Cubase vs Pro Tools dilemma...

As a long time user of both of them, I avoided to be dragged into this debate; however, at this point, I would like to share with you a couple of observations. I had a few people calling in requesting info, and, during conversation, they asked if I work in ProTools. Once I tell them I switch to Cubase, they lost the interest. Interesting enough, most of them were rather interested in production that involves a lot of MIDI production, which is the really weak point of PT. So, there is a lot of misinformation, and part of it is with intention, due to the marketing machines of the DAW manufacturers.

In the beginning there were only the traditional console, and, at the end of 80’s, Digidesign (former Digidrum) released Sound Tools, and then, in 1991 the first version of ProTools was released for the Mac platform. Due to the low computational power, they came with the Time Division Multiplexing- the so called TDM, which allowed a complex routing of multiple digital inputs (at 16 bit at that time) between the DSP cards, so the computers were capable of handling the tasks. Very soon afterwards, Steinberg and Logic followed, with Cubase and Logic. Then, in 1997 Pro Tools came with the 24 bit 24 tracks. While expensive, it started to replace tape machines and consoles. The others followed in the Pro Tools footsteps.

Pro Tools was successful at that time because Brooks and Gotcher had a deep understanding of the way the computers worked: Mac OS was superior for audio processing due to the multitasking nature of the processor (Motorola ones), and ProTools developed an efficient way of addressing the tasks. PC’s processors were not really multi-tasking at that moment (Intel), and that forced a different set of instructions in development. The irony is that, after years, both PC’s and Mac are on the same processors actually (Intels).

Young Guru worked for Digidesign for a couple of years back then, going all over to showcase the product. Listening to him I realized why ProTools became actually the industry standard at that time, and that was the key of success: they understood that, in order to be easy for the engineers to adopt the product, the interface has to mimic to a large extent the way things worked in the analog world, follow the analog mixers format, so they do not have to waste time educating the engineers, the engineers would be more willing to switch, and Digidesign could sell the product emphasizing the advantages (editing speed, lower cost than the analog consoles).

And, indeed, when it comes to recording and mixing, ProTools is a very efficient platform: it has great shortcuts, making the workflow fast, the editing is very good, and the plugins that comes with are of good quality.

But times are changing, technology pace of changing is nothing short if sensational, and the competition worked hard, seizing opportunities, paying attention to what happens in the market, and they kept on developing their products.

Enter Steinberg: their Cubendo - Cubase and Nuendo, which has the same audio engine as Cubase, but also extensive postproduction capabilities. The Germans had a different approach, looking at what is going to come. Other Germans have developed the mp3’s (Fraunhofer Institute), and the guys at Steinberg understood that will open a huge market, and many will want to be part of, creating music. These smart people saw that the future does not belong only to the big recording studios, with high rates. All the new musicians understood that their chance of having their music heard increased, and they needed actually a platform that allows them to produce, record and mix, and it has to have a decent price.

So, here is the first major difference: while Pro Tools penetrated the market offering a cheaper product than the famous [and very expensive] consoles, failed to address the up and coming artists market, and when they did it, it was kind of late, and even then, their product failed to deliver the song production part. The MIDI capabilities of Pro Tools are still weak, while Cubendo is the most advanced DAW in this regards.

Steinberg philosophy was a smart one: improve continuously the product, come with new version, and improve the product in all areas. The execution sometimes wasn’t a perfect one, and many blamed the bugs, but forgot to mention that Cubase was developed for PC/Windows, which was far more affordable at that time. The problem with the PC is that the amount of devices and drivers is huge, and not everybody knew how to optimize their computer; you can get into Windows and tweak the system, not so in Mac OS. The reality actually was a bit different: if the computers are properly built, Cubase/Nuendo are very stable. 

My experience is that, if I would have stayed PT, the computers would have been overall cheaper (the Macs), as the PC’s I had were all extremely expensive, as I used only reliable components; as a joke, people in my studio ask me where do I keep the computer, and when I show it to them, they are amazed, as they can’t hear it, while it is only 5-6 feet away from them. Mac people used to say Mac just works, but there were never Mac clones, everything Mac is tested; the variety of devices for Mac is actually quite small compared to PC. Of course, at a certain point in time, Steinberg came up with Cubendo/Wavelab for both Mac and PC, and ProTool went to Windows.

Another major difference is the way Steinberg and Avid (Digidesign) were thinking how to improve their platform capabilities when it comes to plugins. Avid continuously limited the access of third party plugin developers, imposing licensing fees; Steinberg adopted a completely opposite attitude, and they created the Virtual Studio Technology – VST – keeping it open for everybody. In one hand, price of the TDM/AAX plugins for ProTools was double, but the quality of the plugins was good, and, on the other side, you can find VST plugins of lower quality, some of them free…. But the big guys have top quality ones (Sonnoris, UAD, Sonnox, Waves, etc). Steinberg strategy paid of big time, and in the end, some extremely high quality plugins were released actually only for the Windows platform (typical example is Algoritmix, very expensive, but one of the extremely few plugin in my opinion that can go hand in hand with the top analog mastering EQ’s); also, only recently Sonnox and Soundtoys released the AAX versions of their software.

While both Steinberg and PT kept on improving their product over the years, PT interface did not change too much. That was to be expected, PT needed to keep it this way as a selling point. For years Cubase owners felt that PT delivers better in this regards, however, slowly, Cubase adopted many of the PT interface concepts, coming along the way with some very innovative features, while PT failed almost completely to address the MIDI capability problem.

There are other pro and cons about both DAW’s, and especially about their audio engine. So, let’s stop for a moment: both of them work on 32 bit float point storage, but when it comes to summing PT is on 64 bit float point while Cubase in 32. There were so many tests done; in reality there should be no difference. Mathematically there is, as the 64 bit float calculation leads to more accurate results, however, when you translate it in things like dynamic range, the human ear does not make the difference over a certain threshold. I am quite sure Cubase will adopt the 64 bit in the next version.

But this issue became lately completely irrelevant; a few years ago a couple of companies brought to market some analog summing boxes, which actually had quite an impact. They allow to maintain the advantages of digital, while bring to the table a certain coloration if so desired, and definitely something better than the 64 bit floating point computation when it comes to summing, because it’s analog (that’s not to say that digital summing is bad, let me be very clear: I do like the digital clarity, and, while I get the analog flavour from preamps during recording, I found myself turning to digital only when I do classical and sometimes jazz). Back to summing boxes - I am talking here about the really big guys that built all the legendary consoles. 

Famous sound flavours became accessible to a larger market (well, they’re not as expensive like the consoles, but they’re not cheap at all!). Chandler, Neve, Inward Connection, Thermionic, Great River, SSL, Neve, Dangerous brought to market their excellent summing boxes. One thing is clear: hits and great mixes were done in both 64 and 32 bit floating point, that it does not influence at all the outcome of a song. In my book, the song remains the most important element.

One of my clients told me that he is looking for a PT studio, as he wants to have the whole project in a hard-drive at the end, so, this way it is easy to open it in Pro Tools in other studios. He actually had the files he already prepared in Ableton, wanted to put them in a PT format and record some vocal takes; I asked him - what if he wants to change something later? He never thought of it. Having the files as wav, aiff, etc is actually better, you can dump them in any DAW and work on them.

The dilemma Cubase (or Nuendo) vs. Pro tool is not really a dilemma. There are many interests here and this dictates how the marketing is approached. Then there is the attitude of some recording facilities and engineers; once they invested in Pro Tools years ago and kept upgrading, they have no interest whatsoever to acknowledge anything outside the idea that Pro Tools is the industry standard. They can’t let business go away, so somehow the idea that if you want it to sound right PT is the only way to go is pushed out in the open (some call it job security!). They know too well the shortcomings of every DAW, and I actually don’t blame them. However, can somebody tell me that Hans Zimmer, Prince, Mark Knopfler, Chuck Ainlay, Frank Filipetti, Michael Wagener (Metallica, Megadeth, Ozzy), Sandy Vee (Rihanna, Kate Perry), David Kahn (Cher, Lana Del Rey), Allen Morgan (Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift), Steve Morse and many other’s music sounds bad because they used Cubendo? 

Both Cubendo and Pro Tools are at the top of the game; they are very good, complex and sophisticated pieces of software. Both have strengths and some weaknesses. And then some others good DAW’s, like Logic, Sequoia, Ableton, Studio One, Reaper… I’m blown away by the sound design the EDM guys are doing, and most of them work in Logic and Ableton, as they are pretty efficient and work fine in laptops. However, I believe that somehow Pro Tools and Cubase are the most complex DAW, and, when you have to run various tasks, they can handle them extremely well and allow excellent hardware integration. While many DAWs are great, I think that Cubendo and PT have an edge in commercial facilities.

No doubt that the top studios have a sound, that the expensive consoles have a place; however, a lot of good music was created, and it would be stupid to believe that, in order to sound good, you need to record with PT or Nuendo or consoles. PT is actually less and less an industry standard; a lot of production is done in other programs, recording done in studios with consoles, with PT and Cubendo. The quality of the convertors, mics, preamps, and the recording space influence way more the sound quality when it comes to recording than the DAW used. The experience of the engineer counts tons, and a good engineer will get a good product in any of them.

If the only thing I do is to record and mix, I would probably stayed with PT, which was the leader for many years, avoiding the Cubendo learning curve. But if you are also in production aside recording and mixing, and you work out of a single workstation, I just don’t see PT up to the task to the same extent like Cubendo. For those who worked on analog consoles, PT was the bridge that allowed them to move toward digital; the newer generations however – definitely more pragmatic - are starting in digital, and they are using without prejudice the tools they can handle the best. 

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