Are there some specific features which make Pro Tools so popular in high end audio? Most comparisons I've found with other DAW's are several years old and are pretty subjective. I'm interested in specifics.
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I’ve never answered a question here before. But as a Pro Tools veteran of 21+ years who’s worked sessions for major artists from coast to coast, and as a former contributing editor for Recording Magazine, I feel pretty qualified to answer this one.
First of all, many people will be quick to tell you that Pro Tools is the industry standard because it was the first. While it’s true that it was the first, and while there’s no question that helped it establish an early foothold in the industry, that’s not the reason it has remained the tool of choice for high-end professionals. The reason is that it really is the best DAW on the market, and always has been.
Do not let people tell you that Pro Tools owes its industry status to simple market inertia. That’s just crazy. If a facility is investing a quarter million dollars in a Pro Tools system (not difficult to do), you can bet your ass they are investigating every possible alternative with a fine-tooth comb. When a company realizes it could buy FOUR full-blown Logic rigs for the price of a single PT rig, and still chooses Pro Tools, it’s not because they are mindless lemmings.
During my years at Recording, we staged several DAW “shootouts” on both Mac and PC, in which we would invite writers, hobbyists, and industry experts to compare them side by side, feature for feature. When pure features (and not price/costs of ownership) were considered, Pro Tools was the winner going away every time. There was usually a unanimous consensus on that. Nothing else even came close. Granted, it has been a few years since I was involved in that, but I strongly suspect this is still the case.
You asked for specifics. I can tell you that Pro Tools strongest advantages are in the following:
Granted, a lot of this stuff may not be important to you, especially if you’re a hobbyist or run a small commercial facility. But trust me, when you are shelling out well into six figures to outfit a room and paying engineers $100/hour to run it, it’s pretty important.
There are some areas where Pro Tools hasn’t traditionally been that strong. They were pretty slow early on with adopting MIDI features for example, and still lag in that area behind competing systems. I could probably thinkof a few others, but quite frankly none come to mind at the moment.
Be advised, all of my experience in this area is with Mac-based systems. I’ve never used or even seen Pro Tools run on a PC, so take that for what it’s worth.
Specifically Pro Tools was very early on the market with professional level products, ie things you could record 24 bit on 32 channels or more on. This meant loads of studios invested in a Pro Tools system for those who needed to do that kind of editing. And that meant people learned to use Pro Tools because that was what available at the studio when they needed it, and that meant they wanted pro tools at the next studio, because they didn't want to re-learn.
And hence it became industry standard. It's like Windows. Everybody uses it, nobody wants to re-learn, etc. Technical aspects are no longer relevant. Only being early, available and good enough.
(This is not to be taken as a pitch against Pro Tools. I've never used it it's too expensive for me. I'm sure it's bloody awesome. But that's not the reason it's "industry standard".)
Their approach to building the entire DAW system was, from the outset, very different. And I believe that's what set them apart and got them entrenched in the professional audio scene.
You couldn't, for the longest time, buy a version of ProTools that just ran on whatever computer you had in your studio. Instead, you bought rack-mounted boxes from ProTools that were loaded with general computational devices and DSP devices for accelerated audio processing. There were hard limits on what you could do with the box: a box would support X simultaneous tracks of audio at Y sampling and bit depth and Z plugins running.
The use of dedicated hardware meant their development was simplified: they didn't have to write to buggy drivers, they didn't have to support myriad of hardware options. It meant they could converge faster, get things very stable. A ProTools setup was, especially in the early 90's, a setup that didn't crash (much, and not at all in comparison to things like Logic or Cubase or CakeWalk that ran on general hardware). It also didn't break a sweat when you ran it at the limit because the limit was set to ensure there was processing overhead available.
If you wanted more tracks, more plugins, better bit depths, you just bought another processing box and expanded the computational power of your ProTools setup. You didn't have to "know computers" to expand it. It was, more or less, a drop in upgrade -- add the box, connect it in, and you got extra tracks in your sessions. Easy.
The closed system also meant hardware controllers were easier to design. I'm fairly certain they were way out in front with the "hands on" interface, tactile sliders and knobs that controlled the "in the box" mix that was happening.
So if you wanted something reliable in your studio, at first you bought ProTools. And then, over time, if you wanted what all the other pro studios in the area had, you bought ProTools. And if you wanted to move mixes from one studio to another, you bought ProTools.
But at first, you bought ProTools because it was super stable, unlike all the other DAW options at the time.
The better DAW depends on what you need.
As said before, Pro Tools is weaker when it comes to MIDI, so it depends - film composers are MIDI people 90% of the time. Hans Zimmer, the biggest film composer out there, among many others such as Harry Gregson-Williams, does all his writing in Cubase.
However, they also have Pro Tools running simultaneously on another screen.
Williams has an intriguing setup which, I think, records whatever he composes on Cubase into a Pro Tools system simultaneous as audio tracks. Zimmer writes in Cubase, does the mixing in Pro Tools. So in some cases, one DAW is just not enough.
The truth is, Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Sonar, etc are pretty much all excellent and are capable of what you need.
I tried PreSonus and it's workflow is amazing, and that's the point - how's the workflow? As for Pro Tools being "first", first is a relative term. I'd always thought of Cubase (Steinberg) as being earlier than Digidesign.
Steinberg invented VST's, which is a huge big deal in the DAW world. But that's perhaps from a MIDI standpoint. If you're a mainly a MIDI composer, you really don't need to fork out at all on Pro Tools - it's major strength is Audio file processing.
Also bear in mind that in readers' poll's and music magazine reviews, Pro Tools hasn't been number one, and in many cases even top 4 or 5 for several years including 2011 and 2012. How good a DAW is depends on your needs as a musician, and your workflow style.
Eh. I sat at Avid in Tewksbury, MA in my own cube (I sold telecom to them) and have been a professional musician (opera house, Kennedy Center, DC), too, so I use my ears. Why, Avid didn't even have their trademark on movies when the credits scroll until just recently. And that's not uniform. Some have it; others don't. Other DAWs do everything that PT does without the "key", and nothing sounds as good as real sound. It's not about "how many songs can I get in this much RAM?" or what's the club or arena audience look like... It's about doing it live...