The Great Big Daw RoundUp: Who would take on the task of covering all the major available DAWs? EQ, that's who

It seems crazy: Contrast all the major DAWs. After all, they’ve acquired their own fan base, and few musicians are likely to throw away an investment in the learning curve to switch to a new program. Besides, the major programs have reached a level of maturity where if all of them disappeared tomorrow except for one, no one would be too bent out of shape; you can make great music with any of these.
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IT SEEMS CRAZY: CONTRAST ALL THE MAJOR DAWS. After all, they’ve acquired their own fan base, and few musicians are likely to throw away an investment in the learning curve to switch to a new program. Besides, the major programs have reached a level of maturity where if all of them disappeared tomorrow except for one, no one would be too bent out of shape; you can make great music with any of these.

So why a roundup? Well each program has its own “special sauce.” There are compelling reasons to expand your horizons to become proficient at more than one DAW—and it needn’t be an overly expensive proposition, as many have “lite” versions that contain the most crucial differentiating features. As someone who has used all the DAWs mentioned in this article (the advantage, and burden, of being a reviewer!), I find myself reaching for different programs for different tasks. Furthermore, as someone who does mixing and mastering, I often receive files that need to load into various programs, so I need to be familiar with all of them.

But what about the learning curve? Over time, workflows and GUIs have become more standardized, as programs take their cue from the Mac or Windows operating environments. Programs also borrow liberally from the competition, producing a certain level of similarity. It’s not that hard to learn a new program these days, particularly if you use other programs from the same company (perhaps Sony has taken this the furthest: If you use, say, Acid, you’re 80% of the way toward learning other Sony programs like Vegas and Sound Forge). Some programs even make the transition simpler; for example, Sonar, DP, and Cubase let you select keyboard shortcuts that are mapped the same way as Logic, Pro Tools, etc.

And let’s be frank: You may want to switch. Programs change and mutate over time, and one might go in more of a compatible direction with your needs than other programs. Platform support comes into play as well; when Logic was no longer supported on Windows, PC fans had to switch, or buy a Mac. Conversely, with Boot Camp, it’s possible to use Windows programs on a Mac—Cakewalk even supports Sonar running under Boot Camp.

MEET THE MOVING TARGET

Before proceeding, though, there’s a major caveat: All these programs are moving targets. Just as this article went to press, Steinberg came out with Cubase 5 and Cakewalk released Sonar 8.3, a fairly significant update compared to Sonar 8. Some of the limitations mentioned below may be fixed by the time you read this; some may never be fixed.

And there’s the matter of copy protection, which is an important factor for some people. Pro Tools uses the iLok dongle; Cubase uses the Syncrosoft dongle, which used to be a major pain—but I now find it far easier to deal with than iLok. Samplitude uses yet another dongle type (WIBU CodeMeter), whereas the other programs use some combination of registration, online activation, or both. (Although DP merely requires entering a code; you don't even have to connect to the Net.) These often let you do multiple installs, for example, on a laptop and desktop; with the dongle-based programs, you can pretty much run them anywhere— as long as you have the dongle.

GIMME SUPPORT—PLEASE!!

There’s also the question of support (bear in mind that a lot of the following is anecdotal; there are no real “stats” on support). Cakewalk’s “official” support is average, but the support you can obtain from their forums (some of the best for any host) is outstanding. Other companies, like Steinberg, make it easy to find answers via online documents and FAQs; Sony has options for free and paid support. But remember that all companies have limited tech support resources, so if you can solve a problem without contacting the company, it’s much easier for them to handle the truly tough cases. Bottom line: With rare exceptions, don’t expect to call the company, have a tech pick up within a few rings, and then get walked through your problem. In my experience, the first line of defense is the online help and manual. Next comes forums, which if you state your problem clearly and concisely, can often get you a solution within hours, if not minutes, from someone else who’s gone through the same problems.

Ready for the roundup? Let’s start (note that all prices are MSRP). They’re in no particular order, other than what our layout artist felt worked best.

DIGIDESIGN PRO TOOLS LE 8
(MAC, WINDOWS)

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The backstory:Pro Tools, originally for the Mac, was an early entry in the world of digital audio recording (although Opcode’s StudioVision was the first to combine hard disk recording with MIDI sequencing). It took a straightforward approach that mimicked the typical 2" 24-track tape setup of that time, with separate recording and mixing windows that looked respectively like the tracks on an analog tape machine, and a typical hardware mixer.

Over time, Pro Tools became a standard, much like IBM used to be for office equipment. However, they started to lose their edge as companies like Emagic, Steinberg, and Cakewalk took advantage of virtualization to go beyond hardware emulation. But recently, Digidesign took several steps designed to make the program more of a compositional as well as recording environment. Two particular landmarks were the introduction of “elastic audio” to accommodate loops and remix applications—one of the last main applications to do so, but they did it really well—and the acquisition of Wizoo’s instrument designers (some of whom had formerly worked at Creamware), and transforming it into Advanced Instrument Research. By writing one check, Digi acquired a powerful, in-house design team whose instruments meet or exceed anything else out there.

With Pro Tools 8, Digi has continued onward with a more customizable look, and streamlined interface. Although some aspects still seem behind the times—the inability to do faster-thanrealtime bounces, and no path delay compensation in Pro Tools LE— Digidesign has done a credible job of enhancing Pro Tools, without taking away from the straightforward operation that caused it to be so widely adopted in the first place.

What it does best:Digidesign remains at the top of the DAW heap; any pro studio has to have Pro Tools if for no other reason than file exchange. Many still feel it has the cleanest, most straightforward interface, and the level of integration with their new instruments is outstanding. Pro Tools is the safe choice; you know Digi will be around, there’s lots of third-party support for RTAS plug-ins (a proprietary format, though), the program is both reliable and predictable, and Digi is not sitting on its laurels; it’s meeting increased competition head-on. Even MIDI, formerly a weak spot, is now up to par.

Main limitations:Pro Tools won’t run without Digidesign interface hardware, or the M-Audio interfaces that also work with Digidesign’s “M-Powered” versions of Pro Tools software. So if you don’t like their interfaces, forget it. VST instruments require a wrapper (not a big deal), and overall, Digi takes a proprietary approach to Pro Tools that chafes those who want greater freedom of choice. There are still some annoyances, like arcane file management and clumsy crossfading, that persist even in the latest revs; there’s also no provision for MIDI effects, and notation is good but not great.

Pricing:$279 gets you the simplest Digidesign interface and Pro Tools LE 8 software, but there are bundles with varieties of interfaces (including a control surface with moving faders) and software add-ons, with prices running into the thousands of dollars for the “high-price spread.”

Contact: www.digidesign.com

CAKEWALK SONAR 8
(WINDOWS)

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The backstory:Cakewalk was already well-established with their Pro Audio DAW software when in 2001 they introduced Sonar, which was a clean break from the past. As a PC-only company at the time, Cakewalk had mastered high-performance audio under Windows; Sonar was the only program capable of deep MIDI editing, serious hard disk recording, and Acid-style time-stretching. That alone caused some people to ditch their existing host and switch, putting Cakewalk on the map as more than just “that company that makes PC stuff.”

Coming from an underdog position in a Mac-centric world, Cakewalk worked aggressively to update Sonar. They supplemented proprietary protocols like DXi and WDM with VST and ASIO support, acquired the Sonitus line of plug-in effects and rgc:audio (whose outstanding virtual instruments are also sold independently of Sonar), added a superb surround implementation, and kept bundling more processors and instruments, coupled with aggressive pricing. Every update kept upping the ante, eventually establishing Sonar as one of the leading DAWs.

A long-standing Sonar mantra is workflow, and after becoming linked with Roland, we saw the first results of that collaboration with the V-Studio. Basically, Roland has given Cakewalk the hardware muscle it never had, while Cakewalk brings software with a track record that Roland can’t match. The V-Studio bundle consists of a control surface, audio interface system, Fantom VS hardware synth, and of course, Sonar.

Sonar has also spawned a lite version, Sonar Home Studio, which in itself is a surprisingly capable program. In eight years, Sonar has gone from the red-headed stepchild of pro audio to one of the industry’s leading programs.

What it does best:Workflow is huge—functions that require multiple mouse clicks in other hosts typically take fewer mouse clicks with Sonar. Extensive customization options allow for more personalization than anything else; this isn’t cosmetic, but improves workflow (add the V-Studio controller, and the workflow becomes even more transparent). Sonar supports 64-bit Vista, and the bundled effects and instruments form a complete working environment. Sonar also recently revamped MIDI editing and the audio engine, making both more efficient; surround support is outstanding, and video support is solid—it’s a major allin- one solution.

Main limitations:The Acidization hasn’t changed since Sonar 1.0, and Acid 7 does a better job of parsing a file for stretching. REX file support is deep, but with the tradeoff of extra complexity. And while Beatscape is a good attempt at a groove instrument, Cakewalk still hasn’t nailed it in the same way as, say, Live’s Session view. Finally, sometimes you get the feeling that Cakewalk ran out of resources before the deadline hit, but they usually make up for it in later revs. For example, Session Drummer 2 had a limited set of drum sounds, but Sonar 8.3 expands that with many more options.

Pricing:Sonar Studio Edition $369; Producer Edition (with more instruments and enhancements) $619; Sonar V-Studio $4,195

Contact: www.cakewalk.com

SONY ACID PRO 7
(WINDOWS)

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The backstory:In 1998, Sonic Foundry introduced Acid to great acclaim. Acid could take files and stretch their tempo as well as transpose pitch, giving a powerful, innovative tool to DJs and groove-oriented musicians. Prior to Acid, those using loops had to trim them carefully, and/or apply non-realtime DSP-based time-stretch algorithms, to get loops to match up. Acid did all this, and more, in real time.

But it didn’t do MIDI, and hard disk recording options were very limited. Although updates continued and Acid remained popular, an attempt to add MIDI editing as a plugin was a major misstep, with buggy and slow operation that only served to show how limited Acid was compared to other hosts. While the time-stretching maintained its lead over the competition, in all other respects Acid fell behind.

When Sony purchased Sonic Foundry, there was cause for optimism. Their Vegas video editing program was picking up more and more fans, Sound Forge for digital audio editing continued to be updated, and Acid became more of a DAW (including virtual instrument support) than just a “loop” program. But with Acid Pro 7, the program has matured into a contender on the same level as any other host, with sophisticated MIDI editing, multi-track hard disk recording, a separate mixer window, and tweaks to the stretching algorithms that made a great thing better.

Acid Pro is a bit of a dark horse: Old reputations die hard, and some still think of it as “that program for DJs that fell into disrepair.” But today, nothing could be further from the truth. There’s still no program that handles looping as elegantly as Acid, or lets you throw together loop-oriented music faster.

What it does best:Acid remains the standout program for handling loops with efficiency and fidelity. Furthermore, Sony has improved the Acidization process so that stretching works better without editing than any other program, including those that support Apple Loops. It’s also a complete program; if you want to add virtual instruments or do hard disk recording, you’re covered—and it integrates perfectly with Sound Forge for deep digital audio editing. When it comes to loops and warping, the user interface is simple and obvious, particularly if you’ve used other Sony programs; and the clean look is conducive to productivity.

Main limitations:The MIDI editing is not as deep as other programs (e.g., no MIDI effects, no notation). Also, the virtual instrument implementation seems tacked-on—it’s functional and does the job, but is not as elegant as other programs. Some of the original plug-ins, which haven’t changed over the years, are getting a little dated; while other hosts have spiffed up their selection with processors like vocoders, convolution reverbs, and extensive tempo-syncing, Acid’s selection remains relatively conservative. Acid also remains Acid-centric: There’s no support for REX files or Apple Loops.

Pricing:$399.95

Contact: www.sonycreative software.com

APPLE LOGIC STUDIO 8
(MAC)

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The backstory:Logic has its roots in CLab’s Notator/Creator, an early MIDI sequencer that appeared on the Atari around the same time as Cubase. It was known for smooth, reliable operation, even doing the (at the time) remarkable feat of transforming incoming MIDI data into notation—in real time.

When Logic came out as a nextgeneration program, it had its own way of doing things. The object-oriented approach of the “environments” page was baffling to many back in the early days of sequencing, and as a result, Logic was often characterized as being powerful and efficient, but user-hostile. That was a bad rap, as a little time spent learning the “Logic way of doing things” made the program quite transparent—yet the reputation persisted long after it was no longer valid.

Logic was later distributed by Ensoniq, and parallel to Logic, the company developed virtual instruments (like the EXS-24 sampler, a breakthrough back then) and effects. At first available separately, the program bundled more and more of these over time.

When Apple purchased Emagic, Windows support was dropped, and Logic fans were apprehensive that Emagic had been purchased mostly to incorporate the technology into products like GarageBand. But then Logic 6 and Logic 7 mitigated those concerns, and in 2007 Apple dropped a bombshell: Logic Studio, at under $500, not only updated Logic but added the outstanding MainStage program for live performance, virtually all of Emagic’s virtual instruments and effects, Soundtrack Pro 2, and a ton of content. In one stroke, Logic became the Mac’s definite price/performance leader. Logic fans were vindicated, and Apple showed a continuing commitment to the program.

What it does best:Value—probably the result of coming from a company that sells a gazillion iPhones, iPods, and laptops. The selection of plug-ins and virtual instruments is tough to beat, especially with new offerings like Sculpture and Delay Designer. The workflow has been cleaned up, making this by far the most accessible version of Logic; functions like comping, scoring, and loop handling (particularly “instrument loops”) have all been dramatically upgraded, and Logic 8 can also load GarageBand projects. Logic Studio is the most complete music-making environment currently available.

Main limitations:Logic users appreciate what Apple has done with the program, but regular users complain that fixes and updates are slow in coming, and that the biggest change in Logic Studio isn’t with Logic Pro 8, but with the added value programs. Some still find Logic less, uh, logical that other programs, although I’m not convinced that’s justified. There’s no support for VST instruments (you need a wrapper), or ASIO; but realistically, there are few products that don’t support AU or Core Audio. And some still fear that Apple might abandon Logic someday, but that seems unlikely for now.

Pricing:$499

Contact: www.apple.com

STEINBERG CUBASE 5/NUENDO 4
(WINDOWS, MAC)

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The backstory:As one of the early MIDI sequencers, Cubase and Logic had an intense rivalry that drove each other to new heights with each release. But whereas Logic had the reputation of cool Germanic efficiency, Cubase was considered a more daring, but less predictable, host. Steinberg continually pushed the envelope, inventing Virtual Studio Technology that put instruments, effects, and an entire studio inside the computer. Computers at the time had a hard time keeping up, but Steinberg was the company that put the handwriting on the wall: In the future, everything would live within the box.

Steinberg also introduced the ASIO protocol for low-latency audio streaming with hard disk recording. Like VST, this was an open standard and was immediately embraced by an industry that had been ignored by Apple and patronized by the PC. Logic’s attempt at a competitive protocol was a failure, and until Apple came up with Audio Units and Core Audio in OS X, VST and ASIO ruled on the Mac—and are still an important element of Mac support. (Steinberg also introduced Nuendo, oriented more toward post-production; much of what’s said here applies to Nuendo too.)

Steinberg prepared to go public just before the tech bubble burst in the early 2000s; that fell through, with adverse effects. Fortunately, Yamaha bought the company, kept Steinberg as a separate entity, and began the process of rebuilding the Steinberg brand in earnest. The combined hardware/software expertise led to initiatives like Studio Connections, and devising “smart” ways to integrate hardware with software. With Version 4, Yamaha signaled that it remained committed to Cubase but with Version 5—an extremely stable and capable release—Cubase is back in a big way. Yamaha has shown how to acquire a fading company and bring it back to life.

What it does best:Cubase is a wellrounded program that pretty much does everything well—notation, stretching, MIDI, hard disk recording, you name it. And as the inventor of VST, virtual instrument support is primo; the MIDI editing is also outstanding. There are plug-ins a-plenty, many of which have been ported to the VST3 spec. The instruments are useful, and the inclusion of a basic version of HALion gives sampling capabilities that are arguably ahead of other hosts. Cubase also has deep integration with the MR816 interface. Finally, graphics are subjective, but I find Cubase’s look elegant.

Main limitations:Cubase has a somewhat unwieldy feel compared to a nimble program like Live, or even Sonar, which implements some functions in a more obvious way. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but be prepared to go through a few more steps to get where you want to go. On the upside, a lot of this involves setup, and once things are set up the way you like, you can get working very quickly. Cubase doesn’t handle loops in as facile a way as Acid, however version 5 includes extremely cool beat-mangling options that break new ground for groove-oriented musicians. Other limitations are minor, and mostly relate to a x.0 release.

Pricing:Cubase 5 Studio $399.99; Cubase 5 (with more plug-ins and virtual instruments) $599.99; Nuendo 4 $2,340.99

Contact: www.steinberg.net

ABLETON LIVE 7
(MAC, WINDOWS)

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The backstory:Ableton came out of nowhere in 2001 with Live, originally created by musicians to solve their own specific musical needs, because nothing else did what they wanted. Live started as a cross-platform live performance program, and took a fresh look at computer-based recording. Its stark, 2D user interface looked more like a microwave oven control panel than a tape recorder; it also put everything in one window—an interface design that would later be adopted by many companies.

Ableton also created two totally independent views, Session View for songwriting and live performance, and an Arrangement view more like conventional programs. Some called it “Acid for the Mac” but that missed about 70% of what the program was about: Live was simply a brilliant re-thinking of what recording and composition was all about.

Over the years, Ableton has walked the fine line between adding features and maintaining its elegant simplicity; rumors of passionate discussions at the company about how best to add new features are legendary. But whatever they’re doing, it works. Despite being late to market, Ableton has acquired a huge market share that goes far beyond its original DJ/groove musician base; many users getting into computer-based recording for the first time choose Live. Over the years Live has added MIDI support, video, more DAW features, virtual instruments, and now, has partnered with Akai for a dedicated control surface, and Cycling ’74 to include MAX with the program so users can create their own features. Live is also embarking on an ambitious collaboration module. For many people, when asked which host they use, it’s Live and one of the other hosts—it’s that different a way of working.

What it does best:The Session view is without equal for live performance and writing, and has no equivalent in any other program. The “you don’t have to think” stretching makes for the most transparent stretching process of any host, and the MIDI implementation—while basic (no notation, no advanced editing)—is totally in tune with the program’s philosophy. Ableton is highly creative with their updates, adding unusual features and effects that go beyond the norm, and almost become instruments in themselves. Controller support is excellent, too. Ableton is also good about frequent tweaks and updates.

Main limitations:Many DAW veterans can’t wrap their head around the totally different compositional paradigm, particularly Session view. While the stretching is good, the loops aren’t as editable as those that use Acidization or the REX format (Live 8 will allow more loop editing options). The Arrangement view doesn’t have a conventional “mixer” emulation (although you can switch over to Session view and use its mixer); I don’t have a problem with that, but some traditionalists do. Some users feel updates are relatively costly compared to other programs, and that other hosts bundle instruments for free that are optional at extra cost with Live.

Pricing:$599 standard version, $999 Suite version with several bundled instruments

Contact: www.ableton.com

ADOBE AUDITION 3
(WINDOWS)

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The backstory:Audition started as Cool Edit, a shareware Windows digital audio editor with serious bang for the buck. It eventually added a multitrack view and became Cool Edit Pro; the multitracking fell short of a full-fledged DAW, but provided enough functionality for many applications.

Adobe, needing digital audio editing to complement its line of video-oriented programs, bought the company and changed the name to Audition, with version 1.0 appearing fairly expeditiously. However, it wasn’t that different from Cool Edit Pro 2.1 aside from integration with Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects. It didn’t support VST plug-ins (DirectX only) or ASIO, and MIDI was limited to importing Standard MIDI Files; however, looping was (and remains) strong.

Version 2 is when the program matured, with VST support, ASIO, ReWire, effects racks, and vastly improved multitrack operation. Version 3 is when Audition truly came into its own as a unique program, with added VST instrument support, MIDI recording with piano roll editing, additional audio editing options (such as improvements to the frequency space editing introduced in version 1.5 and iZotope stretching algorithms), lots of bundled content, an amp sim, phase correction tools, and even esoteric functions like the ability to import/export a visual representation of the audio file, modify it in an image editing program, then import it as sound.

When this article started running out of space, I had to choose among Audition, Tracktion, and Reaper. While Audition doesn’t provide the multitracking power of the other DAWs in this roundup, its combination of extreme digital audio editing with multitracking capabilities make it a unique program in its own right.

What it does best:Audition’s digital audio editing capabilities are unmatched by any other DAW. While Samplitude bills itself as a mastering program (and it is), and Sonar includes mastering-oriented plug-ins, Audition can compete with dedicated two-track editors like Sound Forge, Wavelab, and Peak. The selection of plug-ins is excellent, and Audition has a tradition of superb sample rate conversion (although many other programs have caught up). The price is also right; if you need a digital audio editor and DAW, as long as your DAW requirements aren’t too heavy, with Audition you don’t need two programs. There’s Vista-64 support, too.

Main limitations:MIDI editing is very basic, and the least sophisticated of any DAW. Nor is there any notation. The few bundled instruments are basic compared to the competition, although Audition does handle ReWire well, so adding a program like Reason is a good solution—although that diminishes Audition’s cost-effectiveness somewhat. The preferred looping protocol is proprietary to Audition (although it can also loop Acidized or standard WAV files), and there is no REX file support. Finally, because of how the program has evolved, the workflow can be awkward, with features feeling tacked-on, and inconsistent graphics.

Pricing:$349

Contact: www.adobe.com/ audition

MAGIX SAMPLITUDE 10
(WINDOWS)

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The backstory:Samplitude's history goes back 15 years, starting out as digital audio editor for the Amiga and then Windows. It was licensed to a company that also licensed the name of the original developer, Sek’d (Studio of Electronic Klangerzeugung [sound design] in Dresden), whose unpronounceable name was matched only by the puzzling icons they used (“I think this one means spin your monitor, then shoot arrows at it”). The engineering quality was never in dispute, but the GUI and documentation made for a steep learning curve. Nonetheless, it had a dedicated following among Windows users in Europe, as the Mac had much less market penetration at the time and Samplitude was very Windowsfriendly. Part of this was due to Samplitude’s one-stop approach, where you could go from recording, to editing, to mastering, to burning in one program—a rarity at the time.

Samplitude never made much impact in the USA, although things were looking up when Emagic announced distribution. But Emagic was acquired by Apple, and Samplitude was shown the door.

Then Magix, known for quality consumer software, took over marketing. Throughout all this the program kept getting refined, features like pitch correction were added, MIDI support went from sketchy to serious, and the program started sprouting virtual instruments. And it kept picking up more fans.

Samplitude comes in three flavors. Master does four channels and takes advantage of the excellent processors for mastering, while Classic is a lite version of Professional. Sequoia takes the Samplitude concept up one more notch with extra editing features, many oriented to broadcast. It’s probably overkill for most musicians, but it’s a beautifully crafted piece of software (at $3,499, it better be).

What it does best:Samplitude is highly underrated. It’s full-function, pro, deep, and each rev provides significant updates. Classy processing/mastering effects include an FFT-based phase-linear filter, stereo image enhancer, noise reduction, vocoder, suite of “analog” processors (including amp simulation), and Melodyne-like pitch shifting. It includes the Robota Pro drum machine and (except for Master) Independence LE, with 3GB of content. The “one-stop” orientation now includes DVD-A creation, and the unique “hybrid” audio engine accommodates very low latency, but can switch to handle heavy loading.

Main limitations:While the two bundled instruments are very cool, they’re all you get. Samplitude has a reputation for being weak on MIDI, but that’s no longer true; there’s score editing, for example, but you still can’t insert MIDI effects. Samplitude is also not a beatmeister’s dream. There’s no support for REX or Acidized files, although the timestretching works well with standard audio files. Finally, the learning curve is somewhat steep—not because the program is unfriendly, but because it takes many advanced approaches (e.g., object-oriented editing) that are unique to the program.

Pricing:Samplitude Professional $1,249; Samplitude Classic $649, Master $349

Contact: www.magix.com

MOTU DIGITAL PERFORMER 6
(MAC)

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The backstory:Several decades ago, a cigarette company put out a series of ads with people saying “I’d rather than fight than switch” to underscore the supposed loyalty of their smokers. While all DAWs have their partisan fans, Digital Performer users seem unusually loyal.

Digital Performer started in 1985 as Performer, an early entry into the Mac MIDI sequencer market. MOTU did a smart move by “seeding” several pro studios with Performer, thus establishing both it and the Mac early on as the professional standard. Studios got acclimated to Performer, and stayed with it.

But software is a notoriously fickle business, and again, MOTU made a shrewd business move: branching out into hardware interfaces (PCI, FireWire, and USB 2) designed specifically for high-performance audio work. In the process, they ended up supporting Windows as well as the Mac; in fact, MOTU was one of the early supporters of 64-bit Windows Vista, and now supports Wave RT.

The company also created crossplatform instruments like MachFive, Ethno instrument, Electric Keys (an virtual encyclopedia of vintage keyboards), the BPM groove instrument, Symphonic Instrument, and others. At the 2009 NAMM show they introduced Volta, an extremely clever and creative plug-in that produces control voltages and gates via a DC-coupled audio interface—you can actually integrate vintage analog synths into a DAW’s plug-in environment.

Despite stiff competition from Logic Pro, DP’s continuing evolution has kept its fan base intact, while gaining new users. For many, it’s an alternative to Pro Tools|HD at considerably less cost and without being locked into proprietary formats; and the dragand- drop of AAF/OMF files simplifies working with multiple platforms.

What it does best:DP6 streamlines the consolidated interface introduced in DP5 even further; the ability to host multiple sequences within a project, and stability, have made it a mainstay for touring acts. Audio-for-video users appreciate the smooth comping and scoring features, and direct integration and XML exchange with current versions of Final Cut Pro. DP’s pre-rendering feature is also brilliant: It pre-calculates plug-in effects and instruments, thus saving CPU. The POLAR RAMbased recording anticipated cheap RAM long before other programs, and DP essentially builds in the equivalent of Soundtrack Pro.

Main limitations:DP doesn’t deliver the same apparent level of value as Logic, with its wealth of plugins and additional programs. It arguably doesn’t match Cubase or Live for groove-oriented remixing; however, DP does support Acidized loops (you can even edit the transient markers) and REX files, and even though it increases the total cost, the BPM instrument pretty much takes care of the groove crowd. Also, while the pre-rendering feature is incredibly useful, it doesn’t work yet with soft samplers that have to pull data from elsewhere—not DP’s fault, it’s just something you need to be aware of.

Pricing:$795

Contact: www.motu.com

CONCLUSIONS

If you got the impression these are all solid, high-performance programs . . . well, you’re right. But there are some obvious factors that narrow the field. If you’re into hardcore remixing and looping, Samplitude is not for you— but it could be if you’re doing lots of mastering, as could Audition. Doing audio-for-video or live concerts on the Mac? Digital Performer is the program of choice. Looking for a really cool integrated controller to speed workflow? Then Pro Tools and Sonar V-Studio are your best bets, although just about everything is Mackie control- compatible. If beat-oriented live performance is part of what you do, you can’t do much better than Live. And if you work a lot with other studios, odds are Pro Tools will be a requirement if you want to move projects back and forth. Serious value? Check out Logic Studio.

But those are just quick, shootfrom- the-hip descriptions of possible deal-makers or deal-breakers. Many of these programs have trial/demo versions that let you check them out in your environment, doing your music, with your favorite plug-ins. The guidelines in this article should help you decide which ones are most likely to fit your needs, and then you can do the trial-by-fire of using the demo on a project to get a feel for how it works.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s not all about specs or features. Just as some guitarists swear by their Strats and others won’t play without a Les Paul, different programs have different feels and design philosophies: One might feel more like a comfortable old shoe that fits perfectly, while another just might not gel with your style of making music. Remember, specs don’t necessarily show up in the music—go for the program that amplifies your art the best.