Do Different DAWs Sound Different?
There are many reasons why you may choose one digital audio workstation over another. Within electronic music Ableton and Logic are generally regarded as the go-to packages, but others such as ProTools, Nuendo and Cubase are popular as well. Reasons for choosing one DAW over another vary; if you use an industry standard package it is much easier to transfer your session from one studio to another, or pass it on to be mixed by somebody else. You may want to use a package that suits your particular workflow, or one that includes built-in features that you find useful. One aspect of DAWs that is not always uppermost in people’s minds when they choose the platform that they wish to work in is the sound of the DAW itself. This is a subject that rears its head relatively frequently on audio forums, and is often argued over at great length. For this reason, we thought that maybe it was worth dealing with the issue here.
One of the key points of discussion is whether different DAWs do in fact sound different from one another – or whether they are in fact completely transparent. A number of very prominent producers certainly seem to think that there is a difference. Mike Dean, a producer working at the top end of hip hop for many years (with the likes of Kanye West, 2pac, Scarface) recently described how he uses Ableton because he likes the sound of it. Talking about his move away from mixing in ProTools for West’s new album, ‘Yeezus’ he says “Sometimes I mix in Ableton… I like the way the
engine sounds in there, you can really smash stuff loud”.
Sandy Vee is a former French house producer, who in recent years has gone on to work with the likes of David Guetta, Rihanna and Katy Perry. He states that “everyone says that all DAWs sound the same, but that’s simply not true. I’ve done tests comparing the sound of the same session in different DAWs, and Ableton sounded terrible, Logic and Pro Tools were OK, and Nuendo sounded incredible. Editing in Nuendo is also really fast. Pro Tools is just a standard, it was the first to come onto the market and everybody uses it now, almost out of habit. People in the US don’t know about Nuendo, but I’m sure that if they did, many would switch.” It should probably be stated at this point that Vee works with the people behind Nuendo and we should therefore perhaps be a little wary of taking his views as gospel… He does certainly seem to think that different DAWs sound different however.
Vee’s views are certainly not the consensus though. Numerous articles have been written by mix and mastering engineers claiming that there is (or should be) no difference between the sounds of different DAWs. If your DAW is set completely ‘flat’ then many people believe it will sound the same as another DAW set up in the same way. Of course, as soon as you start mixing, things will start to sound different depending on which DAW you are using. Once you start manipulating your audio, various DAWs will treat it in different ways; the pan laws may be different from one program to the next; the default fades may be set up in a different way and so on. All of these small differences repeated numerous times throughout a mix can certainly add up and lead to a mix that sounds quite different from one DAW to another.
So does that mean that one DAW sounds better than another? Not really – maybe you will slightly prefer the sound of your track through Ableton to the sound of your track through Logic, but that doesn’t make it ‘better’ it just means you prefer it that way; these things are always subjective to an extent. Perhaps the sound of one DAW, even if it is different from the sound of the next, just isn’t that important. Surely the main job of any DAW is just to not get in the way of the creative process? If a program allows you to express yourself quickly and easily; if it doesn’t get in the way of the creation of your music, then this must be more important that any minor difference in sound? Ultimately a great recording can be made within any platform, and so can a bad recording! Mark Hornsby, a Nashville producer who has worked with the likes of Dolly Parton, has this to say; “On a very technical level I could make an argument that different DAWs sound different. But on a practical level, nobody’s going to say that any DAW does a bad job. Different environments lead you to make different creative decisions when you record, mix or edit, so it’s pointless to compare them side by side”.