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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!

I’m doing a ton of work in Ableton’s Live8 program this month for all the Christmas shows I’m a part of. The more I’m in the software the more I learn about it, and WOW can it do a ton. Case in point, check out this feature on Ableton electronic artist “Baths” (HT: Graham Sommers).

I spent a few years immediately after college resisting the computer side of music… click tracks, programming, loops, etc. I soon began to feel obsolete as a working drummer. My chops as a player were there, but my chops on the technology side of things were so lacking that I ended up being under-qualified for more gigs than I was comfortable with. Again, the more I learn about programs like Pro Tools and Abelton Live, the more I realize that these softwares are part of the very foundation of the modern music world.

My point: Next time you have extra gear money, think about picking up Live8 or a similar DAW, instead of another snare or ride cymbal.

Some of you know that I’ve been listening to a lot of Electronica/DnB/Home-Techno stuff lately.  I came across this just now, a great lesson on breakbeat grooves by Jojo Mayer…

Mayer has a pretty sick live Electronica band called Nerve.  Definitely worth checking out.

All hail Huntley Miller (aka Cepia). Have I mentioned him on this blog before? I should have.

He’s the Minneapolis dude who’s really doing something in the IDM scene. I’ve been on a huge electronica kick lately (for the past year basically), and today I spent a while listening to Cepia tracks on myspace and youtube. Here’s some highlights…

This week it’s all about Pop. As in, the band U2 and their 1997 release, Pop. This record remains U2’s largest side step from their initial sound (Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, etc)… but is one of my favorite albums nonetheless.

All great artists evolve over time. You can’t sit in the same creative pool for too long or things get stagnant. The Beatles, Zeppelin, the Police, Radiohead… these bands all followed an artistic road that has, at times, taken them far far away from the music that brought them into the public eye. (For instance, the other day I heard a DJ on a hard rock station how Radiohead hasn’t done anything significant since their 1992 single, “Creep”… a laughable statement.) I would cite Pop as exhibit A in the argument for U2’s status as a truly artistic and creative band, on par with the other bands I listed.

Pop was the official U2 release that followed up on an unofficial and widely unknown experimental record called Original Soundtracks 1 (released under the pseudonym “The Passengers”). Both albums rely heavily on electronica elements characteristic of the late 90’s, such as tape loops and sequencing. Pop was obviously the more commercially targeted of the two recordings, although the sales were down sharply from other U2 records and the album produced no hit singles or Grammys.

The first three tracks of this record pump me up so much. Really hard hitting electronica/dance/pop with great melodies and lyrical hooks, but not without some signature Edge guitar. Most of the bass tracks sound synthesized, and this fits well with the dance vibe. The drumming on the record is strange, but that’s how I feel about most Larry Mullen performances. His feel is just so unusual. It’s solid, but totally unassertive… almost timid sounding. Most of the songs don’t strike me as timid, so it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the way the drums fit in the whole picture, but it works. Especially noteworthy is the snare drum tone on most of the tracks. It’s really thin sounding, but somehow retains a full presence – it reminds me of hot rods or something. Maybe they’re samples? I don’t know.

Lyrically, the record revolves around concepts similar to the early 90’s releases Achtung Baby and Zooropa. U2 was preoccupied at this time with marketing and pop culture, and the ideas of celebrity and stardom. The “rockstar” imagery is all meant to be sarcastic, and this is especially evident in the over-the-top antics in their live shows from the 90’s (see video below).

It should be noted that the band has expressed disappointment in how the record turned out. Rumor has it that they had to hurry to complete the project due to the Popmart tour, which had been booked ahead of time. Bono has said that he wants to have the record remixed so that it would sound “like it was originally intended.” Even so, I love the music on this record, and I love the vulnerable position that U2 takes in producing a record so far outside their 80’s wheelhouse.

You can preview the record here, or go buy it here. And meanwhile, check out this video from the Popmart tour, on of the biggest rock and roll productions in history…

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