Hey blog readers. I mentioned the Ableton Live software in a post from last week, and it prompted an email exchange about DAWs/etc with my blogging buddy Seth Earnest (you might remember him from the “session kick sounds” post). Our discussion led to me inviting him to “guest-post” his thoughts about the topic. He went the informative direction with things, so anyone that has ever wondered about the difference between Logic and Pro Tools will want to read what Seth has to say here. Enjoy!

Steve’s Ableton post got me thinking about people who are interested in but new to the idea of computer software-based music production (DAWs, aka Digital Audio Workstations). It can be overwhelming to start wading through the massive amounts of information and programs available. I thought a general overview might be helpful.

Before I get too far, a few descriptors up front in case someone is totally new to the whole world of music-making:

Audio = anything played by a real instrument or a vocal, i.e. recording a guitar, vocal, drum track, bass, etc. “Real” sounds being recorded
MIDI = literally “Musical Instrument Digital Interface”, the programming of pre-made sounds (“samples” or “synthesized” sounds). MIDI technically means telling when a synth or sample will play. I can program in quarter-notes and assign what I want those quarter notes to be “played on,” whether it’s a kick drum, piano sound, cowbell sound, etc.
Programming = anything from “making a beat” on a drum machine to all-out, full-song programming where a person is electronically creating and/or manipulating all sounds happening, and everything in between. This is where MIDI does its work.
Production (Producer) = vague umbrella term for everything from making a hip-hop beat to being in charge of the Beatles’ material for their whole career (George Martin). Generally, the overall vision-casting of the vibe, sound and feel of a song.
Editing = arranging recorded material, whether audio or MIDI, getting rid of extraneous noises, breaths, pops and clicks, picking the best take out of many takes, basically “forming the final product,” or proofreading is another way to look at it.
Mixing / Mastering = preparing and balancing recorded material for the final version

Pro Tools: Industry standard for over 15 years, probably in almost every income-generating studio in the world in one form or another even if it’s not their “main tool”. Great for audio recording, editing and mixing. MIDI capabilities have always lagged a bit behind but have grown to useful levels these days. It’s very powerful for mixing because of its ability to work with “out of the box” hardware (mixing consoles, outboard effects like EQs & compressors, etc.). Probably at least 85% of anything that has come out in the past 10 years has been touched by Pro Tools in some capacity.

Logic: Very powerful programming, production and writing program. Big in hip hop production. Most any sort of producer-writers like Logic as it has very seamless audio & MIDI interaction, so you can go back and forth quite easily during the ideas-stages of writing and producing. Mixing capabilities are decent. My personal favorite program I use. Garage Band is the little brother of Logic, but they really aren’t even in the same world as far as capabilities.

Ableton: Supreme commander software for audio manipulation. From my uses of these programs, nothing comes close to Ableton’s ability to tweak audio files. From slowing down or speeding up tempos and pitch manipulation, to moving just one off snare hit in a loop, to all-out destruction and reconstruction, it’s quite powerful. Not as known for mixing nor final studio creation, but easy and powerful to use for live situations (using loops or backtracks with a live band, etc.).

Nuendo/Cubase: I put these together because they’re two sides of a full production coin. Nuendo and Cubase together would work like a Pro Tools/Logic combo. Nuendo is known for post-production (especially for movies/TV), and is a great, extremely powerful mixing platform. Cubase is more for the production side–songwriting, programming, etc. They can be used for the “other” one (i.e. producing w/Nuendo or mixing with Cubase), but aren’t generally known for one side or the other.

Reason/Record: Reason is MIDI-only. It’s a strict programming platform, but a very good one. The interface is easy to learn, and one can start getting sound out of Reason in a matter of minutes even if he’s brand new to the computer. “Record” is Propellerhead’s audio software to record and mix. Hip hop & Electronica producers use Reason a lot.

FL Studio: Grown-up version of Fruity Loops. Mainly programming-based (like Logic or Cubase). Mainly dance and electronica producers/writers use this.

Digital Performer: Programming and audio both. It was the competitor to Pro Tools in the late 90s/early 2000s, but it’s not as used these days. Some guys still use this, but I don’t see it used as much. It’s very good with MIDI programming, and decent with mixing. The last nationally-released record I was a part of was mixed and mastered on DP, so, go figure.

Acid Pro: Used a lot with dance music. It was the first loop-based DAW on the market, but has since added many other features.

Reaper: a very cheap but quite well-done audio recording and mixing program. Not sure about their MIDI capability with their newest releases. Haven’t used it in a while.

There are others (SONOR, Samplitude, Garageband, Mainstage), but the above are the ones with which I’ve had hands-on experience. There are also other programs specifically used for performance-based production (Mainstage, for instance), but I don’t know much about them. I have used Reason or Logic or Ableton in live situations for years.

Taking a big step back, at this stage in the development of DAWs, most programs do everything decently well with a slight strength in one avenue or another. There are, of course, countless, endless, bloody and heated debates about which one is best, or easier, or better, or higher quality, or more “pro,” or going to get you a platinum record faster, or used by [insert favorite producer/engineer/mixer here], but the bottom line seems to be that people should pick the DAW that makes sense to their workflow. Additionally, it’s becoming more and more important to understand how to use various DAWs interchangeably if you plan on heading into professional environments (i.e. a person who uses Logic all the time should know how to prep session files for use in Pro Tools, etc.).

I personally used Pro Tools for years and learned DAW-based music production on Pro Tools. I had to switch to Logic for a certain project I was doing a few years ago, and I fell in love with it. I still use Pro Tools, as well, but Logic is always my “main brain” when I’m in writing/producing mode. I spend the majority of my time in Logic. I use Ableton and Reason a whole lot, as well.

Seth tells it like it is. I (Steve), as I’ve mentioned before, use Ableton constantly, but I must confess that I don’t know Pro Tools very well, and I’ve never even cracked open a Logic session. Who knows what the future holds.

I’m sure Seth will weigh in with comments and answers if anyone reading this post has feedback, questions, or additional thoughts. Feel free to ask anything in the comments! Thanks, Seth!