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.
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:
Multitrack audio editing (that is, applying edits to multiple tracks simultaneously). The PT features and workflow in this area are unequalled in the industry. It is simply faster, easier, and more productive by at least an order of magnitude. If you do this all day, every day, a Pro Tools system will pay for itself many times over just in increased productivity.
Digidesign/Avid invests millions in developing the absolutely best effects money can buy, and those effects run on a rock-solid DSP platform.
Speaking of hardware -- Digidesign’s dedicated hardware platform is second to none. They build world-class consoles, interfaces, etc. that are built specifically to run Pro Tools.
They only support systems that run on computers with exact specifications that they control. They won’t just let you slap Pro Tools into any off-the-shelf Mac you have lying around or can manage to snag off of eBay. This lets them design and build systems that are designed to run on specific hardware, and rigorously test those systems to ensure 100% compatibility.
Working with video and film. Digidesign consciously targeted the film industry very early on, and as such were really the only viable option if you needed to sync to picture. Once they were purchased by Avid, that focus became even stronger.
Surround-sound. This is closely related to the above. Pro Tools supports every conceivable surround-sound format, both in software and hardware, and has from the beginning.
The best dealer network. Digidesign doesn’t whore out Pro Tools. They don’t just let any Joe Blow with a credit card become a reseller. There is a rigorous dealer training and certification process, part of which requires you to know and support the product.
They stand behind their product. I purchased (and still own) one of their Control 24 consoles. When the silk-screening on it turned out to be bad (some of the labels were starting to rub off) they replaced the ENTIRE board. And when they changed the design to use a switching power supply, they retrofitted mine at no charge (they paid truck shipping both ways too).
The best reps and support engineers. They have dedicated reps (think “evangelists” in the software field) who will go anywhere and do anything to help a customer. I once worked in a studio where Digidesgn sent a tech representative to help us with an install, and the guy stayed for three weeks.
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.
Pro Tools also had a foot up because of its integration with its own hardware which made it fit in to the studio environment nicely.. Cubase and Logic at el were more software based and better for smaller and home set ups.. all though they are all getting similar now and its more to do with preference, I think Pro tools is still used a bit more just because people do not want to fix what's not broken, but a few Studios are now using Cubase/Nuendo..
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...
Different DAW's have strong points. FOR INSTANCE, SPIDER MAN and many more major motion pictures are MIXED on Digital Performer (They make it pretty evident if you ever been to NAMM).
Essentially a DAW is the "Room" Your recording in. For instance listen to typical top 40 artists recorded in pro tools and hear how it sounds full and piercing. THEN listen to Diplo who'm does everything in Abbleton live- Notice the songs sound like they are all in similar "room" Abbleton has more of a "Breathe" as opposed to a real nice tight quickly fading out signal in Pro tools.
Pro tools is great for mixing and mastering, and tracking because of the "Room" industry likes the way it sounds (But all DAW's sound like different rooms so be aware if you want different)
Abbleton is great for production and new ideas on the fly (You can run it in Protools and track)
Cubase is great for MIDI and production
Digital Performer is great for mixing and mastering