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An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression - A free download from Audio Masterclass

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Which DAW sounds best?

Some people think DAWs all sound the same. But do some DAWs sound better than others?

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A question from a Audio Masterclass reader...

"This question is prompted by an ad I've just seen for Pro Tools 9, wherein it claims to be '..the world's best-sounding software'. The question is DOES it sound better than other DAWs? If so, how and why? And for that matter does Cubase, for example, sound better than Sonar, and/or Logic or vice-versa? Or do they all just sound different and it's purely a subjective issue?"

There are actually two questions here... One is whether DAWs sound different when everything is set to flat with no processing. Or whether they sound different once you start to apply faders, pans, EQs, compressors etc.

Let's consider the situation where everything is flat...

Suppose you collect a variety of instruments and voices together in a studio, set up microphones and connect to an 8-channel preamp. Split the outputs of the individual preamplifiers four ways, then take the signals from the eight mics to Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools and Sonar, all running identical interfaces with identical computers. That should be a pretty good test.

After setting the gains correctly, make a recording on all four systems simultaneously.

Then, with all faders set to zero and pans centered, play back the recordings and compare them. Obviously the balance between the instruments will be out, but you should be able to tell whether or not all four DAWs sound the same.

But what if they don't all sound the same?

Well, this would be a major problem. Even if one DAW seems more pleasant than the others, the last thing you want is for a DAW to have a 'sound' of its own. What's good for one style of music might be terrible for another. Your 'sound' should be created with mics, preamps, processors and effects with whatever digital or analog equipment you choose. Your DAW should not be deciding this for you.

I don't think that's going to happen though. We would surely know about it already. I think that all four DAWs will sound as close to identical as would make no difference to anyone, in any context.

But what happens when you start to move the faders?

Well, since faders are calibrated in decibels, the DAWs should still sound the same whatever fader settings you make, as long as all decibel values are identical.

What about pans?

Aha! This is where we start to hear a difference. Since DAWs can have different pan laws, then half-right on one DAW might be a little different to half-right on another. Add up these tiny differences over a whole mix and you can expect the DAWs to sound subtly different to each other.

And when you start adding EQ and compression, well no matter how close you try to get the settings, you will hear distinct differences. Not the kind of difference that makes any difference, if you see what I mean, at least not with standard plug-ins. But differences there will be. This is normal, expected, and doesn't make one DAW better than any other.

My conclusion is that any description of a DAW as 'best-sounding' is just a piece of sales fluff. I've heard recordings of fully professional quality made with just about every DAW there is. So stop worrying and get on with recording!

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By David Mellor Tuesday May 31, 2011
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