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PreSonus Studio One Pro (Mac/Win) Review

2/1/2010

FIG. 1: The computer''s F-keys open and hide the mixer and browser panels in PreSonus Studio One Pro. Note the fade-in on the first drum loop (upper left). Buttons are clearly labeled.

FIG. 1: The computer''s F-keys open and hide the mixer and browser panels in PreSonus Studio One Pro. Note the fade-in on the first drum loop (upper left). Buttons are clearly labeled.

PreSonus, long known for making audio interface hardware, has gone soft. With so many great multitrack recording programs on the market, it must be a little scary to introduce an entirely new one. PreSonus has no reason to worry: Studio One is a solid and superbly designed DAW. Sure, it has room to grow, but even Version 1 is full-featured and easy to use. Studio One Pro has a separate Project window in which you can assemble multiple songs for a CD or online distribution. This powerful feature is not integrated into any other DAW that I'm aware of.

PreSonus audio interfaces now come bundled with a second-tier version called Studio One Artist, which is also available separately for $199. (Studio One Artist owners can then upgrade to Studio One Pro for $199.) The Artist version does not support ReWire, 64-bit audio nor third-party plug-ins, but it does include a large collection of PreSonus plug-ins. PreSonus hardware is not required for either version.

I reviewed Studio One Pro on a MusicXPC laptop running Windows XP and on a MacBook Pro running OS 10.5.7. (For a discussion of how the PreSonus FireStudio Mobile interface worked with the Mac laptop, see the Online Bonus Material.)

The Big Picture

Studio One uses a modified all-in-one-window workflow. The computer's F-keys open and close the editor panel, browser and mixer (see Fig. 1). The mixer is detachable, allowing me to leave it open at all times on my dual-monitor setup. Single-key commands are used throughout the program. For example, Q quantizes MIDI notes, M mutes the current track, N switches snap editing on and off, and A opens the automation display. Drag and drop works exactly the way I like: When I wanted to copy an insert effect with its current settings to a new mixer channel, I just grabbed it with the mouse and dragged it to another track.

Changing a song's tempo after you've already recorded some audio works extremely well. Because time-stretch technology is similar to pitch correction, I'm glad PreSonus plans to add pitch correction to a future version.

A checklist of the features musicians expect to see in a DAW would fill pages. Studio One Pro has most of them, including ReWire, one-click audio clip crossfades (with handles you can drag to change the fade curve) and control surface support with several modes for real-time automation recording. (see the Online Bonus Material “Automation”). Version 1 lacks a few amenities that some users might like to see, however. There's no QuickTime movie window for soundtrack work, no traditional notation editing or printout, no surround mixing and no template-based groove quantizing. Because I have a large collection of REX files, I was disappointed to find that they can't be imported into audio tracks, but PreSonus says that capability will come sooner than video sync or groove templates.

Studio One comes with a huge bundle of drum loops — so many that it would take weeks just to audition them. The ones I checked out sounded useful. The loops are bundled into files that can be read only by Studio One, though it can export them as WAV or AIFF files. Also included is a copy of Native Instruments Guitar Rig LE. Combine this with a fast computer and a low-latency audio interface (such as PreSonus FireStudio Mobile), and you can rock out with an electric guitar and headphones.

The reference manual is clearly written but could be expanded. Despite numerous references to numbered figures, the figures themselves are not numbered and have no captions.

On the Right Track

After laying down a few backing tracks using soft synths, I plugged in a mic and recorded a cello melody (see Web Clips 1 and 2). I put the transport in Loop mode and recorded six takes without stopping. I then used the handy Unpack Takes to New Tracks command so that I could look at all of them in a stack down the screen. I created a submix bus in the mixer and routed all of the take tracks to that so I could apply EQ and reverb in only one mixer channel (see Fig. 2). Then I started slicing up the takes and dragging good bits around in the tracks. Throughout this process, I didn't even need to crack the manual. Studio One just did what I expected, painlessly.

Studio One's time-stretching is jaw-dropping. I was able to change my song's tempo by more than 10 bpm, and on soloing the cello track I heard only the most microscopic artifacts (see Web Clips 3, 4 and 5). Plastic audio has arrived! However, when I tried loop-recording an audio track in a MIDI-based song that had tempo changes, the takes went completely out of sync with the MIDI tracks. I had to get rid of the tempo changes temporarily to do the audio recording. (PreSonus is working on a fix.) If your music depends on tempo changes, you should check with PreSonus to find out whether this issue has been resolved.

FIG. 2: Studio One''s Room Reverb has a rich sound and can be edited in subtle ways. I couldn''t get a cheap, twangy sound out of it even when I tried.

FIG. 2: Studio One''s Room Reverb has a rich sound and can be edited in subtle ways. I couldn''t get a cheap, twangy sound out of it even when I tried.

Working With MIDI

After dragging a few VST instruments into the track list from the browser and selecting patches, I started laying down MIDI tracks. The process was completely transparent. The piano-roll editor has dual controller strips for editing velocity and other parameters. You can mute and unmute individual notes if needed. Standard quantize values and variable amounts of swing are available, and quantization is always undoable.

I had intermittent problems with MIDI in the Windows version. On a few occasions, new notes recorded into MIDI tracks would lag by about a 16th note. In one song, the patch I had selected for Native Instruments FM8 failed to get saved in the song file, but in a different song an FM8 patch was saved.

The VST synthesizers included with Studio One are not inspiring. SampleOne is a multisampler, but a very simple one: You can quickly create multisample keymaps, but the same global ADSR envelopes and lowpass filter process everything. Presence is a SoundFont player that comes with some basic content suitable for songwriter demos and such (see Web Clip 6). Impact is a drum-style sample player, and Mojito is a frankly inadequate one-oscillator, one-ADSR, analog-style synth. Bundled instruments are an area where Studio One is going to have to catch up with the competition in future versions.

Projects

Like the rest of Studio One, the Project page works exactly the way you'd expect. To create a CD master, I opened the browser and dragged in a bunch of stereo mixes of pieces I've done over the past few years. They appeared in the track list, and also in the timeline as waveforms. To change the amount of separation between songs, I just grabbed a song with the mouse and dragged it. Crossfading between songs is just as easy, and you can reorder the songs by dragging them up and down in the track list.

Large meters displaying overall level, frequency content and phase are permanently in view in the Project window. Each song can have its own insert effects, which can include level adjustments and EQ. Tracks can be tagged with songwriter credits. There's currently no way to edit index markers or insert sub-indexes within long songs (though the latter feature is seldom needed).

You can import audio from any source (including MP3 and OGG files), and the Project page integrates well with Studio One's multitrack recorder. If you've updated a song mix (for instance, to boost the vocal so it will match other songs), the Project page can automatically create a new stereo mix of the song and import it, replacing the old mix.

There Can Be Only One

I've been using another DAW for many years as my main creative platform, but Studio One Pro is so good that I'm tempted to switch. The time-stretching will be a lifesaver for vocalist/songwriters, and the Project page could save you hundreds of dollars on CD mastering software. True, the competition in the DAW software world is intense, but PreSonus is going to shake things up with Studio One.

Summary
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