On the spectrum of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) there are many answers to this question and while the truth is probably, “the best DAW is the one you learn best” we all have our preferences. Here at the Portland Pod, we’ve used Audacity, Ableton Live, Audition, FL Studio, Reaper, Cubase, and Hindenberg, but today, and for every day to come if we have anything to say about it, we use Avid Pro Tools because we believe it is the best.
In its familiar form, Avid Pro Tools has been around since 1989 (though, if we get technical, its first incarnation was in 1984), making it, I believe, the longest living, and still alive, DAW that ever there was. Surviving that long means Avid has seen a lot, learned a lot, changed a lot, and improved a lot — making Pro Tools battle tested and immensely capable. No DAW has better credentials and none are wider used. With over 1-million current users, Pro Tools is THE standard in audio production.
In addition to its established status and capability, Avid also makes Media Composer — an industry standard film and video editing tool. So if, like us, you dabble in light video editing and production, having same-brand solutions for both audio and video is a nice add. Media Composer and Pro Tools work, as you would expect, seamlessly together.
Audacity is a super popular solution for podcasters, for a few really good reasons. First, it’s free. Kind of hard to beat free! Second, it’s incredibly easy to use. Third, it’s compatible with all VST plugins (that is, we haven’t run across any that it isn’t compatible with). The biggest draw-back to Audacity is that it doesn’t have real time processing of plugins.
When you EQ in Pro-Tools you play the audio and EQ along with it — any changes you make are reflected in real time. Apply a low-end roll off while listening? You hear it right away. Turn it off, turn it on, adjust it, all these changes can be heard as you make them.
In Audacity this isn’t the case. You’ll open up your EQ plugin, make changes, and then click “preview” to hear a few seconds of audio with those settings applied to it. Audio engineering forums still complain about this lack of functionality. Worse, this doesn’t just apply for editing tracks, it applies during the recording such that you cannot apply effects at point of capture — a massive benefit to more mature DAWs like Pro Tools.
Ease of Advancement and Active Support Forums
Let’s pretend there’s a DAW User IQ that runs from 1 to 5. If you’re at the low-end of that, it’s going to take you a month to learn to use Pro Tools competently as a podcaster. If you’re at the high-end, it’ll take you a week. Back in 2015 when we first started using Pro Tools in our Florida studio (may she rest in piece) we carved out a production-free week just to mess with Pro Tools and get as good as we could as quickly as we could.
It’s true that basic steps which would be more intuitive in Audacity do, at first, seem unnecessarily complicated in Pro Tools. With Audacity you’ll be recording, cutting, and pasting in no time, satisfying the most basic of editing needs right out of the gate. When it comes to the speed and ease with which improvement comes, however, the opposite is true: Once you master the basics in Audacity, learning the more advanced levels of audio engineering will come at a frustratingly slow pace as you struggle to overcome a poor user interface and an impossibly limiting feature set.
With Pro Tools, you’ll absolutely be frustrated as to why you can’t do something as simple as turn grid-snap off without having a PhD in Egyptian hieroglyphics and archaic symbolism (so many icons and locations to learn!). However, once you’ve push through these basic features, you’ll find that improvements to your skill set come regularly and your advancement as an Audio Engineer is gradual and easy.
Audacity helps you be basic. Pro Tools challenges you to be better and then gives you the room you need to grow.
Also, Avid support is amazing and so are their user forums.
Some Draw-backs to Pro Tools
For one, it’s expensive. $500 for a single version with a perpetual license. Or, how we do it, $24/month with no contract and a perpetual license (so long as we pay the bill!). We prefer monthly because while that $500 might mean you never pay again, it also means you don’t get free upgrades, you’re just stuck with the version you bought.
It also has piracy and billing on lock down. In addition to buying the software you’ll need to purchase a $50 iLok usb stick. This stick holds all your licenses and if it’s not plugged into your computer, your software won’t work. Avid does not mess around with licensing and it does not mess around with you not paying your bill. Miss a payment by even one day and your software won’t work until you pay (though there is a 3-day grace period). You can always get a 3-day temp license from tech support, but it’s a hassle, so you’ll need to be on top of your bill.
It can be finicky if you don’t have your audio system configured well. If you’re someone who pops in and out of your DAW and uses the same interface for audio, you could see somewhat frequent crashes. Pro Tools is non-destructive and keeps copies of all work in 5-minute increments so this is more obnoxious than anything else. You shouldn’t be using your audio interface device for regular listening anyway, it should only be used within the DAW. We’ve been using Pro Tools on PC for about four years now and we have one of these annoying crashes about once a month — which is about once per every 12 sessions. It helps to curse Bill Gates after each crash.
So if you’re serious about being an Audio Engineer and not just a Podcast Editor, pick Pro Tools.
That’s the answer. Though, credit where credit is due, if you’re a MAC user, there’s very little incentive for you to use Pro Tools over LogicPro X. I still think Pro Tools is superior, but factoring in LogicPro’s pricing, standard status, functionality, and inclusive Apple-y-ness, I’d really be splitting hairs. LogicPro X is a really great DAW, but for you PC users, Pro Tools is the way to go if you ever want to be anything more than a part-time, casual, just-for-fun audio editor.