Technology

Digital Audio Workstation Choices

What's out there in 2016
Avid Pro Tools

Whether among industry professionals or fledgling hobbyists, choosing a digital audio workstation remains the single biggest commitment in modern gear selection. Why? DAW choice necessitates a dedication to a unique workflow and a financial commitment to its particular ecosystem.

That said, many professionals report an increased ubiquity of key, “must-have” functions in the top DAW choices of 2016, while accompanying hardware continues to play a large role in the DAW selection process.

At professional and top-tier levels, proprietary work surfaces like Yamaha/ Steinberg’s Nuage and Avid’s S6 are ideal matches for Nuendo and Pro Tools DAWs, respectively, well-suited for a broad range of applications. Bridging gaps between studio and live environments, meanwhile, PreSonus offers its tactile mixers plus touchscreen control of its increasingly popular DAW, Studio One. Choices further abound in multiplatform touch-based control—such as Slate Digital’s Raven MTi and MTX or comprehensive DAW control software, like Neyrinck’s V-Control Pro 2, an iOS, Android, OS X or Windows OS-friendly system.

MORE AFFORDABLE, MORE SIMILAR

Increasingly, DAW software is affordable, regardless of the platform (if not free, in some forms). As a pro audio retailer (and committed Pro Tools user) speaking on the condition of anonymity reminded me earlier this year, most are capable in much the same way for most tasks and are more alike than different.

“Mathematically, they’re all the same,” he explained. “If you’re using it basically like a tape recorder, any of the DAWs are going to work for you. They all actually work exactly the same way, in the way they record audio; the big differences are going to be in plug-ins, virtual instruments and ease-of-use. It’s really not like choosing one microphone over another, or even perhaps one preamp over another. If you recorded into Pro Tools or Cubase, or Studio One, and you did nothing to manipulate the audio, you’d get exactly the same sound. To me, [the choice] is about how good the bundled plug-ins are, third-party plug-in compatibility, and how well the program is designed.”

Regardless of the similarities in DAW platforms, Pro Tools remains the go-to DAW of the industry. Logic—the noun, not the DAW—tells us that a popular standard allows for more collaboration, easier sharing and transferring of ideas, and innovative use of its inherent tools. Nashville-based engineer Russ Long, who has been a Pro Tools user since its early ’90s Sound Tools iteration, has experienced the wide range of available DAWs through real-world usage, evaluating many of them in the pages of Mix’s sister publication Pro Sound News over the years. He has his own theories on why Pro Tools has had seemingly undefeatable staying power among 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.”

An additional perk to growing capabilities and shrinking costs of all DAWs is the end users’ ability to invest more in third-party plug-ins and digital tools, as well as problem-solving tactile hardware pieces—microphones to monitors, infrastructure, space and acoustic treatment to networked audio systems, streamlined routing and new I/O.

COLLABORATION, ORGANIZATION

A key component to attractive DAWs today are found within their heightened emphasis on collaboration and organization. This is evident in a number of ways, from Avid’s “Avid Everywhere” philosophy—organized in Artist, Media, Storage and Studio “suites” of gear and tools—to easier ways to try and buy plug-ins and even the Pro Tools DAW itself, now available by subscription; as illustrated by the firm’s exhibition floor space at the recent 141st AES Convention, Avid Marketplace is a landmark, indeed. Avid now boasts a rather comprehensive gathering of premium-quality plug-in manufacturers as part of its streamlined audition/install/ purchase-ability of plug-ins for Pro Tools including AAX-ready Waves, Crane Song, Eventide, iZotope, Sonnox and Nugen offerings.

Yamaha/Steinberg’s Nuage

Long a key Avid competitor, Steinberg has raised the bar on collaborative audio production for new media via its efforts in developing the Nuage work surface, a perfect pairing for the Nuendo DAW, long proven to be ideally suited to audio post-production work. With potential job growth in gaming and audio for multimedia content, virtual reality is at the top of many academic curriculum lists, as explains Kyle P. Snyder, Lecturer and Outreach Coordinator of Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication, where the faculty of its School of Media Arts & Studies recently installed a 32-fader Yamaha Nuage control surface paired with Nuendo.

“We determined that the Yamaha Nuage control surface provides expandable and future-proof functionality, and as a team, we started looking at all the components surrounding Nuendo and Nuage, realizing how Nuendo is astonishing software,” Snyder says. “For our money, it feels professional and works phenomenally well with world-class support. As a faculty, we are committed to teaching techniques, not a piece of software. We just wanted to have the best tools to teach post-production; we’re pretty sure that’s Nuendo and Nuage.”

PreSonus Studio One

Fast on the heels of Pro Tools and Nuendo as a pro-grade DAW, especially in music production, PreSonus’s Studio One, now in Version 3 for Mac or Windows, offers widely reported intuitive functionality, great sound quality and PT-rivaling features, not to mention seamless integration with PreSonus’s broad line of I/O, work surface and hybrid analog/ digital consoles. The latter of these offerings—hybrid mixers—are designed to better serve the current trend of blurred lines between live performance and studio environments, making Studio One, its associated live tracking program Capture, and more multi-touch integration in Studio One V. 3 a compelling choice for the modern, flexible audio engineer/content producer.

Long before PreSonus’s entrée into the DAW market, MOTU had paired its hardware and its elegant Digital Performer workstation to great success, nurturing quite a passionate crew of DP devotees. Why? I’ll let my colleague, engineer Rob Tavaglione, explain; he’s a proud, multi-decade-spanning DP user:

MOTU Digital Performer 9

“Originally known for its pioneering MIDI sequencing capabilities, DP has slowly grown into one of the most comprehensive workstations around,” he says. “Widely respected for its transparent audio, logical layout and ease of use, DP is still only Mac-compatible, as it has been since its inception. This Mac-only approach has been very appealing to DP users, and we all know how much unflinching loyalty Mac users seem to have to their OS, myself included. With stability, functionality and flexibility, DP has earned a user base that is rich with composers—those scoring for film or television and many songwriter/musicians, as well.”

Also worthy of note is Harrison’s Mixbus, now in its third version, which not only offers a notably “console-like” workflow for either Mac or Windows CPUs, it courts the truly independent engineering minds of our industry via its Ardour platform’s universal compatibility, allowing it to run on Linux OS, too. As such, Mixbus has experienced steady user base growth among some very passionate users.

TOUCH GUI RENAISSANCE

For musicians, self-recordists and savvy broad-based audio wranglers, the touch GUI renaissance in DAW control continues. Most every DAW in the marketplace today now offers downloadable iOS or Android control software, as untethered mixing becomes less of a rarity and more of an expectation.

Slate Digital’s Raven MTi

One third party, hardware manufacturer, Slate Media Technology, offers its Raven Multi-Touch DAW Control Surface V. 3 software supporting most major DAWs. Slate’s 27-inch MTi2 Raven Multi-Touch DAW control surface, among the other Raven models, will now support Pro Tools, Cubase/Nuendo, Studio One V. 3, Logic Pro X, Digital Performer and Ableton Live. Raven V.3 software includes upgraded hardware fader modeling and Batch Commander record features, allowing customized multi-move commands within the user’s DAW of choice. (Raven V. 3 does not support, for example, Cakewalk SONAR, a Windows- only DAW; only Mac OS DAWs to date.)

Using third-party hardware (e.g., an iPad), tablet DAW pioneer WaveMachine Labs now ships its the Auria Pro digital audio workstation for iPad, significantly updated for the increased capabilities of Apple’s new flagship tablet, the iPad Pro. Auria Pro features comprehensive MIDI capabilities, real-time audio warping, advanced internal bus routing, audio quantizing, audio transient-to-MIDI conversion, groove templates, transient slicing, unlimited tracks, synths such as FabFilter’s One and Twin2, plus WaveMachine Labs’ own multi-format sampler, Lyra, and more. It’s literally a complete GUI-controlled DAW, easily carried under your arm.

It’s worthy of note that WaveMachine Labs is not a hardware manufacturer; it is dependent on whichever iOS tablets are shipping, as well as currently available USB class-compliant I/Os—the latter of which were relatively scarce upon Auria’s NAMM debut in 2011. Today Auria remains a simple download from Apple’s App Store and a favorite among audio engineers for its straightforward, near-traditional studio aesthetic and features that arguably rival some widely accepted DAW standards.

NO ANDROID DAW?

Despite very promising Windows and Android OS advances, bleeding-edge pro audio developers, designers and manufacturers are still mostly found plying their trade within Apple environments, though Android-based control—not audio processing— products are multiplying.

WaveMachine Labs Auria Pro

“Right now, we’re solely focused on iOS and iPad because the power and the development is there,” offers Corey Winer, technical support supervisor/product specialist, WaveMachine Labs. “With Android, it would be hard for us to keep up with compatibility issues simply for the sheer number of devices available. That’s definitely a hindrance. I won’t say we won’t develop for Android, but there are $60 Android tablets out there, and [owners] may expect it to do what an iPad Pro can do. It could be a messy situation and we don’t have the resources to deal with it.”

Such resources, like a large tech support staff, are nearly essential when attempting to build an ultimately bug-free DAW for a non-proprietary OS. “I do tons of technical support for [WaveMachine Labs] plugins, made for Macs and PCs,” says Winer. “You can see big differences troubleshooting between Pro Tools on a Mac and Pro Tools on a PC. It’s the same difference [as iOS and Android app development]; there are so many PCs out there that the differences inside—in terms of performance, troubleshooting and what their BIOS [basic input/output system] looks like—make service increasingly more difficult.”

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