellent MIDI sequencer and support for VST plug-ins because Steinberg invented VST!

Cakewalk also contributes Sonar (PC) to this survey. Sonar supports many third-party interfaces and powerful mixing capabilities, as well as DirectX and VST signal processing, soft-synth protocols and Acid loops. Thirteen powerful MIDI effects plug-ins help the user creatively manipulate MIDI data. An included library of Acid-formatted loops is supported, as well. ReWire compatibility and healthy MIDI implementation enhance music creation.

Mackie includes Tracktion (Mac/PC) software and Mackie's XD-2 audio/MIDI interface in a package called Spike. Tracktion is a MIDI-intensive DAW that leans into the loop and audio world a bit, and it's compatible with any number of third-party interfaces. Tracktion cleverly demystifies the process of creating music by presenting an exceedingly intuitive and self-explanatory GUI. VST plug-ins (both signal processing and soft synth) and ReWire are supported.

LOOP-INTENSIVE DAWS

The final category features applications that primarily handle audio but usually in the form of loops. Recently, some of these products have introduced MIDI capabilities. This type of DAW has become quite popular in recent years, initially among hip-hop and electronic-music producers and ultimately with film and television composers. These applications typically have conventions to automatically pitch- and tempo-correct any loop that's dragged in, in addition to extensive live-performance attributes. If you have a substantial library of loops (or the ability to create your own), loop-intensive DAWs can make creating excellent music unbelievably easy, which contributes strongly to their popularity.

Sony Acid (PC) was the first major loop-intensive DAW and remains one of the most popular. A recent upgrade includes the addition of MIDI capabilities with piano-roll displays and VST software instruments. Acid packages more than 20 DirectX plug-ins for signal processing and support for ReWire. Although more than 350 loops are included, thousands of third-party loops are available. Audio- or MIDI-intensive DAWs are evolving toward loop support, and Acid is also closing the gap, allowing for recording directly into its environment. Users can import both 16- and 24-bit loops (including 5.1 surround loops), and Acid features slick tricks like changing time signatures and more.

Image-Line Software FL Studio (PC) — formerly called Fruityloops — supports a host of interfaces and can be used as a VSTi, DXi or ReWire client; it can also host ReWire clients itself. Software synths of the VSTi, DXi2 and proprietary FL variety are supported, as are signal-processing plug-ins that adhere to VST, VST2, DirectX and FL standards. MIDI implementation is sophisticated with a step-sequencing grid, advanced piano-roll editing, arpeggiation and more. FL Studio also features a comprehensive mixer and ships with a nice range of software instruments.

Ableton Live (Mac/PC) is one of the most popular loop-intensive DAWs available, due to its ability to pitch- and tempo-correct loops dropped in on the fly. It provides multitrack audio recording, editing and mixing along with ingenious and extensive MIDI implementation and its obvious loop-oriented capabilities. A clever Clip Envelope function allows you to visually draw the pitch and volume of individual notes inside a sample, even during playback. Live is also ReWire-compatible. For live-performance purposes or studio compatibility, synchronization conventions are featured, as well.

Plasma (PC) from Cakewalk not only handles loops but also features MIDI sequencing, including creativity-enhancing real-time MIDI effects. DirectX plug-ins are supported for signal-processing chores, and DXi support enables the use of soft synths, several of which are included. One unique feature of Plasma is its Plasma FX Pad, a joystick-controlled effects generator.

Apple GarageBand (Mac) has proven to be a huge splash, and its main trick is loop-based creation, but you can also use it to record, edit and mix audio and MIDI. The software instruments included with the program are truly astonishing, and more than 200 Audio Units signal-processing plug-ins are included. Apple also offers the GarageBand Jam Pack, which includes more than 2,000 extra loops, more than 100 software instruments and a whole lot of effects presets. Because GarageBand is Core Audio — and Core MIDI — compliant, you can use any of a large range of audio and MIDI interfaces.

SORTED OUT

Now that all of these products are broadly categorized, take a moment to link them with some real-world applications. The audio-intensive DAWs are most helpful to people who need to record, edit and mix a lot of live performances, particularly when tracking numerous instruments simultaneously. It is also the case, however, that audio-intensive DAWs can be used to record, edit and mix audio originating within other applications. In my own productions, I often cut vocal tracks in Pro Tools, sync them with Reason (or other apps) via ReWire and create an arrangement. Once I'm happy with that, I'll record all of the audio into Pro Tools, edit it and mix. I also add synth parts by dialing up software instruments right in Pro Tools. I've been a Pro Tools user since 1993, but only in the past couple of years have I started using it as a music-creation tool.

For those who are more accustomed to MIDI sequencing, MIDI-intensive DAWs are ideal. Because the audio capabilities of these apps have improved so much, they can function as the only tool that many will ever need. Loop-based creation can also be a huge time-saver, and programs like Live are perfect for this. Loop-intensive DAWs not only enable a person to quickly get the track together but also allow for some truly incredible creativity.

The only rule in using computers to create music is to remember that there are no rules. No two people are ever going to work exactly the same way. Take these notes into consideration, and think carefully about your goal. Considering the vast array of products available, you should be able to accomplish almost anything.

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