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DAW Decisions: Choosing and Living With Your Workstation

Here, working audio pros and PAR Contributors share their experiences in choosing and living with their digital audio workstation.

Living With AVID Pro Tools 8
By Russ Long

First of all, let me say that I’m glad Pro Tools isn’t the only DAW out there. The competition between the platforms ultimately benefits all of us — DAW users — more than anything else, both in both price and in available features. Regardless of your platform of choice, it’s nice to see when a great feature is added to one DAW; as a result, it is typically added to the others within a year or so.

But why am I a Pro Tools guy? Primarily because I was in the right place at the right time (or, arguably, the wrong place at the wrong time). Sound Tools was introduced in 1989 and Nashville’s 16th Avenue Sound (a now-defunct but top Music City studio at the time) put a Sound Tools system in one of their small rooms. At that time, there were very few Sound Tools operators so the studio opened their doors for engineers to come in and learn the system during off hours. I spent many an early Saturday morning referencing the manual and teaching myself to record and edit two tracks of audio on a hard drive — something that felt awkwardly foreign at the time. I was able to get work here and there doing editing and assembling and I soon became confident that there was something to this whole hard disk recording thing.

When Sound Tools became Pro Tools a couple of years later, it became possible to multitrack to the system and I began to find more and more ways to incorporate Pro Tools into my workflow. I bought my own ProTools III Nubus rig (for nearly $30k, but hey — it did have a pair of 1.5GB hard drives!) and was able to chase my Studer A-80, which gave me another eight tracks or so (depending on how well it was performing that day). This said, I started using Pro Tools before there were any other options so I was already comfortable with it and building a strong repertoire of memorized quick key commands. God knows I don’t want to have to start memorizing a bunch of new key commands at my age. What’s more, Pro Tools logic (no pun intended) is engineer logic, and I’m an engineer first. The routing, layout and thought process in regards to the way Pro Tools works is right in line with working on an analog console with outboard gear: that’s how I’m used to thinking.

In comparison to other DAWs, I like the Pro Tools two-window layout; toggling between the two windows perfectly fits my workflow. Whenever I work in Logic or Nuendo, I feel like I’m slowed down by the multiple window approach. Pro Tools has the MIDI edit window, too, but it’s not part of the whole toggling process.

No matter how much other DAW users hate to admit it, Pro Tools is the industry standard. It’s in nearly every studio and it’s the only DAW in the majority of the studios out there. Owning Pro Tools makes it easier to collaborate with other musicians or work with other producers and engineers. Yeah, it’s possible to transfer files between platforms but it’s never as simple as going from one Pro Tools rig to another.

Pro Tools kicks butt when it comes to editing, too. The PT editing process is extremely smart; functions that take several keystrokes on other systems take only one or two on Pro Tools. I’ve yet to see someone even approach the speed possible with Pro Tools when editing on another DAW — maybe it’s possible, but I have yet to see it.

Further, Pro Tools clientele speaks for itself. With the exception of a handful of people that I know who have left Pro Tools for Logic (the only other platform that I’d personally give consideration), I don’t know anyone who has abandoned Pro Tools, and I have friends leave other DAWs for Pro Tools weekly.

When it’s all said and done, the most important thing is that you master the platform you use. But hey, I think you’ll do best if that platform happens to be Pro Tools.

Russ Long, a Nashville-based producer/engineer, owns the Carport recording studio. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review.

Living With Cakewalk SONAR 8
By Dan Wothke

How I eventually landed on SONAR as my primary DAW requires a bit of history. I started out on Pro Tools, although I did have a short intro to BIAS Peak and a brief encounter with [Sydek’s] Soundscape on the Windows platform. The core choice was determined by which OS I eventually landed on, which is Windows over Mac. I don’t want to turn this into “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” rant, but Windows was the optimal platform for me.

Although I did use Cakewalk 9 for a short bit, I really jumped into the software with SONAR 3, Producer Edition. Since then, Sonar’s features and capabilities have grown extensively. SONAR was on the cutting edge of 64-bit optimization and I’m still playing the waiting game for some VST manufacturers to get up to speed.

SONAR continues to introduce new VST instruments and plug-ins with their Producer line. Version 8 shipped with 14 VST instruments as well as 40-plus effects and timebased processors. Some of these have quickly become mainstays in my utility belt and will stand on their own next to high dollar plug-ins. To highlight a few, the Vintage Channel is my instant insert on a myriad of instruments and the Transient Shaper is becoming my favorite on drums and percussive instruments. The included V-Vocal tool has convinced me to not throw out the perfect performance take just because a note or two are a bit shaky. This simple tuner is efficient and does the trick — every time — for moderate tuning. (Anything more than moderate, for me, requires a retake.)

The trusty CPU and Disk Meter located within SONAR has never steered me wrong. Once I see the CPU meter flirting with red (at 70 percent usage), I know it is time to bounce or freeze some tracks; this can now be done in real time, as can arming a track during playback mode. The CPU meter is also a good gauge on the performance enhancements after an upgrade has been installed. Each time, I open a session created in a previous version of SONAR and there is generally a marked improvement. Navigation, solo/mute behavior and screen draws are just a few of the additional speed improvements I have witnessed in Version 8.

Since SONAR 3, upgrades have been stable for the most part (as with most DAW software). However, I do find that I am not quick to upgrade to the newest version on release day. In all fairness, I don’t do that with most software — word processors, iTunes, or you name it. To Cakewalk’s credit, they usually work out the major bugs fairly quickly. And, from an aesthetic perspective, SONAR’s customization of the look, feel and navigation of the software screen continues to make great strides.

To date, I still use Sony Acid 7 for loop building rather than SONAR’s Loop Explorer; Acid’s MIDI loop audition — combined with preview for Acid-ized loops — has quickly worked its way into my normal loop repertoire for previewing and inserting loops into a project. SONAR AIM Assist and Free Edit are improved editing tools to help with the building of loops.

MIDI — which used to be the greatest weakness for SONAR users — has a new world of possibilities in recent SONAR versions. Detailed zooming and editing capability are just two areas of vast improvement in the last few versions of SONAR, resulting in smoother possible workflow.

One feature that I have been waiting for is the ability to link layers in SONAR that are on different tracks. This would really speed up my editing and comping of multitrack sessions. Maybe I’m a bit of an over-organizer, but the ability to nestle track folders within track folders would be a welcomed feature.

Overall, each new version of SONAR results in some great new gadgets with improved workflow and performance. Each time, it means that I can wait a little longer before having to upgrade my PC.

Dan Wothke is the media director at Belmont Church in Nashville. He invites you to contact him

Living With MOTU Digital Performer 6
By Rob Tavaglione

The year was 2001. I was already way behind the bandwagon when it came to owning a DAW, and I didn’t want to waste valuable time andmoney on a trouble-prone system (as many of my friends and “beta testing” colleagues had). I was leaning towards a Mac-based system, but I couldn’t afford Sonic Solutions and I didn’t like the proprietary hardware approach of Pro Tools (or the distinct limits of Pro Tools LE). With ease of use, stability and consistency in mind (and with the guidance of Jim Swain at Sweetwater Sound), I went native, chose a Mac G4 and MOTU’s Digital Performer (DP). Today — nearly nine years, another G4, a Mac Pro with Intel processors, and over 225 paid productions later — I’m still with DP!

I’m currently up to date with DP 6.02 and still stable, efficient and delivering audio by deadline without fail. DP 6.0 offered a number of improvements, such as extremely helpful custom window arranging (with the use of sidebars, cells and scalable windows in a session), faster and better-looking graphics (with colorful waveform backgrounds and faster overview drawing) and 32-bit file creation. The latter, a boring but essential feature, is my personal favorite; now when I “bounce to disc” (DP’s terminology for creating a new audio file, including edits, processing and automation, etc.) I can create a 32-bit file, resulting in more headroom, less distortion and greater clarity. These bounces play side by side with 24-bit tracks in the same session.

There are other more obvious DP improvements as well, such as “CD creation direct from timeline;” support of WAV files as a native format (thus goodbye to cumbersome, non-interleaved Sound Designer II files); its new LA-2A compressor plug-in (I’ve heard slightly more authentic ones, but this is more flexible with useful “modern” and “vintage” tonal options); and MOTU’s new convolution reverb, called ProVerb. All the rage these days, my convolution ‘verb keeps up with the pack with excellent sound quality, reasonable CPU usage, and the ability to capture your own impulse responses — just like an expensive third party app. Speaking of third party apps, Audio Unit plug-ins now accept continuous automation data, quite helpful for precise processor changes while mastering, in particular.

Other DP benefits include the ability to use multiple file types or interleave formats in one session, which nicely saves conversion time. The new “snap information” window puts control of all your nudging parameters in an easy to configure and place window. DP’s improved track comping feature streamlines the process of creating, auditioning and editing multiple takes into perfect lead vocals, for example.

But I have some quibbles with DP, too. With some shrunken text, lots of whitespace and no control of window background colors, DP’s new look is more eye straining than some competing DAWs and related software-based competitors. When selecting multiple files/regions, some commands now require “shift + click” (i.e. in the Sequence Editor) instead of “apple + click” (i.e. inside the Soundbites window); personally, this seems a bit inconsistent in use. Sometimes simple importing of files can get buggy and create error messages, even if there are workarounds such as dragging files into your sessions “audio files folder” first before dragging directly into the timeline.

Now, on this very day, I will be installing my new Mac OS — OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard — with my usual mix of expectations. I expect the install to go quickly and smoothly (they always do) and I expect a handful of improvements to my workflow (there always are). Unfortunately, I also expect my Mac Pro to still have problems coming out of sleep mode (Macs always have) and I fully expect to do more force quitting of DP and Roxio’s Toast to quit sessions (both often freeze when quitting, although third party plug-ins are the suspected culprit). But that’s life with DAWs, isn’t it — lots of pros and always a few annoying cons? And now I hear that DP 7.0 was just released with 64-bit processing.

Rob Tavaglione has owned and operated Catalyst Recording since 1995. He welcomes your questions or comments

The Practicality of (Apple) Logic
By Strother Bullins

Full disclosure, I must start by saying that it obviously takes a company of non-studio engineers to miss the potential irony in the name “Logic,” Apple’s moniker for their increasingly professional grade DAW. For many seasoned audio pros, Apple Logic is most certainly less “logical” than its chief competitor, Digidesign’s Pro Tools.

However, Logic finally did start to look logical enough, at least for me, to begin using it. This changeover happened while I was using Pro Tools|LE in my home studio. At this point, I had used PT|LE deeply, even more deeply than I had used traditional late ’90s pro-grade recording configurations when I was still living and working in Nashville. With the curiosity to delve deep in comparing Digidesign and Apple’s competing formats, I still must agree that Pro Tools is more like “real” recording than Apple Logic, even while ultimately going the Apple way to find my personal DAW. Interestingly enough, though, this “choice” essentially wasn’t one: Apple — the computer people whose philosophy towards managing one’s virtual world makes the most sense to me — gave me Garageband for free, a simple recording program that looked basically like everything else that Apple gave me when I bought their computers. And with that, Logic was the next logical step, indeed; it looked, felt, and performed much like the other Apple software that I had become so comfortable with.

A big reason why I could easily jump off the Pro Tools train just as it was just getting started (for me) was because I wasn’t in it for what many, if not most, PT users were. I was a musician first, recording engineer second, yet with professional grade goals — essentially what I regularly call a “self recordist.” With every new version, Logic does a better job of embracing this growing segment of users, many of which will ultimately learn to use Logic to professional ends in their own independent productions alongside those pros who themselves made increasingly logical DAW choices.

Strother Bullins is the reviews and features editor for Pro Audio Review.

Living With Steinberg Nuendo 4
By Michael Wagener

Choosing a workstation is a very personal choice. It’s much the same as choosing speakers: you’ll like one pair, someone else will like another, both choices are good, and for the third person, neither will work.

Michael Wagener in his Nuendo 4, SSL AWS 900 and Euphonix MC Pro equipped studio.

Yet, especially now in 2009, most of the workstations aren’t really that different. Obviously Pro Tools established itself as the “the standard,” which I think is pretty much based on their being first out there, and it’s a fantastic system. From a financial perspective, Nuendo is a lot cheaper than Pro Tools, and Logic is even cheaper than that. But you still need good converters. Once you’re in the box with good converters, there’s only a difference in workflow…and it’s not that great of a difference.

For me, the DAW transition was made from TASCAM DA-88 [Hi8-based eight-track digital recorder] machines to the Euphonix R-1 [multitrack hard-disk recorder] when I had my old studio in Nashville. It was first of what I’d call a “workstation” situation, even though the R-1 was just a straight recorder and all you could do is simple editing, cutting and pasting, and so on. Euphonix had amazing converters at the time, which is why I decided on it.

Around 2006, Euphonix offered a storage solution that gave you Nuendo. At that time, I fell in love with Nuendo and felt that it was pretty easy to handle. When it was time to switch over to a complete in-the-box solution, I went with Nuendo; I liked the interface, and it just seemed to “talk” to me. I started on a PC specially built for a DAW. At the time with Nuendo, performance on Mac was a bit behind that of performance of a PC. Now everything is up to par on the Mac, but I’m up and running with PC, so there’s no reason to change.

The main selection point for me is the Nuendo [GUI]. That, and it’s a bit of a financial thing: with Nuendo, I don’t have to buy their hardware. I can use anything I want. There’s a bit more freedom to use what I want to use, I’m not set to a certain hardware, like, for example, with Pro Tools. Actually, I’m still using the Euphonix converters that came with the R-1 and am very happy with that setup.

With today’s requirements, sometimes I get 200 tracks to mix. After the mix, there’s a recall. And because a recalled mix usually needs to happen fast, most of my mixing happens in the box.

I plug analog gear into Nuendo channels, and Nuendo makes that really easy. So far, I’m using both plug-ins and analog gear. Plug-ins are fun, great, and work well… and as long as no one tells me “this one sounds like an 1176” — because it doesn’t — I’m fine with it. It sounds like a compressor and is absolutely useful, but the real hardware is still quite a bit different from what they would call an equivalent software version. I’m not saying I don’t like them — I think plug-ins are brilliant, especially those from people like Universal Audio, who run plug-ins on an external card that doesn’t tax your computer power. But, in most cases, the hardware still sounds different, not better or worse. Being old school, I will be looking for a particular tone, and I grab that piece of hardware because I have it.

I still need faders for mixing. It’s a matter of bringing this channel up, or these two channels up, and bringing another one down while hearing the balance. And you can’t do that with a mouse; you must work with one channel at a time. I have two interfaces: the Euphonix MC Pro — basically an extension of the DAW — and the SSL AWS 900 console.

The MC Pro takes a lot of thinking away from the left side of the brain and lets me use more of the right side of the brain, the creative side. When I mix on a console, it’s just muscle memory to go to an EQ in the channel. The MC Pro and the AWS 900 both allow me to do that. I also use the AWS 900 as a console, which allows me to sum and work in an analog setting, giving me faders for Nuendo. While the SSL naturally works a little better with Pro Tools — PT with the SSL gives you a bit more interfacing opportunities — all my editing, EQing, and effects sends are done on the MC Pro, so that doesn’t really matter to me. With MC Pro, SSL AWS 900, and Nuendo, I have everything that I would need in the way of a DAW system.

Once you settle in on a workstation, there’s a tendency to want to stay there for good reason: you already have all those older files. To get back to those sessions, you have to keep that platform on hand. If you like it, why not stick with it, being compatible with yourself and your older work, at least? Personally, at this stage, I wouldn’t have any reason to change workstations; not only would I have to change software, but I would have to change hardware.

You know, back in the 80s and 90s with SSLs in all the studios, people would say, “Oh, you’re compatible between SSLs.” That was never really the case; you could never take a mix from one studio to another and expect it to really sound the same. This SSL had stereo channels, that one had E EQ, another had G EQ… it never really worked. To me, it’s the same with DAWs; you can have the “same” DAW from one studio to another, but for one thing, you would need the same plug-ins for them to be even remotely compatible. That, in most cases, happens even less than the “same SSL scenario.” For that reason, choosing your workstation for compatibility reasons is not really that important.

Just shuffle around Broadcast Wave files, and you’re fine. If I get files from someone to mix, I don’t even want their plug-ins on those files. I want to start clean and from scratch. For instance, on [Finnish modern rock act] The Rasmus project, they began recording in Logic in Sweden, the vocals were done in Pro Tools, and I did the drums and mixed it in Nuendo: we never had a single hitch.

Michael Wagener is a producer/mixer/