Especially amongst professional power users, Pro Tools (PT) is the market-leading digital audio workstation (DAW) without a doubt. However, in recent years, a number of factors have prompted some stalwart PT-based pros to reconsider their unofficial alliances with the Avid (formerly Digidesign) recording suite. Here, we share insight from a cross-section of established professionals in the midst of a DAW migration, considering DAWs from pro audio firms including Apple, Cakewalk, Harrison, MOTU, PreSonus and Steinberg.
“I go way back with Digidesign,” clarifies Nashville-based recording engineer Christopher Rowe (pictured), “all the way back to the Sound Tools days. And I have historically been a dogged defender of the Pro Tools DSP-based platform. I suppose the first time I started to question the wisdom of my dedication was when I received files from Jack Antonoff (Bleachers, Fun.) of a song he’d written with Taylor Swift for me to mix. Jack had put the song together on a Pro Tools Native rig and his laptop. My four-card TDM rig came nowhere near being able to play the session back. I wasn’t too surprised; it was a lot of tracks and of course I realized TDM was long in the tooth. So, I rented an HDX rig. Still not enough horsepower: a two-card HDX was what I needed to play the session back. That experience made me realize how powerful the native side of the fence is getting.”
Today, Rowe is elbow-deep in PreSonus Studio One, a native DAW now in its third version. “It’s the first DAW, excluding PT, where nearly everything I wanted to do was intuitive to me. Other ‘Pro Tools killers’ I’ve auditioned over the years seemed intentionally obtuse; I attribute that to them evolving from MIDI sequencers rather than audio editors. As an engineer, Pro Tools always made perfect sense to me. Were I a MIDI programmer, I’m certain I’d feel differently.”
Engineer Russ Long, also Nashville-based, has been a Pro Tools users since Sound Tools as well, yet has experienced the wide range of available DAWs through real-world usage (and has evaluated them in the pages of Pro Sound News and Pro Audio Review over the years). He has his own theories on why Pro Tools has had seemingly undefeatable staying power amongst pro users. “It’s a living, growing piece of software that continues to be updated on a regular basis,” he explains. “Avid listens to its user’s requests and complaints, and constantly updates the application. That said, there are features available in other DAWs that I’d love to see added to Pro Tools: folder tracks; multiple-location marker rulers; the ability to have multiple projects open simultaneously and being able to drag audio, plug-ins, tracks directly from one project to another.”
Long explains that the user’s own skill is the true determining factor of whether a DAW is “pro-worthy,�� though Pro Tools has deservedly held its top position for solid reasons. “It’s easy to use, it sounds great and since most everyone has it, shuffling projects back and forth between collaborators is generally quicker and easier. Workflow features play a role in preferences, too. For example, many music programmers prefer the workflow of Cubase and Logic for the music creation process. Computer-platform preferences can weigh into the decision process, too: Windows OS users don’t have the option of running Apple Logic, and Mac users can’t run Cakewalk Sonar. Linux OS users have far fewer options than Windows or Mac, yet Harrison’s Mixbus is one of the few DAWs that will run on all three. [Russ Long is currently reviewing Mixbus version3 for an upcoming issue of Pro Sound News—Ed.]
Regarding Mixbus, its largely open-source component—the Ardour workstation—is compelling for a variety of reasons. DAW collaborators are able to make changes, add features and otherwise contribute to the project. According to Harrison’s Ben Loftis, online buzz ensued when a user contributed a reportedly working feature that allows Mixbus to import Pro Tools V.8 and V.9 session files directly; ptx. (Pro Tools 10) file compatibility is also reportedly underway. Loftis had no comment about this feature, “because it wasn't yet released.”
Meanwhile, feature-film mixer Ian McLoughlin (Babe, Dark City) is a long-time user of Pro Tools and was also involved in the design and development of Edi-Tracker, an early DAW that used a touchscreen interface. McLoughlin also finds Mixbus quite alluring. “While Pro Tools is a great editing platform, it is just not designed as a mixing interface,” he explains. “Mixbus, however, has been designed by a console manufacturer from the ground up as a dedicated mixing and mastering system. I can scan over 24 channels and see fader, pan, EQ, dynamics and Aux sends in one glance. It takes me far less time to get a great sound together on Mixbus.”
Rowe is auditioning Mixbus as well, but thus far a Studio One migration seems to be the most comfortable. “Harrison has been doing digital control of analog better and longer than anyone,” he notes. “So yeah, I’d love to see them get a foothold. As for Studio One, I think it’s the similarity in workflow with PT that interests those of us who have been PT users since its pre-history. I’ve always loved the tight relationship of software to hardware that PT has, and I loathe the idea of having to use Core Audio, JACK or some other layer between the I/O and DAW. If Harrison implements some hardware that works directly with Mixbus, it would make it that much more interesting to me. Then again, I love the idea of using multiple DAWs and having hardware available to any of them. I love Universal Audio’s UAD stuff, so maybe a couple of those new Apollo 16 units are in my future. I’m just not sure where I’ll land just yet. But I know it won’t be on PT 12.”
For pro users like Rowe and Long, it seems multiple DAW platforms, varying on client setup and creative needs, is the way of the future. Luckily, our industry’s trends in digital I/O will likely support this work philosophy quite well. “It seems like you can use pretty much any I/O box with any DAW these days; it makes life a lot easier than a decade ago,” offers Long. “If you’re running Pro Tools HD Native or Pro Tools HDX, your I/O needs to be equipped with a card that includes a DigiLink or DigiLink Mini connector, but that’s an option readily available on all of the high-end interfaces. My primary I/O is a Lynx Aurora and it connects to my HDX card via the $395 Lynx LT-HD card; Pro Tools sees it as an Avid HD IO. When running other DAWs on my studio rig, I still use the Avid's core audio manager for connectivity.”
But the question is, are competing DAWs today simply more capable of the results needed by most pro users, or has something changed specifically about PT that prompted the migration of these discriminating pros?
“Some DAWs have caught up and, in some ways, surpassed Pro Tools,” offers Rowe. “I’m sounding really old now, but used to be there was always an advanced feature here or there that PT competitors would tout to entice users to migrate. And it was always one shiny needle in a haystack of obtuse interfaces and cripplingly slow workflows that made you run back to Pro Tools, just to wait for the implementation of that same feature in a year or two—or nearly a decade, in the case of clip gain. But I’ve gotta say I’m finding that less the case these days.”