Whether DAWs have their own sound or not is a hotly debated discussion. For decades, producers have been swearing over the superior quality of one DAW or the other. How much truth is there to this notion?
DAWs don’t have their own sound. They won’t change an audio file unless you alter it in some way. You can find some minimal differences in the waveforms, but they are not audible. Defaults and plugins can vary from one DAW to another, giving a common sound to songs produced in a certain DAW.
The discussion around the unique sound of DAWs is old and seems unresolvable. In this article, we’ll get to the truth about it. You’ll understand in what ways the sound of one DAW can differ from another and when it matters.
Do DAWs Sound Different From Each Other?
You can find some minimal changes in the way different DAWS process audio. However, you’ll have to look at the wavelengths to even realize they’re there.
DAWs can sound different from each other due to different default settings and plugins. However, they all process audio in the same way and offer the same degree of transparency. Very few people can notice the sound difference between one DAW and another.
Some people claim the differences come down to how the math of the DAW works when modifying digital audio. However, all DAWs are supposed to use the same mathematical operations when doing basic audio processing, thus being equally transparent.
Let’s take a look at some of the places where you might find these differences.
Bouncing refers to turning an entire project with all its tracks into an audio file. Depending on the software, this process can have different names, like exporting.
It’s sometimes said that bounced audio sounds different depending on the DAW you’re using. Let’s see what was found in a comparison made by Attack Magazine.
The same track was bounced in three different DAWs without any modifications. The resulting audio had the same overall EQ response across the DAWs. A couple of small volume peaks was the only difference that could be found.
In any case, if there was a minuscule difference, it was far from being audible.
If you’re noticing said difference, make sure the bouncing options are the same. Defaults can vary from DAW to DAW, and this wouldn’t mean they’re treating audio in a fundamentally different way.
Compression adjusts the volume of your track by making the peaks quieter. The result is that it literally compresses the waveform, or rather, squashes it. This makes volume more even throughout the track, which helps make certain sounds punchier or simply turns the loudness up.
Compression always comes up when discussing DAW sounds. So, how much do they differ in this regard?
In the same comparison by Attack Magazine, a track was passed through the same third-party compressors in different DAWs. The experiment was repeated using the stock compressors in each DAW.
The third-party compressors showed some small differences in the waveform across different DAWs, mainly in the higher and lower ends. There was also a little variation in volume. However, the difference can’t be perceived subjectively.
When it came to the stock compressors, there were slight but perceptible differences. This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, these are different compressors, and they are coded differently.
Overall, the differences in how DAWs handle compression are negligible. Still, you could prefer the stock compressor of a specific DAW.
The equalizer tool is used constantly in audio processing. It lets you adjust the volume of different ranges of frequencies within a sound. It might also be one of the first things that comes to your mind when considering differences among DAWs.
The stock EQs in each DAW can give audibly different results when making the same adjustments to the same tracks. However, using the same third-party plugins mostly produces no audible difference.
Pan laws are one of the points that most frequently lead people to believe that DAWs have fundamentally different sounds. The differences in pan laws are quite audible, but they don’t mean the DAWs have their own sound.
Pan laws aren’t really laws. They indicate how sound should change when panned from one side to another, but there is more than one way of approaching them. This means that there are many pan laws.
DAWs often come with different pan laws in their default settings. If you ignore this, mixing the same track in different DAWs will produce different results. However, the issue here is a difference in settings, not a difference in the DAW’s audio engines.
Do Some DAWs Sound Better Than Others?
The short answer is no. But if there is one DAW that sounds better to you, then that’s reason enough to stick with that one.
DAWs don’t sound better than others by themselves. They are all transparent, but factors like plugins and VIs can affect how tracks sound in a certain DAW. No DAW creates an objectively better sound. However, different producers prefer the sound of different DAWs.
Top-tier composers in ideal listening conditions seem to be able to notice the sound of a specific DAW. Hans Zimmer once expressed in an interview how he likes the sound of Cubase, saying that “what you put into Cubase is what you get out.”
Here you can watch the entire interview with Hans Zimmer on Steinberg’s channel, where he talks about his custom studio and how he scores movies in Cubase.
You can easily find differing opinions among great pros. Mike Dean, a prominent producer who worked on Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” stated in an interview that he mixes in Ableton because he likes the sound he gets better than in other DAWs.
Watch the entire interview with Mike Dean to know more about his story as a producer.
You’ll see similar remarks about most professional DAWs like Logic Pro, Nuendo, Reason, and many others.
The truth is that there’s a lot of subjectivity involved. Different tastes will lean toward different sounds.
In the end, other things matter much more when it comes to how good your music sounds. First of all, there’s the quality of your music. Achieving a perfect mix won’t matter if the music isn’t as good as it can be.
Which DAW Has the Best Sound Quality?
Deciding on the DAW with the best sound quality is highly subjective. However, some DAWs are cited more often than others by producers when the topic of trademark sounds comes out.
There is not a single DAW that has a better sound quality than the rest. The best DAW for a producer will depend on their taste and music genres. However, a few DAWs are frequently praised for how they sound. These include Pro Tools, Cubase, Ableton Live, Logic Pro, and Reaper.
All major DAWs are praised for how they sound by different people. A quick search will show you dozens of forum threads where people vouch for a specific DAW, and there is no agreement between them.
There is one common criterion that DAWs should try to achieve: leaving your sound as untouched as possible. That is, not intervening in any way that isn’t intentional from the part of the producer.
In the end, the best sound quality is the one that sounds better for you. You’ll be okay with picking any good DAW as long as you know how to use it properly. Use this short guide to see if any one of these fits well with your music-making.
If absolute transparency is what you’re looking for, Pro Tools is a safe bet. There’s a reason it’s the most used DAW in professional studios. It provides a transparent, untouched sound that will replicate what you hear in person.
Pro Tools is the world industry standard, at least when it comes to recording with live instruments. It’s also been in the market for a long time, so audio engineers are used to it.
Cubase might be the most popular DAW among composers. This mainly comes down to its amazing MIDI editing capabilities.
Cubase can edit MIDI intuitively and smoothly, which gives you more control over how you want it to sound. For example, Cubase can randomly alter the velocity of a MIDI clip to make it sound more human.
If you want your MIDI instruments to sound as good as possible, Cubase is the best choice.
Ableton Live has been optimized over time for creating electronic music. Consequently, many electronic music producers prefer how their tracks sound in Ableton.
Ableton seems able to produce especially loud mixes, which may or may not be of interest to you. But the fact is that this DAW has many functions that help improve the way electronic music sounds.
Logic Pro has some of the best sound and plugin libraries of any DAW. If you want a DAW with full capabilities without downloading any plugin, then there’s no better choice than Logic Pro.
Quality plugins are crucial for creating a good sound in your mixes. Logic Pro gives you amazing options without the need to look elsewhere.
Reaper is an extremely lightweight program. But don’t let that fool you; it’s just as capable as most major DAWs. Because of its simplicity, some users prefer the way third-party plugins work in Reaper.
Reaper crashes much less often than other DAWs, and its stability is unrivaled. This matters when it comes to sound.
One of the reasons DAWs seem to give off different sounds is due to clipping and crashes. Reaper is less prone to glitches even when you’re having issues with your hardware.
Other Ways Your DAW Can Influence Your Sound
If we only consider DAW-specific things, there are a lot of factors other than how they sound that can change how you make music.
Making a list would be way too long, and it probably wouldn’t be too useful. After all, every small difference plays a part, and there are too many to count.
Still, let’s talk about a few that can cause your songs to have a specific sound:
First of all, there’s the workflow. The importance of a DAW’s workflow can’t be overstated, and it’s perhaps the No. 1 reason many professionals choose one program over the other.
When we talk about workflow, this is what we mean:
- What is displayed on the screen
- How it is displayed
- What you’re allowed to do with it
Each DAW prioritizes slightly different things.
The way a workflow is designed can lead you to make different creative decisions. Having certain effects more at hand may make you more prone to use them.
Stock Virtual Instruments
Then there are the stock virtual instruments. Stock digital synthesizers are great across most DAWs, but not necessarily the same.
If you have some stock VIs readily available, you might decide that using them is the best choice, especially considering that getting good VIs can cost a lot of money.
A VI library can certainly give a certain “sound” to music produced in a DAW, but it has to do more with human decisions than how the program handles sound.
Features and Tools
A DAW’s features and tools will also play a huge role in nudging you to do certain things or ignoring others.
Cubase and Logic Pro have outstanding MIDI editing tools, so you might take the chance and do some extra tweaking there. Meanwhile, Adobe Live is optimized for creating loops and moving tracks around in real-time, which could take your creativity in a different direction.
Some DAWs, like Reason and Cubase, have an interface that resembles how traditional mixing hardware looks. These design decisions won’t say much to many young producers, but experienced musicians might feel at home with it.
Carrying design philosophies from older machines also prioritizes certain ways of manipulating audio, which could influence what musicians perceive as distinct DAW sounds.
The point here is that it’s difficult to determine how much of a DAW’s sound is due to the way it handles tracks or to human decisions.
Should You Care About How DAWs Sound?
The short answer is yes, but put other things first.
You shouldn’t care too much about how DAWs sound. The differences can only be noticed by very trained ears, and they are mostly due to how the programs are used. Other factors are much more important when choosing a DAW, like how good you feel using it and how well it fits your music.
First of all, if you don’t have an experienced and sensitive ear for music engineering, you probably won’t be able to notice any difference. That means that almost none of the people that will listen to your music will notice it.
So, from a practical point of view, it’s probably not worth it to put too much thought into it. There are also other things you should worry about first, like:
- How good you feel using a DAW. The best DAW for you is the one that lets you express your ideas in a fast and accurate way.
- What music you’re making. Some DAWs are well adapted to specific kinds of music. Cubase is a favorite for scoring movies and video games. Pro Tools emulates a physical recording studio better than others. Ableton Live was designed with live performances and DJs in mind.
- Compatibility. Some equipment works better with specific DAWs. Moreover, some instruments and consoles may not even work in certain DAWs or require awkward workarounds. Choose a DAW that supports your gear.
- Virtual Instruments. Perhaps you’re in love with a third-party VI or plugin that isn’t available for every DAW. This is as good a decision as any to choose one program over the other.
- Learning capacity/community. A strong community makes learning a DAW easier. For example, there are a plethora of YouTube tutorials for Live. FL Studio also has plenty of learning content. But also consider the people around you. If you’re always jamming with musicians that use the same DAW, it might be worth it to join them.
And if you do find that different DAWs make your music sound different, just choose the one that is more pleasant to your ears. Let your taste be your guide.
If you want to make sure you’re making the best decision for yourself, play around with demos and lite versions to see which DAW you like the most.
Many musicians proclaim that the DAW they use sounds better than others, but there’s no agreement on it.
The difference between DAW sounds is unnoticeable most of the time. Some small differences can be found in things like compression, EQ, defaults, and the way some third-party plugins work.
In the end, the best DAW is the one you’re most comfortable using. If you notice a difference in how they make your music sound, choose the one you like the most.