I have to admit, I love jumping into debates about which musical gear is the best. It reminds me of when I was finishing college and kept asking people which music city was better: New York or Los Angeles.
Obviously, I always got mixed answers, and everyone had a pretty solid case for their choice. I think the same thing goes for today’s DAWs.
Most of these programs, which are popular today, have been around since the ‘90s, except for Ableton Live, which started up around 2001. Since then, it has only become more popular and given the big boys, Protools and Logic, a run for their money.
I might even go so far as to say that right now it might be ahead of them, maybe. But again, everyone has different needs, and that’s what makes music production so interesting. Personally, I use both of these every day, so maybe I can shed some light on how they’re different and why I would choose one over the other.
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Avid Pro Tools is still the go-to mixing software in the industry. It has a simple mixing engine, excellent sound quality, and is very easy to use. Basically, it was the first professional recording software that had a dedicated interface and high-quality A/D converters, and it has only gotten better since then.
One thing that makes Pro Tools so easy to work with is its HD system. It takes the processing load off your CPU, which means you can mix with more plug-ins and tracks. Even if you opt for a more basic version to save money, it’s incredibly smooth to edit and use.
Now, I am not saying Pro Tools is perfect, but it is still very reliable. The mixing engine, the master bus, the interface, and the ability to use an HDX system with hundreds of tracks and plug-ins without overtaxing your CPU are all great features.
This is especially important for big track sessions like film scores and pop songs with many harmonies and lead doubles, where your CPU can limit your creativity when using virtual instruments. Pro Tools’ reliability also shines when it comes to tracking vocalists. The comp lead vocals feature is incredible as it lets you combine different takes through playlists.
Pro Tools Ultimate has added many improvements, including the commit track function. It bounces down your track with automation, plug-ins, panning, and everything instantly to a new track and then deactivates the old track automatically. This frees up resources.
Compared to Ableton and Logic, Pro Tools’ MIDI programming environment is weaker, although it is getting better. Avid’s pricing and subscription model are not that great, which is why some younger producers switch to Ableton.
In today’s world, updates should be free, shouldn’t they?
Ableton Live made its debut in 2001, and at first, many people dismissed it as a mere toy for hobbyists, similar to Reason. However, they were wrong! Live’s browser clips preview feature is a game-changer.
You can organize all of your loops, regardless of tempo, in one folder. Then, Live will play a preview of any loop at the new tempo of your song, flawlessly and in a loop. It’s like magic!
Before Live, you could only do this in Reason using a feature called ReCYCLE, which sliced up all the transients in your loop and saved it as a REX file. It was time-consuming, and sometimes there would be little pops that weren’t cross-faded. Live’s feature is much better!
Live’s warp markers are another incredible feature that makes it possible to preview your loops based on tempo. You don’t have to cut your audio anymore; instead, you can create a warp marker in front of any transient, drum hit, vocal, anything, and then move it either forward or back on your timeline, and it will be dragging or rushing.
Live blurs the line between MIDI and audio production. You can use quantize on an actual drummer or guitar player or bass player, and you can preview how different swings and groove templates will work in real-time over your MIDI and your audio without committing. That’s crazy cool!
But here’s the catch: it isn’t as smooth and powerful as Pro Tools for mixing. One of the biggest problems I have with Ableton Live is that the master bus fader comes after your plugins and not before.
So, if you put a compressor or a limiter like Izotope’s Ozone on your master bus to get a nice master level and not clip, you have to group all your tracks and lower them so that you’re not hitting the limiter too hard.
It’s a bit of a pain. Protools does it right by having the master fader feed into your limiter, so instead of having to lower ALL your tracks, you just lower one fader.
Also, the vocal comping in Live isn’t as smooth and efficient as the playlist-based comping in Pro Tools, even though the new Live 11 implemented a lot of new features, especially for vocal editing.
Choosing the Right One
So, here’s the deal – there’s an ongoing debate about which DAW is the ultimate king. However, it all boils down to the stage of production you work on the most.
Are you a programmer or a beat maker who loves creating tracks from scratch using loops and relies heavily on MIDI? Or are you more of a traditional producer who frequently records live bands and overdubs session players?
Your needs will likely determine which DAW is the right one for you. Although it may seem obvious, let’s take a closer look at some specific reasons why these DAWs differ so much. This could make your decision a lot easier.
Loop Based Productions
If you’re the type of musician who wakes up and immediately opens their DAW to search for loops to use in your track, then Ableton is the software for you.
Ableton is awesome because you can test out any loop at any tempo, and it syncs perfectly with your song without any dragging and dropping.
Ableton also has a super cool “slice to MIDI” feature that Pro Tools can’t match. You can take any audio and slice it into mini-notes, with each transient marked.
This lets you mix up the order of the slices, so if you have a boring drum loop, you can rearrange the hi-hats, snares, kicks, and more. It’s way more creative for sound design and electronic effects.
You can make some of these tweaks in Pro Tools, but it doesn’t come with its own sampler like Ableton does. That means you have to use a third-party plug-in sample to get the most out of the audio-to-MIDI conversion.
When it comes to mixing, Pro Tools is the clear winner. Of course, some people have had some success mixing in Ableton, but mostly in the pop and dance world.
Pro Tools also has a really great organizational structure that not only keeps your large sessions clean but also well laid out. About a year ago, they started implementing folders, which was super interesting.
You can group any track, but instead of just sending it to an aux track like in most DAWs, you can send it to a specific folder called the routing folder. This folder can be closed or opened to save screen space.
Ableton does this with group tracks, but the difference is that you don’t visually see all the plugins that are in these group tracks unless you click on the group track. In ProTools, you have all that information on the screen at all times, which makes it much easier to see what’s going on.
Workflow is hands down my favorite term to describe what’s most important for any producer. When I say workflow, I’m talking about your comfort zone: your way of doing things and navigating the endless decisions you have to make every moment of every day in the studio.
When it comes to choosing which DAW to use, it’s important to base your decision on what will make your particular way of doing things better.
In my case, I have a hardware-oriented workflow, and I prefer to create live performances with real percussion and other instruments. That’s why I find that recording into Pro Tools, which is more audio-friendly, is the way to go. Pro Tools matches my workflow perfectly.
I also have Ableton, but I use it differently. I use it as a big sampler, once I have my session going in Pro Tools. If I want to add or tweak loops, experiment with effects or do cool sound design for electronic music, I pass things into Ableton to further experiment.
When it comes to workflow, you have to ask yourself: are you going to be more loop-based, experimental with effects, and do a lot of MIDI programming? If that’s the case, Ableton is the way to go.
If you’re a producer or vocalist who is constantly singing, comping vocals, recording live musicians, and doing a lot of mixing of your own material, then you might want to look into Pro Tools as your main DAW.
Okay, so both of these programs are pretty awesome, no doubt about it. But let me break it down for you so you can see why one might be even more awesome than the other.
Honestly, no DAW is perfect, but if I could design my own, I’d take Ableton’s Clip browser and loop-based MIDI environment and put it right inside Pro Tools. Boom. That would be the ultimate dream for me.
But here’s some good news: even if you still can’t make up your mind, both companies have actually been getting along pretty nicely lately. In fact, Pro Tools has even added Ableton Link to its latest versions.
With Ableton Link, you can sync both programs perfectly and run them simultaneously, even though they’re using totally different engines. It used to be impossible to do this unless you had two separate computers because plugins with the same licenses couldn’t run through Rewire.
But now, with Ableton Link, you can have the best of both worlds. You can use Ableton’s MIDI and loop browsing environment while still keeping all your vocals, audio, and rough mixes safe and sound in Pro Tools.
It’s pretty huge because it means even rivals can become friends, and everybody wins.
Here’s to having the best of both worlds!