Are some DAWs more equal than others ?

What’s the best sounding DAW ?

The Digital Audio Workstation or DAW for short is the ubiquitous centrepiece of the modern recording studio. Every studio on earth probably uses the DAW in some form or the other.

It wasn’t always like this though before useable software and hardware arrived on the scene in the 90’s using a computer to record and produce music was very uncommon. This was largely due to the fact that personal computers at the time didn’t have the hard drive space or the processing power necessary to be considered a serious and stable machine for such a task.

Some companies found a way around this by introducing standalone hardware units that could be used to complete all the processing tasks needed to run the DAW while leaving your computer’s processor free to handle everything else.

This helped Immensely and by 1997 songs that were recorded and mixed entirely on computers were making it to top 10 charts across the globe.

Now in 2017 however, things are very different. The laptop that I’m using to write this piece probably has enough processing power to launch a satellite into space. So the need for external hardware just to run your DAW is no longer necessary.

You still need basic sound cards though in order to get signals into your computer. The reason being that a computer is basically a glorified calculator. It only understands numbers. You have to find a way to quantify things in the physical world in order for your computer to understand it.

For example, you could convert the sound of the human voice into a simple electrical signal using a microphone. At this point a voice has become a series of fluctuations between positively and negatively charged particles. You’re going to need another step in order to feed this into a computer. That’s where your sound card comes in. It reads the incoming signal and further converts it into a stream of binary data or ones and zeros. That’s basically all your DAW needs to read and playback audio. Since your computer isn’t doing any of the converting its relegated to the role of simply playing back whatever you feed into it.

Now you might be wondering what’s with all the dry audio jargon? Well, it has to do with the fact that there’s quite a lot of misleading information floating around. And one of the biggest myths out there is that different DAWs sound different. Or worse, some sound better than others.

A DAW is designed to simply play back WAV files or any other audio format that you put into it. They aren’t designed to have “a sound” unless the manufacture specifies it. One of the things I hear a lot from audio engineers is “XYZ DAW has a better audio engine” and upon enquiring what they mean by audio engine I’m met with a blank look and then a sudden change of topic.

Now to be fair, there are some DAWs out there that impart a sonic character to the audio you feed it. But this is solely by design and is always mentioned in big red letters on the manufacturer’s website. Take for example Harrison Mixbus which is a DAW thats designed to emulate Harrison mixing consoles and the analog saturation that they produce.

But these are very rare. I know of only two DAWs that are designed to do this and Harrison Mixbus is one of them. As far as I’m concerned all other DAWs sound the same.

You might be wondering though. If all DAWs sound the same why do people have their own unique preferences. Well, that has more to do with workflow and functionality than sound.

A classic example is Ableton Live. Now if you’re an electronic artist and want to use your laptop to perform live Ableton is your best bet. The word “Live” is literally in the name. There are things that Ableton does that you simply can’t do with anything else. So people have various other reasons to use the DAW of their choice. What’s important is to remember that it doesn’t matter what you’re using as long as it serves the purpose you intended it for.

Is it important to know all of this if you want to be a producer ? Does it matter if you have an irrational belief that the software you use gives you magical powers ? Probably not, but I personally think that false information, however harmless can on occasion lead to some people making investments in things that they could have easily avoided. And also its just good to know what you’re talking about sometimes.

So for those of you who believe that your DAW somehow just sounds better or has better “summing” or a better “audio engine” or whatever ambiguous term you want to use.

I’ve put together a little experiment which is really simple and you can try at home with any number of DAWs and proves without  a doubt that they’re all the same. 

Reverse polarity cancellation experiment :

  1. Get any two DAWs
  2. Get a few WAV files
  3. And a few third party plugins
  4. Load up the wav files in both DAWs
  5. And then load up the same plugins in both DAWs with the exact same settings.
  6. You can adjust the faders too if you want. Avoid decimals.
  7. Bounce the master out as a stereo wav file from both DAWs and re-import them back into a project in either DAW.
  8. Reverse the polarity on one of the tracks and voila you will magically hear NOTHING.

What does this mean ?

It means that both the files are exactly the same. Like if you add a negative number with a positive number of the same value you get nothing. Matter, anti matter ….etc

Here’s a video where I demonstrate the process. Please take a few minutes to watch this and take solace in the fact that your 60$ DAW sounds just as good as a 1000$ one.



Published by monohive

Audio Engineer based in Bangalore, India

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