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Looking to get started with music production but don’t know which DAW to buy?
We compare 2 of the most popular DAWS, head-to-head.
Find out whether Pro Tools or Ableton Live is right for you.
Pro Tools vs Ableton Live: Who Wins?
Pro Tools excels at workflow options for those of you who predominantly work with bands and need to work with large amounts of live multitracking comping. Ableton Live excels as a creative suite for electronic and digital realm producers, with intuitive ‘live’ performance features that Pro Tools does not offer. Both DAWs come with an excellent array of plugins, though Pro Tools‘ collection has been revered as the gold standard for many. Many would argue that Ableton Live’s MIDI functionality is sleeker compared to Pro Tools.
*Ableton Live has announced that multi-track comping will (finally) be available in Live 11.
Breaking It Down: Pro Tools vs Ableton
Have a conversation with any music producer and at some point, you are almost guaranteed to hear the words ‘Pro Tools’. In fact, have a conversation with any musician and you will probably find out that they are familiar with the Pro Tools name, and if they’ve ever recorded in a professional studio, they have more than likely used it.
Pro Tools is arguably the ‘go-to’ DAW of choice for many professionals out there, but is it really all it’s hyped up to be?
Ease Of Use/Learning Curve
As a beginner opening up a Pro Tools session it can be difficult to know where to start. Like any musical craft, Pro Tools takes time to learn, inevitably you will end up having to read through manuals and probably consult google for your answers, but isn’t that part of the fun after all?
It is widely argued that Pro Tools is not the most user-friendly DAW out there.
Something that is quite easily achieved in Logic/Ableton, like creating a send, can be quite daunting in Pro Tools. Frustrating at first but processes like this, i.e. manually linking your signal chain, creates a steep learning curve that actually becomes really rewarding as you learn the program’s intricacies and functions which once mastered are often translatable to other DAWs.
Stock Plugins & Sound Libraries
While Pro Tools is one of the pricier DAWs, once you purchase it you will also receive a selection of plugins which are of industry standard quality.
The great news is regardless of whether you opt for the free ‘Pro Tools First’ or the full software you will be able to use Pro Tool’s own EQ, Compressor, Limiter and Gate.
There are arguably better plugins on the market, but these plugins have gotten some of the best producers by for decades. It’ll also give you an idea of how these types of plugins work and how they affect your mix.
You’ll also get a D-Verb and Mod Delay included with each package which gives you the basics to begin creating great mixes. Upgrading your Pro Tools package gives you a bigger selection of plugins (such as chorus, phaser and more) but this isn’t a necessity if you’re just starting out.
If you decide to opt for a paid-for version of Pro Tools you’ll also get access to a good selection of software instruments, such as the AIR Mini Grand Piano, and over 2GB of loops and samples which are sufficient for starting ideas and building tracks. Depending on the genre you write, you may find this selection quite limiting though.
It’s not the prettiest interface, but it is efficient in its layout. You have your basic play, record, stop functions, a tracklist and your regions clearly displayed. You can quickly tab between the record and mix window where you’ll see your tracks laid out clearly, and you can insert plugins in either of these windows.
It can be a little confusing at first when creating bus or auxiliary tracks as Pro Tools won’t immediately link your signal path so spend some time getting to understand how these work and why you would use them.
Once you get a better understanding of the screen layout then it is worth reading up on shortcuts and functions within Pro Tools that will speed up your workflow. Like anything, you get out what you put in and with a little bit of effort you’ll soon be using keyboard shortcuts which will save you clicking in menus constantly and certain shortcuts will become second nature.
Aside from being just recording software, think of Pro Tools as a way to edit your tracks during and after the recording process, which is where the selling point really lies.
Are your drums not quite synchronizing with the click track? Hit CMD+8 on Mac (or CTRL+8 on PC) and bring up Beat Detective. A simple few clicks and you can transform your ‘not quite perfect’ drum takes into professional sounding, locked in beats.
In fact, Pro Tools will even allow you to lengthen, shorten and add fades to your regions without even having to select each region.
Once you get to grips with its shortcuts and time-saving functions Pro Tools quickly becomes second nature.
Of course, cost needs to be factored into any purchasing decision and your wallet will take a hit if you choose to invest in Pro Tools.
A perpetual license will currently set you back a fair bit (check price here), although there are subscription options at a less intimidating rate.
If you are unsure then Pro Tools First can be downloaded for free, great if you don’t want to commit financially right away but this does restrict you to a maximum of 16 tracks of audio.
There are undoubtedly cheaper DAWs out there such as Logic.
Much like learning a musical instrument Pro Tools takes time, but the rewards and sense of satisfaction you gain from it are huge. As the industry-standard software, learning Pro Tools puts you in good stead should you decide to pursue production professionally but also much like learning a musical instrument, the hobbyists will still have a lot of fun using and getting to grips with the program.
So consider your budget, your preferred styles to listen to and mix and what your typical session will look like. If it’s physical instruments you are recording then Pro Tools should be a serious consideration for purchase.
There are other DAWs which you may over time find to suit your needs more but you can be certain that Pro Tools will be a huge asset when it comes to your recording, mixing and mastering.
Much like learning a musical instrument Pro Tools takes time, but the rewards and sense of satisfaction you gain from it are huge. As the industry-standard software, learning Pro Tools puts you in good stead.
Pro Tools may be the industry standard for a band recording their rock album at an established studio, but the Ableton logo is the sigil of the electronic musicians.
Its user base alone provides a compelling testimony, being the DAW of choice for Deadmau5, REZZ, TYNAN, KSHMR, Gammer, Skrillex, Dillon Francis, Kill The Noise, Angerfist, Au5, Vorso, Illenium, and many, many more. So why is it so well-loved?
Ease Of Use/Learning Curve
The layout makes sense, and it offers helpful tips in the lower-left corner of the screen for a novice user.
It’s an easy DAW to fall into and never walk away from. KSHMR used Reason, switched to Ableton, and never switched away. Deadmau5 made the same jump from FL Studio. These dance giants favor Ableton because it welcomed them with a simple, but powerful design, and incredibly effective tools.
A lot of Ableton’s power comes from its stock plugins, and their ease of use. Unlike most DAWs, you don’t have to open up a separate window to use the stock plugins in Ableton.
Granted, all of your third party plugins will still require it, but this one tiny step saved results in hundreds or thousands fewer clicks before your song is finished if you use the tools Ableton offers, and it honestly makes a difference.
When you don’t have to open up your graphic EQ to notch out some of those low mids because the controls are presented to you right in the plugin chain, you feel it. It feels good.
Stock Plugins & Sound Libraries
Ableton Live’s stock plugins are absolute powerhouses. For example, look at Corpus. Corpus is a plugin included with the Suite version of Ableton Live that “simulates the acoustic characteristics of seven types of resonant objects,” per the Ableton manual.
To put that into layman’s terms, it gives any sound the same sonic characteristics as a pipe, or a marimba, or a string, and more. The sound design possibilities with Corpus are both unique and exciting, and there’s not a lot of software that does what Corpus does as well as Corpus does it.
Beyond just Corpus, Ableton plugins like Operator and the cleverly named Sampler are well-loved software due to their ease of use and powerful versatility. These are just a few of the many innovative and incredible stock plugins that come with Ableton, as long as you’re willing to dish out your hard-earned cash.
Along with the wide selection of plugins and midi effects, the full (Suite) version of Live comes with an impressive collection of over 5000 individual sounds and samples, over 70GB of data ready to be used in your latest and greatest productions, more than enough samples to get you on your way to your goal of song creation, although it is worth noting that as you move down the tiers of Live bundles, you are offered fewer sounds.
Typically referred to by the brand name, Ableton, the software is actually called Live, and that’s very telling regarding its focus.
It was designed with performers in mind, and has an entire view mode designed for cueing and playing tracks in a live setting.
It works tremendously well with audio files, pitch shifting and time stretching where necessary with very few artifacts, thanks to some well designed proprietary algorithms. This performance-driven ideology is well-honed, and actually lends a lot of benefits to its production abilities as well.
Its workflow benefits from this priority of audio information over MIDI. While its MIDI capabilities are not lacking by any means, freezing a track and flattening to audio occurs very naturally.
Reversing a sample is one simple tap of the R key. Stretching, warping, fading, mutilating audio to suit your needs seems to happen as soon as you’ve thought it.
Ableton is often praised for its workflow, and with good reason. Once you’ve learned it, this DAW becomes very efficient, and ideas go from conception to reality in seemingly no time at all.
Oh, by the way, Ableton’s expensive. Ableton Live 10 Suite (check price here) is the one with all the bells and whistles.
But if you just want to try out the workflow and record a simple singer-songwriter track with vocals, guitar, and maracas, try out Ableton Live Lite. It’s free, and is a perfect way to dip your toes into the pool and see if you like it.
It’ll only allow you to have 8 tracks, plus 2 send/return tracks, and it has limited plugins, but it would be fully capable of building a professional quality song, as long as the production is simple enough.
So, you tried Lite, and you decided you like Ableton, but Suite is a massive monetary commitment. There are two more options to explore though, Intro (check price on Amazon) and Standard (check price on Amazon).
Intro is a lot more powerful than Lite, but still with a limited track count (16 now), and a lot of the finer tools are saved for Intro’s bigger brothers.
Intro is a reasonable next step, but for the serious producer who wants to make music professionally, Standard is probably the lowest step you should go to.
The Standard version offers unlimited tracks, 13 more audio effects than Intro, and 256 mono audio inputs and outputs (contrasting Intro’s 8). Ableton Live Standard is for the producer who’s serious and wants to cast off their limitations. Suite is for the producer who wants all that, plus all the toys.
Is Ableton Live Right For You?
Ultimately, Ableton’s an incredibly effective DAW, and it’s hard to go wrong with it, but it may very well be cost-prohibitive. If you’re willing to budget enough to purchase Standard or Suite, however, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.