The Best Sounding DAW – Does it Exist?

So is there such a thing as The Best Sounding DAW?

You can see how the title of this thread alone would anger a lot of people and peek the interest of the rest.  I think we are at a point now where we can kindly lay this one to rest but I thought I would cover it because I see it pop up from time to time.

The truth of the matter is that “The Best Sounding DAW” doesn’t exist.  There is a bunch of chatter on the inter webs about the difference in sound between DAWs.

I have used a number of DAW’s and I don’t agree that any one imparts a “character” to the sound. With 32 bit float and 64 bit processing, if there is any differences they are pretty negligible.  Unless of course they have character enhancing plugins built into each channel or on the master fader.

With all that said it is very possible that you could create an identical song in two programs and have them sound different on export, so how can that be?  Well we have to look at a few factors for why this might happen.

1. Workflow

Every program has its own workflow that makes it unique.  In my opinion this is the selling feature that most DAW’s generally focus on because it really is hard to sell a consumer on the fact that you have the best sounding DAW.  I truly believe that no matter what program you use it is more than possible to get a professional sounding record in any one of them.  The value lies in your ability to learn the program and all the features that could potentially benefit your songs.

Some examples of workflow I like in different programs:

1) Avid Pro Tools – I like Pro tools short cut commands, but also it is the most widely used program so transferring projects to colleagues is very simple and stress free.  This is especially useful when you have used a number of plugins.  It gives  another producer or mix engineer more options when dealing with your session.

2) FL Studio – I think for producing FL studio makes things very easy and allows for the producer to get ideas down quick.  One example is the browser, you can easily navigate your samples and quickly get them into your production with out thinking.

3) Cakewalk Sonar – I like Sonar’s metering, it feels the most precise of all the DAWs.  I also always felt that their dithering algorithms sounded really good.

4) Propellerhead Reason– I know a lot of people disagree, but I always liked their playlist.  I found arranging songs to be very easy.

So you can see I picked 4 DAW’s I’m familiar with and gave you just a few examples of what separates them all.  Not that one is better than the other, they just all work a bit differently.

2. Plugins

If you’re strictly in the box then this will probably be one of the biggest, if not the biggest reason why your songs would sound different.  Every DAW comes with its own stock set of Processing plugins as well as virtual instruments.  They all have their own characteristics that they impart on the sound.  So if you record a song and then mix it in Pro Tools with its stock plugins and do the same thing in Sonar, you can see how they would sound different.  Even if the plugins used similar, if not, the same settings.  The same applies to instrument plugins. You can’t expect a piano VSTi in FL Studio to sound the same in Reason, they just sound different.

3. Feelings

So every day you wake up to do some work with audio, you feel different.  Even if you feel happy two days in a row, its a different happy.   You’re inspiration comes from different places within any given day.  This can dramatically effect the sound of your records.

For example, one day it might make sense to boost the vocals 1 dB at 3khz and the very next day it makes much more sense to boost it 4dB at 2khz.  2 different days and 2 completely different EQ settings.  So if you were to create the same song twice in 2 different programs, on 2 different days, you can guarentee it will sound different.

4. Exporting

Every program has its own Dithering algorithms.  So after you’ve recorded and mixed a song at 24 bits and bring it down to 16 bits, it has to go through some sort of dithering process.  If not than there will be audible digital distortion added to your signal from quantization errors going from 24 to 16 bits.  Every program claims that they have the greatest dithering algorithms since sliced bread but that’s for you to decide.

I definitely agree with the fact that they sound different, some more noticeable to me.  But you should test them all out on a few different tracks and A/B to see what you like the best.  Or do it on a track by track basis because one dither might sound good on one song but not so great on another.

There are mastering plugins which incorporate dithering algorithms which is pretty cool because it allows you to hear what the dither is doing in real time.  You can then select the dither that sounds the best with out having to export.

Conclusion

Most people don’t have the luxury or the time to try a bunch of DAW’s and then see what works for them but what I suggest is to try and figure out some needs that you would like and then try and compare them.  This is much more piratical than trying to find the best sounding DAW.   So pick one and then really get to know it.  Once you really understand a program you can then begin to work magic.  Also I believe all DAW creators now allow for some type of trial period.  So try a few and see what works for you.

Remember its not the DAW that makes the engineer it ultimately comes down to your knowledge and years of experience.  Become an expert in one program and let the technical thoughtstake a back seat.  The music and the feeling are always the most important and not how great you think a DAW sounds.

  • trakslasha

    I agree with your sentiments. Before Pro Tools i used to mix in Adobe Audition and I did some pretty decent mixes but the reason I switched was definitely a workflow issue and not “sound” related. There were certain things i just couldn’t get done properly like automation.Over the years I have learnt the functions of Pro Tools and became very efficient using it and what determines my sound now is my techniques and use of various plug ins. So will I use another DAW? YES I will if I have to and i will find one that allows me to do the things that I want and with that said, I’m looking at Harrison Mixbus very closely.

  • ” I think we are at a point now where we can kindly lay this one to rest but I thought I would cover it because I see it pop up from time to time.”

    No, this can not be laid to rest, really. There are differences in the sound of each DAW OUT OF THE BOX, case closed. The “trick” is that all the folks that claim it is all 1’s & 0’s are saying that they are all the same if set up the same way! Well, duh…

    Pan Laws, Dithering, etc is different for each one from the factory, and out of the box they sound different. There are a few pros out there that claim to use one over the other because of the sound, and they don’t have “endorsements”. Plus, they are light years ahead of us, so I think when they say something like this in passing we should pay attention.

    Cool site, glad I ran across it.

    • Modern Mixing

      Yes certain DAW’s might have quirks that are different out of the box and most of them are related to workflow.

      Pan law is not a sonic issue but a volume issue. Yes it can have an affect on your mix but not a negative or a positive one. If you are using your ears properly and have enough experience, you should be adjusting volumes even while panning.

      I agree with dithering which Is why I covered it but this is from an exporting point of view which can actually be bypassed at the end of your mix (ie preparing a track for mastering).

      The actual DAWs themselves dont add any character to the sound. Ive never read or heard of a “Pro” talk about the phenomenon that your speaking about. If there is any issue I guarentee its workflow related which I really think does impact your sound.

      But if your saying that a pan law and a dithering algorithm is completely changing your sound from one Daw to the next, I’m pretty sure is lack of mixing experience and not the DAW.

      But comparing Pro Tools to Sonar from a sonic perspective like comparing SSL to NEVE consoles sounds pretty absurd to me.

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